Camus on Sartre's "Freedom"-Another "Misunderstanding"

By Santoni, Ronald E. | The Review of Metaphysics, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Camus on Sartre's "Freedom"-Another "Misunderstanding"


Santoni, Ronald E., The Review of Metaphysics


SARTRE'S EARLY, formative view of freedom has bothered both passing readers of Sartre and eminent scholars--among them Gabriel Marcel, Merleau-Ponty, and the brilliant philosophical writer, Albert Camus. Sartre's attribution of "absolute," "total" or complete freedom to the human being struck against the grain of dominant thinking in the history of philosophy. And, for many 20th century thinkers, it suggested disturbing consequences. But, in my judgment, the repeated criticisms and/or dismissals of Sartre's seminal views on freedom are often rooted in a basic misunderstanding and misinterpretation of his position. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Camus's critique, especially in his controversial The Rebel (l'Homme revolte) and the acrimonious, divisive, 1952 "confrontation" with Sartre regarding it. (1)

Elsewhere, (2) I have offered only a preliminary outline of my case against the interpretation presented by Camus and variously made by Marcel, Merleau-Ponty, Frondizi, and others. In the present paper, however, I shall offer a detailed examination of this matter. Although my paper will attempt, primarily, to establish Camus's misunderstanding of Sartre's view of freedom, I believe (and intend) that my argument applies similarly to many other of Sartre's critics, including those mentioned above. On behalf of fairness, I shall not conclude without indicating how some of Sartre's own remarks have contributed to the repeated misinterpretation of his original position on freedom. If successful, my paper will have shown Sartre's concept of freedom to be considerably more complex than it is normally treated, and will also alert readers to the importance of distinguishing among dimensions of freedom, as they examine views of freedom in the history of philosophy, present as well as past.

In order to make my case, I shall begin with a resume of the fundamental features of Sartre's original and core ontological analysis of freedom in Being and Nothingness. My account will attempt to confine itself to what is essential to my present argument. (3)

I

Sartre's Original Position. The root of Sartre's view of freedom, and equally of his ontology, is expressed early in Being and Nothingness:

   Human freedom precedes essence in man and makes it possible; the
   essence of the human being is suspended in his freedom. What we
   call freedom is impossible to distinguish from the being of "human
   reality." Man does not exist first to be free subsequently; there
   is no difference between the being of a man and his being-free. (4)

This passage, it must be noted, comes in his chapter on "The Origin of Negation" and after his characterization of human reality in terms of consciousness (being-for-itself) and nothingness. Given this passage, among others, one might say that in part 1 of Being and Nothingness, there is a sometimes uneasy, complex, problematic equating of freedom with human reality or consciousness--more precisely, self-conscious consciousness--and negation. Free conscious being or conscious free being, though ontologically groundless, arises (the "absolute event") in its negation of Being, or, to put it another way, in the negation of itself as Being or as substantial. Free conscious being is not, at birth, ontologically autonomous or independent; to use Sartre's terms, it is "born supported by a being which is not itself"; (5) it is by itself devoid of content; it is "its own nothingness" (no-thing-ness), always at a distance from itself, always "in question," always a "lack," never at one with itself: it is a "non-substantial absolute" that came to be, that "posited" itself, in relation to and in a spontaneous negation of ontologically prior being--that is, being-in-itself. Thus, for Sartre, human reality is "a being which is what it is not and which is not what it is." (6) And, it is such because it is free being. It is free of all prior determination and "constitutes itself as negation. …

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