Thursday, March 10, 2011

Existentialism is a Humanism

This semester I am teaching Sartre's Existentialism is a Humanism to two of my courses. We've already discussed it in one, and will be reading it soon in the other. As I'm sure you know, EH has received a bad rap over the years. Even Sartre grew to think it a cursed little book. 

Heidegger, as the story goes (and I know this is current, as somebody was rehearsing it  back in November at the RPA during one of our lunches), leveled a number of devastating criticisms of existentialism in his "Letter on Humanism." The history of the critique of metaphysics thus marches on. I'm not convinced by this story. Sure Sartre hadn't really thought through the problem of historicity at that point. But the "Letter on Humanism" story has one major problem: if existentialism was 'over,' why did it increasingly turn toward one of the most pressing post-world-war-two problems: anti-colonialism and decolonization? At the same time, no less, that Heidegger began to transform 'history' into an introverted history of Western metaphysics. Which leads me to the question: when I raise this objection to the "Letter on Humanism" story, why is it that people who rehearse it are completely caught off guard by it?

I'm going to leave that question open, because this post is supposed to be about teaching Existentialism is a Humanism. We'll talk about the problem in its general form when I end the semester with lectures on Senghor and Fanon (note that I am not trying to turn everyone into existentialists, but to think about why the anti-colonialists took up Sartre's concepts for their own ends).

I don't even want to talk about the whole essay, just one passage, to explain what I like about teaching texts that I don't usually use in my research. I've read EH over a dozen times, and can converse about its general themes with relative ease. However, this can mean that I always end up looking for the same passages. 

Yet this time I found something new. Due to all the passages about freedom, people often overlook Sartre's critique of the idea of progress in EH, which is important because the humanism that he doesn't like relies on the idea of progress, which in the moral sphere replaces God by man and secular morality. One the one hand, this conceptual move leaves intact a priori qualities of human nature, when we know that, for Sartre, "existence precedes essence."

On the other hand, the idea of progress privileges 1) the history of great men, and 2) fetishizes technological achievements.  Yes, this is the part that I thought would surprise you. Near the end of the essay, Sartre has some fun at the expense of Cocteau's Around the World in 80 Hours.
Cocteau gives expression to this idea when one of his characters, flying over some mountains in a plane, proclaims "Man is Amazing!" This means: even though I myself may never have built a plane, I nevertheless still benefit from the plane's invention and, as a man, I should consider myself responsible for, and honored by, what certain other men have achieved. 
The absurdity of this position is that it would be possible for somebody to make a complete judgment on an open situation--humans cannot make a judgment on the human condition as a whole, they can only change it through praxis. But here's the 'new' part, which is the way in which Sartre points out the absurdity. He continues:
This presupposes that we can assign a value to man based on the most admirable deeds of certain men. But that kind of humanism is absurd, for only a dog or a horse would be in a position to form an overall judgment about man and declare he is amazing, which animals scarcely seem likely to do--at least, as far as I know.
Those are my italics, because that is the part that impressed me: only animals can make an overall judgment on human beings. And why does it seem unlikely that the would proclaim that 'man is amazing?' Probably because these same advances of progress come at the cost of much of the rest of the world, especially the non-human world: technological leaps, environmental destruction.  Or that humans would be biased toward some advances that to a dog might seem inconsequential (why does this make me think of Kafka?) Even his choice of domesticated animals seems allusive, although I'm still trying to tease that out. 

Sartre wasn't, to my knowledge, too interested in the non-human world or ecology. Nevertheless, this passage works on two levels: on its surface, it's a good joke (it made my class laugh), but it also shows that he had considered, at some point, what the limits of judging the human situation  (and freedom, and universality) were.


Josh Kurdys said...

I always took Heidegger's criticism to be that speaking for humanity as a whole was impossible and moreover a quintessentially Western privilege. That's not to say that only Westerners get to speak for humanity en masse, but that they're the group that most consistently attempts to do so. The history of Western metaphysics is simply the story of repeated attempts to accomplish that feat.
As for Sartre and colonialism, doesn't Fanon, for one, accuse Sartre's existentialism, and his humanism by extension, of being white European humanism and not the experience of humanity as such?

Devin Z. Shaw said...

I didn't say that Fanon and Sartre didn't have disagreements, but that Fanon works out of some of Sartre's concepts.

As for Heidegger: I'm just trying to point to the way in which the Western metaphysical tradition is both the problem and the salvation for the world.

Here's another way to look at it: for all his errors, Sartre tried to learn from the anti-colonial movements--especially from Fanon.

Heidegger would probably write it all off with some platitude like 'the essence of colonialism is the colonialism of essence.'