Jean-Paul Sartre and the Transformation of Philosophy



An imaginary conversation with Bento Prado Jr., on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the book “O Ser e o Nada”

"… mais vraiment vie et philo, ne font plus qu'un” (Jean-Paul Sartre, Letter to Simone de Beauvoir, January 1940)


“Am I a philosopher? Or am I literate? I think that what I've done since my first works is something that merges the two: everything I've written is both philosophy and literature, not juxtaposed, but each given element is both literary and philosophical”. This is how Jean-Paul Sartre diagnoses, at the end of the 1970s, the result of his vast work. But the author's point of arrival is nothing more than a starting point: far from closing the discussion about the nature of his work, such a diagnosis only reopens it. Philosophy and literature at the same time? The novels as a literary and philosophical form? The works considered of “pure philosophy” as a philosophical-literary form? This Sartrean hybrid is rather an enigma to be deciphered.

A look at Sartre's work as a whole, focusing on some of his most significant moments, reveals the peculiar transformation of genres along the author's itinerary. Of romance the nausea (1938) and the tales of The wall (1939) to Being and Nothingness (1943), an “essay on phenomenological ontology”, whose writing is, however, simultaneous with that of a play (the flies) and that of a novel (Le Reprieve).

De Being and Nothingness, conceived as “pure philosophy”, to essays on “criticism and politics” (the ten volumes of situations), journalistic reports, theater plays and film scripts (among which stands out the Scenario Freud, audacious reconstruction of a crucial moment in Freud's life and work, written in 1958-1959 for John Huston).

The evolution of all these genres finally defined the profile of the last figure of Sartrian thought, the “concrete historical monograph”, which finds a notable expression in Saint Genet (1952) and culminates in the monumental study on Flaubert, The Family Idiot (1971), conceived as “a concrete example” of a method capable of “combining psychoanalysis and Marxism”.

But why the essay (as a form), whether in situations either in “concrete historical monographs”, instead of the work of “pure reflection” (a Moral) promised at the end of Being and Nothingness? Why does Sartre abandon this philosophical project? What is at stake in this abandonment is nothing more, nothing less than the problem of the status of philosophy in our time, or the problematic form of its survival after the “decomposition of Absolute Spirit” (to use the terms Marx and Engels used to refer to). refer to the dissolution of the Hegelian system). And more: the very trajectory of Sartrian thought – from a project of “pure philosophy” to The Family Idiot – is the expression of this problem of the survival of philosophy (and also of literature) in the social conditions of the contemporary world, signaling the search for a new crafts that can handle the present time. (Here, by the way, is the vanishing point towards which the main lines of force of “Western Marxism” converge, let it be said in passing.)

“Hegel represents the apogee of philosophy. From there, regression. Marx does what Hegel had not entirely done (…). Then Marxist degeneracy. Post-Hegelian German degeneration. Heidegger and Husserl Little Philosophers. Null French philosophy”. The unfolding of these words, written by Sartre in the second half of the 40s, Cahiers pour un morale, will be this bombastic statement by the author, almost two decades later: “at the present moment there can be no philosophers”.

But, like philosophy, literature (in its traditional sense) has also become impossible “at the present moment”: “there is no more literature”, concludes Sartre in an interview given in 1971. Shortly before, in 1970, questioned about the reasons that would have led him to abandon the novel to write “biographies” – would the novel have become “an impossible literary form”? –, Sartre replies: “There is no longer any natural universe of the novel and only a certain type of novel can exist: the 'spontaneous' novel,'naive'”. And in a later interview, he says that even though he is "fascinated" by the style of Madame Bovary, knows very well that one can no longer write like Flaubert: this type of novel belongs to “a world already outdated”.

If it was the experience of the First World War that led Walter Benjamin to formulate the problem of the end of narration, it is the experience of the Second World War that led Sartre to seek a new “narrative” form, a substitute for the traditional novel and philosophy. In the immediate post-war period, taking stock of the transformations that history has imposed on literary form, the author writes: “It is no longer time to describe or narrate” (What is literature?). (Almost a decade later, and in entirely different ways, Adorno formulates the same problem: “It is no longer possible to narrate, whereas the form of the novel demands narration” – which henceforth makes the “traditional novel” impossible.)

