SARTRE, JEAN-PAUL (Social Science)


Jean-Paul Sartre was born in Paris on June 13, 1905, and died there on April 15, 1980. He studied philosophy at the Ecole Normale Superieure, achieving his doctorate in 1929, and then taught high school until the publication of his first novel, Nausea, in 1938. Sartre was a prisoner of war in World War II from 1940 to 1941, after which he founded a group of resistance intellectuals, socialism et li-berte, which he disbanded by the time of the 1943 publication of his most famous philosophical work, Being and Nothingness. Sartre became a celebrity at the end of the war, which enabled him to be a public intellectual on the world stage for a variety of causes that included fighting against anti-Semitism, supporting Third World liberation and workers’ struggles, protesting against the Vietnam War, and joining strikers in the student movement of the late 1960s. Some of Sartre’s causes, such as his support of the Algerian struggle for independence, led to assassination attempts on his life. Other causes, such as his support of communism without ever joining the Communist Party, led to attacks on him from extreme liberal and conservative critics. Sartre received many awards, two of which he refused—the French Legion of Honor in 1945 and the Nobel Prize in 1964. He was co-founder of the influential magazine Les temps moderne in 1945.

Although he wished to achieve greatness as a novelist and playwright, Sartre’s legacy is primarily as a philosopher, where he contributed to the study of freedom and the challenges it poses for understanding human existence. His writings from the 1930s until the late 1940s gave him a leading and permanent place in existentialism and phenomenology. Phenomenology is the study of things as understood as objects of consciousness. Sartre’s motto "Existence precedes essence," argued for in Being and Nothingness, became a major theme of existential thought and a rallying cry against essentialism in the study of human beings. Human beings create themselves through living a biography, which is the only real self that will emerge at each person’s death. For a living human, choice is not only a constant possibility but is a precondition for itself. Even so-called choosing not to choose is a choice, and the act of choosing must in principle have preceded it. Sartre’s most famous play from this period, No Exit (1944), explored these themes in a situation, people encountering other people, with literally no material alternative to the "hell" of being forced together.

Many of Sartre’s writings in the late 1940s into the mid-1950s addressed existential themes in concrete situations. In Anti-Semite and Jew, he examined how the hating of Jews played a role in the construction of Jewish identity and the anti-Semite’s. This question of how humans create values that in turn create "us" was taken up in a unique genre (philosophical biography), in his demand for the writer to be politically "engaged," and in his explorations of Marxism, reflected in works such as Baudelaire (1947), What Is Literature? (1947), and Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960). The Critique of Dialectical Reason explored the problem of agency in history and in developing existential Marxism, which is dialectical thought without determinism or the crushing of freedom.

Sartre, in effect, said good-bye to literature in The Words (1964), in which his hatred for his own class, the bourgeoisie (capitalist class), culminated in his rejection of literature as a bourgeois ideal in favor of devoting the rest of his life to political engagement. Although he continued to protest and sign declarations condemning human rights violations as long as his health permitted, this last period of Sartre’s life was marked by his conducting a sustained, multi-volume study of the life of the nineteenth century French novelist Gustave Flaubert, The Family Idiot (1971-1972), which he did not write for an audience but for himself. As with his works of philosophical biography, the role of bad faith in the formation of the self is illustrated in minute detail throughout. The text, like many of Sartre’s projects, was not completed, which is appropriate for a philosopher whose life was a struggle against ever being pinned down and standing still.

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