Sunday, September 11, 2016

Sartre's philosophy develops

From Bakewell:

Camus, he said, was too influenced by David Hume, who 'announced that all he could find in experience was isolated impressions’. Sartre thinks life only looks pomtillist like that when something has gone am

For Sartre. the awakened individual is neither Roquentin, fixating on objects in cafes and parks, nor Sisyphus, rolling a Stone up the mountainside with the bogus cheerfulness of Tom Sawyer whitewashing a fence. It is a person who is engaged in doing something purposeful, in the full confidence that it means something. It is the person who is truly free.

Freedom was the great subject of Sartre’s philosophy, above all-and this is no accident~during the period when France was not free. It is central to almost everything he wrote then: The Flies (the play that was in rehearsal when he met Camus), the Roads of Freedom novels, his many essays and lectures, and above all his masterwork Being and Nothingness, which he developed from his years of note-taking and published in June 1943. It seems extraordinary that a 665-page tome mainly about freedom could come out in the midst of an oppressive regime without raising an eyebrow among the censors, but that was what happened. Perhaps the title put them off closer inspection.

That title was, of course, a nod to Heidegger's Being and Time, which Being and Nothingness resembles in size and weight. (Its American reviewer William Barrett would describe the published version at nearly 700 pages as 'a first draft for a good book of 300 pages’.) Still, it is a rich and mostly stimulating work. It combines Sartre's readings of Husserl, Heidegger, Hegel and Kierkegaard with a wealth of anecdotes and examples, often based on real-life incidents involving Simone de Beauvoir, Olga Kosakiewicz and others. The mood of Paris in wartime haunts it, with mini-scenes set in bars and in cafes, as well as in Parisian squares and gardens, and on the staircases of sleazy hotels. The atmosphere is often one of tension, desire or mistrust between people. Many key incidents could be scenes from a noir or nouvelle vague film.

Being and Nothingness shares something else with Being and Time: it is unfinished. Both works end by dangling the prospect of a second part which will complete the argument of the book Heidegger promises to demonstrate his ultimate point: that the meaning of Being is Time. Sartre promises to provide a foundation for existentialist ethics. Neither keeps the promise. What we do get in Being and Nothingness is an extended examination of human freedom, precisely worked out on the basis of a simple vision. Sartre argues that freedom terrifies us, yet we cannot escape it, because we are it.

To make this point, he begins by dividing all of being into two realms. One is that of the pour-soi (‘for-itself’), defined only by the fact that it is nee. This is us: it is where we find human consciousness. The other realm, that of the en-soi (‘in-itself’), is where we find everything else: rocks, penknives, bullets, cars, tree roots. (Sartre does not say much about other animals, but they too, from sponges to chimpanzees, seem mostly to be in this group.) These entities have no decisions to make: all they have to do is to be themselves.

For Sartre, the in-itself and the for-itself are as opposed as matter and antimatter. Heidegger at least wrote about Dasein as a kind of being, but for Sartre the for-itself is not a being at all. It is a 'nothingness’, a vacuumlike hole in the world. Gabriel Marcel memorably described Sartre’s nothingness as an 'air-pocket’ in the midst of being. It is, however, an active and specific nothingness~ the sort of nothingness that goes out and plays soccer.

The notion of a specific nothingness sounds odd, but Sartre explains it with a story of Parisian café life. Let's imagine that I have an appointment with Pierre. I arrive fifteen minutes late and look around anxiously. Is Pierre still here? I perceive lots of other things: customers, tables, mirrors and lights, the café’s smoky atmosphere, the sound of rattling crockery and a general murmuring hubbub. But there is no Pierre. Those other things form a field against which one item blares out loud and clear: the Absence of Pierre. One thinks of those Czech women who disappeared from the Flore: their absence is much more eloquent and glaring than their habitual presence ever was.

