Reading Terry Pinkard’s “Practice, Power, and Forms of Life: Sartre’s Appropriation of Hegel and Marx” (2022), part 4.

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.

Actualized Freedom’s Fragility in the Myths of Self-Authorization.

Freedom, more specifically “fully actualized freedom,” is spontaneity – acting on new reasons – that has been “unhooked from exigency,” i.e. recurrent and habitual patterns of action. This happens when subjects are directly related to one another, so that what it makes sense to do or what one has reason to do is not shaped by their relations with “inert objects” (39). Subjects directly related to one another can, as a group, authorize their own actions because each recognizes all others and each is recognized by all.

Once such a group has formed it has a reason for maintaining itself, namely to maintain the freedom of self-authorization (and equality) as an “indeterminate good” (48). Self-authorization is “fragile,” however, because, being paradoxical and to that extent logically impossible, it is something of a myth (45, 47). Pinkard refers to the “paradox of democracy” (or autonomy):

the idea that a people authorizing itself, for example, to write a constitution cannot actually describe itself as an authoritative people capable of such an act until after “they” have written the constitution that creates and authorizes them as a people to do just that. (The United States Constitution, with its famous preamble beginning “We, the people …” is one of the paradigm cases.) (49.)

As an aside, I don’t see how the U.S. Constitution is paradoxical in this sense, for the people of the United States certainly existed, and were lawfully represented, when the Constitution of 1789 was being written, debated, and ratified. The United States of America was created in 1777 by the Articles of Confederation, which was an agreement among colonies or states that regarded themselves as sovereign to enter into a “Confederation and perpetual Union” of that name. Subsequently, it made sense to speak of the people of the United States, but strictly speaking the United States created by the Articles was not and did not claim to be the act of the people of the United States. The Articles do refer to “America” and could be said to allude to the American people, as the Declaration of Independence speaks for “one people” as opposed to another, but that’s not the same thing. This is to say that the group that wrote the Constitution of 1789 was an “already fused group” as opposed to a “group on the way to fusion” (47). In a group-in-fusion, there are established background practices – in the case of the Constitutional Convention, parliamentary procedures and the powers specified in the Articles of Confederation – thanks to which a particular act makes sense.

“Pure” spontaneity occurs only on the way to fusion, where the formation of the group does not express an already developed practice. In using the first person plural, the member of a group on the way to fusion does not refer to already-established practices but rather to the possibilities that come into view to a “free-flowing unity”: the hitherto untapped potential of the group’s agency. In this “apocalypse,” the group’s members experience themselves both as “regulating third parties” and as “acting under the orders given by other third parties” (47).

Having achieved this status, the next step is to preserve it, which of course necessarily involves the reappearance of the inert. Each individual is pledged unconditionally to the group, and the group establishes norms, including “juridical norms that govern what it means to be a member with that particular shared, communal identity, … [which] must be enforced,” by force if necessary (51). Nevertheless, spontaneity is preserved because the pledge, being “quasi-mythical” as self-authorization must be, exists (at least mythically) in its self-enforcement. Spontaneity is thus preserved, but fragile.

As Pinkard emphasizes, Sartre’s aim in describing a group that maintains itself for the sake of its freedom is neither empirical nor phenomenological but rather a priori. The idea is to show that the reason to maintain the group follows necessarily from the reason for the group’s original formation (48-49). The group forms for a reason, i.e. to achieve an end, but in doing so it necessarily becomes aware of the value of freedom from exigency and the equality required by such freedom. Having made a “new beginning,” it grasps the value of being in a position to make other beginnings and therefore maintains its ability to do so (56).

But just how a priori is Sartre’s argument? It benefits from what one might call a rhetoric of constraint. Spontaneity is “hemmed in” by, “channelled into,” and “unhooked from” the inertia of exigencies (48). But what Sartre calls the “practico-inert,” if this means everyday practices such as waiting for a bus, could just as truthfully be described as enabling. Rosa Parks, for example, put a bus to very good use, but so do people who take the bus to go to work, support their families, vote, and to exercise agency generally.

To return briefly to the problem of tragic counter-finality, Donald Davidson’s idea of the “accordioned” character of agency comes to mind as a way to understand it. (I’ve sometimes used it as a way to understand aspects of Arendt’s concept of political action.)

Any given action can be correctly described in many ways. Moving hands and arms, turning the steering wheel, changing lanes, and avoiding a speeding car may all be true descriptions of one and the same act. Among these descriptions, the ones under which the action counts as intentional are special, because it is those descriptions in virtue of which the action is the act of an agent.

If we continue to characterize the action in terms of its consequences, the consequences of its consequences, and so on, more and more descriptions under which the action may count as intentional become available. Some of these may even amount to a betrayal of the agent’s intentions, but still, they are causal consequences of what the agent did. Sean Kelley recently tweeted some illustrations of such unintended consequences: for instance, football helmets were mandated to reduce skull fractures; as a result, there are few skull fractures, but many more cases of chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

The agent may resist such attributions and try to limit responsibility for the action to a description that he or she recognizes, but witnesses of the action have the last word, and there’s no denying that if we define action in terms of its causal consequences, the agent is indeed their causal author. This chimes with Sartre’s idea that counter-finality concerns consequences that, although not among the agent’s reasons for acting, are nevertheless revealing as to the nature of those reasons, since, again, it is one and the same act that is correctly described as intentional even with respect to consequences very far down the causal line.

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