Sartre, Jean-Paul

French philosopher, novelist, and dominant French intellectual of his time. Sartre was born in Paris and educated at the École Normale Supérieure. From 1933 he studied in Germany with Husserl and Heidegger . His first novel, La Nausée, was published in 1938 (trs. as Nausea, 1949). L’Imaginaire (1940, trs. as The Psychology of the Imagination, 1948) is a contribution to phenomenal psychology. Briefly captured by the Germans, Sartre spent the war years in Paris, where L’Être et le néant, his major purely philosophical work, was published in 1943 (trs. as Being and Nothingness, 1956). The lecture L’Existentialisme est un humanisme (1946, trs. as Existentialism is a Humanism, 1947) consolidated Sartre's position as France's leading existentialist philosopher. Sartre was centrally interested in politics, becoming in his time a symbol of all that was vigorous, and complex, in French left-wing thought. Although a Marxist, he had strained relations with the communist party. Together with de Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty he founded the journal Les Temps modernes in which political and ideological questions were aired, and in 1951 he attempted to found his own political party.
Sartre's philosophy is concerned entirely with the nature of human life, and the structures of consciousness. As a result it gains expression in his novels and plays as well as in more orthodox academic treatises. Its immediate ancestor is the phenomenological tradition of his teachers, and Sartre can most simply be seen as concerned to rebut the charge of idealism as it is laid at the door of phenomenology . The agent is not a spectator of the world, but, like everything in the world, constituted by acts of intentionality and consciousness. The self thus constituted is historically situated, but as an agent whose own mode of locating itself in the world makes for responsibility and emotion. Responsibility is, however, a burden that we frequently cannot bear, and bad faith arises when we deny our own authorship of our actions, seeing them instead as forced responses to situations not of our own making. Sartre thus locates the essential nature of human existence in the capacity for choice, although choice, being equally incompatible with determinism and with the existence of a Kantian moral law, implies a synthesis of consciousness (being for-itself) and the objective ( being in-itself) that is forever unstable. The unstable and constantly disintegrating nature of free will generates anguish. Sartre's ‘ontological’ works, including L’Être et le néant, attempt to work out the implications of his views for the nature of consciousness and judgement. For Sartre our capacity to make negative judgements is one of the fundamental puzzles of consciousness. Like Heidegger he took the ‘ontological’ approach of relating this to the nature of non-being, a move that decisively differentiates him from the Anglo-American tradition of modern logic (see being, nothing, quantifier, variable ). Sartre's work on other minds illustrates by contrast a strength of the psychological approach, as he explores in detail such experiences as being in the gaze of another person, and connects them with the choices that then result. Sartre's work is notoriously difficult, but emotionally there is no question that he spoke powerfully to the sombre post-war years, when questions of responsibility and its denial held centre-stage in the political life of France.

Philosophy dictionary. . 2011.

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