This Better Be a Road to Freedom, It’s 1400 Pages Long, Research Time, 11/08/2013

If you thought my engagement with Hegel’s Philosophy of History took a long time, the next major work in my reading lineup for the utopias project is Jean-Paul Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason. I only had time today to read the forward by Frederic Jameson, another thinker I need to read more of. 

It’s a Sunday post, so I don’t exactly have a huge amount to say. Mostly, I want to talk about some of the preliminary thinking that went into the utopias project before I officially began it. In particular, I want to talk a little about what led to my suspicion that Sartre would be important for it.

One of the central political ideas in my ecophilosophy project is the critique of what is often called Edenic thinking. It’s also been called nostalgia thinking, and one of the cheekiest formulations is the oft-cited Phil Sandifer’s, Heritage Theme Park thinking. Environmentalist movements often involve a tendency of people to romanticize the pre-industrial, and sometimes the pre-human world. In a political discourse centred on the problems of industrial civilization, one should expect a skeptical attitude to industry. But sometimes this thinking became positively hostile to humanity’s existence. There aren’t too many openly mass-homicidal environmentalist movements, but the movement has a very pessimistic attitude about humanity’s potential. It’s sometimes to the point where people conclude that the world was better off without humanity. One of my goals in the ecophilosophy project is defending humanity’s existence from this critique.

Regarding the utopias project, the environmentalist vision of a perfectly harmonious world before the existence of humanity idealizes the past. Nature has always been cruel and harsh, and human industry isn’t causing the first mass extinction in Earth’s history, but the sixth (or seventh, depending on how you define 'mass'). So there’s a false vision of a perfect pre-human world. And I realized that the inaccessibility of the past let us create this vision. Similar utopian visions, except of the future, have motivated communist revolutionaries: an inaccessible time is idealized, allowing this imagined world to take precedent over the present world. This is the overall goal of the utopias project: utopian and revolutionary thinking that prioritizes an idealized inaccessible time over a devalued present are inherently dangerous.

You might ask where Jean-Paul Sartre fits into this? Right now, it’s just a suspicion, an instinct based on my knowledge of his personality, and my readings of his earlier work (some of Being and Nothingness, the Existentialism Is a Humanism lecture, but also his first novel Nausea, which was a touchstone for my existential argument in the ecophilosophy project). The Critique of Dialectical Reason was his massive and detailed engagement with the left-wing revolutionary concepts and movements of his time. 

If the existential ideas he dealt with earlier see themselves written anew in criticism of those movements, they might help me supply a detailed conceptual groundwork for my broader contribution to utopian thinking that overcomes the problems of these time-shifting idealizations. Utopian thinking only functions in the present moment. And I think Sartre can help me make this point. Or at least score me a pleasant trip to Paris.


  1. There can be no question that Sartre positioned himself as the figurehead of a broad and superficially revolutionary social movement. It is an interesting historical question where he as a charismatic individual and his ideas fit in the actual unfolding of student protests and other aspects of the 68 generation. I want to raise the devil's question here of whether a close and intellectually sophisticated reading of this great work could reveal such influence, though. (Since few people would have read him closely, fewer still would have read him as you do or as he might be thought to have wanted to be read.)

    So if we bracket his actual role, I would say it is still very interesting to consider the place he implicitly or explicitly carved out for intellectuals in political life, and especially in revolutionary or dialectical processes. There may be a degree of nuanced Gramscianism in his thinking, but I suspect he is too much the elitist aristocrat to step down and accept the imperfection of organic intellectual work as legitimate and valuable. (Just a prejudice on my part.)

    And if following your discussion of Hegel, the movement of thought inheres in the proper fulfillment of history, what would it mean for Sartre to break with Hegel -- does he also break with the metaphysical role played by thought? I assume he does, but don't quite understand how.

    A last point on Sartre as philosopher -- I always wanted to compare this with Adorno's Negative Dialectics to understand the further division in a these sorts of critical anti-Hegelian works. For Adorno, it seems to me, the intellectual's only ethical role is critical, especially in the immanent critique of powerful structures.

    A related project might be to think along comparative lines of charismatic French intellectuals and their relation to politics.

    Re Heritage Theme Park Thinking -- a nice example would be Douglas Turnbull's Silent Running. I really think that the dynamic here is Romanticism and its attendant cathections, but Turnbull and you at times in your writing suggest a fusion of the Romantic logic of the sublime character of the wild and ancient with American motifs of the (bordering of paranoid) heroic loner. Just a thought.

    PS Can't believe how fast you made it through Hegel, I thought that would be a year-long thread at least -- Let's see if you can keep up the pace!

    1. I'm reminded of a short essay I once read by Gilles Deleuze, called "He Was My Teacher" in the Desert Islands collection. He says that even though very little of the technical concepts in his thinking could ever be called Sartrean, nothing of his work would have been possible without Sartre. It wasn't a matter of intellectual influence in the sense of citations or sharing ideas, but of personal inspiration. Sartre was a role model for how intellectuals could live in French society after the war.

      I find it interesting what you say about how Sartre "is too much the elitist aristocrat to step down and accept the imperfection of organic intellectual work as legitimate and valuable." According to Frederic Jameson in the forward to CDR, Sartre considered pretty much everything he wrote (except his plays) to have been published unfinished.

    2. Re Sartre's reputation -- I may well have been far from the mark. I'm responding to Raymond Aron and others of his former classmates (many of them became great figures) who was less than generous...

      My understanding is that he was inspiring, provocative, exasperating -- often in equal measure, and to a very wide spectrum of French thinkers and artists throughout the period.

    3. I think that Deleuze's rosier opinion of Sartre was based on generational difference. He never had to work with Sartre before he became Sartre™. And Deleuze never worked with Sartre in any professional sense. They moved in completely different social circles and were two decades apart in age. Intellectually, Sartre was pretty much over the hill by the time Deleuze and his generation hit it big — the 1960s. By Generation '68, Sartre was already an old man.

      And I have more than my share of issues with Generation '68 anyway. Not sure if I'll write more about Sartre for tomorrow, or if I'll snipe about a friend's negative attitude to Nietzsche. I may save the latter for a backup post in case I have an especially hectic day.

  2. Keep the snipe in your pocket -- would like to read the critique of 68. Plenty of material! That's my vote, anyway.