Jean-Paul Sartre: Pioneer of Existentialism

Jean-Paul Sartre was born on June 21, 1905, in Paris, France. When Sartre’s father died in 1906, Sartre and his mother moved in with his mother’s father, Karl Schweitzer, who was a respected philosophical and religious writer. His grandfather’s religious beliefs proved to be a point of contention for Sartre growing up, and though he resented his grandfather’s presence, he was open to being tutored by Schweitzer.

Sartre studied philosophy at the prestigious university École Normale Supérieure in 1924, and in 1928, he met fellow classmate and lifelong companion Simone de Beauvoir (who would go on to write The Second Sex, which is considered to be one of the most important feminist texts ever produced). Upon graduating, Sartre enlisted in the army and then took a teaching job in France. By 1933, Sartre had moved to Berlin to study philosophy with Edmund Husserl, and while in Berlin, he also became acquainted with Martin Heidegger. The work of these two men would have a profound impact on Sartre’s own philosophy, and in 1938, Sartre’s philosophical novel, Nausea, was published.

In 1939, at the beginning of World War II, Sartre was drafted into the French army. In 1940, Sartre was captured by the Germans and was held as a prisoner of war for nine months. During this time, Sartre began to write his most famous existential work, Being and Nothingness. Sartre returned to Paris in 1941, and two years later, Being and Nothingness was published, propelling Sartre’s fame in the public eye and establishing him as a key intellectual of the post- war era.

Sartre then served as editor for the journal Les Temps Modernes, where he was able to continually write and hone his philosophy, focusing on the political and social world of the time and becoming a political activist. Sartre remained committed to political activism for the rest of his life. A staunch Socialist, Sartre supported the Soviet Union during the Cold War (even though he was critical of the totalitarianism that was featured in Sovietism), met with Fidel Castro and Che Guevara in support of Marxism, opposed the Vietnam War, and was famously an outspoken critic of France’s colonization of Algeria.

Sartre was a prolific writer. In 1964, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, which he declined (making him the first person to ever do so), claiming that no writer should be turned into an institution and that the cultures of the East and West must be able to exchange with one another without the help of an institution. Throughout his extensive writing career, he wrote philosophical books, films, and plays.