Home    Originals    Abstracts    Essays    Biography    Bibliography    Links

Reapproaching Sartre – New Developments in the Reception of Sartre's Thinking

Paper presented at the UKSS conference 2022 in Oxford

Let me start on a negative note: Sartre studies and the Sartre societies around the world are not in the best of shape. The dwindling number of publications on Sartre proves it. If the North American Sartre Society is having a problem finding a university to hold its annual conference, it speaks volumes. It is obvious that the narratives that could motivate scholars to pay special attention to Sartre's life and œuvre are no longer attractive enough.

I) Reception theory and narrative

The Oxford Dictionary and Merriam Webster describe a narrative as a way of representing and explaining an event or story that reflects a particular set of values. In the language of Sartre's existential psychoanalysis, this means: a narrative is a way of representing and explaining an event or a story that reflects a certain project and fundamental choice. From a reception theory perspective, it is crucial that this is not the author's design but the reader's – or in the language of communication theory: it is not the act of the sender but the act of the receiver that is decisive. The reader's consciousness selects, highlights certain aspects, negates others, understands certain and misunderstands others. This basic idea was set out by Hans Robert Jauss in a lecture that founded reception theory in 1967. The fact that Shakespeare is now considered the greatest playwright in history is due neither to his work nor to him as a person. Rather, it is the public that has made Shakespeare the greatest playwright. Sartre expressed a similar thought twenty years earlier when he wrote in What is Literature? that every work has two authors, the writer and his readers.

II) The existentialist period

If we want to know why Camus, Merleau-Ponty, Husserl and Heidegger are preferred to Sartre today, we have to look at the dominant narratives. With regard to Sartre, we can distinguish at least three periods: a first one between 1944 and 1970, the existentialist period; a second one between 1970 and 1990, the period of Marxist existentialism; and a third one after 1990, the postmodernist period. The first period began with the end of the Second World War, when Sartre became the greatest intellectual in Europe within a few years. This existentialist tsunami occurred not only in France, the U.S., Great Britain, Germany and Italy, but also in the Islamic countries of the Middle East, in Latin America, even in Japan and Vietnam. A specialist in the reception of Sartre's work and thought in the Germany of the immediate post-war years wrote that there were only three alternatives at that time: Karl Marx, Jesus Christ and Jean-Paul Sartre. For a quarter of a century, Sartre was the main point of reference for progressive intellectuals and writers outside the Marxist movement.

The reception of Sartre's thought and work has been influenced by various factors. For more details, see my introduction to the book Sartre and the International Impact of Existentialism. There you will find many references to the channels and repeaters, but also to the noise that influenced the spread of Sartre's message, as well as to the successful, distorted, but also failed reception of Sartre's messages. The fact that distortions occurred abroad is, of course, partly related to the availability of translations. Reception was based primarily on Sartre’s literary work, especially his theatre. As far as his philosophical work is concerned, the two texts Existentialism Is a Humanism and What Is Literature? contributed disproportionately, while Being and Nothingness was translated into English only in 1956 and the writings from the 1930s and his entire cinematographic oeuvre remained largely unrecognised.

However, the distortions cannot only be explained by missing translations, but are particularly an expression of the fundamental choices of the recipients and their situation, especially the political circumstances. Sartre's partial commitment to the communists during the brief periods of the Thaw was often met with strong disapproval, as was his participation in the political fights against the was in Algeria and Vietnam. Since the mid-1950s, Sartre as a philosopher and writer – compared to Sartre as a political intellectual – was losing much of his appeal. Search for a Method was translated into English with a delay of six years, Critique with one as much as sixteen years, while Sartre on Cuba and the preface to Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth were published quickly. In both Latin America and the Arab world, Sartre lost ground almost entirely to Marxism in the 1960s. Nevertheless, Sartre remained an important reference for intellectuals and for the rebellious youth of 1968 with his actions against the War in Vietnam.

