Wednesday, February 15, 2012

a note about Sartre

warning: this is rough, and should be corrected/re-written.
Nonetheless, off the top of my head:

I recently listened to a snippet of a lecture by the Sartre scholar Jonathan Webber
about Sartre's philosophy.

A famous and cute phrase which Sartre is fond of gets translated into English something like this:

Man is the sort of creature who is what he is not and is not what he is.

Webber said that this involves two senses of "existence', but then he also threw in something about essences. If I recall correctly he seemed to identify the is of predication with saying what a thing's essence is. That would not be right. I am bald, but that is not my essence. I am a citizen of the USA and that is not my essence either (though it sure matters a heck of a lot to the kind of life I have.)

But so far as the general strategy goes, of course there needs to be some further elaboration or development of the original paradoxical saying. Otherwise, Sartre would be talking nonsense, and if he only speaks nonsense, then why read him!?? --n'est pas?

I thought Sartre meant something like this:

Man is not what he is: IE what he is at this moment does not determine his choices about the future.

Man is what he is not: For Sartre, the "is not" or "nothing" (hyperbolically I might add) means the realm of future and possibility and imagination. So, we are "what we are not" in the sense that our nature is tied up with possibilities and choosing to realize plans that are currently not actual.

So, in the first half of the saying: "He is not what he is", 'is not' is ordinary negation, but what he is has a sort of temporal restriction.

"He is what he is not" ---in that bit, "what he is not" does not mean negation, but is Sartre's special meaning involving possibilities. (Of course, I suppose Sartre thinks that ordinary negation (as I have put it) is a sign of this special power we have, the power to realize what is possible, but I write now as someone who is not fully fluent in Sartre-eese.)

When I heard Webber on this, I thought he was stuttering. (Even Homer nods.) What I should do is give a reference to the lecture, and listen to it again. I hope that I shall do that soon. In the meantime, I wanted to at least get started on this little project. And perhaps it may have some amusement value for anyone who happens to be reading this blog.

I am no Sartre scholar; Webber is. So, what I've just said is dangerous. On the other hand, it's possible (likely) that I read this analysis (paraphrase) somewhere. (If I can find out where I got this idea from, I will be happy to credit the person. So, that is the second point at which this entry is incomplete.) But, in the meantime, I just wanted to get this out of my system.

Footnote: As far as I can tell--it's now late at night and my eyes are tired---but from a quick look at Thomas Flynn's article on "Sartre" in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, my above suggestion about how to understand Sartre's paradoxical saying is not at all original. What I say is pretty much what Flynn says....
human reality that “is what it is not” (that is, its future as possibility) and “is not what it is” (its past as facticity, including its ego or self,
Nothing there about the "is" of identity, or "is" of predication......
Link to Flynn's article:

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