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Born: 1905, Paris, France

Died: 1980, Paris, France

Major Works: Nausea (1938), Being and Nothingness (1943), Existentialism and Humanism (1946)

Major Ideas

For human beings, "existence precedes essence"; we are defined by our choices and actions and not by a fixed "human nature."

The direction a person's life will take is always in question and a matter of contingency.

We exist in situations--typically these are interpersonal and social--and they affect us; but how we exist within them is decisively a matter of our choosing.

The radical freedom that permeates our lives makes us responsible for ourselves and for one another; it also means that a complete and final understanding of ourselves eludes us.

Our freedom confers immense responsibility, and thus people often live in "bad faith," evading responsibility for their lives by denying the reality of their own freedom.

Existentialism, a nineteenth- and twentieth-century philosophical movement that stresses the radical extent of human freedom and attempts to deal seriously with its consequences for people's day-to-day lives, is the tradition most frequently associated with Jean-Paul Sartre. Born in Paris, Sartre pursued university studies in literature and philosophy. He was teaching in Paris when World War II began. Sent to the front, he was captured by the Germans and imprisoned for nine months. When he was returned to France in 1941, he served in the Resistance. Sartre remained politically active after the war, often espousing Marxist causes. He was offered the Nobel Prize in literature in 1964 but refused to accept the honor.

Sartre's thought is distinctive partly because he developed his views in fictional forms--stories, novels, and plays--as well as in essays and theoretical books on subjects that ranged from literary theory to psychoanalysis and philosophy. As Sartre developed his version of existentialism, which he took to be optimistic even though many of its critics did not, there were accents on freedom, the difficulties it brings to human existence, and the chances we have to overcome them. These themes dominated his philosophical novel, Nausea, which appeared in 1938.


Nausea's main character, a historian named Roquentin, is writing a biography, but he finds it increasingly difficult to carry out his project because he cannot be sure whether he is describing or creating the subject of his work. How much of the biography is a factual, objective account, and how much of it is really Roquentin's own construction? The answer is unclear, but Roquentin becomes convinced that his interpretations color everything he writes. Hence, he gives up the biography. At the novel's end, he considers trying his hand at fiction.

In the light of these issues, it is intriguing to note that in 1963 Sartre published The Words, the first volume of a projected two-volume autobiography. The second volume was abandoned, but late in his life, Sartre turned to biography and wrote a multi-volume study of Gustave Flaubert, the famous French novelist. Be that as it may, Roquentin's shifting project reveals much more than a mere change of plans. As Sartre traces Roquentin's efforts to write a biography, he is recording our human struggle to cope with all existence. Nausea emerges as part of that struggle. As Sartre used the idea, nausea involves physical feeling, but nothing so tame as acid indigestion or motion sickness. The nausea Sartre described is a condition that combines disorientation, queasiness, and even revulsion brought on by an awareness of the uncertainty that characterizes our basic situation in life. That situation is constituted by a fundamental freedom.

Roquentin discovered that his own interpretation influenced and formed everything he experienced. Why that should be the case, indeed, why anything should exist at all he could not fathom. He found that the world is everywhere Particularized. The tree one sees, for example, exists with its specific leaves and bark,, and textures. Reasons for this can be given but none fully accounts for that particular thing. Existence seemed so definitely real and yet so unnecessary and inexplicable-- especially Roquentin's own--that it made Roquentin nauseated.

As Roquentin came to realize, nausea resulted largely from his sense of freedom. Indeed, our existence condemns us to be free. Without having been consulted we are thrown into life--it involves living with and for others--and we shape it by our choosing. Far from exulting in this freedom, however Roquentin found it a heavy burden. Even if freedom allowed for creativity, he came to realize that the nausea caused by his struggle to cope with existence would never be far away. Even if controlled, repressed, or forgotten for a time, nausea would well up again and require him to define once more his relation to the choices before him.

Two Types of Being

If Nausea is Sartre's best-known fiction, Being and Nothingness (1943), which elaborates many of the themes in Roquentin's experience, remains the most important nonfictional expression of Sartre's existential philosophy. At one point in Being and Nothingness, Sartre states, that "man is a useless passion." That remark might seem to counsel despair. But while Sartre did want his pronouncement to describe the human predicament, he also wanted it to challenge men and women to make an honest, humanistic response to it Both the description and the challenge depend on human freedom. In fact, no Western philosopher has gone further than Sartre in giving an emphatically affirmative answer to the question "Am I free to act?"

As Sartre explored human existence, he became intrigued by what he called "prereflective" experience. Such experience, he explained, is the kind we have prior to thinking about what we are doing or before we look back at what we have done. If you ski down a slope, for example, you are aware, but you probably are not thinking about skiiing or about yourself because you are just doing the skiing. Sartre noted that the prereflective experience, which comes before our thinking about experience, always has the quality of being of something. In short, it has content. That content, he affirmed, transcends and often resists our analysis. Sartre's general term for this "something" that we always encounter is "being-in-itself."

Of being-in-itself, Sartre concluded, we can only say that it exists and that it is different from "being-for-itself." His reason for this claim reflects Roquentin's dilemma in attempting to write an objective biography "Being-for-itself," Sartre's technical term for consciousness, makes individual experience happen. As Sartre described the role played by consciousness, consciousness "negates" being-in-itself. In this way, being is broken apart into this and not this, into that and not that. Take away the negating power of consciousness and we are powerless to describe being-in-itself at all. Indeed, Sartre argued, apart from saying simply that being-in-itself is real, we cannot describe it directly We can portray being as it is experienced, but what it is in itself remains hidden. Our consciousness, however, does alter being-in-itself, and we can observe the results of its discriminating activity.