Already in the (unpublished) correspondence with Jean Paulhan, from 1937 to 1940, we see Sartre in search of a new literary form, which, thinking of Malraux, he calls “novel reportage”. Later, the privilege granted to Jean Genet comes from the idea that his work is essentially a document, a real fact – a “document” that, by crudely exposing aspects of social reality, is at the same time critical of it. This is, by the way, the function that Sartre attributes to the essay, whose form he sets out to look for soon after writing Being and Nothingness, as this passage written in 1943 attests: “The contemporary novel, with American authors, with Kafka, among us with Camus, has found its style. It remains to find the test. And I would also say that of criticism”.

But we are no longer light years away from the idea expressed at the end of Being and Nothingness, that only in the field of “pure reflection” can true problems find a true solution? A distance that increases even more if we think that, at the time of writing his study on Flaubert, the author announces this “concrete” monograph as the counterpart of the purely “theoretical” analyzes undertaken in the Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960), “which did not really lead anywhere”.

Where, after all, is the hybrid that Sartre claims to define his work as a whole to be situated? Neither “pure philosophy” nor “pure literature” (read “traditional novel”), but rather a passing movement between the two that undoes their traditional forms? If so, Sartre's work could be thought of as a moment in the process of historical transformation of philosophical and literary form (or the decomposition of traditional philosophical and literary forms).[1] What is the particularity of the determinations that constitute this moment?


“It was the war that exploded the aging frameworks of our thinking. The war, the Occupation, the Resistance, the years that followed”, we read in Question of Method (1957). But this “explosion”, that is, the rupture with the French academic “spiritualist” tradition, more precisely the “food philosophy”, “digestive” (theory of knowledge), of the Third Republic, had been being prepared since the mid-1930s – period of political turmoil in the midst of which Sartre's literary and philosophical project takes shape. It is precisely in the clash with the “old traditional idealism of French university students” (in the words of Simone de Beauvoir) that Sartrian thought begins to take shape.

Not by chance, in the author's most significant early works, the number one enemy is this “official idealism” of the Third Republic. Just remember, in the novel the nausea, the irony of the character Roquentin regarding the “humanist philosopher”, a figure hated to the point of… Nausea, in fact. Or else from Sartre's first philosophy book, The Transcendence of the Ego (1936), who, targeting mainly Lachelier and Brunschvicg, denounce “neo-Kantianism” as “a dangerous trend in contemporary philosophy”.

Or remember, still, the famous essay on Husserl, written in 1933-1934, which opens with a lively attack on the “food philosophy”: “We all read Brunschvicg, Lalande and Meyerson, we all believed that the Spider-Spirit attracted things to its web, covered them with a white drool and slowly swallowed them, reducing them to their own substance. What is a table, a rock, a house? A certain composite of 'contents of consciousness', an order of these contents. O food philosophy! (...) The simplest and most rude among us were looking for something solid, anything, in short, that was not the spirit. In vain. Everywhere they found only a dull and distinct mist: themselves”. Some time later, in their War Diaries – moment in which the windstorm of war drags with it the dominant values ​​(“ideas, values, everything was shaken”, says Simone de Beauvoir, referring to that “war that put everything into question”) –, Sartre finally ends the war. age of the hegemony of the “spiritualist” tradition: “For us, Nizan, Aron, myself, (…) these poor devils [Baruzi, Brunschvicg etc.] were the most odious representatives of cowardly thinking and verbalism. (…) Nothing displeased us more than this gray thought…”. Referring then to that “gray thought” as a thing of the past (the use of the verb in the past is suggestive), the War Diaries of Sartre intend to put the last shovel of lime on this ideology that dies together with the world that it tried to eternalize. But at the same time that these Daily (where does it come from Being and Nothingness) announce the end of one of the cycles of bourgeois culture in France, they also announce the beginning of a new era, which will soon emerge – the “Modern Times”.

 Indeed, the other aspect of the rupture with the “defunct culture”,[2] who ordered prayers for the booklet on the “Primary of the Spiritual” (title of Maritain, mocked by Simone de Beauvoir in the book When the spiritual prevails), is the discovery (cause and effect of this rupture) of “modernity”, whose watchword was launched by Jean Wahl in 1932: “Towards the concrete”. If once, as Sartre denounced in The imagination (1936), “the success of Kantianism” in France was a symptom of a “strong conservative reaction”, now, on the threshold of a new era, the rupture with this tradition is the harbinger of a period of revolutionary effervescence that places, on the order of the day, for an entire “intellectual generation”, the issue of “modernity” – and with it the need for critical, negative thinking: averse to conservatism, radical, non-academic.

