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Jean-Paul Sartre's Critique of Dialectical Reason, Volume 1: Theory of Practical Ensembles

Lecturer: Robert Boncardo

Originally Taught: Summer School 2014

This course will be an introduction to and a defence of Jean-Paul Sartre’s most important yet also neglected work, the Critique of Dialectical Reason, Volume 1: Theory of Practical Ensembles. The course will introduce students to the philosophical content, the political positions and implications, and finally the contemporary resonance of the Critique. Being at once the least well-known but also the fullest and most sophisticated expression of Sartre’s philosophy – a philosophy that we will call, in the course, ‘Marxist Existentialism’ – the Critique is well overdue for a thorough re-reading and defence. This course is an invitation to rediscover a forgotten classic of 20th century French philosophy.

Why Sartre today?

The sartrean position is all but absent from contemporary philosophical and political debate. But is this because Sartre has been irreversibly overcome by the structuralist and poststructuralist positions that usurped his place in French intellectual life and in their uptake in anglo-american thought? From the disrepute into which any philosophy that incorporates the subject’s free and responsible self-relation as an essential moment has fallen, to the apparent historical failure of philosophical and practical positions inspired by Marxism, the reasons for the near-disappearance of sophisticated references to Sartre are in part unsurprising.

But this contemporary consensus is misleading. For Sartre not only contributed to the rebirth of Marxist thought as a radical, critical method, and not to its repetition as a sterile Stalinist dogma or a mute and impotent sociologism. He also offered a surprisingly dynamic dialectical philosophy – most fully developed in his later, less well-known work – which is ideal for tracing the many forms of material, economic and political alienation that beset the human subject. But more importantly than this, his thought is also ideal for imagining the individual and collective practices that could conceivably overcome them.

Perhaps the central reason for the contemporary eclipse of his thought is that Sartre represents, in an uncompromising and often uncomfortable form, the practical – and unapologetically utopian – potential of philosophy. More than any other French philosopher of the 20th century, the questions he poses are tied to the logic and limits of practices that purport to emancipate subjects from situations of oppression. This is sufficient to render his thought anathema to sterile academisation or to the melancholic retreat of philosophy in the face of reactionary forces. But it also means that the responses he proposes to such intractable problems as the relation of structure and agency, or of freedom and necessity, are poorly represented today.

That said, aspects of the sartrean position might not be as absent as they at first appear – a fact to which the contemporary resonance of philosophers such as Badiou and Rancière attests. The pragmatic affirmation of a capacity common to all in political practice, along with the thesis of the impotence and the reactionary potential of interminable criticisms of ideology – ideas that will be familiar to readers of Rancière – are both recognisably sartrean refrains. The position Badiou promotes on the banality of debates that pit democracy against totalitarianism – as opposed to the Idea of communism against capitalism – had their first defense in the indefatigable opposition of Sartre to the rise of rightist ideas in France in the 1970s. More than this, Badiou combines a quasi-structuralist will-to-formalisation with the properly sartrean imperative of grasping the possibility and the logic of praxis and thus of change. Both Rancière and Badiou are therefore minimally sartrean in their persistent attention to processes of emancipation, this being an aspect of their thought that explains their widespread popularity today – that is, after an era in which continental philosophy focused overwhelmingly on structural constraints and on the inescapability of power relations.

But the fact remains that in its full complexity and contemporary applicability, the sartrean position is today in a state of crisis. The reasons for such a sorry state of affairs must nonetheless be properly comprehended, for this crisis originates in a fact far more banal than either Sartre’s disastrous dalliance with Stalinist Marxism or his apparent humanism – Sartre being both a distinctly heterodox Marxist and one of the first in French philosophy to elaborate a non-essentialist conception of the self. Rather, the banal fact at the root of this crisis is the widespread neglect and ignorance of Sartre’s later work in which he not only confronts two of modernity’s most formidable philosophies – Existentialism and Marxism – but also articulates a strong critique of the structuralist position that would go on to usurp his dominant place in French philosophy.

In an era in which economic crisis and social conflict are accompanied by hopes for emancipation, it is time to re-learn some of the lost lessons of Sartre’s thought, and to do so by re-introducing what is his most important and compelling work, The Critique of Dialectical Reason.

The Course Material

The seminal thesis of historical materialism is that history is actively made by human subjects on the basis of conditions received passively from the past. In the Critique, Sartre proposes a possible philosophical foundation for this thesis by transposing his existentialist theory of the subject onto the terrain of History, entangling it in a dialectic of action and inertia, freedom and necessity – and thereby transforms it from the solitary, tragic figure it had been in his early thought into an historical artefact and agent engaged in the process that Marxism posits as the basis of the human being: labour.

But Sartre’s philosophical and practical goal is also to render historical materialism adequate to the affirmation of human freedom and of its potential for emancipation from material, economic and political alienation. For Sartre, the possibility of the reification of human relations and of alienation both presuppose their opposite: a foundational freedom.

