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Sartre: There Are Only Singular Absolutes

Lecturer: Robert Boncardo

Originally Taught: Winter School 2015

We speak of Sartre as though he belonged to a bygone era. Alas, we are the ones who in today's conformist moral order are bygone. At least Sartre allows us to await for some vague future moment, a return, when thought will form again and make its totalities anew, like a power that is at once collective and private.

This is why Sartre remains my teacher.

Gilles Deleuze, He Was My Teacher

Introduction to the course:

This course will be an intensive introduction to the work of Jean-Paul Sartre. Beginning with his pre-phenomenological writings from the 1920's and early 1930's, the course will cover Sartre's early encounter with – and revision of – Husserlian phenomenology, as well as detail his idiosyncratic integration of Heidegger in the early 1940's and of Hegel in Marx in the period 1945-1960. The course will culminate in a systematic presentation of Sartre's most mature philosophical vision, which was given its fullest expression only in the early 1970's. Additionally, we will follow up the many-coloured threads of Sartre's various artistic interventions – on Kafka, the American Novel, cinema, Surrealism and the Nouveau Roman – and political engagements – the Resistance, his post-War attempt at organized politics in the Rassemblement Démocratique Révolutionnaire (RDR), his equivocal support of the Soviet Union, his unequivocal support for processes of decolonization in Indochina, Africa and South America, and his intervention during and after May '68.

The Sartre we will encounter in this course will only distantly resemble the Sartre that circulates in popular consciousness and in the contemporary Anglophone academy. Instead of freezing his philosophy in the form of some easily-digestible slogan like existentialism, each of the five lectures will be built around a key theme – contingency, ego, imagination, alienation, emancipation – and will show how Sartre dealt with them in a constantly evolving and ever-more compelling manner.

Against, then, the fashionable sophistry currently congratulating itself for having surpassed him, this course will show why, as he was for Deleuze, Sartre should today be our teacher.

Lecture One: Contingency, From Metaphysics to Materialism

The world of explanations and reasons is not that of existence.

In the first lecture, we will begin by reconstructing a pre-phenomenological Sartre – that is, a Sartre who has nothing to do with Husserl or Heidegger and everything to do with the tradition of French epistemology and the philosophical repercussions of early-20th century advances in the physical sciences and mathematics, in particular their difficult relation to the pre-scientific universe of everyday experience. While accepting their technical efficacy and the positivity of their results, the young Sartre argued that these sciences were in fact a defective form of idealism incapable of capturing the world of the concrete, which for him was the sole absolute. More importantly, their ambition to discern necessary relations between the foundational components of physis meant that they constituted a reaction-formation against what, for Sartre, was a metaphysically primary: contingency. At this early stage of his career, only art was capable, for Sartre, of encountering the real in its dispersive multiplicity, its capricious contingency. Such an audacious metaphysical vision found its most powerful expression in the novel that would go on to make his name: Nausea.

The fact is that after thousands of years of History, three quarters of the world's population are undernourished. Thus, in spite of its contingency, scarcity is a very basic human relation, both to Nature and to men.
Critique of Dialectical Reason, Volume One

Despite the literary and philosophical achievements of his novel Nausea, almost thirty years after its publication, in 1964, Sartre would go on to say: "I have seen children starving to death. In the face of a starving child, Nausea does not stand the comparison". This remark reveals the vast philosophical and political terrain that Sartre had covered in the intervening years. As we will see in the second half of the first lecture, Sartre's early reflections on contingency would be slowly transformed under the combined force of the Heideggarian conception of facticity, which would play a key role in Being and Nothingness from 1943, and the Hegelian notion of a dialectical rationality at work in History, a hypothesis that Sartre attempted to prove in his monumental Critique of Dialectical Reason from 1960. At the level of politics, Sartre came to see that the metaphysics of contingency dissolved the rationality of situated political struggles and provided a sophisticated philosophical alibi for a nihilist quietism. However, rather than dispensing once and for all with contingency, Sartre sublated it in the form of a revitalized concept of scarcity, which for him named the contingent fact that the human organism could always encounter the possibility of its impossibility. From metaphysics to materialism, the evolution of Sartre's conception of contingency is an exemplary case study of his thought adapting itself to the challenges of changing circumstances while always maintaining a critical, radical edge.

Recommended readings:

  • Jean-Paul Sartre, NauseaJean-Paul Sartre, 'Motion Picture Art', in The Writings of Jean-Paul Sartre, pp. 53-59
  • Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology, in particular the section 'Being and Doing: Freedom'
  • Jean-Paul Sartre, Critique of Dialectical Reason, Volume One: Theory of Practical Ensembles, in particular the section 'Scarcity and Mode of Production'

Lecture Two: Ego, From Transcendental Illusion to Habitus

The ego is neither formally nor materially in consciousness: it is outside, in the world. It is a being of the world, like the ego of another.
The Transcendence of the Ego

In the second lecture, we turn first to Sartre's extraordinary early text from 1937, The Transcendence of the Ego, which we will read alongside his short article Intentionality, first drafted in 1934. By drawing on the latter text to show how Sartre exploited Husserlian phenomenology in order to ground his realist philosophical convictions and to formulate an ethics of pre-reflexive activity, we will detail the arguments Sartre advances in The Transcendence of the Ego to critically undercut the illusions the Ego necessarily gives rise to, from its trans-temporal permanence to its power to constitute our phenomenal experience. Against the idea of the Ego as source or origin, Sartre attempts to show that the Ego is constituted by a pre-reflexive consciousness, an impersonal transcendental field that is always open onto the world but never identical with it. Finally, Sartre shows how, when faced with its vertiginous freedom, consciousness comes to see itself in the degraded, reified form of the Ego, thus turning itself into a being when, in fact, it is nothingness.

