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Sunday, 13 May 2012

Condemned to Freedom.

No Excuses.



As we will see the Sartrean conception of freedom is quite distinct, even from the rest of the existentialist line of thinkers, from its psychological starting-point to its moral outgrowth. The starting-point Sartre takes with consciousness marks him out from his precursors, Nietzsche saw consciousness as quite overrated.1 There is an interesting convergence between the particular route Sartre would eventually take on moral questions and the critique of traditional morality Nietzsche had put forth in the late 19th Century. Not to mention the highly different ideas of selfhood which emerge from Sartre's framework and from Nietzsche's thought-processes. To both the authentic self is something that has to be created through a rejection of the inauthentic, which may be constituted as a set of social norms or moral values.2 We will explore Sartre's view of human freedom with critical reference to Nietzsche where the conception seems to fall short of its aims.

The notion of consciousness as freedom is the vital element of Sartre’s existential phenomenology.3 It fits in with his general project that places freedom as the central dimension of human existence. This is where the existential themes of responsibility, commitment and notions such as bad faith and authenticity fit into the picture as well. The modes whereby we may relate our being to Being can be authentic and inauthentic. For Heidegger there was more truth in authenticity as it was a self-directed rather than a moral ideal. This is where freedom enters with the existentialist focus on the actions we undertake and, by extension, the way we choose to undertake them. Sartre went as far as to claim that the actions which we undertake can have consequences that we did not foresee and which we are responsible for insofar as we are solely responsible for own actions. The motivations we may hold are irrelevant insofar as they may provide ‘excuses’ which allow us to avoid our own responsibility. This is the reason that we fear and often shirk from the acceptance of our condition as radically free.4

When we look at Sartre’s conception of freedom we have to keep in mind that his body of work was a reaction to Heidegger’s hermeneutical phenomenology. As part of Sartre’s reaction to Heidegger he reverts to some extent back to Husserl – in that the focus of phenomenology should be consciousness – and brings with him modified vestments of Cartesianism which Heidegger wanted to ‘throw out’. This conception of freedom is predicated on consciousness as nothingness because freedom is consciousness it is detached from the causal forces of the external world. At the same time, there is literally nothing which traps the self ‘inside’ consciousness because there is nothing there.5 Nietzsche had noted that this particular kind of selfhood is detached from the world of causes and that it meshes well with the purposes of morality for this reason. Sartre may not have disagreed, his notion of consciousness precluded it being determined.

The Ethics of Ambiguity.


It may even be that this version of selfhood was put forward to generate a particular kind of moral conduct. It certainly led Sartre in a particular direction. In an attempt to craft an evaluative moral code Sartre reached out to Kantianism with which he was very familiar. The aim was to get away from the instability inherent in the radical subjectivism that seemed to be built into existentialism. Even as Heidegger preferred authentic modes of being over inauthentic modes. It's all too clear that authentic behaviour can have consequences of the moral and immoral kind. The amorality of authenticity in Heidegger’s work meant that there was nothing about it which ruled out Heidegger dabbling in the politics of the Third Reich at a moral level. This was something that had to be rectified for the philosophers who emerged on the other side of WW2. Especially for the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, who had been embedded in the French resistance.

Sartrean thought seems far removed from Kant at the outset. It may testify to the need for a kind of moral realism, even as Sartre rejected Christianity and traditional modes of morality he found that he had to go back to Kant in the end. It was the categorical imperative which interested Sartre, it stipulated that there are objective demands on us. It is an impersonal moral duty which takes two forms and we have access to it through reason. Firstly, that we should "act only on a maxim or rule that you can will to be a universal law". And secondly that, we should "treat others as an end in themselves, as opposed to a means to an end".6 The imperative is relentless in its universalism, cutting through all wants, desires and circumstances. This may seem completely at odds with Sartre's framework. But the emphasis in his conception of freedom on responsibility is compatible with Kant's insistence on universality.

To put it simply, when we act as individuals we act as we would expect others to act and this is the key to morality for Sartre.7 This is consistent with the Sartrean notion of freedom insofar as it can be seen as an extension of the claim that we are responsible for the extent that we act in accordance with our evaluative capacities. It could be seen as built on Sartre's idea of radical choice, which comes out of Nietzschean influences on his thinking. It was Nietzsche who put forward the suggestion that we create values. There aren't actually any out there for us to latch onto as the myths which supported our values are destroyed in nihilism. The only way out is to put man where God once was.8 For Sartre we have to choose rather than create our values and this begins with a radical choice, the act which opens up a new space of moral conduct. But it seems that the universality Sartre wants to go for would have the effect of instituting conformity at a self-directed level.9 This would seem to be too tight a constraint on Sartre's radical notion of freedom. Then again it has always been the case that this tradition has given preference to certain behaviour and attitudes, we can see this in Nietzsche's own favouritism for master-morality.

The Radical Self.


