The Anxiety of Influence: Sartre's Search for an Ethics and Kant's Moral Theory *

By Baiasu, Sorin | Sartre Studies International, June 2003 | Go to article overview

The Anxiety of Influence: Sartre's Search for an Ethics and Kant's Moral Theory *


Baiasu, Sorin, Sartre Studies International


Sartre's relation to Kantian ethics ... seems to reveal what Harold Bloom would call 'an anxiety of influence'. (1)

1. Introduction

In his hook The Anxiety of Influence. A Theory of Poetry, (2) Harold Bloom presents several 'revisionary ratios', that is, several ways in which an author may critically refer to his predecessor in order to separate himself (3) from the latter. The author's criticism of his predecessor manifests an anxiety of influence insofar as it overstates the differences and neglects the similarities between his and his predecessor's works. In this paper I shall show that some aspects of Sartre's criticism of Kant's moral theory in the Notebooks for an Ethics manifest an anxiety of influence.

In what follows, three of Sartre's critiques will be examined. The first refers to the abstract character of Kant's moral system. (4) According to Sartre's interpretation, in developing his moral system Kant hopes to be able to formulate moral precepts which will guide a person out of moral predicaments. However, the type of moral theory that Kant has in mind is, on Sartre's reading, unable to take account of the singularity of a person and of his situation, and hence ultimately it is unable to guide action.

The second critique questions Kant's individualism. For Sartre a categorical imperative (5) necessarily presupposes a relationship between free individuals. From this perspective, Kant's ethics is an expression of bad faith, since it tries to ground imperatives in a person's autonomous choice (defined as a choice which observes the moral law). Since he reduces what is necessarily the result of an interpersonal relationship to an intra-personal process of decision, Kant could legitimise his moral system only by an individualistic mystification. The latter would do away with the anxiety and responsibility that, in fact, only an ethics of values (the ethics which Sartre hopes to write and which is opposed to one of imperatives) can preserve.

Finally, Sartre criticises the 'authoritarianism' of Kant's moral theory and cast of reason: even if Kant's ethics were not abstract and individualistic, the fact that its criterion of morality is a universal and unconditional law, a fact which Kant seems to postulate as evident, suggests that he makes use of an arrogated moral authority and thus contradicts the freedom that is supposed to be the basis of his ethical system.

It may seem inappropriate to conclude a comparative analysis of two such great philosophers without providing an account of the relevant respects in which their views diverge. Nevertheless, in this paper I shall not offer such an account, and to explain why the comparative study undertaken here can do without it, a brief methodological excursus is necessary. Standardly, comparative studies devoted to Sartre and Kant begin with a presentation of several resemblances between the ways in which the two philosophers deal with a particular question or problem. (6) Then, given the obvious differences between them (between their styles of philosophising, the problems which concerned them, the contexts in which they wrote and thought, etc.), these studies try to set a limit on the significance of the resemblances initially pointed out. (7)

Given that the comparative analysis draws several parallels between the ways in which these thinkers deal with particular issues, and given that Kant and Sartre are very different philosophers, following this standard comparative method it is reasonable to expect a concluding account of the divergences between their philosophies. However, sometimes this requirement carries an urgency that may lead to hasty conclusions about where exactly Sartre and Kant part philosophical company. (8) This is only one of the problems of this standard comparative strategy.

A second important problem is specifically related to Sartre's and Kant's practical philosophies, and in particular to their ethical thought.

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