Unit 6: Jean-Paul Sartre
Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980) is the public face of existentialism. His works, both fictional and philosophical, resoundingly affirm the existentialist priority of concrete, situated, and historical human existence. He stresses the value of choice, responsibility, and authenticity in human self-fashioning. Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1964 – an honor he refused because he maintained that it conflicted with his professional, personal, and political commitments. This unit will introduce you to Sartre's contributions to existentialist philosophy while simultaneously highlighting Sartre's place in the movement's history. In particular, you will explore how Sartre expanded on existentialist themes dealt with by his predecessors – for example, the notions of authenticity, anxiety, and freedom.
Completing this unit should take you approximately 6 hours.
Upon successful completion of this unit, you will be able to:
- describe key benchmarks in the development of Jean-Paul Sartre's philosophical thinking;
- identify Sartre's contributions to existentialism;
- summarize Sartre's analysis of consciousness as a nothing;
- summarize Sartre's version of atheistic existentialism;
- discuss Sartre's idea of freedom; and
- analyze Sartre's notion of authenticity.
6.1: Sartre's Development
Listen to this discussion. As you listen to the discussion, note the manner in which Sartre uses the idea of consciousness. Consider the following questions: When are we aware of our consciousness? In other words, when do we become self-aware?
6.2: Sartre's Existentialism
6.2.1: "Being and Nothingness"
Read this lecture, and focus in particular on Dr. McClamrock's remarks regarding Sartre's Being and Nothingness. As you read, pay special attention to Sartre's notion of bad faith. Consider the following question: Taking Sartre's view on this concept, what are some of the ways that human beings might find themselves in bad faith? What does it mean to say that consciousness is a nothingness? Also consider the differences between what Sartre calls the "for-itself" and the "in-itself". Make a list of the differences between these two concepts.
6.2.2: "Existentialism Is a Humanism" (1945)
Read Sartre's 1946 lecture titled "Existentialism Is a Humanism". As you read, note the reasons Sartre argues that existentialism is a humanism. Also pay close attention to the criticisms of existentialism that Sartre addresses, making a list of each criticism and how Sartre counters them. Consider the validity of these criticisms and whether you agree with any of them. Sartre argues that existentialism does not lead to isolationism and quietism, but rather that existentialism conceives the human subject as always in the world, with others. Pay close attention to how Sartre lays out and justifies this argument.
6.2.3: Themes in Sartre's Existentialism
Read Dr. Flynn's article on Sartre. As you read, pay special attention to section 4, titled "Ethics". Note how authenticity is achieved, according to Sartre. Also note how Sartre's ethics are related to his politics.
Read Sartre's short story The Wall. As you read, focus your attention on the way in which the story illustrates the main existential themes of freedom, commitment, despair, and choice. What does freedom mean to Sartre's narrator by the end of the story? What does Sartre's narrator discover about his commitments and the way in which he prioritized them before his current predicament? Is the narrator blameworthy for the outcome of the choice he makes at the end of the story?
6.3: Sartre's Idea that "Existence Precedes Essence"
6.3.1: God Does Not Exist
Listen to this interview. As you listen, pay particular attention to Warnock's analysis of Sartre's claim that God does not exist and the role that Sartre assigns to this revelation for the sake of our everyday human affairs.
6.3.2: There Is No Human Nature
Listen to both parts of this lecture. As you listen, pay particular attention to Sartre's view of the idea that existence precedes essence.
6.4: Sartre on Our Greatest Burden
6.4.1: The Burden of Freedom
Read this article. While the emphasis on human freedom is one of the cornerstones of existentialist thought, Sartre goes a step further and argues that we are "radically free". This is because, as we saw in subunit 6.3 of this course, Sartre believes that God does not exist. This radical freedom, however, is a burden, according to Sartre. As you read Harle's article, consider the manner in which Sartre characterizes radical freedom as humanity's greatest burden.
6.4.2: Sartre's Critique of Mass Society: "Hell Is Other People"
Read Sartre's play. In it, Sartre produces his famous phrase "hell is other people". As you read, consider why Sartre would suggest that "hell is other people" and how this notion relates to the aspects of Sartre's philosophy that you have learned about so far in this course.
Unit 6 Assessment
- Receive a grade
Please take this assessment to check your understanding of the materials presented in this unit.
- There is no minimum required score to pass this assessment, and your score on this assessment will not factor into your overall course grade.
- This assessment is designed to prepare you for the Final Exam that will determine your course grade. Upon submission of your assessment you will be provided with the correct answers and/or other feedback meant to help in your understanding of the topics being assessed.
- You may attempt this assessment as many times as needed, whenever you would like.