Jean-Paul Sartre and French ExistentialismJune 27, 2021
Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80), arguably the best-known philosopher of existentialism, is a complex and very interesting figure.
Descartes’ methodological skepticism and cogito constitutes an important point of departure for him, along with much of modern philosophy and almost all of French philosophy. However, he builds his philosophical method by adopting the phenomenological method of Husserl and Heidegger. Still, Sartre was essentially an existentialist philosopher of freedom, a politically engaged intellectual, and, later in life, an influential theorist of Marxism.
As an existentialist philosopher, he reworks issues previously encountered in Kierkegaard and Nietzsche—as well as themes that emerged in Heidegger’s early philosophy under a more ontological appearance. His works contain sensibility and detail-rich expositions of a wide variety of human states and moods. Like Kierkegaard, he draws on a spectrum of discursive styles, ranging from short stories, plays, and philosophical novels to political essays and biography as well as traditional philosophical expositions.
Sartre differs from Kierkegaard and Nietzsche in the privileged status that the individual accords to his social existence, rather than to his religious or aesthetic and cultural experience. Unlike most previous existentialists, Sartre is concerned from the very beginning with the human body, sexuality, and intersubjectivity. His more social and concrete approach is complemented by his strong emphasis on the intellectual’s ‘engagement’ as well as his political experience and action.
Sartre’s principal work, Being and Nothingness (1943), develops Heidegger’s ontological-hermeneutic analysis of the meaning of ‘being’, from the perspective of human existence or ‘being in the world’. Still, Sartre’s interests differ from the very beginning. For Heidegger, this leads Sartre to misunderstand Being and Time as an existentialist treatise.
Sartre’s long and strenuous journey into ontology, although clearly formulated by Kant, is aimed at providing a solution to the problem of how we can explain our freedom and responsibility in a world we experience as a causally determined order of things, which cannot be resolved convincingly enough can be understood as an undertaking. While rethinking the relationship between mind or consciousness and the world, the possibility of freedom, without falling into the trap of idealism, Sartre takes a difficult path that passes right between realism and idealism. It is obvious to Sartre that idealism can say nothing about the world in its crude materiality and contingency—its ‘being’ or existence, as opposed to its formal or essential or ideal structure. Central to idealism is the illusory view of consciousness as a kind of receptacle containing sensations (impressions or ideas) in it. Sartre categorically rejects this view of consciousness as ‘eating and digesting’, even if it has a certain appeal: ‘We all accept the view of the spider-mind that engulfs things, covers them with a white foam and slowly digests them, making them an integral part of their own matter. we did. What is a table, a stone, a house? A particular set of ‘consciousness contents’ is an order loaded into these contents. He finds the clue to transcend this view of consciousness in phenomenology, and particularly in the understanding that the distinguishing feature of mind or consciousness is its ‘intentionality’ or ‘direction towards an object’. Sartre thinks that intentionality entails a radical break with any view of consciousness that reifies consciousness—in the sense of designating the mind or its ‘contents’ as things or thing-like entities. He defines consciousness as an active ‘explosion’ towards worldly objects, in a striking style that describes itself very well. Here is Aronson’s comment, which is very useful here.
Consciousness was a ‘series of connected explosions that separated us from ourselves, not even leaving enough free time to form a ‘me’ behind them. This purely active consciousness was purely voluntary, and such consciousness was nothing. It existed only as it moved out of itself, towards objects.
And a consciousness that is not a thing is, of course, nothing (to which the title of Being and Nothingness refers). Sartre’s resistance to any reification of consciousness leads him to accuse Husserl of returning to Kant’s epistemological project. Both Kant and Husserl define experience with a transcendental self, something considered to be ‘behind’ consciousness. But once the self is understood as something (whether a Cartesian self or a soul or the transcendental force in question that makes experience of a world possible) the explanation of the relationship between the self and the world becomes highly problematic.