Born in Washington, D.C., Sartwell is the son of Franklin Gallagher Sartwell, a reporter, editor, and photographer. His grandfather, also Franklin Gallagher Sartwell, was a columnist and editorial page editor at the Washington Times-Herald. His great-grandfather, Herman Bernstein broke the story of a secret correspondence between Kaiser Wilhelm and Czar Nicholas during World War I in The New York Times. Sartwell worked as a freelance rock critic for publications, including Record and Melody Maker.
Sartwell received a B.A. from the University of Maryland, College Park, a M.A. from Johns Hopkins University and a Ph.D. from the University of Virginia—where his dissertation supervisor was Richard Rorty. He has taught philosophy, communication and political science at a number of schools, including Vanderbilt University, The University of Alabama, Penn State, Millersville, the Maryland Institute College of Art, and Dickinson College.
A journalist since he was 20, Sartwell's syndicated column, distributed by Creators Syndicate, appeared in numerous newspapers through the 1990s and 2000s, including The Philadelphia Inquirer and Los Angeles Times. He has continued to write for the popular press, with work appearing in the New York Times as a contributing writer to the Times's philosophy section, The Stone. He has been published in The Atlantic, Harpers, The Washington Post, All Things Considered and other venues. He has appeared on C-Span's Washington Journal, discussing political philosophy and ethics. Sartwell remains actively involved in music criticism, including writing a country music column for the NY Press.
Sartwell is a regular contributor to the webzine Splice Today.
After receiving his BA from the University of Maryland in 1980, Sartwell received his MA in Philosophy from The Johns Hopkins University in 1985. He pursued his doctorate at the University of Virginia, supervised by Richard Rorty, writing his dissertation on Art and Articulation, discussing pictorial representation in Dewey, Heidegger, Goodman and Gadamer.
From 1989 through 1993, Sartwell was an Andrew W, Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Vanderbilt University. From 1995 to 1996, Sartwell was an Annenberg Scholar in the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania.
Sartwell is best known as a political philosopher, with significant interests in Analytic Philosophy, Aesthetics and Theory of Knowledge. As a political philosopher, he has been an articulate advocate of Anarchism and individual rights as opposed to the rights of the State. In his 2008 work, Against the State: an Introduction to Anarchist Political Philosophy, he refuted the traditional justifications for the state from Hobbes through Nozick. This was followed by his 2010 work, Political Aesthetics, where he evaluated various systems based on the assumption that political systems are in part aesthetic systems.
Sartwell's interest in language as a system and its constraints and problems has been a constant in his career. Perhaps his clearest expression of this was in his 2000 publication, End of Story: Toward an Annihilation of Language and History, which posited an academic obsession with language qua language and narrative at the expense of a better conceptual and open dialogue.
As a Philosopher of Aesthetics as of language, Sartwell has seen the issues of beauty as being a constant in the search for meaning. His most recent work How to Escape: Magic, Madness, Beauty and Cynicism, published in 2014, looked at a wide variety of artistic expression and experience from an aesthetics perspective. This followed his previous work, 2004's Six Names of Beauty, where he used different words for beauty in a variety of languages including Greek, Sanskrit, Japanese and Navajo as a gateway to understanding the cultural diversity and similarities between ideas and manifestations of beauty.
Sartwell acquired a reputation as an epistemologist whose basic ideas on knowledge involve "three central claims: (1) knowledge is the ultimate goal--the telos--of inquiry; (2) knowledge is true belief; and (3) justification is merely a means for arriving at true belief". Particularly the claim that knowledge equates to true belief has garnered some attention.
On March 3, 2016, Sartwell was placed on leave from his faculty position at Dickinson College in response to posts on his blog in which he accused other philosophy professors of plagiarism. According to Sartwell, the action is related to a video, embedded in the blog post, of Miranda Lambert singing "Time to Get a Gun." In September, 2016, the college's student newspaper reported that Sartwell had returned to his position and would resume teaching in the spring of 2017.
- The Art of Living. Albany: SUNY, 1995.
- Obscenity, Anarchy, Reality. Albany: SUNY, 1996.
- Act Like You Know: African-American Autobiography and White Identity. Chicago, University of Chicago P, 1998.
