No Priority Between Humanity and History, Research Time, 17/08/2013

A short post for the weekend, once again featuring Jean-Paul Sartre. He’ll appear here a lot over the next two to three weeks, because The Critique of Dialectical Reason is a very long book. (And technically speaking, he didn’t even finish it!)

Today, I’m mostly just adding details to Thursday’s post in light of some further reading of the book. I had written about Sartre’s idea that a person is literally the currents of material history that created them. As I spelled out my so-dense-as-to-be-incoherent closing sentence from that post in the comments, it’s based on a simple premise, one that I explore in the ecophilosophy project as well: the conditions of a body’s generation are themselves a part of that body. If I can take myself as an example, the historical event of the post-WWII Italian immigration to North America is part of my identity because my father participated in that immigration when he was nine years old, making that historical event a condition for the possibility of my existence. 

But this doesn’t mean that humanity is entirely determined by its history. T in the comments to Thursday’s post suggested that with his use of the term ‘fossilized’ to describe a person under the weight of her cultural/historical heritage. That would make humans passive, and Sartre certainly doesn’t want to see us consider ourselves passive. 

Instead the relationship of humans to their cultural and material histories is reciprocal, with no side taking precedence or priority over the other. A person is a product of history because the only way she can exist is in the material contexts and conditions of her world (shades here of Heidegger’s concept of humanity’s fallen status in the world, but let’s not get into Heidegger or I’ll be here ranting for weeks). However, historical relations and developments are themselves products of human activity, because it’s the social interactions of individual humans over time that produce history. History and humanity are co-constitutive.

1 comment:

  1. Adam, I'm thinking now my initial confusion as to what (according to your reading) Sartre thinks about the person :: history relationship is simply that it is a tacit understanding in social science (which isn't to say there aren't people who don't quite get it). I was looking for some re-envisioning of this relationship or refinement, but it looks to me like he's basically sketching out a very simple social perspective on the individual -- not simple in a negative sense, but just that this is a starting point he needs to establish for his argument proper.

    If I can un-fossilize my own ways of thinking, I suppose this would be a challenging perspective to those who are rooted in a robust faith in transcendent reasoning and who hold a dismal view of solipsism.

    So this wouldn't place Sartre within a strong constructivist position (e.g. Social Construction of Reality) but is just a very preliminary social-ization of the subject -- we're bodies with a biological age but also minds with much longer memories?