Jean Wahl: Transcendence and the Concrete: Selected Writings

Transcendence and the Concrete: Selected Writings Book Cover Transcendence and the Concrete: Selected Writings
Perspectives in Continental Philosophy
Jean Wahl
Fordham University Press
Paperback $35.00

Reviewed by:  Guy Bennett-Hunter (University of Edinburgh)


‘Packaged as Meat, Frenchman Jean Wahl Flees Nazi Captors in Dramatic Escape’. So reads the 1942 newspaper headline reporting one of the more sensational escapades in the philosopher’s life (6–7, n. 15). Jean Wahl is one of a number of neglected existentialist thinkers who were opponents or victims of the Nazi régime. Philosophers in this tenuous position could no longer (if they ever had) regard their philosophy as separable from the concrete life that made it possible and otherwise informed it. For this reason, the editors’ thoroughly researched introductory essay, drawing on unpublished biographical material, is one of the most valuable features of the collection under review. After the Vichy Statute that excluded Jews from teaching, as the essay explains, Wahl continued to lead seminars from his hotel room on rue des Beaux-Arts. On the day that the area was seized by the Gestapo, Wahl, who was reading Heidegger with a small group of students, is reported to have quipped, ‘If the Gestapo comes, it will not hurt to say that we are studying Heidegger. The Nazis at one time thought highly of him.’ (4).

The memorable newspaper headline refers to Wahl’s eventually successful attempt to escape from occupied France in a ‘butcher cart’, ‘wrapped in the same kind of cloth that wrapped the sides of meat’ (Green cited on 6). This earthy image of the philosopher, the archetype of consciousness and reflective thought, packaged up as inanimate, unthinking flesh is astonishing and suggestive. It may even express the quintessence of the human condition. Is there not a sense in which to be ‘packaged as meat’ is simply to be human?

The question is at the centre of the main theme of this collection of essays: the relationship between transcendence and the concrete. In the volume’s final essay, Wahl explains his and his contemporaries’ preference for the word ‘existence’ over the more archaic ‘soul’:

it is because the soul was too often considered to be a permanent substance, was too clearly separated from the body, too clearly separated from the world. The union of soul and body, of soul and world—this is what is meant by the idea of existence. (267)

As the editors point out, Wahl was ‘a sensitive and insightful reader’ and interpreter of the work of his contemporaries (2). Notably, he promoted in France German philosophers, including Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers (24–5), but his own philosophical voice can be heard in the engagements with other thinkers’ work that are presented in this collection (2). Wahl’s extensive engagement with Jaspers is of particular interest (chs. 6 & 7).

The volume partially reprints ‘The Problem of Choice: Existence and Transcendence in Jaspers’s Philosophy’ (Chapter 6), in which Wahl engages in detail with Jaspers’s complex philosophical system, focusing on those aspects which are of most relevance to his own thinking and which matter to him the most. He begins with the important observation that ‘Jaspers’s philosophy is both the negation of every system and the affirmation that a system is necessary for the intensity of the life of the mind.’ (134) Jaspers’s thought, as Wahl sees it, is based on two propositions, the first of which forms the basis for the second, even as the two propositions oppose and strive to negate one another. Wahl thus makes sense of an otherwise puzzling feature of Jaspers’s work: the tension between its apparently systematic form and its profoundly anti-systematic content. ‘There is…a struggle,’ Wahl says, ‘between philosophy and the form of the system; it always stands outside of the system and breaks it.’ (136)

Wahl’s essay on Jaspers shows just how thoroughly this collection has been edited. References are given to the German edition of Jaspers’s three-volume Philosophy and also, where possible, to E. B. Ashton’s English translation (134, n. 4). The editors also provide an English translation of Wahl’s French translations of Jaspers’s German, which can differ significantly from the published English translations of Jaspers. They also helpfully correct apparent errors in Wahl’s references. However, sections III and IV of the Jaspers essay (‘Transcendence’ and ‘The World of Ciphers’) have been cut ‘for reasons of length’ (147, n. 46). This is unfortunate, because these are the sections that are of most relevance to the theme of the volume as a whole. In these excised sections, Wahl sets out some of the formulas used by Jaspers to articulate the relationship between ‘transcendence’, which is ineffable, and the essentially ambiguous and unstable ‘ciphers’ in which, for Jaspers, transcendence is embodied in the world of concrete experience. In the conclusion to the essay, Wahl holds up Jaspers’s ‘cipher of failure’ as a major link between Jaspers’s theory and some of his own deepest philosophical concerns. But, for Wahl’s explanation of that theory (which is located in the excised section IV), the reader must look elsewhere (147 n. 46). The editorial decision to omit these two sections of Wahl’s text left this reader with the sense that the editors have at times focussed on details at the expense of the broader picture.

