Jean-Paul Charles Sartre was a writer, novelist, political activist, biographer, literary critic and philosopher. He was born on June 21, 1905 in France and was a leading figure of 20th century philosophies of Marxism, existentialism and phenomenology.
Jean-Paul Sartre is perhaps the most well-known philosopher of the twentieth century. His philosophical contributions, literary criticism, creativity of thought, and an active political struggle in the latter part of his life gained him worldwide recognition. Also known as the Father of existentialism, Sartre’s ideas added significantly to the intellectual circles following World War II.
Sartre’s foremost philosophical contribution was that of existentialism. He started on with the development of classic phenomenology, but later diverged into the concepts of self, ethics and methods of developing ones’ existence. This divergence of thought forms the base of Sartre’s phenomenological existentialism. He aimed at understanding a person’s existence first rather than delving into the secrets of the world. He also developed a self-actualizing philosophical account of what it meant to be a human.
In his masterpiece, Being and Nothingness, Sartre presents his ontology in which he explains the two types of realities behind our conscious experiences. One is the object of consciousness, the thing which exists in itself and is unrelated and independent. The other type is the consciousness itself; a phenomenon which is always in relation to something. The unique thing about consciousness is that it can always experience nothingness. This negative power of nothingness also works within the self.
Sartre proposed a theory on human freedom that us humans are denounced to be free. He supported this theory by debating that since us humans do not know about the essence and plan behind our existence, we are left fully free to make our own choices and act upon our will, therefore leaving us with no excuses.
He also expressed the idea that individuality and originality are earned, and cannot be learned. For him, life experiences are more important than knowledge. It is the realization of death which makes humans fully aware of their lives and potentialities. Death for Sartre is when we stop living for ourselves and exist only for the world outside.
Prior the World War II, Sartre believed in playing the role of an apolitical intellectual to contribute to the world. The horrors of the war opened his eyes to the harsh realities of the world, and he began playing an active political role in France. He formed a resistance group in Paris in 1941. In 1943, he joined a Writers’ Resistance Group. Through his ferocious writing during that period, he aimed at developing a moral system.
Sartre was a supporter of the French Communist Party but after Hungary’s invasion by the Soviet Union, he rejected PCF’s claims of being the true representatives of the French masses. His support shifted to the Maoist movement in the late 1960s, which rejected the established Communist parties of the time. Later in life, Sartre liked to call himself an anarchist politically.
Sartre’s literary works are a portrayal of his existentialist philosophy. His famous novels Nausea, No Exit, The Roads to Freedom trilogy are all well-known works of existentialist literature which earned him the Nobel Prize in 1964. However, he rejected the honor stating that an author should not be institutionalized.
Jean-Paul Sartre died on April 15, 1980 in Paris. His works continue to influence critical theory, literary studies, sociology and post-colonial theory.