Sartre Redux: A new generation of scholars explores the philosophy and politics of the founder of existentialism

The flowers at the grave do not look fresh, but there are a lot of them. And the marker itself is plain, unlike many of the slightly ostentatious tombs crowding Montparnasse Cemetery, a final resting place of the illustrious bourgeoisie.
When Jean-Paul Sartre died in 1980, some 50,000 people turned out for the funeral of France’s most famous modern philosopher. Six years later his lifelong companion, Simone de Beauvoir, joined him here in Montparnasse. The stream of people coming to pay tribute has never really dried up. On a cold autumn morning, at least half-a-dozen visitors make their way to the spot in the course of about 15 minutes.
“I saw him at the Sorbonne in 1958,” says a British engineer in his 60s, on vacation with his wife. “His lecture went right over my head. What I do remember is that there seemed to be 600 people trying to squeeze into an auditorium meant to hold 75.”
Even philosophers in the crowd that day might have had difficulty with Sartre’s arguments, for he was then struggling to reconcile existentialism with Marxist theory by writing a long, dense work called Critique of Dialectical Reason. His powers of concentration were fueled, in part, by Corydrane, an over-the-counter pill containing amphetamines, popular with students cramming for exams.
It is the stuff of legend. And the hunger for that legend today is unmistakable. It has been a long time since any thinker left so large a mark on an age as did Sartre. The first sign of a revival came three years ago, on the 20th anniversary of his death, when the mediagenic French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy published a best-selling book, recently translated into English as Sartre: The Philosopher of the Twentieth Century (Polity Press). A team of scholars, including several American professors, is now finishing the Dictionnaire Sartrean, with entries on the thinker’s concepts, influences, and political alliances — as well as a directory of his sizable entourage, mistresses included. It is scheduled for publication in 2005, as part of the centenary of the thinker’s birth. That anniversary will also be celebrated with an international conference in Paris.
Growing interest in Sartre is by no means an exclusively French phenomenon. Strangely enough, his philosophical writings may now be receiving more scrutiny in the United States than in his native country. At the annual meeting of the Sartrean Studies Group, in Paris, scholars tend to analyze his literary work and his role in cultural history. By contrast, at the convention of the North American Sartre Society held at Purdue University in September, most panels focused on his ethical theory and his political thought, with particular attention to the philosopher’s writings on violence. A wave of new and forthcoming work by American scholars examines the development of his analysis of terrorism and third-world insurgency, with a special emphasis on his cold-war-era duel with his friend turned foe, Albert Camus. Whether or not Sartre was “the philosopher of the 20th century,” the passions and problems driving his work continue to haunt the 21st.
And anyone who expects an American gathering of Sartreans to consist of middle-aged white men waxing nostalgic over the thinker will be in for a surprise. The demographics of the Purdue conference were strikingly diverse, with a strong representation of women, African-Americans, and scholars just beginning their careers.
“We’ve really tried to encourage broad participation,” says Ronald E. Santoni, a professor of philosophy at Denison University. “We’ve gone out of our way at times to say, ‘We established people should step out of the way a bit.'”

Free to Be (or Not to Be)

What makes today’s renewal of interest in Sartre all the more striking is how completely his intellectual influence went into eclipse, even during his lifetime. Feminist scholars might have reservations about aspects of Simone de Beauvoir’s work — including, for one, her reliance in The Second Sex on Sartre’s philosophical terminology. Yet her importance as the “founding mother” of feminist theory was never in doubt. By contrast, many schools of thought emerging in France during the 1950s and ’60s, such as structuralism and deconstruction, tried to consign Sartre’s concepts to the dustbin of philosophical history.
Indeed, insulting the thinker became something of a rite of passage for younger intellectuals. Michel Foucault once described Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason as “the effort of a 19th-century man to imagine the 20th century.” Many of the left-wing students who nearly toppled the French government during the mass demonstrations of May 1968 absorbed their radical politics from the writings of Sartre, but repaid the debt with condescension. When he tried to speak at a rally to express his support for the movement, someone handed him a note that read, “Keep it brief.”
