p. 815. A chastened individualism? Existentialism and social thought
- Thomas Flynn
‘A chastened individualism? Existentialism and social thought‘ surveys the development of social responsibility in existentialist thought. Previous proponents of ‘authenticity’ like Nietzsche and Kierkegaard did not really address social responsibility and Heidegger was dramatically misled by National Socialism. After World War II, ideas of collective responsibility and ethical limits to the political were developed. Sartre and other existentialists supported communism, until dissuaded by Soviet imperialism. Marcel stressed the need to move from an abstract to a concrete thinking and foster others' freedom. De Beauvoir applied existentialism to feminism, as a way to overcome oppression, although this necessitated cooperation among free agents.
In history too, existence precedes essence.
It may be shameful to be happy by oneself.
Albert Camus, The Plague
When Sartre entered the lecture hall on that October evening of 1945, he was facing the widespread belief that his newly popular philosophy was simply a warmed-up version of bourgeois individualism, totally insensitive to the mortal camaraderie that had just defeated Fascism across the continent. This suspicion was confirmed by the often-quoted penultimate line of his play No Exit, ‘Hell is other people’ (L’enfer c’est les autres), that was premiered the year before. The outburst of Sartre’s creativity that followed the liberation of Paris seemed to reinforce the implicit narcissism of his ethic of authenticity and critique of bad faith, neither of which addressed pressing social issues. This was certainly the view of both his Communist and his Catholic critics, well represented at that lecture, both of whom championed explicit, if mutually incompatible, theories of social justice and programmes to implement them. And yet what we have been calling the existentialist tradition, notwithstanding its stress on becoming an individual, was uniformly critical of bourgeois society with its penchant for conformity and material comfort, its pursuit of p. 82↵security and aversion to risk, and its unimaginative conservatism. But does this translate into a full-blown social theory, especially one that recognizes exploitation and oppression and advocates their termination? I’ll respond by examining the respective answers of the leading members of that tradition.
Kierkegaard and Nietzsche on bourgeois culture
I pointed out earlier that Kierkegaard is noted for his polemics against the three formative institutions of Danish society in his day, namely Hegelian philosophy, the established Church, and the popular press. Hegelian philosophy, in his view, had traded life for concept (Begriff). He agreed with what was then the dominant school of thought in Denmark that life was to be understood ‘historically’ in the sense that the Hegelian system could uncover the necessities of events after they had occurred. But he insisted that such speculation was powerless before the contingencies of life as it is lived.
It is perfectly true, as philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards. But they forget the other proposition, that it must be lived forwards.
Ideas can be systematized, life cannot. Attempting to live your life by relying on abstract, Hegelian philosophy, Kierkegaard scoffed, is like taking your laundry to a shop that announces ‘Washing Done’ and discovering that only the sign is for sale!
But the established Lutheran Church did not fare any better. Undertaking the project of reintroducing Biblical ‘Christianity’ into ‘Christendom’, Kierkegaard identified the latter with a cultural Christianity that promoted complacency, greed, and tokenism towards the poor and suffering while profiting from its identification with the political and economic powers of the day. He noted that the State employs a thousand officials (the clergy) who, p. 83↵while professing Christianity, in fact are interested only in their incomes and actually prevent people from knowing what Christianity truly is. Though his brother was a pastor and Søren himself had considered entering the ministry, his particular religiosity placed him at loggerheads with the established Church.
And then there was the popular press. Kierkegaard considered it a demoralizing institution. It undermines the courageous search for the truth and instead serves the formation of public opinion, the view of the many who do not wish to risk possible exclusion from the majority that thinking for themselves entails. He paid dearly for such remarks by the ridicule he suffered at the hands of one satirical weekly in particular, the Corsair. Its caricatures made him the laughing-stock of Copenhagen, such that he hesitated to take his beloved walks around the city.
As for the bourgeoisie in general, he wrote that, for them, morality ranks highest, much more important than intelligence; but they’ve never felt that fervour for the great, the talented, even in an exceptional guise. Their morals are a brief summary of the various posters put out by the police; the most important thing is to be a useful member of the State, and to air their opinions in the club of an evening; they never feel that nostalgia for something unknown, something remote, never feel the depths of being nothing at all (Journals, 14 July 1837).
