Magazine article UNESCO Courier


Magazine article UNESCO Courier


Article excerpt

BETWEEN 1950 and 1980, for several thousands of intellectuals, artists, writers and political militants, from both the industrialized countries of the North and the developing countries of the South, Sartre was a definitive point of reference and an intellectual master. Today, however, painstaking denial of this fact has become de rigueur. Under pretext of seeking emancipation from the suffocating embrace of a "master thinker", great exertions are being made to bury this master of truth, this pathfinder, beneath a heavy layer of noisy rejection or reproachful silence. Some even go so far as to declare that Sartre was seriously mistaken on all the essentials.

But can the universal appeal of Sartre's work be dismissed as no more than the result of some hypothetical contagion of error or blind mimesis, or by putting it down to what is vaguely described as the "troubled times" of the last three or four decades? Were all the hundreds of thousands of readers--men and women, French, Egyptian, English, Japanese, Senegalese, Indian, Russian, or whatever--who were touched and made to think by the work of Sartre, simply wrong?

The question remains, insistent and unavoidable: what was it in Sartre's work that could rouse such enthusiasm? How was it that his thought could stir such vast aspirations across the world?

First of all there was the range and diversity of the literary work. Sartre covered the entire range of literature except poetry, producing novels, short stories, plays, literary and artistic criticism, essays, biography and autobiography. For many thousands of writers, in the Third World as in the West, he was a master and a model in each of these fields.

Then there was his innovative up-dating of French philosophy, which was engaged at the time in interminable scrutiny of its divorce from "real life". Sartre, in the words of the philosopher Gilles Deleuze, took philosophy out of its dusty retreat and exposed it to the storms of the age, via politics, the arts, the Third World, the cinema and revolution.

Finally there were Sartre's own intractable ethical concerns. Among contemporary philosophers, it was Sartre who gave the noblest expression to the intellectual's role and presence in the human community. Over and above what are now termed his "errors", it was principally his obstinate and unfailing dedication to the question of the ethics of intellectual activities, linked to an overwhelming passion for liberty and served by a veritable literary genius, that won Sartre his place as a "master of truth".

His experience of the Second World War transformed Sartre from a bourgeois, apolitical writer into a freedom-fighter. On his return from captivity in 1941, he organized with some friends a resistance network known as "Socialism and Liberty". But the communists rejected his approaches, and the group, which was composed of isolated and inexperienced intellectuals, was soon reduced to impotence. To avoid pointless repression, Sartre dissolved the network and in 1943 rejoined the National Writers' Committee.

He took part in the meetings presided over by Paul Eluard, and contributed to the underground journal Les Lettres Nouvelles. This experience provided the theme for his trilogy of novels, Les Chemins de la Liberte (1945-49). The protagonist, a Sartre-like figure in quest of authentic liberty, makes many false starts before his encounter with history in its tragic aspect in the form of war, defeat and humilation. The trilogy is also a presentation in fictional form of the first philosophy of Sartre, that of L'Etre et le Neant, which appeared in 1943 and heralds subsequent development of that philosophy. L'Etre et le Neant can truly be called the foundation-stone of a modern philosophy of consciousness.


There was a wide gap between Sartre's philosophy of consciousness and his ultimate engagement in the great political struggles of his time. …

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