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Countering the Crisis in Sartre Studies

werelfred Betschart 


Are Sartre studies in a crisis? Yes, I think so. For the past nine years I have been sending out a newsletter to about two hundred people in Germany, Austria and Switzerland who are interested in Sartre and existentialism. In this newsletter, I inform them about the new books that were published in the last four months or so. In the beginning I could still choose between the books I wanted to report on in my two-pager, but today often not enough books have been published to fill the two pages. Whether we are talking about the Sartre Societies in North America, in UK, or in Germany, we have all had our discussions about what direction our societies should take. And these discussions are not over yet. It is obvious that young scholars would rather write about Merleau-Ponty and Camus than Sartre.

Is there a problem with Sartre? I don't think so. Rather, there is a problem with the narratives about Sartre and existentialism. Historically, the first narrative focused on individual freedom and commitment. It was a very successful one, successful all over the world, it dominated the years between 1945 and 1970. But that first narrative is now a thing of the past. The second narrative was the Marxist-existentialist one that emerged in the seventies. However, it fell into disrepute after the fall of communism in the years around 1990. Subsequent narratives in the Anglo-Saxon world focused mainly on ethics and later on anti-racism. They are now quite exhausted, for their focus is far too narrow. And the narrative based on Sartre's ethics of the forties is faced with the problem that Sartre later rejected this ethics as mystified.

We urgently need a new narrative to revive Sartre studies. But where are we to get? Unfortunately, and this is true in both English- and German-speaking countries, a sufficient knowledge of the French language is a rare asset today. This lack of knowledge of the French language is the reason why many new insights gained in France and Belgium over the last thirty years, which have the potential to become the foundation for a new narrative, have never been received by us at all.

Several formerly unknown texts written by Sartre have been published over the last thirty years. From a philosophical perspective, his notes on ethics from the sixties are particularly interesting. Morale et histoire, morality and history, are the notes on his cancelled lectures at Cornell University and Les racines de l'éthique, the roots of ethics, are the Rome lectures of 1964. In the past, these ethical writings were usually referred to as his second normative ethics, his ethics of equality. In fact, these texts do not belong to normative ethics but rather to social ontology in the succession of the Critique of dialectical reason. Sartre describes here the gap between unconditional normatives and the conditioned history and ways how we try to bridge this gap. His concept of ethical radicalism is a very powerful tool for the understanding of politics in a divided society as we have it today.

Also worth mentioning is the release of the film scripts of Résistance, Typhus and Joseph Le Bon. In addition, the film The Witches of Salem is available again. Together with the scripts for The Chips Are Down, In the Mesh, Freud, and the largely unknown Les faux nez, Sartre's only comedy, the texts of all the presumably extant scenarios are thus available to the public as scripts and/or films. In line with No Exit's "Hell is other people" and Sartre's analysis of the relationship to the Other in Being and Nothingness, Sartre's philosophy of the forties has always been suspected of being solipsistic or even misanthropic. The conventional wisdom is that this only changed with the Critique, when Sartre introduced the third person and groups. But the scenarios—the first of which he wrote earlier than No Exit—are all love stories, the only exception being Freud. Love for him, however, does not mean faithfulness and self-sacrifice in favor of the beloved, but the acceptance of the other with his/her fundamental choice and the actions associated with it.

Other important documents are Sartre's interviews from the seventies. Until 1970, Sartre had no clear political philosophy. In emergencies, he resorted to crutches from the Marxist arsenal. From 1973, however, he increasingly spoke out in favor of political anarchism. At first, he did so covertly, speaking of anti-hierarchical and then libertarian ideas. Then in 1978, in an interview with Juan Goytisolo, he said quite openly, "I've always considered myself an anarchist." Of course, Sartre was not an anarchist in the sense of Stirner, Bakunin or Kropotkin, but he was firmly convinced that power, particularly state power, and freedom cannot go together but are rather archenemies.

