Political Philosophy Part 2




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                                                                                                                                      Notes on Feminism (especially Simone de Beauvoir).

Summary: these – rather unusual notes – are in two parts:

(a) Notes on the philosophy of existentialism, with particular reference to Sartre

(b) Additional notes:

(i) obituary of Harold Blackham 1903 – 2009 (author of an excellent book on existentialism) (Guardian 090209)

          (ii) Notes on Rilke – this is where it gets more unusual…

          (iii) further personal notes – and more unusual still…

          (iv) the poetry of Don Paterson.


(a) Definition and Introduction to Sartre (1905 – 1980)


Educated in Paris, Sartre naturally studied Descartes and Bergson (two influential French philosophers), and also Kant. Descartes (17th century) tried to understand what we can know about our existence, and his famous dictum: ‘I think therefore I am’ brought about a ‘dualism’ of mind and body that later philosophers were not happy with (how can two different things work together, especially if the mind ‘comes first’?). Bergson (1859 - 1941) was intrigued by the nature of existence and its relation to time, and posited a ‘life-force’. Kant also explored the mind-body problem, and suggested different kinds of knowledge about the world.


From 1933 he studied in Germany with Husserl (1859 – 1938) and Heidegger (1889 – 1976) (see below). During the war he was briefly captured by the Germans, but spent time in Paris where he wrote Being and Nothingness (pub. 1943).


Founded ‘Les Temps modernes’ with Simone de Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty.


Was politically active in support of far-left groups (Maoists), even selling their papers on the streets of Paris. Wrote a powerful introduction to Henri Alleg’s book La Question (= torture), which exposed the use of torture by the French in Algeria. This introduction draws on the idea of the master-slave relationship as described and analysed by Hegel.


1. Existentialism starts by rejecting any ‘metaphysical’ beliefs concerning the creation of man etc. It holds that: (i) there is no God, and religion is false (though see the note below on #Kiekegaard), and (ii) there is no pre-determined ‘human nature’ (which is contrary to a religious – specifically Christian – view.) Sartre, for example, in his book ‘Being and Nothingness’ 1943, starts with the ‘absolute absence of God’ (Richard Eyre Guardian Arts Theatre 030500) – “First of all man exists… turns up, appears on the scene, and only afterwards, defines himself.”


Sometimes the philosophy is summarised as ‘existence precedes essence’. Existentialism then explores the nature of our ‘existence.’


In focusing on ‘existence’, Sartre was influenced by Husserl and Heidegger. The ideas of these ‘phenomenologists’ clearly preceded existentialism in their attempt to focus on ‘phenomena’ and how we are aware of the world around us. Whilst Descartes’ ideas had led to a tendency to see mind and body as separate, Husserl, in an attempt to understand the immediacy of experience, suggested that consciousness is always ‘of’ something (something other than consciousness) – that is, it exhibits an ‘intention’. Sartre took this up, and also Heidegger’s notion of ‘Dasein’ (being-in-the-world), to argue that our existence is based on our active involvement in the world – not on our ‘thinking’. As Simon Blackburn puts it (Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy): ‘the self… constituted by acts of intentionality and consciousness… is historically situated, but as an agent whose own mode of locating itself in the world makes for responsibility and emotion.’


2. Existentialism is most unusual as a philosophy, (except where it builds on phenomenology – e.g. Edmund Husserl) in that it examines basic questions like ‘what does it feel like to exist’? In this, existentialism has close connections with literature, as in fiction, poetry etc, a writer is able to explore such feelings. One of Sartre’s most famous novels, and his first (published 1938) in which he sets out the basic ideas of his philosophy, is called ‘Nausea’ – because that is what the central character feels when he is face-to-face with his own existence and that of the world around him. Other existentialists such as Soren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855) described this feeling as ‘Angst’. Albert Camus (1913 – 1960) (who never accepted the label ‘existentialist’ but is generally seen as one!) wrote of: ‘the absurd’. Nietzsche stressed ‘joy’ and ‘the will’, religious existentialists a feeling of awe or mystery. See also: Jaspers, Berdyaev, Unamuno.


The term existentialists use to describe the fact of our simply existing with no apparent reason or purpose is that we exist ‘contingently’.


