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The Rise of French Existentialism

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This talk aims to provide a sociological explanation for the sudden rise to public prominence of French existentialism as an intellectual movement in the 1940s. It will focus on Jean-Paul Sartre since he is, together with Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus, widely regarded as one of the main proponents of this philosophical and literary current, and the one who attained the highest and most durable public profile.

Existentialism is traditionally associated with the post-war era in Paris. But closer scrutiny shows that the popularity of this school, and of the people associated with it, rose dramatically in a remarkably short space of time, between 1944 and 1947. Two questions, therefore, arise. Firstly, why did this intellectual movement become so popular at this time, especially given that its philosophical origins were distinctly German and were indebted to the work of Martin Heidegger who had been tainted by his closeness to the Nazi regime during the 1930s? Secondly, of the myriad intellectual currents that had momentum at this time, why was it existentialism that became so popular, particularly given the opacity of the writings within this tradition and given that it had remarkably little following before 1944?

This talk is part of the Social Theory Seminars series.

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