It is Sarte’s birthday. I find myself conflicted.
Coming of age philosophically in a department supersaturated by the methods and work of Chisholm and Gettier was difficult for me. My sympathies were wider than that, and, even worse, I had serious reservations about the Propose-a-Definition-Cast-about-for-a-Counterexample style of philosophizing I was being taught. In those days, the president of Rochester was a philosopher, Dennis O’Brien. O’Brien had written a dissertation on Wittgenstein (under Richard McKeon, believe it or not), taught at Princeton (where he wrote a book, Hegel on Reason in History), and served as president of Bucknell before coming to Rochester. (Those familiar with the secondary literature on Wittgenstein may know O’Brien’s fine paper, “The Unity of Wittgenstein’s Thought”, one of the earliest papers challenging the Two Wittgensteins orthodoxy, and containing the exactly appropriate continuation of the famous Wittgensteinian advice, “Don’t ask for the meaning, ask for the use”–“And don’t ask for the use, either!”) At Rochester, O’Brien discomfitted the faculty by teaching courses on Sartre. The TA assignment for those courses was disrelished by graduate students: after all, the courses were on Sartre, Sartre!—and they required a lot of preparation because O’Brien’s presidential duties could any week call him away leaving the grad student with a 3-hour lecture to give on some portion of Being and Nothingness. Predictably, given the view in the department that I would read anything (not exactly a compliment), I got tabbed for the assignment. It was a lot of work, but I learnt a lot about Sartre and a lot about teaching from O’Brien. I am in his debt.
But, Sartre. Well, I never know what to say about him. There’s so much I admire and so much I don’t. Undoubtedly, the man could write–and there are many moments of profound phenomenological insight in his work. Still, there is something wrong with it. Marcel, I believe, has helpful things to say about that. In an aside in “Testimony and Existentialism”, Marcel quotes Sartre’s B & N discussion of gifts and giving, which opens with “Gift is a primitive form of destruction…Generosity is, above all, a destructive function”. Marcel responds:
I doubt if there exists a passage in Sartre’s work which is more revealing of his inability to grasp the genuine reality of what is meant by we or of what governs this reality, that is precisely the capacity to open ourselves to others.
I admit that seems right to me. I have sometimes teased students in my classes by commenting that many forms of existentialism can be produced via a formula: Choose one of the seven deadly sins. Imagine someone held fast in the grip of the vice. Now, treat that person as the norm of human existence, and the phenomenology of the vice as the phenomenology of existence per se. Of course, I am teasing when I say this, but like most professorial humor it has a point, it is meant to shed some light. In Henry Fairlie’s book, The Seven Deadly Sins Today, each chapter on a deadly sin is prefaced by a drawing by Vint Lawrence. Here’s the drawing of envy.
Isn’t this a drawing of the Sartrean human? Sideways keyhole spying, fingernail gnawing, distendly squatting, beingful of nothingness?
Of course, I could be wrong.