Jean-Paul Sartre

Sunday, June 12, 2022
First Aired: 
Sunday, January 17, 2016

What Is It

Jean-Paul Sartre was one of the first global public intellectuals, famous for his popular existentialist philosophy, his works of fiction, and his rivalry with Albert Camus. His existentialism was also adopted by Simone de Beauvoir, who used it as a foundation for modern theoretical feminism. So what exactly is existentialism? How is man condemned to be free, as Sartre claimed? And what’s so hellish about other people? John and Ken speak in good faith with Thomas Flynn from Emory University, author of Sartre: A Philosophical Biography.

Listening Notes

Ken is skeptical that Sartre’s philosophy is coherent and holds together. The idea of radical freedom for example is hard to sell. There is facticity and the way things are, but that doesn’t decide what you do for you. Whereas facticity is in-itself, a person is a for-itself. Humans have no essential pre-given nature that fixes what we do. Our natures insofar as we have one, is determined only by ourselves. Existence precedes essence.

Roving Philosophical Reporter (Seek to 6:55): His activism, playwriting, and philosophy took place after he was a prisoner of war in WWII. He had a big love life, and a romantic rivalry with Albert Camus. He had a fallout with Camus over Camus’ The Rebel. His famous one-liner that “Hell is other people.”

John and Ken invite Thomas Flynn from Emory University, author of Sartre: A Philosophical Biography. Flynn got into Sartre because of his easiness to read in French. Flynn makes a distinction to help John and Ken: freedom is situational. “You can always make something out of what you’ve been made into.” Freedom is creative for Sartre, it’s expanding the notion of situations, thinking concretely and aware of the choices we’ve made in the past.

How does Sartre respond to the dilemma of no objective values being presented with someone blatantly bad like Hitler? Flynn says that Sartre has an ethics of authenticity. But Ken asks how does an ethic of authenticity respond to other peoples’ morally problematic actions? Sartre said that you cannot be an authentic Nazi because it is against freedom. He is concerned with maximization of freedom not just of oneself but also of others. When you choose, you not only choose for yourself, but also for others.

John asks how Marxist historical materialism can be squared with Sartre’s radical freedom. Flynn explains, you couldnt think of Marxism and consistently be a materialist and you have to be an idealist. It moves him away from the individualism he’s always been leveled with. How does Sartre’s philosophy relate to Foucault and also Stoicism?

How does race and ethnicity and identity politics relate to radical freedom? Are we free to declare ourselves in a given race that goes against how the social facticity might declare us? What is bad faith? It is self-deception in our relation to the in-itself and the for-itself, in pretending that we’re not in a situation that demands our radical freedom.

60 Second Philosopher (Seek to 45:50): Ian Shoales looks at how the 20th century’s disasters ruined ideas of progress and the intelligentsia tackled despair as a way of life. 


Comments (6)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, October 1, 2018 -- 12:31 PM

I do like Mr. Flynn's quip:

I do like Mr. Flynn's quip: "You can always make something..." and so on. My take on this is: We KNOW what we are TAUGHT. We ARE what we have LEARNED. I have never spent time trying to appreciate Jean-Paul, and have read little of his work. Le Nausee left me, well, nauseous. In addition, I tend to subscribe to Hume's stance: there is no such thing in the real world as chance. There are probabilities---in some cases, the probability of one course and outcome is more likely than that of another, but rolling dice are still rolling dice (unless they are loaded). Now, one (or many more) may take issue with my remark about teaching and learning: obviously, those of us who went to school, but failed to pay attention, did not profit mightily from the teachers' efforts ---at least not in the intended sense. However, those of us who later took the time and effort(s) to become autodidacts, afforded ourselves the intellectual advantages of free thinking and freer spirits. There are many more of us walking around then one might think. We are not in the same realm as well-regarded 'public intellectuals'. We do not hold the same sort of acclaim. But, in the best of possible worlds--sometimes even the worst--we tend to leave tracks...

tartarthistle's picture


Monday, May 30, 2022 -- 9:12 PM

I think everyone is always

I think everyone is always making something; a mess of things.

I think life is messy, philosophers are imperfect, and hell is other people...

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Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Saturday, June 11, 2022 -- 3:56 AM

Sartre is hard for me to

Sartre is hard for me to understand and harder still to appreciate, and I have similar issues with Simone de Beauvoir and Michel Foucault. Trying to get there exposes my bias and helps delineate my personal view.

In this case, Sartre does not conceive of the social collective and cultural imprint that is playing out in our modern politics. I’m sure I could dig further and find his thoughts on collective minds lurking.

Reading Arendt recently for the Authoritarianism show, the contrast and similarities in her writing and Sartre’s thought pique my interest. These repeat shows make every dive fruitful and sometimes retrospective in one’s personal views if you put the time into doing the reading and reacting genuinely.

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Daniel's picture


Tuesday, June 14, 2022 -- 1:23 PM

I'd be interested in what

I'd be interested in what those similarities are, spoken of in the third paragraph. For while both Sartre and Arendt were students of Heidegger, Sartre was a communist while Arendt tended towards an aristocratic social democracy. Do both share a metaphysical concept of freedom but differ in how it applies to social institutions?

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Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Wednesday, June 15, 2022 -- 8:24 AM

My opinion, as usual, doesn't

My opinion, as usual, doesn't rise far above what I read. There is plenty to read, however.

Sexual mores are a barrier for me with academic works. Sarte and Arendt didn't have a problem with that, and that is my issue.

Fortunately we live in a different time and politic despite the similarities. I will live, and read on but I wouldn't trade my freedoms for existential promises ever, not even from Arendt. We nèed allow a very long incubation prior to hardening our personal truths,
and obscuring those of others. Recent readings make this last idea preeminent.

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Daniel's picture


Wednesday, June 15, 2022 -- 8:22 PM

I agree. On the other hand,

I agree. On the other hand, preeminence of realization with regards to effects of choices, as you indicate in the second sentence of the last paragraph above with respect the choice of a trade between a freedom had and a freedom promised, could be what is shared with regards to a metaphysics of freedom insofar as one is responsible for one's own freedom, (or result-authorship, effect-deliberateness,, and not someone else's. This notion of freedom is what to my mind is shared by both thinkers, insofar as it obtains primary emphasis of effect-responsibility, or responsibility of result-authorship. Why? --Because no human being can really handle it. For both Sartre and Arendt the options for things being otherwise than they are so far override their impediments that one can't help but spontaneously make up stuff for why they're not possible. Sartre, I think, calls it "bad faith", but by my reading it's any faith, since in my view no one can really take full responsibility for their freedom.

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