III) The period of Marxist existentialism

This changed fundamentally in the years around 1970. By the mid-1970s, existentialism had lost its intellectual position to neo-Marxism and structuralism. In addition, the rise of postmodern philosophy began in France with Jean Baudrillard, Jean-François Lyotard and Jacques Derrida. Sartre was perceived as a representative of an outdated philosophy and as a "fellow traveller of communism", not least under the influence of the "new philosophers" André Glucksmann and Bernard-Henri Lévy with their anti-communist stance.

In this situation, the Sartre scholars in the French-speaking world largely retreated to basic research. This resulted in the publication of texts such as the Notebooks for an Ethics, his Letters to Simone de Beauvoir and his War Diaries, but also Truth and Existence and the Écrits de jeunesse. Typical of French-language researchers was the almost total neglect of interviews Sartre conducted in languages other than French in the second half of the 1970s, such as his philosophical testament in Schilpp's series The Living Philosophers and his interviews concerning an anarchist political philosophy.

The only attempt to create a new narrative during this period took place in the Anglo-Saxon world, where young intellectuals tried to combine Marxism and existentialism. Mark Poster, John Lawler and Thomas Flynn deserve special mention in this context. It was an interpretation of Sartre's thought based primarily on Search for a Method, Sartre's preface to Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth, partly on the Critique, but above all on Sartre's political actions in the years between 1954 and 1973. However, the collapse of the Soviet communist system in 1989/1991 and the associated decline of communist ideology heralded the failure of this narrative. Today it is only held by very few Sartre scholars such as Ron Aronson. The conflation of existentialism and Marxism has ultimately only damaged the position of Sartre's thought and led to Sartre scholarship falling behind that on Beauvoir, Camus and even Merleau-Ponty.

IV) The postmodern period in Anglo-Saxon research

Unfortunately, the gap between French-language and Anglo-Saxon Sartre scholarship, evident since the 1970s, has deepened over the last thirty years. Important works have been published by English-speaking authors such as David Detmer, Thomas Anderson, Storm Heter and Jonathan Webber. However, the focus of these works was very much on ethical issues, with ideas stretching as far as objective value ethics and virtue ethics. Thus, works such as Notebooks for an Ethics and Existentialism Is a Humanism took centre stage, books that Sartre opposed to the point of recantation.

And as for attempts to link existentialist philosophy closely to themes of anti-racism, such as those made by Robert Bernasconi, Jonathan Judaken, Lewis Gordon and Storm Heter, these efforts are not beyond question. In particular, there is a danger of an essentialist understanding of race that is far from an existentialist one, in analogy to Beauvoir's "One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman".

It is not surprising that this postmodern narrative, which is predominant in the Anglo-Saxon world today, lacks appeal among young philosophers. What was innovative in the 1980s and 1990s, it is at best a repetition of the past today, at worst a political trivialization of a sophisticated philosophy. There have already been attempts in the past to lay the foundations for a new narrative. I would like to mention here: Christina Howell's introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Sartre, Nik Farrell Fox's book The New Sartre: Explorations in Postmodernism, Elizabeth C. Beth Butterfield's Sartre and Posthumanist Humanism and David Mitchell's Sartre, Nietzsche and Non-Humanist Existentialism. However, their impact on the official narratives was small.

Given the weakness of current Sartre scholarship, it is clear to me that we need a new narrative. But where are we to get the new ideas for it? Here I would like to refer to the numerous results of Sartre studies especially in French-speaking countries.

V) French-language research of the last 30 years  – New texts by Sartre

Unfortunately, the number of new translations of French texts, but also the knowledge of the French language, has decreased drastically over time. By the way, we are struggling with the same problem in the German-speaking countries. Next year, a translation of Grégory Cormann's essay Plea for a Collective Genetics will appear in Sartre Studies International. This paper by Cormann gives at least a partial overview of the new insights that have been gained about Sartre by researchers in France and Belgium. If you don't want to wait that long, you can read my "extended review" of François Noudelmann's Un tout autre Sartre in the first issue of Sartre Studies International this year, which takes up many points from the French-language literature.