For a man is never an individual. It would be more fitting to call him a singular universal. Summed up and for this reason universalized by his epoch, he in turn sumps it up by reproducing himself in it as singularity.
The Family Idiot

In the course of deconstructing all of the substantialist and essentialist conceptions of the Ego propagated by the metaphysical tradition in The Transcendence of the Ego, Sartre ended by conceiving of the subject as a point of pure negativity, whose links to its past, its world and others were constantly being dissolved. As a result, Sartre would have to work for the next fourty years to restore the intelligibility of the way the subject was tied to its past, to its world, which was made up of what he would call the practico-inert, and to others, who were divided into conflicting collectivities, including classes. From the concept of the original project in Being and Nothingness to his early reflections on the subject in history in his War Diaries and his Notebooks for an Ethics, to his monumental study of Flaubert, Sartre would slowly forge the intellectual tools required to think the relation between the subject and the singular moment in history they at once passively lived and actively created. In this second lecture, we will therefore track his intellectual journey from a radical Cartesianism to a revitalized Marxism – a Marxism whose singular achievement is to preserve the agency of the subject, while giving full weight to the circumstances of its life.

Recommended readings:

  • Jean-Paul Sartre, 'A Fundamental Idea of Husserl's Phenomenology', in Critical Essays (Situations, 1), pp. 40-46
  • Jean-Paul Sartre, The Transcendence of the Ego: A Sketch for a Phenomenological Description, in particular the section 'The Constitution of the Ego'
  • Jean-Paul Sartre, War Diaries: Notebooks from a Phoney War, 1939-1940, in particular Notebook 14 and the entries of 7-10 March, 1940
  • Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology, in particular the chapter 'The Immediate Structures of the For-Itself'
  • Jean-Paul Sartre, The Family Idiot: Gustave Flaubert, 1821-1857: Volume Four, in particular 'The Fall Seen as the Immediate, Negative and Tactical Response to an Emergency'

Lecture Three: Imagination, From Freedom to Fantasy

Imagination is not an empirical power added to consciousness, it is the whole of consciousness as it realizes freedom.
The Imaginary

In the third lecture, we explore the many and varied interventions Sartre made on the question of the imagination, from his early phenomenological studies of imaging consciousness to his constantly evolving writings on authors from Kafka to Faulkner, painters from Tintoretto to Masson, and a rich retinue of playwrights, poets and sculptors. Beginning with his twin works from the mid-1930's, The Imagination and The Imaginary – two books that make up, perhaps, the most extensive treatment of the imagination in the Western philosophical tradition – we will show how, in the course of a phenomenological description then ontological account of the imagination, Sartre demonstrates its fundamental links to human freedom. For Sartre, the inventions of the imagination, and singularly of literature, are possibly only because consciousness is radically free, with an ever-active power to surpass its current situation.

The imaginary corrodes praxis.
Saint Genet

Despite his enthusiastic inflation of the imaginary in his early phenomenological writings, for the remainder of his career Sartre would demonstrate a sustained and philosophically coherent ambivalence towards it. Beginning with his key work What is Literature? from 1947, we will follow Sartre as he at once advances powerful arguments for the ethically and politically progressive virtues of the imaginary, particularly as they are incarnated in literature, and ruthlessly exposes its complicity, as a practical possibility for the subject and a component of ideology, with regimes of exploitation and oppression. With respect to this latter modality, we will look closely at his work on nihilism in modern literature, through the case studies of Baudelaire, Flaubert and Mallarmé, as well as his writings, in the Critique of Dialectical Reason and The Family Idiot, on the social production of impotence, which, for Sartre, has close links to the imaginary.

Recommended readings:

  • Jean-Paul Sartre, 'On John Dos Passos and 1919', in Critical Essays (Situations I), pp. 13-39
  • Jean-Paul Sartre, 'On the Sound and the Fury: Temporality in Faulkner', in Critical Essays (Situations I), pp. 104-121
  • Jean-Paul Sartre, The Imagination, in particular the chapter 'Husserl'Jean-Paul Sartre, The Imaginary: A Phenomenological Psychology of the Imagination, in particular the chapters 'The Certain', 'The Imaginary Life' and 'Conclusion'
  • Jean-Paul Sartre, What is Literature?, in particular the chapter 'Why Write?'
  • Jean-Paul Sartre, Critique of Dialectical Reason, Volume One: Theory of Practical Ensembles, in particular the section 'Social Being as Materiality: Class Being'
  • Jean-Paul Sartre, The Family Idiot Gustave Flaubert, 1821-1857: Volume One, in particular the section 'A Problem'

