1. Religion & Spirituality
Send to a Friend via Email
You can opt-out at any time. Please refer to our privacy policy for contact information.

Discuss in my forum

Sartre, by Neil Levy

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating


Sartre, by Neil Levy - Existentialism

Sartre, by Neil Levy.

Jean-Paul Sartre was acclaimed by the people of France in ways normally reserved for rock stars in other countries. When he died in 1980, fifty thousand people lined the streets of Paris to watch his coffin go by. What did he do to merit such respect and attention?


Title: Sartre
Author: Neil Levy
Publisher: Oneworld
ISBN: 1851682902

•  Very accessible to average readers
•  Great introduction to Sartre's ideas
•  Critical stance towards some of Sartre's positions

•  None

•  History of Sartre's existentialist philosophy
•  Explains how Sartre's philosophy developed over time
•  Provides reasons why Sartre's philosophy is still relevant


Book Review

Sartre's philosophy may not always be easy, but he did not simply write for the sake of academic and professional philosophers. Sartre developed a philosophy designed to transcend academia and help people live according to authentic, freely chosen values. Some of his works were aimed at professionals, but others were aimed at those with a modest philosophical education - or none at all. He and others spread his ideas through novels and plays, thus ensuring that his philosophy reached the widest possible audience.

Neil Levy's recent book continues the effort to expose people to Sartre's ideas. Only concerned with his philosophy, Levy ignores his journalistic and literary works. He also doesn't hesitate to criticize Sartre when he finds problems and errors, but he readily acknowledges that he considers Sartre more often right than wrong.



Levy presents Sartre's existentialism as a philosophy of freedom, fundamentally concerned with each person possessing fundamental liberty in action and belief. This requires arguing that there is no "essence" to humanity - for example, by denying the position of sociobiology that certain aspects of human behavior are genetically constrained:

We are not simply free in the sense that we can make choices about how to live; we are free in the far more radical sense that our choices are not constrained by a pre-existing nature.

Levy agrees with this position, arguing that the empirical diversity of human cultures constitutes a reason to reject the idea that we have a "substantive nature." This, however, is an important qualification on Sartre's notion of "radical freedom." Moreover, who is to say what qualifies as "substantive" in human nature?

That aspects of our nature can be expressed in many ways does not prevent them from being "substantive." It may be the "nature" of humans to be religious even though that nature finds expression in a variety of religious systems. It may be in the "nature" of humans to organize in hierarchical groups even though that nature is expressed in different political and organizational systems.


Bad Faith

This has implications for Sartre's idea about "bad faith." According to Sartre, most people cannot handle the responsibility that goes with radical freedom. Thus, they invent reasons as to why they have to adopt certain actions and attitudes:

A person in bad faith does not ask herself to believe a falsehood then; she simply takes a part of the truth for the whole. Bad faith is not just self-deception, it is also faith. Someone is in bad faith when they decide to accept a low standard of evidence for a proposition; when they engage themselves to be convinced by some proof.

Because this relies upon a premise of freedom more radical than evidence seems to allow, a person should be careful when attempting to apply it. Indeed, could its application to others itself be a form of Bad Faith?


Sartre, by Neil Levy - Existentialism

Sartre, by Neil Levy.

And what role does society play in all of this? Structuralist critics of Sartre argued that he underestimated the power of social structures to shape people's lives and determine the categories of their thoughts. As Levy explains, the later, Marxist Sartre included more about the power of social structures in his philosophical freedom:

Now, however, Sartre recognizes that the manner in which we have been brought up - not just the religion we have been taught, but the values inculcated in us and those we have absorbed, the cultural meanings that surround us and make us the kinds of people we are - forms the horizon within which we think and act.

These social forces are, however, also creations of ours - the society which shapes us is also our own creation. Thus, it cannot be argued that we humans are helpless victims of social circumstances - but it can be argued that human freedom is not quite as radical and total as Sartre believed early on.

Sartre presents us with an interesting and fertile philosophy of freedom and society. Levy presents us with an interesting and engaging exploration of that philosophy, making it accessible and very much worth considering. Even people without much of a background in philosophy are likely to get a lot out of this book and have quite a bit to think about. Sartre is an important figure in 20th century philosophy, and anyone seeking to learn more about him and his work should put this book high on their lists.

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.