In his third lecture of the series titled “Self Under Siege” Roderick talks about Jean Paul Sartre, one of the most famous intelectuals in the 20th century. Satre’s journey both as an intelectual and as an activist, which is reflected in his own life apart from his intelectual work, marks out a certain search for meaning in the 20th century. It is interesting to mention, especially since the last post was about Heidegger and Rejection of Humanism, that Sartre’s existentialist philosophy is very different from Heideggers’s account on human dasein. In fact, Sartre profoundly misunderstood Heidegger’s account of human being in the world, which is evident in his famous essay “Existentialism is a Humanism” where he puts himself, Heidegger, and other French existentialists in the same category (Heidegger has an important reply to Sartre which I will discuss at the end of this piece).
According to Roderick, this misunderstanding cuts very nicely in Sartre’s direction and gives him a very different project, one that is in pursuit of a road to freedom, trying to live in a way that one might say of oneself that “you are free”. We can distinguish at least two distinct phases in Sarte’s life, and in both we can identify this attempt to find the path to freedom. The first one is the young existentialist Sartre, and the second one is the Sartre the revolutionary Marxist. Accodring to Roderick many in the US are much less familiar with Sarte’s second phase, since they are not really familiar with this intelectual traditionl in Europe. It is perhaps another sign of American marketing genius and mastery of propaganda machine (quite evident these days during the US presidential election), that has hollowed out this significant intelectual tradition and has turned it into an image that projects into people’s minds Soviet-style beauracratic Marxism, cold war, and the image of Russian kids with their hands on barbed wire craving for McDonalds and Coca Cola!
Roderick believes that perhaps no one more than Sartre, in the intelectual world, has faught harder to maintain a sense of self. The best way to summarize Sartre’s existentialist philosophy is to quote him from his own essay, Existentialism is a Humanism: “What they [meaning Heidegger, himself, and other French existentialists] have in common is simply the fact that they [we] believe that existence comes before essence… What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards. If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself. Thus, there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of it. Man simply is. Not that he is simply what he conceives himself to be, but he is what he wills, and as he conceives himself after already existing – as he wills to be after that leap towards existence. Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism… If, however, it is true that existence is prior to essence, man is responsible for what he is.”
The glory of existentialism is really based on the insight that it offers, along the path to freedom, that life has no meaning other than the one constructed by the self. Two important implications of this insight are that we do not have anyone to protect us, and therefore we do not have anyone to stop us. Dastayovsky delicately brings up this view through his character Ivan Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov (1880), where he says “if God does not exist, everything is permited.” For the existnetialists this is both frightening and exihilirating since one’s life becomes her own construction and the sum of her own actions. We can trace this notion of freedom in Nietzsche as well, where he says in Antichrist that “if there were gods, how could I bear not to be a god?”, or in Milton’s Paradise Lost where Satin, the main hero (or perhaps more accurately the anti-hero) describes himself as “"Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven." And it is this very extreme view of freedom that comes out of existentialism, which to many was revolting.
Roderock poses a very interesting and sharp observation, as a quick aside, about existentialism in the US. He suggests that existentialism was populaized in the US through a cultural search for meaning, but the way the American soceity became familiar with existentialism was not much through reading the books that Sartre wrote, but through the cultural artifacts that were produced through the moods of existentialism (anxiety, despair, death, dread, the absurd, etc.), namely dozens of plays, movies, novels, and also through the moods of bahaviour that came along with it: coffeeshop attitudes, the fad of non-conformity, Beat poetry and so on. And this is exactly where the rubber meets the road, this goes exactly to the heart of “self under siege”, the fact that American genius in marketing and “entrepreneurship” can even market existentialism, can even market death! It can turn on its head the very thing that is trying to revolt against self under siege in the search for meaning and freedom, and sells that to you! Roderick, in a witty remark, jokes that if Christ came back today, he would probably get a deal with Nike! Perhaps even more importantly, this cultural feature of the American society that Roderick acurately describes has propogated throuhout the world since the American culture to a large extent is now the world culture, but not necessarily due to its superiority or uniqueness, but rather due its dominant power through controlling modes of cummunication like media, cinema, pop culture, and its marketing genius.
