Reading Terry Pinkard’s “Practice, Power, and Forms of Life: Sartre’s Appropriation of Hegel and Marx” (2022), part 2.

What follows is less than a book review and more than a book report – I hope. My plan is to convey a first impression, chapter-by-chapter, every week or so.

Spontaneity’s Limits: Tragic Counter-Finality.

Spontaneity is a form of agency that’s dependent on the presence of others. In its basic form, this doesn’t necessarily imply acting with others, or collective action; it takes the form of acting on new reasons whether individually or collectively. I take it that what counts as a reason for action is to be broadly construed. It isn’t only a matter of inferences from principles, for example; a reason to act could take the form of an imaginative redescription of the possibilities latent in a situation. Whatever its form, a reason specifies a purpose: action is intelligible only teleologically, for only a purpose can draw together a sequence of acts such that they are understood as one action. This is the “finality” of action. Spontaneity, then, characterizes acts by which agents commit themselves to purposes other than those to which they were previously committed, at either the individual or the collective level.

The problem with individual spontaneity is that it can be rendered “inert” – meaning, I take it, that it can fail to manifest itself, either by being “frozen into routinized or institutionalized forms” or by “outright oppression or by means of a dominating ideology” (30). Under these circumstances, collective action – “a spontaneity that is possible only in the spontaneity of others, in which each serves as the mediating third party to any other two” (30) – is required to alter the institutional conditions responsible for the inertia. The new purpose is now attributed to what Pinkard, following Wittgenstein at this point rather than Sartre, calls a “form of life,” i.e. “a way of being together” or, in Sartre’s own terms, a “praxis.”

In chapter 2 we encounter “Spontaneity’s Limits.” The first such limit is “tragic counter-finality.” If action is only intelligible teleologically, in terms of its final end, then understanding the failure to achieve its end or its achievement of a different or opposing end is essential to making sense of action. Counter-finality can be “tragic” in that “some type of process or activity in which something originally in play turns out to transform itself into something other or perhaps to generate something other than itself that undermines it” (31). Pinkard stresses that counter-finality should not be confused with the idea of unintended consequences, which are unforeseen causal results of actions. Ends, however, belong to the space of reasons, not causes; they are attributes of the meaning of actions. It is this semantic dimension of action that makes it possible for an individual or group to be “at odds with itself,” and this is, in Sartre’s terms, the “dialectical” aspect of action.

At this point I feel the need for an illustration that illuminates the structure and character of this dialectic. Since we are dealing with action, the idea of dramatic irony comes to mind. An utterance can be ironic if there is an incongruity between its intended meaning and its apparent meaning, or if what is said is both intended and not intended. In dramatic irony, however, the incongruity obtains between what the speaker is saying or doing and what is happening in the situational context more generally.

An example of the first kind of irony would be Socrates’ disavowal of knowledge. In this kind, Socrates pretends to be ignorant of, say, the meaning of virtue, in order to motivate a series of questions that reveal the falseness of someone’s claims about virtue. (This is not really an adequate characterization of Socratic irony, but that’s another matter.) An example of the second kind is explored by Jill Gordon in “Against Vlastos on Complex Irony” (Classical Quarterly 46, 1996). Early in the Meno, Meno claims to have made many fine speeches about virtue. Later, Socrates, repeating Meno’s words, says that it is a good thing that Meno’s slave was made aware of his ignorance of the geometry of the area of a square, because if he had not he might have made many speeches about how doubling the length of the side of a square would double its area. In this way, Socrates renders Meno’s claim ridiculous and empty, insulting him with his own words. The irony stems from the incongruity between the intention behind Meno’s claim and the significance it assumes in the dramatic context of the dialogue as a whole.

Perhaps not all counter-finality involves irony, but this illustration points us towards dramatic incongruity as a key to understanding much non-finality. Incongruity can characterize not only differences between utterances but also between an utterance and an act, an act and other acts, an utterance and its occasion, and the content and form of an utterance or act. Meno’s case illustrates the thesis that counter-finality is a “part of the normative sphere of meaning, not that of causation” (32). It concerns “ends not intended, not part of the plan but nonetheless inevitably taken up as ends,” as with Meno’s unwittingly taking up the end of humiliating himself.

The semantically variable aspect of action inevitably calls to mind Hannah Arendt’s account of political action. Pinkard is aware of the parallels, but  doesn’t discuss them in what I’ve read so far. I’ll just remind us of the basics here: unpredictability and irreversibility. Action is unpredictable because it brings new perspectives into the world and occurs in a web of human relationships characterized by plurality, such that actors cannot control the consequences of their action. We can initiate activity, but not determine its final outcome or meaning – or rather, there is no final meaning: action is “boundless” and provokes interpretive and evaluative responses that go on indefinitely. As with praxis, the results of action are to be understood semantically and normatively as well as causally. Finally, action is irreversible because once something is done it can’t be undone, only appraised and re-appraised.

A crucial difference between Sartre and Arendt, I anticipate, stems from the value they attribute to action. Arendt is concerned with collective action, or what she calls “action in concert,” but she is equally if not more interested in action’s capacity to disclose individual uniqueness. Perhaps self-disclosure comes up later, but at this stage of his thought Sartre seems preoccupied with collective action. Moreover, the purpose of such action is to free the collective from domination, whereas for Arendt political action is possible only after a free public realm has been established.

Left out of this summary so far is that Sartre’s real concern is with how tragic counter-finality can foil attempts at social change, explaining which heightens the importance of the “inert.” “[T]he sphere of the inert … may not harmonize with what it is we take ourselves to be underway in accomplishing” (32). “Agency … fails … because of its intertwining of the inert … with spontaneity itself” (33). This explains how individual spontaneity can become “frozen”: for the individual, exercising agency takes the form of mastering an established practice. Apparently, collective praxis can appear to be a remedy, but it too is subject to inertia. The question then becomes how to understand this tragic dialectic and take it into account in a theory of agency.

The inert chimes with what Arendt called “the social,” and more generally with what Hannah Pitkin characterized as “the blob.” What we might call the “cunning of inertia” ensures that, since collective and individual agents must accomplish new ends by means of old practices and institutions, the old is re-asserted in the very attempt to bring about change.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *