Reason and the Limits of Existential Freedom: Why Sartre Is Not a Voluntarist
Wang, Stephen, Philosophy Today
In the act theory of Jean-Paul Sartre freedom is the foundation of all human activity and of all the reasons, motives, and values which arise through that activity. In the search for explanations, there is nowhere further back to go than the original choice of ends that takes place in our very acts. Freedom is not just one of many human capacities which we happen to activate now and then, it is the "stuff of one's being. It is foundational and self-constituting since it is precisely the response we have to make to the insufficiency of all previous foundations. This raises a number of questions: Is the free choice of each project irrational? Is everything within each project therefore without rational foundation? Is human life necessarily meaningless? Sartre thinks not. Despite popular perceptions of Sartre, and even some scholarly assessments, he is not a voluntarist, and each project has its own rationality. Even though he characterizes freedom as an "unanalyzable totality," he recoils against the suggestion that it is "a pure capricious, unlawful, gratuitous, and incomprehensible contingency."1 This essay examines the relationship between reason and freedom in Sartre's act theory. For Sartre, choices about action are always comprehensible in the light of what we understand to be good, and always restricted by the limitations of our facticity. We can only do what we understand to be worthwhile and valuable. There is no such thing for Sartre as an arbitrary human action. Every intentional action in some way makes sense of our life and brings it closer to completion. In this sense Sartre's human being has to be rational and ethical. We live for values that are comprehensible and make sense of our life.
It is interesting to note Sartre's thoughts about Camus's novel L'Étranger in a review of September 1942.2 Sartre comments on the indebtedness of Camus's prose style to Hemingway. Events are recorded in short sentences, without explicit connections, such that their overall significance is opaque and we are unable to profit from the momentum of the narralive. The isolated phrases of the text communicate the isolated moments experienced by the protagonist and help the reader to enter into the absurdity of a life without meaning. Only the immediacy of the present counts. At the end of the review Sartre confesses himself reluctant to classify Camus's work as a novel (un roman), because he believes that in a novel it should be obvious that time is irreversible. Camus replaces the causal order one expects to find in a novel with a mere chronological series of incidents. We have a sense that Sartre feels let down, as if the novelist has a duty to describe lives that are full of purpose, lives that make sense. There seems to be some sort of contradiction here: How can Sartre defend his radical view of freedom and still suggest that there is some kind of overarching meaning to each human life?
It might be helpful to consider one example of voluntaristic thinking from the history of philosophy and see how far Sartre's thinking is from this. Servais Pinckaers describes the "freedom of indifference" that is proposed by traditions influenced by William of Ockham.3 He contrasts this voluntaristic view of freedom with a "freedom for excellence" proposed by Thomas Aquinas. For our purposes it doesn't matter whether Pinckaers is fair to Ockham or not (or to Aquinas). I am using his presentation of voluntarism to provide a contrast with Sartre's position.
"Freedom of indifference" drives a wedge between freedom and reason. Ockham argues that freedom resides in the will, which can respond to the conclusions of reason by accepting them or rejecting them. Freedom is an indetermination or a radical indifference in the will regarding contraries. Actions are produced in a wholly contingent way without having any necessary orientation to the good as it has been understood by reason. Love for the good and rational desire are replaced by a self-determining domination. …