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Getting settled back in the East Midlands after what surely was a remarkable weekend of intellectual development, I have so much swirling around in my mind that I may have ammo for blog posts for the next couple months. One such thought that keeps cropping up in my mind pertains to a question that PhD candidate, Brian Smith, raised after my paper on Sartre. Briefly summarized, my paper sought to trace the early phenomenological materialism of Sartre from The Transcendence of the Ego and Being and Nothingness to his later, clearly defined, materialist manifesto Critique of Dialectical Reason (CDR), and to suggest that Sartre’s later ideas of social praxis are merely the outworking of his earlier existentialist notions.

The question that Brian asked was actually a perfect set. It was a nice, easy lob that I flubbed in the moment – the pressure of my first paper got the better of me!!! But I’m so glad that I flubbed that opportunity, because it’s been haunting me ever since, which has caused me to think further through my research.

His question was basically a response to something I mentioned in my paper: namely, that while there are many aporia left unresolved in the Sartrean corpus there is much to be gained from his work. So, Brian just opened the door for me to elaborate further what I specifically saw as some serious aporia that need to be addressed and then also to explain why I think that Sartre’s work is nevertheless important. Easy, right?!? Well, here’s a more proper answer to that question after a couple days of thought.

First, the largest problem that I see in Sartre’s work (which is something I did address briefly in my paper) is that Sartre is ultimately unable to account for the upsurge of the for-itself out of the in-itself. Sartre himself recognized this problem in his own work and claimed such a resolution was not his primary concern, but was better left for future metaphysicians and scientists. Ok. Fair enough. However, my problem is that I’m not convinced that his conception of being-in-itself is even formulated in a way that would allow for such an upsurge to occur. Therefore, for these future “metaphysicians and scientists” to be able to construct such a theory would require a complete reformulation of Sartre’s understanding of being-in-itself.

The primary issue that I have with Sartre’s conception of the in-itself is that, as he sees it, being-in-itself is completely static, fully positive, and crudely simple. Thus stated, there are no cracks or divisions in the in-itself that would allow for movement or change to occur, which seems to me to be a necessary prerequisite for any ontological change whatsoever; let alone some emerging new ontological category to exist. What we need is (like Adrian Johnston suggested in his paper) an understanding of the material world (the in-itself in Sartre’s parlance) that supports such movement and change. I’m not exactly sure what this material order would consist of per se. But it would at the very least have to bear within it, intrinsically, by nature, cracks, divisions, and movement; a process philosophy of materiality.

Another issue I see in Sartre’s work is that even though he goes to great lengths in CDR to develop a theory of social praxis, I’m not convinced that his commitment to individualism as the a priori mode of subjective experience allows for a very adequate theory of subjective constitution. One thing that Sartre does not explore enough in CDR is the effect that the serial collective (the bad, objectified ensemble) or the group-in-fusion (the good, non-objectified ensemble) has on the constitution of the subject. Granted, his primary concern in CDR was not to develop a theory of subjectivity. However, I can’t help but wonder if such was necessary. I don’t think that his formulations in his earlier work suffice to explain how subjects in conflict or in common praxis are thereby constructed by such social arrangements. It’s almost as though these social organizations exist purely as inert instruments for the use of individual subjects. And while, to some degree, Sartre does claim that the group-in-fusion is an instrument that is used by individual subjects who suspend portions of their freedom for the common venture of the group in particular moments, I think more needs to be said regarding what happens to the individuals and the ensemble of individuals when they come together. Sartre staunchly denies the possibility of any sort of “extrinsic” unity to occur – such would objectify the persons involved and thereby limit their freedom. Thus, what needs to happen for the group to be successful while each person remains free is that the persons involved must be united by an interiorization of a common praxis. Ok. This sounds nice. But isn’t it the case that when people come together a group consciousness does unite them? Doesn’t this group consciousness then exist a sort of external transcendental unifying “force” that then unites the individuals for further praxis? And doesn’t this “external force” then create an energy that sweeps people up who are yet outside the group-in-fusion? Perhaps Sartre would concede to, at least most of, these points. He would merely claim that this energy that unites does not exist extrinsically but rather is the interiorization of the group. I’m just not so convinced…

That stated, that main reason why I do think that Sartre’s work, particularly CDR and his later post-colonial writings, is valuable is because of his creative reformulation of certain Marxist concepts. In CDR, Sartre did not set out to compose a history of humanity. Rather, in a Marxian fashion, he sought to delineate the material conditions that make human history possible. By creating new concepts, such as scarcity and the practico-inert, and by reformulating Marxist concepts, the negation of negation and stored labor, Sartre created new possibilities for narrative to be formulated and then constructed. Even though I fault him to some degree for giving too much priority to the individual, his insistence on radical voluntarism (individual and group) allows for the recreation of the world by placing the material order and the responsibility for the latter into human hands. And (as Peter Hallward’s paper from the conference showed) such capability and responsibility are precious reminders of the power of human organization.

Although the above piece is not exhaustive, I’d like to claim that this is my real answer to Brian’s question. I just need to thank him for affording me the opportunity to formulate these ideas a bit further.