All of which was, in its way, a backhanded confirmation of just how decisively Sartre once defined the terms of public intellectual life. He captured the zeitgeist in arguments that were both complex and spellbinding. With his early philosophical writings, especially Being and Nothingness (1943), he had worked out a philosophy that summed up both the destructiveness of world war and the possibility of new beginnings.
Human consciousness, according to Sartre’s “phenomenological ontology,” finds itself thrown into a universe in which it has no fixed course of action, no final structure of meaning. There is only one absolute: the distinction between the “being in itself” of objects and the “being for itself” of humans, who are “condemned to be free.” A piece of paper is not free to quit being a piece of paper. But you are free to stop reading this article at any given moment. (Please don’t.)
Awareness of such freedom can be terrifying. Sartre gives as an example the experience of vertigo while standing on a cliff: One is aware that the freedom to move just a few inches would mean plunging into an abyss. But human beings are exceptionally good at hiding from our own freedom, a condition Sartre calls “bad faith.” We treat our routine actions and familiar roles as if they were built into the order of the world, rather than something we are responsible for creating.
This was not simply a philosophy urging people to pull themselves up by their metaphysical bootstraps, however. It became a tool of social criticism. In the pages of Les Temps Modernes — the journal he founded in 1945 with Simone de Beauvoir and other intellectuals — Sartre interpreted, and denounced, the bad faith embodied in anti-Semitism, imperialism, economic exploitation, and other forms of domination. From the extremely individualistic conception of freedom found in his early work, Sartre moved on, during the 1950s, to begin a complex engagement with Marxist and third-world politics.
“What’s interesting in Sartre from the late 1940s on,” says Lewis R. Gordon, a professor of Africana studies at Brown University, “is that he’s always linked to groups internationally that were trying to find new ways to address social problems. Precisely because of that, he’s been attractive to third-world scholars, and to people involved in the development of feminist theory.” The existentialist thinker has been a lasting influence on Mr. Gordon’s own work, beginning with his first book, Bad Faith and Antiblack Racism (Humanities Press, 1995).
While some developments in American academe appear to be in keeping with Sartre’s left-wing politics, Mr. Gordon says any resemblance is coincidental. “On the one hand, Sartre has a radical critique,” he says. “But at the same time, he preserves various conceptions of value that are not particularly fashionable among postmodernists. He poses questions about responsibility, about community, about truth. Those questions are very Sartrean.”
Mr. Gordon also notes that the thinker’s later philosophical work, especially the Critique, emphasized the concept of scarcity as a factor in human existence. “Freedom is conditioned by protein,” as Sartre once put it. “Since the 1980s, postmodernism tried to push a cultural conception of politics,” Mr. Gordon says, “leaving out the more material dimensions of economic reality that someone influenced by Sartreanism would focus on.”

Bad Faith and Bootlicking

Unfortunately, Sartre’s legacy does not consist entirely of challenging ideas about freedom and human liberation. His hatred for the oppression he found in Western capitalism led the philosopher into some extraordinary displays of bad faith of his own. In 1954, following a trip to the Soviet Union, he declared that the country’s citizens enjoyed the freedom to criticize their society. By the early 1970s, he was allying himself with young Maoist revolutionaries in France. After threatening a few factory owners with violence, his young friends abandoned their plans for “armed struggle” — unlike their comrades in Germany, the Baader-Meinhof gang, whose leaders Sartre visited in jail in 1974.
Indeed, it often seems that, for much of his life, Sartre’s deepest instinct when faced with a totalitarian movement of the left was to find something encouraging to say. All of which makes it surprising to find Sartre being championed by Bernard-Henri Lévy. In 1978, Mr. Lévy’s book Barbarism With a Human Face announced his conversion from Maoist radicalism to a curiously strident middle-of-the-road politics. It was the beginning of a seismic shift in French intellectual life. Many other thinkers have followed Mr. Lévy’s course, though few have done so with quite his flair.
“An anti-totalitarian philosopher like me, how can he write a book about Sartre?” says Mr. Lévy, speaking by telephone from Morocco. “How can Jean-Paul Sartre be praised, in spite of being one of the intellectuals who made the biggest number of mistakes?”
