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Posts Tagged ‘Jean-Paul Sartre’

The Observer had a piece earlier this month about Britain’s relationship with its intelligentsia, and asked whether we ‘do’ public intellectuals in the way that the French seem to.

Jean-Paul Sartre: the archetypal French intellectual

You can read the views of ten influential thinkers on the topic here. And here are the opening definitions of four of them.

Susie Orbach:

Being able to provoke a different point of view to the standard current ideological or political perspective as played out in conventional newspaper or radio reportage is what a public intellectual does. But it’s not merely about being oppositional, because that’s too negative. Public intellectuals attempt to widen and deepen the public discourse, by adding further analysis and coming at issues in surprising or unexpected ways.

There’s a trend towards soundbites and simplification. We all desire clarity but a way to reach it means understanding at several layers, folding in different kinds of knowledges; in other words complexity. There is a craving for that thoughtfulness which public intellectuals are able to provide.

Will Self:

What the British seem to like are television historians and naturalists, not public intellectuals. You can’t help feeling that’s because one supplies narrative and the other supplies facts, and the British are traditionally empiricists so they/we have a resistance to theory and to theoreticians playing too prominent a role in public life.

Mary Beard:

I think the British have always had this view that France is full of public intellectuals and we are hopeless. I don’t agree. To start with, it’s an awful phrase. Have you ever met anybody who avowed to be a public intellectual? We don’t go in for pontificating to the nation, but if you ask whether we have a vibrant form of political, social and cultural debate in which people who are academic, intellectual, clever – and not just media stars – engage, we have loads of it.

Lionel Shriver:

I guess I understand a public intellectual to be somebody who moves public discourse forward. Someone who either says something new or says something that everybody knows to be true but is afraid to express.

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A follow-up to Tuesday’s post about creativity and the place of constructive criticism in communities. I happened to read this piece by the philosopher Julian Baggini about the importance of complaining in a society that wants to be just and fair.

Constructive complaints are not just an effective tool for social improvement, they reflect a distinctive capacity we have as human beings for seeing beyond the present to new possibilities. This is the link between complaining and creativity.

Being able and willing to complain is what makes us rational and moral animals, capable of seeing and articulating the difference between how things are and how they should be.

The kind of constructive complaining that Baggini discusses is not the same as simply having a moan. A good complaint always has a moral aspect.

I think most people associate complaining more with moaning, whinging or relatively trivial consumer matters than they do high principle. That’s partly, of course, because as a matter of fact, many of our complaints are just kvetches. We moan as ice-breakers, to bond, to express frustration, or simply to express our values. But as a practical activity, I think complaining has become too associated with rights of contract. We live in an entitlement culture, in which, if anything goes wrong, we look for someone to blame, someone who is legally responsible. Trip up in the street and the thought soon arises: who can I sue? Your insurance company will tell you never to admit responsibility if you hit another car, even though usually one party is responsible.

Too often, complaint is not about principled objection on moral grounds, but opportunistic objection on grounds of self-interest. To rectify this, we need to work on mastering the art of complaint. Constructive complaint requires only two things: that what you are complaining about should be different, and that it can be different. It sounds simple, but too often our protests fail this test. Most commonly, as anyone who deals with public complaints for a living will tell you, many of our objections just don’t get the facts straight. If I had a penny for every time I had been castigated for writing something I never actually wrote, I’d have £823.87 by now (and I can almost hear the next penny dropping as I write).

Wrong complaint comes in numerous other varieties. To take just one, there is the contradictory complaint, whereby our objections demand incompatible things. For instance: complaining that first-past-the-post hands power to parties with only minority support and then complaining when a coalition partner compromises on major issues. You can, of course, complain that the partner has compromised too much on the wrong issues, but to demand no movement on any issue of substance is incompatible with the complaint that governments in the UK should reflect the electorate’s wishes more proportionately.

This example is a good one because it shows how easy it is to complain sloppily, but also how important it is to get the complaint right. There is a lot to object to in the programme of this government, so it matters that we do not waste our energies making ill-informed, contradictory or otherwise mistaken complaints. So we should not listen to those who tell us we should complain less and be more “positive”. Rather, we should make complaints that are principled and thought through. A good society depends on its best complainers.

