Reading Sartre

23:13 Tue 13 Feb 2007. Updated: 02:24 17 Feb 2007
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It’s been a little over a year since Seth and I started reading Sartre’s Essays in Existentialism. We haven’t met quite every week, but probably haven’t missed more than six or so sessions.

We’ve made it through 228 pages so far. I think we’ve gotten past the most difficult parts, which were mainly about nothingness (which lies coiled like a worm at the heart of being, if I recall correctly), but much of it is still tough going.

That’s part of why we’re doing it, of course—to try to get our minds working on this kind of material again, to get some philosophical exercise in. It’s been good for that. However, it’s hard to synthesize from the weekly reading into a larger whole, and it’s also hard to analyze the pages we go over each week without that larger whole. So neither of us would claim any deep understanding of the text at this point.

Often, there’s a lot of laughter involved, at Sartre, at our own incomprehension, or at both. This week, beginning “A Sketch of a Phenomenonological Theory”, we encountered a high point of successive sentences that seemed entirely ludicrous to us, for some reason. In the past we’ve encountered plenty that were merely incomprehensible to us, but last night’s seemed genuinely nonsensical.

I’m taking the examples out of context, but then, the context didn’t help us that much! Broadly, Sartre is discussing emotion, and the origin/nature of emotion, specifically whether or not it can be considered something that comes upon us from “outside” the self—rather than being generated by some part of the self, where “the self” is a being with some consciousness of itself and some control over itself. I’m probably butchering the text horribly, for which you’ll just have to forgive me. Or post elucidating insight in the comments.

This first one may be bad typesetting, bad translation, etc., but still struck us both as rather amusing. Sartre is, for the purposes of argument, giving examples of self-awareness of emotions:

It is always possible… to say “I’m angry, I’m afraid, etc.”
—p223, Jean-Paul Sartre, Essays in Existentialism, Kensington, New York 1993

What a heartfelt expression of one’s innermost feelings! “I’m angry, I’m afraid, etc.”—who could not respond to such an outcry?

Writing about the experience of watching someone else writing (by hand), Sartre claims:

I perceive the words which his hand forms well in advance of its having completely formed them. But at the very moment when, on reading “indep…,” I intuitively perceive “independent”, the word “independent” is given as a probably reality (in the manner of the table or the chair.)
—p226, ibid.

What? So your guess (likely a good guess, but still) as to what someone else is writing gets the same reality as the chair or table that you are observing? And the table and the chair are only “probable” realities? That just seems wrong.

And finally:

…[I]t is not certain that the word “certainty” which I am in the act of writing is going to appear (I may be disturbed, may change my mind, etc.), but it is certain that if it appears, it will appear as such … insofar as they are real, future objects, they are probable, but insofar as they are potentialities of the world, they are certain.
—p226, ibid.

What? Actually, I sense some coherent explanations this evening, but last night that passage in particular seemed rather crazy to both of us.

Ah, the joys of philosophy.

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