French-language research has remained true to its tradition and continued to publish unknown texts by Sartre. From a philosophical perspective, his notes on ethics from the 1960s are particularly interesting. Morale et histoire are the notes on his cancelled lectures at Cornell University and Les racines de l'éthique are the Rome lectures of 1964. In the past, these ethical writings from the 1960s were usually referred to as a second normative ethics, an ethics of equality. In fact, however, the texts from the 1960s do not belong to normative ethics but rather to metaethics in the succession of the Critique.

With regard to Sartre as a writer, the publication of several of his film scripts is worth mentioning. These include Résistance, Typhus and Joseph Le Bon. In addition, The Witches of Salem is again available as a film. This is not only Sartre's best film, but also interesting from a political point of view, especially in relation to issues such as feminism and racism. Together with the screenplays for The Chips Are Down, In the Mesh, Freud and the largely unknown Les faux nez, Sartre's only comedy, the texts of all the presumably still existing scenarios are thus available to the public as screenplays and/or films. Sartre's important work as a screenwriter has unfortunately not received the attention it deserves, although this part of his literary œuvre is interesting from several points of view, not least because all the scenarios, with the exception of Freud, are love stories.

Also of great importance are several interviews that Sartre gave in the 1970s. Until 1970, Sartre had no clear political philosophy. In cases of emergency, he resorted to crutches from the Marxist arsenal. From 1973 onwards however, he increasingly spoke out in favour of political anarchism. At first still covertly, speaking of anti-hierarchical and then libertarian ideas. Then, in 1978, in an interview with Juan Goytisolo, he candidly said: "I've always considered myself an anarchist."

VI) The French-language research of the last thirty years – Primary sources on Sartre's biography

The newly published texts open up new perspectives on Sartre's biography. This is especially true of the works published in Les mots et autres écrits autobiographiques in 2010. Texts included in it, such as the Cahier Lutèce and Jean sans terre, support the attitude of Sartre's mother and others that The Words only give a very distorted picture of Sartre's childhood and youth. In these works, the great antagonism between Poulou and his grandfather/Godfather, who as Sartre said lived in the 19th century, hardly pops up. It is clear to me that we need to look much more cautiously at Sartre's time before 1944, when he first came into the public spotlight. Both Sartre's The Words and Beauvoir's The Prime of Life need to be read critically.

Noudelmann's book Un tout autre Sartre, published in 2020, and Gautier Dassonneville's index of Sartre's borrowings from the ENS library between 1924 and 1928, issued in 2018, come closest in importance to Sartre's newly published texts. Noudelmann's book cannot be overstated in its importance. Of course, much of what he wrote was already known to insiders. But it is a fact that the crucial points Noudelmann describes in his book are in clear contradiction to the official narratives.

When Noudelmann writes about the queer Sartre, it is more about amusing details. That Sartre had a great openness to everything that was considered a perversity at the time is well known. More significant is Noudelmann's reference to the romantic Sartre and Sartre as a tourist. In his private life, Sartre loved romantic music above all; he preferred Chopin and Débussy to Webern and Schoenberg or American music, be it Some of these days or Bebop. Sartre, the romantic, was also occasionally preoccupied with poetry and even intended to write a romance novel as late as in the early 1960s. Another important fact that Noudelmann reminds us of is Sartre's insatiable hunger for travel. As he pointed out in the 1974 conversations with Beauvoir, his travels were always primarily touristic, not political. This is true even on the rare occasions when Sartre published political texts in connection with his travels, as in the case of his trips to the Soviet Union in 1954, to Cuba in 1960 or to Egypt and Israel in 1967. The Sartre who shot films with a Super 8 camera during his travels in the 1960s is more representative than the one who met with Fidel Castro and Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Probably the most important finding of Noudelmann's book concerns Sartre's relationship to politics. In letters to his girlfriends, Sartre writes that politics pisses him off. And he writes this at times when he presents himself to the outside world as the prominent political intellectual, for example in connection with the visit to the Soviet Union in 1954 or in relation with Algeria. When writing his preface to Frantz Fanon's book The Wretched of the Earth, a "great" anti-colonialist manifesto, he declared that this violence pissed him off. He also admitted to his girlfriend that his political knowledge was insufficient. In fact, we know from his secretary Jean Cau that Sartre hardly read daily newspapers. It is therefore not surprising that Sartre came off badly in the discussion with David Rousset and Gérard Rosenthal, published in 1949 under the title Entretiens sur la politique, and that in the 1970s he preferred the company of the ideologically rather ignorant Gauche Prolétarienne to that of erudite Trotskyites. Sartre himself concedes in his essay on the occasion of Merleau-Ponty’s death that he was politically incompetent. Noudelmann's finding that Sartre was not an animal politique is not entirely new to those who wanted to know. But perhaps it takes Noudelmann's brutality for this recognition to finally find its way into the official narrative.

