‘Sartre: A Philosophical Biography’ reviewed by Sean Ledwith

Sartre: A Philosophical Biography

Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2014. 448pp., £27 hb
ISBN 9780521826402

Reviewed by Sean Ledwith

About the reviewer

Sean Ledwith is Lecturer in Politics and Sociology at York College. He is also a regular …


Sartre’s reputation today seems as marginal as it was pre-eminent in his lifetime. In the decades following the Second World War he dominated the French intellectual scene and was ranked as one of the world’s most influential and recognisable philosophical voices. By the time of his death in 1980, however, his brand of Marxist-Existentialism had been overshadowed by less politically committed perspectives such as structuralism and deconstruction. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe were perceived by some to signify the deserved entombment of his style of thinking. Sartre’s habits such as selling left-wing newspapers on the street or addressing mass rallies of strikers were likewise regarded, in some quarters, as unbecoming activities for a serious philosopher. Any attempt to revive his relevance for a new century also faces a barrier due to the widespread view that the two broad phases of his development – before and after World War Two – are so distinctive as to be virtually irreconcilable. Their apparently contrasting characteristics might be regarded by new students as indicating some form of ultimate intellectual failure on Sartre’s part and therefore not worthy of significant attention.

Philosophy students may also be deterred by Sartre’s fecundity in an unusually wide range of literary forms, most notably his still highly regarded dramatic and novelistic output. Thomas Flynn’s comprehensive new study sets out to refute such misconceptions and constructs a compelling case for revisiting the thought of its subject in depth. Flynn develops a coherent and inclusive framework that includes analyses of all of Sartre’s major philosophical works alongside his plays, novels, essays and political tracts. The author skilfully integrates a chronological and conceptual approach that enables the reader to make sense of Sartre’s multifaceted output which can often appear overwhelming in its diversity. As a stimulating overview of the work of the philosopher, this volume is difficult to better. Flynn powerfully asserts the case for Sartre’s ongoing relevance in a world that is increasingly plagued by economic inequality and political disillusionment. The thinker was ‘someone who valued social justice and strenuously opposed injustice wherever it surfaced’ and his literary works explore ‘individuals trying to achieve something, an authentic life in an inauthentic society’ (411).

Flynn’s central thesis is that Sartre was ‘chiefly a philosopher of the imaginary’ (x) and that the persistence of this notion provides a unifying theme across the periods and formats of his voluminous output. The author recounts how bereavement at an early age led the young, home-schooled Sartre to be left to spend huge amounts of time alone in a relative’s well stocked library: ‘Above all, this was a world of books: the grandfather’s library of over a thousand volumes, the story books that fed Sartre’s imagination’( 9). Apart from launching the imaginative range of his speculations, Flynn also contends these formative years provided Sartre with his life-long hatred of the status quo thanks to an immediate rejection of the bourgeois role model provided by his stepfather. Early exposure to the pleasures of cinema, the author argues, triggered Sartre’s speculations on the tension between determinism and freedom that would weave a thread through his life’s work. The future philosopher would ponder the nature of the contrast between the pre-scripted experiences of the characters on the screen with the apparent multiplicity of choices facing subjects conducting their lives outside the darkness of the auditorium. As Flynn describes: ‘’It was the contrast with the necessity of the unfolding of events in the film that struck him with the contingency of events on the street, including the superfluity of his own existence – shades of Roquentin in Nausea’’ (15). The author argues this early cinematic immersion engendered two other iconic Sartrean themes. Firstly, an unfolding aspiration to egalitarian ideals, as illustrated by the contrast between the equality – albeit fleeting – experienced by a cinema audience and the hierarchical arrangement of most theatres: ‘It is the very plebeian nature of the movie house – people talk, laugh and eat there – that offends the refined classes and, in no small part, attracts Sartre’s loyalty’ (49). Sartre’s famous ideal of the ‘group in fusion’, the author claims, was dimly rooted in this youthful pastime. Sitting together in the darkness for an hour or so, strangers can glimpse a sense of collectivity that unifies them, only for it to dissipate after the end credits. Inside the movie house ‘mutually separated and alienated individuals will experience a kind of social bond, if not community. But the movie audience, unlike the fusing group, is a purely psychological phenomenon’ (11-2).

