Jean Paul Sartre

Jean-Paul Sarte was a famous existentialist philosopher known for his writing, plays, novels, political activism, and literary criticism. In Sartre's time, he was a cultural phenomenon and celebrity in Paris. Never before had a philosopher been so popular outside academic circles. His influence went beyond just philosophy, reaching artists, writers, political activists, and social scientists. His existentialist philosophy appealed to young audiences, as it provided an explanation of their everchanging environment against the backdrop of World War II and the eventual invasion and occupation of France by Nazi Germany.

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Table of contents

    He is also famous for his non-monogamous relationship with prominent feminist and fellow existentialist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, whom he met in university and maintained a companionship with for the rest of his life.

    Existentialism is a system of thought and analysis concerning the nature of our existence, consciousness, and our sense of self within the context of social and cultural institutions. While existentialism is hard to define, according to Sartre, one is an existentialist if you believe that "existence precedes essence"1. To Sartre, humans have an innate capacity to redefine themselves. The only precedent to this is the acknowledgement of one's existence, something that virtually anyone can agree with.

    Jean-Paul Sartre's Biography

    Jean-Paul Sarte was born in Paris, France on June 21, 1905. His father was Jean-Baptiste Sartre, an officer of the French Navy, and Anne-Marie. His father passed away from illness when he was still an infant. This left Sartre without a father figure for most of his childhood. At age twelve his mother moved them from her home of Meudon to La Rochelle.

    In his adolescence, Sartre was short, pimply, and blind in one eye as he suffered from exotropia. Consequently, as a new student in his preteens, he was bullied by classmates in school. As a fatherless only child who struggled to make friends, Sartre became accustomed to solitude and introspection. His maternal grandfather introduced him to classical literature. Reading and writing would become a consistent feature of Jean-Paul Sartre's life.

    Jean-Paul Sartre, college photo of Jean-Paul Sartre, StudySmarterJean-Paul Sartre was as studious as his presentation. Wikimedia commons.

    At seventeen Sartre enrolled at the école normale supérieure (ENS) also known as the University of Paris, a system of colleges. In 1929, he met Simone De Beauvoir, who became his life partner and lover. At the University of Paris he also started his divisive and lifelong friendship with Raymond Aron. Aron and Sartre inspired each other but often their philosophies were at odds.

    From the 1930s into the 1940s, Jean Paul Sartre taught at various lycées while he continued to write. When World War II broke out in Europe in 1939, he was drafted into the French army. When France fell under Nazi occupation, he was captured and was held as a prisoner of war for nine months. The daily indignities of being watched and controlled by an external power became the subject of much of Sartre's later work, including his life spent after release from prison in occupied Paris. By late 1940, he left teaching and dedicated himself full-time to writing and philosophizing.

    Lycée - the french name for the secondary school system in France

    Jean-Paul Sartre's Cause of Death

    Jean-Paul Sartre was known to drink regularly, smoke several packs of cigarettes daily, and suffered from high blood pressure. His official cause of death was pulmonary edema, a condition where the lungs fill with fluid, akin to drowning. He died on April 25, 1980.

    Jean-Paul Sartre, photo of Jean-Paul Sartre smoking in Venice, StudySmarterJean-Paul Sartre loved his cigarettes and was rarely seen without one. Wikimedia commons.

    Jean-Paul Sartre's Philosophy

    While Jean-Paul Sartre later renounced aspects of existentialism later in his life, he is most known for coining the term and being its foremost proponent. He believed in human's innate freedom, and in order to live most authentically, one must embrace total responsibility for their freedom and make an actionable commitment to what they believe in.

    Jean-Paul Sartre, photo of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, StudySmarterJean-Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir enjoyed a lifelong companionship. Wikimedia commons.


    Jean-Paul Sartre's existentialism defies easy definition. Many existentialist philosophers did not label themselves as such, receiving the categorization posthumously by later intellectuals. There is also no common political identity or religious affiliation either. Famous existentialists range from the danish Søren Kierkegaard, who was a self-professed Christian and conservative and was considered the forefather of existentialism, to Friedrich Nietzsche, who identified as apolitical and an atheist.