‘Subjectivity and Transcendence’ (ch. 7), offering a valuable transcript of the December 4, 1937 session of the Société Française de Philosophie, shows Wahl in living dialogue with some of the most important philosophers of the day. We hear Wahl’s philosophy emerging out of conversations with Martin Heidegger, Gabriel Marcel, Karl Jaspers, Nicholas Berdyaev, Emmanuel Levinas and others—either in person or by letter. Of particular interest are the lengthy transcribed conversation between Wahl and his friend, Gabriel Marcel and Wahl’s insightful articulation of a particular reservation he has about Jaspers’s thought. On the latter, Wahl states:

it is a general theory of philosophies, it is the work of an observer of philosophies, it is not the act of a philosopher himself choosing his symbol, his cipher [chiffre]. Or, if it is such an act, it loses its general value and is no longer a theory of philosophies in general. (164)

While Wahl acknowledges the importance of Jaspers’s work, for the reason given above, he regards it as ‘no longer necessary to place his philosophy within the same framework as the others’ (164). Rather than being ‘one of the most serious reproaches one could make against Jaspers’s theory’, this is a profound insight into the distinctive nature of his philosophy (164). For what could ‘a general theory of philosophies’ be, if not itself philosophy? And is this not precisely the most authentic kind of philosophy that we need, as opposed to the unreflective choice of a particular cipher, made in ignorance of the fact that ciphers are what are being chosen or even (our inescapable rootedness in traditions notwithstanding) that there is a choice to make? As Jaspers says in his letter to Wahl (on a different point), ‘what you designate as dangers is exactly what I would like to achieve, at least as I conceive it’ (191).

Overall, Transcendence and the Concrete makes an important contribution to the study of the life and thought of Jean Wahl and his contemporaries. Its transcript of the 1937 session and detailed biographical essay will be of particular value to scholars and students working in the field.

At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails

At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails Book Cover At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails
Sarah Bakewell
Other Press

Reviewed by: Anthony Clemons (Alma Mater Europaea/Global Center for Advanced Studies)

Nietzsche wrote that a philosophy is always the biography of the philosopher. However, a philosophy taken outside of the context of the philosopher’s life can make their ideas seem, at best, un-relatable and, at worst, inaccessible.

In her latest work At the Existentialist Café, Sarah Bakewell revisits the texts that defined her adolescence and adopts this premise, writing, “Ideas are interesting, but people are vastly more so” (p. 326) This feeds into her interest of investigating the lives of the seminal philosophers who re-appropriated German phenomenology into a redefined brand of continental philosophy known as existentialism. In doing so, Bakewell assumes the role of cultural tour guide and frames an ever-vivid and occasionally nostalgic milieu of love affairs, mentorships, rebellions, lifelong partnerships, and the fallings-out of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone De Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Richard Wright, Edmund Husserl, Jean Genet and other larger-than-life thinkers who defined the thinking and culture of the post-World-War II generation.

In the book’s opening pages, Bakewell encapsulates the depth of her scholarship and biographical pluck by encapsulating the birth of existentialism into a singular point, “near the turn of 1932-3 when three young philosophers were sitting in the Bec-de-Gaz bar on the rue du Montparnasse in Paris, catching up on gossip and drinking the house specialty, apricot cocktails” (p. 1). These burgeoning philosophers included a 27-year-old Sartre, his 25-year-old girlfriend Beauvoir as well as Raymond Aron, an academic colleague of Sartre’s who was visiting during winter break from his philosophical studies in Berlin.

Suffering from intellectual atrophy in their own careers, Sartre and Beauvoir were interested in the intellectual discoveries Aron had unearthed in Berlin. Aron was only happy to oblige by describing a new brand of philosophy purported by Martin Husserl and refined by Aron’s mentor, Edmund Heidegger. Using vivid prose, Bakewell richly describes the Husserlian word phenomenology,

[Aron] was now telling his friends about a philosophy he had discovered there with the sinuous name of phenomenology—a word so long yet elegantly balanced that, in French as in English, it makes a line of iambic trimester all by itself (p. 2).

Though well-educated in their own right, neither Sartre or Beauvoir found Heidegger’s treatise on phenomenology to be linguistically accessible. However, on this day, in this café, Bakewell describes the moment Sartre and Beauvoir jumped into the phenomenological abyss, arguably spurring the most influential cultural movement of the 20th-century. Speaking directly to Sartre, Aron said, “You see mon petit camarade…if you are a phenomenologist, you can talk about this cocktail and make philosophy out of it!” (p. 3).