The narratives about Sartre at least since the seventies always saw him close to Marxism. Not only the "anarchist" interviews of the seventies question this. Two years ago, François Noudelmann published a book entitled Un tout autre Sartre, a very different Sartre. This book is based on interviews with Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre as well as on private letters and films written and produced by Sartre. Noudelmann presents us not only with the romantic and the queer Sartre, but also with the apolitical Sartre. When Sartre refers to politics in his private letters, a favorite verb of his was "emmerder," in English "to piss off": "Politics pisses me off." And he writes this at times when he presents himself to the outside world as a prominent political intellectual, for example, in connection with the visit to the Soviet Union in 1954 or with the events in Algeria. When writing his preface to Frantz Fanon's book The Wretched of the Earth, a text that has been so influential, especially here in the U.S., he declares, "This violence pisses me off." He also admitted to his girlfriend that his political knowledge was inadequate, just as he admitted in his essay on the occasion of Merleau-Ponty's death that he was politically incompetent. Indeed, we know from his secretary Jean Cau that Sartre hardly read daily newspapers. Unsurprisingly, in the seventies he preferred the company of the ideologically rather ignorant Gauche Prolétarienne to that of dogmatically steeled Trotzkyites.

In my discussion with Ron Aronson in Sartre Studies International, I have already detailed my reasons for thinking that Sartre was not a Marxist. In line with Sartre's basic criticism of Marxism in Search for a Method, we need to re-read the Critique. Sartre’s notion of the series was directly opposed to the Marxist understanding of the role of the proletariat. With his concepts of the group in fusion, terror-fraternity, and institutionalized groups, he tried to explain the aberrations of communism in the Soviet Union. Sartre's flirtation with Marxism ultimately obscured the fact that his political commitment was more to the defense of left-bourgeois values. Criticism of war, colonialism, discrimination, and traditional values of family and honor were central to the thinking of the Radical Party, whose main ideologist was Alain, a professor whom Sartre revered until the end of his life. Sartre definitely stood closer to the values of PRRRS, the main liberal party in France, than to Marxist ideology.

Alexandre Feron published a book a year ago entitled Le Moment marxiste de la phénoménologie française, the Marxist moment of French phenomenology. His original intention was to present Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, and Trần Đức Thảo, a Vietnamese communist, as philosophers who were trying to combine phenomenology and Marxism. Rather, he showed how much less of a Marxist and phenomenologist Sartre was than Merleau and Trần. While Merleau and Trần knew Husserl's later works such as The Crisis, Sartre was only familiar with the Ideas and did not even know the Logical Investigations. In 1949/1950, Trần and Sartre discussed Marxism and phenomenology. Feron is expected to publish these texts in the near future. It will be interesting to learn whether Sartre fared better in the discussions with Tran than in those with David Rousset and Gérard Rosenthal in 1949, published under the title Entretiens sur la politique, talks about politics.

This already brings us to the middle of philosophy. Other researchers who examined the relationship between Sartre and phenomenology were Vincent de Coorebyter with Sartre face à la phénoménologie, Sartre in the face of phenomenology, and Alain Flajoliet with La première philosophie de Sartre, Sartre's first philosophy. With the kind support of Sartre and Beauvoir, all of the earlier narratives advanced the thesis that Sartre's philosophy was mainly influenced by Husserl, Heidegger, and Hegel.

However, there are several problems with this thesis. The only Husserlian concept that Sartre eventually continued to use was that of intentionality, and this was a concept originally developed by Brentano. In letters to Beauvoir in early 1940, Sartre wrote that he was now interested in the ontic rather than the ontological, and that his new philosophy no longer bore any resemblance to that of Husserl and Heidegger. In his 1975 interview for the Schilpp series, Sartre says that he mistook Husserl for a realist. In the letters I mentioned earlier, Sartre described his new philosophy as neorealist, realist in contrast to phenomenological. Heidegger's 1946 Letter on Humanism confirms this difference between Sartre, who saw his philosophy first primarily as an extension of psychology and later anthropology, and Heidegger, who resisted any rapprochement of his philosophy with psychology, at least until 1958, when the Zollikon seminars began. The common ground between Sartre and Hegel is also very limited. The only relevant concept Sartre adopted is that of the relation between the lord and the bondsman in the interpretation of Alexandre Kojève. The question is: Which were the philosophers who influenced Sartre the most?

