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for-itself and in-itself: analytic and continental thinking

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  • Tommy Beavitt
    Hi Phil, Thanks for your speedy and intelligent response to my post. I can understand your irritation at the phrase I used. However, I will not apologize for
    Message 1 of 37 , Dec 21, 2005
      Hi Phil,

      Thanks for your speedy and intelligent response to my post. I can
      understand your irritation at the phrase I used. However, I will not
      apologize for it. It was not directed at you, who already have the
      opportunity to pursue your interest in Sartre and continental
      philosophy and therefore the possibility to change your views on the
      validity of analytic philosophy.

      I am keen to encourage robust debate on this forum. Following the
      kind of thinking Sartre exemplified in his writings is not an easy
      option when we are conditioned by our language and education to
      consider it at best an also-ran. While there are clearly lots of
      unresolved issues in continental philosophy which more recent
      thinkers such as Derrida and Foucault have grappled with, and others
      continue to develop, for me, Sartre was the one who put the
      opposition between continental and analytic thinking in a nutshell.

      The "childish name calling" you perceive me to have indulged in is
      nothing compared to the tirade of insults and denigrations received
      by one such as myself who persists, in an English speaking society
      such as the UK, in thinking in the way Sartre recommended.

      There is an ideological war raging and it would be futile to pretend

      I will respond in detail to some of the points you make below.

      > PHIL: I find unconvincing his explanation of why he continued
      > smoking after
      > attempting to stop. He seemed to engage in rationalising his activity.
      > This sort of rationalising is common amongst smokers who want to quit.

      So what is your point? That all rationalisation is futile? (That
      sounds extreme, but perhaps that is a consequence of analytic
      thinking.) Or is it the fact that it is common somehow invalidates it?

      I think maybe the problem is that you see Sartre as making some kind
      of an excuse for his "failure" to quit smoking. You assume that he
      "is" a person who wants to quit, but that he has failed and is
      therefore engaged in rationalising his "failure".

      Its not a minor point that determinists wish to refer to the
      "character", or other such term indicating fixedness, of individual
      humans. Sartre's central point is that to be authentic one can not
      and must not do so because it leads to philosophical error. The
      identification by Sartre of Sartre as a person who wishes to give up
      smoking is not the same as the identification of Sartre by Sartre of
      the person who reaches for the packet of Gauloises. There is no
      reason why it should be. To consider that it is is to consider that a
      human being is an object, a being-in-itself. Which is clearly,
      according to Sartre, mistaken.

      > PHIL: I would not want to get into an argument about the above. I
      > take it as
      > a biological fact and someone who didn't accept this I would assume
      > had little knowledge of the effects of smoking on ourselves.
      >> TOMMY: But it is still the person's choice of how to interpret the
      >> symptoms
      >> as far as what they mean is concerned. For example, a feeling of
      >> irritability or inability to concentrate may rather "be" the
      >> "consequence" of having failed to sleep the previous night, or it
      > may be an internal projection caused by the failure to live up to the
      > ideal espoused by the conceivers of the Marlboro Man advertising
      >> concept (e.g. ruggedness, self-reliance, etc.)
      > PHIL: The comment about now to interpret the symptoms of smoking which
      > questions whether this feeling of irratibility after not having smoked
      > a cigarrete is really the result of smoking or just an effect of a
      > poor nights sleep looks okay to me. Perhaps it is a result of both.
      > Although to suggest that the irratibility that stems from attempting
      > to quit smoking comes from failing to live up to an ideal that stems
      > from the Marlboro Man and has nothing to do with the physiological/
      > psychological effects of smoking is unwarranted as it ignores
      > the known phsyiological/psychological effects of smoking. It would be
      > better to say that they may both have a role.
      >> TOMMY: It may be that the person is merely imagining the symptoms of
      >> nicotine withdrawal which have no objective existence whatsoever.
      > PHIL: Your lack of knowledge concerning smoking is showing here.

      Hmm. I would say that I have as good an understanding of addiction
      per se as anyone else. As it happens I have smoked tobacco for many
      years, on and off. Sometimes as many as 15 cigarettes a day. I don't
      find it difficult to "give up". I do it all the time! Sometimes I
      constitute myself as a non-smoker and sometimes as a smoker. It
      depends on the company I keep. According to the analytic approach, is
      it valid for me to draw any inference from this?

      I wasn't trying to defend an either/or construction of the meaning of
      the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal. I was merely wishing to point
      out that there is probably an infinite number of possible
      interpretations of such symptoms and only the one who is doing the
      interpreting can possibly give them any semblance of relative validity.