Mr. Lévy’s solution is nearly as elegant as his rather ornate prose: He treats Sartre as a thinker at war with himself. One dimension is deeply skeptical about human beings. “By virtue of his very pessimism,” writes Mr. Lévy, this Sartre “was one of our intellectuals best prepared to think, problematize, and reject despotism.” The other dimension of the thinker, Mr. Lévy calls “the prototype of the man who lost his way … the paragon of a submissive, compromised philosophy,” embodying “the intellectuals’ tendency to lick the dictator’s boots.” Mr. Lévy finds the thinker’s admirable side displayed in his early existentialist writings, as well as in his fiction and drama — but also in a set of interviews published shortly before his death in April 1980, in which Sartre repudiated Marxism.
American scholars have been decidedly unimpressed with this strategy of bifurcating the thinker into manageable portions. A frequent complaint is that Mr. Lévy is more of a publicist than a philosopher. In a review in Sartre Studies International, Elizabeth A. Bowman, an independent scholar, describes the book as a set of “nicely crafted mini-articles” and “engaging anecdotes” presented “in attractive TV magazine format.” She notes that Mr. Lévy treats the neo-Marxism of Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason as a philosophical system completely at odds with the concepts found in Being and Nothingness. “Needless to say,” writes Ms. Bowman, “the ample English-language literature arguing against such a contradictory shift is ignored.”

The Great Debate

Ms. Bowman points out that Mr. Lévy’s argument echoes a trend in French scholarship that emerged after the philosopher’s death. This “peculiar Sartrean revisionism,” as she puts it, holds that “the entire period of Sartre’s political involvement in praxis and in theory — roughly from 1952 to 1979 — was an unfortunate ‘detour’ from his earlier individualistic existentialism.”
A visit to bookshops in Paris suggests that this interpretation has had some effect on what titles by Sartre now interest French readers. His early works are readily available. But it is difficult to locate a copy of the Critique, or the volume collecting his writings on colonialism.
The dimension of the thinker that is embraced by the North American Sartre Society is very different. In a neat inversion of the stereotypes about French radicalism and American conservatism, some younger scholars in the United States are emphatic about Sartre’s continuing importance as a revolutionary theorist. “If you had dropped Being and Nothingness into my lap, I don’t think that would have lead me to work on Sartre,” says Neil Roberts, a graduate student in political science at the University of Chicago, who delivered a paper at the society’s conference at Purdue. “I came to Sartre through an interest in Caribbean and African thinkers, including Frantz Fanon,” says Mr. Roberts. “What got my attention wasn’t just his introduction to Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, but his study of Patrice Lumumba.” Both essays appear in a recently translated collection of Sartre’s essays, Colonialism and Neocolonialism (Routledge, 2001).
A central topic in recent scholarship is the bitter conflict that ended Sartre’s friendship with Albert Camus during the 1950s. That dispute is often treated as an episode in the cold war: an inevitable clash resulting from Sartre’s growing support for the Soviet Union and Camus’s firm anti-Communism. That telling of the story can be found, for example, in a new book by David Caute, The Dancer Defects: The Struggle for Cultural Supremacy During the Cold War (Oxford University Press).
But their epochal debate is now being reframed. “Enough time has passed, the cold war has finally lifted enough, that people can step back and look at it with new emphases, and a new degree of balance,” says Ronald Aronson, a professor of interdisciplinary studies at Wayne State University. His book Camus and Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel that Ended It is due from the University of Chicago Press in January. Mr. Santoni, of Denison, also analyzes the debate at length in his book Sartre on Violence: Curiously Ambivalent, published earlier this year by Pennsylvania State University Press. A forthcoming collection of primary documents, Sartre and Camus: A Historic Confrontation (Humanity Books), edited and translated by David A. Sprintzen and Adrian van den Hoven, will add more grist to a busily grinding academic mill.
