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

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.

Preface and Chapter 1: Spontaneity and Inertia.

Harry Frankfurt: “It is far from easy to explicate the difference between being active and being passive, and in fact philosophers have for some time generally neglected the task.” (“Identification and Externality,” in The Importance of What We Care About.) But Pinkard is taking it on with the help not only of Sartre but also that of Marx, Hegel, and Heidegger, whose thought Pinkard argues is essential to the concept of practical action presented in the Critique of Dialectical Reason.

Sartre’s motive in writing the Critique has typically been regarded as political, but Pinkard is interested in the more purely philosophical problems that Sartre felt the need to confront. Unsurprisingly, Hegel and Marx loomed large, but so did the later Heidegger, and they all led Sartre to “rethink … the positions he had staked out early in his career … on meaning and practice” (xi.) More specifically, he was led to move from the standpoint of individual self-conscious subjectivity to that of “a kind of mutual self-relation of agents,” corresponding to Hegel’s transition in the Phenomenology from self-consciousness to spirit, i.e. “the I that is a We, and the We that is an I” (xiv-xv.) This required Sartre to overcome the “dualism between the active and the passive” so as to conceive action otherwise than in terms of “which part produced the other part, or where the ‘meaning’ came from” (xv).

Sartre’s aim in Critique of Dialectical Reason was not only to articulate and overcome the difference between being active (“spontaneity”) and being passive (“inertia”) but also, and relatedly, to establish the concept of a reflexive agent with the ability to take the initiative and innovate – a being in possession of what Hannah Arendt called the faculty of “natality.” Such an agent is understood to be “self-moving” (as opposed to the “inert,” or nature),  “attuned” to a background context, and “embodied,” hence subject to needs for natural or external goods.

Sartre’s target in the Critique was his own early theory of action in The Transcendence of the Ego (1936), in which the other is originally an aspect of the self. For an action to be an action, as opposed to a mere series of events, it must be expressible as the thought of a purposive act. That the action is the doing of an agent is what holds together the stages of action and makes of them an act.  Although, when absorbed in an activity, we do not spell out to ourselves what we are doing, an “I” is still somehow present: if someone asked what we were doing, we could answer. But it isn’t an “observing” I, distinct from the action observed; it is somehow immanent in the action. It is pure spontaneity, the primitive form of freedom, an agency that must become for-itself by defining itself through its choices.

For this self, the other emerges in the course of the self’s pursuit of its project, namely to acquire the inert form of an in-itself while being in essence a for-itself. To be a self, in this optic, is to be the (free) author of one’s own self-limitation (i.e., unfreedom). The other is this self’s second-person awareness of another (“you”), which, importantly, doesn’t require an actual other. Thus, in Being and Nothingness, a jealous man is peering through a keyhole to spy on his beloved. Believing he hears someone behind him, he blushes in shame, but when he turns around he sees that no one is present. The anticipated presence of the other, the early Sartre concludes, just is the other’s presence to the self. “[F]or the earlier Sartre,” Pinkard says, “this other agent is not real but a constituent moment of the for-itself in its fundamental project. As Sartre vividly puts it, ‘The look which the eyes manifest, no matter what kind of eyes they are, is a pure reference to myself'” (10).

In the Critique, the problem is to modify this conception so as to accommodate a constitutive relation to others. Sartre wants to make intelligible the idea of a thoroughly subjective experience that is also comprehensively and deeply shared. In the earlier conception, “the for-itself was either actively doing something, or [insofar as the agent saw itself as an in-itself] some process was doing something to it” (16). This is achieved by supposing from the start that the agent is participating in a shared practice, and that such shared participation just is the way agents exercise agency. With this move, Sartre thinks, the dualism of activity and passivity is eliminated. The model of practice is language, in the sense that the whole language is present in each individual expression in it. On the the one hand, language is a shared practice, but on the other hand, the practice is nothing but the utterances of individual agents. The speaker is not producing particular instances of a language; he or she is rather a “concrete universal.” Language implies and exhibits the presence of others, each of whom, however, speaks it as an individual agent. This is the starting point for thinking about the nature of authentic collective action, in which (in Sartre’s words) “there is no Other, there are only several myselves (il y a des moi même)” (30).

