‘Existentialism’ has long been held as a concept of contention. It has been used as a buzzword for bleakness, and a synonym for pessimism. Despite its misuse within popular culture, it has also been employed as an umbrella term to denote a philosophical movement. The conflation of this concept has led to a legacy of confusion regarding precisely that which constitutes existential thought, and who ought to be considered as an existentialist. Even much of the secondary literature has failed to provide a comprehensive definition of ‘existentialism’. Instead, we are often offered a constitutive list of themes which ‘existentialists’ supposedly share in common, such as nihilism, absurdity, and authenticity. It is precisely this linguistic ambiguity that causes Jonathan Webber to rethink existentialism, and that which he sets about dispelling. In the first chapter, he begins by discarding the outdated interpretations which actively incorporate non-philosophers, and those who rejected this label. Instead, Webber offers a carefully considered account, defining existentialism in accordance with the Sartrean maxim ‘existence precedes essence’. It is from this standpoint that Webber takes the reader on a journey of rethinking ‘existentialism’.
Webber begins to clear the confusion by demonstrating why the label ‘existentialist’ should not be applied to certain associated thinkers. In the second chapter, Webber addresses the misattribution of Camus to the inner circle. Here it is illustrated that Camus rejects the central tenants of existentialism, and that the disagreement between Sartre and Camus is a consequence of their subsequent philosophical stances. Another thinker who was initially associated with existentialism, but whom Webber demonstrates to be on the periphery, is Maurice Merleau-Ponty. In chapter three, Webber depicts Merleau-Ponty’s divergence in terms of his criticism of Sartre’s concept of radical freedom and Beauvoir’s defence that Merleau-Ponty has misunderstood Sartre. Although Webber does an excellent job of disentangling the intellectual connections between these theorists, one would appreciate further elucidation as to why additional thinkers ought to be excluded. Whilst Webber focused his attention on the development of existentialism in post-war France, there are two further thinkers who could have been addressed. Gabriel Marcel, for example, released his Philosophy of Existentialism in 1946, and Jacques Maritain published his Existence and Existent in 1947. As contemporaries of Sartre and self-proclaimed existentialists (at least initially) it would be interesting to see how they fit into Webber’s narrative.
In the positive phase of his project, Webber sets about determining who ought to be included. Until recently, Simone de Beauvoir has been believed to be without philosophical merit. The reason for overlooking her intellectual prowess is often attributed to her own rejection of the label ‘philosopher’ and referral to Sartre as the brains behind their project. Webber takes this to task in chapter four, where he demonstrates that Beauvoir articulates the existential ideal ‘existence precedes essence’ within her metaphysical novel She Came to Stay. Moreover, that the account which Beauvoir presents contains the concept of ‘commitment’ which presents a significant development upon Sartre’s theory of mind. Within chapter eight, a further important, and unexpected, contribution which Webber makes, is to include Frantz Fanon within the existentialist camp. Webber argues that within Black Skin, White Masks Fanon can be seen to ground his theory on the definition of existentialism insofar as he rejects that there is any essential difference between black people and white people. That is, for Fanon the belief that black people are inferior is caused by the sedimentation of a negative cultural representation in the collective consciousness. This is shown to make a significant development from Sartre’s own attempt to explain racial prejudice in terms of bad faith in Anti-Semite and the Jew.
Although Webber defines existentialism in accordance with the maxim ‘existence precedes essence’, he notes that Sartre and Beauvoir initially disagreed upon what this concept entailed. In this way, he maps the development of the definition amongst the advocates themselves. Whilst Sartre is usually considered to be synonymous with existentialism, Webber illustrates that Sartre’s early work is flawed in terms of addressing the problem of absurdity. By tracing the development of Sartre’s thought, Webber shows that Sartre later comes to adopt Beauvoir’s position to reach the mature position where his version of existentialism corresponds to those of Beauvoir and Fanon in terms of their respective concepts of commitment. Having illustrated the various stages in the development of the concept of existentialism, Webber differentiates these forms, which includes Sartre’s early approach, from what he terms the canonical account. Existentialism proper, for Webber, entails that there is no predetermined nature, and that one’s essence is formed through the sedimentation of projects. The canonical accounts of existentialism, according to Webber, are represented by Beauvoir’s Second Sex, Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, and Sartre’s Saint Genet.
The ethical ideal espoused by existentialism is ‘authenticity’ and which is a response to absurdity. Sartre and Fanon are shown to offer eudaimonian arguments for authenticity, which suggests that the desire for authenticity emerges in relation to the realisation that inauthenticity leads to psychological distress. However, Webber notes that Sartre’s and Fanon’s accounts of authenticity fail to sufficiently overcome the issue of absurdity because they cannot address the meta-ethical problem of the grounding of normativity. Although Sartre appears to be at the centre of attention at the beginning of the book, it is Beauvoir who emerges as the hero of absurdity, insofar as she is shown to present the most fully articulated account of authenticity. Beauvoir’s concept of authenticity is shown to be supported by the categorical imperative that we should not value any ends which conflict with the value of human nature. Throughout the text, Webber refers to the ‘virtue of authenticity’, however, he does not explain why we ought to conceive of authenticity as a virtue. It is also difficult to understand the way in which authenticity could be construed as a virtue. If in relation eudaimonia, it does not make sense to refer to authenticity as a virtue because eudaimonia is not a virtue for Aristotle, but the end which the virtues lead to. Again, on the Kantian account, virtues are ends which are also duties, but it is questionable whether a way of life could be considered authentic if we have a duty to live in that particular way. Thus, clarity regarding that which is meant by ‘virtue of authenticity’ would be appreciated in avoiding any such confusion.
Webber makes a number of interesting observations and insights within his book. Whilst existentialism is often thought to be at odds with Freudian psychoanalysis, it is demonstrated that this is not the case. In chapter five, it is argued on the contrary that existentialism in fact falls within the Freudian tradition. Although Freud’s account appeals to innate drives, and the existentialists reject the idea of a predetermined essential-self, Webber illustrates that there is no contradiction, but instead a sustained engagement with Freud in attempting to overcome the Cartesian subject. In chapter six, Webber offers an original interpretation of Sartre’s play No Exit. The standard interpretation is that since ‘hell is other people’, we ought to prefer our own image of ourselves as opposed to that projected upon us by other people. Webber, however, claims that the real moral of the play is that bad faith inevitably impairs our relations with others. In each of these chapters, Webber offers interesting insights which make original contributions to the literature. However, with regards to the overall aim of defining a canonical account of existentialism, neither of these chapters seem directly related.
In the final chapter, Webber brings his analysis to a close by discussing the future direction of existentialism. In particular, he illustrates the practicality of his canonical account and the impact that it could have upon interdisciplinary exchange. Namely, he portrays what experimental science can learn from a more refined account of existentialism, and that this will enable existential-infused approaches to develop further. Although psychoanalytic approaches which have been built upon Sartre’s concept of radical freedom are subject to the same criticism as Sartre, Webber claims this field could undergo a revival were it to instead be built upon the theory of commitment. Webber also notes that there are further lessons which can be learnt from existentialism. Whilst certain insights have been confirmed by experimental psychology, other claims, such as Fanon’s suggestion that psychiatric problems stem from the internalisation of stereotypes by the victim, remain unexplored. Thus, not only does Webber provides us with an analytically satisfactory account of existentialism, but also demonstrates the benefits possessing a more accurately defined theory.
The current political landscape has been marked by the sustained engagement with race and gender discourse. One can hardly open a newspaper, or read a social media news-feed without encountering a story about gender wage gaps, for example, or racism within first world countries. Whilst much philosophy remains decisively abstract in terms of application, Webber demonstrates how existential philosophers, such as Beauvoir and Fanon, engage with these very issues. In this respect, Rethinking Existentialism is a timely text which demonstrates the contemporary relevance of existential philosophy. Moreover, Webber’s book is lucidly written, and composed in an accessible manner which navigates both the personal relationships between theorists, and the development of their thoughts. Rather than individual sections which trace the trajectory of each theorist’s isolated intellectual development, Webber presents an interwoven account, articulating the development of particular existentialist figures in relation to one another. Whilst other authors confuse and conflate existentialism and existentialists, Webber clears the rubble piled-up and built upon by previous commentators. Webber provides elucidation and a clearing for those with an obscured view of existentialism, and a fresh and coherent perspective for those first approaching the subject. In this way, Webber’s Rethinking Existentialism is not only essential reading for anyone interested in existentialism, but the only book one needs.