The two men had formed a formidable intellectual alliance during the mid-1940s. While Sartre was the more sophisticated in matters of technical philosophical argument, Camus had a gift for translating existentialism into eloquent journalistic commentary in the pages of Combat, the newspaper he edited as an underground journal during the Nazi occupation, which became one of the most influential periodicals in the country after the war. Camus’s sustained involvement with the Resistance intrigued Sartre, whose participation had been marginal.
As Mr. Aronson’s dual biography shows, there were temperamental and ideological differences between Sartre and Camus even when they were friends. But they wrote for one another’s journals and cooperated in trying to establish a new left-wing political party.
When that effort collapsed in the late 1940s, Sartre, who had long been denounced by the Communist Party, nevertheless began to treat it as the one force in French society struggling for radical change. In 1951, by contrast, Camus published The Rebel — an existentialist critique of any ideology that could be used to justify murder, with the communist movement being very much the focus of his concern. A review in Les Temps Modernes by a young Sartrean intellectual treated Camus’s efforts at historical and philosophical analysis with heavy sarcasm.
The ensuing political flame-war was severe. Camus accused Sartre of making an opportunistic alliance with a movement that violated in practice any conception of human dignity. Sartre, in a blistering rebuke, accused Camus of carrying “a portable pedestal,” from which he handed down lofty moral judgments on the struggle for social justice.
The division only deepened a few years later, when Sartre embraced the cause of the Algerian independence movement. Camus, who grew up in Algeria as part of the community of French settlers, had long denounced the brutality and racism spawned by French colonization. But as the conflict escalated — with the French Army practicing torture, and the Algerian movement committing acts of terrorism against the settlers — Camus refused to endorse the call for independence. Sartre, by contrast, treated the violence of the Algerian rebels not only as a necessary means to achieve independence but as a way to overthrow the humiliating effects of colonial rule. Their “revolutionary violence” was a way to reclaim humanity from the “systematic violence” built into the familiar order of colonial domination.
The original debate may have passed into history, but the core question of whether terrorism can ever be justified is urgently contemporary. “Sartreans are among the only groups of intellectuals today able to look strongly and clearly at the issue of systemic violence,” says Mr. Aronson, “because their man is the one who really ‘got’ it. But then again, they’re also prone to justifying any and all responses against it, just as Sartre himself did.” The discussion might have seemed rather abstract, but now it feels rather less so. For a non-Sartrean, it can be a puzzling experience to hear young scholars quote the philosopher on “regenerative” violence without ever quite saying whether or not Al Qaeda is engaged in it.
In the closing pages of his book, Mr. Aronson tries to imagine a new sort of thinker who can synthesize Sartre’s insights and Camus’s moral critique. “Such an intellectual,” he writes, “would illuminate today’s systemic violence while accepting the challenge of raising an effective struggle against it without creating new evils.”
Violent Reasonings
Other scholars suggest that Sartre himself may have more to offer than blank checks for “progressive” terrorism. In Sartre on Violence, Mr. Santoni undertakes a close analysis of the philosopher’s writings on violence, including the dispute with Camus, and finds traces of a deep conflict within Sartre’s thinking. “He sees some kinds of violence as ‘freedom affirming itself,'” says Mr. Santoni. “I don’t think he ever loses that. But there are also places where he treats violence as something radically destructive of community, of freedom, of humanity.” He cites a notebook from the late 1940s in which Sartre described the relationship between freedom and violence as “curiously ambivalent.”
The tension may be at its most intense in a work Sartre abandoned in the mid-1960s, “Morality and History,” consisting of notes and drafts for two courses of lectures. One set was delivered in Rome in 1964; the other was scheduled for delivery at Cornell University in 1965, though Sartre canceled to protest the American escalation of the war in Vietnam.
“The central concept of ‘Morality and History’ is the category of ‘integral humanity,'” says Robert V. Stone, professor emeritus of philosophy at Long Island University, who, with Ms. Bowman, has been preparing a study of the project for many years.
“It’s a commitment to the idea that all freedom is interdependent, that if I am really to choose my own freedom, I must choose the freedom of everybody else,” says Mr. Stone. “But this solidarity of freedoms that he posits seems to require a very different world from the one we actually live in, with its exploitations and divisions and so forth.”
