Reading Terry Pinkard’s “Practice, Power, and Forms of Life: Sartre’s Appropriation of Hegel and Marx” (2022), part 5.

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.

Ethics in Politics: Rules, Groups, and Functionalist Ethics.

A fully formed or fused group is a “statutory” group, formally deduced to articulated ends and binding its members to statuses that are functional for the group in terms of its ends. The ethics of such a group are expressed as the norms required to ensure its continued functioning, and the norms are expressed in the practices followed by the members of the group. The practices, however, “require the actors to do more than merely follow the rules” (58). The actors must fulfill the function assigned by the practice, but he or she has leeway as to how the function is fulfilled. The “feints, passes, and such [of a football player] are themselves not part of the rules, nor is the decision to take the shot rather than passing the ball to a teammate something that follows from the rules” (58). In Sartre’s words, “The action is irreducible: one cannot comprehend it unless one knows the rules of the game, but it can never be reduced to these rules” (58).

A perhaps more striking model is that of a “great actor” who brings his or her unique personal style to traditional roles, making them the actor’s own. The phenomenon suggests Richard Wollheim’s distinction between generic style and individual style. A generic style is like the style of New York City as opposed to Los Angeles, or Victorian as opposed to Modern architecture. An individual style is a pattern of features possessed by a unique personality, such that they are exhibited in all the different contexts and roles the individual occupies. A certain kind of actor – Humphrey Bogart, Jack Nicholson, Seymour Philip Hoffmann – is immediately identifiable no matter what role he or she is playing. Although one cannot comprehend a great actor’s performance unless one knows the conventions of dramatic performance, the performance is not reducible to those conventions. The same can be said for the roles assigned by social practices, at least to the extent that the agent frees itself from the practico-inert. Social agents exhibit “in their individual ways the practice that shows itself through them, and they are in turn transforming, however slightly, the practice itself” (59).

But style, as Nietzsche emphasized, is “beyond good and evil.” What counts is the expressive quality of individual action, not its ethical content. Indeed, problematic ethical content has a way of heightening dramatic interest. Pinkard notes the problem, which is twofold. First, the norms of a group are relative to its ends, and the latter aren’t subject to ethical determination (at least at this point in the argument). Second, beyond end-determined norms, there is the norm that implicitly applies to all groups as such: the end of preserving spontaneity. Paradoxically, spontaneity limits spontaneity: a hitherto unheard-of reason to act is legitimately countered by other hitherto unheard-of reasons to act. Spontaneity begins to look empty (60). The point is for self-conscious individuals to freely establish their own ends, such action being the sole source and ultimately the only value. But if that’s the case, then the content of value seems arbitrary.

Pinkard says that Sartre’s way forward is to posit values based on “life,” which implicitly leads to a standard according to which a life may go well or badly. Thus, self-conscious human life requires the conditions that make it possible to exercise spontaneity. But as Pinkard concludes, “not much of any content follows directly from that” (61). The “limitations” implied by the possibility conditions for spontaneity “seem to be themselves limited … only by empty spontaneity and whatever the demands of social exigency require” (61).



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