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The Later Sartre

Lecturer: Robert Boncardo

Originally Taught: Winter School 2016

This course will give a systematic presentation of the later philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre.

By placing the later — and arguably most compelling — stage of his work within an Hegelian intellectual context, and by taking the full measure of its ambitions, this course will introduce students to Sartre as the last French thinker to take seriously the hypothesis that human history had, in the modern period, taken on the form of a meaningful whole.

In contrast to the widespread idea that Sartre gave primacy to the individual over the coercive force of the collective, in this course students will discover that the later Sartre was fundamentally motivated by the conviction that human history was not a random scattering of insignificant events but instead had a dialectical logic whose basic forms were accessible to thought. In other words, this course will argue that during this most significant stage of his thinking Sartre was less the father of French existentialism and more the last great French Hegelian. For despite the apparent irrationality of modern history and its cavalcade of horrors, Sartre maintained that it was possible to discern the logical forms of its intelligibility: theory and practice could in principle transcend the frightening state of opacity to which the violence of the modern age had condemned them. For Sartre, it was not only it possible for human beings to rationally control the direction of their history; any emancipatory politics had to both presuppose and wager practically upon its meaningful manipulability.

Today, these philosophical ambitions might seem exorbitant. Yet by bringing them into focus we can to see that the only consequent critique one can make of Sartre is that, against his deepest convictions, there is no necessity whatsoever at work within human history. This course will thus be an encounter with the exemplarily Hegelian problem of whether or not there is reason in history.

Course Outline

Across the five lectures, we will move progressively from the basic structural features of what Sartre called the dialectic or the logic of collective action — two terms that were equivalent for him — to the way he intended to discover, on the basis of these structural landmarks, the fundamental meaning or direction of human history.

In the first lecture, after studying the way Sartre extracts a logic of totalisation from the activity of the human organism, which he sees as being stretched precariously between the twin poles of need and scarcity, students will be introduced to the crucial concept of seriality, which denotes, for Sartre, the fundamental structure of sociality. Coupled with the practico-inert, or worked matter, which refers to products of human labour that mediate relations between human beings, Sartre uses seriality to explain how free individual activity can devolve into collective impotence: that is, how history, despite being produced by human beings, also alienates their actions and is transformed into an inhuman force that works against their best intentions.

In the second lecture, we will follow Sartre as he unfolds the logic of how, on the basis of seriality, a new form of collectivity can arise: namely, the group. In this more dynamic form of sociality, individuals are able to act together to pursue a common aim and to break with the debilitating inertia of seriality. However, due to the centrifugal forces that, from the very beginning, beset the group, Sartre shows how it must necessarily transform itself into the pledged group, which is bound together by the fraternity-terror dialectic.

In the third lecture, we will see two further forms of sociality appear: namely, the organisation and the institution. In the first, the dialectic of rights and duties appears, while in the second we witness the emergence of the primitive form of sovereignty from out of the qualitatively novel forces that threaten to tear the organisation apart. Then, we will see the institution in its inertia devolve back into the seriality from whence it came.

In the fourth lecture, we will consider these different collective structures, which Sartre believed logically exhausted the possible forms of sociality, in terms of their various synchronic relations. More importantly, however, we will discover that what was most crucial for Sartre was that the internal logics of these forms of sociality were intrinsically intelligible, as were the transitions between them. As we will see, this insight forms the basis for his conviction that it is possible to determine the meaning of history, since, logically speaking, history is nothing other than the complex interweaving of these different forms of sociality.

In the fifth and final lecture, we will consider why Sartre thought his work had proved, in a very specific sense, that it was possible to acquire exhaustive knowledge of the past or future. Finally, we will consider to what degree the contribution Sartre made to French and modern philosophy stands or falls on the solidity of this claim. Our task throughout this course, then, will be to sound out the limits of what his thought can offer us today.

Recommended reading:

While students are advised that no prior knowledge of Sartre will be required, it will be helpful for them to have at least a general or second-hand knowledge of the basic projects pursued in the following works by Sartre:

  • Sartre, Critique of Dialectical Reason, Volume One: Theory of Practical Ensembles
  • Sartre, Critique of Dialectical Reason, Volume Two: The Intelligibility of History
  • Sartre, The Family Idiot: Gustave Flaubert, 1821-1857: Volume Five