The sartrean subject is therefore to be thought of as both a non-self-identical point of pure negativity – and so as free – and as the locus of a set of variously structured and structuring social and historical relations. In other words, it is both transparent to itself or to its project or praxis and irreparably ignorant and vulnerable insofar as its project is played out in a field of conflictual social relations, the complexity and unpredictability of which outstrip any capacity for simple self-determination. But Sartre goes further than this, insisting that the inertia of particular socio-historical relations, along with the entangling of antagonistic, class-based interests that tend to congeal these relations in our capitalist modernity, render any free project of emancipation a rare and precarious possibility.

Despite this, and in line with a Marxism attentive to dynamic moments of political change, Sartre persistently posits that any theory of the subject must grasp it as being not only an historical artifact – an effect of the action of socio-economic structures – but also as the sole point from which the structuring force of historical action can emerge. For Sartre, the price of failing in this is for the thought of History to grind to a halt.

The tool with which thought can grasp this historical process of action and inertia, freedom and necessity, is the materialist dialectic, the abstract structures of which Sartre sees as inherent to the structures of human consciousness and practice. To sharpen this originally practical tool that is common to all, Sartre introduces a set of concepts – praxis, anti-praxis, the practico-inert, seriality and social-being, amongst others – which, while being forged on the basis of historical experience (that of the class struggles of the 19th and 20th centuries and the process of colonialism and anti-colonial struggles in the 20th) and theoretical reflection (that of Marx and Engels in particular), do not, unfortunately, form part of the common lexicon of contemporary continental philosophy.

But more than this, the original and compelling social ontology that Sartre proposes, one that resists both a liberal atomism – for which society is an anarchic aggregate of singular and separate subjects – and a hegelian or marxist organicism – for which society is a totality that incorporates the subject as an inessential part – is also absent from contemporary continental philosophy, despite offering a singularly fruitful solution to the dilemma of the being of historically mobile social objects such as a socio-economic class. For Sartre, a class is neither a phantasmatic totality hiding a flux of heterogeneous social relations (the liberal position), nor an a priori given of capitalist society, ever-ready for revolutionary or counter-revolutionary action (the marxist position), but rather a complex composite structure comprised of series, pressure groups and institutions in which individual subjects can be variously separated in seriality or amalgamated as a group, depending upon the historical moment at hand.

Thus, the historical materialism and the social ontology that Sartre offers aims to be sufficiently flexible to affirm both the necessity of inertia and the possibility of action, the entanglement of subjects in social relations and their irreducible singularity – and finally the obstacles that freedom confronts and the conditions of possibility for emancipation.

But historical materialism requires more than an abstract account of the structures of the subject and sociality. Sartre proposes, therefore, a philosophical basis for the historical, economic and ideological intelligibility not only of the particular series of class-based struggles in Europe in the late-18th and 19th centuries, including the French revolutions of 1789, 1830 and 1848, and of the Paris Commune of 1871, but also of colonialism, of anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles and of the process of decolonization in the latter half of the 20th century. Sartre – a forgotten pioneer of post-colonial thought – has a particular focus on the situation in the former French colony of Algeria, which, at the time he was writing, was engulfed in the horrific Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962).

Sartre’s philosophy is an affirmation of our capacity to understand our History – even in its most inhuman moments. The original and perhaps unprecedented contribution of Sartre to continental philosophy is thus the elaboration of a philosophical basis for the intelligibility of class struggle and of the production and reproduction of racist colonial practices. And insofar as the nefarious effects of these historical processes persist in our present, Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason offers itself as a fruitful basis for building a philosophy appropriate to an era of crisis, conflict and emancipation.

Course Schedule

Lecture One

The first lecture of the course will be concerned to pinpoint the sartrean position amongst the balance of historical and philosophical forces that it confronts. From the set of theoretical standpoints with which Sartre engages – such as those of Hegel, Marx and Engels and the Marxist philosophers of the French Communist Party – to the aspects of the historical moments that weigh on the work – the situation in the USSR after the death of Stalin in 1953, the Cuban Revolution, the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and the Algerian War of Independence of 1954-1962 – we will deploy a sociological methodology to delimit the conditions in relation to which Sartre defines his position.

In a first moment, the lecture will thus attempt to determine – on the basis of a brief reconstruction of Marx and Engels’ thought – the singularity of Sartre’s contribution to historical materialism, with a specific focus on the relation of the Marxist concept of production to the existentialist conception of the project and on the way in which this offers an abstract basis for Marxism in the form of a phenomenological description of labour. In a second, more polemical moment, the lecture will contend that this contribution corresponds to – if not presages – the political ferment of the 1960s.

Lecture Two:

The second lecture of the course will set out the central concepts of Marxist Existentialism. By tracing the internal transformations of a set of classic existentialist concepts, we will focus, firstly, on the irreducibility of Marxist Existentialism to the more widespread and well-known position of sartrean Existentialism and, secondly, on its emergence from practical and theoretical problems that beset not only the latter philosophy but Marxism as well.