Sartre also otters a more lightweight example: I look in my wallet and see 1,300 francs inside. That seems positive. But if 1 expected to find 1,500 francs, What looms up at me from the wallet is the non being of 200 francs. A nice joke, adapted from an old one told in the Ernst Lubitsch film Ninotchka, illustrates the point. (Apologies to the adaptor, Whom I haven’t been able to trace. Jean-Paul Sartre walks into a cafe, and the waiter asks what he’d like to order. Sartre replies, 'I’d like a cup of coffee with sugar, but no cream.’ The waiter goes off, but comes back apologising. 'I’m sorry, Monsieur Sartre, We are all out of cream. How about With no milk?’ The joke hinges on the notion that the Absence of Cream and the Absence of Milk are two definite negativities, just as Cream and Milk are two definite positivities.

It is peculiar idea-but what Sartre is trying to get at is the structure of Husserlian intentionality, which defines consciousness as only an insubstantial ‘aboutness’. My consciousness is specifically mine, yet it has no real being: it is nothing but its tendency to reach out or point to things. If I look into myself and seem to see a mass of solidified qualities, of personality traits, tendencies, limitations, relics of past hurts and so on, all pinning me down to an identity, I am forgetting that none of these things can define me at all. In a reversal of Descartes’ 'I think, therefore I am,’ Sartre argues, in effect, ‘I am nothing, therefore I am free.’

Not surprisingly, this radical freedom makes people nervous. It is difficult enough to think of oneself as free at all, but Sartre goes further by saying that I am literally nothing beyond what I decide to be. To realise the extent of my freedom is to be plunged into what both Heidegger and Kierkegaard called ‘anxiety’ -Angst or, in French, angoisse. This is not a fear of anything in particular, but a pervasive unease about oneself and one’s existence. Sartre borrows Kierkegaard’s image of dizziness: if I look over a cliff and feel vertigo, it tends to take the form of the sickening sensation that I might, compulsively and inexplicably, throw myself off the edge? The more freedom of movement I have, the worse this anxiety becomes. In theory. if someone tied me down securely near the edge, my
vertigo would disappear, for I would know that I could not throw myself off and could therefore relax. If we could try a similar trick with the anxiety of life in general, everything would seem a lot easier. But it is impossible: whatever resolutions I make, they can never tie me down like real ropes can. Sartre gives the example of a gambling addict who has long ago resolved never to yield to the addiction. But if this man finds himself near a casino and feels the pull of temptation, he has to renew his resolution all over again. He cannot just refer back to the original decision. I may choose to follow certain general directions in my life, but I can’t force myself to stick to them.

To avoid this problem, many of us try to convert our long-term decisions into real-world constraints of some kind. Sartre uses the example of an alarm clock: it goes off, and I roll out of bed as if I had no choice but to obey it, rather than freely considering whether I really want to get up or not. A similar idea lies behind more recent software applications that block you from helplessly watching videos of cats and puppies when you would rather be getting on with work. You can set it either to limit your time on particular sites, or to lock you out of the Internet altogether. With a nod to paradox, the most popular of these programs is called 'Freedom’.

