Theory in Studio: Jean-Paul Sartre and the Crisis of Pronunciation

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Click above for a video montage compiled by Alex Robins. Why is philosophy always so serious? Does the same go for the art world? We at BURNAWAY believe humor can be a sign of intelligence.
In the first edition of Theory in Studio, I wrote about the aesthetics of the German philosopher Walter Benjamin (click here to read last year’s article). While discussing the column with my fellow writers, we realized to great amusement that everyone tends to pronounce his name differently. Some prefer the familiar “Ben-ja-mihn” (like Benjamin Franklin, but without the Franklin). Others opted for the more exotic “Ben-ya-meen.” There was even less consensus as to whether he was a Walter or a Valter.
We soon realized this problem extended to much of the philosophic cannon. How to say the names of Augustine, Nietzche, or Barthes varied from person to person. This month we meditate on this phenomenon of variable pronunciation. Does it mean anything? Is there a right way to do it? Do you risk total embarrassment at cocktail parties or gallery openings when using the wrong phonetic system?
Perhaps the most notorious example is the name of Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre (1905-1980) was a French philosopher who became an international intellectual celebrity after WWII. He championed the philosophy of existentialism which he formulated in plays, novels, and more traditional philosophic treatises. Existentialism opposed itself to many of the dominant philosophic trends of its day including psychoanalysis and phenomenology. Sartre advocated for a philosophy with a more radical idea of individuality and greater ethical responsibility.
During his lifetime, Sartre was a member of the French Resistance, he worked actively with Parisian Maoists, and was one of a few people to ever turn down the Nobel Prize. All this is to signal that Sartre spent his life as a staunch individualist and a proud trouble-maker. It is only fitting, then, that people around the world should have such a hard time pronouncing his name, as if he did this consciously as a prank.

As René Magritte might say, this is not a pipe-smoking Sartre. Illustration by Alex Robins.

What makes Sartre’s name so devilish is how easy it should be to say. It looks kind of like an English word. It should act like other British terms such as metre. But no convention has been struck and there are no intellectual or cultural guides to help us choose. Each person is alone to choose their own way to say Sartre. Sartre’s name is an existential crisis par excellence.
Whenever someone attempts to say his name, they are confronted with a choice. Setting aside regional accents, there are two main options for an English speaker trying to say Sartre. The first is the one-syllable option: “Sart.” This version rhymes with tart, cart, or dart. Alternatively, one may opt for the two-syllable version “Sar-truh,” or the variation “Sar-tree.” Here the speaker hints at the original French name but makes no attempt to aspirate the final syllable. To better illustrate these variations, I’ve put together a short montage of people saying “Sartre” (see the video at the top of this article).
Each time we say Sartre’s name, we must make these sorts of choices, and once we’ve spoken, we can’t take it back. No option is truly satisfactory, but regardless we must take full responsibility for whichever imperfect solution. There is “Sart” or “Sar-truh” or yet another imprecise variation. In this way, each utterance is its own existential problem.
Whatever pronunciation a person settles upon determines their own way of being in the world. As Sartre famously proclaims, “l’existence précède l’essence,” which in English translates as “existence proceeds essence.” Less poetically stated, this means you can make who you are in the world. One’s essence is the product of choices and not a predetermined fact of existence.
So when someone says “Sart” with confidence, do they make themselves a stronger candidate for the Republican Party by habitually anglicizing foreign words? Or if you say “Sar-truh” with equivocation, does it reveal that you made a C grade in high school French class?
There are dozens of websites that purport to give the correct pronunciation of Sartre’s name (here are examples from howjsay.com and inogolo.com), but that is an impossibility. As we have seen, there is no consensus on how to speak Sartre. Furthermore, the lesson of existential philosophy is that there should be no consensus. These websites are oblivious to the individualized crisis that Sartre’s name inspires and instead replace that crisis with an anonymous computer voice.
We should not succumb to this impersonal pronunciation but instead revel in the cacophony of different ways of saying Sartre. Each speaker must confront this linguistic ambiguity, evaluate their situation, and take the spoken plunge.
The next time you hear someone saying “Sart” or “Sar-truh,” don’t correct them. Instead, graciously tip your hat to them as one self acknowledging another self in their radical individuality. I for one intend to pronounce Sartre  as “Benjamin.”


Alex Robins is a PhD student in philosophy at Emory University. His research examines the history of aesthetics with a focus on American theories of art.
Theory in Studio is a series dedicated to highlighting philosophic terms, trends, and figures and showing their relevance to contemporary art. By providing context, the series seeks to demystify theory and introduce ideas that might help inspire future studio practice.