TJ Thompson | Sartre on Method

By TJ Thompson

Projects in critical theory often fall into two main camps: the substantive and the methodological. For example, Gender Trouble, despite its methodological innovation, is a text that at its core builds a substantive claim about the nature of gender. However, Gender Trouble may be an outlier. Core texts of critical theory are more often something like critical social methodology, or rather critical social methodology oriented towards emancipation. We saw this in Adorno & Horkheimer, Freire, Adorno, Foucault, and Althusser. Even Beauvoir’s Second Sex, with its topical approach centered on women, is most notable for its existential phenomenological approach.

This methodological bent explains not only the academic inclinations of critical theory, but also the ambiguous position of praxis. Praxis, connotes a type of concrete active doing that seems antithetical to the reading of at-times esoteric and difficult texts. However, if theory is the method of how to conduct a social theoretical project with emancipatory potential, then praxis can be simply undertaking the study.

Firmly within the tradition of critical social methodology oriented towards emancipation, Sartre provides a methodological critique of Marxism as history, although his critique of Marxism as social-theory is perhaps too fundamental to sustain a dialogue.

At its core, his project is a criticism of the Marxian subject.

Taking radical human freedom as his starting point—“man is characterized above all by his going beyond a situation,”[1]—Sartre attempts to engage with Marxism as a social-scientific framework (i.e. something that explains and predicts phenomena), and his criticisms focus on the inaccuracy of the Marxist subject and the problems of building a theory upon it.

Sartre’s first critique is based on the axiom that humans are radically free and undetermined: it follows that a theory in which humans are determined is inaccurate. If we place Marxism in the tradition of economic theory, then Sartre’s criticism aligns with those of economics’ assumed subject: homo œconomicus. However, many criticisms of homo œconomicus focus simply on its inaccuracy, such as when behavioral economics uses human psychology to demonstrate systematically “non-rational” behavior.[2] Sartre would be unsatisfied with such a critique, which still explains the subject not by her own will, but by some type of determination.

It’s unclear what type of theory would suffice. If at each moment we are radically free to choose, then any gesture towards prediction must be made in bad faith. It is not simply that the presumptions of Marxism are off, but that the kinds of presumptions that Marxism is inclined to make are off. Insofar as Sartre considers Marxism to be a theory of history, this is a fine criticism. However, Marxism as social science, and social science in general, require some kind of predictable subject in order to speak. The claims of social science are “this is how things happen,” not merely “this is how things happened.”

How then, does a social theoretician reply to Sartre? Accepting his radically undetermined subject, there are at least three replies. First, the practical: one need not explain thorny fundamentals, because either way it works. Related is the empirical reply: one need not explain why people act a certain way, or whether they can act differently; what matters is the fact that they do act in measurable, predictable ways.  Third, there is the evasive Kantian move: some modes of thought, in this case social science, require particular assumptions about human nature, and while morality may require assumptions of autonomy, sciences require some assumed determination.

However, these replies circumvent Sartre rather than incorporate him. It is unclear how a contemporary social scientist could organize an inquiry around the Sartrean subject. A Sartrean critical phenomenology can certainly be immensely powerful, as shown by Guenther’s work on the 2013 California Prison Hunger Strikes.[3] But again, Guenther’s project is a descriptive, historically focused study. Sartre’s method does well with history, but its relation to predictive claims is much more difficult.

The Context of Dialectics

While Sartre’s synthesis of existentialism and Marxism is largely driven by his existential subject, his work took part in a blossoming 20th century discourse surrounding “dialectics.” Being and Time, for example, describes dialectic as a “genuine philosophical embarrassment.”[4] Such disparagement is intuitive from a phenomenological view, as dialectic is a mediating force—dia-logos—that to a phenomenologist must be necessarily inferior to  “the sheer sensory perception of something… indeed more primordial than the logos.”[5]

Exploring the role of dialectic in light of this phenomenological criticism became a lifelong project of one of Heidegger’s doctoral students, Herbert Marcuse. From his first work, Contributions to a Phenomenology of Historical Materialism, to his last, Marcuse was preoccupied with the philosophical position of dialectics. As Marcuse observed, “[t]he word ‘dialectic’ and the concept of it have been so abused in recent philosophy and in Marxist theory and praxis that it has become necessary to reconsider its origins.”[6]

Such background gives a general setting, if not the particulars, of Sartre’s engagement with dialectics. While Sartre never engaged with the work of Marcuse,[7] he was certainly well acquainted with phenomenology’s disparagement of dialectics, and with Being and Time’s charge of “genuine philosophical embarrassment,” for his own charges against Marxism are in a similar vein: that Marxism imposes a schematic framework rather than looking to the thing (or event) itself. “Existentialism reacts by affirming the specificity of the historic event, which it refuses to conceive of as the absurd juxtaposition of a contingent residue and an a priori signification.”[8] Contrast this to the Marxists, who “can discover nothing by [their] method of pure exposition. The proof is the fact that they know in advance what they must find.”[9]

With this, Sartre criticizes not only the empty subject of Marxism, but also its forced schematization. His picture is of Marxism offering a kind of deductive reasoning: taking Marxist theory as an algorithm, a “natural process governed by laws,”[10] a Marxist historian merely identifies the variables in any story (P = sans-culottes, etc.) for which the plot is already told. Progressive-regressive method, then, can be characterized as an inductive-deductive back and forth that breaks with this top-down imposition.

In the end, though, there are limits to Sartre’s analysis, especially given his failure to clearly define what he thinks dialectic reason is. This is perhaps not entirely surprising.[11] But Sartre’s criticisms seem leveled more at a general target, rather than a sustained engagement with the best stated case.


[1] Sartre, Search for a Method, p. 91

[2] For example, see Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge.

[3] Guenther, A critical phenomenology of solidarity and resistance in the 2013 California prison hunger strikes.

[4] Heidegger, Being and Time, p H 33. An excellent treatment of this topic may be found in Francisco Gonzalez, Dialectic as ‘Philosophical Embarrassment’: Heidegger’s Critique of Plato’s Method (2002).

[5] Being and Time, H 33.

[6] Herbert Marcuse, “On the Problem of Dialectic,” p 55.

[7] Reporting on meeting with Marcuse, Sartre claimed to have barely read a word of Marcuse’s work. See

[8] Search, p. 126

[9] Search, p. 133

[10] Search, p. 86

[11] Betschart, Sartre was not a Marxist