Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

Existentialism and Jean-Paul Sartre: Influence of Existentialism

The Influence of Existentialism on Society and Culture

Existentialism has had a major influence on 20th century society and culture. In fact, it's still a major influence today. Naturally, it would be impossible to list everything that existentialism has influenced here, but we're going to take a look at a couple of ways that existentialism has influenced society and culture. 

Absurdism

Absurdism is a philosophy that can be considered an offshoot of existentialism and developed alongside it. It explores the idea of irrationality, and in particular, absurdism deals with the conflict that arises when human beings seek out the meaning of life in a meaningless universe. That is, existence itself is irrational and has no inherent meaning even when human beings try to seek one out. Writers who are considered absurdists include Albert Camus (who rejected the existentialist label for himself) and Samuel Beckett. 

Absurdist works include: 

French New Wave

French New Wave (La Nouvelle Vague) was a major film movement in the mid-to-late 20th century. It completely revolutionized film due to its use of new filming techniques and storylines, choosing to focus on current social issues, for example. These films also feature heavily existentialist and absurdist themes. Major French New Wave directors include Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and Claude Chabrol. 

Famous French New Wave films include Breathless (Godard), The 400 Blows (Truffaut), and Le Beau Serge (Chabrol). 

You can stream these legally on Youtube, Google Play, Vudu, Amazon, and iTunes - with the exception of Le Beau Serge, which you can stream on Hulu. 

Works on French New Wave include: 

Post-war French Society

There has been research done to suggest that existentialism has greatly influenced French society on more than just a cultural level. Some scholars suggest that existentialism has had a major influence on post-war French society, namely as a form of reconciliation after the war and especially since it was the major philosophy in post-war France. Sartre himself was also involved with shaping the post-war historiography of the French Resistance during WWII. 

This theory is certainly interesting and well-worth exploring. The following works are a great introduction to this topic. Keep in mind, some of these works aren't directly related to existentialism or Sartre, but through reading these various works, you can start to see how these theories all connect to one another: 

Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity - This book explores the theory of cultural trauma and how it affects the collective identity of a group or nation. The first chapter explains what cultural trauma is and how it affects societies and is overall, a fascinating read. The rest of the book doesn't have to do with post-war France, but the first chapter is well worth a read. 

Alexander, J.C., Eyerman, R., Giesen B., Smelser, N.J., &  P. Sztompka "Toward a Theory of Cultural Trauma." in Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.simmons.edu/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1pp9nb 

"Intellectuals and cultural trauma" - This article expands on the theory explored in Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity and focuses on the role intellectuals have to play during times of cultural trauma. Again, existentialists and Sartre are not mentioned, but the theory posited is really interesting and would be cited later by scholars of existentialism and Sartre. 

Eyerman, R. (2011). Intellectuals and cultural trauma. European Journal of Social Theory14(4), 453-467. http://doi.org/10.1177/1368431011417932

 "The Sudden Rise of French Existentialism: a case-study in the sociology of intellectual life" - This article explores, through a sociological lens, how existentialism became the most important philosophy in post-war France. In particular, Baert explores Sartre's role in the rise of existentialism. 

Baert, P. (2011). The Sudden Rise of French Existentialism: a case-study in the sociology of intellectual life​. Theory and Society40(6), 619-644. https://doi-org.ezproxy.simmons.edu/10.1007/s11186-011-9154-4. 

"The power struggle of French intellectuals at the end of the Second World War: A study in the sociology of ideas" - Using a sociological lens, this article explores the power struggle of two camps of French intellectuals in the post-war period and how existentialists, like Sartre, started to gain an upper hand in this power vacuum. 

Baert, P. (2011). The power struggle of French intellectuals at the end of the Second World War: A study in the sociology of ideas. European Journal of Social Theory14(4), 415-435. https://doi.org/10.1177/1368431011417928