All these devices work because they allow us to pretend that we are not free. We know very well that we can always reset the alarm clock or disable the software, but we arrange things so that this option does not seem readily available. If we didn’t resort to such tricks, we would have to deal with the whole vast scope of our freedom at every instant, and that would make life extremely difficult. Most of us therefore keep ourselves entangled in all kinds of subtle ways throughout the day. Sartre gives examples: ‘I have an appointment this evening with Pierre. I must not forget to reply to Simon. I do not have the right to conceal the truth any longer from Claude.’ Such phrases imply that we are boxed in, but for Sartre they are ‘projections’ of my choices. They are, in his great vertiginous turn of phrase, ‘so many guard rails against anguish’.
To show how deeply such pretences are woven into everyday life, Sartre describes a waiter- a skillful, supercilious Parisian waiter, weaving between tables, balancing his tray, ‘putting it in a perpetually unstable, perpetually broken equilibrium which he perpetually re-establishes by a light movement of the arm and hand’. As a human being, he is a free ‘for-itself’ like me, but he moves as though he were a beautifully designed mechanism, enacting a predefined role of game. What game is he playing? 'We need not watch long before we can explain it: he is playing at being a waiter in a café.’ He does this as efficiently as the thief in G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown story ‘The Queer Feet’, who slips by unnoticed in a gentleman’s club by moving like a waiter when the club members are around, and like a club member when the waiters are around. A waiter playing a waiter performs his actions so gracefully that the effect is like the sequence of musical notes in Nausea’s ragtime song: it seems absolutely necessary. He tries to be a work of art called Waiter, whereas in truth, like the rest of us, he is a free, fallible, contingent human being. In thus denying his freedom, he enters what Sartre calls mauvaise foi, or 'bad faith’. There is nothing exceptional about this: most of us are in bad faith most of the time, because that way life is liveable.

Most bad faith is harmless, but it can have darker consequences. In the short story ‘The Childhood of a Leader’, written in 1938, Sartre examined a character, Lucien, who shores up an identity for himself as an anti-Semite mainly in order to be something. He is pleased when he hears someone else say of him, 'Lucien can’t stand Jews.’ It gives him the illusion that he simply is the way he is. Bad faith here makes an entity out of a nonentity. Sartre developed this thought further in Reflexions sur la question juive (translated as Anti-Semite and jew), begun in 1944 and published in 1946. He does not argue that all anti-Semitism comes down to bad faith (that would be a hard thesis to defend), but he uses the notion of bad faith to make a connection between two things that no one had put together quite so nearly: the fear of freedom, and the tendency to blame and demonise others.

For Sartre, we show bad faith whenever we portray ourselves as passive creations of our race, class, job, history, nation, family, heredity, childhood influences, events, or even hidden drives in our subconscious which we claim are out of our control. It is not that such factors are unimportant: class and race, in particular, he acknowledged as powerful forces in people’s lives, and Simone de Beauvoir would soon add gender to that list. Nor did he mean that privileged groups have the right to pontificate to the poor and downtrodden about the need to ’take responsibility’ for themselves. That would be a grotesque misreading of Sartre’s point, since his sympathy in any encounter always lay with the more oppressed side. But for each of us-for me-to be in good faith means not making excuses for myself. We cannot say (to quote more examples from Sartre’s 1945 lecture) ‘I have never had a great love or a great friendship; but that is because I never met a man or a woman Who were worthy of it; if I have not written any very good books, it is because I had not the leisure to do so.’ We do say such things, all the time; but we are in bad faith when we do it.

None of this means that I make choices in a completely open field or void. I am always in some sort of pre-existing ‘situation’, out of which I must act. I actually need these ‘situations’, or what Sartre calls ’facticity’, in order to act meaningfully at all. Without it, my freedom would be only the unsatisfying freedom of someone floating in space- perhaps a high jumper who makes a great leap only to find herself drifting off in zero gravity, her jump counting for nothing. Freedom does not mean entirely unconstrained movement, and it certainly does not mean acting randomly. We often mistake the very things that enable us to be free- context, meaning, facticity, situation, a general direction in our lives »-for things that define us and take away our freedom. It is only with all of these that we can be free in a real sense.

Sartre takes his argument to an extreme point by asserting that even war, imprisonment or the prospect of imminent death cannot take away my existential freedom. They form part of my ‘situation’, and this may be an extreme and intolerable situation, but it Still provides only a context for whatever I choose to do next. If I am about to die, I can decide how to face that death. Sartre here resurrects the ancient Stoic idea that I may not choose what happens to me, but I can choose what to make of it, spiritually speaking. But the Stoics cultivated indifference in the face of terrible events, whereas Sartre thought we should remain passionately. even furiously engaged

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