Each of these remarks could have been made by Nietzsche. Both men prized a brutal honesty and had a sensitive nose for cowardice and hypocrisy. Each appealed to the Socratic willingness to be persecuted for the sake of the truth. And they both wrote with such wit and vigour.
As I pointed out in Chapter 2, much of the foregoing is voiced in support of the ‘individual’, which accounts for Kierkegaard’s reputation as elitist and apolitical. That he was distrustful of revolutions and of the mobs that often carried them out is quite p. 84↵clear. And if his wry humour did not spare the monarchy or the aristocrats, this should not be taken as a sign of egalitarian leanings. Rather, Kierkegaard maintained the kind of conservatism in which sceptical attitudes often take refuge. In this sense, his ‘individualism’ represents the point of departure for our attempt to trace the career of a social conscience in the existentialist tradition.
But before turning to Nietzsche, the other figure at this initial stage, we should note that Kierkegaard’s Christianity, the very ideal from which he attacked ‘Christendom’, was clearly sensitive to the plight of the poor and oppressed. His criticism of ecclesiastical politics and functionaries was grounded in ‘Gospel values’. Rightly or wrongly, his critique of the State Church focused on its having compromised these values in practice while proclaiming them in word. But in a vintage year for European revolutions (1848), including one taking place outside the very window of his study while he was correcting page proofs for his next publication, Kierkegaard seemed more concerned about the inner life; more focused on promoting a merciful attitude both towards and on the part of the needy, than about the social injustices that motivated their revolutionary behaviour. To be sure, his contrast between the age of revolution as being essentially passionate and the present age as ‘essentially a sensible, reflecting age, devoid of passion, flaring up in superficial, short-lived enthusiasm and prudentially relaxing in indolence’ would count as a social psychological critique. And if his rhetoric carries him up to the barricades, as in the remark that ‘in contrast to the age of revolution, which took action, the present age is an age of publicity, the age of miscellaneous announcements: nothing happens but still there is instant publicity’, his sceptical wit draws him back. Thus, he could insist that a chapter in his Works of Love (1847) on ‘Mercifulness’ was written in direct opposition to Communism. Change of heart rather than social upheaval seems to have been his preferred solution; personal conversion rather than political revolution.
Nietzsche was equally distrustful of the ‘herd’. And his disdain for p. 85↵political democracy matched Kierkegaard’s. His attitudes were scarcely mollified or, he would claim, distracted by appeal to Gospel values, which he had systematically inverted on several occasions. Pity, to pick a close associate of Kierkegaard’s ‘mercy’, for example, he dismissed as demeaning of its object and unworthy of its subject. In effect, Nietzsche seems to have shared Kierkegaard’s concern with the attitude or spirit of individuals rather than with the socioeconomic conditions under which they laboured. And while his ‘higher types’ were Greek or, like Goethe, figures of high culture whereas Kierkegaard’s heroes are chiefly Biblical in inspiration, neither addressed the issue of social responsibility or other major topics in political philosophy except in passing. Like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche was more concerned with the formation of individuals than with the transformation of society. In this sense, the existentialist tradition had yet to face what came to be known in the 19th century as the social question, namely how to achieve an equitable distribution of the growing wealth and services of industrial societies in the face of a burgeoning proletariat.
Heidegger and Jaspers: being-with and the lure of National Socialism
If Nietzsche was disturbed by the dark cloud of nihilism that he saw enveloping European society at the realization of the ‘death of God’, Heidegger and other German intellectuals of his generation were more concerned with the rise of Bolshevism and the threat of its hordes to Western civilization. Equally menacing, though more subtle in its insinuation, was the crass materialism and technologism of Anglo-American capitalism. German culture, as heir apparent to that of Ancient Greece (a view propounded in Germany by distinguished 18th- and 19th-century Classical philologists and archaeologists), was under attack from two directions and at two levels in what Heidegger in a lecture called ‘great pincers, squeezed between Russia on one side and America on the other’.
