Key Theories of Jean-Paul Sartre

sartre.jpgFrench philosopher, novelist and playwright, who was in many respects the model of a politically engaged intellectual, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) was offered, but refused, the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964 . An indication of the esteem in which he was held is the fact that 50,000 people attended his funeral.

Sartre developed as a philosopher through his study of the phenomenology of Husserl, and particularly by developing Husserl’s conception of the intentionality of consciousness. This entailed that human beings do not passively receive experiences of the external world, but actively give meaning to these experiences. Thus, in his earliest philosophical works (1956,1957), Sartre began to explore the freedom that imagination gives the human individual in inventing their world. Sartre’s great work, Being and Nothingness (1958), develops this account of human freedom into a full exposition of an existential philosophy. Sartre’s existentialism is usefully summed up by the slogan from Existentialism is a Humanism (1948), that ‘existence precedes essence’. What this means is that human beings have no fixed essence. There is no human nature, and nor does the individual human being have any determining psychological traits. What any human being turns out to be is a result of their existence, which is to say, of the way in which they freely chose to live their lives. The depth of this freedom is delightfully illustrated in the example Sartre gives of a man who, while alone, is unhappy. Yet, when another person interrupts him, he freely changes his emotion, and at best promises his misery an appointment after his visitor has departed (Sartre 1958, p. 61).

Sartre’s analyses freedom by constructing a complex terminology. Human being is ‘being-for-itself, in contrast to the ‘being-in-itself of all other entities (including other animals). An inkwell is an inkwell. It has no choice in the matter. In contrast, a human being cannot be summed up in any simple label or other description (a waiter, a lover, a gambler, a traitor), for humans always have the freedom to be something else. Beginning from the philosophy of consciousness, Sartre argues that there is always a space between the being-for-itself and the being-in-itself of which it is conscious. While I perceive the inkwell, I am also conscious that I am not the inkwell. The ‘not’ is crucial. Human beings bring nothingness into the world for we can recognise that something is not the case. Only in a world in which humans have the freedom to pursue diverse goals, and thus to make sense of that world in terms of the fulfilment and thwarting of those goals, could it be that Pierre is not in the cafe, or that my car engine does not work (1958, pp. 9-10). Being-in-itself is simply there; it is solid (massif). In contrast, being-for-itself is like a crescent moon. There is a gap, or nothingness, that is at once the source of human freedom and the potential that humans have to be something different. Consider this vignette (1958, pp. 32—33): a gambler, after a losing night, decides to give up gambling. He is confident in his resolution, and thus in the determining force of this principle by which he will live the rest of his life. Yet, on the following night, as he passes the casino, he realises that the resolution does not after all determine him. He must choose anew not to gamble. Even worse, for the rest of his life he must continue choosing not to be a gambler (just as previously he chose continually to be a gambler).

Our freedom is a burden. There is always a terrible suspicion that the choice that we have made is the wrong choice. We are haunted by the other possibilities that we have, even if momentarily, forgone. We thus flee from our freedom in acts of bad faith. At its simplest, we pretend that we have no choice in our occupation (as the waiter who appears like an automaton in his absorption in his tasks (1958, p. 59) or the criminal who blames his upbringing or his genes). More complex and disturbing forms of bad faith occur through relationships between human beings. On one level, the other person is a threat to our freedom, for when they look upon us, they define us, so that we are just an object in their world. The man caught spying at a keyhole is conscious of his very self as escaping him. He has his foundation outside of himself. He is a voyeur (1958, pp. 559—60). But on another level, this relationship can be exploited, in order to escape freedom. A man tries to become the whole world to his lover, which is to say, he relinquishes his own freedom, allowing himself to become an object that is freely defined by the love of the woman (1958, p. 371). This works well, until the lover attempts to surrender her own freedom, and thus herself to become loved. Thus does love collapse into strife.

In his later works, Sartre engaged increasingly with Marxism, and thus the tenor of his philosophy shifts from an overwhelming emphasis on the way in which the human subject determines the object, towards a recognition of the way in which the object conditions the subject. In his major work in Marxist theory, Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960), Sartre analyses the individual as a member of a number of social practices. Individuals act or inscribe themselves upon the world, but the inscribed matter (the ‘practico-inert’) takes on a life of its own and has power over the individual. The structures of the practico-inert confine the range of choices that the individual has. Freedom is now understood politically. Those individuals who share a common situation can become conscious of this commonality (in a ‘we’ that is composed of several ‘myselves’) (Sartre 1976, pp. 75-76) and then strive together to transform the alienating situation. The concern with the impact of the object upon the subject takes a different form in Sartre’s studies of the life of the writers Jean Genet (Sartre 1963) and Gustave Flaubert (Sartre 1981—1993). Here the influence of childhood experience on character development is explored in exhaustive detail, so that the adult’s freedom is seen only in the continual reinterpretation of them contradictions and tensions of his childhood character.

Source: Cultural Theory The Key Thinkers by Andrew Edgar and Peter Sedgwick, Routledge

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