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.

9 responses

  1. I waver on whether I share these worries about Sartre. He is quite sensitive, I think, to the wide variety of ways in which we dignify aspects of human life in order to hide those things about it that we find distasteful. In doing so, he treads a fine line between being a cynic and a humanist.

    To clarify what I mean here, consider the passage in “Existentialism is a Humanism” wherein he considers critics who accuse him of emphasizing the worst in human beings. What bothers such critics, he claims, is not this focus, but the spirit in which he describes human failings. The moralists he finds contemptuous point out human failing only to condemn it. And, I think he suspects that such condemnation is, more often than not, that of the reactive soul.

    He, in contrast, seeks to be a certain kind of humanist: to point out human failing, not to condemn it, but in order that we simply own up to it in ourselves; and in this way, he often does a good job of finding and even honoring the frailty to be found in human failing. This seems to me quite different from cynicism: he doesn’t want to strip away human dignity, but to locate it elsewhere – precisely in steely-eyed acknowledgement of what is so unpalatable in ourselves. He’s like a skilled comedian, who attends to what is most embarrassing and painful in human life, not to cause embarrassment and pain, but to liberate us from it…

    • Yeah, I agree that we can (try to) read Sartre this way. Roughly, O’Brien did and does, and I once did and sometimes do. (I don’t know that I ever put the strategy of the reading as well as you do.) And certainly there is truth in Sartre’s portrayal of human beings. Marcel admits, for example, that there is certainly a pathology of giving and of generosity. I suppose we could read Sartre as targeting that. But he could have just said that was what he was targeting, instead of not saying it, and apparently targeting giving and generosity as such. Anyway, I certainly have no interest in failing to acknowledge what is unpalatable in us; I know self-knowledge to be bitter and still hunt it. But I also do not want to be so steely-eyed that I lose the subtlety and suppleness of true seeing, and end having metaled the object of my gaze with the metal of my gaze.

      • “I do not want to be so steely-eyed that I lose the subtlety and suppleness of true seeing, and end having metaled the object of my gaze with the metal of my gaze.”


      • Fair point. One thing I think might be at work here is simply his Gallic sense of melodrama. When I lecture on anguish, abandonment, and despair, I often tell my students that Sartre does himself a slight disservice by using these terms: they cannot but evoke examples of intense affect. However, in “Bad Faith,” it’s precisely his point that these are things we feel in the most mundane of circumstances, so that we are prone to simply living in bad faith to one extent or another. The anguish of the courted woman or the waiter isn’t the anguish of Abraham – it isn’t, I take it, going to be quite so vivid to them, and neither is the bad faith it inspires. This is just one example of Sartre’s sense of melodrama distorting the point he is making. Admittedly, if it distorts, it distorts in a gripping way – the way a Telenovela distorts the peaks and valleys of romance into something quite irresistible.

  2. In the same paragraph where Sartre says that “the gift is a primitive form of destruction,” he also says, “All which I abandon, all which I give, I enjoy in a higher manner through the fact that I give it away; giving is a keen, brief enjoyment, almost sexual.” One might well puzzle over how he gets from the first thought to the second. It’s a bewildering paragraph, I must say. One thing seems clear, though. Generosity for Sartre is only one of a great variety of ways in which one can “destroy” one’s possessions. Other examples he gives are burning one’s own barn, wearing out one’s bicycle through use, engaging in potlatch ceremonies, and impulsively “giving it all away” in a giddy leap to freedom. Note especially that the “destruction” in question here is always of one’s own possessions, never of someone else’s.

    In Sartre’s language, apparently, if I abandon my copy of Being and Nothingness on a park bench, I “destroy” it insofar as my own having it and enjoying it are concerned. That’s an odd use of the verb, no doubt, but that’s often what happens to words when one goes in for reductive explanations (which is what, in the first sentence, Sartre explicitly says he’s doing). In this unusual sense of “destroy”, then, calling the gift a primitive form of destruction does not imply any negative judgment on acts of generosity as we normally understand them. Sartre would not want to deny that when you give your sandwich to a hungry person he genuinely benefits from it or that in giving it you genuinely “constitute yourself” as a kind person. Rather his emphasis seems to be on the given object itself, the sandwich, and especially on the altered relationship that it has to you and that you have to it after you “destroy” it or dispossess yourself of it.