Perhaps then the emphasis on universality is what's wrong here and not the framework itself. Instead morality may be about particularity, it always boils down to a matter of interest.10 But it's unclear where this takes us, if anywhere else other than a return to the instability of moral subjectivism. It may be more in accordance with the creation of values rather than the simple choosing of them. Nietzsche would prefer to confront us with the idea of the Eternal Return of the Same than a set of duties.11 The Eternal Return functions as a test for one's attitude towards life and our ability to live as ourselves without any evasive behaviour. The test is to imagine that you would have to live your life as it has gone so far and as it will go on over and over again indefinitely. So any moment of life is one which we could dwell on for all eternity. To meet this test is to affirm life and to failure is something quite pathetic. In part this functions to push us. Eternal Recurrence can force us in part to accept life as imperfect it is, so that we can 'become' who we are.

Although the alternative to moral universality seems flawed and impractical, much more in line with being-toward-death than any code of conduct, it seems clear that the venture into Kantian ethics may have been a poor manoeuvre on Sartre's part.12 Freedom may be the primary dimension of human existence for Sartre, but its symptoms include abandonment and responsibility. Existence itself is factical because we are transcending beings, the way we exercise our freedom can transform the circumstances under which we live. We can remake the world and ourselves in accordance with our ideas, in doing so our facticity is recreated. And yet we are condemned to restlessness where we are never satisfied with our accomplishments. Each instance of facticity cannot be taken on its own to represent who we are, for we still have the capacity to act once again and redefine ourselves. The real problem may lie with the elements of Cartesianism that Sartre brings into his framework.

As it's not clear that the certainty which Descartes attributed to consciousness characterises it at all. For Nietzsche knowledge involves a finite entity with finite abilities engaged with a world of infinite becoming. The extent to which 'I' can refer to something autonomous and total is highly suspect, as Cartesian selfhood relies on an unsustainable dualism which cuts mind from body. Similarly Sartre cuts the world from consciousness. Descartes would have placed consciousness at the centre of his notion of selfhood and we can pick up an element of this in Sartre too. But Nietzsche did not reject the notion of a self. For Nietzsche the self is indistinguishable from the person and the body, which are in turn embedded in a socio-cultural context and inseparable from all sorts of contingent natural forces.13 Thus the importance of culture in Nietzschean thought. The self is always contextualised and cannot be broken-off from the world, to pretend it can be completely detached is illusory.14 The self is not 'I' rather 'I' is just the development of the self.

1 Solomon, RC; Nietzsche on Freedom, Fate & Responsibility 2/3: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3GaO7wvRLsU
2 Wartenberg, Thomas: Existentialism (Oneworld Publications, 2008) pg.125-145
3 Solomon, RC; Sartre’s Phenomenology: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1vGzpEqKK-Y
4 Wartenberg, Thomas: Existentialism (Oneworld Publications, 2008) pg.37-46
5 Solomon, RC; Sartre’s Phenomenology: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1vGzpEqKK-Y
6 Kant offered four examples of the categorical imperative in play: we should not commit suicide, we should not break our promises, we should be lazy but develop our talents and we should not ignore the happiness of others but help them.
7 Wartenberg, T; Existentialism (Oneworld Publications, 2008) pg.140-143
8 Richardson, J; Heidegger (2012, Routledge) pg.324-325
9 It could be argued that Sartre never really found an easy way to adapt existentialism for the moral and the political. Simone de Beauvoir may have come closer to a practical ethics, the ambiguous condition of the human being as a part of a world that their consciousness is not. It is this ambiguity which makes ethics difficult for existentialists, de Beauvoir's answer was to insist that 'every man needs the freedom of other men and, in a sense, always wants it, even though he may be a tyrant'. Human freedom presupposes the possibility of inter-subjectivity, taking the individual to the social realm.
Wartenberg, T; Existentialism (Oneworld Publications, 2008) pg.143-145
10 Sedgwick, PR: Nietzsche, The Key Concepts (Routledge, 2009) pg.69-72
11 Solomon, RC; Nietzsche on Freedom, Fate & Responsibility 3/3: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7skKQHGTdFE&feature=related
12 Wartenberg, T; Existentialism (Oneworld Publications, 2008) pg.40-46
13 The limits of knowledge are what give it meaning and concreteness to knowledge. It is absurd to claim that ‘I think’ has any immediate identification with thought. The neglect of human capacities for creativity by this conception is intolerable, such capacities are not extensions of a ‘pure intellect’ above the body. Rather the self and the intellect can be best grasped in the drives of the body. The individual as a nexus of drives, instincts and passions is central to Nietzsche’s vision, with the self as the realm where such drives can be refined.
Sedgwick, PR: Nietzsche, The Key Concepts (Routledge, 2009) pg.137-142
14 The talk about free-will confuses causes and effects, we shouldn't talk about our behaviour as though there is first an act of will (cause) and then comes an action (effect). As every effect must have a cause we might say that the preceding cause is a mental one to action, but for Nietzsche there is just action. We just do things most of the time, it is only every so often that we have to push ourselves and will something. Most of our lives are not so reflective and deliberative, we just do things because of the kind of creatures we are. It is a matter of necessity. This is consistent with Nietzsche's attitude towards consciousness, which Sartre seems to elevate by contrast. Nietzsche puts aside the focus on justifying actions in favour of explaining actions in terms of motivation and who we are. Character is constituted by a set of automatic actions which we cultivate.
Solomon, RC; Nietzsche on Freedom, Fate & Responsibility 2/3: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3GaO7wvRLsU

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