This page contains a list of the best books on or by Sartre. Just to be clear, there is no single best book on Sartre. The best book for you will depend on your preferred learning style and the amount of time that you want to spend reading about Sartre. An 800-page scholarly overview is unlikely to be best for someone looking for a short beginner-friendly introduction, for example. This list aims to take this ambiguity into account by featuring books that will appeal to a variety of learning styles.
Secondly, this is not a list of personal recommendations. It was created by compiling recommendations from a variety of online sources including bibliographies, course syllabi, and community recommendations. You can find out more about this process here. Links to the sources used to create this list are at the end of the post. Following these links will help you quickly find a wider range of options if the listed books do not fit what you are looking for.
Here are the best books on or by Sartre in no particular order.
How To Read Sartre – Robert Bernasconi
Publisher description: Jean–Paul Sartre is best known as the pre-eminent philosopher of individual freedom. He is the one who told us that we are totally free. Robert Bernasconi shows how the early existentialist Sartre became in stages the political champion of the oppressed. Extracts are drawn from the full range of Sartre’s writings including the novel Nausea, and the major philosophical text Being and Nothingness. They show why of all major twentieth-century philosophers Sartre was the one who most easily passed beyond the confines of the academy to a general readership.
Sartre: A Philosophical Biography – Thomas R. Flynn
Publisher description: Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980) was one of the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century. Regarded as the father of existentialist philosophy, he was also a political critic, moralist, playwright, novelist, and author of biographies and short stories. Thomas R. Flynn provides the first book-length account of Sartre as a philosopher of the imaginary, mapping the intellectual development of his ideas throughout his life, and building a narrative that is not only philosophical but also attentive to the political and literary dimensions of his work. Exploring Sartre’s existentialism, politics, ethics, and ontology, this book illuminates the defining ideas of Sartre’s oeuvre: the literary and the philosophical, the imaginary and the conceptual, his descriptive phenomenology and his phenomenological concept of intentionality, and his conjunction of ethics and politics with an ‘egoless’ consciousness. It will appeal to all who are interested in Sartre’s philosophy and its relation to his life.
The Cambridge Companion to Sartre – Christina Howells
Publisher description: This is one of the most comprehensive and up-to-date surveys of the philosophy of Sartre, by some of the foremost interpreters in the United States and Europe. The essays are both expository and original, and cover Sartre’s writings on ontology, phenomenology, psychology, ethics, and aesthetics, as well as his work on history, commitment, and progress; a final section considers Sartre’s relationship to structuralism and deconstruction. Providing a balanced view of Sartre’s philosophy and situating it in relation to contemporary trends in Continental philosophy, the volume shows that many of the topics associated with Lacan, Foucault, Lévi-Strauss, and Derrida are to be found in the work of Sartre, in some cases as early as 1936. A special feature of the volume is the treatment of the recently published and hitherto little studied posthumous works. Thus new readers and nonspecialists will find this the most convenient, accessible guide to Sartre currently available. Advanced students and specialists will find a conspectus of recent developments in the interpretation of Sartre.
Jean-Paul Sartre: Basic Writings – Jean-Paul Sartre
Publisher description: Jean-Paul Sartre is one of the most famous philosophers of the twentieth century. The principle founder of existentialism, a political thinker and famous novelist and dramatist, his work has exerted enormous influence in philosophy, literature, politics and cultural studies.
Jean-Paul Sartre: Basic Writings is the first collection of Sartre’s key philosophical writings and provides an indispensable resource for all students and readers of his work. Stephen Priest’s clear and helpful introductions set each reading in context, making the volume an ideal companion to those coming to Sartre’s writings for the first time.
Existentialism and Humanism – Jean-Paul Sartre
Publisher description: It was to correct common misconceptions about his thought that Jean-Paul Sartre, the most dominent European intellectual of the post-World War II decades, accepted an invitation to speak on October 29, 1945, at the Club Maintenant in Paris. The unstated objective of his lecture (“Existentialism Is a Humanism”) was to expound his philosophy as a form of “existentialism,” a term much bandied about at the time. Sartre asserted that existentialism was essentially a doctrine for philosophers, though, ironically, he was about to make it accessible to a general audience. The published text of his lecture quickly became one of the bibles of existentialism and made Sartre an international celebrity.
The idea of freedom occupies the center of Sartre’s doctrine. Man, born into an empty, godless universe, is nothing to begin with. He creates his essence—his self, his being—through the choices he freely makes (“existence precedes essence”). Were it not for the contingency of his death, he would never end. Choosing to be this or that is to affirm the value of what we choose. In choosing, therefore, we commit not only ourselves but all of mankind.
No Exit – Jean-Paul Sartre
Publisher description: Four seminal plays by one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century.
An existential portrayal of Hell in Sartre’s best-known play, as well as three other brilliant, thought-provoking works: the reworking of the Electra-Orestes story, the conflict of a young intellectual torn between theory and conflict, and an arresting attack on American racism.
Nausea – Jean-Paul Sartre
Publisher description: Sartre’s greatest novel ― and existentialism’s key text ― now introduced by James Wood.
Nausea is the story of Antoine Roquentin, a French writer who is horrified at his own existence. In impressionistic, diary form he ruthlessly catalogs his every feeling and sensation. His thoughts culminate in a pervasive, overpowering feeling of nausea which “spreads at the bottom of the viscous puddle, at the bottom of our time ― the time of purple suspenders and broken chair seats; it is made of wide, soft instants, spreading at the edge, like an oil stain.”
Winner of the 1964 Nobel Prize in Literature (though he declined to accept it), Jean-Paul Sartre ― philosopher, critic, novelist, and dramatist ― holds a position of singular eminence in the world of French letters. La Nausée, his first and best novel, is a landmark in Existential fiction and a key work of the twentieth century.
Being and Nothingness – Jean-Paul Sartre
Publisher description: First published in French in 1943, Jean-Paul Sartre’s L’Être et le Néant is one of the greatest philosophical works of the twentieth century. In it, Sartre offers nothing less than a brilliant and radical account of the human condition. The English philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch wrote to a friend of “the excitement – I remember nothing like it since the days of discovering Keats and Shelley and Coleridge”. This new translation, the first for over sixty years, makes this classic work of philosophy available to a new generation of readers.
What gives our lives significance, Sartre argues in Being and Nothingness, is not pre-established for us by God or nature but is something for which we ourselves are responsible. At the heart of this view are Sartre’s radical conceptions of consciousness and freedom. Far from being an internal, passive container for our thoughts and experiences, human consciousness is constantly projecting itself into the outside world and imbuing it with meaning. Combining this with the unsettling view that human existence is characterized by radical freedom and the inescapability of choice, Sartre introduces us to a cast of ideas and characters that are part of philosophical legend: anguish; the “bad faith” of the memorable waiter in the café; sexual desire; and the “look” of the Other, brought to life by Sartre’s famous description of someone looking through a keyhole.
Above all, by arguing that we alone create our values and that human relationships are characterized by hopeless conflict, Sartre paints a stark and controversial picture of our moral universe and one that resonates strongly today.
This new translation includes a helpful Translator’s Introduction, a comprehensive Index and a Foreword by Richard Moran, Brian D. Young Professor of Philosophy, Harvard University, USA.
The following sources were used to build this list:
University Course Syllabi:
- Bibliography for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Sartre
- Bibliography for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Sartre
For more introductory philosophy resources and reading lists check out this collection of Resources and Reading Lists.