Jean-Paul Sartre
Jean-Paul Sartre; drawing by David Levine

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 concrete political decisions. Why place one’s trust in this philosophical logic in the first place?

In the Thirties, at reast in Britain, it had seemed natural to accept some of the negative theses of logical positivism as consistent with Marx’s criticism of the historical role of German metaphysics. This skepticism about philosophy may have been an insecure foundation for radical thought in politics, but it was not an unintelligible one. Logic would be removed to its own domain within mathematics, and there would be no further pretense that the definition of human freedom could be the occasion for a wholly abstract inquiry, or for an inquiry that arrives at necessary and universal truths. This skepticism has persisted since the war; and the rift between French and English-speaking philosophers remains.

There are some superficial explanations of this recidivism, as it seems, in French philosophy. There is, for example, the influence of M. Kojève’s glittering and seductive lectures on Hegel and Marx, published as Introduction à la lecture d’Hegel. These lectures have been an inexhaustible mine, without which the neo-Hegelian, neo-Marxist machinery in recent French thought could scarcely have kept going. The lectures themselves are typical in that they are neither exactly history of thought nor original philosophy; but they do subtly convert the solid figures of Hegel and Marx into highly colored ghosts of their real selves. M. Kojève led his bewitched public back to the early, young Hegelian Marx and then left it to struggle back along the paths of history on its own. But why did such diversions find a ready response in France?

One might perhaps think of a Marxist explanation of this twist in the history of thought. Sartre himself remarks, in his tribute to Merleau-Ponty included in Situations, that he and his philosophical friends were altogether cut off from the working-class movement and from its immediate needs, except during the Resistance. It is as if Sartre had been born into a new clerisy and had been prepared at the Ecole Normale for his priestly vocation. His essays, whether literary or political, always have the brilliance of the perpetual scholarship candidate who will not write a dull sentence or a banal truth. He nowhere shows any interest in the stuff and business of politics, whether domestic or foreign; neither the facts or principles of economics, nor the contrivances of diplomacy, enter into his arguments. When he denounces the bourgeois order he is like a priest, but a priest of metaphysics, denouncing usury; and his anti-anti-Communism abroad is never soiled by any thought of the balance of power.


But the divergence between French radical thought and its counterparts in Britain and the United States probably has a deeper origin. Philosophical thinking has everywhere been cast on the defensive and made doubtful of its own status. Even Sartre himself returns again and again to self-justification. This anxiety among philosophers centers, I think, upon the limits of scientific explanation.

William James felt the terror of determinism as a personal crisis; the possibility of a mechanical universe, and of his own individuality and initiative as illusions, had for him been associated with thoughts of suicide. There is a type of temperament, characteristic of those who become philosophers, which requires a man to think of himself as the original author of his own nature, and as determining at will his own relation to the world. But James came to terms with his sense of imprisonment and of loss of identity. His writing has an authenticity just because of the continuing tension in it between respect for the “hard” claims of the new human sciences and the over-exertion of the will to believe, of the arbitrariness of a personal commitment, which for James was the compensation. The tone of nervous exuberance, the anxious heartiness of a fastidious and melancholy man, mark a compromise. But this compromise made him truly representative. The threat to his independence was at least confronted, and not shuffled off the page, with an incantation of logical mysteries, as in Sartre. In L’être et le néant the distinction between inert and classifiable reality, and the empty nature of that which makes itself through its own choices, is from the beginning forced upon the reader in the name of philosophical logic; there is no contest, as there is in James, or even in MerleauPonty. In L’être et le néant the author is still the monarch of all that he surveys; he does not need to admit the possibility of any categorization of human conduct other than his own.

Is there any proper place left for undisciplined speculation and for the theorizing of solitary individuals who feel free to set their own criteria of success? The objection to philosophical systems such as Sartre’s is not that they are systematic; so also are the more advanced scientific theories. It is rather that they are not a contribution to any cooperative inquiry with shared canons of validity. There is therefore no sense of convergence upon an accepted body of truth in philosophy, or even of an approximation to this. It is the arrogant individualism of philosophers, in an age of the largescale organization of knowledge, which calls for apology; traditional metaphysicians such as Sartre are like obstinate craftsmen or hand-loom weavers resisting the intensive division of intellectual labor which the secure advance of knowledge now requires. Sartre’s philosophy is an attempt to build a dyke against claims to explain human behavior and emotions by reference to their natural causes. Natural science, however systematic, must stop here and can be allowed to advance no further. The human domain is inviolable.