    Apolitical - lacking or having no interest in politics

    Sartre was influenced by philosophers interested in the process of thinking. His conclusions about our sense of self are very much a product of his lifetime. Nazi-occupied France suppressed open intellectual discussion and most complied for fear of punishment. The dichotomy of resistor and collaborator would inspire Sartre to analyze the concept of authenticity within the self.

    What do you say when an occupying soldier asks you for directions to a destination in your neighborhood? If you help the soldiers with directions, are you complicit and a collaborator? Seemingly innocuous interactions such as this were a dilemma that troubled Sartre.

    Existentialism is summed up according to Jean-Paul Sartre as this: "existence precedes essence".1 It's the idea that we can only know with certainty that we exist, and nothing else beyond that is inherently or instinctually human. That we all exist is the essential human condition we all share. Going forward, who we are, and what we believe, are all based on actions we personally decide to take.


    Originally a concept created by Edmund Husserl, phenomenology refers to the analysis of external stimuli as separate from the mind, or consciousness. There is no one distinct method of phenomenology, and it varies according to different thinkers and philosophers. The main agreement is in the desired outcome: to separate and make sense of abstract ideas versus concrete ones in relation to our notion of self.

    Consciousness is something we can all agree exists. However, different parts of consciousness, and the degree to which we can agree that we are aware of ourselves, can differ greatly. So while we can agree that we see a sky above our heads, it becomes more difficult to analyze the varying degrees in which we perceive the sky differently, and who's account, if at all, can most accurately represent the sky.

    Jean-Paul Sartre used phenomenology to develop his concept of unreflected consciousness versus reflected consciousness. Husserl separated consciousness as distinct from reality. Sartre used observation and analysis to further define consciousness. Unreflected consciousness refers to the human mind absorbing stimuli and taking them into account.

    Imagine you are walking down the street. You see a red car, the blue sky is clear of clouds, and you see your friend up ahead. These are all examples of thoughts you receive but have not reflected upon beyond their immediate appearance.

    Reflected consciousness refers to taking information and literally thinking about and forming value judgments

    Go back to the first example. Think about possible reactions to the stimuli. Maybe you would never buy a red car. You're glad it's a clear day. You wish you were not running late to meet your friend down the street. These are all thoughts that you've become aware of and have assigned value to. Essentially these are thoughts that you have reflected upon.

    According to Jean-Paul Sartre, the self only exists in reflected consciousness. He believes that reality presents an overwhelming amount of possibilities, and that most people prefer to avoid confronting this freedom. This goes back to his experience in Nazi-occupied France. People who collaborated could be seen as being inauthentic, or as Sartre called it, acting in "bad faith".3

    Bad Faith Versus Good Faith

    Denying all the possibilities of our freedom is acting in "bad faith", a phrase created by Sartre and discussed in Being and Nothingness (1943). Whenever we deny the endless possibilities in our lives, we deny the innate freedom we all have as human beings. To Sartre, this is essentially denying one's own humanity, and thus not an actor of "good faith". Sartre felt that cultural institutions attempt to define reality for us and that we must resist the temptation to let our reality be dictated by others.

    Jean-Paul Sartre famously rejected the Nobel Prize award in 1964, as he believed any official recognition for his writing meant his personage was becoming institutionalized, which was an antithesis to his personal philosophy.4

    Jean-Paul Sartre's Books and Written Works

    Jean-Paul Sarte created a multitude of written works in many different modes, including plays, screenplays, novels, and essays. For Sartre, his philosophy came first. The mediums he chose came secondary and served the underlying purpose of which mode best communicated his particular ideas. Below are some of Jean-Paul Sartre's most popular written works.

    La Nausée (1938)

    This novel's French title literally translates to "nausea" in English. La Nausée is an account of the main character experiencing intense disillusionment with existence. He realizes his perception of his environment is owed to various forms of indoctrination via social and cultural institutions, like his formal education. This was Sartre's first critical success and is considered his best work.

