In SARTRE E L'IMPEGNO ("Carte allineate", 19-12-2009), the French philosopher's views on commitment were reappreciated with reference to some of his essays from the 1940s.

Another work by Sartre, PLAIDOYER POUR LES INTELLECTUELS, insisted on the same topic three decades later in 1972. In this volume, intellectuals on the economic level are seen as non-producers and yet earners of salaries, and on the level of their subjectivity they are affected by the ill of considering themselves as a social "elite", hence their "moralizing attitudes, idealism and dogmatism" (pp. 10-11).

They have a relevant social function, though, if Sartre defines them as "those who interfere with what does not concern them and question established truths as a whole finding inspiration in a global conception of human beings and society" (p. 12). For Sartre the intellectual is not the scientist who researches nuclear energy, but the thinker who warns about nuclear bombs. The intellectual's social function is based on his "praxis" (p. 14), or practice, and in this respect there are a number of "specialists in the field of practical knowledge" (p. 17), much like Gramsci's "organic intellectuals" (p. 23) who act, willingly or unwillingly, on behalf of the ruling classes and are "supposed to convey their values" (p. 27), but the task of the true intellectual goes beyond this and coincides with a constant quest.

The main function of Sartrean intellectuals is to search both into themselves (p. 45) and their social consciousness. According to Sartre, those who can properly define themselves as intellectuals have acquired the awareness that they are "under the influence" of the dominant classes (p. 49) and take good causes to heart. Other than the "false intellectuals" (p. 54), the true intellectuals tell the truth (the main truth being "liberté", or freedom, p. 83) and they naturally side by the oppressed (the "défavourisés", p. 61).

It is their own free choice that constructs intellectuals and their commitment, given that they do not receive a "mandate" by anyone else except themselves (p. 59).

In brief, the task of intellectuals is to "get to know the world in order to change it" (p. 68), “fight ceaselessly against ideology”, and “expose themselves to self-criticism” (p. 70).

Some of the above, though partly outdated and idealistic, is still valid today for those intellectuals who, as inheritors of humanistic stances, still wish to give scope to their existence by embracing social relevance and intervening in a variety of cultural, social and political fields.


[1] J.-P. Sartre, PLAIDOYER POUR LES INTELLECTUELS, Paris, Gallimard, 1972.

[Roberto Bertoni]