In what terms does this discovery of “modernity” take place in that France convulsed by the radicalization of social conflicts? From a literary point of view, it became possible with the discovery of Kafka and, above all, of the classics of American modernism; from a philosophical point of view, it is due to a triple discovery: Husserl, Heidegger[3] (both turned inside out and converted into avant-garde philosophers) and Hegel (reread from the perspective of Kojève's philosophy of Action).[4] With such discoveries, the learning years of the “3 H generation” are completed, as the generation of Sartre and Merleau-Ponty became known in the post-war period – the “3 H”, in this case, interpreted as “realistic” philosophers. ”, starting point for a “concrete philosophy”. The way is open for the dazzling arrival on the scene of Existentialism – without a doubt, the richest and most interesting chapter of contemporary French philosophy.

The major theoretical expression of this cultural renewal movement in France, which results from the rupture with the spiritualist tradition and the discovery of “modernity”, is Being and Nothingness – at the same time culmination of the liquidation process of a genre of education and response to the “Modern Times” then under way. At the crossroads of two worlds, Sartre's “essay in phenomenological ontology” is also at the main crossroads of the paths taken by the genres along the author's itinerary – which brings us back to our problem at the beginning. The key to understanding the meaning of this itinerary, its genesis and its outcome, is in my view in the structure of Being and Nothingness. In this particular moment of the author's thought –a unique and irreducible moment–, together with the general movement of the time, the totality of the determinations of the course of his work is reproduced.


The ontological structure of Being and Nothingness (SN) is constituted from a critical dialogue with Heidegger and with Hegel, fundamentally – it is the result of a deliberate purpose of assimilating, re-elaborating, the conceptual framework of this philosophical “modernity”. This purpose is stamped in the opening sentence of the book: “Modern thought has made considerable progress in reducing what exists to the series of apparitions that manifest it. The aim was to suppress a certain number of dualisms that embarrassed philosophy and replace them with the monism of the phenomenon. Has that objective been achieved?” If “modern thought” responds here to the triple name “3 H” (of which Hegel and Heidegger, somewhat amalgamated, prevail over Husserl), it is necessary to understand the imperative of this openness of thought. Being and Nothingness: philosophical “modernity” means, in this case, a break with modern philosophy in the Kantian sense, that is, theory of knowledge.

Putting it as kids: from now on philosophy can no longer, under penalty of retrogression, be identified with the theory of knowledge. already in Transcendence of the Ego, Sartre had imposed the following condition for the development of a “realistic” philosophical project: “It is enough that the Eu is contemporary with the World and that the subject-object duality, which is purely logical, disappears definitively from philosophical concerns”. The primacy of negation in Being and Nothingness, that is, negation as the starting point of philosophical investigation, presupposes the dismantling of the “primacy of knowledge”, typical of traditional epistemological theory.

This disassembly is, as is well known, the axis of Heidegger's reading of Kant, in Being and Time, in whose view truth is no longer an adequacy between the subject and the object. However, if SN's criticism of the traditional epistemological theory presupposes, above all, the point of view of Being and Time, also presupposes the Phenomenology of Spirit of Hegel which, it should be remembered, begins precisely with a critique of Kant's theory of knowledge. It is therefore not by chance that the first pages of SN are dedicated to undoing the “illusion of the primacy of knowledge”: “It is convenient to abandon the primacy of knowledge if we want to found knowledge itself. (…) The reduction of consciousness to knowledge, in effect, implies that the subject-object duality, typical of knowledge, is introduced into consciousness”. Which is summarized in the following terms: “We are here on the plane of being, not knowledge”. And the “plane of being” coincides with the plane of existence, as Sartre concludes in Truth and Existence (posthumous work, 1948 manuscript): “Consciousness is not knowledge, but existence (cf. Being and Nothingness). "

In this light, it is understandable that the fact that Husserl understands Phenomenology as a foundational theory of knowledge is unacceptable in the eyes of Sartre de Being and Nothingness (soaked in Heidegger and Kojève's Hegel, it never hurts to remember). Although a few years earlier, in the essay on Husserl, our author thought he had found in the latter the instruments necessary for breaking with the dominant epistemology in French philosophy (“The French philosophy that formed us knows almost nothing but epistemology. But for Husserl and the phenomenologists, the awareness we have of things is not limited at all to knowing them”), in Being and Nothingness the Husserlian point of view is discarded: “Thus, by having reduced being to a series of significations, the only connection that Husserl was able to establish between my being and the being of the other is that of knowledge; he would not know, then, any more than Kant, how to escape from solipsism”.