So Sartre must show, by applying a philosophical logic designed for this very purpose, that such putative explanations are unintelligible. But why should his canon of unintelligibility be respected? Descartes sat in solitary thought by his stove, as he proudly revealed, and drew a line dividing reality into two halves as Sartre has tried to do; and Descartes dominated the thought of two generations. But he was a scientific optimist, predicting the still unrealized success of mathematical physics. Now that his optimism has been more than justified by events, solitary line-drawing seems merely reactionary; and the posture of the solitary philosopher, responsible to no independent discipline, saying “Thus far, and no further,” to scientific inquiry betrays a fear and not a hope. Philosophers, such as Descartes, have previously opened the way to new cooperative inquires, new disciplines; and they are still doing so now, for example, in the philosophy of mathematics and the philosophy of language. But Sartre’s philosophy amounts to a defense of the freedom of the solitary sage to speculate without the risk of being proved wrong. In his controversies with Merleau-Ponty, each great man remains secure in his own fortress; each holds himself free to determine what counts as a victory.


Professor Cumming’s selection, well explained and introduced, exhibits Sartre’s development usefully. The passages chosen from La Nausée up to Critique de la raison dialectique, L’imagination and L’Etre et le néant, yield intelligible argument, even in excerpts, and so also might Esquisse d’une théorie des émotions. The selections may sometimes seem obscure, arbitrary, and exaggerated in their claims, but their criticisms of previous philosophers are often relevant and profound and not in need of much further explanation. But Critique de la raison dialectique, Sartre’s last major work, seems to me largely unreadable and uninteresting, the cold word-spinning of a man who at this time cared more for his role as the emblem of his age than for any concrete political consequences. Professor Cumming includes excerpts from the plays, which do not, I think, serve his purpose here. The plays are superbly effective in their own medium; but epigrams from dramatic dialogue are apt only to confuse. The volume, however, will be useful to the reader who, already knowing something of Sartre’s theories, wants a survey of his whole development.

Situations includes ten essays and Prefaces from recent years and is the fourth of a series of such collections, although the first to be published in this country. There is nothing here that is as accomplished and fundamental as the famous earlier essay on Baudelaire. Tintoretto, Giacometti, Gide, Camus, Merleau-Ponty, Sarraute, are among those whose achievements are made to point an unexpected moral. The intimate dissections of the weaknesses of Camus and Merleau-Ponty are probably of lasting interest in spite of their garrulities and pomposities. These old friends know that they are standing before the cameras of history, in a kind of perpetual press conference for the benefit of posterity; they are enjoying all the benefits of the cult of intellectual personality. As Gide and Julian Green in their Journals and Gide and Claudel in their correspondence kept the scraps of their personal relations for the hungry public, so Sartre in his turn wastes nothing that can be used for edification. In these essays he is by turns a witty, shrewd, and destructive pamphleteer, and a headlong bore who cannot draw breath or pause in print. The torrent of words sometimes becomes compulsive, almost maniacal, in these essays, particularly in that on Giacometti; the translator is left gasping and groping. The essay on Tintoretto is an exciting historical drama presented, not in dialogue form, but as historical fact; Sartre’s dramatic genius triumphs, and it is difficult to care whether the essay is meant to be altogether fact or not. Sartre invents his own forms, and for him the flat distinction between fact and fiction is not of great consequence, provided that both illustrate an idea. In his writing on works of art it is as if he were determined to annihilate the physical objects and to put abstract concepts in their place. He will smother reality with words, and will force his strident consciousness to every dumb thing. One has the impression that he must always continue to write, as if writing were for him like physical movement: one of the unavoidable forms of experience and his first way of coping with reality. Sometimes the writing will be, for others, a fretful waste, a kind of magical routine to keep the world away but sometimes, and in flashes, an excitement of intelligence of a quality that no other living writer affords. These are not his best essays. But the performance is so powerful and strange that they are by any standards worth reading.

This Issue

June 3, 1965