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Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980)


Critique of Dialectical Reason

Summary Critique of Dialectical Reason


The Critique of Dialectical Reason, published in 1960, is Sartre’s greatest attempt at synthesizing his existentialist philosophy with sociological analysis. In the work, his previous focus on human freedom and responsibility is placed within a corresponding analysis of the specific structures of domination that humanity confronted in 1960. In the Critique, Sartre deconstructs the individual actions of capitalists and imperialists while dissecting the oppressive and suffocating institutions that uphold established political and economic structures.

Sartre states that he is a Marxist, in the sense that he believes in the aim of a classless society and the abolition of private property. However, he approaches the assumptions and dictums of Marxism with a critical eye. His implicit goal is not to show how existentialism is compatible with orthodox Marxism. Rather, in Critique of Dialectical Reason he offers a corrective to Marxism and demonstrates how his views on ontology and freedom can be synthesized with a new articulation of Marxist ideology.

Sartre affirms that his own dialectical philosophy shares much with its two most famous exponents—Hegel, its originator, and subsequently Marx. He shares a basic understanding with Hegel and Marx of the dialectic relationship between man the universe he inhabits. Simply put, Sartre echoes these thinkers in writing that man exists mutually with the world. Man affects the universe, and in turn, the universe affects man. Placed in a societal framework, the dialectic iterates that man both forms and is formed by the social, political, and economic forces that surround him. Sartre states that philosophy is born from this dialectic. The philosophy of “the moment” is simply the consciousness of the ascendant class, asserting its identity and seeking its freedom.

Regarding the Marxist philosophy of history, however, Sartre writes that he disagrees with the idea that the future is determined and that the project of man is prophesized by the history of man. He regards this as foolish, for as he emphasizes time and again in other works and reiterates here, man is condemned to freedom, and man is constantly becoming. Sartre affirms that the free individual certainly interacts dialectically with the world, with other individuals, and with the collective. Yet the constant and inherent complexity and transience of these relationships cannot be reduced to a simple dialectic, such as capital versus labor, that has one inevitable endpoint. This version of history is the traditional Marxist one, and Sartre has major misgivings about the determinism inherent in it.


Although Sartre was certainly a Marxist, the Critique of Dialectical Reason details where his thought diverges from mainstream Marxism. Sartre deeply questioned the more rationalist or positivist elements of Enlightenment thought, and, fittingly, he also has some misgivings about the Marxist view of history as essentially mechanistic and predictable. Sartre disagreed strongly with the idea that human consciousness is determined by material realities, such as a society’s mode of production. He argues that consciousness emanates from man, the being-for-itself, and is not imposed on him by social or material realities. Consciousness is beyond matter and thus exists independently of a dialectic that views man as an object.

Sartre, as he evolved both as a philosopher and a political activist, came to focus much of his energy on changing the institutions and systems in the world that he felt were repressive for both individuals and society as a whole. During the 1960s, the Cold War rolled on and the process of decolonization in the third world moved gingerly along. Sartre became an outspoken critic of imperialism in any form, most famously voicing his support for the Algerian resistance to French occupation. On this subject, Sartre wrote the forward to Franz Fanon’s seminal anticolonial work, The Wretched of the Earth. In the context of the Cold War, Sartre maintained his support for the Soviet Union and developing countries, such as Cuba, that had chosen a socialist path.