    Being and Nothingness (1943)

    While Sartre separates consciousness into reflective and unreflective, his work Being and Nothingness rejects the notion of an unconsciousness that motivates human beings. Consciousness and knowledge are separate things, and one can only understand these concepts by contextualizing them. Objects exist independently of consciousness. Yet the consciousness requires its relation to other things in order to be defined. Consciousness without a thing to contextualize itself reveals its inherent no-thing-ness. In other words, we understand our consciousness because we can all agree it exists, yet it is completely an abstraction, as it does not occupy physical space nor can it be exactly located.

    No Exit (1944)

    No Exit is a play about freedom and the human condition. Experiencing the daily indignities of occupied France would lead to Jean-Paul Sartre's writing of No Exit, a play about three characters stuck in the afterlife, represented by a room with simple furniture and no mirrors. The characters are forced to interact with each other in this space, as they have nowhere else to go. The play explores how our concept of self is socially constructed, and how others' opinions can so easily affect our state of mind. Sartre called this the gaze—the power of being observed by the other, meaning another conscious mind.

    Jean-Paul Sartre Quotes

    Hell is other people."

    This is one of the most famous of Jean-Paul Sartre's quotes. In the play No Exit, three characters are experiencing the afterlife as a room with no escape from themselves. Upon arrival, believing they are in hell, they expect images of fire and brimstone and devices for physical torture. Instead, their own coexistence in a shared space proves to be unbearable and maddening. One of the main characters makes this climactic statement upon realizing the power that other people have to impose on our state of mind.

    Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. It is up to you to give [life] a meaning."

    (Chapter 1)

    In this quote from Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre believed that the core experience of the human condition is the ability to make choices. Ironically, we have no choice in our initial creation. However, once we exist, all we have is our freedom. We may not like our options, but we always have a choice. Sartre felt that acknowledging one's agency was key to realizing their authenticity or living in "good faith". From there, it is ultimately up to us to form a narrative around our choices.

    “I am. I am, I exist, I think, therefore I am; I am because I think, why do I think? I don't want to think any more, I am because I think that I don't want to be, I think that I . . . because . . . ugh!”

    This is a quote representing the inner monologue of the main character in Nausea. They experience disillusionment with reality as they probe the depths of their mind. Their environment and the objects contained within have no inherent meaning. It is uniquely human to understand the world through stories. Here, the main character becomes overwhelmed with the sheer amount of possibilities presented to them.

    Jean-Paul Sartre - Key takeaways

    • Jean-Paul Sartre was a famous existential French philosopher who lived from 1905 to 1980.
    • He experienced unprecedented fame as a philosopher.
    • He coined existentialism and the phrase "existence precedes essence".
    • Nazi Occupation of France inspired his writing regarding the power of others' observation and social responsibility.
    • Jean-Paul Sartre believed that the freedom of choice is what defines the human consciousness.


    1. Jean-Paul Sartre, "Existentialism is a Humanism" (1946).
    2. Iris Murdoch, Sartre : Romantic Rationalist (1989).
    3. Donald Palmer, Sartre for Beginners (1995).
    4. Jean-Paul Sartre – Documentary. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2022. Sun. 15 May 2022.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Jean Paul Sartre

    Who is Jean-Paul Sartre?

    Jean-Paul Sartre was a famous French existentialist philosopher.

    What is Jean-Paul Sartre famous for?

    Jean-Paul Sartre is famous for coining the term and philosophy "existentialism".

    What did Jean-Paul Sartre believe in?

    Jean-Paul Sartre believed that the core experience of the human condition is the freedom to make choices.

    Why did Jean-Paul Sartre refuse the Nobel Prize?

    Jean-Paul Sartre believed any official recognition for his writing meant he was becoming institutionalized, which for him was an antithesis to his personal philosophy. 

    Why is Jean-Paul Sartre important?

    Jean-Paul Sarte is important because he experienced unprecedented popularity and influence in his time. His philosophy appealed to younger generations, along with political activists and artists.

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