Jean Paul Sartre Biography

Biographical History of Existentialism

Sartre in his Library
Sartre in his Library. RDA/Hulton Archive/Getty

Jean-Paul Sartre was a French novelist and philosopher who is perhaps most famous for his development and defense of atheistic existential philosophy — as a matter of fact, his name is linked with existentialism more closely than any other, at least in most people's minds. Throughout his life, even as his philosophy changed and developed, he continually focused upon the human experience of being — specifically, being tossed into life with no apparent meaning or purpose but what we might be able to create for ourselves.

One of the reasons that Sartre became so closely identified with existentialist philosophy for most people is the fact that he didn't simply write technical works for the consumption of trained philosophers. He was unusual in that he wrote philosophy both for philosophers and for lay people. Works aimed at the former were typically heavy and complex philosophical books, while works aimed at the latter were plays or novels.

This wasn't an activity which he developed later in life, but rather pursued almost right from the beginning. While in Berlin studying Husserl's phenomenology during 1934-35, he began writing both his philosophical work Transcendental Ego and his first novel, Nausea. All of his works, whether philosophical or literary, expressed the same basic ideas but did so in different ways in order to reach different audiences.

Sartre was active in the French Resistance when the Nazis controlled his country, and he tried to apply his existentialist philosophy to real-life political problems of his age.

His activities led to his being captured by the Nazis and sent to a prisoner of war camp where he actively read , incorporating those ideas into his developing existentialist thought. Largely as a consequence of his experiences with the Nazis, Sartre remained through most of his life a committed Marxist, although he never actually joined the communist party and eventually repudiated it entirely.


Being and Humanity

The central theme of Sartre's philosophy was always "being" and human beings: What does it mean to be and what does it mean to be a human being? In this, his primary influences were always those alluded to thus far: Husserl, Heidegger, and Marx. From Husserl he took the idea that all philosophy must start first with the human being; from Heidegger, the idea we can best understand the nature of human existence through an analysis of human experience; and from Marx, the idea that philosophy must not aim to simply analyze existence but rather to change it and improve for the sake of human beings.

Sartre argued that there were essentially two kinds of being. The first is being-in-itself (l'en-soi), which is characterized as fixed, complete, and having absolutely no reason for its being — it just is. This is basically the same as the world of external objects. The second is being-for-itself (le pour-soi), which is dependent upon the former for its existence. It has no absolute, fixed, eternal nature and corresponds to human consciousness.

Thus, human existence is characterized by "nothingness" — anything which we claim is part of human life is of our own creation, often through the process of rebelling against external constraints.

This is the condition of humanity: absolute freedom in the world. Sartre used the phrase "existence precedes essence" to explain this idea, a reversal of traditional metaphysics and conceptions about the nature of reality.


Freedom and Fear

This freedom in turn produces anxiety and fear because, without providing absolute values and meanings, humanity is left alone without an external source of direction or purpose. Some try to conceal this freedom from themselves by some form of psychological determinism — the belief that they must be or think or act in one form or another. This always ends in failure, however, and Sartre argues that it is better to accept this freedom and make the most of it.

In his later years, he moved towards a more and more Marxist view of society. Instead of simply the completely free individual, he acknowledged that human society imposes certain boundaries on human existence which are difficult to overcome.

However, even though he advocated revolutionary activity, he never joined the communist party and disagreed with communists on a number of issues. He did not, for example, believe that human history is deterministic.

Despite his philosophy, Sartre always claimed that religious belief remained with him — perhaps not as an intellectual idea but rather as an emotional commitment. He used religious language and imagery throughout his writings and tended to regard religion in a positive light, even though he didn't believe in the existence of any gods and rejected the need for gods as a basis for human existence.