Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980)

Jean Paul Sartre

Jean-Paul Charles Aymard Sartre was a French philosopher, writer, political activist and literary critic born on June 21, 1905 in Paris, France.

When he was only a year old, Sartre's father died leaving him to be raised by his mother Anne Marie and his stern maternal grandfather Karl Schweitzer (uncle of the missionary Albert Schweitzer).

When Sartre was twelve years old, his mother remarried and he went away from Paris to live in La Rochelle. At the age of fifteen, after some disruptive behavior in school, he returned to Paris to live with his grandfather and attend the prestigious Lycée Henri IV.

Growing up Sartre was not popular in school due to his precocious nature, being bespectacled and not particularly good looking. Not one to be bullied or looked down upon, he develop an independence of mind and a somewhat disregard for authority. He also developed a voracious appetite for reading anything, and everything, he could get his hands on which awakened in him awareness, philosophical questioning and wonderment.

During the course of his readings, Sartre was drawn to philosophy and the works of Descartes, Kant, Kierkegaard, Husserl and Heidegger. His philosophy teacher remarked on "his excessive elaboration of insufficiently clarified ideas" which in some circles is considered to be the position on his entire philosophy.

In 1933, with proceeds from a grant, Sartre set off to study Husserl and existentialism at the French Institute in Berlin. The notion of existentialism was originated by the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard who believed that the only basis for a meaningful philosophy was the "existing individual".

For Kierkegaard, philosophy had nothing to do with a detached contemplation of the world, or a rational attempt to decipher the truth. Instead, truth and experience were inextricably intertwined. As humans, we are not only reasoning minds in a body, but beings with a broad range of experiences and emotions. This, according to Kierkegaard, is what philosophy should be about. It should be "existence philosophy," hence the term 'existentialism', which he coined.

The German philosopher Edmund Husserl further developed the existentialist tradition. Unlike Kierkegaard, he attempted to reconcile the two factions of contemporary philosophy - rationalism (Descartes) and empiricism (Hume). Husserl put forth that only by analyzing the immediate experience that precedes thought can we discover the philosophical ground upon which such things as logic and mathematics are based (reason). We cannot merely experience, we must deal with the 'phenomena' of our experience (Husserl's phenomenology).

The central theme of all existentialist philosophy is that 'existence precedes essence'. In Sartre's existentialism this means that man first exists without purpose or definition. He finds himself in the world and only then as a response to experience defines himself and the meaning of his life.

According to Sartre, we as humans are totally free and responsible for everything we do. We cannot make excuses or defer responsibility to a divine being or human nature. To do so would constitute self-deception or bad faith. This circumstance, however, leads to three difficulties for the individual beginning with 'anguish'.

Anguish inevitably arises from the burden of such responsibility. Not only does everything we do affect ourselves, but all of our choices and examples affect everyone else and they furthermore set precedents for how to live life.

The second difficulty is one of 'abandonment'. The existentialist finds it "extremely embarrassing" that God does not exist and therefore we are left alone without help or guidance in moral matters. It seems we are left to make it up as we go along. (Note: While Sartre is an atheistic existentialist, there are Christian existentialists).

Thirdly, we have the problem of 'despair'. By this Sartre suggests that we must act without hope. We must forego the notion that things will work out or turn out alright in the end. There is no such thing as divine intervention. We have only ourselves and our own will and actions to rely on.

While with Sartre's existentialism we are "condemned to be free", this should not lead to any type of pessimism as his critics often accuse his philosophy of promoting. To the contrary, Sartre gives us the optimistic message that "the destiny of man is placed within himself."

Jean-Paul Sartre's major works include La Nausée (1938,) which is an important existentialist novel exploring the philosophical implications of the contingency of existence through the experiences of its main character Antoine Roquentin, and l'Être et le Néant (Being and Nothingness (1943), which analyzes being-for-itself, or consciousness, and discusses anguish, bad faith, being-for-others and other elements of existentialism.

Although Jean-Paul Sartre was certainly not the first existentialist in philosophy, he was notably the first to publicly accept the label and certainly he was one of its most able proponents. Sartre also greatly influenced and collaborated with his life-long lover and intellectual partner Simone de Beauvoir.

Jean-Paul Sartre Quotes
Søren Kierkegaard
Edmund Husserl