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The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980) was the major representative of the philosophical movement called “existentialism,” and he remains by far the most famous philosopher, worldwide, of the post–World War Two era.

This book will provide readers with all the help they will need to find their own way in Sartre’s works. Author David Detmer provides a clear, accurate, and accessible guide to Sartre’s work, introducing readers to all of his major theories, explaining the ways in which the different strands of his thought are interrelated, and offering an overview of several of his most important works.

Sartre was an extraordinarily versatile and prolific writer. His gigantic corpus includes novels, plays, screenplays, short stories, essays on art, literature, and politics, an autobiography, several biographies of other writers, and two long, dense, complicated, systematic works of philosophy (Being and Nothingness and Critique of Dialectical Reason). His treatment of philosophical issues is spread out over a body of writing that many find highly intimidating because of its size, diversity, and complexity.

A distinctive feature of this book is that it is comprehensive. The vast majority of books on Sartre, including those that are billed as introductions to his work, are highly selective in their coverage. For example, many of them deal only with his early writings and neglect the massive and difficult Critique of Dialectical Reason, or they address only his philosophical work and ignore his novels and plays (or vice versa). The present book, by contrast, discusses works in all of Sartre’s literary genres and from all phases of his career.

An introductory chapter provides an overview of Sartre’s life and work. The next chapter analyzes several of Sartre’s earliest philosophical writings. Each of the next six chapters is devoted to an in-depth examination of a single key book. Two of these chapters are devoted to philosophical works, two to plays, one to a biography, and one to a novel. These chapters also contain some discussion of other writings insofar as these are relevant to the topics under consideration there. A final chapter considers important concepts and theories that are not found in the major works discussed in earlier chapters, briefly introduces other important works of Sartre’s, and offers some final thoughts. The book concludes with a short annotated bibliography with suggestions for further reading.

Central to all of Sartre’s writing was his attempt to describe the salient features of human existence: freedom, responsibility, the emotions, relations with others, work, embodiment, perception, imagination, death, and so forth. In this way he attempted to bring clarity and rigor to the murky realm of the subjective, limiting his focus neither to the purely intellectual side of life (the world of reasoning, or, more broadly, of thinking), nor to those objective features of human life that permit of study from the “outside.” Instead, he broadened his focus so as to include the meaning of all facets of human existence. Thus, his work addressed, in a fundamental way, and primarily from the “inside” (where Sartre’s skills as a novelist and dramatist served him well) the question of how an individual is related to everything that comprises his or her situation: the physical world, other individuals, complex social collectives, and the cultural world of artifacts and institutions.

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