p. 86Despite the individualizing power of resolutely accepting one’s personal being-unto-death, Heidegger spoke of our being-with (Mitzein) as a basic structure of human being (Dasein). Humans are fundamentally social in nature. We are originally born (in the language of ekstatic temporality, Heidegger says ‘thrown’) into a cultural world where our being-with conforms to what ‘anyone’ does. We develop what sociologists call a ‘social self’ and what Heidegger denominates an inauthentic ‘they’ self (Das Man) like that of Ivan Ilyich, in thrall to public opinion. From a historical point of view, this cultural world is what Heidegger calls ‘tradition’, etymologically that which has been ‘handed down’ and which we have received as part of our common heritage. This tradition helps form us as a people. He sometimes speaks of ‘destiny’ in this context, meaning not blind fate but the objective limits and possibilities that emerge out of our collective past. In the existentialist sense, these possibilities can be taken as opportunities for authentic or inauthentic choice.
But there are historical moments that occasion the emergence of an authentic being-with and Heidegger (mis)read the National Socialist (Nazi) revolution as one of them. As a biographer whom I consider fair-minded summarizes this controversial matter:
A good deal of uneasiness persists to this day about Heidegger’s political involvement. On philosophical grounds he became, for a while, a National Socialist revolutionary, but his philosophy also helped him to free himself from the political scene. He learned a lesson from what he had done, and his thinking subsequently focused on the problem of the seducibility of the spirit by the will to power.
Though existentialists tend toward nonconformity and Heidegger, as we saw, emphasized the individualizing power of resolutely living ‘my’ being-unto-death, the notion of ‘authentic’ being-with proved as perilous as it was alluring. Heidegger seemed seduced by the sheer power of the Nazi movement and the opportunity it seemed to p. 87↵offer for educational reform in which he might play an important role. What philosopher Jürgen Habermas (1929– ) said of Heidegger has often been applied to Sartre in this regard: that by making the individual the focal point of their philosophies they overlooked the intersubjective and social aspect of human life. Though an inaccurate assessment of both Heidegger and Sartre, such criticism nonetheless underscores the fact that the burden of proof for an adequate social philosophy rests with such proponents of the authentic individual.
If the Second World War ended with Heidegger in disgrace, it left Karl Jaspers standing on the moral high ground. Although Jaspers too had believed that the cultural mission of Germany was to offer the world a third option between ‘the Russian whip and Anglo-Saxon convention’, he voiced this opinion after the First World War and, unlike Heidegger, not in the midst of the Nazi triumph. He had withstood the Nazi takeover at the cost of his university professorship and at the end of the war delivered a set of lectures published as The Question of German Guilt (1947). There he distinguished forms of guilt and responsibility in order to clarify how the Germans should sort out their present situation in the wake of this disaster. He discerned four categories of guilt: criminal guilt (the violation of unambiguous laws), political guilt (the degree of political acquiescence in the actions of the Nazi regime), moral guilt (a matter of personal conscience formed in dialogue with one’s ethical community), and metaphysical guilt (based on the solidarity of all humans simply as human and resulting in a condition of co-responsibility, especially for injustices of which one is aware and which one does not do one’s best to resist). This sense of collective responsibility was new to existentialist thought, but the topic would soon be addressed by Sartre in his polemics with various exploitative and oppressive groups and societies. Years later, Sartre would be inspired by these lectures to write a play, The Condemned of Altona (1959), that, while ostensibly portraying the responsibility of the Germans for the Second World War, was actually a parable of p. 88↵French guilt in repressing the Algerian revolution under way at that time.
The experience of the Second World War and its aftermath was decisive for Jaspers as it would be for Sartre. The abiding ethical concern of existentialist thought surfaces in Jaspers’s appeal to the ethical as a limit to the political. He will have no truck with the crass Machiavellian amoral ‘realism’ which claims that the end justifies the means. Jaspers’s experience with the Nazis had driven that point home, if he had ever questioned it. But the advent of the atomic bomb had multiplied the stakes exponentially. Sounding like Kierkegaard yet with a sense of institutional change as well, Jaspers remarks that it is not enough to find new institutions; we must change ourselves, our characters, our moral-political wills. What has been present in the individual person for a long time already, what was effective in small groups but remained powerless in society as a whole, has now become the condition for the continued existence of mankind.
