Transcendence Estranged: Sartre, Kafka and French Existentialism

Date: 22 April 2015

Venue: UAntwerp, Stadscampus, Hof van Liere, Elsschotzaal - Prinsstraat 13 - 2000 Antwerp

Time: 3:00 PM

Organization / co-organization: Department of Philosophy

PhD candidate: Jo Bogaerts

Principal investigator: Arthur Cools, Vivian Liska

Short description: PhD defence Jo Bogaerts - Faculty of Arts, Department of Philosophy


Although the relation between Franz Kafka’s literary work and French Existentialism has typically been taken for granted it was never studied in detail. The assumption has been that French existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus and others turned to Kafka by way of illustration of the main theses of their philosophical work.

However, contrary to the received view, I argue that Kafka’s work in fact challenges Sartre’s theory of transcendent freedom and its ethical presuppositions. Sartre maintains that even if the subject cannot justify his own existence, he is nonetheless wholly responsible for his ‘transcendence’, i.e. the ways in which he overcomes the factical aspects of his situation and freely gives meaning to his own existence.

Considering the mystified condition of most of Kafka’s heroes, who are the victim of an inescapable predicament and an inevitable downfall, the Sartrean notion of transcendence is untenable in reference to Kafka’s work.

Nonetheless, my investigation of Sartre’s existentialist, theoretical writings shows that the philosopher is not only aware of this but also quotes Kafka in this very connection. Hence, I argue that the Prague author constitutes a profound but hidden critical influence on Sartre’s thought.