Sartre’s New View of Existentialism
The first volume of Sartre’s newly published Critique of Dialectical Reason contains two sections, and these, in the author’s own phrase, are “unequal in importance and ambition.” The first, entitled Questions of Method, written in 1957, “in response to the request by a Polish review for a treatment of the situation of Existentialism in 1957,” is the lesser work in length, though not in quality, and it has the virtue of being complete; the second section of the book, the Critique, will require another volume, possibly one as big as this first, which runs to some 750-odd densely written pages.
In his preface, the author remarks: “I dislike talking about Existentialism.” Clearly this announces a different Sartre from the one of twelve years back, who propagandized for Existentialism, calling it a “Humanism.” In Questions of Method he explains: “It is clear that the periods of philosophical creation are rare. Between the 17th and 20th centuries I know of only three, and these I identify with the following famous names: there was the moment of Descartes and of Locke, that of Kant and of Hegel, finally that of Marx. These three philosophies became, each in turn, the humus of any particular thought and the horizon of all culture…. Existentialism… I hold to be a parasitic system which lives on the margins of real science…. Kierkegaard was right against Hegel, even as Hegel was right against Kierkegaard. … Marx was right against both Kierkegaard and Hegel, since with the first he affirmed the specificity of human existence and since with the second he addressed himself to concrete man in his objective reality. It would seem natural, then, that under these circumstances, Existentialism, that idealist protest against idealism, should have lost all utility and been unable to survive the decline of Hegelianism. In fact, it underwent an eclipse: in the general struggle it directed against Marxism, bourgeois thought leaned on the post-Kantians, on Kant himself and on Descartes; it didn’t then dream of going to Kierkegaard for help. The Dane was to reappear at the beginning of the twentieth century, when people began to think of fighting against the Marxist dialectic by opposing it with pluralisms, ambiguities, paradoxes; this was the moment when bourgeois thought first went on the defensive.” Such is Sartre’s new historical judgment of modern Existentialism, including, I assume, his own.