Sartre on Sin

Between Being and Nothingness

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Kate Kirkpatrick
Oxford Theology and Religion Monographs
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , January
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The resemblances between Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential thought and Christianity as well as the doctrine of original sin have been underexplored in scholarship on Sartre’s work. In Sartre on Sin: Between Being and Nothingness, Kate Kirkpatrick explores these resemblances. She convincingly demonstrates that Sartre’s intellectual formation does include a theological component, and that Sartre’s ontology of freedom bears great similarity to Augustine’s ontology of sin, when understood through the variants of l’école française de spiritualité and Jansenism. Any persons interested in exploring Sartre’s French intellectual and/or theological inheritances would benefit from reviewing this book, as would any theologians who are looking to uncover theological traces in phenomenology and existentialism more broadly.

The book is organized thoughtfully with Kirkpatrick’s argument proceeding in four parts. The first part lays out the stakes for her work, justifying both the relevance of her analysis and her method. The second part outlines the French theological context that informed Sartre, providing a substantial historical basis for her arguments. The third part examines some specific theological commitments and implications found in Being and Nothingness. The fourth part outlines some resources that Kirkpatrick argues theologians engaged in contemporary hamartiology can draw from Sartre’s work. 

One particularly insightful aspect of this book concerns Kirkpatrick’s complication of the question of Sartre’s intellectual formation and intellectual debts. Against dominant trends in Anglo-American scholarship on Sartre, which tend to focus on Sartre’s engagement with Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger, and Descartes, Kirkpatrick suggests that Sartre’s intellectual formation included French theological and literary traditions. Indeed, given his education in France, Sartre was deeply steeped in major French figures of theology, such as Bérulle, Jansen, Pascal, and Fénelon. In this discussion, Kirkpatrick argues that Sartre “unifies the Augustinian notion of nothingness with a Kierkegaardian emphasis on the individual—on the subjective experience of sin” (87-88). 

Kirkpatrick establishes this first claim by situating Sartre’s engagement with Augustine’s notion of nothingness squarely within his education in the 17th-century French revival of Augustinianism. For Augustine, the problem of evil arises when humans distend their free will towards a nothingness where there should be Being. Fallen humans are “between being and nothingness” because we exist in a state of lack but long for a right relation with ourselves and God (23). Our sins arise from our nothingness and they turn the soul away from Being (25). Pascal elaborates further by suggesting that humans are alienated from understanding the nothingness from which we originated (44). In the fall we turned from love of God to love of the self, and now discover ourselves attempting to fill our lack with finite things and ends. In so doing we divert ourselves from our feeling of nothingness (49). As Kirkpatrick points out, on these points we find similarities in Sartre’s explication of the human condition. For example, humans are in a state between being and nothingness and experience self-estrangement. Our attempts to fill our lack lead us into bad faith or other self-deceptions.

Kirkpatrick takes her second claim regarding Sartre’s engagement with Kierkegaard to show how Sartre’s evasion of his debt to Kierkegaard is more truly an evasion of his debt to the concept of sin (78). According to Kierkegaard, only the human can be anxious. The object of anxiety is nothing insofar as anxiety reveals freedom’s possibility (81). Sin entered the world through an act that only arose as a result of anxiety over the possibility of freedom (82). As Kirkpatrick notes, the case is similar for Sartre: we are the source of nothingness, and nothingness comes through our freedom. Yet we only become conscious of freedom through anxiety, which reveals the possibilities that pertain to our freedom. Anxiety, then, is our experience of nothingness, expressed as nausea in the face of our freedom (99-100). We attempt to flee this anxiety or hide it from ourselves by flight.

At the outset of the book, Kirkpatrick’s stated goals are to demonstrate the way in which Sartre’s phenomenological work bears strong similarities to certain theological predecessors and certain theological concepts. What I take Kirkpatrick to have compellingly demonstrated is this similarity and Sartre’s theological inheritances. However, I am still thinking through Kirkpatrick’s next step, which is to argue that these theological traditions directly informed Sartre’s phenomenology. As we see later in the book, her claims become more forceful: part 3, for example, entitled “A Phenomenology of Sin,” sets us up for a reading of Being and Nothingness as a phenomenology of sin, a move she confirms at the outset of part 4 (89, 201). 

Does arguing that Being and Nothingness can be read as a phenomenology of sin push the well-earned merits of her contribution too far? To accept this claim we must accept that there can be a concept of original sin without positing God or grace, and we must find that secular version operating in Sartre’s phenomenology in such a way that it “undergirds” Sartre’s divergences from Hegel, Husserl, and Heidegger. Kirkpatrick seems ready to accept both claims: as she puts it, Sartre is a “secular theologian of original sin” (9) whose work in Being and Nothingness constitutes an “anti-theodicy” (162). 

However, I wonder what it would mean to accept her conclusion that Sartre’s phenomenology can therefore be read as a phenomenology of sin. Even if this move accommodates his denial of God and grace, do we nonetheless obfuscate the critical upshot of his phenomenology by calling it a phenomenology of sin? Do we dull its critical edge such that we are distracted from his descriptions of the radical responsibility that arises due to our freedom, a responsibility that we cannot resolve or absolve? 

I suspect that Kirkpatrick would argue that the fuller picture she provides does not dull the critical nature of Sartre’s account but instead can expand our reading of Sartrean freedom. This question nonetheless remains viable for me. Yet that I am left with questions indicates the thoughtfulness and robustness of Kirkpatrick’s contribution in Sartre on Sin.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rachel Bath is a doctoral student in Phenomenology at Emory University.

Date of Review: 
November 6, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kate Kirkpatrick is Lecturer in Religion, Philosophy, and Culture at King's College London.


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