Jean-Paul Sartre Harbinger of the Defense of Reason


Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980)

The other day I was struck by an affront to my love of continental philosophy so grievous it must be avenged. Where else but that bastion of analytical philosophy would this occur but among my friends at Secular Outpost? This is no mere sectarian squabble among arcane academics, it has profound implications for theology and apologetic, The real real issue here is the mystification of knowledge through the illusion of technique, which analytical philosophy is bad about lending itself to, vs. a discursive understanding of issues that is accessible to people of all walks of intellectual life. Ryan M was making a point with which I basically agree. Certain figures such as Nietzsche and Sartre are no longer regarded as major voices of atheism in the atheist community or in American philosophy a (so say the Analytical types). Nevertheless, The stature of these thinkers must nevertheless be understood and respected, They still post challenges and offer valuable insights in spite of their lack of technical proficiency in analytical philosophy, This is not to deny the value of analytical philosophy which I do admire, or to cast aspersions upon Ryan or any of the crowd at SOP whom I also admire. I do think discursive reason is discounted and there is too much mystification of knowledge in the perpetuation of technical proficiency and it shows in the lack of attention to the concerns voiced by these overlooked figures.

This blog piece will focus on Sartre. It's not that I am so in awe of Sartre that I must defend him.I don't want to defend him, ultimately I disagree with his entire project. He was an atheist and I am a Christian. I do see his many flaws, Ryan M. is basically right when he says Sartre doesn't make good arguments, it's just that I'm not sure that makimng good arguments is the only point of philosophy. Nor am I sure that the inability to make good arguments means the guy's thought is not worth considering. This will not be the kind of thing I want to write. I want to show from his writings that good arguments can be drawn out even though he's wrong in his final conclusion. I don't have my books here where I am and I  can't reach them. If I had them I could find all the marked passages easily. I will instead just make a couple of quick observations.

The offending statement came in an article about mistakes theists and atheists often make in arguing about philosophy of reliogion:
Mistake 6 - [Falsely believing particular individuals are representative of the PoR at its best]- Atheists on this blog have probably encountered theists who will quote Nietzsche, Sarte, Camus, and others as representatives of the best arguments against theism. It is difficult to say Nietzsche, Sarte and Camus offered arguments at all, let alone arguments against theism. These people are not representative of modern atheism, nor any form of analytic atheism. More representative would be Graham Oppy, John Schellenberg, Jordan Howard Sobel, and other contemporary era philosophers. Likewise, Dinesh D' Souza, Josh McDowell, and Lee Strobel are not representative of the best arguments for theism. More representative would be Richard Swinburne, William Lane Craig, Alexander Pruss, Robin Collins, and other contemporary era philosophy.[1]
 Even though Sartre is not taken seriously by new atheism or by analytical philosophers that is not to say that he has no fans. Sartre is still regarded as "arguably the best known philosopher of the twentieth century. His indefatigable pursuit of philosophical reflection, literary creativity and, in the second half of his life, active political commitment gained him worldwide renown, if not admiration...whose writings set the tone for intellectual life in the decade immediately following the Second World War."[2] He was dismissed by Foucault as "nineteenth century." This was for his commitment to enlightenment ideals of humanism, his Marxism,  and the individual which postmoderns came to identity with outmoded modernism.[3]
It is common practice for teachers in the Anglo-American philosophical tradition to be scathing about Sartre’s philosophy, dismissing it as woolly, jargon-laden, derivative, wrong-headed and so on – in Bryan Magee’s recent TV series ‘The Great Philosophers’, for instance, Sartre’s philosophy was declared to be only of passing interest. But even where Sartre’s philosophy is obviously flawed, as it certainly is in Existentialism and Humanism, it can fire the imagination and offer genuine insight into the human condition.[4]
I think part for the reason that atheists rejected him is because he had a conversion at they end of his life, he became the poster boy for Christian apologists seeking to show that their conception of atheist casual approach to morality didn't work. It's only Christian apologists who don't argue with atheists in person who think Sartre is still a "big gun" for atheists.

Nevertheless I still find reasons to admire him and to value his work. He did dedicates the second half of his life to working to improve the lot of the poor and marginalized. Even though he was a Marxist he stood up to Soviet Marxism and American imperialism equally. In an age where people want to be robots and can't understand the value of individualism he is one last light drawing thinkers to value the individual. He's the last bastion of enlightenment humanism, in an age gone wild for determinism and selling to anti-humanism. Sartre is one of  the last defenders manning the ramparts against the tide of what Robert Bloom calls "The war on Reason." Social psychologists in numerious studies pint to hundreds of unseen factors that control our behavior while those idolizing psychopathology chalk everything up to chemical determinism.[5] There's really no room left for the individual as a responsible agent in society.