Flynn recounts how these dislocated childhood experiences would lead the mature Sartre to the seminal philosophical and literary studies of the 1930s that made his name as one of the stand-out minds of the inter-war period. The author notes a familiar criticism of Sartre’s thinking in this period; namely that he was guilty of misreading Heidegger during his studies in Berlin in the middle of the decade. The latter had devised his seminal notion of Dasein as primarily an ontological expression, applicable to some universal sense of Being and not to be restricted to the human condition. Sartre was criticised by Heidegger himself for transmuting the term into an anthropological one, devised to shed light on the peculiarities of our experience of the world. Flynn defends his subject against the criticism, arguing that the accuracy of the German thinker’s comments are less important than the insights offered by Sartre’s revised formulation (97). Heidegger’s overcoming of the traditional bifurcation between subject and object in Western thought is re-cast by Sartre into a claim that, in the author’s words, ‘human reality is being-in-situation; that situation is an ambiguous relation of facticity (the real world) and transcendence (the surpassing of that real toward the irreal or imaginary)’ (133). Flynn makes the case that Sartre’s version of existentialism was always more grounded in the everyday actuality of human experience, and avoided the metaphysical extravagance that blighted its Heideggerian counterpart. Once again, the importance of the imaginary is what delineates the Sartrean approach. Accepting that Heidegger did not intend Dasein to refer solely to the individual, Flynn maintains that Sartre’s being-in-situation crucially relies on the imagination to pursue ‘their possibilities, goals, values, as ifs’ (133). The vivid explorations of everyday situations in Being and Nothingness such as the conformist waiter, the uncertain woman on a first date or the voyeur who finds himself spied upon, Flynn suggests, are the theoretical fruit of Sartre’s appropriation of Heidegger.

That work, published in 1943, is usually represented as the apotheosis of the existentialist and apparently apolitical Sartre and the turning-point in an intellectual journey that would lead him to declare his allegiance to the left shortly after the Second World War. Concepts such as authenticity, bad faith and anguish are conventionally interpreted as relevant only to micro-situations and inter-personal interactions. Georg Lukács notoriously accused Sartre of petit-bourgeois navel-gazing during this era of his work (325). Flynn persuasively reclaims this transitional period and detects within it embryonic social and political concerns that will fully flourish in the following decades. In each of the hypothetical scenarios referred to above, one human being’s actions are constrained by a subjective imagining of how he or she is expected to behave by others. The analysis provided by Sartre is seemingly an individualistic one that condemns us to a state of atomised alienation, but Flynn argues these studies mark the point at which the philosopher began to consider a new path for the human condition that would ultimately lead him to Marxism. The waiter, for instance, may be an obsequious observer of social norms but the power of imagination means an alternative mode of life is implicitly feasible. In Flynn’s words: ‘Like the perfect waiter, we can always try to act otherwise. By now we recognise that his freedom can be described alternatively as our nihilation or our transcendence of the givens of our lives – our moving beyond the factical toward the possible, beyond the essence to the future’ (215-6). In Sartre’s version, the crucial intersubjectivity of experience may lead in these cases to shame, but it has ‘established me in a new type of being (being-for-Others) which can support other qualifications’ (quoted 207). The author posits that Sartre’s existentialism at this point might have led down a moral dead end but that external events would intervene to reorientate him onto a more emancipatory pathway: ‘‘We are on the threshold of a Hobbesian world from which we will not escape until Sartre introduces an ontology of positive reciprocity within group praxis in the Critique‘’ (211).

It was clearly his experiences in a German POW camp following the French military humiliation of 1940 that provided a radical politicising of the problem of other minds and set Sartre towards his rendezvous with Marx. Regrettably, there is no published version of the Christmas Nativity play, ‘Bariona’, he wrote and performed for his fellow inmates but we safely say it was unorthodox! Typically the eponymous protagonist, created by Sartre, is ‘chief of a poor village near Bethlehem in revolt against its Roman occupiers’ (173). The necessity of mutual dependency and trust in both the camp, and following his release, in occupied Paris enabled Sartre to break free of the latent bleakness and sterility in his pre-war existentialism. The thinker’s confrontation with the rawest form of capitalist state power – Nazi occupation – shifted the orientation of his philosophy away from the insular concerns of his pre-war studies and towards an explicit engagement with the challenges of collectivist, left-wing politics.

 The French Communist Party enjoyed a surge of support in the postwar years thanks to the courageous role of thousands of its members in the Resistance and the reflected glory it attracted as part of the association with its sponsor, the USSR, the major European power responsible for the defeat of Hitler. Flynn describes how Sartre in this era was pulled towards the organised left but resisted the Stalinist siren-song of the PCF. The author argues his subject was saved from the fate of becoming a party mouthpiece thanks to the persistent detestation of conformity and determinism that had gestated in his youth. Sartre was unconvinced by ‘the ambiguity of a party that proclaims revolution while defending its own material interests and those of the Soviet Union. In effect, it has become conservative and even a reactionary entity’ (297). Flynn alludes to one of the most interesting phases of Sartre’s political trajectory – his fleeting association with the Revolutionary People’s Assembly (RDR) in the late 1940s. This small but influential group of intellectuals were inching their way towards a revived form of socialist politics that sought to evade the twin perils of reformism and Stalinism. The RDR ultimately lacked the resources to combat the strength of the established French left but the philosophy behind it, driven by Sartre, would be vindicated when a new left emerged in 1968: ‘Its aim was to reconcile Communists and socialists into a common front against capitalism at home and colonialism and superpower politics abroad. It was in search of a third option between either sides of the cold war politics, though clearly from a left leaning perspective’ (288).

