Ronald Aronson grew up in Detroit and was educated at Wayne State University, U.C.L.A., the University of Michigan, and Brandeis University, where he earned a Ph.D. in the History of Ideas. He studied with William Barrett, Page Smith, and Herbert Marcuse. Swept up in the political activism of the 1960s, he became a community organizer in the African American neighborhood of New Brunswick, New Jersey, and an editor of the prominent New Left journal, Studies on the Left. In spring, 1968, as he was completing a doctoral dissertation on "Art and Freedom in the Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre," he participated in the "Freedom School" organized in the aftermath of the student strike at Columbia University.
Aronson has taught at Wayne State University since 1968, first at Monteith College, and since 1978 in the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies, a nationally recognized program for working adults that was abolished by the WSU Board of Governors in 2007. He is now Distinguished Professor of the History of Ideas in the Department of History. Winner of several scholarly and teaching awards at Wayne State, Aronson is the past president of its Academy of Scholars.
He was Visiting Professor of Philosophy at DePaul University in Chicago in winter, 2004. In 1983-4, he was Research Associate at University College London and in 1987 and again in 1990, a guest lecturer at the University of Natal and other South African universities. The story of his first experience in South Africa, at the height of the struggle to end apartheid, is told in Stay Out of Politics: A Philosopher Views South Africa (Chicago, 1990). In recognition of his scholarly career and political contributions to South Africa, in April, 2002, he was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws by the University of Natal, Durban, South Africa.
Author or editor of ten books, Aronson is an internationally recognized authority on Jean-Paul Sartre. He has focused above all on the process of Sartre’s transformation to a political thinker and activist. He has been Chair of the Sartre Society of North America and founding editor of the journal Sartre Studies International. With support by the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1980 he published Jean-Paul Sartre - Philosophy in the World (Verso); the American Council of Learned Societies supported research for his Sartre’s Second Critique (University of Chicago Press, 1987).
Aronson’s latest book is, with Adrian van den Hoven, We Have Only This Life to Live: Selected Essays of Jean-Paul Sartre, 1939-1975 (New York Review of Books Classics, 2013). He is also author of Living Without God: New Directions for Atheists, Agnostics, Secularists, and the Undecided (Counterpoint, 2008). Other books include Camus & Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel that Ended It (Chicago, 2004) and After Marxism (Guilford, 1995). He has published articles in The Nation, Bookforum, The Yale Review, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Washington Post, The International Herald-Tribune, The Toronto Star, The (London) Times Higher Education Supplement, and The (London) Times Literary Supplement.
Aronson has produced televised political debates on democratic values and affirmative action (participants have included Cornel West, Barbara Ehrenreich, Abigail Thernstrom, David Frum, and Dinesh D’Souza) He is co-producer of the feature-length documentary film Professional Revolutionary about legendary Detroit social and political activist Saul Wellman and, most recently, 1st Amendment on Trial: The Case of the Detroit Six, focused on the Federal government's trial of Michigan Communist Party leaders in the '50s.
One of Aronson’s lifelong concerns has been to study and write about the nature of hope, especially as related to political commitment. Since the beginning of the invasion of Iraq, he has been active in the Huntington Woods (MI) Peace, Citizenship, and Education Project.