By Beck Pitt
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The Work of Sartre

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István Mészáros
Issue 376

Over 30 years since its original publication, The Work of Sartre has reappeared with the eagerly anticipated new section, The Challenge of History, appended. Mészáros’ study of perhaps the best known 20th century French philosopher, began so many decades ago, is now complete.

Mészáros is a one of a small number of academics who manage to do justice to the complexity of Jean-Paul Sartre’s thought, while acknowledging the importance of political events in shaping philosophy. Weaving together the story of Sartre’s controversial political development and relationship with the French Communist Party, with a discussion of Sartre’s philosophy, plays, articles and biography, is no mean feat given the huge amount of text Sartre produced during his lifetime. Yet Mészáros critically appraises different facets of Sartre’s thought, asking: how does Sartre understand what it means to be human? what themes and concerns do Sartre’s plays and other writings explore? how does Sartre’s major early philosophical work Being and Nothingness provide a foundation for the primary theme of Sartre’s work – our total and integral freedom and responsibility?

Following this exploration are the additional sections promised by Mészáros in 1979: these focus on certain aspects of the often overlooked later Sartre, frequently described as moving to an explicitly Marxist position during his later years. Making the claim for Sartre’s continued relevance, but also the pervasive influence of his early philosophy.

Mészáros’s analysis critically brings out the necessary “incompleteness” of Sartre’s philosophy via a discussion of revolutionary change, history and a key concept used to understand and frame our existence in the later major philosophical work Critique of Dialectical Reason, that of “scarcity.”

Included in these analyses Mészáros, along with biographical and other detail, refers to the work of Sartre’s contemporaries (in particularly Lévi-Strauss) and concludes with a discussion of Sartre’s political positions after the upheavals of 1968.

The final, complete The Work of Sartre is a formidable achievement, reflecting a rich understanding of Sartre’s work and life. I would recommend this not only to those who want to revisit the original text for the final, long awaited installment of Mészáros’s analysis but also for those keen to understand the complexity of 20th century philosophy and politics.

As Mészáros argues, Sartre remains an enduring figure through his engagement with the question of what it means to be human, and one who spent “his life in the service of the cause of human emancipation”.

The Work of Sartre is published by Monthly Review Press, £25

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