If the origin of the Sartrean philosophical project is the discovery of Husserl (“I saw everything from the perspective of Husserl’s philosophy, which was more accessible to me because of its appearance of Cartesianism”, in the terms with which the Carnets of war drôle recall the moment of the discovery of phenomenology), its completion, in the form of the “essay of phenomenological ontology”, owes more to Heidegger than to Husserlian philosophy (whose “idealism” Sartre, already Carnets of war drôle, deems surpassed by Heidegger).

Em Being and Nothingness, Husserl’s “idealism” is considered a step backwards in relation to Hegel – therefore, disrespecting chronology, Sartre examines the philosophical problems in question from the solutions found by Husserl, Hegel and Heidegger (in that order). Compared to Husserl, with regard to the problem of the Other, it was Hegel who "knew how to place the debate at its true level" ("although his vision is obscured by the postulate of absolute idealism"): "Hegel's brilliant intuition is that of make me dependent on the other in my being. I am – he says – a being for-itself who is only for-itself through another. It is therefore in my heart that the other penetrates me”.

The great criticism of Being and Nothingness to Husserl is that he would not have truly surpassed Kantian idealism: “He never surpassed the pure description of appearance as such, he ended up in the cogito (…); and his phenomenalism verges at every moment on Kantian idealism”. In the First Chapter of the book, Sartre states that Husserl, as much as Kant, begins “deliberately with the abstract” – “But we will not manage to restore the concrete by the sum or organization of the elements abstracted from it”. Which will lead to the following conclusion about Husserl's Kantianism: “Husserl retained the transcendental subject (...), which is very similar to the Kantian subject” and, to that extent, falls short of Hegel – “By passing from Husserl to Hegel, we carry out a immense progress”.

However, Hegel would not have solved the problem either: “What has this long critique [of Hegel] brought us? Simply this: my relationship with the other is, first and foremost, a relationship of being to being, and not of knowledge to knowledge, if solipsism can be refuted. We have seen, in effect, the failure of Husserl, who measures being by knowledge, and the failure of Hegel, who identifies knowledge and being”. In this regard, it is Heidegger who opens the way by showing that “the original relationship of the other with my consciousness is not knowledge”. In Being and Nothingness, it is action that prevails over knowledge – but here, in this primacy of Action, we are already facing a Heidegger with the opposite sign, that is, Heideggerian “quietism” has already given way to activism to the Kojève.

 But if the question of truth can no longer be thought of in terms of Kantian epistemological antagonism (hence Husserl's “failure”), the purpose of philosophy is neither an “absolute of knowledge”, as in the dogmatic philosophy of the XNUMXth century: “ Renouncing the primacy of knowledge, (…) we find the absolute, the same absolute that the rationalists of the XNUMXth century had defined and logically constituted as an object of knowledge. But it is now an absolute of existence, and not of knowledge (…). In fact, the absolute here is not the result of a logical construction in the field of knowledge, but the subject of the most concrete of experiences” (Being and Nothingness, P. 23).

To the “absolute of knowledge”, logically constructed by the “great rationalism” of the seventeenth century (to use Merleau-Ponty’s expression), Being and Nothingness therefore opposes an “absolute of existence”, defined as “the subject of the most concrete of experiences” – he é own experience.[5] No longer able to be framed in the molds of the previous epistemological tradition, the question of truth is now located in another register: that of lived experience. (Which, by the way, Malraux – an important source of Being and Nothingness– enunciated in literary terms, in the Human Condition: “It was neither true nor false, but lived”.) This means that, just as before, at the time of the consolidation of the modern world, philosophy, after a long crossing of “turbulent seas”, stepped on solid ground (just like Hegel hailed the advent of modern thought), separating himself from theology, now (with Being and Time above all) philosophy separates itself from the theory of knowledge (and the transcendental subject), trying to reach the ground of “concrete experience”.

In place of a theory of knowledge, and of the Kantian transcendental subject, a “thought of historicity” (Heidegger, certainly, but already very radicalized); instead of the “absolute of knowledge”, typical of the dogmatic philosophy of the XNUMXth century, an “absolute of existence” (which Merleau-Ponty will call “the metaphysician in man”). In a word: a “concrete philosophy”, that is, capable of showing “the need for a concrete and contingent existence in the middle of the world” (Being and Nothingness, P. 409).

In this living connection with the world, in this exasperated search for the concrete, in this “metaphysics” desacralized and reduced to the level of problems of immediate history, in this philosophy, in short, essentially of situations, what one sees is already the silhouette of another figure of history. gallery of genres that characterize the evolution of Sartrian thought. But if this other figure, shaped by the binomial “criticism and politics”, was able to insinuate itself at the heart of an “essay in phenomenological ontology”, despite the author's intention of unfolding it into a work of “pure reflection”, it is because we were more in front of a philosophy stricto sensu.

