Monday, February 13, 2006

Uncle Sartre

Televangelist Pat Robertson recentlty offered a nauseatingly stupid reading of Sartrean existentialism. There's little to be gained by ridicule in this case, and Robertson's way of misreading Sartre is hardly singular, but this particular deployment of his raises an issue that may cast some light on what Sartre means in saying "I am condemned to be free." (For Sartre's quick and dirty defense of his philosophy against his critics, see Existentialism is a Humanism; for a deeper study of existential freedom according to Sartre, see Being and Nothingness, esp. Part 4, Chapter 1.)

Existentialism is what it is by virtue of the claim that "existence precedes essence." In "Existentialism is a Humanism" Sartre claims the idea on behalf of athiestic existentialism. It is surely an idea strongly identified with Sartre, and it implies that certain ideas about the divine ought to be excluded from existential analysis. However, while it's worth examining the differences between the givens of existence according to Sartre and, for instance, the givens of existence according to Gabriel Marcel, the leading Christian existentialist of Sartre's time (who in fact coined the term "existentialism"), it is not clear from the outset that "existence precedes essence" belongs exclusively to athiesm, so I will provisionally stick by the statement that the claim defines existentialism as such, as a secular philosophy, regardless of whether the bent of any particular existential philosopher is atheistic, theistic, agnostic or otherwise.

In Being and Nothingness (trans. Barnes,pp. 439-440) Sartre explains what the claim means:

To say that the for-itself has to be what it is, to say that it is what it is not while not being what it is, to say that in it existence precedes and conditions essence or inversely according to Hegel, that for it "Wesen ist was gewesen ist"--all this is to say one and the same thing: to be aware that man is free. Indeed by the sole fact that I am conscious of the causes which inspire my action, these causes are already transcendent objects for my consciousness; they are outside. In vain shall I seek to catch hold of them; I escape them by my very existence. I am condemned to exist forever beyond my essence, beyond the causes and motives of my act. I am condemed to be free. This means that no limits to my freedom can be found except freedom itself or, if you prefer, that we are not free to cease being free. To the extent that the for-itself wishes to hide its own nothingness from itself and to incorporate the in-itself as its true mode of being, it is trying also to hide its freedom from itself.

Hopeless, according to the Sartrean view, is believing that a priori values offer a way of escaping one's freedom. Neither is there any hope of escaping responsibility for the consequences of one's choices. Realizing this, according to Sartre, is the source of existential anguish. However, to say that one has no hope of escaping one's freedom, of existing beyond existence, is hardly equivalent to saying that existence itself is hopeless, or that life isn't lived towards its future. Likewise, to say that the meaning of life is not given, but rather must be enacted is hardly equivalent to saying that (a) life has no meaning.

The anguish which, when this possibility [of modifying one's choice of oneself] is revealed, manifests our freedom to our consciousness is witness of this perpetual modifiability of our initial project. In anguish we do not simply apprehend the fact that the possibles which we project are perpetually eaten away by our freedom-to-come; in addition we apprehend our choice--i.e., ourselves--as unjustifiable. This means that we apprehend our choice as not deriving from any prior reality but rather as being about to serve as foundation for the ensemble of significations which constitute reality. Unjustifiability is not only the subjective recognition of the absolute contingency of our being but also that of the interiorization and recovery of this contingency on our own account.

(Being and Nothingness, p. 464)

This brings us around to the question of parenthood raised by Robertson. We can give life, but cannot give meaning to the life we give. We cannot justify it, live it, or make it be other than free. In the Sartrean view, parenting itself is not something that is done because it is human nature. Parenting is rather a choice, or more concretely, something we judge by a series of actions that demonstrate a sustained, living commitment to being a parent. It can never be justified a priori, but must be perpetually enacted.

Robertson would not be the only moralist to hold that allowing for the absolute freedom of human existence opens wide the door to nihilism, absurdism and turpitude. This kind of misreading of Sartre requires that we largely ignore the discussion of conditions of possibility for action, or anything that is said about responsibility. The claim that there are "no limits for freedom" does not mean that there are no limits for judgement, that we have no basis for deciding that one course of action is better than another.

I don't mean to suggest that there aren't serious moral problems with Sartre's existentialism--Karol Wojtyla may be the most famous scholar to tackle the moral implications of Sartre's philosophy from the vantage point of an explicitly Christian phenomenology; I couldn't say whether Woytyla's rejection of the denial of God also entails a rejection of existential freedom at some level, but there can be little doubt that Wojtyla's early thinking was informed by Christian existential phenomology (see Phenomenology in Poland), and so I have some doubts as to whether he or others in that circle would have made the profound moral error that Robertson's view entails, namely this: treating one's children as instruments of one's own moral achievement.

Needless to say I don't regard Robertson's Christian eugenic community as a worthy goal. However, even if we were to imagine that some innocuous goal were aimed at, say love of granola, or a more realistic goal like excellence in sports, it would still be reprehenisble to treat the life of one's child as a means to that end.

Every parent deserving of being called a parent wants their children to do well, and to do well by their children. But desire alone is not enough to constitute good parenting. One has to make a commitment and see it through over many years. In modern liberal democracies the scope of personal liberty is broad. Consequently it is often difficult to know whether one is doing well by one's children in striking a balance between discipline and letting be. Rather than tackle these everyday parenting dilemmas from a Christian point of view, Robertson's call to procreate for God and Race invites them to be swept under the rug of an arbitary naturalness. (I'm trying to imagine an ideographic representation of "double arbitrary naturalness.") It may be comforting to his followers, but it comes with a high moral cost.

