Jean-Paul Sartre


Contemporary philosophy

Sartre was a 20th century French philosopher (1905-1980). Born in Paris, he spent a happy childhood (recounted in his autobiography The Words), before entering the lycée Henri IV, then Louis-le-Grand, and finally the Ecole Normale Supérieure. He met Simone de Beauvoir. He obtained the agrégation in philosophy and became a teacher at a lycée in Le Havre, then in Neuilly. His fame came with the publication of Nausea. After the war, his fame was considerable and existentialism became a fashionable philosophy.

Sartre's works summarised on this site

coming soon

Existentialism Is a Humanism

Sartre sets out the principles of existentialism in a clear and pedagogical manner. He shows how this doctrine differs from pessimism, quietism, etc.

coming soon

Being and Nothingness

What is being? What is nothingness? Sartre here delivers a phenomenological investigation that leads him to deduce human freedom.

coming soon

The Imaginary

Sartre here delivers a phenomenological analysis of the "unrealising function of consciousness", the imagination.


Here are the essential books if you wish to gain a better understanding of this author's thought:

Webber, Jonathan, The Existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre, London: Routledge, 2009
Churchill, Steven and Reynolds, Jack (eds.), Jean-Paul Sartre: Key Concepts, London/New York: Routledge, 2014
Catalano, Joseph S., A Commentary on Jean-Paul Sartre's Critique of Dialectical Reason, University of Chicago Press, 1987
Baert, Patrick (2015). The Existentialist Moment: The Rise of Sartre as a Public Intellectual. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Scriven, Michael (1999). Jean-Paul Sartre: Politics and Culture in Postwar France. London: MacMillan Press Ltd

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Biography: life of Sartre


Jean-Paul Sartre was born in Paris in 1905 to a bourgeois family.

He was the only child of a military father, who died fifteen months after his birth, and a mother from a family of Alsatian intellectuals, the Schweitzer family.

Raised by his mother and grandfather, he is pampered, which leads him to develop a certain narcissism. He devours the books in the family library, and prefers to read than play with the other children.

This happy period came to an end when his mother remarried: Sartre hated his stepfather. Above all, he moves to La Rochelle, and is confronted, at school, with the violence of children of that age.

At the Ecole Normale Supérieure

At the age of 16, Sartre, back in Paris, entered the Lycée Henri IV. He became friends with Paul Nizan, with whom he raised hell.

They were both admitted to the Ecole Normale Supérieure. Sartre continued to be a provocateur, and his sense of humour made him famous among the other students. He also met Raymond Aron and Maurice Merleau-Ponty at the ENS.

Nonetheless, this tireless worker read a lot and wrote poems, short stories and novels.

After failing the agrégation in philosophy, he repeated the year to prepare for his exam and met Simone de Beauvoir, who became his companion. Together, they won the first two places in the agrégation competition.

From teacher to philosopher

He was then appointed teacher at the lycée in Le Havre in 1931, which Sartre felt was a forced exile that would last six long years.

He was nevertheless a gifted teacher: he won over several generations of lycée students with his oratorical skills, and passed on to them his passion for philosophy.

During this period, he went to Berlin for a whole year, with the aim of studying the thoughts of Husserl and Heidegger. The phenomenology would exert a profound influence on him.

On his return he resumed his teaching post.

However, this anonymous life in the provinces wears on him, and rejections from publishing houses following the submission of several manuscripts begin to make him lose all hope.

In 1938, success finally arrived: Gallimard accepted his manuscript of Nausea. This work gave him a certain notoriety, and just missed out on the Prix Goncourt.

He was transferred by the Education Nationale to a new lycée, in Picardie, then to Neuilly.

He wrote a collection of short stories, The Wall.

During the War

When the Second World War broke out, Sartre enlisted: he left his anarchist and pacifist tendencies behind, and became a soldier meteorologist. He wrote a lot, and recounted this episode in his Notebooks from a Phony War.

He published The Imaginary, just before being taken prisoner by the enemy in June 1940 and transferred to a camp. He once again became the boute-en-train he had been at the ENS, and took a full part in camp life.

In March 1941 he was released, either thanks to a false medical certificate or the intervention of Drieux de la Rochelle.

On his return to occupied Paris, Sartre resumed his teaching career. At the same time, however, he founded a resistant movement, printing and distributing leaflets with Simone de Beauvoir and around fifty other members; they came close to being arrested several times. The group eventually disbanded, following the capture of two of their number.

Sartre had The Flies performed, a play that criticised, in filigree, the Nazi occupation.

However, Sartre's commitment is ambiguous, and has been the subject of fierce criticism.

In fact, Sartre agreed to replace khâgne teacher Ferdinand Alquié, who had been deported because he was Jewish. Sartre's career, like that of any collaborator, was therefore accelerated by the occupation.

Having the play The Flies performed in front of an audience of German officers was also criticised, despite its hidden meaning. Finally, he produced broadcasts for Radio Vichy.

In 1943, he published Being and Nothingness, and had his new play, No Exit, performed in 1944.

Sartre describes the liberation of Paris in the newspaper Combat, in which he is recruited by Albert Camus. He was sent by Le Figaro to the United States, for a series of articles, and was welcomed there as a hero of the Resistance. His fame then became international.

After the War

At the Liberation, Sartre founded the journal les Temps modernes, and ended his teaching career.

In 1945, he gave a lecture, which was attended by the Tout-Paris, and the content of which would be transcribed in the book Existentialism Is a Humanism.

It was the starting point of a new fashion: Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the district where Sartre lived, became the centre of existentialism. People came there to listen to jazz, in the cellars of smoke-filled cafés.

In 1946 he published his famous Anti-Semite and Jew.

He continued to engage in the political debates of his time.

He thus took up the cause of decolonisation, against General de Gaulle.

Sartre supported Marxism, while rejecting Stalinist communism as an enemy of freedoms. He then drew closer to the Communist Party, between 1952 and 1956.

Chairman of the France-USSR association, he declared The Soviet citizen possesses, in my opinion, complete freedom of criticism, something he would later be reproached for, when the reality of life in the Eastern bloc was discovered.

This commitment also distanced him from Camus, who was much more critical of the USSR.

Eventually, Sartre broke with the party, following the crushing of the Budapest uprising in 1956.

He gave a sequel to Being and Nothingness: the Critique of Dialectical Reason.

Old age

In the 1960s, existentialism went out of fashion, and was replaced by structuralism, based on the opposite principles (denying human freedom).

Pretending to ignore this new current, Sartre preferred to devote himself to analysing Flaubert, one of his favourite writers, which led to the publication of a new work, The Family Idiot.

He refuses the Nobel Prize for Literature, a chair at the Collège de France, and the Légion d'honneur, so as not to be taken over by any power. He published The Words, an autobiography.

A man of the left until the end of his life, he was involved in the Algerian war, the Cuban revolution, May 68, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

He founded the newspaper Libération, with Serge July and other contributors, but resigned after a falling out with the latter.

Now blind after a stroke, and worn down by alcohol and tobacco, Sartre was much diminished from 1971.

He died in 1980, aged nearly 75, of pulmonary oedema, in Paris.

His death triggered immense emotion and his coffin was attended by tens of thousands of people, friends, readers and political supporters.

Main works

Imagination: A Psychological Critique
The Transcendence of the Ego
Sketch for a Theory of the Emotions
The Imaginary
Being and Nothingness