Jean-Paul Sartre: Philosopher for the 20th Century

Article excerpt

The name of Jean-Paul Sartre, like the term existentialist, evokes strong responses. His outpourings created an interest in the public in "philosophy." He has been quoted and misquoted, interpreted, and misinterpreted. Like most serious thinkers, he is little understood. His name elicits tones of themes, and reactions, primarily from his early works: "nothingness," "absurdity," "freedom," "anguish," "despair"-- which were important to his evolving philosophy and still are important, but which unfortunately often lack the totality of perspective. Sartre acted and reacted on behalf of what he named "a century of bad faith." His appeal from the first has been a plea to all of us that we live "more fully" [1] This is what makes him an existentialist. He insisted that we each have the responsibility to ourselves and to each other to become "more human." And this is what makes him a humanist.

Sartre's political "activism," his relationship with the world of political action, was newsworthy: he became known as an extreme-left but anti-communist activist. His on and off relationship with communism contributed to widespread confusion among his followers on where he stood. He would not join the Communist Party (he could not tolerate its rigid discipline), although he believed it could not be ignored, saying it provided the most powerful voice of the working class. His concern was always with the oppressed: "we must join with the oppressed masses in their moral fight for liberation."

To Sartre, there could be no separation between the intellectual and the active life; indeed, there was a moral obligation to weld them together. His doctrine (built heavily on the work of Kierkegard) held that only one's commitment to a cause, only one's conscious participation, makes the human being different from animals or inanimate objects.

It was Sartre's intent to bring philosophy down to earth. His was not a doctrine of laissez-faire, nor one of despair. [2] It was, in his own words, a doctrine of "sternness" (contrary to the "doing your own thing" adopted by many) and of "optimism" (a total respect for the capabilities of human beings to know and to do). He has given us much to think about as the century comes to a close and we move on.


Sartre's ideas continue to be explored, and what is being revealed, particularly since his death, is the ongoing development of his thought on "morality"--from his first ethics (which for many who are only familiar with his early works, persists as the Sartrean philosophy) on to what he called the second ethics, and then the third, taken from texts that had been unpublished and have become available only over the past decade or two. At the end of his life, Sartre made it clear that his later offerings did not involve a total dismissal of his early thought but were rather an enhancement of it. He believed that, in all personal development--in all human growth--there is a weaving in and out of central themes, and that, as we evolve, we strive to synthesize our past with the present. Like many serious thinkers, Sartre's development continued right up to his death.

From the first, he bombarded our consciousnesses with a medley of themes: "absurdity," "nothingness," "awareness," "commitment," "responsibility," and "freedom"--the freedom of choice. [3] "Every situation," he wrote, "no matter what its limitations, has infinite possibilities of choice." His early extreme view of freedom emphasized choice--that whatever our being may be, it is a choice--that we exist only by choosing ourselves. The freedom he designated as absolute and total is not, however, the freedom to attain the goals one wants, for there are, he did admit, many factors that can restrict that freedom; so that success (in attaining goals) is not important to freedom. It is freedom of choice, the freedom to select among possible goals that he was concerned with; it is "freedom to transcend what is by grasping what is not. …