The “Social Imaginaries” series from Rowman and Littlefield International aims to publish important works on this and related concepts “from theoretical, comparative, historical, and interdisciplinary perspectives” and with an “international, multi-regional and interdisciplinary scope.”[i] The present volume focuses more narrowly on thinkers its editors see as having provided the basis for philosophical discussions of productive imagination, specifically the continental tradition following Kant (vii). This focus is not meant to be exclusive but rather supportive of diversity and further original inquiries (xii). With this goal in mind, the volume indeed offers eight helpful, well-researched essays; and we may hope that this strong foundation will spark future studies meeting the more global aspirations above.
This review will outline what I see as the central arguments of each of the essays. My goals are to reveal the broader lines of their interconnected narrative and then to indicate a few potentially fruitful avenues for future research suggested by the volume.
One of the volume’s most sweeping essays is its first one, Dmitri Nikulin’s “What is Productive Imagination?” Nikulin situates the modern concept of imagination within the grand history of Western ideas, from the Greeks to German idealism. Aristotle’s imagination, defined as the capacity to have an “apparition of a thing in the absence of that thing,” plays a central role in this narrative (3). Even so, Nikulin notes that Aristotle leaves the imagination’s powers dependent on prior perceptions, and thus his view contrasts with the Kantian imagination’s potential apriority and spontaneity (4). Nevertheless, even for Kant imagination remains doubly dependent: it is bound to sensibility insofar it must offer presentations within the predefined formats of spatial and temporal intuitions; and it is bound to understanding insofar as it constructs figures or schemata within the constraints of the a priori categories (4-5). If the former constraint links Kant to Aristotle, the latter reveals some similarity to Proclus, for whom the imagination adapts the intelligible, Platonic forms to finite thinking (6). In either sense, however, Kant’s imagination, even in his aesthetics, ultimately serves to harmonize other faculties: understanding and the senses. Thus, its spontaneity is always contained by rational norms and the receptive capacities of the subject; it has no completely independent status (11).
Even so, the imagination has a strong grip over us precisely because it can actively overlook its essential dependency. Thus, Nikulin speaks of the imagination as having a “negative” power to deny its sources (14). In this respect, imagination’s supposed originality must be hedged: “imagination imagines that it produces something new” (14, my emphasis). It creates a pretention to positive creativity, even though it is really a “radical negativity” (14). This pretension appeared dangerous to Kant, whose arguments restricted even creative genius to the mere exemplification of rules; absolute creativity he reserved for the idea of God (14).[ii] As later thinkers tried increasingly to free imagination from this Kantian dependency, they steadily severed its link with experience and thus lost the vital relationship between imagination and memory (19).
Two questions come to mind in light of Nikulin’s compelling conceptual history. First, its caution against severing the link with memory is related to Nikulin’s broader point that imagination somehow renders “non-being” (i.e. what does not presently exist) present for us. In Nikulin’s account, however, “non-being” carries the significance of the past, the has-been, or the no-longer (20). In this sense, the question of the imagination’s relation to hope and to futural “non-being” could be raised. I will return to this avenue later, as it is suggested by other contributors.
Second, Nikulin’s stage-setting essay displays the broadly European focus of the volume, with few references beyond that scope. Additional avenues thus appear for research on non-European conceptions of imagination or its analogues. Likewise, within the broader canon, future research could explore the medieval adaptation of the Aristotelian phantasm, and especially its history in Islamic thought. For even the European reception of Aristotle and Proclus is heavily mediated through the Islamic tradition (e.g. al-Kindī on prophecy and dreams; Ibn Sīnā’s explicit distinction of estimation from imagination and his widespread use of imaginal thought experiments; Ibn Tufail’s use of fictional narrative; Ibn Arabi’s “nondelimited imagination”; and so on).
Kant’s importance in the history of productive imagination is of course clear as well, and Alfredo Ferrarin’s essay defends the importance of Kant’s liberation of imagination from its previous role of copying contingent events of sensibility. Imagination now “moves about idealizations and conjectures formulated in deliberately counterintuitive ways, transforms things into possibilities until we establish an invariant core, and plans experiments to verify conjectures” (33). Its emergence in philosophy is thus linked historically with the emergence of the scientific method (32). This link likewise explains why Ferrarin warns us not to confuse Kant’s scientific “productive imagination” with the truly social-ethical “practical imagination,” which is only hinted at in Kant. The practical imagination aims not at understanding objects but at instituting practical end-goals. In the latter we find no “split between independent reality and likeness” as we do in the former (38). (Ferrarin mentions cases such as the constantly reinstituted social meanings of, e.g., bank notes, temples, marriage, and traffic rules.) In general, Ferrarin emphasizes that the practical imagination enables us to grasp alternative practical possibilities; it reveals “the gap between being and possibility, fact and ideal, real and possible” (38). Thus, imagination is necessary for a social critique capable of proposing new norms, in the sense Ernst Bloch and Castoriadis recognized (39). Ferrarin’s essay is thus essential for understanding the way the term “imaginary” is often used in critical theory and practical philosophy and how these development differ from Kant’s scientific imagination. That said, Ferrarin does suggest that Kant’s aesthetics—and other contributors concur regarding other aspects of later Kant—offers hints of the practical imaginary (45).