- End of Story: Toward an Annihilation of Language and History. Albany: SUNY, 2000.
- Extreme Virtue: Leadership and Truth in Five Great American Lives. Albany: SUNY, 2003.
- Six Names of Beauty. New York: Routledge, 2004.
- Exquisite Rebel: The Essays of Voltairine de Cleyre — Anarchist, Feminist, Genius (Co-edited with Sharon Presley). Albany: SUNY, 2005.
- Against the State: An Introduction to Anarchist Political Theory. Albany: SUNY, 2008.
- Political Aesthetics. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2010.
- Editor, The Practical Anarchist; Writings of Josiah Warren. New York: Fordham, 2011
- How to Escape: Magic, Madness, Beauty and Cynicism. Albany: SUNY, 2014
- Entanglements: A System of Philosophy. Albany: SUNY Press, 2017.
In addition to his major publications, Sartwell has published over 40 professional articles in a variety of academic journals including the British Journal of Aesthetics, Philosophy Today, American Philosophical Quarterly and others.
- Sartwell, Crispin (January 29, 2017). "The Wax Presidency Wanes as a Human Comes to the White House". The Wall Street Journal. Archived from the original on April 27, 2021. Retrieved April 27, 2021.
- Sartwell, Crispin (February 23, 2021). "Opinion: Humans Are Animals. Let's Get Over It". The New York Times. Retrieved February 24, 2021.
- Sartwell, Crispin. Against the State: An Introduction to Anarchist Political Theory. SUNY Press, 2008. p. 14.
- The Willy-Nicky Correspondence, with a foreword by Teddy Roosevelt (Toronto: S.B. Gundy, 1918)
- Sartwell, Crispin, blog post with links, April 22, 2015. Retrieved 2017-01-31.
- "Splice Today | www.splicetoday.com". Splice Today. Retrieved 2021-11-13.
- Hofmann, Frank (2005). "Epistemic Means and Ends: In Defense of Some Sartwellian Insights". Synthese. 146 (3): 357–69. doi:10.1007/s11229-004-6210-x. JSTOR 20118635. S2CID 36887004.
- Le Morvan, Pierre (2002). "Is Mere True Belief Knowledge?". Erkenntnis. 56 (2): 151–68. doi:10.1023/A:1015649505115. JSTOR 20013113.
- Lycan, William G. (1994). "Sartwell's Minimalist Analysis of Knowing". Philosophical Studies. 73 (1): 1–3. doi:10.1007/bf00989741. JSTOR 4320457. S2CID 170460285.
- Rachel Bunn (2016-03-04). "Dickinson professor placed on leave following a series of blog posts". The Patriot-News. Retrieved 2016-03-07.
- Lizzy Hardison (2016-03-03). "Philosophy Professor Placed on Temporary Leave". The Dickinsonian. Retrieved 2016-03-07.
- Rachael Franchini (2016-09-08). "Sartwell Returns". The Dickinsonian. Retrieved 2016-12-13.
- Stuhr, John J. (1996). "Rev. of Sartwell, Obscenity, Anarchy, Reality". The Personalist Forum. 12 (2): 191–92. JSTOR 20708734.
- Jeffrey, Timm (1997). "Rev. of Sartwell, Obscenity, Anarchy, Reality". Philosophy East and West. 47 (3): 447–48. doi:10.2307/1399919. JSTOR 1399919.
- Lazarre, Jane (1999). "Rev. of Sartwell, Act Like You Know". American Literature. 71 (3): 598–99. JSTOR 2902751.
- Watkins, James H. (1999). "Rev. of Sartwell, Act Like You Know". South Atlantic Review. 64 (1): 176–79. doi:10.2307/3201777. JSTOR 3201777.
- Olney, James (1999). "Rev. of Sartwell, Act Like You Know". African American Review. 33 (4): 696–97. doi:10.2307/2901359. JSTOR 2901359.
- Voice, Paul (2011). "Rev. of Sartwell, Political Aesthetics". The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. 69 (4): 434–36. doi:10.1111/j.1540-6245.2011.01485_10.x. JSTOR 23883698.
- Eye of the Storm, Crispin Sartwell's blog, hosted on blogs.com.