01 Oct

French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), the best known European public intellectual of the 20th century, developed a highly original political philosophy, influenced in part by the work of Hegel and Marx. Although he wrote little on ethics or politics prior to World War ll, political themes dominated his writings from 1945 onwards. Sartre co-founded the journal Les Temps Modernes, which would publish many seminal essays on political theory and world affairs. The most famous example is Sartre's Anti-Semite and Jew, a blistering criticism of French complicity in the Holocaust which also put forth the general thesis that oppression is a distortion of interpersonal recognition. In the 1950's Sartre moved towards Marxism and eventually released Critique of Dialectical Reason, vol.1 (1960), a massive, systematic account of history- and group struggle. In addition to presenting a new critical theory of society based on a synthesis of psychology and sociology, Critique qualified Sartre's earlier; more radical view of existential freedom. His last systematic work, The Family ldiot (1971), would express his final and most  nuanced views on the relation between individuals and social wholes. Sartre's pioneering combination of Existentialism and Marxism yielded a political philosophy uniquely sensitive to the tension between individual freedom and the forces of history.

Hegelian-Marxism :

 Sartre's contributions to political philosophy are best understood from within the historical context of Hegelianism and Marxism. His political views were influenced heavily influenced by Hegel. In Being and Nothingness he shows some familiarity with the work of Hegel, but this knowledge was indirect and piecemeal. Sartre did not begin a serious study of Hegel until the late 1940. Between 1947 and 1948 he composed a series of notebooks outlining his plans for a major work in ethical theory. The surviving notebooks, published posthumously as Notebooks for an Ethics (Cahiers pour une morale, 1982), reveal that he developed his own political views through a a dialogue with Hegel and  Marx Above all, Sartre was concerned to rethink the master/slave dialectic of Hegel's phenomenology of Spirit. In Being and Nothingness he agreed with Hegel that humans struggle against one another to win recognition, but rejected the possibility of transcending struggle through relations of reciprocal, mutual recognition. Sartre thought that all human relations were variations of the master/slave relation. However, in the Notebooks, and in the works published beginning in the late 1940s, he dramatically altered his thinking on master/slave relations. First, he accepted the possibility that struggle could be transcended through mutual, reciprocal recognition. His best example was the collaboration between artists and their audience. Second, he located the struggle for recognition in society and history, not in ontology.


The concept of freedom, central to Sartre's system as a whole, is a dominant theme in his political works. Sartre's view of freedom changed substantially throughout his lifetime. Scholars disagree whether there is a fundamental continuity or a radical break between Sartre's earl view of freedom and his late view of freedom. There is a strong consensus, though, that after World War II Sartre shifted to a material view of freedom, in contrast to the ontological view of his early period. According to the arguments of Being and Nothingness human freedom consists in the ability of consciousness to transcend its material situation. Later, especially in Critique of Dialectical Reason, Sartre shifts to the view that humans are only free if their basic needs as practical organisms are met. Let us look at these two different notions of freedom in more depth. 


The analysis of oppression is one of Sartre's most original contributions to political philosophy. Adapting the master/slave dialectic of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, Sartre developed a general theory of oppression that yielded moral critiques of anti-Semitism colonialism, class bigotry and anti-black racism.

Consistent with his general methodology, Sartre denied that individual attitudes or impersonal social structures. Oppression is simultaneously "praxis" (the result of intentional acts) and "process" (a supra-individual phenomenon, irreducible to intentional states of individuals). Oppression is oppression  is defined Sartre as the "exploitation of man by man. . . characterized by the fact that one class deprives the members
of another class of their freedom."

Engagement :

Engagement is a specialized term in the Sartrean vocabulary and refers to the process of accepting responsibility for the political consequences of one's actions. Sartre, more than any other philosopher of the period, defended the notion of socially responsible writing (litterature engagee). Like Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, Sartre argued that intellectuals, as well as ordinary citizens, are responsible for taking a stand on the major political conflicts of their era. (What is Literature?) Somewhat idealistically, he hoped that literature might be a vehicle through which oppressed minorities could gain group consciousness, and through which members of the elite would be provoked into action.

ldeal Society :

While never presenting a complete portrait of his ideal society (whether in fiction or non-life Sartre allowed fiction), Sartre was a lifelong advocate of socialism. In interviews late in life Sartre allowed himself to be called an "anarchist" and a "libertarian socialist" (See "Interview with Jean-Paul Sartre" in The Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, ed. P. A. Schilpp, p. 21.). Sartre hoped for a society based on two principles: individual freedom and the elimination of material scarcity.

Conclusion :

Sartre's contributions to 20th century political philosophy are substantial. Sartre developed a unique political vocabulary that combined the personal redemption of existential authenticity with a call for systematic social change. Like Hegel, Sartre argued that freedom is the most central normative value and sought to reconcile the pursuit of individual freedom with the need for social institutions. Sartre's analysis of colonialism, racism and anti-Semitism eloquently bridged the gap between theory and practice, and significantly enriched the categories of traditional Marxism. Justifiably, Sartre will be long remembered as both a systematic political philosopher and a trenchant social critic.

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