If there is no God, and we have no ‘nature’ that we are born with and cannot escape from, then we are free to define ourselves (what we want to be). In this, the philosophy is also a reaction against the ‘determinism’ of late 19th century thought e.g. Freud, Darwin: nothing about us is pre-determined. There is no philosophical ‘system’ that explains everything (contrary to Hegel…). It follows that we are also free to choose our values – what we believe is right and wrong, and how to behave towards others (if God does not exist, then nothing has been prescribed as to what is right and wrong). This does not mean, of course, that existentialists deny the existence of constraints on us!


Note also that Sartre did use some similar concepts to Hegel (the dialectic, totalisation, alienation, objectification). 


3. Each of us is a ‘being-for-itself’, unlike a physical object, which simply is what it is - ‘being-in-itself’ - and which has no ability to change itself. The ‘in-itself’ is solid, self-identical, passive and inert (from Stanford encyclopedia, see reference below); the ‘for-itself’ is fluid, non self-identical, and dynamic. We humans are both kinds of being – we have a ‘facticity’: the ‘givens’ of our existence (I would suggest this means the body primarily, and its attributes i.e. feelings, appetites? The Stanford article suggests it refers to our ‘language, environment, previous choices, and our very selves’ – this doesn’t seem clear to me, as we can change much of this). Simon Blackburn again: ‘Sartre locates the essential nature of human existence in the capacity for choice, although choice, being equally incompatible with determinism and with the existence  of a Kantian moral law, implies a synthesis of consciousness (being-for-itself) and the objective (being-in-itself) that is forever unstable’. What we do – as beings-for-ourselves – is try to ‘transcend’ our ‘facticity’. (Simone de Beauvoir will use this idea in her work on the position of women, who she says live in a world where men have monopoly of the means of ‘transcendence’, and women are condemned to be unable to escape their ‘facticity’).


Of course, we have – as existents – no choice over the fact that we have come into existence, nor over the fact that we are ‘for-ourselves’: we are, Sartre said, ‘condemned to be free’. We are, in a sense, pure potential – but we can only realise ourselves by accepting that everything else (what I am not, and what I could become) is ‘nothingness’. As Heidegger put it: ‘Human existence cannot have a relationship with being unless it remains in the midst of nothingness (nichts).’ (This formulation from The Cry… Nothingness can also be understood as: ‘the object of objectless anxiety, death, and the indeterminacy of human nature’ (Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought, ed. Alan Bullock et al 1988).


(It is worth pointing out here that the philosophy is associated closely with the creative work of writers and artists – and several great writers have existentialist themes: e.g. Dostoievsky, Kafka, Beckett. Among more recent writers who acknowledge existentialism is Norman Mailer (and see below). Other ‘predecessors’ include William Blake, Marquis de Sade…)


However, we find all this – the notion of our freedom to define ourselves, ‘nothingness’, together with the absence of God and therefore of absolute, fixed, pre-determined standards of morality etc – terrifying. (Hence: ‘angst’).


So, to avoid the responsibility for making fundamental choices about our lives, we are tempted to adopt roles, which ‘tell’ us how to behave. (I am: a man… an intellectual (perhaps!)… middle class… a teacher… a socialist/pacifist etc…). In a sense, we attempt to become ‘things’, as this feels more comfortable!


Note that this outline implies that different existentialists may take up different attitudes to life, different politics etc. Thus Heidegger supported the Nazis (to the embarrassment of other philosophers!), Sartre supported the communists and Maoists (but he got into trouble with other leftists for denying the atrocities of Stalin), Kierkegaard was a Christian – though he argued that God and man are ‘utterly distinct’ from each other, and faith involves a ‘leap’ which transcends reasoning (Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought, ed. Alan Bullock et al , 1988) - so it is not as simple as saying that existentialism = atheism!, and Berdyaev was close to the Russian Orthodox church.


4. When we do this (adopt a role), especially if we try to convince ourselves that we had no choice, Sartre calls it ‘bad faith’ – what we should aim at is ‘authenticity’. To me this means being true to our freedom, responsible for the choices we make, not adopting alibis or excuses or blaming others or our environment….