We will see, for example:

- the existentialist concept of the project become that of praxis as it is aligned with a dialectical logic of totalisation and placed in a milieu of material scarcity;

- the existentialist concept of being-in-itself progress to that of the practico-inert as it loses the ahistorical trappings of ontology and acquires a rich historical resonance; and

- the existentialist concept of being-for-others shift from a fixation on an indifferent ontological other to a concern for concrete and socio-historically contingent others.

Lastly, and as a particularly fruitful solution to the problem of the relation of the other in existentialism – a relation in which the subject always has the latent possibility of lapsing into solipsism – we will encounter the original sartrean concept of the mediating third, which proves the priority of triadic over dyadic relations with others.

Lecture Three:

The third lecture will describe the way in which the subject’s being-for-others becomes increasingly complex as it intersects with and has its being decisively inflected by the fact of its insertion into, on the one hand, practico-inert reality – which, as we will see, its structured through and through by material scarcity – and on the other hand into various collectives. By the alienating force of scarcity, self-transparent dialectical praxis will be shown to transform itself into and then confront itself as an anti-dialectic, in other words as a deflection of this praxis from its original goal.

In addition to this, the subject will be seen to be alienated in its social being, by virtue of which it has, firstly, a minimally indeterminate destiny, in other words a limited set of possibilities for its future being that are inscribed in the practico-inert; and secondly, a set of material interests, which are not a function of the singularity of its ego but of the exterior exigencies it receives, passively, from the practico-inert. In order to describe social situations in which subjects are substantially identical, the crucial sartrean concept of seriality will also come into play.

Lecture Four:

The fourth lecture of the course will detail the unprecedented philosophical and phenomenological description that Sartre offers of different forms of group praxis, from the group-in-fusion – a form that momentarily resolves the tension between the transparency of individual praxis and the opacity of the practico-inert – to the statutory group, the organization and the institution, all of which are at each moment dynamically intertwined with each other and with serial collectives. By following Sartre’s unforgettable description of the storming of the Bastille during the French Revolution of 1789, we will see how a situation of separation and seriality can erupt into a collective process of emancipation.

This lecture will also focus on Sartre’s abstract account of more coercive phenomena such as the state, bureaucracy, racism and anti-Semitism. The final part of the lecture will be an opportunity to pose the question of the success or failure of the social ontology that Sartre proposes, most importantly in terms of its negotiation of problems such as the relation of the individual to the collective, of inertia and change – and finally of the possibility of a non-capitalist social totality.

Lecture Five:

The fifth lecture of the course will be concerned to describe the logic coordinating the interlacing of the concrete historical moments that Sartre treats (the revolutions of 1830 and 1848, the praxis-process of European colonialism and racism) and the abstract concepts he constructs across the unfolding of the text. Contrary to the apparently irrational opacity or complexity of these often horrific historical processes, the goal of this lecture will be for the possibility of their intelligibility to emerge from this engagement of the philosophical with the extra-philosophical.

In the case of colonialism, the concepts of superexploitation, of the praxis of oppression and of the process of exploitation, and of the subhuman will be analysed alongside a short historical account of the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962). In a second moment, the concepts of economic Malthusianism, of the reciprocal constitution of antagonistic classes, and finally of distinction – the cultural sublimation amongst the 19th and 20th century French bourgeoisie of social conflict – will allow the logic of European class struggles to come to light.

Note on the duration of the course

Please note that each lecture of this course will be 2 or more hours. With such a lot of (exciting!) material to cover, students should expect each class to last up to but no more than 3 hours, with appropriate breaks.

Recommended reading

The following is a small list of exceptional works that are either exclusively or in part concerned with the Critique. Some are harder to find than others, but to date they are all still available either in a library or from a first or second hand book seller.

  • Arthur, Paige, Unfinished Projects: Decolonization and the Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, (Verso, 2010)
  • Catalano, J., A Commentary on Jean-Paul Sartre’s Critique of Dialetical Reason : Volume 1, Theory of Practical Ensembles, (The University of Chicago Press, 1986)
  • Flynn, T. R., Sartre and Marxist Existentialism: The test-case of collective responsibility, (The University of Chicago Press, 1984)
  • Flynn, T. R., Sartre, Foucault and Historical Reason: Volume 1, Toward an Existentialist Theory of History, (University of Chicago Press, 1997)
  • Jameson, F., ‘Sartre and History’ in Marxism and Form: Twentieth-Century Dialetical Theories of Literature, (Princeton University Press, 1971)

Level of Difficulty

This course, which will presuppose no knowledge of any of the material, will be of an introductory to intermediate difficulty, depending on the moment at hand. The only pre-requisite for the course will be an interest in the questions Sartre poses and the answers he offers – or, at the very least, an interest in becoming interested in these questions and answers!