What the Past Produces Contains the Past, Research Time, 15/08/2013

Getting back to Jean-Paul Sartre, I have a distinct feeling now that The Critique of Dialectical Reason is going to be very important for my analyses in the utopias project. I discovered one fascinating idea Wednesday night that can be very useful for the conception of history I’m looking to develop, although Sartre has some precedent for his thought.

The central analysis of the utopias project is understanding the ethical and political implications of various conceptions of time, particularly the human relationship with time. When we’re dealing with humans, there are always at least two dimensions of analysis, which I think are the two most fundamental dimensions. I’m starting to think that any philosophy that has humanity in its analytical focus at all will be disastrously incomplete if it doesn’t include these two dimensions of analysis.

1) The fact of the matter at hand. 2) How humans conceive of the matter at hand, how they approach, make sense of, or ignore the facts, and how our conception of those facts condition what those facts can do for us.

This doesn’t separate the order of humanity from the order of facts. That would be absurd, thinking as if we didn’t live in the world. This is the philosophical problem of self-consciousness in the context of epistemology, the philosophy of knowledge. A complete philosophical analysis of any human institution or activity or concept will have to address what the facts are and how we understand those facts. 

While most photos of Sartre show him as a young or middle-
aged man, I think he was most handsome when he was older.
What I found in Sartre yesterday was the notion that historically constituted bodies actually contain their own histories. Take me as an example. I am the product of millennia of human cultural development. Try a less ambitious assessment: I’m the product of centuries of development of Western culture through its growth in the revolutions of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, the rise and fall of the European and American colonial empires, how these movements in world history crafted the culture that made me. That process of development is the fact of the matter of my cultural history. Here’s part two, one way to understand that fact: because the process of cultural development through history that constituted me was centuries long, I am, in a manner of speaking, centuries old. I contain the history that constituted me, as do you the history that constituted you (mostly the same, but probably with some important little differences).

One of the possible implications of this idea, an idea which as of my composing this post I only read an hour ago, is that it is impossible for us to disregard our culture’s history in understanding who we are. In terms of a political principle, we can’t absolve ourselves of the harms and destructive effects of industrialization and empire, because that history, as it produced us, is just as much a part of our identities as our individual personalities. At the same time, the positive accomplishments of our cultures’ history are part of our identity too, but it’s easier to take credit for benefits than to accept shame or responsibility for harms. 

Also, and this is just me being cheeky, this is an incredibly Bergsonian idea. In fact, the whole idea that the present contains all of the past latent within itself is the central argument of Matter and Memory. Sartre’s innovation lies in having used the principle that the conditions of one’s existence are themselves elements of one’s existence to extrapolate the containment of history in the present to the containment of cultural history in the individual’s present and identity.

And no, I am not entirely sure if that last paragraph made any damn sense.


  1. Your ethical turn at the end connects this idea to protestant notions of original sin -- we are all ethically implicated in the inequalities of the past, which have benefitted us to varying degrees, hence the need to be forgiven. A Christian conception of this sort of historical aggregation in the individual is contingent on a God knowing it all anyway -- but how does Sartre imagine this encrustation? I would tend to think of this as simple culture, e.g. language, shared meanings, shared symbols. Or is there a metaphysical dimension of some sort? Maybe Sartre brackets that question and just moves on. Then again, what makes that really interesting from his place in time and space would be the suggestion that the fossilized cultural object we call living individuals are also capable of radical breaks with the past, which leads to revolutionary changes of the sorts claimed by his generation. So it could be a way of lodging Saussurean schemas of change in the individual.

    1. I'm not a big fan of connections to the Christian original sin notion, if only because everyone makes that connection whenever someone discussions present implication in the harmful actions and crimes of the past. Aside from the cliché, it just gets in the way. For one thing, the central idea of original sin is that it can't be gotten rid of without divine intervention.