5. It follows that we need to accept our ‘responsibility’ for our choices. However, this cannot – in my view – be equated with an amoral individualism, since (see especially ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’ 1946) we have to recognise that others have their freedom and responsibility to themselves also. They too are ‘beings for themselves’ – even though we may be tempted to treat them as ‘beings in themselves’ (or as part of the ‘nothingness’ around us?) – see point 6 below. Sartre even goes so far as to say that we feel responsible for everything – ‘freedom entails total responsibility’. It seems to me that Sartre is at this point not far from Kant – however, Sartre himself seems later to have become uncomfortable about what he wrote in Existentialism and Humanism (it was a transcript of a speech, and it shows his response to critics who said that existentialism had no ethics), and in his later writing e.g. ‘Critique de la Raison Dialectique’, 1960, (and in his political activism) Sartre drew on Marxism, saying it was ‘the philosophy of our times’. His attempt to fuse existentialism (which tends to emphasise our individual feelings about existence) with Marxism (which posits ‘man’ as a social being) is generally regarded as a failure. Existentialism has a problem if it wants to argue we should work together.


6. This difficulty is shown even more clearly by another controversial and troubling aspect of Sartre’s existentialism – and something he tried to deal with in his ‘Marxist’ writing – his treatment of ‘the other’ (other people, as we encounter their existence). We actually have no way of knowing or deducing that others are ‘for-themselves’ (the old philosophical problem: how do I know other minds exist?) – but when we ‘encounter’ them we are aware they (like ourselves) have characteristics of both a ‘for-itself’ (a subject) and an ‘in-itself’ (an object). We are also aware that the ‘other’ sees us this way – and just as it is easier for a ‘subject’ to try to evade its own ‘transcendence’ presumably it is also easier to treat others as ‘in-themselves’, as objects. So we are aware that others may try to reduce us to ‘objects’ also.


This idea is dramatically illustrated in Huis Clos, in which three people are condemned to live together for eternity with no access to the outside world (i.e. they are ‘in Hell’). Each has something in their past of which they are ashamed or embarrassed – and they try to hide it from the others. But each also tries to get to the truth about the others, and the three are trapped in a situation of intense discomfort – so that ‘Hell is other people’ seems to be the message. Sartre’s later Marxism is an attempt, it seems to me, to move on from this pessimistic position.


7. I found one of the ideas from Sartre’s ‘Marxist’ period particularly convincing: he suggests that when people act or work together they can form one of two kinds of group: the first he calls a ‘series’ – here each individual remains as an individual and the group has no strong collective identity. The other kind of group involves each member committing him/herself to the group, which then gives the group an identity of its own. ‘Commitment’ is a key idea in Sartre: one way we can become authentic is by choosing a course of action and committing ourselves to it - presumably provided we always retain the ability to change and no longer be committed? Otherwise we would be in a similar position to a thing-in-itself, surely?


Sartre’s life-companion, Simone de Beauvoir, used several of the above concepts (‘transcendence’, and ‘the other’ particularly) to radically reappraise the role of women in society (in The Second Sex). See the link at the top of these notes.


Notes from:, and


(i) fiction:

Nausea – a novel which dramatizes the sense of existence (the existence of the natural physical world) as ‘nauseating’. We humans are ‘excessive’ (‘de trop’)… 

Roads to Freedom – a novel in three parts, dealing with the experience of France before and during the Second World War, and exploring existentialist themes in the writing. For example, the second part – “The Reprieve” – describes a group of characters in 1938, hoping despite the build-up to war that there will be a ‘reprieve’, and they will not have to make difficult choices,

Huis Clos 1944 – Sartre was asked for a play (Eyre loc cit) that had three characters and gave them equal treatment, equal number of lines, all three always on stage… Sartre liked theatre because it relies on metaphor, and enabled him to ‘test’ his theories with ‘real’ characters and situations. It also forced him to condense his ideas.

Les Mains Sales – first performed 1948, and widely seen as an attack on communism: but when this interpretation was given too much weight, and it was being used ‘to castigate the left’ Sartre banned performances (1952). A young man is set the task of assassinating another political figure, because the man is supposed to be betraying the ‘true’ line by wanting to work in a coalition. The young man falls in love with the target’s wife, and then kills him: but was he motivated by politics or jealousy? This is the question of ‘authenticity’. In its politics there are parallels (for Eyre) with Northern Ireland… The play explores means and ends, class, sex, growing up etc. Eyre put the play on at the Almeida, in May 2000, under the title The Novice, as it is as much about innocence as about belief and expediency.

(ii) philosophical:

Being and Nothingness. (1943)

Existentialism and (is) Humanism. (1946)

Critique of Dialectical Reason. (1960)

(b) More on Existentialism, Humanism, and perhaps going beyond existentialism…


Note: these notes become quite personal in places, but that’s the nature of existentialism – if it doesn’t make us re-examine our existence, our being, then it has failed!