I think it's basically true that Sartre doesn't argue. That seems to be more of a cultural thing, They were all trying to be Nietzsche who used his superior sensibilities as the ultimate proof of  veracity. Even though Sartre had German relatives (Albert Schweitzer was his cousin) he was after all French. Rather than argue vociferously Sartre cultivated a subtle approach based upon elaborate nuanced development of his themes and a literary style.
Sartre's gifts of psychological description and analysis are widely recognized. What made him so successful a novelist and playwright contributed to the vivacity and force of his phenomenological “arguments” as well. His early studies of emotive and imaging consciousness in the late 1930s press the Husserlian principle of intentionality farther than their author seemed willing to go. For example, in The Psychology of Imagination (1940), Sartre argues that Husserl remains captive to the idealist principle of immanence (the object of consciousness lies within consciousness), despite his stated goal of combating idealism, when he seems to consider images as miniatures of the perceptual object reproduced or retained in the mind. On the contrary, Sartre argues, if one insists that all consciousness is intentional in nature, one must conclude that even so-called “images” are not objects “in the mind” but are ways of relating to items “in the world” in a properly imaginative manner, namely, by what he calls “derealizing” them or rendering them “present-absent.”[6]
One subtle as aspect of his thought is in his dictum from a work largely taken as a  manifesto (even though he declined that) "being proceeds essence." [7] 'Benjamin Studebaker follows up by arguing that Sartre's dictum must be wrong,  essence has to proceed being for there to be anything to be. Studebaker rightly points out that the phrase has to be taken somewhat metaphorically, Even so, as he also points out there are still problems. Essence: for Sartre doesn't mean God;s creative power, he was an atheist,It meant genetics and environmental influences. [8] Even so those factors must still be present even morose for a 21st century naturalist, with nothing other than those two factors to fall back on. Post humans have no spiritual essence that transcends the chemicals.

It is ironic many atheists encountering Sartre's ideas in connection with apologetic will say disagree with Sartre on the assumption that he says there is a universal meaning They will juxtapose their idea of private personal meaning against it, That's actually in agreement with Sartre. He is not saying there in some transcendent cosmic meaning he's saying life is meaningless and absurd but we make our own meaning. That really demonstrates the problem with Sartre, there has to be a kind of essence for us to be, but once we are then we make our own meaning and become more than we are. So really he should say being and essence are a dialectic that goes essence-- being-- synthesis (private manufactured essence). He is really saying we become more than the naturalistic essence are born with and are shaped when we learn to exert our self making freedom. 

Freedom is another issue that puts him  at odds with 21st century atheists. Most of the new atheists I've seen either on message boards or in print are  chemical deterministic and opposes free will. I've seen atheists   claim science disproves free will (it does not). For Sartre we are radically free, almost too free. So his notion of essence is really verging on the kind of first cause that is almost independent of nature.  I think he had an inkling of God  that finally came to fruition at the end of his life. Flynn comments on the value he still finds in Sartre's work:
Next, the recent revival of the understanding of philosophy as a “way of life” as distinct from an academic discipline focused on epistemology or more recently on the philosophy of language, while renewing an interest in Hellenistic ethics as well as in various forms of “spirituality,” can find in Sartrean existentialism forms of “care of the self” that invite fruitful conversation with contemporary ethics, aesthetics and politics without devolving into moralism, aestheticism or fanaticism. From a philosopher suspicious of moral recipes and focused on concrete, lived experience, this is perhaps as much as one could expect or desire.[9]
The profound consequences for Theology is that since most theology is written in the vain of continental philosophy and most is not written as analytical philosophy (not Christians who are analytical philosophers as doing theology ). Paul Tillich is a good example of someone who is very continental in way he wrote, he was of course German. It's just discursive reasoning, it uses logic no less than analytical philosophy for formal deductive argument. They are still reasoning even though they don't package it is the same. It;s more accessible.Even though theology has it;s own mystification of knowledge, still analytical philosophy while it is a great help in clarifying and making critical distinctions can also become a straight jacket and feed into the illusion of technique.


[2] Thomas,  Flynn,"Jean-Paul Sartre", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .

[3] Ibid

[4] Nigel Warburton, "A student’s guide to Jean-Paul Sartre’s Existentialism and Humanism,"
Philosophy Now: A Magazine of Ideas, (Dec 2016, Jan, 2017), online jouirnal

[5] Robert Bostrom, website, “Is there a God the Evidence For and Agaismt,”On-limn resource, URL: (accssed 9/21/16)
Robert Bostrom.Director, Yale University (Philosophy)Future of Humanity Institute & Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology, University of Oxford grad student under Robert Nozick

[6] Flynn Op Cit

[7] Jean-Paul Sartre,"Existentialism is a Humanism." PDF
Written: Lecture given in 1946
Source: Existentialism from Dostoyevsky to Sartre, ed. Walter Kaufman, Meridian Publishing Company, 1989;
First Published: World Publishing Company in 1956;
Translator: Philip Mairet;
Copyright: reproduced under the “Fair Use” provisions;
HTML Markup: by Andy Blunden 1998; proofed and corrected February 2005.

[8] Benjamin Studebaker, "A Critique of Existentialism," Benjamin Studebaker: about Politics, Economics, International Relations, ect... (Sept 5, 2012)

[9] Flynn, op cit


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