Flying in the face of the analytic calculus in which they were formally trained, Beauvoir wrote that, “Sartre turned pale on hearing this” (p. 3). Similarly, Sartre would recall in an interview some 40 years later that moment “knocked me out”, because there was now a treatise for, “doing philosophy that reconnected it with [the] normal, lived experience” (p. 3). In fact, Bakewell’s rendering of just how much Aron piqued Sartre and Beauvoir’s curiosity gives her opening a flavor of France at that time; feverish, yet relaxed.

Ultimately, this new-fangled notion of phenomenology was the ingredient that both young philosophers needed to refine their own theories and a starting point for Bakewell to chronicle how their ideas fuse and infuse the European cultural scene.

Yet, a discussion of phenomenology and existentialism would be incomplete without considering the role of World-War II. Bakewell does this by recounting how even the celebrated minds of philosophy are sometimes thrust into the fray of reality. She illustrates her case with an account of Sartre being held as a German prisoner of war and his anti-climatic escape by making an ophthalmology appointment and leaving unattended, only to never return. Bakewell also parallel’s Sartre’s experience with the measures Beauvoir was taking to survive the rationing of food and other items in Nazi-controlled Paris.

Upon Sartre’s return to France, Bakewell sets the stage to evidence just how much reality can affect even the staunchest of pure practitioners, writing, “Beauvoir was briefly jubilant at seeing Sartre, then frankly pissed off by the way he began passing judgement on everything she had been doing to survive” (p. 143). Sartre’s confrontation with Beauvoir regarding her philosophical compromises would ultimately cause both philosophers to make an introspective inquiry as to how existentialism should now be defined, leading to Sartre’s seminal work Being and Nothingness (1943) and Beauvoir’s feminist treatise The Second Sex (1949).

Combined, these examples are the formative means that Bakewell uses to frame the case that phenomenology and existentialism are more than just a couple of philosophical theories. Rather, they are rather formative notions of the nature of living, suffused with the real experiences and personal sufferings of those who developed the ideas and lived their lives according to their dictates.

Early-on, Bakewell acknowledges the influence existentialism welded on her adolescent years and acknowledges the cherished the role it serves in her life today. She writes, “when reading Sartre on freedom, Beauvoir on the subtle mechanisms of oppression, Kierkegaard on anxiety, Albert Camus on rebellion, Heidegger on technology and Merleau-Ponty on cognitive science, one sometimes feels one is reading the latest news” (pp. 28-29). This is why Sartre, Heidegger, and especially Beauvoir would likely approve of Bakewell’s approach to telling the story of existentialism. As a storyteller, she reconnects their lived experiences with their contribution to the development of existentialism as a philosophy. She also pervades her storytelling with the mark of her own interdisciplinary education and experiences.

Born in England and raised in Australia, Bakewell is a polymath and self-reformed academic. She read philosophy at the University of Essex and eventually took a postgraduate degree in Artificial Intelligence. Professionally, she has worked as a factory worker on a tea-bag assembly-line, bookshop attendant, library cataloguer, and is now an award-winning full-time author and professor of Creative Writing at Kellogg College, Oxford, UK. These experiences have influenced Bakewell’s biographical style, giving rise to her willingness to ground the high-brow, biographical tone of her characters to their own story, while also intertwining her own lived experiences.

At the Existentialist Café offers a nostalgic and introspective look at the birth and development of pure existentialism through the eyes of the most notable philosophers of the movement and the author, whose experience with the philosophy provides grounded clarity. The book is also a refreshing glance at the mid-twentieth century ideas that led to the post-modern and deconstructionist philosophies that we continue to refine. Ms. Bakewell’s method of storytelling exudes a personal sense that is neither overreaching nor overtly critical. It is seemingly the result of a conversation between her, a historian, a philosopher, and a cultural critic, all draining Apricot cocktails along a bustling Parisian street, while reminiscing on an earlier period forgotten by most, remembered by some, but loved by all.

Jean-Paul Sartre: What is Subjectivity?

What is Subjectivity? Book Cover What is Subjectivity?
Jean-Paul Sartre. Translated by David Broder and Trista Selous
Verso Books
Hardback £40.00

Reviewed by: Mariam Thalos (University of Utah)

Jean-Paul Sartre was an intellectual powerhouse, even in his own time.  He moved people, both scholars and non-scholars alike, by the power of his ideas and his tremendously powerful way of expressing them.  He blurred all category boundaries and violated conventional mores. He even turned down a Nobel prize on principle. This book documents a philosophical exchange over a topic as big as the very significance of Sartre’s work in light of Sartre’s own commitment to Marxism. How can his Marxism make sense in the light of his existential philosophy?

