Sartre and Contemporary Philosophy

Photo by James Andanson (Apis/Sygma/Corbis).

Christina Howell‘s writes about Sartre‘s place in contemporary philosophy:

Not only did Sartre’s critics of the sixties and seventies attempt, unwittingly perhaps, to fossilize him in the classical works he had himself by then outgrown, but they did not accord those works themselves a fair reading.  The decentered subject, the rejection of a metaphysics of presence, the critique of bourgeois humanism and individualism, the conception of the reader as producer of the text’s multiple meaning, the recognition of language and thought structures as masters rather than mastered in most acts of discourse and thinking, a materialist philosophy of history as detotalized and fragmented, these are not the inventions of Lacan, Foucault, Levi-Strauss and Derrida; nor are they to be found merely in Sartre’s latter works such as the Critique (1960), Words (1966) or the Idiot of the Family (1971-1972) where it could be argued that they should be attributed to his receptivity to the major trends of his age (though the Critique of Dialectical Reason would still predate most of the French Structuralists’ major works).  The notions are, rather, present from the outset: in the Transcendence of the Ego (1936), in Sketch for a Theory of the Emotions (1940), in Nausea (1941), in Being and Nothingness (1943), and even in his most polemical theoretical work, What is Literature? (1948).  This preoccupation with the deconstruction as well as the reconstruction of the human is also to be found in the posthumously published works…(Howells, 2)

I cover some of these early writings by Sartre in a podcast with xmabaitx.


Howells, Christina.  “Introdcution.”  In The Cambridge Companion to Sartre, edited by Christina Howells, 1-9.  New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

2 Responses to “Sartre and Contemporary Philosophy”

  1. 1 bwinwnbwi May 8, 2010 at 5:57 am

    Thanks for posting the above. I haven’t read much Sartre, but back in the day, when I had no money and lots of time, I would occasionally buy books based on thickness. I discovered Nietzsche and Sartre that way. Nietzsche was a treat right from the start, but Sartre (Being And Nothingness) was mostly an incomprehensible read. However, over time, I managed to make sense out of it (Sartre might not agree with me). After that, I did manage to “get a little more Sartre” from Nausea and Transcendence of the Ego; not having read most of the other above mentioned philosophers, but still being familiar with the highlighted terminology above, I would have to agree with you–Sartre was there first! However, extrapolating from Sartre, I developed a structural way of understanding “reality.” Sartre would probably not agree with me–even though his structure of being for-itself is at the heart of the way I understand reality.

    Free will is a difficult concept to get a handle on. In my own way, I have chased this concept through many philosophers, religions, and ended up with it becoming the sui generis case for all existence and divinity. Here is a brief summary of the religion/Sartre connection; first in terms of metaphor type statement, and second in terms of a dialogue.

    1)In order for God to Be and be free, God must “back into existence”, so to speak; that is, by virtue of not being God, God becomes free in the verb sense, and God becomes free to Be, in the noun sense. This state of affairs suggests the original significance of Sartre’s conception of a being that exists as being-what-is-not-while-not-being-what-is. But, of course, Sartre was not referring to God when he conceived this relationship (indeed, he said this relationship was the reason for the non-existence of God). With the for-self concept, Sartre identified the “mechanics of human consciousness.” However, for me, the “mechanics of human consciousness” describes 1) human consciousness on the one hand, and 2) God’s freedom to be self-conscious on the other. Now for the dialogue:

    “Help me. This is getting out of hand, and I’m tired. Where’s God in all this?” MV said.

    “Right in the middle of Sartre’s self,” I replied. “Sartre also saw time as an intrinsic component of consciousness, but he called it by another name–freedom.”

    “Oh good, that’s got to be the frosting on the cake,” MV responded. “No wonder God’s been invisible all this time. He’s been living and hiding in the head of an atheist.”

    “You got it,” I replied. “He’s been hiding in a being such that in its being its being is in question in so far as this being implies a being other than itself.”

    “That’s Sartre’s definition for the ‘for-itself,’ right?” responded MV.

    “You got it right again,” I replied. “The part of the definition which is of particular interest is the part which says ‘being implies a being other than itself,’ for it is here that once again, we encounter the black hole that masquerades as self—the black hole that demands everything, but gives nothing back. This hole in being implies, for Sartre, time and freedom.”

    “Don’t tell me—freedom is God,” said MV

    “Chalk up another one, you’re on a roll,” I replied. “It’s just that it’s a little more complicated than that. Freedom, for Sartre, is not merely a description of external conditions wherein humanity confronts alternative possibilities. It is the state of being to which being-for-itself is condemned. In freedom, the human being is both past and future, but only through negation. With respect to self-consciousness, freedom incessantly negates, as it continually forces us to confront our own nothingness, hence our ‘angst self.’ But this angst is further qualified by Sartre when he says, ‘To be man means to reach toward being God. Or if you prefer, man fundamentally is the desire to be God.” Of course, Sartre goes on to show that not only is that desire unachievable, but God too is also an impossibility. The religious search for God is very real, however. In fact, for Sartre, the religious urge is basic to being human. The kicker is that Sartre did not know that the same freedom he used to justify God’s impossibility is actually the self-conscious aspect of God in the here and now.”

  1. 1 Sartre and Contemporary Philosophy « The Mustard Seed Trackback on January 22, 2010 at 7:27 pm

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