Sartre and Heidegger on Poetry

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In the third segment of our philosophy series, Chloe Mayne looks at the politics of poetry:

The links between aesthetics and ethics are, in my opinion, intricate and wonderful. Examining their tangles exposes questions such as: what is the role of art in a world wrung with war, famine, and broader existential supermarket-aisle discontent? Can art ‘make a difference’? And should we expect it to? While poetry tends to receive little attention in philosophical discourse, the attitudes of intellectual heavyweights Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger toward it comprise an interesting foray into the role we think art plays in the theatre of the human landscape.

In Sartre’s What is Literature? (1948) he argues that literature requires commitment to a greater political issue. Being an author means writing in the name of a cause, and trying to motivate a reader to sympathise with that cause. In putting such requirements of political commitment on writers and their writing, Sartre is careful to set other art forms apart. He argues that the relationship of prose and poetry to words is fundamentally different at its root. Prose uses words as signs, as tools or equipment, whereas for poets words are images, like strokes of paint:

The writer can guide you and, if he describes a hovel, make it seem the symbol of social injustice and provoke your indignation. The painter is mute. He presents you with a hovel, that’s all. You are free to see in it what you like. That attic window will never be the symbol of misery; for that, it would have to be a sign, whereas it is a thing.

Further through the book, he continues:

The man who talks is beyond words and near the object, whereas the poet is on this side of them. For the former, they are domesticated; for the latter they are in the wild state. For the former, they are useful conventions, tools which gradually wear out and which one throws away when they are no longer serviceable; for the latter, they are natural things which sprout naturally upon the earth like grass and trees…

While literature is bound by obligation, then, poetry and the other ‘nonrepresentational’ arts (such as painting and music) can be seen by Sartre as existing outside of the political realm, as deserving special preservation. In this way, however, their ability to create cultural change is somewhat limited – if not absent.


While Sartre found fame in being the florid but just-accessible cult intellectual of his time, Martin Heidegger is renowned for being one of (if not the) most difficult philosophers/writers to read, ever. Indeed, there’s a whole Wikipedia article dedicated to his exclusive terminology. At least from the outside, his monolithic nature gave me the impression that his thoughts on art would be somehow rigid or dry; rather, what I found was a gorgeous explication of art’s unique position within our lives. He takes Sartre’s position and magnifies both the unique nature of art and its revolutionary capacity, making art both more beautiful and more powerful.

In his essay ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’ Heidegger argues for art’s ability to access the essence of things – essentially, to locate truth. This special permission to deal with the ‘thingliness of things’ (his words, not mine!) awards art what he calls an ‘aura’. In Van Gogh’s portrait of a pair of shoes, so much more than a pair of shoes is trapped within the image. It brims with the feet that wear them, their trudging manner of walking, and the soil that they push through. Shown in repose, we see shoes for what they really are. This might seem mundane, but to have this glimpse at things-in-themselves is actually quite humbling and profound.shoes1887

For Heidegger it is the painting and the poem which take pride of place in terms of revolutionary capacity, in a starkly different manner to the power ascribed the novel by Sartre. For Sartre, however, this is because art’s impact is wrapped up in its responsibility. Heidegger thus preserves art and its aura as something separate from politics, something in and of itself, while at the same time conceding that good art does have the potential to initiate change. ‘Truth, as the clearing and concealing of that which is, happens through being poeticized’, says Heidegger. ‘All art, as the letting happen of the advent of the truth of beings, is, in essence, poetry… The essence of art is poetry’. Art’s aura makes it a unique etching in time and expression; and it simply needs to be seen, rather than pulled apart and ‘understood’.

Heidegger considers poetry the art form most capable of accessing the aura of things, thus making it the most powerful of the forms in the sense of instilling clarity and change. But all art forms are capable of creating an aura, of discovering truth. The way art does this for Heidegger is very different from the directly political manner that Sartre prescribes literature. It’s in a gentler sense of beauty and empathy, resisting the market-driven modes of replication and simulation in favour of celebrating uniqueness. Sartre, in turn, places writers directly in the political playing field. Writers do play important roles in politics – perhaps more often by choice than force – but in putting so much pressure on literature Sartre doesn’t award other art forms the revolutionary capacity that they deserve. Either way, it’s clear that the ties between ethics and aesthetics are integral to the flourishing of human experience, and are well worth a look-in if we want to appreciate art’s ability to move and shape us.

Chloe Mayne


Words by Chloe Mayne.