Hell is other people. This miserable-sounding soundbite, the moment of revelation in Jean-Paul Sartre's shortest play, must be the most quoted line of twentieth-century philosophy. Not even Jacques Derrida's claim that ‘there is nothing beyond the text’, fondly cherished in some regions of academia, has anything like the cultural reach of what is often taken to be the quintessential Sartrean slogan. And the analytic tradition hardly abounds in snappy lines: meaning just ain't in the head, to be is to be the value of a variable, and that's about it. You'll not sell many of those t-shirts. Part of the appeal of Sartre's slogan lies, of course, in the fact that we all regularly annoy each other. We think we can see better ways of doing what only other people have the power to do. Your schemes can clash with mine in ways that prevent me from achieving my goals and living my dreams. People can look down on me. Other people can and do thwart, defeat, constrain, disappoint, irritate, and distort us. When we dwell on all this at the expense of the love, inspiration, fun, co-operation, respect, and decency that characterise much of our social interaction, then we find Sartre's slogan neatly encapsulates our mood. Its wit helps us put the melancholia in perspective as we express it. We get it off our chest.
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