JEAN-PAUL SARTRE belonged to a great tradition that has no American counterpart. Americans prefer to put the serious questions of political philosophy into the hands of lawyers and the courts. Courts have less authority in France than here, but the reigning literary figures there have much more of it. Mr. Sartre, who died Tuesday in Paris, was one of his generation's greatest examples of the intellectual, engaged to the limit of his extraordinary resources in the moral disorder of his times.

In the 1930's he devoted himself to developing a position of independence from an increasingly degraded political atmosphere. Existentialism spoke to those people who foresaw the great tragedy descending on Europe, and were unable to find refuge in any established religious or moral system. After the defeat, when France was under occupation, Mr. Sartre worked in the resistance. At the end of the war, he became an embodiment of French pride and suspicion toward the United States. b

As time passed, he slowly began to acknowledge that things were not going well in the other half of Europe. Particularly after the Soviet suppression of the 1956 revolution in Hungary, he abandoned his support of Soviet policy. But that hardly affected his trenchant and unremitting critique of American institutions, habits, positions and purposes. His generation had learned to mistrust power, and Mr. Sartre erected that distrust into a philosophical system.

But as he experimented further with radicalism, France grew prosperous and sedate. Mr. Sartre was a committed outsider. But he remained a force among those people who set the standards for French literary and academic life. It is only within the past several years, long after Mr. Sartre's retirement from political activity, that the perspectives of the far left have ceased to dominate French intellectual life.

Like any important writer, Mr. Sartre leaves a good many uncomfortable questions behind him. Through his brilliant example and leadership, many of France's best minds chose to dwell in alienation. That did not necessarily strengthen France's political process, or raise the quality of public dialogue, in those years of rebuilding. But at its best, as at its worst, the Sartre position was resistance -- intelligent, adamant and courageous.