Jean-Paul Sartre bases his whole existential philosophy on this insight. He uses the language of ‘negativity’. The miracle of human existence is that we are not trapped in the present, we are always looking beyond – not just to what will be, but to what might be, what could be, what should be. We are always conscious of what is ‘not’, and our understanding of the reality in which we are presently immersed is determined by how we envision a reality that has not yet come to be. This reaching into the future is part of what makes us human, and part of our essential nature is to be dissatisfied. It doesn’t mean we are never happy, just that happiness will always (in this life) be provisional.

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I had an article published this weekend about the faith of Jean-Paul Sartre — his nominally Catholic upbringing, his atheistic philosophy, and the subtle shifts that took place in his thinking towards the end of his life.

Jean Paul Sartre y Simone de Beauvoir (lomo) by OscarDC.

The tomb of Sartre and de Beauvoir at the Cimetière du Montparnasse

I can’t copy it all here, but here are a few lines about his early life:

Sartre was a Catholic. His mother didn’t have a strong faith, but she had him baptised. When his father died – Sartre was only 15 months old – he and his mother went to live with her parents. Sartre’s maternal grandmother was more involved with her faith, so there was some rhythm of church attendance and Mass-going for the young boy. He remembered the feeling that God was watching him all the time, especially when he was naughty; and the pain in his knees when he was forced to kneel in church.

But God gradually drifted out of his consciousness, and religious indifferentism became the background to his growing up. By the time of his famous lecture at the Club Maintenant in 1945 he could say ‘existentialism is nothing else but an attempt to draw the full conclusions from a consistently atheistic position’. Much of this was posturing: he softens this statement in the lines that follow. Yet there is no doubt about the powerful and largely negative influence he had on the faith of many young Catholics in this period. I admire much of Sartre’s philosophy, but I am not naïve enough to think that his words or his lifestyle were simply a force for good in post-war European society.

Sartre was a notorious atheist, attacking a particular conception of God. It’s a shame that he didn’t go deeper in his exploration of how God was understood in the tradition of Christian philosophy and theology:

He had plenty of opportunities for discussion over the years. Catholic heavy-weights like Marcel, Maritain and Gilson were in dialogue with existentialism. Stalag XIID, his prisoner of war camp, was full of French priests, some of them serious thinkers. He gravitated to them as fellow intellectuals. They taught him Gregorian chant, and he gave them talks on Heidegger. If only it had been the other way round, and he had had a few existentialist drinking songs up his sleeve, to sing in exchange for some lectures on Aquinas’s understanding of God as Pure Act.

There were nevertheless some shifts that took place later in his life:

There is an urban myth that Sartre had a death-bed conversion, called for the priest, and died in the bosom of the Catholic Church. It’s not true. But it is true that in the last few years of his life he re-evaluated some of his core existentialist convictions, and in particular became more open to the idea of God and the significance of religion. He was undoubtedly influenced – some would say coerced – by Benny Lévy, a young Egyptian Maoist who was rediscovering his own Jewish inheritance at the time he was working as Sartre’s secretary and interlocutor. Their conversations were published just weeks before Sartre’s death.

In these final philosophical reflections Sartre seems to repudiate much of his life’s work and embrace ideas such as the need for an objective morality, the transcendent end of the human person, and a quasi-messianic notion of how society can find perfection. When pressed, he insisted that these conversations did indeed express his opinions, and that they were not foisted upon him by Lévy.

I stayed in Paris for a French course a few years ago and went to visit his grave. He’s buried, now joined by Simone de Beauvoir, in the Montparnasse cemetery. I prayed for them both. I knew the story of a death-bed conversion was just a myth, but I also knew about the intellectual movement that went on in those later years. It gave me enough grounds to hope that he might, just possibly, have been open to the Lord’s mercy at the very end of his life, as he went to meet the One he had denied so many times. [The Tablet, 20 Feb 2010]

stalag xii d by duesentrieb.

Stalag XIID - the prisoner of war camp where Sartre conversed with many French priests

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