Gautier Dassonneville's list of the books Sartre borrowed from the ENS library is another important document. Two facts in particular stand out. The first fact concerns the high number of works from the field of psychology. It is not surprising that Sartre borrowed standard works of philosophy from Plato and Aristotle to Descartes. Nor that among the books borrowed were many on art and literature. But the number of specialised works on psychology is astonishing – even if it really shouldn't be. If you go through the list of works cited in The Imaginary from 1940, you immediately realise that then Sartre was more concerned with psychology than with philosophy. After all, The Imaginary was supposed to be a doctoral thesis prepared to get him a job as a professor of psychology at Sorbonne.

A second surprise is the number of books Sartre read in German. These included works by German psychologists, especially of the Würzburg School, but also philosophers such as Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Official accounts have not yet taken note of the fact that Sartre received a bilingual education, in French and in German, the latter not only through his grandfather but also through the Alsatian maids the Schweitzer family had. As late as 1946, Sartre read a text in German, almost without any accent, for the Swiss film newsreel. In 1948 he took part in a discussion on The Flies in Berlin without needing a translator. The Words obviously give us a completely false picture of Sartre’s relationship with the Germans and German culture.

Part of his German heritage was also his familiarity with Nietzsche. Sartre's grandfather was acquainted with Charles Andler, the most important French biographer of Nietzsche. I assume that Sartre's knowledge of Nietzsche came mainly from works Sartre found in his grandfather's library. Not only Une défaite bears witness to Sartre's knowledge of Nietzsche, but also the text Empédocle, published in 2016 in the Études Sartriennes, which also contains a song about contingency. Allow me to make a comment on this, so that Sartre's proximity to Nietzsche does not fall into the wrong political trap. The prevailing narrative in France regarding Nietzsche was not a fascist one, but a socialist one. Prominent statements by French and especially Alsatian socialist intellectuals such as Jean Jaurès, Andler, Henri Lichtenberger and Lucien Herr bear witness to this.

In this context, reference should also be made to another document that, although published in English, has not yet received the necessary attention. This is Shuzo Kuki's notebook. Sartre gave Kuki, a young Japanese philosopher, lessons in modern French philosophy in 1928. In his notebook, Kuki mainly recorded the names of the philosophers Sartre mentioned to him. Names like Léon Brunschvicg or Alain are not surprising. What is surprising are names like Maurice Blondel, Octave Hamelin, Émile Boutroux and Pierre Maine de Biran. Sartre's closeness to these French spiritualists has so far gone almost unnoticed. An exception is George Pattison and Kate Kirkpatrick with The Mystical Sources of Existentialist Thought.

