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Reviewed by:
  • Being and Nothingness: An Essay in Phenomenological Ontology by Jean-Paul Sartre
  • Sam Coombes
Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness: An Essay in Phenomenological Ontology. Trans. by Sarah Richmond. Abingdon: Routledge, 2018. lxvii 848 pages.

The publication of this excellent new English translation of L’Être et le néant is a welcome addition to the library of Sartre scholarship, especially at a time when Anglo-America seems to be firmly intent on descending into the paranoid Hobbesian ethics of right-wing xenophobic nationalism. It is to be hoped that the republishing of this lengthy and detailed preamble to Sartre’s socialist ethics of ‘authenticity’, setting out as it does the inauthentic ethical world view described by Sartre as an ‘eidétique de la mauvaise foi’ and subsequently summed up in the infamous phrase ‘l’enfer, c’est les autres’ (Huis clos), will offer possibilities for both cathartic release and prophylactic self-help, rather as inoculation against a virus involves injecting oneself with a dose of the virus itself. There can be little doubt that contemporary Anglo-America does need Sartre and, given the increasing resistance of anglophones to language-learning in general, that it most probably needs Sartre in translation too. The volume gets off to a slightly shaky start, certain formulations in the Translator’s Introduction being a touch journalistic in tone (for example, ‘Sartre and Barnes had different personalities’, and ‘people were hungry for [existentialist] ideas’ (p. xxii)). However, the rigorous methodology and practice of a skilled academic translator soon become apparent. The Translator’s Introduction covers the reception of L’Être et le néant in the anglophone world and critical responses to Sartrean existentialism by successive waves of feminist criticism. Sartre’s thought is also valuably situated in the context of a discussion of notable philosophical predecessors such as Husserl and Heidegger and of the humanism/anti-humanism debate. Of greater interest, though, are the Notes on the Translation, which set out in some detail particular problem areas and issues inevitably thrown up by translating a complex work of continental philosophy such as L’Être et le néant. Here Sarah Richmond demonstrates considerable sensitivity to the nuances of both French philosophical and Sartrean philosophical expression. What is also impressive is her ability to relate Sartre’s French terminology and concepts to their German sources, a strength which requires both linguistic and philosophical expertise. The accuracy of Richmond’s translation of the source text matches the analytical rigour of her appraisal of the challenges involved, and she successfully rises to the challenge of marrying precision with idiomatically correct expression. Furthermore, her translation is enhanced by the inclusion of many informative footnotes, which shed greater light on specific issues or problem areas of a philosophical or linguistic nature as they arise in Sartre’s text. This translation of L’Être et le néant will undoubtedly be widely referred to and quoted in [End Page 665] criticism devoted to early Sartrean thought in the years to come, and will be a valuable resource also for those anglophones able to read the text in French. There is every chance that it will also attract non-specialist readers to Sartre’s early philosophy and will thus importantly contribute to keeping existentialist thought alive in a context and era chronically bereft of genuine philosophical enlightenment.

Sam Coombes
University of Edinburgh


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pp. 665-666
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