Let’s get back to Sartre. As Sartre gets older he finds himself drawn to a major paradox that he talks about in his autobiography “The Words”. He admits that when he was younger and was writing about death, despair, nausea, and anxiety as the essential moods of existentialism, he was in fact extremly happy and was also aware of the irony. His mature view was that the road to freedom, and the only project that owns a scale grand enough to be a worthwhile project, was to be a revolutionary, and in that period in Europe, that meant to be a Marxist of some sort. However, the kind of Marxist Sartre was is not the populist version often understood (or better to say misunderstood). What is Marxism except from a secular way to try to recover the lost meanings from the previous sacred period? And this is exactly the kind of Marxist Sartre was. Sarte could see no way through the 20th century without a revolutionary change, changing radically the way we relate to each other (and we now see moderate versions of this idea in the Occupy Wall Street movement and more recently Black Lives Matter and Bernie Sanders campaign and supporters).
Sartre, Roderick argues, is perhaps more important as a figure, a personality of thought. He engages in experiences of three generations in trying to create an authentic worthy self: the second world war generation when he is a freedom fighter against Nazis (and Roderick argues that this is where existentialism is born, out of the hedious experiece of Europeans during the Second World War), the reconstruction generation after the Second World war and his commitment to be a revolutionary Marxist. The most major experience of Sartre’s generation was fascism, and it shaped the way he thought about many things. Fascism was completely a different experience for Europeans than to Americans. For Europeans, Fascism was both an internal and an external threat: having friends or neighbors who were Nazi collaborators, having friends or neighbors who were just silent pretending not to hear what is going on. Sartre’s career (as an activist) however came to culmination when he joins the great student strikes (his third-generation experience) in France and their failure perhaps blocks his way to escape the 20th century.
Another point or argument worth underlining about Sarte is his argument about a certain kind of ethical theory, which cuts agains Kant’s moral theory. Sartre emphasizes decion and action as what makes up one’s life, and here is the example he gives in form of a moral dillema:
You have a mother at home in occupied France and you don’t think she will survive if you don’t stay. On the other hand, you also feel obligated to go with your friends who have joined the resistence.
Sarte goes through this moral dillema using standard moral theories: Kantean moral theory, utilitarian moral theory, etc. and argues that these standard theories are not worth anything. It doesn’t do any good to come up with a categorial imperative based on what is the greatest good to the greatest number! Saving my mother’s life or saving my country’s life? Sartre argues brilliantly that this is not amenable to the kind of logic-chopping philosophers do, it is amenable however to the kind of person you are going to see yourself as. This again goes to the heart of self under siege, which really draws so little support from moral theories. Self under siege is not really what conservaties think, that it is immoral. It is, as Nietzsche puts it, beyong good and evil, it is more tokens in the marketplace upon which we trade.
I want to end this piece by going back to the start and briefly discuss the Sartre’s misunderstanding of Heidegger and his account about the self because I believe it has important implications. Sarte had read Heidegger and his account of human being in the world as a form of humanism, which is evident in his famous essay titled “Existentialism is a Humanism”. Heidegger indirectly responds to Sartre’s account of humanism in a letter to his French colleague Jean Beaufrat, which was published later on under the title “Letter on Humanism.” As a quick aside before I go back to Heidegger’s response, I should mention that this essay by Heidegger has considerable significance as it is his first major work after the second world war and the intense scrutiny he was subjected to in the de-Nazification hearings after the war due to his continued teaching at the University of Freiburg throughout the war and thus, his apparent complicity with the Nazi regime. It would be fitting therefore to consider this essay as a first reflection by Heidegger on the question of the relationship between philosophy and action, of that between the thinker and the political. This essay is also the first fruitfull exchange between German and French philosophy after the collapse of Nazi Germnay in 1945.
Heidegger, in a direct reference to Sartre, argues that “We are far from pondering the essence of action decisively enough.” It is important to note that he is not arguing that we don’t have any theory of action, or any method to evaulate action, but rather are far away from being able to “decisively” think about action. This resonates strangely with Sartre’s Existentialism which has already taken “essence” for granted and assumes we know what it means, and assumes it is determined by our actions and deeds. Heidegger however takes a step back and argues the essence of action has not been fully carved out. He does not agree with Sartre that existence preceeds essence. He believes that our essence, which follows our existence, is determined by an act, the essence of which preceeds our esscence and also our existence. Heidegger belives that the essence of action is “accomplishment”, an unfolding of something into a fullness. For Sartre, the action that determines our essence is an accomplishment of a being that already is (hence existence comes before essence). For Heidegger, in contrast, that which “is” before action (and only unfolds through action) is “Being” and it is through thinking (not action) that the relationship between Being and the essence of man is accomplished. In this receiving and giving back to Being, Being comes to langauge. He writes in a remarkable passage that:
“Language is the house of Being. In its home man dwells. Those who think and those who create with words are the guardians of this home. Their guardianship accomplishes the manifestation of Being insofar as they bring the manifestation to language and maintain it in language through their speech. Thinking does not become action only because some effect issues from it or because it is applied. Thinking acts insofar as it thinks. Such action is presumably the simplest and at the same time the highest, because it concerns the relation of Being to man. But all working or effecting lies in Being and is directed towards beings. Thinking, in contrast, lets itself be claimed by Being so that it can say the truth of Being. Thinking accomplishes this letting. Thinking is the engagement by Being for Being.
