Sartre: A Philosophic Study


Sartre: A Philosophic Study by Anthony Manser is a product of the mid ’60s; a time of transition. A time of upheaval, and at the same time, a time when the old Europe was still around in many ways. The problem with philosophy is that most of the problems that they encounter are pre modern cognitive sciences. They’re understanding of the operation of the human brain and body where surprisingly primitive. They knew what they knew primarily by introspection and observation of others.

I picked this book up at a used books store in order to get a neat introduction to Sartre’s (pronounced Sart-tra, with the “tra” very spoken very softly) philosophic edifice. A 1980’s copy of Being and Nothingness stares out at me from my bookshelf accusingly. I had not gotten more then the first few pages. My failure to read Being and Nothingness is up there with Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Heidegger’s Being and Time. Just couldn’t put down those books fast enough.

But I wanted to stick with Sartre. Unlike the larger Anglo-Saxon tradition of philosophy and numerous other traditions which seek to explain things like “how do we know this table is a table”, Sartre is one of the handful of philosophers who spent their entire lives trying to discover How to Live. What is meaningful action? What is Ethical behaviour? What is the best way to live?

Most philosophers tend to be analytic or sociological. Few tend to go introspective and personal; this is the appeal of Sartre as he seems to offer a way to live with one’s self in contemporary times.

Sartre’s philosophic lineage is drawn from Socrates’ “Know Thyself” (and it is doubtful that anything meaningful has been added since then) and Plato, through Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Kirkegaarde, Nietzsche, and Heidegger. The tradition of Kirkegaarde, Nietzsche and Heidegger is particularly interesting: it’s the most interesting. Considered rebels against the Enlightenment and the European tradition of reason, both Nietzsche and Heidegger (explicitly so) are associated with the Nazis. The common perception is that their obsession with the individual’s metaphysical essence supersedes values of rational understanding or social utility. In more mundane parlance, these guys are moody, elitist rebels and romantics. But, they do place high value on the human individual and the power of the individual in an unjust, paradoxical and surreal world.

Sartre is known for his plays, most famously No Exit, where the concluding line is “Hell is other people”. An introvert’s sense of the world if there ever was one. But Sartre has good reason to say it. But Sartre is also known for epic and ponderous tomes of philosophy, Being and Nothingness and Critique of Dialectical Reasoning. I would stick with his plays, which seem to do a perfectly good job of summing up the gist of his philosophy. Sartre also has a trilogy of novels, which, having read them a few years ago, I remember them being decent and interesting but I would have to say that they failed as novels and as philosophy. Sartre didn’t seem able to decide what direction he wanted to go there.

I’ll boil down Sartre for you. He’s all about accepting yourself as a finite, limited flawed human individual. A human being: no soul, no God, no justice or group identity to cling to. It’s just you and you need to accept yourself. Anything else – even something as mild as say, seeing yourself as an intellectual, or any sort of noun; any sort of verbally designated identity is false. Sartre calls this “bad faith” or the “lie in the soul”. His idea that “existence precedes essence” implies that there is a “nothingness” to each and everyone of us; that is, we have no identity as such. It’s what we choose to make of it that counts. Someone who does not life in bad faith, and manages to own his own actions and thoughts is the goal. As such, you recognise that all other people are equally important and cannot be treated as objects or as ends to themselves (employee, athlete, etc). Each person is totally unique.

It’s a very philosophical way of saying that we must all “know thyself” and act like adults and treat everyone else like human beings. See. It’s really not so hard. You’re human and fallible. At times though, Sartre borders on an extreme form of personal responsibility. Like: “Did something terrible just happen in a poor African country? Well, it’s your fault as much as anyone else’s:  if you had really wanted things to be better in that poor African country you would have done something about it.”

I think French is a tough philosophical language to translate to English. And I think this has a lot to due with why Sartre is not terribly well known. Which is too bad because I think Sartre is important. It think that what he says is valid and meaningful.

Pursue Sartre’s plays if you want to know more.


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