|Sartre by Marjorie Grene
Paperback: 312 pages ;
Publisher: University Press of America; Reprint edition (8/ 15, 1983)
By Marjorie Grene
New York, New Viewpoints, 1973. 301 pp.
Contemporary Anglo-American philosophy-and, I assume, theology-has tended to slight the vast and penetrating philosophical system of Jean-Paul Sartre. Whether or not one is inclined to adopt Sartre's philosophical orientation, one must be prepared, I submit, to take his views seriously and to confront some of the vexing issues he raises. In Sartre, one of the 1973 nominees for a National Book Award in philosophy and religion, Marjorie Grene shows a willingness to do just that. The product is a scholarly, knowledgeable, and unusually well written work. Although it is hardly the final word on any of Sartre's major writings, it is a work which-even granting its
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deficiencies-merits the attention of both the general reader in this area and the scholar of Sartre.
In a beautiful opening chapter, Grene introduces us to this "man of words" via his own autobiographical Words. Convinced that Sartre is first and foremost a philosophical rather than an "imaginative" or literary writer, she subsequently attempts to trace the origins and evolution of his basic categories and methodology from Being and Nothingness, through the Critique of Dialectical Reason, to his recent uncompleted work on Flaubert, The Idiot of the Family. What she finds is the ingenious but troublesome interweaving of two principal philosophical inheritances (p. 67), phenomenology and the dialectic methodology. Starting with the Cartesian cogito-or perhaps an idiosyncratic variation of it-Sartre works together disparate themes from Descartes, Heidegger, and Husserl with the dialectical procedures and concepts of Hegel, Kierkegaard, and Marx. Even his innovations, Grene suggests, are re-christened concepts usually associated with problems of his predecessors.
But, clearly, Sartre's Cartesianism is the pervasive theme of this book. For Grene, the influences of Descartes both make and break Sartre. Descartes' moment of indubitable self-awareness not only satisfies his quest for absolute certainty but becomes for him "the fulcrum of all philosophy" (p. 37). Moreover, Sartre is said to retain what Grene calls the "corollaries" of the cogito-namely, the Cartesian notions of freedom, dualism, and time. Taken with the cogito, they make up the framework of Sartre's thought. Whether, for instance, Sartre is offering the for-itself/in-itself distinction in Being and Nothingness, or the praxis/inertial in the Critique of Dialectical Reason, he is tied to a variation of Descartes' pure exterior/pure interior dualism. He is "the ultimate and most consequent Cartesian" (p. 268).
Yet it is this permeating Cartesianism that keeps him "in thrall" and is the source of his fatal flaws. His acceptance of the cogito as starting place leads to a pre-reflective cogito which erroneously requires self-consciousness as a condition for consciousness to have knowledge of its object. This, in turn, leads to Sartre's frustrating encounter with solipsism and his agonizing problems concerning the existence of others. And, to cite a final illustration, Sartre's endorsement of a variant of Descartes' dualism-"that most basic Cartesian error" (p. 161)-makes him adopt an untenable, seemingly incoherent, view of "body" (the pre-reflective cogito can never reach it!) and fail to recognize that we exist exclusively as embodied-beings-in-the-world.
As I have already suggested, Grene does not confine her study to Being and Nothingness. However skeletal her account may be at times, she seeks to know whether there is any significant improvement in Sartre's view of human reality or any essentially new message in either the Critique of Dialectical Reason or in the initial two volumes
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of The Idiot of the Family. Although in the Critique, Sartre undertakes a critical dialectic of social life and appears to acknowledge a social being of man, "the living" still fails to succeed (or enter?) as a category of his thought. His "practical organism" remains a "subjective center of action" rather than an "organism of flesh and blood" (p. 262). Sartre remains victim of his Cartesian heritage; the old ingredients are still there. Even in The Idiot of the Family, where he tries to reconstruct the single life of Gustave Flaubert as lived, and where he offers strong intimations that "man" might be a person and not just a mask (un personnage) (p. 273), the results are indefinite and ambiguous. To be sure, there are here new themes, new perspectives, and a new optimism concerning the possibility of genuine, non-exploitative human relationships. But many of the old concepts are still left- though sometimes in different dress-and there is no guarantee that Sartre has attained living beings-among-others-in-the-world.
Lines of criticism must at least be suggested in concluding this review. First, like too many interpreters of Sartre, Grene tends to treat Sartre's major philosophical writings too sketchily. Evidence for this is her skeletal discussion of the argument of Being and Nothingness, as well as her rather minimal account of the central concept of "nothingness" and its correlates. Second, to follow up this criticism, Grene betrays a tendency to neglect direct confrontation with certain key issues in Sartre. Nowhere is this more apparent than in her dealing with the "upsurge," the term in Being and Nothingness that seems to exceed all others in raising questions and effecting confusion. Third, in attempting to provide creative alternatives to Sartre's "defective" views, Grene occasionally makes arbitrary appeals to parallel views of Michael Polanyi. Fourth, Grene is inclined in places to misrepresent Sartre's views through oversimplification. Her characterization of Sartre's position on solipsism and on language, for example, testify to this. Fifth, in light of both his socio-political pronouncements and involvement, I question Grene's conclusion that "the Sartre of political philosophy, the Marxist Sartre, remains an abstraction" (p. 285).
Despite these misgivings and others, I recommend this book.
Ronald E. Santoni