Contaminated by the impurities of the world, dissolved in everyday life, the “philosophy” exposed in Being and Nothingness it had already changed its genre, that is, the analyzes of the book were responsible for radically undoing its traditional form (unlike the author, of course, who imagined he was building a work of “pure philosophy”). This is what is at stake in the avant-garde reinvention of Heidegger and Hegel operated in Being and Nothingness. It is not surprising, therefore, that the next step, made possible by the discovery that true concreteness will not be reached through Heidegger's ontological history (which, incidentally, was already signaled in SN), was the realignment of Sartre's conceptual schemes in the direction of the Marxism, that “insurmountable” horizon of our time, as one reads in Question of Method.

In this regard, the itineraries of Sartre and Merleau-Ponty are opposites, but this is another story, inscribed in the chapter of the ideological shift in French philosophy at the threshold of the 1960s, when the existentialist avant-garde finally begins to decline.

*Cristina Diniz Mendonca She holds a PhD in Philosophy from USP.

Extended version of the Preamble of the doctoral thesis The Myth of Resistance: historical experience and philosophical form in Sartre (An interpretation of L'Être et le Néant).


([1]) The term “traditional” is used here in the sense of Horkheimer and Adorno. If Marx and Engels spoke of the “decomposition of the Absolute Spirit” (a historical process whose development will lead Horkheimer to oppose “Traditional Theory” and “Critical Theory”), Adorno, considering the social conditions of the contemporary world, speaks of “the decomposition of the novelistic form ”, that is, of the “traditional novel”, whose “more authentic” expression would be Flaubert's novel.

(2) Expression coined by Paulo Arantes when referring to that culture “on which the cachectic French bourgeoisie between the wars fed” (“An erroneous Hegel, but alive”, IDE, nº 21, 1991).

([3]) If later, more than a decade after this discovery of German phenomenology, Sartre claims that Heidegger and Husserl are “little philosophers” it is in the sense (explained only in the Question of Method) that what they did was not radical enough to characterize a new era of “philosophical creation” (even because this would no longer be possible, for historical reasons). However, in a France dominated by the “spiritualism” of the University of the Third Republic (a mixture of positivism and neo-Kantianism), Husserl and Heidegger meant philosophical modernity itself for Sartre's generation. It was above all the dismantling of Kantian objectivism, the de-transcendentalization of philosophy and the consequent cancellation of the transcendental program of post-Kantian philosophies, operated by Heidegger in Being and Time, which allowed Sartre to break with the nauseating “food philosophy” (which ultimately made it possible Being and Nothingness).

([4]) It was the famous courses taught by Alexandre Kojève at École Pratique des Hautes Études, from 1933 to 1939, who introduced Hegel, “always outcast from the university”, as E. Roudinesco recalls, to Sartre's generation: “For six years, this man's speech becomes the very language of modernity, the quintessence of modernity. new spirit” (History of Psychoanalysis in France). Cf. also V. Descombes, Le Même et l'Autre, for whom “if there is a sign of change in spirits – revolt against neo-Kantism, eclipse of Bergsonism –, it is the strong return to Hegel”, until then “banned by neo-Kantians”.

(5) Any attempt to bundle SN's problems within the prism of seventeenth-century philosophy is, therefore, a task as innocuous as it is outside the central focus of the book. His ontological demonstrations, although “traditional” (in Horkheimer's sense), are not in the sense of classical metaphysics – something has changed in philosophy with Being and Time and that change opened the door for Sartre. In SN, the return to the cogito is on the condition of “extending” it (which means filing it away as such) in order to incorporate the existence of the Other, that is, intersubjectivity. In this context, it is strange to say the least (although not surprising, since this is a type of traditional reading that places SN within the scope of classical metaphysics) that Gerd Bornheim can reach the following conclusion about Sartre's “essay on phenomenological ontology”: “ The metaphysical presupposition of this doctrine is found in the subject-object dichotomy clearly present in Western Metaphysics from Descartes onwards”. Placing the problem only in these terms, one runs the risk of forgetting that already in the main philosophical source of EN, Being and Time (not to mention Hegel), the subject-object dichotomy, or the univocal relationship typical of the Cartesian Cogito, had become unsustainable. Not by chance, Heidegger speaks of the need to “reverse” the Cartesian cogito, as he is incapable of apprehending “the phenomenon of the world”.

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