Lecture Four: Alienation, From the In-Itself to the Practico-Inert

Consciousness is a being such that in its being, its being is in question insofar as this being implies a being other than itself
Being and Nothingness

While Sartre is well-known as a philosopher of freedom, the flipside to this aspect of his work – a flipside that is in fact more faithful to his fundamental philosophical convictions – are his extensive reflections on alienation. In this fourth lecture, we study the way Sartre conceived across his career of the various modalities of our alienation from ourselves, from the world and from others. Beginning with Being and Nothingness, we will look closely at the way Sartre formulates there the relation between the for-itself and the in-itself, as well as our being-for-others. In terms of the latter, we will focus on his famous phenomenological description of shame and his refutation of solipsism, as well as the way Sartre understands our embodiment and the various paradigmatic ways we can relate to others, such as love, desire, hatred, masochism and sadism. However, we will also see how, in the aftermath of World War Two, Sartre felt his philosophy straining under the demands of thinking the Cold War and the process of decolonisation – a situation that would require him to revise his account of alienation.

Nothing – not even wild beasts or microbes – could be more terrifying for man than a species which is intelligent, carnivorous and cruel, and which can understand and outwit human intelligence, and whose aim is precisely the destruction of man. This, however, is obviously our own species as perceived in others by each of its members in the context of scarcity.
Critique of Dialectical Reason, Volume One

In the second half of the fourth lecture, we explore Sartre's attempt at integrating Marxism into his thought, in particular the way it links alienation to determinant socio-economic conditions. Specifically, we will study how the existentialist concept of being-in-itself morphs into that of the practico-inert, as it loses the ahistorical trappings of ontology and acquires a rich historical resonance. We will also see how the existentialist thinking of our being-for-others shifts from a fixation on an indifferent ontological other to a concern for concrete and socio-historically contingent others. Central to Sartre's revitalization of the Marxist notion of alienation will be the concepts of need, scarcity, individual praxis, the mediating third, worked matter, the practico-inert, collectives, seriality. More problematic, however, is his powerful demonstration of how alienation is irreducible within and without capitalism.

Recommended readings:

  • Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology, in particular the chapter 'Being-for Others'
  • Jean-Paul Sartre, Critique of Dialectical Reason, Volume One: Theory of Practical Ensembles, in particular the sections 'Individual Praxis as Totalization', 'Human Relations as a Mediation Between Different Sectors of Materiality', and 'Collectives'

Lecture Five: Emancipation, From Decolonisation to Communism

Sometimes I have the feeling that nothing has been irreversible except the continuous, implacable degradation of Soviet socialism.
The Socialism That Came In From the Cold

This fifth lecture will move beyond alienation to emancipation, and detail the unprecedented philosophical and phenomenological description that Sartre offers of different forms of group praxis, from the group-in-fusion to the pledged group, the organization and the institution. Beginning with 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 process of emancipation before falling back into a form of bureaucratic inertia. In doing so, we will come to understand how Sartre conceived of the delicate balance between revolutionary ruptures and the forms of organisation that attempt to develop and entrench the promise of such moments. Of key interest on this point will be Sartre's extensive and philosophically sophisticated analysis of Stalinism, which he viewed as the most catastrophic instance of what he named anti-praxis in history.

They have a single duty, a single objective: to drive out colonialism by any means.
Preface to The Wretched of the Earth

In the second half, we turn away from the question of socialism and communism and survey all of Sartre's engagements with the question of colonialism and with the process, which accelerated dramatically after 1945, of decolonisation. Taking as our point of departure his philosophical account of the praxis-process of colonialism in the Critique, an account which works with the twinned concepts of exploitation and oppression, we will see how Sartre understood the roots and repercussions of European colonialism, as well as the controversial solutions he proposed for it. Finally, we will consider, from our own historical vantage point, just how much Sartre's understanding of the processes of emancipation engaged in under the name of decolonisation matches their ambivalent historical destiny.

Recommended readings:

  • Jean-Paul Sartre, 'Black Orpheus', We Have Only This Life to Live, pp. 149-186
  • Jean-Paul Sartre, Critique of Dialectical Reasons, Volume One: Theory of Practical Ensembles, in particular the sections 'The Group-in-Fusion', 'The Statutory Group', 'The Organisation', 'The Institution', The Place of History' and 'Class Struggle and Dialectical Reason'
  • Jean-Paul Sartre, 'Preface to The Wretched of the Earth', We Have Only This Life to Live, pp. 384-402
  • Jean-Paul Sartre, 'The Third World Begins in the Suburbs', We Have Only This Life to Live, pp. 487-490
  • Jean-Paul Sartre, Critique of Dialectical Reason, Volume Two: The Intelligibility of History, in particular the sections 'Relations between the Individual Conflict and the Fundamental Conflicts of the Social Ensemble' and 'Are Social Struggles Intelligible?'
  • Jean-Paul Sartre, 'The Socialism that Came in From the Cold', We Only Have This Life to Live, pp. 448-486