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[Classic] #50. Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Plaidoyer pour les intellectuels”

Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Plaidoyer pour les intellectuels” defines and discusses the role and function of intellectuals. Sartre portrays intellectuals as those who recognize social contradictions and assist the oppressed. They engage in continuous self-criticism and ideological struggle to help society achieve its goals. The book offers deep insights into the social importance of intellectuals.

Introduction to the Author

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905.6.21 ~ 1980.4.15) was a prominent French existentialist philosopher and writer, widely regarded as a leading figure in 20th-century Western existentialism. Born in Paris, he spent his early years under the strict supervision of his maternal grandfather. After graduating from the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in Paris, he pursued studies in philosophy, sociology, and psychology, excelling as a student and passing the philosophy professor exam. Sartre’s literary and philosophical works include notable titles such as “Nausea” and “Being and Nothingness.” He also gained public acclaim for his anti-fascist play “Les Mouches”【115†source】.

Explanation of Terms

Organic Intellectual

Coined by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, this term refers to intellectuals who emerge from the capitalist class and are organically tied to it. These intellectuals help organize and develop society in ways that benefit capitalism, serving as agents of the ruling class’s hegemony. Gramsci differentiates them from traditional intellectuals who maintain a semblance of independence【115†source】.

Summary of the Work

Part 1: What is an Intellectual?

The Situation of Intellectuals: Sartre analyzes why intellectuals are often criticized by the public. Intellectuals are tasked with preserving and transmitting culture, but they often challenge political power and view history critically. Despite their significant role, intellectuals are essentially powerless, as they do not engage in productive activities and rely on salaries. Their characteristics include moralism, idealism, and dogmatism, and they tend to judge reality from an abstract perspective【115†source】.

What is an Intellectual?: Intellectuals differ from individuals whose existence is defined by socially recognized functions. Action involves partially negating what exists for the sake of what does not yet exist. This negation has a positive aspect, as it aims to realize the not-yet-existing based on current conditions. All humans are goal-oriented, acting as creators and seekers. In modern society, the division of labor assigns goal-setting to the ruling class, implementation to the working class, and method research to the intellectual class【115†source】.

Part 2: The Function of Intellectuals

Contradictions: Intellectuals must reconcile their contradictory existence by examining themselves, society, and ideology. As practical knowledge implementers who have transformed into intellectuals, they continue to fulfill their original role. In a society that conceals the truth, intellectuals must recognize their individual identity as seekers. They understand that universality is always in the making and must fight for it【115†source】.

Intellectuals and the Masses: Intellectuals are solitary beings, with no assigned roles. However, their freedom is tied to the liberation of others. They must view society from the perspective of the most marginalized to understand their true position. Intellectuals must combat ideologies that paralyze the masses, despite the inherent contradictions of their role【115†source】.

The Role of Intellectuals: Intellectuals fight ideologies within the lower classes, use their capitalist knowledge to build a universal cultural foundation, and assist the working class in achieving their goals. Intellectuals must continually battle the ideologies shaped by their fundamental situation and formation. Their mission includes advocating for truth and justice, protecting the historical goals of the masses, and remaining guardians of radical changes【115†source】.

Part 3: Is the Writer an Intellectual?

The Role of Writers: Modern writers use common language to convey their thoughts to society. They transcend linguistic limitations to communicate the silent meaning beyond words. Writers expose society as it is, balancing subjective and objective realities. Literature appeals to readers’ freedom, allowing them to live through the characters’ lives【115†source】.

The Social Activity of Writers: Writers, like other intellectuals, are inherently intellectuals by nature, not by chance. Their works must transcend theoretical and practical dimensions to restore the world’s existence. Through their writing, they confirm absolute values and demand freedom for all humanity【115†source】.

Impressions

This book provides insight into Sartre’s conception of intellectuals. Intellectuals are not merely knowledge holders but individuals who recognize social contradictions and align themselves with the oppressed to help them. This book inspired me to strive to live as an intellectual who actively engages with society’s challenges【115†source】.

Memorable Passages

“The intellectual, a product of a divided society, internalizes this division and becomes a witness to it. Therefore, no society can criticize intellectuals without acknowledging its own shortcomings, as intellectuals are a product of that society”【115†source】.

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