An Introduction to Jean-Paul Sartre

Looking at the human dilemmas to which Sartre spoke — freedom, responsibility, authenticity, scarcity — it is no wonder that he is the 20th century’s most popular philosopher. In Sartre’s time, society was forced to confront uncomfortable truths about the feasibility of God in light of modern science and the apparent bloodlust of humanity as reflected in not one but two world wars whose combined death toll topped 100 million soldiers and civilians. In this moment of destabilized meaning and doubt of basic human goodness, people sought reassurance. Sartre came on the scene to tell us that there would be none other than what we could offer ourselves.

Jean-Paul Sartre was born in 1905 in Paris. His father, a navy pilot, died when he was two, and Sartre was raised thereafter by his mother and grandfather. As a child, Sartre lost vision and control of his right eye and developed walleye, for which he was bullied. He was a very short and self-consciously unattractive man.

Undeterred by his looks, however, Sartre excelled in school and earned a master’s degree for his thesis, “Image in Psychological Life: Role and Nature.” Post-graduation, Sartre taught at various lycées until he was drafted into the French Army for meteorology. He served between 1939 and 1941 and spent nine months as a prisoner of war, first in Vichy France and then in Nazi Germany. During this time, he read Heidegger’s Being and Time, which had a singular influence on his philosophy.

Sartre was released in 1941 and resumed teaching in France. His experiences under Nazi occupation — including having to subsist on maggot-infested rabbits due to food scarcity — politically radicalized him. In May of 1941 he helped form the short-lived group Socialism and Liberty. At one group meeting, Sartre went so far as to suggest assassinating war conspirators, though the plan never materialized.

After the dissolution of Socialism and Liberty, Sartre focused his efforts on writing and produced his most famous text Being and Nothingness along with his popular play No Exit. The latter contains the famous quote, “Hell is other people,” which, in the play’s context, refers to the Nazi “other” occupying France during WWII. In the ensuing years, Sartre contributed to literary magazines and continued to teach.

Overtime, Sartre began to incorporate more overtly political themes into his work. He became interested in Marxism and published a text on the subject called Critique of Dialectical Reason in 1960. He also established his own quarterly review called Modern Times to promote his thought. Sartre’s concrete political actions included a visit to Fidel Castro and Che Guevara in Cuba, support for the cause of Algerian independence, and participation in the May ’68 protests, at which he was arrested but pardoned by French Prime Minister Charles de Gaulle, who reasoned that “You don’t arrest Voltaire.”

Sartre became virtually blind in 1973 and began to decline in health due to his smoking and overuse of amphetamines. He died from pulmonary edema on April 15, 1980. His funeral procession through the streets of Paris was observed by 50,000 people.

The entry point to Sartre’s philosophy is the Cartesian subject, or the self-aware consciousness. Sartre affirms the phenomenological notion of “intentionality” — that consciousness is always directed at something — but emphasizes that in addition to external objects consciousness is also directed at itself. Consciousness is thus fundamentally self-consciousness. Whereas other species are limited to an instinctual awareness, which Sartre calls “pre-reflective consciousness,” humans also have an awareness of our awareness, a sort of meta-awareness that Sartre calls “reflective consciousness.” This is what makes us free.

Sartre’s concept of freedom is the linchpin of his thought. A la Heidegger, humans are thrown into this world. Unlike other objects that are fashioned for a specific function (e.g. a “paper knife”), Sartre holds that humans are not created for any particular purpose. Being an atheist, Sartre maintains that there is no divine entity that ordains us to be a certain way. This is the theory behind his existentialist slogan, “Existence precedes essence.” While the rest of the objects in the world are passive “in-itself” beings, humans are active “for-itself” beings.

Sartre identifies this open-ended existence as both a blessing and a curse. It is liberating to know that we are not predetermined like mechanical objects or instinctual animals. But having no given identity or purpose, we are forced to forge our own. As anyone who has lived will acknowledge, being confronted with this task is difficult and painful. Kierkegaard, the father of existentialism, describes it as “The dizziness of freedom.” Sartre puts it more bluntly: “We are condemned to be free.” In his essay, “Existentialism is a Humanism,” Sartre describes three emotional states within this dizzying experience of freedom:

  1. Anguish, or the crushing weight that we feel when we recognize that we alone bear responsibility for our actions and that our actions will influence others in the world for good and for ill.

It is not an accident that all these feelings involve the consideration of other people. For Sartre, one’s awareness of the Other is a fundamental part of what it means to be conscious. His concept of “the gaze” describes the experience of being looked at and judged by a subject for whom you are an object, and the discomfort and embarrassment it elicits. On an ontological level, humans come to know their own being by contrasting themselves to the Other — I am me and not the tree, nor the dog, nor Billy. In this intersubjective context, one becomes a being “for others,” a socially constituted being.