(i) Harold Blackham 1903 – 2009 - obituary (G 090209)

Author of Six Existentialist Thinkers 1952 – standard university textbook, (and one which shaped my thinking on existentialism).

Pioneer of modern humanism (Andrew Cropson writes). Founded British Humanist Assoc. 1963. In 1933 went to London and assisted social reformer Stanton Coit, became secretary to Ethical Union. Assisted in transporting Jewish refugees from Austria and helped organise 1938 conference of World Union of Freethinkers ‘before the double onslaught of fascism and communism’.

Founded the journal “Plain View’ in 1944, which attracted e.g. Julian Huxley and Gilbert Murray.

In 1952 founded International Humanist Ethical Union with Jaap van Praag. Now is worldwide union with over 100 organisations in 40 nations. Also worked with Barbara Wootton, AJ Ayer, Jacob Bronowski. Contributed to pioneering practical work in sheltered housing, adoption and non-directive counseling – co-founded British Assn for Counselling in 1977. Lectured, e.g. at Goldsmiths.

1953: The Human Tradition, 1966: Religion in a modern Society, 1968: Humanism. 1996: The Future of our Past from Ancient Greece to Global Village. 2001: wrote epilogue to JB Bury’s A History of Freedom of Thought.

Made BHA a vehicle for moral education (with Cyril Bibby, Lionel Elvin, Sir Gilbert Fleming, Edward Blishen). Co-founded Journal of Moral Education (extant).

Sought to work with non-humanists e.g. in Social Morality Council – now Norham Foundation.

(ii) Rainer Maria Rilke (1875 - 1926)

Long, long ago I copied a page from a website (*) concerning existentialism.  Now I look at it again, and at the extracts from Rilke copied below, I am amazed: the depth of the analysis of our fear of the future; the strange and yet familiar idea that in moments of silence and sadness we can open ourselves to something else – the future, our destiny... and that we need to go through this, and much more, to be part of the whole. Yes, in moments of sadness it is too easy to be stuck in the present or the past, even the immediate past – ‘move on, I must keep moving on…’ Perhaps Beckett is making the same point in his plays. Perhaps most the striking – and difficult – part of this extract is the idea that once we have taken in our ‘destiny’ it then “steps forth out of us to others”…  As I feel this text is saying something to me, I want to try to put its ideas into my own words: When we are paralysed with fear, tension, anxiety about life – the thing to do is not to be angry, noisy, violent, but to seek stillness, silence, and open ourselves out so that a ‘way forward’ can come to us. Stillness, silence and openness (as in Quaker meetings) will help us find the way forward – not shouting, violence, ‘closed’ behaviour. And when one person succeeds in this, then others receive something from them – the ‘silence’, the gentleness, is infectious – just as violence creates only violence, so gentleness creates gentleness…


[(*) The website is - see this link for further links! Authors listed Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855), Dostoievsky, Allen, Sartre, Jaspers, Camus, Nietzsche, Kafka, Heidegger, de Beauvoir, Rilke. Notes on the website are very brief, tantalizing, but give the ‘feel’ of existentialism I think.]

Quotes from Rilke:

“I believe that almost all our sadnesses are moments of tension that we find paralyzing because we no longer hear our surprised feelings living. Because we are alone with the alien thing that has entered into our self; because everything intimate and accustomed is for an instant taken away; because we stand in the middle of a transition where we cannot remain standing. For this reason the sadness too passes: the new thing in us, the added thing, has entered into our heart, has gone into its inmost chamber and is not even there any more, is already in our blood. And we do not learn what it was. We could easily be made to believe that nothing has happened, and yet we have changed, as a house changes into which a guest has entered. We cannot say who has come, perhaps we shall never know, but many signs indicate that the future enters into us in this way in order to transform itself in us long before it happens. And this is why it is so important to be lonely and attentive when one is sad: because the apparently uneventful and stark moment at which our future sets foot in us is so much closer to life than that other noisy and fortuitous point of time at which it happens to us as if from outside. The more still, more patient and more open we are when we are sad, so much the deeper and so much the more unswervingly does the new go into us, so much the better do we make it ours, so much the more will it be our destiny, and when on some later day it "happens" (that is, steps forth out of us to others), we shall feel in our inmost selves akin and near to it. And that is necessary. It is necessary and toward this our development will move gradually that nothing strange should befall us, but only that which has long belonged to us. We have already had to think so many of our concepts of motion we will also gradually learn to realize that that which we call destiny goes forth from within people, not from without into them. Only because so many have not absorbed their destinies and transmuted them within themselves while they were living in them, have they not recognized what has gone forth out of them; it was so strange to them that, in their bewildered fright, they thought it must only just then have entered into them, for they swear never before to have found anything like it in themselves. As people were long mistaken about the motion of the sun, so they are even yet mistaken about the motion of that which is to come. The future stands firm . . . but we move in infinite space.  

