Sartre Online - The Ultimate Sartrean Resource: Intellectual Influences
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Intellectual Influences

His intellectual predecessors also formed the mind of Jean-Paul Sartre. Among the thinkers that influenced him most are Fyodor Dostoevsky, Paul Nizan, Proust, Henri Bergson, Edmund Husserl, Rene Descartes, Martin Heidegger, W.G. Hegel, and Karl Marx.

He read Dostoevsky when he was about 17 years old. At that time, he was still idealistic in his approach to literature. He believed that literature must contain secret universal messages, and that writing was the noblest profession. It was his encounters with Dostoevsky's novels that made him realize that writing was just one more human activity, and that books are nothing but revealing expressions of a particular people in its space and time.

Paul Nizan influenced Sartre in a twofold manner. First, Nizan introduced Sartre to the optimistic notion regarding collectivity. For Nizan, an individual is part of a greater mass collectively struggling to meet a common goal. An individual struggles bearing in mind that he is not alone in his struggle, and that people after him who are likewise part of this mass shall continue to fight well after his time is done. Second, he acquainted the classically schooled Sartre to modern literature. Sartre later admitted that Proust, together with Valery, did provide an indirect yet profound initiation for him into modern literature.

Bergson, with his discussion on the consciousness of enduring, was the philosopher who made him lean more towards philosophy than towards literature. Sartre was so impressed by Bergson's Essai sur les données immediates de la conscience, a book that tries to describe concretely the functions in the conscious mind. He even wrote a paper on Bergson which was no more than a transcription of Bergson himself.

He first encountered Husserl with the help of Aron at the French Institute in Berlin. There, he read Husserl's Idden zu einer reinen Phänomenologie, and Levinas' discussion of intuition of essences in his La Théorie de l'intuition dans le phénoménologie de Husserl. According to Sartre, he wrote his Transcendance de l'ego under the direct influence of Husserl. Husserl's discussion on intentional consciousness influenced Sartre most.

The legacy of Cartesian thought is evident among French thinkers in such a way that most of them base their philosophizing through an initial encounter with, and a corresponding reaction to, Cartesian thought. Sartre is not free of this tradition. Fr. Copleston delineates the two French thinkers:

For Sartre the basic datum is what he calls pre-reflexive consciousness, awareness for example, of this table, this book, or that tree. What Descartes starts with however in his Cogito, ergo sum is not the pre-reflexive but the reflexive consciousness, which exposes an act whereby the self is constituted as an object. He thus involves himself in the problem of passing from the self-enclosed ego, as object of consciousness, to a warranted assertion of the existence of external objects and of other persons.

Sartre was rereading Heidegger while at the military camp, and he was explaining Heidegger's philosophy to his priest-friends there. It was during this period that he wrote his Being and Nothingness and his Notebooks. Fr. Copleston asserts that despite the disassociation of Heidegger from the Existentialism associated with Sartre, Heidegger's influence on Sartre is very much evident in his magnum opus.

Finally, Marx with his materialism and Hegel with his dialectics captured the mind of Sartre such that much of his writings are directly influenced by their thoughts. However, the influences of these two towering philosophers shall be dealt with in the chapter discussing Sartrean concept on collective authenticity, through the discussion of dialectical materialism.

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