In Hegelian fashion, Sartre describes being as a dialectical phenomenon, or a concept that entails its opposite: nothing. This is true both relationally and self-reflexively. In the former case, we are aware of another’s absence, or the lack of a being that once was. Sartre illustrates this concept by describing the hypothetical experience of walking into a cafe and expecting to see a regular, Pierre, at his usual spot, only to find that he is missing. Pierre is not there, yet it is precisely his not being there that triggers an uneasiness, as if his absence is “haunting” the cafe. Sartre’s point is that this awareness of nothing, of void, is an integral part of our experience of being.

With regard to the internal negation of being, our ability to project ourselves into the future, to imagine ourselves as we currently are not, means that our being is never static and self-identical, but rather in a continuous process of creation and destruction. Right now, I am a writer, but I could just as well be an architect or a circus performer or any number of alternative beings. This awareness of what we are not, what we have yet to become, is as constitutive of our being as what we are.

Finally, it bears mentioning that, as Heidegger points out, we are all beings-toward-death, and are living with the awareness that one day we will cease to exist. It is up to us to assert our own being in the world before we die — the ultimate negation of being.

While we are all fundamentally capable of asserting our being, Sartre points out that there is a tendency among us not to. The envisioned burden of living a fully active and responsible life makes us shy away from our freedom and become passive; to act in what Sartre calls “bad faith.” Bad faith takes many forms, such as adopting rigid ideologies rather than fleshing out our own perspectives and emulating social character types rather than developing our own personal identities. Sartre illustrates the latter by describing a hypothetical waiter whose whole being has seemingly been reduced to performing his role:

“His movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid. He bends forward a little too eagerly; his voice, his eyes express an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the customer. Finally there he returns, trying to imitate in his walk the inflexible stiffness of some kind of automaton while carrying his tray with the recklessness of a tight-rope-walker by putting it in a perpetually unstable, perpetually broken equilibrium which he perpetually re-establishes by a light movement of the arm and hand. All his behavior seems to us a game. He applies himself to changing his movements as if they were mechanisms, the one regulating the other; his gestures and even his voice seems to be mechanisms; he gives himself the quickness and pitiless rapidity of things. He is playing, he is amusing himself. But what is he playing? We need not watch long before we can explain it: he is playing at being a waiter in a café.”

Sartre believes that this “play acting” is the wrong way to live. By allowing ourselves to be passively shaped by our environment, we are relinquishing our freedom and by extension our very humanness. Sartre’s solution is to adopt a “spirit of seriousness” to resist the urge to acquiesce to bad faith for the sake of ease and comfort and instead embrace the more vulnerable yet fulfilling life of freedom and responsibility. It is only by rooting our identity in our own autonomous thought and activity that we can achieve “authentic being.”

So far, we have affirmed our ability to freely enact ourselves in the world, but we must also acknowledge the limitations to our freedom imposed by the world, which Sartre calls “facticity.” Facticity can be thought of as the inherited facts of our existence, for instance our biology, family, class status, cultural milieu, and historical moment. This tension between freedom and facticity parallels the Stoic philosopher Epictetus’s “dichotomy of control”, or the idea that humans lack control over the external world but retain control over themselves. Another analog is Viktor Frankl’s concept of “the last of the human freedoms”: namely, “to choose [our] attitude in any given set of circumstances.” Sartre puts it a third way: “You can always make something out of what you’ve been made into.”

In his early work, Sartre emphasizes transcendence, or the ability to exercise freedom to overcome facticity. But as he became more acquainted with the Marxian tradition of historical materialism — the theory that the material conditions of society determine how human history unfolds — he began to adapt his views to account for just how severely freedom can be limited. In particular, Sartre identifies scarcity economics and the subsequent need for money as a stranglehold on our freedom and the main reason that people act in bad faith. Using the Kantian notion of humans as end in themselves, Sartre advocated an egalitarian society in which all citizens are recognized as subjects whose freedom is vouchsafed. Sartre endorsed violent revolution to replace the current system of artificially imposed scarcity with a “socialism of abundance.”

It is important to note that while Sartre became less rosy about freedom overtime, he never abandoned the concept altogether. Until his death, Sartre maintained that no matter the circumstances, we all hold on to some degree of freedom. This principle is the source of hope within existentialism: we are not consigned to our fate. Sartre believed that our actions are the true judge of our character and that it is up to us to decide how to be, and thus how to be remembered. This task of establishing our being in the world through our deeds is what Sartre believed to be the fundamental project of life, and a project worth pursuing despite all of the anguish, abandonment, and despair we experience. With this approach, Sartre offers not a starry-eyed, facile optimism but a way to confront the reality of human suffering head on and still manage to affirm life.

Musician, writer, activist. If you enjoy my philosophy essays, consider supporting my work here:

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store