      See, I don't think Sartre's idea makes a person a fossilized cultural object. Nowhere in his analysis do any metaphors like fossilization appear. We are what we are, with the powers we have. It's just that we're several hundred years old because we're part of this continuity. Having inherited the past doesn't mean that we're constrained by the past. And becoming aware of our inheritance might give us the power to change the tendencies of our cultural development.

  2. I suppose I don't see the comparison with sin as inconsequential (nor is it cliched in the circles I move in -- more like a forgotten legend of the distant past): I doubt Sartre viewed Christian ethics as just another theory, but rather as the dominant wrong idea of his day that he would always have to contend with. And in terms of a latent utopianism in his thought, it would strike me as an important distinction that he would have had to work through. Of course, this isn't to say it's something that needs to be addressed by you!

    On the other point -- hundreds of years old in what sense? I know this is an evocative and resonant notion but don't know quite what to make of its actual claims. We have access to conceptual, ideational, symbolic, imaginary resources that we inherit. Who would disagree? But the issue of constraint is a problem that needs an explanation. We can be creative, but there's a bit leap between chimera creativity and revolutionary new thoughts that take us outside our past.

    I guess what I'm getting at is that Sartre in this articulation sounds more like an obscurantist (or perhaps poetic) political activist who would like us to use the past in an effort to move toward a better future. The future is in the present just as the present is in the past, and it is entirely contingent whether it will be properly unfolded or not -- sounds Hegelian. So what is the balance between the creativity of independent actions and the large reservoir from which we draw?

    Let me hazard a refined Sartreianism: Our historical conditions of existence filter into our minds and fill out our creative faculties, but there is other stuff in their too, which is a black box of cognitive and emotional development in time. The latter creates immense opportunity for innovation, but the former lays deep grooves into which that creativity tends to get rutted. So the work of the intellectual would be to highlight those grooves so that the creative process can unfold with greater caution (because it is more reflexive) and fewer constraints. The response to Hegel would thus be that there is no necessary better set of choices in that creative morass -- just different ones. The future that becomes possible through philosophical reflection could be much better, but also much worse. So an ethics would be nice!

    (Just some musings on the theme, don't feel obliged to follow it all up.)

    1. Yeah, I'll see what he does with it later in the book (I'm only about 77 pages in so far). But here's how I'd pick it up, if I just had that idea to work with now. Our relationship to our past isn't just about the significations and conceptual/symbolic resources we inherit from our intellectual and popular cultural history. I'm discussing the literal conditions of the generation (not demographic, but process of coming to exist) of a human. Here's that last paragraph laid out more sensibly than a single sentence.

      Premise: The conditions of my generation are a part of me. This is actually a central ontological principle of my ecophilosophy project, but there I concentrated on physical, environmental, and metabolic processes rather than historical and cultural.

      Empirical discovery: Among the conditions of my generation is the history and development of my culture on all scales of human movement. Consider the small example of my birth. I am a result of the wave of Italian immigration to North America after WWII. On a smaller scale, I am a result of my father being enough of a troublemaker at his NY teachers' college that he was posted to a Catholic high school in a podunk hick island called Newfoundland.

      Conclusion: The history and development of my culture on all scales of human movement are part of my identity, physically and self-consciously. Included in my identity is that stream of Italian immigration, the Catholic Church corruption that sent my socially liberal father to a nowhere teaching post he was fired from after a year, on an island where his allergies never acted up, which made him want to stay.

      He's introducing historical dimensions to human identity. Yeah, he does it poetically, but I'm not sure that I'd call it obscurantist.

  3. Very helpful clarification. Thanks!

    1. I found your initial question really interesting because it shows some of our cross-disciplinary differences in what we look for. A social science background, particularly some of the most influential theories in the discipline, trains one to look for signification factors in history: ideas, icons, and symbols. My philosophical background may have trained me to keep an eye on more ontological and physical aspects of cultural inheritance. At least, that's my own take on my philosophical background, as a guy who blends ontology and ethics, social theory and the sciences, in both of his major projects. This is actually pretty unusual in general.