By the time of the 1968 French general strike and student uprising, Sartre’s disillusionment with the PCF was complete. Again, Flynn underlines the importance of the imaginary as a factor in the thinker’s reflections on events. Sartre denounced the party’s failure to grasp the historic opportunity the crisis presented to actively confront the capitalist state as primarily a craven refusal to activate political imagination. He argued the PCF had become so wedded to the organs of the French state, it was incapable of conceiving of an alternative system beyond capitalism (395). Sartre’s antidote to the conservatism of the PCF was articulated in the major work of the second phase of his philosophical career, Critique of Dialectical Reason published in 1960. The book contains his famous description of how a seemingly downtrodden and hopeless group – labelled as the ‘practico-inert’ – can be dramatically transfigured into a dynamic and irresistible force for change, known as the ‘group-in-fusion’. Sartre illustrated the process with reference to how the fall of the Bastille in 1789 was accomplished by a Parisian crowd that had initially fled in terror from royalist troops, only to be rallied for a revolutionary assault by one person deciding to shout ‘Stop!’ (343). Flynn provides his own theorisation of this process, calling it ‘’the interiorisation of multiplicity. It denotes the crucial praxis where each takes the rest as the ‘same’ and adopts what was the ‘elsewhere’ of serial flight as the ‘here’ of common concern. Each emerges as the common individual, the practical negation of serial individuality’’ (344).

Readers may find this analysis somewhat opaque, but what Sartre and Flynn are seeking to elucidate are transformational events that hit the headlines on a regular basis. The tumult in Greece that led the Syriza party to power can be traced back to an outburst of anger following the shooting of a teenager by the Athens police in 2008. The Arab Spring of 2011 was sparked by one grocery seller in a Tunisian backwater deciding he could not take any more and immolating himself, with millions arising in the region in response. The Ferguson uprising in the US two years ago was based on an escalation of fury following the gunning down by police of a teenage African-American male. Sartre’s emphasis on the imaginary can help us understand how these spectacular challenges to state power can explode when the practico-inert is metamorphosed into the fused group. Sadly, Sartre was unable to resolve the theoretical question of how these upsurges can be channelled into truly revolutionary breaches of state power. However, Flynn’s study effectively reclaims the Sartrean legacy for this century and reminds us of the importance of the imagination in the tool-kit of a revolutionary. In his words, ‘’the philosopher of the imaginary is asking us to act ‘as if’ in the hope that the future is worth the sacrifice’’ (325). 

5 March 2016


  1. “Sadly, Sartre was unable to resolve the theoretical question of how these upsurges can be channelled into truly revolutionary breaches of state power.” The revolution needs embodiment in an actual social class. Historically Marxism has identified this class (or class stratum) as those workers who produce surplus value which funds the operations of bourgeois society. The problem is how to connect these spontaneous upsurges with this revolutionary class. This class needs its own party which is mature enough to relate to and eventually direct the upsurge into a revolutionary movement. The question is how can Sartre’s philosophy supplement classical Marxism in raising working class consciousness; how to get Sartre out of the lecture hall and into the street?

  2. Thomas raises the most important question when thinking politically about Sartre today.As I argue in the review his ideas about group dynamics and how upsurges can seemingly explode out of nowhere remain highly relevant. I think a crucial failure on his part was to sometimes exaggerate the spontaneity of these events. The Egyptian Revolution of 2011,for example,might have appeared like a bolt from the blue but actually came out of years of rebuilding by the left at a grassroots level. The failure of that event to breach state power comprehensively also indicates Sartre’s other crucial failure-to comprehend the idea of a revolutionary party remains the essential vehicle to sustain such upsurges. Sartre was no doubt affected by the terrible role model provided by the PCF,but there were many others on the post 68 French left who he could have linked up with fruitfully.

  3. An Individual is not only born into a class, but also into a family, a society, a religion, a culture, a gender, a caste or a race. He or she has concerns other than economic and political. On one side,
    individuals do face problems of material deprivation – absolute or relative – but on the other they are also haunted by problems of sickness, old age and death and myriad other problems emanating from social/interpersonal relations. They do ask questions about social justice or injustice, but they also ask questions about the meaning of human existence and the universe.

    How is he or she to make sense, decide, choose and act in this world – faced as one is with on’s own situation, quotidian problems, varied philosophies, conflicting ideologies?

    Sartre felt that Marxian theory, occupied as it was with social structures and classes, did not pay equal attention to the individual and her concerns. He plunged into the task of building bridges between the two levels – individual and structural. Irrespective of the degree of Sartre’s success, It was a genuine project that greatly expanded our horizons in many ways.

    To test and judge this project against the standard of Marxism-Leninism — the well-known Class-Party-Revolution approach — will be unfair and unjust.

  4. It is simply untrue that “there is no published version of the Christmas Nativity play, ‘Bariona’”. The French text was published as long ago as 1970 by Contat & Rybalka in their Les Écrits de Sartre, and there is a translation available on-line – google Sartre Bariona.

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