      > PHIL: Yes, he would say this. I don't find it very plausible
      > though. That is
      > to say I don't find it plausible to look at the irratibility produced
      > by nicotine withdrawl as having no no significance other than what I
      > accord it. Rather the irratibility forces its own significance on me
      > by forcing itself into consciousness in a rather unpleasant way that
      > makes me want to remove it by having another cigarrete.

      But that sounds like as much of a "rationalisation" as you found
      objectionable in Sartre's reasoning about his own "failure" to give
      up smoking. What is at issue here? Is rationalisation allowed? If so
      in which circumstances?

      >> TOMMY: You suggest that it is possible for people to "know" their own
      >> characters but I believe that Sartre is arguing that this is wrong
      >> and an example of the fallacy of essentialism. How do I know when I
      >> posit my character as consisting of whatever particular bundle of
      >> attributions have seemed to achieve consistency in the past under
      > the heading of "my character" that they will not become entirely
      >> inconsistent and therefore redundant in the light of a situation I
      > am just about to find myself in?
      > PHIL: I think this is a good point to make. It seems plausible to
      > say that
      > we don't know when we will act out of character on any particular
      > future occasion. However I think you over state your point by
      > suggesting that a single instance of acting out of character makes all
      > of our actions that constitute our prior character redundant or that
      > the possibility of acting out of character proves that we cannot know
      > our own character.

      But our character is only constituted at a particular time by either
      ourselves or others for exactly the same reason as the recipient of a
      letter constitutes a lump of inanimate "in-itself" *as* a paper-
      knife. Or maybe at another time the person may constitute the same
      lump of inanimate matter as a back scratcher or a murder weapon.

      I'm not overstating my point: it is either valid to employ Sartre's
      distinction between the for-itself and the in-itself, or it is not.
      In my view it is valid. There are philosophical consequences which
      accrue to that accordance of validity.

      Its not a question of whether we can know our own characters, its a
      question of whether there is a character to know prior to the act of

      >> TOMMY: Your example of an admirer of Sartre is a clever way to try
      >> to work
      >> around this problem (you try to invalidate the point he is making by
      >> proving that anyone who acceded to it would be in themselves in bad
      >> faith) but this is fallacious reasoning and typical, I am afraid, of
      >> the kind of pointless philosophizing that the analytical method
      > tends to generate.
      > PHIL: You seem to have degenerated into childish name calling here
      > when your
      > initial post led me to believe you were more mature.

      It is a fair point that you have made. I will try to act with
      courtesy on this forum and expect others to do so. However, the
      technique you used to attempt to invalidate Sartre's for-itself/in-
      itself distinction is typical of the kinds of tricks analytical
      thinkers use all the time. I personally don't think it is a valid way
      of proceeding and I will attempt to argue my case to the contrary as
      robustly as possible.

      Maybe I am beginning to sound like a conspiratorialist here but it
      seems to me that so-called analytical philosophy is a trick used by
      white English-speaking hegemonists to prevent anyone from drawing any
      inferences; which could damage the power "balance" that skews the
      interests of the aforementioned to the detriment of others. I believe
      that Sartre, especially in his later years, was acutely conscious of
      this and used his considerable intellectual powers to create a
      powerful critique based on the concept of existential freedom. I
      don't think that the power of this critique has in any way been
      diluted by subsequent events: on the contrary, it is more relevant
      than ever. But you will have a struggle trying to find a voice in
      present day Britain or America because of the stranglehold the
      analytic style of thinking has managed to impose on (English
      speaking) academia.

      So, I hope you will forgive my "childish" comments and begin to
      appreciate the profundity of the gulf that separates analytic and
      continental thinking; a gulf that can be bridged, no doubt, but only
      by extremely robust dialogue that may call either side's basic
      assumptions into question.

      > PHIL: I agree that a person can always change their views. I am not
      > sure
      > about phrasing it as choosing to change their views as this makes it
      > sound like what views we hold is an arbitrary matter e.g today I will
      > decide to believe in God, tommorow I will become an atheist. This is
      > not how most peoples beliefs are arrived at. Rather, as you suggest,
      > we tend to choose what makes most sense to us, and this is dependant
      > on a host of other factors. We rarely choose what makes most sense to
      > us or whether an alternative method of addressing an issue is seen by
      > us as satisfactory or not. This was the point I was making. I was
      > also making the point that we are influenced by our characters our
      > biology, and a host of other factors. It is these factors that enable
      > us to predict how others will behave in a fairly reliable way (given
      > enough information).