How should it not be difficult for us? 

…to childhood illnesses that began so strangely with so many profound and difficult transformations, to days in quiet restrained rooms and to mornings by the sea, to the sea itself, to seas, to it is still not enough to be able to think of all that. You must have memories of many nights of love, each one different from all the others, memories of women screaming in labor, and of light, pale, sleeping girls who have just given birth and are closing again. But you must also have been beside the dying, must have sat beside the dead in the room with the open windows and the scattered noises. And it is not yet enough to have memories. You must be able to forget them when they are many, and you must have the immense patience to wait until they return.

Not into a beyond whose shadow darkens the earth, but into a whole, into the whole”.

(iii) Further personal notes:

I recall the strange experience in my yoga class the Monday after singing at the Stratford and East London Festival this year (Feb/March 2009). My performance had not impressed the adjudicator, and I was sad… as we lay in our final relaxation (‘yoga nidra’ literally yoga sleep, but meaning that the mind is stilled, rather like in the stillness that Rilke describes above?), and Jill had run through the parts of the body for us to focus quickly on each, she came to the words ‘the whole body, the whole body’ and I felt extraordinary (just as Rilke describes it): how wonderful it is that the whole of this complex living thing works, all its parts working together, without thought… and suddenly the sadness lifted – perhaps as Rilke says, ‘something new entered into me’… From that moment it all fell into perspective, and my sadness didn’t matter any more.

Soon after, the phrase ‘a still small voice’ came to me. Of course I know this is a Biblical quotation, but it occurred to me that perhaps what some people call ‘God’ is just this small still voice that comes to us at moments of calm, and brings a message – as Rilke would say – of the future.

Strangely, too, I am learning an aria from Mendelssohn’s Elijah, and borrowed a copy of the whole work from Jenny Gould. There in the Biblical extracts on which the piece is based, is the passage (1 Kings 19:11 -12) about ‘a mighty wind [that] rent the mountains around, brake in pieces the rocks… but yet the Lord was not in the tempest… God the Lord passed by! And the sea was upheaved and the earth was shaken: but yet the Lord was not in the earthquake… And after the earthquake there came a fire: but yet the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire there came a still small voice; and in that still voice, onward came the Lord.’

A still, small voice… the gentle way… these are thoughts I need to hold to, to get through life – let alone to bring anything to others…


But (Sep. 2009): it is easy to lose this feeling – ‘things fall apart’… and there is the danger that when one even small part of the whole is not working as I would wish, (since everything is connected and has its impact on the whole) then the ‘whole’ feels bad…  Then also, perhaps, I simply lose my sense of being part of a bigger whole (see the quote from Rilke above) – though this is not Sartre’s existentialism. Re-reading the extract, I am still a little unsure about it: the theme seems to be one’s ‘destiny’ – a very different notion from existentialism!

(iv) 190909: Review of poetry by Don Paterson: Rain (Faber) – by Adam Newey: the poems play with our sense of reality and perspective:

“The Swing”, with its ‘nothing made a sound’ (the sound of nothingness?) – throughout is evidence of ‘awareness of the viewing, thinking self’  - a kind of Platonic enquiry into the self and its relation to the physical world – ‘When you lift your hand or tongue, what is it moves to make you move?’ – we may be trapped inside our own consciousness, yet there is something that ‘hurries on its course/ outside every human head.’

“The Day” deals with existential loneliness – but the one thing that can bridge the gap between us is love… sometimes…

Elsewhere (“Phantom”): ‘We come form nothing and return to it’ – ‘We are ourselves the void in contemplation./ We are its only nerve and hand and eye.’

PS on Paterson: what kind of synchronicity is it that he has written a translation of Rilke’s collection of poems “Orpheus”?

And it may be significant also that he appeals to me since he describes how God died for him, when he was an adolescent, though the search for God did not end, and that now he finds Buddhism offers a path to finding the way to say these things - though a ‘difficult one to honour’ - from an article in the Independent:

This is a good page, on Paterson and Rilke, too: