The Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre
A reading or re-reading of Sartre’s critical and philosophical writings suggests problems that cannot be bypassed, even though there may not be an outline of a solution to them in sight. Why has French radical thought in our time been clothed in the language of post-Hegelian metaphysics? This phenomenon has become so familiar that we no longer ask the obvious questions about it, or even notice the historical paradox involved. Marx wrote the Theses on Feuerbach and The German Ideology more than one hundred years ago. But in France it is as if he had never written these destructive works; destructive, that is, of the claims of previous radical philosophies. Marx announced a new role for philosophy, or rather for that study that was to be the legitimate heir of the systems of Kant and of Hegel. An adequate philosophy would still provide a definition of human freedom, but only within an historical setting of immediate social action. The question “What counts as human freedom?” had for the mature Marx a definite sense only if it is taken to be the question “What immediate changes in the concrete conditions of social life will meet men’s actual and future demands for a fully human existence?” Hitherto most philosophy, the illegitimate heir of religion, had been a consolation and an apology for the constraints and limits of human existence which were represented as necessary; it had therefore been a prop supporting the existing social order, just because its definitions of freedom had been abstract and had claimed some kind of unalterable necessity. Sheltering under the title of logic, philosophy had borrowed a spurious necessity and a claim to universality from this title. Socialists, it was claimed, had come to the end of ideologies which pretended to interpret the relation between men and their environment without changing this relation. The philosophy of the future was to be a kind of political pragmatism; it would test the adequacy of interpretations of human freedom by the practical possibility of applying them in the transformation of society.
One might therefore have expected that French radical thought after the war and the Resistance, would turn to some improved philosophical sociology as a basis of political action. In fact the very opposite happened. There was a return to the principal vice of German idealism, which Marx had mocked and exposed, namely, the derivation of definition of freedom from alleged paradoxes of philosophical logic and from a kind of Parmenidean word-play. Sartre started from the furthest abstractions of Being and Nothingness, from the paradoxes of negation, in explaining the necessity of radical dissent from the bourgeois order. To an Anglo-American reader it seemed that we had been taken back to the 1840s, to the Young Hegelians, before Das Kapital was written or conceived. There is surely something ludicrous in the spectacle of a philosopher who, having imprisoned himself and his followers in a cage of logical abstractions, desperately calls for an escape into the free air of …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.