      I think that you have put it in a nutshell here. Analytic philosophy
      is about developing the power to predict human behaviour and
      therefore exercise power over it. It surfaced in the 1950s in a very
      explicit way with behavourism, but since then has only tended to be
      stated implicitly.

      Behaviourism, as epitomized by the radical American intellectual B.F.
      Skinner in his 1950s book, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, has always
      been quite impressive in its ability to predict animal behaviour
      according to its assumptions and rationale. However, it quite quickly
      ran into difficulty when applied to human behaviour (and social
      planning) for reasons that should be obvious. Animal "behaviour" only
      takes place, and is seen to take place, in a setting organised by
      human beings. Not only does this apply to the sensory and hermeneutic
      apparatus used to observe and analyse all behaviour, animals live in
      a world that actually, physically (to a greater or lesser extent)
      submits to the will of man.

      But man is different, radically different, at least to himself, and
      does not submit to the rationales of behaviourists. Although on a
      basic level, certain behavioural traits in humans may be seen to have
      been elicited by certain stimuli in a fairly reliable one-to-one
      correspondence, as soon as an experimental subject *perceives
      himself* to be acting according to any kind of determinism projected
      by someone with power, such as the controller of the boundaries of an
      experimental situation, he will tend to apply some critique to the
      rationale according to which his behaviour is being evaluated. This
      may be an explicit rejection of a doctrine such as behaviourism or it
      may be simply that the subject will refuse to conform to a particular

      That refusal may be seen as fundamental to what it means to be a
      human being.

      The more the behaviourist pushes the boundaries of the level of
      control he exerts over an experimental situation, the more that
      situation, to the extent that it contains an experimental subject who
      is human, changes in ways that the behaviourist cannot predict.

      This may be thought of as similar to the predicament faced by a
      dictator, king or other kind of absolute ruler in the "experimental
      situation" that is human society. It is not a new thought: 2500 years
      ago Solon, one of Athens' most impeccably democratic thinkers, said
      "tyranny is a very pretty position. The trouble is, there's no way
      out of it".

      Best regards

    • Lou Eugene
      That s an interesting point you made. Sorry I haven t able to respond, I ve been really busy lately. Menal life is pretty accurate, considering that
      Message 37 of 37 , Jan 24, 2006
        That's an interesting point you made. Sorry I haven't able to respond, I've been really busy lately. "Menal life" is pretty accurate, considering that "consciousness" is very vague when you hear about it. As far as Man being "naturally violent" I think this is inherently true. It's like most of us have to rely on the rules and laws of society keep us from "giving in", while others can draw that control within themselves. I don't know if that particular topic can inspire an interesting discussion, but I would like somebody who's well-versed in Sartre to respond to this while referencing some of his texts.

        scarey1917 <scarey1917@...> wrote: "theoryphil2004" wrote:<<<<<<<So there is no inconsistency in being
        created and being free. There is only an inconsistency between being
        an inanimate object such as a paper-knife and being free...The other
        criticism that might be levied at Sartre is to question whether his
        rejection of human nature is warranted or not.>>>>>>>>>

        And it gets even more complicated, Theoryphil. In the last paragraph
        of E&HE Sartre states that "Existentialism is nothing else than an
        attempt to draw all the consequences of a coherent atheistic
        position." But then a few lines later he says: "Existentialism isn't
        so atheistic that it wears itself out showing that God doesn't exist.
        Rather, it declares that even if God did exist, that would change
        nothing." So evidently even if the supreme artificer created us, we
        are still stuck down here with our unsupportable total freedom,
        including the freedom to tell God to go jump in the lake! We decide
        the significane of God, just as we decide the ultimate significance
        of things, situations, and ourselves.

        And don't think that a view of human nature as a "given" or even the
        acceptance of the "unconscious" mind would be a problem for Sartre's
        theory of freedom, as long as such nature or mind were relegated to
        the side of the Situation which the for-itself freely takes up, or
        not. So for example one could argue from Sartre's point of view that
        man is "naturally violent", but then go on to say that this "given"
        receives existential significance within the project of the for-
        itself (I decide to give in, or not, to these given tendencies).

        In "Being and Nothingness" the ultimate problem is Sartre's total
        identification of man with consciousness, which of course is the
        influence of Descartes and modern philosophy. But consciousness is
        only one aspect (a very interesting aspect!) of man's total being. As
        Marx said, consciousness is the consciousness OF an objective being.
        Lately I have prefered the term "mental life" rather
        than "consciousness", since the former would take into account all
        the various unconciousness functions that make up about 99% of brain
        activity and which belong to the being of man.

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