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Jean-Paul Sartre
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• existentialism • communism • Karl Marx


Jean-Paul Sartre

Born: June 21, 1905 in Paris, France
Died: April 15, 1980 in Paris, France
Nobel Prize in Literature: 1964


Major Works:
The Imagination (1936)
Nausea (1938)
Being and Nothingness (1943)
Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960)
Truth and Existence (1989)

Jean-Paul Sartre was a French novelist and philosopher who is famous for his development and defense of atheistic existential philosophy. Sartre was unusual in that he wrote philosophy both for philosophers and for lay people. Works aimed at the former were typical philosophical books while works aimed at the latter were plays or novels. All expressed the same basic ideas, but in different forms.

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. As a result, he remained through his life also a committed Marxist, although he repudiated the communist party in France.

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. Sartre argued that there were essentially two kinds of being. The first is being-in-itself (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 (pour-soi), which is characterized as dependent upon the former for its existence. It has no absolute, fixed, eternal nature. 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. This freedom in turn produces anxiety and fear because, without God, humanity is left alone and 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 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, he 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.


Existence is prior to essence. Man is nothing at birth and throughout his life he is no more than the sum of his past commitments. To believe in anything outside his own will is to be guilty of 'bad Faith.' Existentialist despair and anguish is the acknowledgement that man is condemned to freedom. There is no God, so man must rely upon his own fallible will and moral insight. He cannot escape choosing.

Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.

Hell is other people.

Freedom is what you do with what's been done to you.

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Related Resources:

Biographies of Philosophers
This index of biographical index of famous philosophers throughout history includes many others who have contributed to our understanding of human nature and life - including sociologists, psychologists, scientists, and more.

What is Philosophy?
What is philosophy? Is there any point in studying philosophy, or is it a useless subject? What are the different branches of philosophy - what's the difference between aestheitcs and ethics? What's the difference between metaphysics and epistemology?

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