In one of the letters Sartre wrote to Beauvoir in early 1940, he mentioned that his new philosophy was closer to the ideas he had before 1933. Unfortunately, the corpus of Sartre's early writings, published in 1990 as Écrits de jeunesse, has never been translated. The same is true of Empédocle and Chant de la contingence, the song about contingency, and Sartre's master's thesis L'image dans la vie psychologique: rôle et nature, the image in psychological life: role and nature. All three works were published only in the last six years. Another important document for understanding Sartre's early philosophy is Gautier Dassonneville's list of books Sartre borrowed from the ENS library as a student.

What we learn from all these sources leaves us amazed. Sartre obviously received a bilingual education. His teachers were his grandfather and the Alsatian maids the Schweitzer family had. The result was that Sartre was quite fluent in German on the one hand and very close to German philosophy and psychology on the other. Grégory Cormann speaks of Sartre being a member of the Alsatian community at the ENS and belonging to the circle around the journal Recherches philosophiques ten years later. This journal, in which Alexandre Koyré, Jean Wahl, and Emmanuel Levinas published, was mainly dedicated to the exchange between German and French representatives of modern philosophy.

The first German philosopher to exert a decisive influence on Sartre was Nietzsche, especially through his distinction between master and slave morality. As late as in the Notebooks for an Ethics, Sartre will call deontological ethics a slave morality. Sartre most likely read Nietzsche before entering ENS, as his grandfather was a friend of Charles Andler, the most important French Nietzsche biographer. Sartre's knowledge of German also enabled him to get a job as proofreader of the French translation of Karl Jaspers's General Psychopathology. Jaspers's distinction between explaining and understanding, based on developments by Wilhelm Dilthey and Max Weber, became the cornerstone of Sartre's Search for a Method, especially his regressive-progressive method and his rejection of the communist dialectic of nature.

Sartre's good knowledge of German allowed him to read scientific texts in German. This was especially important for psychological texts. As we know from his failed attempt to submit The Imaginary as a doctoral thesis and a letter from Beauvoir in which she already saw him as a professor at Sorbonne, presumably of phenomenological psychology, Sartre's main focus in the 1930s was psychology, not philosophy. Sartre became deeply involved with German Gestalt psychology for the first time in 1930. Totality, totalization, and other concepts derived from them became a cornerstone of his philosophy in the time of Search for a Method and Critique which was a result of his preoccupation with Gestalt psychology.

Of even greater importance was his reading of the works of the so-called Würzburg School. The most important innovation in his master thesis L'image dans la vie psychologique was the inclusion of the insights of the Würzburg School. We know from Dassonneville's list of books Sartre borrowed from the ENS library that Sartre read this literature intensively. As a 1922 book by Léon Brunschvicg indicates, one of the most important questions being debated at the time was what constituted man, causality as with the empiricists and positivists or inner experience as with the spiritualists. Sartre tried to find a middle ground. As late as 1969, he said in an interview that he had tried all his life to give man both his autonomy and his reality among things, avoiding both idealism and mechanistic materialism. In addition to the Würzburg School and Jaspers, important points of reference in this regard were Henri Bergson and William James, the latter especially mediated by Sartre’s two most important professors during his time at the ENS, Henri Delacroix and Georges Dumas.

In the last twenty to thirty years, many new documents have been published that have the potential to establish an entirely new narrative about Sartre and his thought. I have not yet mentioned some of them: for example, Cahier Lutèce and Jean sans terre, two autobiographical documents published in 2010 that are reason enough to question our reading of Sartre's The Words and Beauvoir's The Prime of Life. Another interesting document is the notebook of Shuzo Kuki, which, by the way, was published in English back in 1987 and proves Sartre’s proximity to the French spiritualists. Finally, we should also take a look at the influence of Kant on Sartre. Sartre was a student of Brunschvicg, the most important Kantian of his time in France.

For an excellent overview of new developments in Sartre studies in France and Belgium, read Grégory Cormann's essay, Plea for a Collective Genetics, which will be published in Sartre Studies International next year. If you don't want to wait that long, you can read my "extended review" of François Noudelmann's Un tout autre Sartre in the first issue of Sartre Studies International this year. As a summary, I just can say: We have it in our own hands to make Sartre studies more attractive again.

[1] Presentation held at the 27th meeting of the North American Sartre Society at the American University in Washington D.C. in Nov. 2022.