Mary Edwards - The Phenomenological Foundations of Sartre’s ‘Human-World Realism’

This is one of the papers from our 2017 Annual Conference, the Future of Phenomenology. Information and the full conference booklet can be found at


Drawing upon the work of John Duncan (2005), Thomas R. Flynn (2014), and upon Frederick A. Olafson’s (1967) classic text, Principles and Persons: An Ethical Interpretation of Existentialism, this paper argues that the development of Jean-Paul Sartre’s phenomenology is guided by his commitment to providing a robust foundation for philosophical realism. Its aim is to illuminate how, rather than merely enriching our knowledge of experience itself, Sartre’s mature phenomenology seeks to transcend experience toward the concrete realm of worldly being by affirming that human experience provides the basis for a ‘realistic materialism’. This paper proceeds by first discussing how, despite his initial, enthusiastic engagement with the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl, Sartre departs from Husserl in his efforts to turn his phenomenology outward – towards deepening our understanding of others and things in the world – rather than inward – toward the self – which is how he interprets Husserl’s work. Then, it traces the development of Sartre’s phenomenological thought from Being and Nothingness through to the Critique of Dialectical Reason and argues that Sartre progressed from using the tools of ‘pure’ phenomenology as a means of examining consciousness, to developing a realist phenomenology that is committed to describing human experience as concrete experience of an embodied self, the world, and others. Finally, this paper highlights some idealist tendencies that persist in Sartre’s thought and poses the question of whether his mature phenomenology can support a defence of ‘realism-proper’. It concludes by gesturing towards an answer in the negative, but which defends Sartre’s choice not to isolate metaphysics from politics in his later work.

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