Several years earlier, Gabriel Marcel had voiced a similar fear when he observed that we are in a situation without precedent in which suicide has become possible on a mankind-wide scale. It is impossible to think out this situation, he insists, without becoming aware that each of us is at almost every moment in the presence of a radical choice, and contributes by what he thinks, by what he does, by what he is, either to increase or, on the contrary, to lessen the likelihood of such a world-scale suicide. But he believes that it is only at the philosophical level that the essential nature of this choice can be made clear and that is what he proceeds to do. Existentialism demands a social conscience. But the particular urgency of its demand is a response to what he takes to be a fact unprecedented in world history: our capability of effecting the total destruction of civilization as we know it.
In the existentialist manner, Jaspers is not proposing another ethic of rules, despite his admission that a ‘form’ of universality remains p. 89↵in place, namely the unconditioned ‘ought’ of moral obligation. For the content of this obligation, ‘what’ specifically I ought to do, he insists, cannot be deduced from the form of the unconditional obligation to do something. Of course, good must be done and evil avoided; I ‘ought’ to do my duty. But what is my duty here and now? What is the good that I ought to pursue in this situation? As Jaspers knew from experience, such discovery/creation demands the courage of sacrifice on the part of the ethical agent as well as a form of reason that is more than intellect. Ethos, Jaspers warns us, becomes morality when it exhausts itself in commands and prohibitions. And here his theistic commitment comes into play: ‘What is hidden in the ethical’, he assures us, ‘is more than merely ethical.’ It is ‘transcendent’, and even ‘divine’, but not religious in the common use of the term that denotes revealed religion and institutional authority. As did Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, each in his own way, Jaspers leaves us open to the risk of moral creativity but does so within the horizon of the transcendent, or what he calls the ‘encompassing’ that challenges us to realize our freedom in a manner that entails the utmost responsibility for the freedom of others.
The challenge of mass society: Marcel
Though Jaspers called his thought a ‘philosophy of Existenz’, it seems to have been Gabriel Marcel who coined the term ‘existentialist’ and applied it to Sartre. His preferred label for his own work was ‘neo-Socratic’. Like Socrates, Marcel is an outspoken critic of contemporary society. And like him, he is a courageous defender of truth in the face of the will-to-power or, for that matter, the will-to-truth – which Nietzsche had criticized as an unacknowledged form of will-to-power.
In a book published in 1951, the title of which epitomizes an existentialist social critique, Man against Mass Society, Marcel moves beyond the neo-Romantic disdain for industrial society and its technological heirs, with which existentialists are commonly associated, to address the standard existentialist themes of freedom, p. 90↵ the specificity of the human, the crisis of values, and ethical authenticity. But at Marcel’s hands, each of these themes takes on an openly social character, mounted in a critique of totalitarianism on the one hand and of materialism on the other. Its underlying thesis is a relentless struggle against what he calls the ‘spirit of abstraction’. This spirit, for example, figures necessarily in our declaring and sustaining war. Whether it is a matter of attacking the enemy, usually demonized with insulting epithets, or of launching missiles, the human consequences of which one does not witness, one is spared the painful experience of the concrete reality of one’s actions. This point is brought home with rhetorical force in the pacifist film All Quiet on the Western Front, in which the abstraction of fighting the enemy is played out against the concrete reality of trench warfare during the First World War. Marcel’s criticism of the spirit of abstraction is a continuance of the search for a concrete philosophy that captured the interest of many philosophers and led Sartre to phenomenology in the 1930s.
Politically, Marcel finds the spirit of abstraction at work in the fanaticism of what he calls the ‘masses’. As he explains, the present political situation leaves large numbers of people in a state of abasement and alienation. They lack a sense of their own worth and are strangers to themselves and one another. The result is that the masses are inevitably prone to fanaticism: propaganda has the convulsive effect of electrical shock on people in this state. The philosopher, he claims, must work for a social order that will free as many as possible from such a mass condition.