The creation of a world in which basic needs are met — in which no one’s freedom is subordinated to the “systemic violence” of dehumanizing privation — is, for Sartre, the ultimate horizon of any meaningful notion of freedom.
Mr. Stone and Ms. Bowman contend that Sartre developed a rich analysis of how the pursuit of “the solidarity of human freedoms” governs the relationship between means and ends. Central to that analysis is a consideration of when violence is justified in the pursuit of “integral humanity,” and when, on the contrary, violence “denatures” that goal. They have published a series of papers on “Morality and History,” which other scholars frequently cite.
In fact, there is a note of rather keen frustration when other Sartreans refer to their long-awaited book on the topic, which has been announced as “forthcoming” for at least a decade. “We now have it all done except for one chapter which is giving us a bit of trouble,” says Mr. Stone. “We expect to have it finished soon. It would be good if we could have it in print in time for the centennial in 2005.”
The Long View
Nobody can put contemporary Sartre studies in perspective quite like Hazel E. Barnes, a professor emerita of philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder. In the early 1950s, while preparing to write a study of the philosopher’s work, she decided to translate Being and Nothingness. Anglophone readers had scarcely had time to absorb its impact when, in 1961, Ms. Barnes published a translation of Search for a Method, containing the more readable pages of Sartre’s amphetamine-charged Critique. That same year, Ms. Barnes popularized existentialist theory with an educational-television program called Self-Encounter. And her study of The Family Idiot — Sartre’s last major project, an existential-Marxist interpretation of Flaubert’s life — is itself a monumental work of scholarship.
“For a while, interest in Sartre declined,” recalls Ms. Barnes. “People were definitely a lot more concerned with Simone de Beauvoir. I do have the sense that is changing. There’s a lot of interest in the Critique, now that we have more or less the whole thing.” (The second volume of the work appeared posthumously.)
“You see many more titles now that read ‘Sartre and X,'” says Ms. Barnes. “People aren’t just analyzing how the different parts of his work hold together. They’re putting him into communication with other thinkers. That’s a good sign. It’s also encouraging to see that so many young people are getting interested in Sartre.”
She notes that readers continue to neglect The Family Idiot. “It’s an infinite work,” she says. “I don’t just mean in the sense that it’s very long. Sartre gets everything into it — psychology, sociology, aesthetics, politics.” That sounds like a hint to the next generation.
In an interview conducted when he was 70, Sartre wondered if he would still be read in the future. “I am not sure of it,” he said. “But I hope people will make some effort to take up what I have done and go beyond it.” He need not have worried. As the centennial of his birth approaches, debate will continue over whether Sartre’s work illuminates the struggle for human freedom — or provides alibis to its enemies. (Or even, conceivably, both.) The answers he provided have passed into the history books. But his questions remain as urgent as this morning’s newspaper.
A sampling of the new wave of scholarly literature on Jean-Paul Sartre:
Robert Bernasconi with Sybol Cook, eds., Race and Racism in Continental Philosophy (Indiana University Press, 2003)
Finn Bowring, André Gorz and the Sartrean Legacy: Arguments for a Person-Centered Social Theory (St. Martin’s Press, 2000)
David Drake, Intellectuals and Politics in Post-War France (Palgrave, 2003)
Nik Farrell Fox, The New Sartre (Continuum, 2003)
Charles Guignon, ed., The Existentialists: Critical Essays on Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003)
Stephen W. Laycock, Nothingness and Emptiness: A Buddhist Engagement With the Ontology of Jean-Paul Sartre (State University of New York Press, 2001)
Bill Martin, The Radical Project: Sartrean Investigations (Rowman & Littlefield, 2000)
William L. McBride, ed., Sartre and Existentialism, 8 volumes (Garland, 1997)
Tilottama Rajan, Deconstruction and the Remainders of Phenomenology: Sartre, Derrida, Foucault, Baudrillard (Stanford University Press, 2002)
Martin Thomas, Oppression and the Human Condition: An Introduction to Sartrean Existentialism (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002)

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