Jean-Paul Sartre was born in Paris on June 21, 1905, the only child of Anne-Marie and Jean-Baptiste Sartre. Both of his parents came from prominent families. Sartre’s paternal grandfather was a celebrated physician, and his maternal grandfather, Karl “Charles” Schweitzer, was a respected writer on topics of religion, philosophy, and languages. In 1906, Sartre’s father died of entercolitis, a disease he’d contracted on a voyage to China while in the navy. After the death, Sartre and his mother moved into the highly disciplined home of Sartre’s grandfather, Karl Schweitzer. Sartre maintained a complicated relationship with his grandfather throughout his childhood. Like his mother, the young Sartre resented Schweitzer’s domineering presence and fallacious religiosity. However, Sartre was at least mildly receptive to the tutoring of his grandfather, who had recognized early on Sartre’s lively, unique mind.
In 1924, Sartre enrolled at the Ecole Normale Supérieure (ENS), an elite French university. In 1928, he made the acquaintance of a classmate named Simone de Beauvoir, who would become his lifelong companion and go on to become a tremendously important thinker herself. Her most famous work, The Second Sex, is regarded as one of the seminal texts of feminist thought. Although Sartre and de Beauvoir never married and never maintained an exclusive romantic relationship, they remained close both intellectually and emotionally until Sartre’s death in 1980.
After finishing his studies at ENS, Sartre served briefly in the army, then accepted a teaching position at a high school in northwest France. In 1933, Sartre left for Berlin to study under the eminent German philosopher Edmund Husserl, a thinker who contributed greatly to the synthesis of Sartre’s own philosophy. While in Berlin, Sartre also became acquainted with the work and, briefly, the person of Martin Heidegger, another leader of twentieth-century philosophy who also greatly influenced Sartre. In 1938, Sartre published Nausea, a philosophical novel heavily imbued with the ideas and themes of Husserl’s philosophy.
At the start of World War II, Sartre was once again conscripted into the military. He was captured by the Nazis in June 1940 and held as a prisoner of war until March 1941, when he escaped and returned to Paris. There, he joined the French Resistance to Nazi occupation. During the months he spent in captivity, Sartre began work on what would become his magnum opus, the sprawling classic of existentialism entitled Being and Nothingness. Published in 1943, the work made Sartre famous and brought his existentialist philosophy to the forefront of the intellectual conversation that followed the war.
As an editor of the journal Les Temps Moderne, which was first published in 1945, Sartre had a constant and immediate outlet for his ideas, which evolved considerably over time as they adapted to the social and political context of the world in the decades that followed the war. While many of his peers, notably Albert Camus, supported America and its Western European allies in the Cold War, Sartre was a devoted Socialist and stood with the Soviet Union. Although Sartre condemned the more totalitarian elements of Sovietism, in particular its imperialist authoritarian side, he believed that the proletariat, or working class, was better off there than anywhere in the capitalist West.
In seeking to unite his philosophical and political beliefs, Sartre maintained a firm belief in the idea that both literature and philosophy are inherently political, in function if not in content. He believed that the author or the artist must always create with the hope of changing the social order. Sartre himself enthusiastically lent his name and his writing to many causes, including, most famously, the struggle to end French colonialism in Africa.
In the last decades of his life, Sartre was perhaps better known for his leftist political beliefs than for the existentialist philosophy that had elevated him to iconic status in France and throughout Europe. In the 1960s, student radicals in both Europe and America embraced Sartre as a hero and appropriated him as a symbol in their resistance to war, imperialism, and other reactionary cultural–political forces. However, Sartre was never much more than an icon of the counterculture. Until his death in 1980, he remained a tremendously prolific and outspoken writer and embodied the conviction that philosophy, if it is to be serious, must be lived.
Sartre’s basic philosophy, existentialism, is neither a narrowly definable school of thought nor limited to Sartre and his French contemporaries such as Camus. Although in a certain sense Sartre and Camus were the first to name and define existentialism, it is best understood as a long-running current in Europe’s philosophical history, a current that emerged in the late nineteenth century. Existentialist philosophers believe that philosophy should emphasize the individual human experience of the world, and they consider ideas of individual freedom; individual responsibility; and how it is possible, if it is possible at all, for individual human beings to act meaningfully in the world.
These ideas themselves belong to a larger philosophic trend that sought to expose the ostensible bankruptcy of traditional philosophy, in particular the philosophy of the Enlightenment. During the Enlightenment, philosophy had put its faith in the idea that reason and rationality hold the answer to all of humanity’s problems. To nineteenth-century thinkers, such as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, and twentieth-century existentialists, such as Sartre, a radically different approach was needed if philosophy was to rediscover its urgency. Instead of attempting to contain reality within an absolute theoretical framework, iconoclastic philosophers like Nietzsche and Kierkegaard felt that philosophy should emphasize the individual’s subjective experience rather than the individual as the bearer of abstract, universal rights. As adopted by Sartre, this emphasis on individual experience emanated from the belief that, ultimately, people cannot appeal to universal notions of morality or ethics to guide their behavior. Any attempt to generalize human nature, and hence any attempt to construct a system based on these universals, is doomed to fail.
Sartre was unique within this current of thought largely because of the way he wedded phenomenology to his rejection of traditional philosophy. Phenomenology can be described as the study of consciousness, or how the external world appears to our minds. Phenomenology poses the question of whether it is possible to find the objective reality behind how something appears to us—a question that weighed heavily on Sartre’s own meditations on the individual’s experience of and interaction with the world.
Sartre’s thought also comprises elements of Marxism. Sartre strongly self-identified as a Marxist and was a firm believer in certain key tenets of Marxist thought, including the inherently exploitative nature of the capitalist system, the fact of class conflict as the animating engine of history, and the dialectical nature of all being. That said, Sartre’s Marxism did not act so much as an influence on his existentialist philosophy as something that existed alongside it. In seeking to fuse the two, Sartre composed such works as the Critique of Dialectical Reason, which expanded on the themes of Being and Nothingness while incorporating Marxian sociological inquiry into the discussion.