Existence and Essence

"Existence," proclaimed Sartre, "precedes essence." This formula is basic for understanding his view of human existence and freedom. By emphasizing the negating power of consciousness in relation to being-in-itself, Sartre interpreted consciousness as a form of being that always seeks to transcend itself but never fully finishes its task. It seemed to Sartre that we humans move to leave behind what we have been and to become what we are not. We are always headed somewhere; we are never fixed, complete, and static. Short of death, there is a perpetual process of negation and a continuous movement into a future of possibility and uncertainty.

What one will become is indefinite until consciousness determines it. We are what we become more than we become what we are. In that sense, our existence precedes the formation of our essence. Sartre identified the negating power of consciousness with human freedom. The fact that we can move beyond what we are toward that which we are not, he argued, signifies freedom. Whenever we act freely, there is a sense in which we leave something behind. We negate what we have been to try to become what we are not. Hence, not only does existence precede essence but, Sartre claimed, "freedom is existence." According to Sartre, a person's life is characterized by freedom, by choosing what one will be and how one will see the world one inhabits. The determination of what one is results from our individual choices and not from a series of determined causes outside of or even within oneself.

Did Sartre go too far in describing the degree of freedom that men and women possess? Far from having lives permeated by freedom, most persons feel restricted on every side. Many cannot find enough food, shelter, or work to make a decent living. Sartre was aware of such difficulties. His account emphasizes that human existence is always situated in particular times and places, and it is specified further by the relationships we establish with other persons. Many of these situations are full of pain and tragedy. Yet Sartre contended that the structure of human freedom remains, because we keep seeking to make something of ourselves. We may be prevented from achieving what we want, but, in Sartre's view, any kind of human seeking fundamentally involves the freedom he has in mind.

Ultimately, Sartre argued, our seeking leads us to try to achieve a complete self-identity in which we comprehend ourselves totally and are no longer constantly at a distance from ourselves. To accomplish this task, he contended, would be to become God ("being-in-itself-for-itself"), but no person can succeed in this undertaking. In fact, Sartre claimed, the idea of God is contradictory (an outcome that makes his existentialism atheistic), for consciousness excludes self-identity, and self-identity also excludes consciousness. Consciousness always has the quality of being stretched out ahead of itself. If you became completely self-identical and unchanging, you would not be conscious any more. Where our drive to become self-identical is concerned, then, we are forever doomed to frustration. It is in this sense that human freedom makes our existence "a useless passion."

Responsibility and Bad Faith

Freedom goes hand-in-hand with consciousness, and our future projects leave us forever short of fulfillment. At the same time, freedom makes us thoroughly responsible for ourselves. Sartre thought it was not too much to say that we choose our own world and even our own birth. Such statements may seem excessive, but Sartre's point was that so long as we choose to live, we have in effect chosen to be born. Additionally, insofar as the world has significance, such significance is a result of consciousness. Our consciousness of being alive is what allows us to choose the goals and purposes we confront as we relate to other persons or project our own futures.

We are responsible, Sartre asserted, for making what we can of the world. Because such responsibility is awesome, our freedom can be dreadful, and we may try to flee from it. Sartre called that flight "bad faith." Unlike lying, a situation in which I know the truth and try to hide it from others, "in bad faith," said Sartre, "it is from myself that I am hiding the truth." Whenever we deny ourselves by ignoring or repressing the fact that our free decisions are crucial ingredients in determining the situations we are in, bad faith intrudes. In its place Sartre wanted to put honesty and responsibility. Even though he called human existence a useless passion because it is so radically free, that same freedom makes it possible for us to do the best we can with the lives we have.

It was Sartre's view that doing the best we can requires, first and foremost, an honest appraisal of the degree to which we are responsible for ourselves and for each other. We have to choose what will be good and what will be evil. Such norms are not fixed in advance. Wherever norms do exist, someone has chosen them to be authoritative. That realization does not mean that values are arbitrary or irrational. It does mean that we can and must decide what we ought to do. Responsibility for these uses of freedom is ours and ours alone.

Further Reading

Aronson, Ronald. Jean-Paul Sartre: Philosophy in the World. London: Verso, 1980. A lucid, scholarly appraisal of Sartre's philosophy.

Bree, Germaine. Camus and Sartre: Crisis and Commitment. New York: Dell, 1972. This book does a thoughtful job of comparing and contrasting Sartre's philosophy with that of his French contemporary existentialist, Albert Camus.

Caws, Peter. Sartre. New York: Routledge, Chapman & Hall, 1984. Caws's treatment offers a solid critical overview of Sartre's life and thought.

Flynn, Thomas R. Sartre and Marxist Existentialism. The Test Case of Collective Responsibility. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984. Flynn appraises the relationships among Sartre's philosophy Marxist thought, and existentialism in general.

Gerassi, John. Jean-Paul Sartre: Hated Conscience of His Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989. Gerassi provides a biography of Sartre.

Grene, Marjorie. Sartre. New York: New Viewpoints, 1973. A leading interpreter of twentieth-century existentialism, Grene provides a careful analysis of Being and Nothingness and other works by Sartre.

Manser, Anthony. Sartre: A Philosophical Study. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967. Manser's book opens with a chapter on Sartre's novel Nausea, and probes the philosophical argumentation that runs through the full range of Sartre's thought.
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Author:ROTH, JOHN K.
Publication:Great Thinkers of the Western World
Article Type:Biography
Date:Jan 1, 1999
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