As I'm composing my thoughts on this topic, Richard Wolin's essay Heiddeger Made Kosher is causing some unrest among the Heideggerians. Several thoughts occur to me. (a) I will definitely need to revisit the homo mensura, as I'd meaning to do in response to Appiah, and also Kristeva's Strangers to Ourselves which makes for a good companion volume. (b) I am struck by the intersection of popular and esoteric discourses, which is not so surprising in the matter of Sartre, perhaps, but more surprising in view of Heidegger and Levinas. It seems that if the Heideggerians truly wish to forget about the Heidegger question, they will have to take their case to the masses. (c) The "Year of Sartre" may provide a backdrop for Robertson's outburst. (d) The notion of a cryptotheological phenomenology, ethics or perhaps a broader late Twentieth Century turn in contintental philosophy. (See also Bettina Bergo's The Return of the Religious, or Reading Ethics Using Religious Categories: Kierkegaard, Levinas, and Recent French Thought). I will expand on this point.

I make no declaration of faith, and have nothing to say for or against belief in God, or any other divine entity. My receptivity to thinkers like Wojtyla (whose theology is anything but cryptic) may be regarded as suspect insofar as I make no claim to be following a spiritual path. It is on a par with my receptivity to, oh, Roy Wagner's Anthropology of the Subject. I don't pick up such a volume intending to "go anthropologist," and I don't foresee adopting the sort of worldview that would help me adapt to a life in the New Guinea highlands. But it speaks to me nonetheless.

Yet there is a sense in which theologically minded or avowedly religious secular philosophers may have a "crypto-" quality to them. Two senses, actually, because critical engagements with Eastern European Twentieth Century thinkers must consider whether totalitarian suppressions of religion have played a hand in the shaping of the discourse. So if somebody argues that Jan Patočka, for instance, engages in a kind of cryptotheology, all proclaimed heresies to the contrary, then we have circumstantial grounds to at least consider the claim, and what might "really" be at stake. (Derrirda's treatment of Patočka's Heretical Essays will be widely known, as far as such things can be widely known. For another perspective, touching directly on the issue of existential freedom, meaning, nihilism and Christianity, see The Heretical Conception of European Heritage in the Late Essays of Jan Patočka (pdf) by Ivan Chvatík.)

The other sense in which the theological has a crypto- quality relates to the cultural history of the West, in which France looms large, particularly on the field of ideas. I'm not prepared to make the case that secular institutions of higher learning in the West have cultivated a strong systematic bias against theistic sentiment, but if one were to entertain the notion, and imagine the various causes behind the marginalization of religious viewpoints in academia, one of them would surely be the ascendancy of the natural sciences, and the adoption of naturalistic explanatory paradigms in the humanities, or the "human sciences," to use Dilthey's phrase. This situation sets up a bit of paradox in the cultural status afforded to Sartre, for the academy has valued existentialism precisely as a humanism, as an alternative to a naturalistic worldview, in particular structuralism. And yet the philosophical challenge posed by Sartrean existentialism, by virtue of its explicit atheism, avoids addressing antipathies towards human freedom that would be concealed in the mode of an antipathy towards the supernatural. (Well one can try, but this is the point at which our friend the naturalist would turn up her nose.) The typical atheist, I think I can say, won't recognize this kind of limitation as a limitation, as a strategy of containment. Theists, on the other hand, may be expected to be more sensitive to prejudices against their worldview. This recognition of constraint, without any preconcieved motive of bringing religious belief into debate, may nonetheless color and motivate a style of thinking that can be roughly described as cryptotheological. (To be fairly described as cryptotheological another step would be required, an intentional movement towards the theological. However, the mere appearance of a cryptotheology or a latent cryptotheology suffices to earn our attention by calling into question terms of discourse.)

In this manner, then, in the realm of cultural critique, there may be some warrant for regarding Levinas as cryptotheological. He is assuredly not cryptotheological in the sense of subrogating theology in place of secular philosophy. Regarding the radicalness of his critique of phenomenology, it is probably wise to take him at his word and see it as the product of his thinking, a thinking assiduously applied to the moral problems exposed by the events of his day. Levinas does not make the claim, as Wojtyla does, that the problem of subjectivism in Sartre's philosophy is the problem of atheism, or that the relation to the Other is impervious to secular inquiry. Nevertheless, the meaning of Levinas is not exhausted by Levinas. Cryptotheological appropriations of Levinas, which no doubt exist, may be serving a critical function, perhaps even if only at a deeply emotional level. (I don't mean to suggest that a view of Levinas' ethics as transgressive couldn't be completely rational or supported by close textual reading, just that emotional responses have critical value.) Whether any particular appropriation amounts to a serious engagement with Western thought or a simple case of smuggling cannot be determined in advance. In any case, religious sentiment being what it is--i.e. sublime, strongly felt, holistic-- what I am calling cryptotheological interpetations call for a heightened sensitivity to the difference between judgement and prejudice.

Well, that's a lot of bytes just to say there's more than one way of skinning a cat. I want to clearly establish the premise that my dispute with Pat Robertson is not based upon a canonical interpretation of Sartre, but rather my reading of Sartre. Not Sartre the Father, but Uncle Sartre. To a certain degree, I can imagine the kind of anomie that informs Robertson's view, an anomie he probably feels that he's addressing the best way he can. But it isn't good enough. I mean, it's really bad. Being a sloppy reader may be easily forgiven. Being a sloppy moralist, not so much.

posted by Fido the Yak at 5:40 AM.


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