Heidegger agrees with Sartre that essence of man is not a priori determined (idea of God, or human nature). For Heidegger that which Sartre has forgot about is Being. He disagrees with the implication of Sartre’s view that being is the nothingness of existence until essence is born through action. He disagrees that Being is human subjectivity, which Sartre views as the main player sorounded by existence, abondoned to a world where there are only human beings. Heidegger argues that since Plato it has been held that essence preceeds existence. Accodring to him, Sartre simply reverses the order, “but, the reversal of a metaphysical statement remains a metaphysical statement. With it he stays with metaphysics in oblivion of the truth of Being.” Heidegger invites to step back from this distinction itself and examine the situation out of which this distinction between essence and existance has arised. He contends that “humanism” depicted in Existentialism is inadequate to the “higher essence of man”. Yet, he does not attach a metaphysical structure to what he has in mind about “higher essence of man”. He contests that this higher essence of man is not meant to be perceived as metaphysical subjectivism (or as anthropocentrism) in which man is the tyrant of Being to which each and all is subject. He writes in an stellar passage that:
Man is rather “thrown” from Being itself into the truth of Being so that ek-sisting in this fashion he might guard the truth of Being, in order that beings might appear in the light of Being as the beings they are. Man does not decide whether and how beings appear, whether and how God and the gods or history and nature come forward into the clearing of Being, come to presence and depart. The advent of beings lies in the destiny of Being. But for man it is ever a question of finding what is fitting in his essence that corresponds to such destiny; for in accord with this destiny man as ek-sisting has to guard the truth of Being. Man is the shepherd of Being.
Heidegger believes that in order to guard the truth of Being we need to retreive the element in which thinking can properly be, otherwise thinking will turn into a technical interpretation of thought, an ideology or world view. Thinking belongs to Being, accodring to Heidegger, as an aspect of Being itself, and thinking of Being is a listening to Being.
All this might sounds very abstract, difficult, or poetic, but what Heidegger is doing is not articulating his thoughts or ellaborating on his idea, he is rather thinking in the way he believes thinking should be, he is implementing his very idea of thinking as listening to Being, he demonstrates the very structure of language prior to ideologies and divisions into sub-disciplines, prior to division into logic, ethics, and physics. Heidegger is not drawing a road map, he is walking the path.
In order to get close to Being again, Heidegger argues that we need to “learn to exist in the nameless.” We must take a step back from our seduction to the public realm and the plethora of beings and be open – in silence – to the manifestation of Being itself, and allow ourselves to be claimed by Being. According to Heidegger, we cling always and only to beings, this collapses the ontological difference between beings and Being, and leads us to forget Being.
Heidegger has received a lot of criticism for his philosophy and his poetic, abstract, and often difficult account of human dasein and being. One issue with this level of abstraction is that it provides little support/discouragement for more concrete situations, to the extent that Heidegger allegedly considered his support of National Socialism and Nazi party consistent with the essence of his philosophy. This could really questions the essence of a philosophy that partly due to its high level of abstraction and vagueness can justify such atrocious actions. Edmund Husserl lays out a similar criticism of Heidegger’s philosophy, and argues that it provides an abstract and incorrect portrait of human being and fails to contribute to an ontology independent of human existence. Herbert Marcuse, a student of Heidegger who later became associated with the Frankfurt School also criticizes Heidegger for his "false concreteness" and "revolutionary conservativism." In Jargon of Authenticity, Theodor Adorno lays out a serious criticism of Heidegger and argues that the jargon of authenticity used by Heidegger abstracts from social causes of discontent by forming an ahistorical formulation. He argues that Heidegger’s writings are infected with ideological thrust of a vocabulary that thrives on ambiguity.