‘Sartre has undoubtedly dominated his generation and had no successor.’ This is the verdict on his work in a school text-book, a critical study of post-war French literature, published in the 1970s. It is not for the sociologist to agree or disagree with this verdict; he has to take it for what it is, i.e. an indisputable social fact, and to endeavour to account for it, to make it intelligible. What made Sartre, the (French) intellectual par excellence, possible? What were the enabling conditions for this total intellectual, active on every front, as philosopher, critic, novelist and dramatist? These are typically anti-Sartrian questions. Sartre, who created the intellectual as an uncreated creator, never ceased, in the many self-analyses and self-critiques he produced throughout his career, to assert his capacity for exhaustive knowledge of his own truth, as an individual and as an intellectual. In so doing, he ruled out in advance, as reductive, any attempt to circumscribe the uncircumscribable, to classify the unclassifiable.
What if Sartre had been only the ideologist of the intellectuals, confident that they would recognise themselves in the image he reflected back to them, that of the total intellectual who cannot be reduced to any determination? What if Sartre, who reigned unchallenged over the whole intellectual universe, was totally dominated by what he dominated? What if the free intellectual were actually the most determinate of intellectuals, unaware as he is that the determinations attaching to his social position lie precisely in the illusion of the absence of determination?
Sartre’s uniqueness consisted in the fact that, by a coup de force which presupposed a good deal of force and a good deal of violence (the unassuming old man at protest meetings and on marches has made us forget the young normalien’s ‘masterly self-assurance’, which the critics hailed in his early writings), he brought together a set of hitherto separate ways of filling the role of intellectual. One would need to go deep into social history to show that all the components of the social figure of the intellectual were in existence well before the capital-concentrating operation whereby Sartre combined them in his own person. What can be briefly outlined is the logic of the process of accumulation by which Sartre made himself the point of convergence of the many different ways of being an intellectual invented and established in the course of France’s intellectual history. By crossing the invisible frontier which divided professors, philosophers and critics from writers – petty-bourgeois ‘scholarship boys’ from bourgeois ‘inheritors’, science from genius, the ponderously conceptual from the subtly literary – Sartre created a new character: the writer-philosopher and metaphysician-novelist. His philosophical ‘revolution’ against theories of knowledge (symbolised by Léon Brunschvicg) is inseparable from a ‘revolution’ in philosophical writing. The application of Husserl’s theory of intentionality, which leads him to abandon the closed world of the self-knowing consciousness for the open world of a consciousness ‘exploding towards’ things, towards the world, towards other people, entails the irruption into philosophical discourse of a whole universe of new objects (the famous café waiter, for example) which had previously been excluded from the rather stuffy atmosphere of ‘academic’ philosophy and left to the writers. It also requires a new, openly literary, way of talking about these objects. Philosophy takes to the streets and the philosopher, like the literary man, writes at café tables. By his choice of Gallimard, the bastion of pure literature, as publishers for his works of philosophy, which would previously have been sent to Alcan, the predecessor of the Presses Universitaires de France, Sartre abolished the frontier between literary philosophy and philosophical literature, between the literary effects encouraged by phenomenological analysis and the existential analyses of such metaphysical novels as La Nausée or Le Mur. His ‘thesis’ plays dramatise and popularise philosophical arguments, so fitting them to enter both the bourgeois living-room and the philosophy classroom.