He goes on to offer a phenomenological description of ‘fanaticized’ consciousness. Mass society is Marcel’s version of Nietzsche’s ‘herd’. Its members can be trained but not educated. And yet, unlike Nietzsche, Marcel urges that social and political steps can be taken to ‘draw’ such beings out of their state of abasement and alienation. His solution is more ‘communitarian’ than ‘liberal’ in today’s terms. That is, it favours intermediate groups as in the ancient guild system to mediate and control the absolutist tendencies of the State. p. 91↵The operative term is ‘communion’, which, in his vocabulary, signifies mutual respect among members of a group who share a common interest and concern. It is not unlike what Sartre at about the same time was calling ‘fraternity’.
The basis of this liberation is the move from abstract to concrete thinking. Humans are essentially in a situation of one sort or another, but this is what an abstract kind of humanism tends to overlook. This is what Sartre was saying in his humanism lecture: if we are to pursue freedom in the concrete rather than merely dream of it in the abstract, he insists, we must address the alienated situation of others. We cannot be free until they too have been liberated. Such is the argument of his ‘Is Existentialism a Humanism?’ lecture. But as Sartre said of the anti-Semite, we cannot act directly on another freedom; we must deal with their condition; we must change the ‘bases and structures’ of their choice. Marcel would agree with Sartre that such bases and structures cannot be simply economic or mechanically materialistic. But he would join Jaspers in insisting that the true value of the human lies in his or her ability to move beyond their condition towards openness to the transcendent. Fostering such receptiveness helps curb the totalitarian tendencies of the modern State and opens up the dogmatism of ethical systems.
Sartre and Camus on the Algerian war
Sartre claimed that his experience as a conscript in the Second World War brought him out of his individualism and led to his discovery of society. Merleau-Ponty recalls being struck by the extent to which during the pre-war years Sartre was removed from the political and historical point of view. It was only in the early days after the liberation of France that he became involved in politics. First, in the non-Communist politics of the Left, but as the Cold War developed, he shared political and social concerns with his former critics, the French Communist Party (PCF). Though he never joined the Party, he maintained a love-hate relationship with p. 92↵the PCF until the Hungarian Revolution (1956), when it started to weaken, and the Soviet occupation of Prague (1962), when the positive relationship died completely.
Sartre was at heart a political anarchist (what the French called a ‘libertarian socialist’) in the sense that he thought all relations should be voluntary and egalitarian. He described authority as ‘the other in us’ and was suspicious of its every form. But he was also a moralist, meaning that his political involvements always carried a moral dimension. Merleau-Ponty once said that if you distinguish acts of oppression from impersonal structures of exploitation, Sartre always focused on the act rather than on the structural dimension of the problem at hand. That is where the moral responsibility lay. Not that he ignored what philosopher Louis Althusser called ‘structural causality’, he did not. But these social structures, he insisted, were the sedimentation of prior actions and are sustained by current actions. So when, for example, he describes colonialism as a ‘system’, and says the ‘meanness is in the system’, he means that it is an exploitative structure that demands and is kept alive by oppressive practices. In other words, the ‘meanness’ is not entirely in the system. In principle, one should be able to discover the responsible parties, to name names. That’s a basic existentialist assumption.
It was this ‘naming of names’ with respect to the French involvement in quelling the Algerian revolution that placed Sartre on a collision course with his friend Albert Camus. Born in Algeria of a French father and Spanish mother, Camus was active in the Resistance movement during the Nazi occupation. As editor of its clandestine paper, Combat, he was sought by the Gestapo. With modest training in philosophy, he was primarily a journalist and an actor. Sartre’s enthusiastic review of his early novel The Outsider led to their meeting and eventual friendship. In fact, Sartre offered him the male lead in No Exit, which Camus considered but declined because of the need to maintain a low profile under the occupation.
Despite having written articles in support of the Arab population in p. 93↵
Albert Camus (1913–60)
Born in Algeria of Alsatian and Spanish parentage, his father died in the First World War and he was raised in poverty by his widowed mother. In Algeria, he was active in theatre and journalism before moving in 1940 to Paris, where he soon became involved in the Resistance movement, editing the clandestine newspaper Combat. His first novel, The Outsider, as well as an essay, ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’, both published in 1942, made him famous and brought him to the attention of Jean-Paul Sartre. He soon became associated with the existentialist movement. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957 and died in a car accident in 1960.
p. 94Algeria, one of the reasons for his need to move to metropolitan France, Camus thought the Arabs should not be deprived of such benefits of French citizenship as its educational system that had enabled a poor youth like himself to escape poverty. He also viewed the revolution as the expression of a pan-Arab expansionism, led by Egypt. Between the extremes of the status quo and complete revolution, Camus counselled some kind of federation. In other words, this author of The Rebel recommended the middle road. Sartre, seldom given to moderation or compromise, especially in politics, came down strongly in favour of the revolution, so much so that reactionary groups exploded bombs at the entrance to his apartment building on two occasions. As Sartre slipped into what he would later call a period of ‘amoral realism’, in support of revolution wherever he deemed it necessary, Camus attended more and more to the ethical aspect of political and social upheaval, opposing capital punishment and espousing a kind of pacifism by the time of his accidental death at the age of 47.
It was the savaging of Camus’s book The Rebel by a close associate of Sartre’s in the journal that Sartre directed that brought this friendship to an end. But the break was inevitable. Sartre took his politics more seriously than he took his friendships, as we shall see in the case of Merleau-Ponty as well. As Sartre’s politics moved increasingly towards the Left, he separated himself from former friends whose political development moved in the opposite direction. By the time of the student revolt of 1968, Sartre was associating with so-called French ‘Maoists’ who had little to do with China but a great deal to do with such classical anarchist ideals as ‘direct democracy’. Sartre could now publish an essay entitled ‘The Communists Are Afraid of Revolution’. This marks the extreme of Sartre’s political existentialism.
Recent discussions have polished Camus’s image in this affair. He emerges as the more balanced and less polemical of the two. But nothing in the episode speaks for the fairness or tolerance of either party.p. 95↵
Sartre and Merleau-Ponty on the Communist Party
Right after the war, Maurice Merleau-Ponty joined Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and others in founding a Left-leaning journal of ideas and criticism called Les Temps modernes (‘Modern Times’, after Charlie Chaplin’s film that Sartre so loved). It soon became the voice of French existentialism and continues to enjoy a wide circulation to this day. Its first issue (in the autumn of 1945) contained an introduction by Sartre that served as a kind of manifesto for the movement in its post-war period and offered a preview of the philosophical principles of the political engagement that would mark Sartre’s public life. In particular, it stressed its p. 96↵commitment to the autonomy of the individual, to the defence of their rights, and to the need for solidarity in the pursuit of these goals. ‘Totally committed and totally free, it is this free person who must be set free by expanding their possibilities of choice.’ ‘In sum’, he explains the programme of their journal, ‘our intention is to work toward producing certain changes in the Society that surrounds us’. The question was the nature of the ‘solidarity’ necessary to pursue these ends.
We have remarked on the rise and fall of Sartre’s relations with the French Communist Party. Merleau-Ponty’s was rather the inverse. Though he never joined the Party, he was sympathetic to Marxism and published Humanism and Terror (1947), which defended the violence necessary to establish and preserve a Communist State beset by enemies bent on its destruction. Curiously, these are the kinds of arguments that Sartre would later employ to the same end. By then, Merleau-Ponty had broken with Sartre and withdrawn from active political involvement. But in the first years of Les Temps modernes, they found themselves on the same page. Where Merleau-Ponty wrote in 1947 that ‘political action is of its nature impure, because it is the action of one person upon another and because it is collective action’, Sartre would produce a play entitled Dirty Hands arguing the same case the following year.
The occasion of their falling out was the Korean War. Merleau-Ponty read the Sino-Soviet intervention much as Sartre would later read the Russian intervention in Hungary and Czechoslovakia as examples of Soviet imperialism. Both men reacted against it but by a distance of 16 years. Though Merleau-Ponty was the editor in charge of the political desk at the journal, in his absence and knowing his view of the matter, Sartre published an essay critical of the American involvement in the Korean conflict. Merleau-Ponty resigned as editor-in-chief and went on to reject Soviet Marxism in Adventures of the Dialectic (1955), which included a scathing critique of Sartre’s politics entitled ‘Sartre and Ultrabolshevism’. To complete the tale, Simone de Beauvoir responded in kind the same p. 97↵
Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908–61)
Like Camus and Sartre, his father died while he was a child and he was raised by his mother. He was a classmate of Simone de Beauvoir’s and two years behind Sartre at the École Normale Supérieure. His early studies were in empirical, especially Gestalt, psychology. His major work, the Phenomenology of Perception, appeared in 1945. He attended the University of Louvain, Belgium, to study Edmund Husserl’s unpublished manuscripts, which figured importantly in his thought, as did the works of Heidegger subsequently. With Sartre, de Beauvoir, and others, he founded the avant-garde journal Les Temps modernes. He died abruptly at his desk at the age of 53.
p. 98year in an essay entitled ‘Merleau-Ponty and Pseudo-Sartrism’. Another break was complete. The titles tell it all. Yet what might have been dismissed as a family feud, and Sartre’s entourage was often referred to as ‘the family’, was actually a dramatization of the Cold War performed on the stage of French letters. The figures were opinion-makers and their differences rippled across the media. In terms of social consciousness, existentialism had come of age, and its growing pains were being registered in novels and plays as well as in the press.
Simone de Beauvoir and existential feminism
By the time she published her ground-breaking work The Second Sex (1949), Simone de Beauvoir was already famous. She had written several essays, including ‘The Ethics of Ambiguity’, a couple of novels, and a play, and was among the founders of Les Temps modernes. But this two-volume work was her major achievement. It remains perhaps the single most important philosophical text in what would subsequently be called the ‘feminist’ movement.
Simone de Beauvoir (1908–86)
Like Sartre, she was born and died in Paris. Like him as well, she attended the prestigious École Normale Supérieure from which most of France’s leading intellectuals have graduated. She taught in high schools (lycées) around France but never in the university. One of the most famous women of the age, she was also one of the most public. Among her many plays, novels, philosophical treatises, and multi–volume memoirs, the work that consolidated her international reputation and served as a foundational text for the feminist movement was The Second Sex (1949). Though they never married, she and Sartre were partners most of their adult lives.
The philosophical premise of the book is the existentialist thesis that human reality exists ‘in-situation’ and that this situation is fundamentally ambiguous and unstable. But we have seen that she anticipated Sartre in elaborating the social dimension of our situation. The Second Sex develops the concept of ‘situation’ by underscoring the role played by gender and its social construction. In its most famous phrase, she writes: ‘One is not born a woman, one becomes one.’ In effect, sex is not gender. The former is a biological fact, the latter a social construction. She devotes a large part of her study to the historical genesis of ‘woman’ and the secondary role assigned to the female in ‘patriarchal’ societies p. 100↵throughout history. Her basic question is ‘How did woman became “Other” in the human race? How did hers become the “second” sex?’
Among the myths debunked is that of ‘the eternal feminine’, famously articulated by Goethe in his Faust but, in fact, the centuries-old concept of a timeless feminine essence that stands as the model of passivity and unapproachable purity in contrast with the implied masculine essence as one of activity and subjectivity. De Beauvoir argues that this holds women to an unrealistic standard and ignores the particularities of each woman’s situation. In the existentialist sense, it is false because it is not sufficiently concrete. It does not resonate with the lived experience of individual women. Having agreed with Sartre in ‘The Ethics of Ambiguity’ that there is no human nature, she now insists that there is no essence of the feminine either, and for the same reason: existence precedes essence, it doesn’t follow it. She takes this as an invitation to move from ontology to sociology and politics.
But the myth of the eternal feminine also places a burden on women because of its contradictory features. It presents woman as the mother and nurturer to whom we owe our lives and who deserves our loving gratitude but also as the source of our mortality (Eve in the Biblical Garden of Eden) and thus deserving of our hatred and blame. ‘Woman sums up nature as Mother, Wife, and Idea; these forms now mingle and now conflict, and each of them wears a double visage’. De Beauvoir’s point is that what is socially constructed can be socially (and politically) dismantled and the oppression of women that it fosters can thereby be relieved.
