Jean Paul Sartre (1905-80)

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Sartre, Jean Paul (1905-80), French philosopher, dramatist, novelist, and political journalist, who was a leading exponent of existentialism.

Sartre was born in Paris, June 21, 1905, and educated at the Écôle Normale Supérieure in Paris, the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, and the French Institute in Berlin. He taught philosophy at various lycées from 1929 until the outbreak of World War II, when he was called into military service. In 1940-41 he was imprisoned by the Germans; after his release, he taught in Neuilly, France, and later in Paris, and was active in the French Resistance. The German authorities, unaware of his underground activities, permitted the production of his antiauthoritarian play The Flies (1943; trans. 1946) and the publication of his major philosophic work Being and Nothingness (1943; trans. 1953). Sartre gave up teaching in 1945 and founded the political and literary magazine Les Temps Modernes, of which he became editor in chief. Sartre was active after 1947 as an independent Socialist, critical of both the USSR and the United States in the so-called cold war years. Later, he supported Soviet positions but still frequently criticized Soviet policies. Most of his writing of the 1950s deals with literary and political problems. Sartre rejected the 1964 Nobel Prize in literature, explaining that to accept such an award would compromise his integrity as a writer. Sartre's philosophic works combine the phenomenology of the German philosopher Edmund Husserl, the metaphysics of the German philosophers G. W. F. Hegel and Martin Heidegger, and the social theory of Karl Marx into a single view called existentialism. This view, which relates philosophical theory to life, literature, psychology, and political action, stimulated so much popular interest that existentialism became a worldwide movement.

Being and Nothingness.

In his early philosophic work, Being and Nothingness, Sartre conceived humans as beings who create their own world by rebelling against authority and by accepting personal responsibility for their actions, unaided by society, traditional morality, or religious faith. Distinguishing between human existence and the nonhuman world, he maintained that human existence is characterized by nothingness, that is, by the capacity to negate and rebel. His theory of existential psychoanalysis asserted the inescapable responsibility of all individuals for their own decisions and made the recognition of one's absolute freedom of choice the necessary condition for authentic human existence. His plays and novels express the belief that freedom and acceptance of personal responsibility are the main values in life and that individuals must rely on their creative powers rather than on social or religious authority.

Critique of Dialectical Reason

In his later philosophic work Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960; trans. 1976), Sartre's emphasis shifted from existentialist freedom and subjectivity to Marxist social determinism. Sartre argued that the influence of modern society over the individual is so great as to produce serialization, by which he meant loss of self. Individual power and freedom can only be regained through group revolutionary action. Despite this exhortation to revolutionary political activity, Sartre himself did not join the Communist party, thus retaining the freedom to criticize the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. He died in Paris, April 15, 1980.

Other Writings

Sartre's other works include the novels Nausea (1938; trans. 1949) and the unfinished series Les chemins de la liberté (The Roads of Liberty), comprising The Age of Reason (1945; trans. 1947), The Reprieve (1945; trans. 1947), and Troubled Sleep (1949; trans. 1951); the biography of the controversial French writer Jean Genet, Saint Genet, Actor and Martyr (1952; trans. 1952); the plays No Exit (1944; trans. 1946), The Respectful Prostitute (1946; trans. 1947), and The Condemned of Altona (1959; trans. 1961); his autobiography, The Words (1964; trans. 1964); and a biography of the French author Gustave Flaubert (3 vol., 1971-72).

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