Sartre, Critical Theory, and the Paradox of Freedom

By Sherman, David | Philosophy Today, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Sartre, Critical Theory, and the Paradox of Freedom


Sherman, David, Philosophy Today


Although Horkheimer had wanted the Frankfurt School to undertake a comprehensive analysis of Sartre's philosophy,' the only consideration of it that was anything more than superficial was Marcuse's 1948 article "Existentialism: Remarks on Jean-Paul Sartre's L'Être et le Néant" According to Martin Jay, Marcuse's arguments "anticipated Sartre's own self-criticism of later years," when he "repudiated much of Being and Nothingness in his Critique of Dialectical Reason."2 And, in acknowledgment of Sartre's turn toward Marxism, when the article was republished in 1965, Marcuse added a postscript to it in which he says that Sartre's later writings evidenced the sort of "radical conversion" that he had mentioned in Being and Nothingness: "In Sartre's concept pure ontology and phenomenology recede before the invasion of real history, the dispute with Marxism and the adoption of the dialectic. Philosophy becomes politics because no philosophical concept can be thought out and developed without incorporating within itself the inhumanity which is today organized by rulers and accepted by the ruled."3

Jay's claim that Sartre repudiated much of his earlier work is mistaken, as is evidenced by a 1976 interview in which Sartre suggests, quite rightly, that Being and Nothingness and the Critique of Dialectical Reason are complementary rather than contradictory:

I think that there is more continuity in thought. I do not believe that there is a break. There are naturally changes in one's thinking; one can deviate; one can go from the one extreme to the other; but the idea of a break, an idea from Althusser, seems to me to be mistaken.... Being and Nothingness is a general point of view, a fundamental point of view. And the Critique of Dialectical Reason is a point of view that on the contrary is social and concrete. The one is abstract, studies general truths, and the other is not so concerned with that and places itself upon the plane of the concrete.4

Marcuse's claim, in turn, is mixed. Its truth consists in the fact that phenomenology ' s concepts do tend to incorporate the existing inhumanity, especially when the social context that generates such concepts is bracketed. And while this tendency is particularly acute when phenomenology is pressed into the service of a "fundamental ontology," as Adorno illustrates with Heidegger, it can also occur without such a commitment, and Sartre does not escape it. Sartre confesses in 1975 that "what is particularly bad in Being and Nothingness is the specifically social chapters,"5 and what is particularly bad in his articulation of "being-forothers," which is at their conceptual core, is its expression of precisely this tendency.6 Conversely, Marcuse's claim is dangerously false in its wholesale rejection of Sartre's phenomenology-false because it does not "recede before the invasion of real history, the dispute with Marxism and the adoption of the dialectic" and dangerously so because it ought not. The Critique of Dialectical Reason surely presupposes the free but intersubjectively constituted self that is set forth in Being and Nothingness, which is why most of the underlying concepts in the two works are homologous. And, more importantly, it ought to presuppose this self, for to assert that Sartre's doctrine of phenomenological freedom should have no place in his later thought is to fail to see that the notion of a free subject is the impetus for all projects of social resistance.

What I take here to be Marcuse's faulty critique of Sartre's phenomenology is not simply a matter of historical interest. Rather, it is currently of the utmost importance, for the underlying philosophical problem-successfully theorizing a conceptual space for a politically efficacious subject-is acutely manifested in the more contemporary works of Foucault and Derrida. During the 1960s and 1970s, both of these philosophers repudiated this problematic, associating it with a classical humanism that they misguidedly attributed to the Frankfurt School philosophers no less than to Sartre, but during the 1980's both took it up in their prominent turn toward ethics, all the while denying any break with their previous theoretical commitments. …

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