In what we now recognize as integral to the existentialist tradition, liberation of individuals is always possible. But in the socially conscious dimension of the movement, one realizes that we cannot act directly on the freedom of either the oppressors or the oppressed. Rather, our efforts must be aimed at changing p. 101↵what we observed Sartre calling ‘the bases and structures of choice’. This is the meaning of de Beauvoir’s text as a call to action. Not only does it raise our consciousness to a social problem, it describes the vehicles of the oppression and in this way suggests the means to begin rectifying these structures. Above all, her book is an attack on ‘patriarchal’ power structures and a call to raze them.
But as Sartre would later say of colonialism, though the meanness is in the system, one cannot exculpate individuals for simply acting ‘like everyone else’. What might seem paradoxical, if not simply contradictory, becomes understandable once one recognizes the basic ambiguity of the human ‘situation’: the fact that it consists of the free transcendence of a conditioning structure. Again, we are faced with the contribution of each to the destruction or the continuance of the patriarchal system. Specifically, what de Beauvoir calls ‘force of circumstance’ in a book by that title is a real, though not decisive, influence, and this makes the appeal to individual effort problematic, as it is for many existentialists. For instance, ‘how does one achieve gender-neutral language?’ we would ask today. ‘A word at a time’ would be the vintage existentialist’s answer. And yet this ‘nominalist’ approach ignores the force of circumstance, that is, the power of social causes such as public opinion and custom at work in language formation. Once Sartre and de Beauvoir discovered society, they had to come to terms with the phenomenon of properly social causality – a type of influence that enriches individual action, without dissolving it in some impersonal collective. One might describe this graphically as ‘existentialism meets Marxism and tries to humanize it’. De Beauvoir was trying to do this in the case of women’s liberation. This is a problem that Sartre will undertake to resolve more generally as he writes his Critique of Dialectical Reason in the following decade.
De Beauvoir concludes her lengthy study with the vision of the society, disalienated and free of oppression, that she hopes can be p. 102↵furthered by necessary socioeconomic changes but which also requires the cooperation of free agents among themselves:
It is for man to establish the reign of liberty in the midst of the world of the given. To gain the supreme victory, it is necessary, for one thing, that by and through their natural differentiation men and women unequivocally affirm their brotherhood.
This view is quite similar to the ideal of positive reciprocity among free agents that Sartre gestures towards in his Notebooks for an Ethics, dating from the same time but not published until after his death, and which he calls ‘fraternity’ in the Critique.
Individuals in relation: social existentialism
It should be clear that existentialists are scarcely ivory-tower intellectuals. Long before Sartre spoke of ‘commitment’, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were addressing the social ills of their time and, in Kierkegaard’s case at least, could be found right in the thick of local polemics. With the subsequent upheavals caused by two world wars, so-called ‘vintage’ existentialists followed Zarathustra’s advice and turned inevitable involvement into existential choice. ‘Everyone has the war he deserves’ and ‘We were never so free as under the Occupation’, as Sartre provocatively phrased it. Their ‘choices’ covered the spectrum: from Heidegger’s unfortunate involvement in the world of politics to Camus’s risking his life with the Resistance.
But if the movement came to recognize and allow for the ‘force of circumstance’, it did so in a manner that preserved a place for individual freedom and responsibility in the social field. In his Search for a Method, Sartre lays out the basic ontological claim: there are only individuals and real relations among them. In the Critique, he will go on to elaborate his understanding of how social groups and institutions can possess qualities that surpass their individual members without dissolving the latters’ freedom and p. 103↵responsibility, which are enriched, in the case of group activity, or compromised, in the case of institutional inertia, but never completely destroyed.
Merleau-Ponty captured the realistic optimism of the existentialist position in the social arena when he extended Sartre’s humanistic mantra to the social realm:
The human world is an open or unfinished system and the same radical contingency which threatens it with discord also rescues it from the inevitability of disorder and prevents us from despairing of it, providing only that one remembers its various machineries are actually men and tries to maintain and expand man’s relations to man.