The subject of experience, and the experience of that subject, are the primary topics of Sartre’s existential phenomenology, especially in Being and Nothingness. But Sartre also professed allegiance to Marxism. Marxism is, at least to a first approximation, the view that the material conditions of life—what someone in an earlier point in time might have called its political economy—is the primary determinant of all of social, cultural and intellectual life, all of human life and knowledge. Marxism is a dialectical materialism.  How can there be room in it for an independent contribution made by human freedom, or even by the human subject as such? How, then, are Sartrean existentialism and Marxism both to be embraced simultaneously?How is it possibly to put the two together into a single anthropology—an objective study of the forces acting in human societies? It would seem to be a difficult balancing act to be a Marxist follower of Sartre. Perhaps he, best of all, is able to resolve the tensions, and thereby to explain the marriage between his existential phenomenology and a Marxist politics. That question is one theme in a very large opus published in 1960 as The Critique of Dialectical Reason.

In 1961 Sartre delivered a guest lecture to the Gramsci Institute in Rome, where he sought to address the issues surrounding the marriage of Marxism and existentialism. In attendance were some of Italy’s leading Marxist thinkers, many of them profound admirers of Sartre’s philosophy and all of them very conversant with it. This book comprises Sartre’s lecture and the conversations pursuant thereto, involving many of those Marxists in attendance, and including as well Sartre’s reactions and responses to their interventions. Because it attempts to capture the real-time interactions of the participants, this book makes for a coherent and fascinating read, bringing to life a very lively controversy that foreshadows (and indeed still survives in) the controversies inherent in the contemporary projects of Critical Theory.

Another existential phenomenologist might have managed very well in uniting a Marxist anthropology to an existential phenomenology. Merleau-Ponty, for example, because his phenomenology was very much attuned to the way the body contributes to experience as such, might have had recourse to the body as a channel through which the Marxist dialectic was realized and actualized in subjectivity. Many passages in Merleau-Ponty’s oeuvre speaks of the body as such a site and conduit for a potential dialectical materialism of which a Marxist might be proud. But Sartre is not Merleau-Ponty; indeed Sartre is on record as not concerned with the contributions of the body. For Sartre, the ego is decidedly, even suspiciously, transcendent.

Sartre’s own route to realizing the Marxist dialectic within his particular existentialist vision is via a sort of imperative. He speaks here, as in the Critique, of subjectivity as an obligation or necessity—the necessity to be in our consciousness what we are in and to the world at large—to others, and toward nature. (Surprisingly, it reads very much like a Kantian imperative, and one that will not be denied—that is in some sense inviolable.) It is in some sense another way of speaking of authenticity. For Sartre, to respond authentically to the existential imperative, is to perform in one’s own subjectivity what one is to others, in effect to perform one’s material reality. So perhaps one performs one’s proletariat-ness, or one’s capitalist-ness.  It is, in Sartre’s words, not merely an imperative but a drive: we are “obliged to be the mediation between [ourselves] of forms of exteriority such as, for example, class being.” We are obliged to create a “singularization”—a performance, if you will—of the universal of our class. This description of things he refers to as the practico-inert. Thus for Sartre, the social reality is not to do with the machines, or materials more generally, that make of the worker’s life what it is, the social reality is instead the worker who in his own person internalizes the material reality. Thus Sartre internalizes in consciousness —he relocates to consciousness—the material conditions of social life. (These are the themes drawn here from The Critique of Dialectical Reason.)  Unwilling to join Durkheim in the idea of a collective social life that includes the material conditions, Sartre instead insists upon subjectivity as the fundament even of collective, anthropological life.

Throughout the conversations, the interlocutors press Sartre on points of intersection between his existentialism and a variety of Hegelian doctrines, especially those on which Marxist theories draw. Sartre’s interlocutors reiterate many of the same questions: if there is a Marxist or Hegelian dialectic, how does it manifest in the consciousness of a given subject? Moreover, does one or the other disappear at the “level of the dialectic”—in the final “totalization”? The clearest answer we receive from Sartre is in the response he makes to Valentini: “For me, the dialectic […] is not totality, but the ensemble of structures of a totalization in process…We are ourselves the beings who make the dialectic” (50-51). For Sartre, then, the forces of history are made flesh, because huan subjectivities actualize the larger conflicts in which human lives are embedded.

Does a Sartrean Marxism require the Kantian move Sartre makes in the practico-inert? This is a question with which the exchange leaves us. And perhaps more poignantly, is Sartre’s existentialism able to accommodate such a move?

Jean Wahl: Transcendence and the Concrete. Selected Writings

Transcendence and the Concrete. Selected Writings Book Cover Transcendence and the Concrete. Selected Writings
Perspectives in Continental Philosophy
Jean Wahl. Edited by Alan D. Schrift, and Ian Alexander Moore
Fordham University Press
Hardcover $125.00