This is a bit of a leap, but overcoming the duality of activity and passivity by means of the idea of a shared practice suggests how to overcome the duality of liberalism and conservatism.

In forming their conception of the good life, individuals are in the position of reflecting on which of their society’s practices they ought to take part in. One person might join a monastery, another might take up a business enterprise, another might become a soldier, another an artist, and so on. As a matter of common sense, the individual’s freedom to pursue happiness – his or her agency (a liberal value) – is limited to choosing among the practices that have been established in his or her society, or variations on them.

Practices depend on authority (a conservative value). If you want to take part in a practice, you must apprentice yourself to it and prove your competence to those who have already mastered it. But you do this as a fully autonomous agent. In the absence of a practice, there is nowhere to exercise autonomy. In the absence of norms that, within a practice, determine what counts as good and bad, right and wrong, or successful and unsuccessful, there is no way to exercise autonomy. Individuals exercise judgment and will by participating in norm-governed practices and thanks to them, not instead of them or in opposition to them. When a lawyer makes a closing argument or a golfer sinks a putt, he or she is engaging in an established practice and exercising individual agency, skill, judgment, and style. Individual freedoms and traditional inheritances are equally manifest in practices; “individual action” and “social activity ” are merely two vocabularies for describing what is in fact one unified phenomenon.

This being the case, politics is conversation about how one ought to maintain political arrangements that enable individuals to participate in the various practices that have endured in their society. Regardless of individual and group differences, civic nationalists, ethno-nationalists, cosmopolitans, conservatives, liberals, and libertarians all depend on established, ongoing, and accessible practices in order to pursue happiness. A concept of government as devoted to securing the conditions required to enable individuals to choose among and compete for places in established practices should be acceptable no matter where one falls on the ideological spectrum.

Individuals are attached to the particular cultural practices they inherit, including their prejudices and limitations. But as reflective and deliberative agents, they are also able to criticize their inherited practices from a larger, rational, impartial, cosmopolitan perspective. This, if you like, is “dialectical reason”: the discovery, in Sartre’s terms, of new reasons (18). In this optic, citizenship consists in the willingness of the cosmopolitan to listen to the traditionalist and include the latter’s account in his or her perspective, and the willingness of the traditionalist to listen to the cosmopolitan. There’s a tension here, but no essential contradiction, because you can’t exercise rational criticism and choice without things to criticize and choose among, and you can’t have the latter without preserving traditional practices.

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

  1. Allyn McAuley

    The insight that individual agency and free action, the “I,” are always actually embedded in the context and “shared practice” of a “We” is surely an important one. As regards politics, I was reminded of Michael Oakeshott generating a similar idea from an entirely different starting point in his concept of politics as following the “intimations” of a tradition of practice. In this view, politics is of necessity inherently conservative—in the same way that the craft of a carpenter or sculptor is inherently build on time-honored traditions of learned common practice. The opposite idea—that politics consists in setting out a blue-printed goal (Good, Justice, Virtue, Triumph of the Proletariat, Individual Freedom, Human Rights, etc) and using a rationally discovered set of means to realize the goal as quickly as possible—is criticized by Oakeshott as “rationalism in politics.” This kind of rational idealism surely has its root in Plato and culmination in Hegel and Marx. And by this standard, both modern US Progressivism and Conservatism are inherently rationalist, missing the essentially incremental character of all human making in their efforts to effect dramatic “change” at all costs. But certainly shared practice, understood as political persuasion and action (eg, Arendt), is not possible without prior or concurrent rational abstraction. Perhaps there is also a necessary role for the abstract political rationalism of Plato’s Republic, for the view that even the carpenter and sculptor begin with a rational model or “ideal form,” reflecting the fact that we all necessarily move dialectically between the “pure” subjective and objective views in order to engage in shared practice. The question for me is whether Arendt and others are correct in arguing that political “action,” or the shared practice of interactive persuasion on a public stage, is qualitatively different than any other type of shared activity.


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