VII) The French-language research of the last thirty years – Secondary sources on Sartre's biography

The primary sources by and about Sartre are joined by numerous secondary sources. The most productive researcher at present is certainly Grégory Cormann. Particularly noteworthy are his contributions dealing with Sartre between 1924 and 1939. Besides the essay Plea for a Collective Genetics, his book Sartre. Une anthropologie politique, which contains a collection of essays from 2012 to 2017, is worth mentioning. Particularly noteworthy are his insights into the relationship between Sartre and German culture. As for his student days, Cormann identifies Sartre as a member of an "Alsatian community" at the ENS, at the centre of which was Robert Minder. Minder is interesting in this context because he knew Charles Schweizer personally. As we know from other sources, Minder did not agree with the picture Sartre painted of his grandfather in The Words; Minder described The Words as Sartre's revenge on his grandfather. When Sartre writes that he entered the world of literature because of his grandfather with a handicap of eighty years, this is obviously a lie. Schweitzer was the leading figure in a movement in France in 1925 that campaigned for awarding the Nobel Prize to the Austrian writer Karl Kraus. Kraus was a progressive writer who published the magazine Die Fackel, which was probably the model for Sartre's Les Temps Modernes.

Cormann's reference to the fact that Sartre belonged to the circle around the journal Recherches philosophiques ten years later also deserves our special attention. This journal, in which Alexandre Koyré, Jean Wahl and Emmanuel Levinas published, was primarily dedicated to the exchange between German and French representatives of modern philosophy. Cormann's contribution on the relationship between Sartre and Alain is also worth reading. In this respect, there is still much room for new research anyway. Throughout his life, Sartre described himself as a follower of Alain. However, he concealed the fact that Alain was the chief ideologist of the Radical Party, which Sartre vilified as the party of his grandfather and stepfather, but whose progressive political goals Sartre championed throughout his life. Sartre was never a class warrior and was never recognised as a Marxist even by heterodox Marxists. My article published in the Sartre Studies International in 2019 under the title Sartre was not a Marxist provides more details in this regard.

Other important representatives of the new French-language Sartre studies are Vincent de Coorebyter with his two books Sartre face à la phénoménologie and Sartre avant la phénoménologie, and Alain Flajoliet with La première philosophie de Sartre. The three books deal with the period between 1923 and 1939. Important statements can be found here not only on the relationship between Sartre and Husserl, but also on the importance of psychology, especially the Würzburg School and Gestalt psychology, and on Nietzsche. Alexandre Feron's book Le Moment marxiste de la phénoménologie française, published last year, is also worth mentioning. He compares Sartre, Merleau-Ponty and Tran Duc Thao with the aim of describing the three as representatives of a philosophy that attempts to combine phenomenology and Marxism. In fact, however, his book shows above all how much Sartre lags behind Merleau-Ponty in both phenomenology and Marxism.

Many more essays could be mentioned in this connection. For reasons of time, I will limit myself here to the one by Hiroaki Seki in the last issue of Études Sartriennes, an essay that focused on Henri Delacroix, Sartre's mentor from the ENS until his premature death in 1937. Unfortunately, a corresponding contribution on Georges Dumas, another professor of great importance to Sartre, is still missing. Through Delacroix and Dumas, there are also links to William James and pragmatism. This will be the subject of a book resulting from a conference held by the German Sartre Society. Sartre's relationship to Henri Bergson and Karl Jaspers, Alfred Adler and André Malraux would also deserve deeper attention.

VIII) Towards a new narrative!

Although there are still considerable gaps in the study of Sartre's life and work, it is amazing to see the progress that French Sartre studies in particular have made in the last 20 to 30 years. These new insights could and should form the basis for a new narrative about Sartre to replace the old one, which has obviously lost much of its appeal. Given the many white spots that remain on the new map, it could be very interesting for young researchers to explore Sartre's life and work. There is still much to discover. Sartre's 1940 letter to Beauvoir, in which he writes that his new philosophy no longer bears any resemblance to that of Husserl and Heidegger and that he has returned to his pre-1933 realist philosophy, deserves to be taken seriously, as does his 1975 philosophical testament, which he left in the form of an interview for Schilpp's Library of Living Philosophers. A new narrative on Sartre is definitely needed to make Sartre studies more attractive to young researchers.

Alfred Betschart