Ethics

A student’s guide to Jean-Paul Sartre’s Existentialism and Humanism

Nigel Warburton gives a brief introduction to this classic text.

Existentialism and Humanism is probably the most widely read of all Sartre’s philosophical writings, and it is certainly one of his more accessible pieces; yet surprisingly little has been written about it. One explanation for this may be that Sartre himself came to regret the publication of the book and later repudiated parts of it. Nevertheless Existentialism and Humanism provides a good introduction to a number of key themes in his major work of the same period, Being and Nothingness, and to some of the fundamental questions about human existence which are the starting point for most people’s interest in philosophy at all.

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.

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