Jean-Paul Sartre

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Sartre, Jean-Paul (Vol. 1)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sartre, Jean-Paul 1905–

Sartre, a Nobel Prize-winning existentialist philosopher (Being and Nothingness), is also a novelist (Nausea, the three-volume The Roads of Freedom), and a playwright (No Exit). His autobiography, The Words, was published in 1964. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-10.)

Sartre has undoubtedly been influenced by science in a general way, but he shows more aloofness from it than love for it. His unfriendly attitude pertains primarily to biology and is particularly noticeable—if we infer his attitude from his figures of speech—in his novels and his discussion of psychoanalysis. This aversion to biology is a logical accompaniment to his commonly known opposition to deterministic psychology. It is a hostility easily understood as a reaction to the continuing tendency to examine and explain man "from the ground up"…. (p. 216)

On the other hand, because of his admiration for a hard, clean substance—as compared to biological flux—Sartre shows a certain friendliness toward physics; though he is apparently adversely affected by physicists' inability to lay hold of a stable substance and their perplexity over the question of continuity in the transmission of energy. The porosity of matter and the emptiness of interphenomenal space, which modern physics has encouraged us to visualize, are suggestive of the fissures in the structure of reality which Sartre regards as fundamental in the analysis of human existence.

Like other existentialists, Sartre takes his stand on the unqualified actuality of his being present in the world. From this Cartesian-like premise he develops his analysis of being in L'Etre et le Néant [Being and Nothingness] a major philosophical dissertation…. Sartre is apparently motivated by the admirable conviction that if individual human consciousness has any validity it must be made to prove it without recourse to arguments about causality and origin. Accordingly, he declared himself free of all prejudices having to do with the genesis of the psyche…. Thus in one bold sweep he disposes of evolutionism, determinism, and all kinds of creationism. It is a courageous beginning, but the complete isolation of human consciousness inevitably involves its champion in contradictions that overshadow his insight and impress his readers more with his opposition to old ideas than with his presentation of a new perspective.

The source of greatest contradiction in Sartre, and probably his greatest weakness, is his aversion to the concept of creation; because it not only deprives him of a principle with which to reconstruct the historical world that he first destroys but leaves him unhappy with a flat-surface world that has no forward movement. By dissociating himself completely from any chain of being prior to his own existence he automatically places on himself full responsibility for self-creation as well as the necessity for creating meaning in the world. But self-creation is not what he wants. If we are to judge by the intensity of his preoccupation with the subject, his deep-lying desire is a stable essence, a tangible substance in effect, which he can move toward and eventually grasp without having to resort to the medium of creation…. (pp. 217-18)

[L'Age de raison, the first volume of the three-volume novel, The Roads of Freedom] may be considered a fictional treatment of the essential content of L'Etre et le Néant, depicting as it does an individual's vain efforts to attain self-completion in a synthesis of the stable en-soi and the fluid pour-soi . The attempt to weld together the detotalized totality has the dualistic appearance of a contest in meaning between essence and existence, which reminds one of a contest between matter and mind. Sartre, of course, does not rationally give credence to a dualism of matter and mind; but his categories of in-itself and for-itself and the hybrid for-another, which stands between the two major categories a constant reminder of their incompatibility, are...

(The entire section is 3,186 words.)