Critique of Dialectical Reason

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Critique of Dialectical Reason
Critique of Dialectical Reason (French edition).jpg
The original French edition
Author Jean-Paul Sartre
Original title Critique de la raison dialectique
Translator Alan Sheridan-Smith
Country France
Language French
Subject Philosophy
Publisher Éditions Gallimard
Publication date
1960 (vol. 1)
1985 (vol. 2)
Published in English
1976 (vol. 1)
1991 (vol. 2)
Media type Print
Pages 835 (English ed., vol. 1)
467 (English ed., vol. 2)
ISBN 0-86091-757-6 (vol. 1)
0-86091-311-2 (vol. 2)

Critique of Dialectical Reason (French: Critique de la raison dialectique) is a 1960 book by Jean-Paul Sartre in which he further develops the Existentialist Marxism he first expounded in his 1957 essay Search for a Method.[1] Critique of Dialectical Reason and Search for a Method were written as a common manuscript, with Sartre intending the former to logically precede the latter.[2] Sartre's second large-scale philosophical treatise, his 1943 work Being and Nothingness having been the first,[1] Critique of Dialectical Reason has been seen as an abandonment of Sartre's original Existentialism.[3] It was translated into English by Alan Sheridan-Smith.[4]

The first volume, Theory of Practical Ensembles, was first published in English in 1976; a corrected English translation was published in 1991, based on the revised French edition of 1985.[4] The second volume, The Intelligibility of History, was published posthumously in French in 1985 and in English in 1991.[5]

Sartre is quoted as having said this was the principal of his two philosophical works for which he wished to be remembered.[6][7]


Critique of Dialectical Reason was written in the wake of the rejection of Communism by leftist French intellectuals who also wanted to revive Marxism, which destroyed Sartre's friendship with Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Sartre conceded that he had "learned History" from Merleau-Ponty, and that the Critique of Dialectical Reason was the testimony to this.[8]


Critique of Dialectical Reason is the product of a later stage in Sartre's thinking, during which he no longer identified Marxism with the Soviet Union or French Communism but came closer to identifying as a Marxist. It puts forward a revision of Existentialism, and an interpretation of Marxism as a contemporary philosophy par excellence, one that can be criticized only from a reactionary pre-Marxist standpoint.

Sartre argues that while the free fusion of many human projects may possibly constitute a Communist society, there is no guarantee of this. Conscious human acts are not projections of freedom that produce human 'temporality', but movements toward 'totalization', their sense being co-determined by existing social conditions. People are thus neither absolutely free to determine the meaning of their acts nor slaves to the circumstances in which they find themselves. Social life does not consist only of individual acts rooted in freedom, since it is also a sedimentation of history by which we are limited and a fight with nature, which imposes further obstacles and causes social relationships to be dominated by scarcity. Every satisfaction of a need can cause antagonism and make it more difficult for people to accept each other as human beings. Scarcity deprives people of the ability to make particular choices and diminishes their humanity. Communism will restore the freedom of the individual and his ability to recognize the freedom of others.[3]


Leszek Kołakowski believes that the Critique of Dialectical Reason represents an abandonment of Sartre's original Existentialism, and depicts Marxism as "invincible", something he finds absurd. Kołakowski nevertheless considers the book an interesting attempt to find room for creativity and spontaneity within Marxism, noting that it rejects the dialectic of nature and historical determinism while preserving the social significance of human behavior. Kołakowski criticizes Sartre for failing to explain how Communism could restore freedom. In his view, Sartre gives such a generalized account of revolutionary organization that he ignores the real difficulties of groups engaging in common action without infringing the freedom of their individual members. Kołakowski criticizes Sartre for introducing many superfluous neologisms, writing that aside from these it does not contain a genuinely new interpretation of Marxism; he sees its view of the historical character of perception and knowledge and its rejection of the dialectic of nature as stemming from the work of György Lukács. According to Kołakowski, neither Sartre's view that freedom must be safeguarded in revolutionary organization nor his view that there will be perfect freedom when Communism has abolished shortages is new in a Marxist context, and Sartre fails to explain how either could have been brought about.[3]

Philosopher Sidney Hook described the work as a philosophical justification for widespread human rights abuses by Communist leadership of the Soviet Union.[9] R. D. Laing and David Cooper consider the Critique of Dialectical Reason an attempt to provide a dialectical basis for a structural anthropology, and to establish through a dialectical approach the limits of dialectical reason.[10] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari endorse Sartre's view that there is no "class spontaneity" but only "group spontaneity".[11]

Hazel Barnes observes that the title Critique of Dialectical Reason "suggests both Kant and Hegel." According to Barnes, the Critique of Dialectical Reason resembles Kant's Critique of Pure Reason in that it is concerned "with the nature, possibilities, and limitations of human reason." She sees this as the only similarity, however, since Sartre's interests are not primarily epistemological or metaphysical and he is more indebted to Hegel than to Kant.[2]


  1. ^ a b Baldwin, Thomas (2005). Honderich, Ted, ed. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 835. ISBN 0-19-926479-1. 
  2. ^ a b Barnes, Hazel; Sartre, Jean-Paul (1968). Search for a Method. New York: Vintage Books. pp. ix–x. ISBN 0-394-70464-9. 
  3. ^ a b c Kołakowski, Leszek (2005). Main Currents of Marxism. New York: W. W. Norton. pp. 1171–1172. ISBN 978-0-393-32943-8. 
  4. ^ a b Sartre, Jean-Paul (1991). Critique of Dialectical Reason Volume 1: Theory of Practical Ensembles. London: Verso. p. 4. ISBN 0 86091 757 6. 
  5. ^ Sartre, Jean-Paul (1991). Critique of Dialectical Reason Volume 2: The Intelligibility of History. London: Verso. p. iv. 
  6. ^ Sartre at 70: An interview Full text of the interview in which the author gives his opinion in the New York Review of Books. Actual question (at beginning of Part II) is "And which of your works do you hope to see the new generation take up again?"
  7. ^ Infidels, Freethinkers, Humanists, and Unbelievers Sartre after Literature ¶ 3. Typical of the secondary sources referring to the actual text in the interview.
  8. ^ O'Neill, John (1989). The Communicative Body: Studies in Communicative Philosophy, Politics and Sociology. Evanston: Northwestern University Press. pp. 132, 140–141. ISBN 0-8101-0802-X. 
  9. ^ Sidney Hook (1966). "Marxism in the Western World: From Scientific Socialism to Mythology". In Milorad M. Drachkovitch (ed.), Marxist Ideology in the Contemporary World: Its Appeals and Paradoxes, pp. 1-36, NY: Praeger
  10. ^ Laing, R. D.; Cooper, David; Sartre, Jean-Paul (1971). Reason and Violence: A decade of Sartre's philosophy 1950-1960. New York: Vintage Books. pp. 26–27. ISBN 0-394-71043-6. 
  11. ^ Deleuze, Gilles; Guattari, Félix (1992). Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. pp. 256–257. ISBN 0-8166-1225-0. 

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