    The peculiar point of Sartre’s paragraph seems to be that when I “destroy” a piece of private property – either by burning it, wearing it out, eating it, or giving it away – I retain it in a “sublimated” or purified form, specifically in the memory of having once possessed it. Through its “destruction” my tangible possession undergoes a magical transformation “into the invisibility and translucency of the nothingness which I am.” I…“preserve for it the ghostly, transparent being of past objects, because I am the one through whom beings pursue an honorary existence after their annihilation.”

    When we bear in mind that “nothingness” is for Sartre a higher form of being compared to the in-itself-ness of mere things, the “destruction” of those things begins to sound almost like an act of generosity toward them. Yes, I’m saying that with a twinkle, but it is an intriguing thought. It any case, this transformation of the possession from opaque objectivity to translucent subjectivity “symbolizes” (Sartre’s word) nothing less than the for-itself’s recovery of itself from its self-alienation among the things it possesses. By no longer identifying with the things it owns, the for-itself recovers its freedom. So I guess we can say that this sublimation through “destruction” benefits (so to speak) not only the given piece of property but also and especially the giver himself. That’s why, however briefly, “destruction” feels so good – again, as long as the stuff destroyed is one’s own!

    Having made all of that perfectly translucent, I am curious, Kelly, how you settled on envy as the Sartrean human’s defining deadly sin? Might it not just as well be gluttony? I’m thinking of the insatiable and futile appetite of the for-itself to become in-itself and yet paradoxically to remain for-itself, i.e., to eat its fill and still remain plenty hungry for more. Which reminds me of the time!

    • There’s a lot here, Bill, and I will have to think about it more. One problem is that I shortened Marcel’s response to Sartre in a way that made what Marcel said less appropriately responsive to the full run of Sartre’s discussion. I won’t now try to lengthen the response, though; I will just note that it is lengthier and that the issue is more complicated than what I quoted shows it to be. I was trying to capture a mood that seems to me to permeate much of Sartre, but that I have a hard time capturing in any convincing way. The Marcel seemed like a help with that capture. It still does, although, again, more needs to be said.

      Envy sprang to mind mainly because of the way that Sartre understands our relationship to others, his obsession with the gaze, the eye, etc. You may recall the passage in Samuel (KJV) in which Saul, overcome with envy, is said to have “eyed David from that day and forward”. That particular verbal use of ‘eyed’ seems to me to embody something of the way Sartre understands us all as looking at each other. But, given the Marcel passage I used, and given the full run of the Sartre passage, perhaps gluttony, or perhaps avarice, would have been just as–more?–fitting. I guess I think of Sartre as better typified by a “cold, spiritual sin”, like envy, than a “warm, bodily sin”, like gluttony or avarice.

      But, having said that, let me quickly add that I am not fully serious about my “formula”, and that all this is meant in good humor, and not really as dour, damning critique. (*Twinkle*)

  3. To clarify, I am not a Sartrean. I merely followed up your post with a search for the relevant pages in B&N, where I discovered Sartre to be elaborating a point of view far more exotic (and woolly) than I expected. I expected to find him trying to expose the “real” motives of generosity, something no doubt negative and “slimy”. But failing to find anything obviously like that, I then spent a number of hours trying to piece together what he might actually be saying. My response to you was my first attempt to digest the matter. Need I say that I still feel a bit green?

    • I didn’t take you to be a Sartrean. I just thought that your careful look at the passage required me to say a bit more about what I was doing.

      Like you, I still feel a bit green. –Thanks so much for the perceptive and helpful comments!

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