Moving the narrative from Kant to German romanticism, Laura S. Carugati argues that we move there from an “ontogonic” to a “cosmogonic” use of imagination (52). In other words, for figures like Novalis, Schleiermacher, and Schlegel, imagination provides the basic framework or “horizon” for the experience of objects, rather than merely prefiguring the particular objects we perceive. In Schlegel, this shift liberates the imagination from the aforementioned Kantian norms; and hence Carugati highlights Schlegel’s claim that “because imagination won’t let itself be linked to the world of things […], it can function in a free and independent manner, according to its own laws” (54). Similarly, in Novalis, “to romanticize” becomes an active, imaginal engagement aiming to unite the poles of the various Kantian dualisms (55). The resultant synthesis, known as “art,” is not a mere product or thing but rather a life-structuring “event” (57). Arts, as engagements in imagination, do not merely imitate or reproduce but rather “discover or institute an ordering principle that shapes the original chaos into a romanticized world” (57). In a sense, then, even the Kantian divide between human productivity and divine creativity gets mediated here; art and reality become indistinguishable.
We may note at this point the helpful coherency of the volume’s narrative as it places each figure in conversation with contemporaries and predecessors. This historically informed narrative is again supported by Angelica Nuzzo’s compelling contribution on German idealism. She defends the centrality of productive imagination not only in Fichte and Schelling (where it plays an explicitly important role) but also in Hegel, where the textual evidence for its centrality is much less prevalent. Nuzzo claims that “Hegelian spirit is informed by the Kantian notion of productivity proper to the imagination of the genius,” albeit in a way that gets “extended beyond the aesthetic realm, and thereby deeply transformed” (73). Imagination moves from a merely subjective role into an absolute role as “self-actualizing conceptuality” (77).
Nuzzo’s argument could be reconstructed into four steps. First, Kant’s third Critique suggests that imagination is schöpferisch (and perhaps not merely exhibitive of aesthetic ideas); it creates “another nature” from the given nature of the senses (74). Second, Fichte notices and radicalizes this creativity, such that imagination produces even the “material for representation” (74). And this productivity, Nuzzo argues, is equated by Fichte with Geist. Third, Schelling renders the imagination productive not only of representation but also of the actuality of things themselves, thus giving it the absolute role Kant had reserved for intellectual intuition (71). Finally, fourth, Hegel appropriates but reworks and reverses this “absolute” productive imagination. Certainly, on the one hand, Nuzzo acknowledges that the Encyclopedia subordinates imagination to a merely subjective moment of spirit (76). But this subordination does not stop Hegel, she argues, from adopting exactly the productivity highlighted by the preceding idealists’ account of imagination. Thus, on the other hand, the Phenomenology and Logic, she argues, adapt this very productivity to the role of a self-producing absolute, with the caveat that, contra Schelling, its truth is now said to be revealed only in the end of its development. For Hegel, “no absolute identity, absolute indifference, or absolute creation out of nothing […] can be placed as the beginning-origin of an immanent discursive process” (77). Instead, for Hegel, “the logical determination process is immanently and successively articulated toward ever more complex determinations up to the ‘absolute idea’ that makes the end” (78).
While Nuzzo’s thesis might sound extra-textual, it is in fact very closely defended with links between Hegel’s texts and those of Kant and Fichte. And if we remember that she aims merely to show that “some fundamental characters of the productive imagination […] become constitutive traits of Hegel’s own notion of Geist” (77, my emphasis), then we should be, I believe, persuaded, despite the relative non-centrality of the vocabulary of “productive imagination” in Hegel. Nuzzo’s contribution is likewise essential to this volume insofar as it defends a narrative leading into Hegel that can help clarify our persistent suspicion that there are Hegel-like traces in later concepts often referred to under the broad label of “social imaginary.”
The conversation within German thought continues with Rudolph A. Makkreel’s essay on Dilthey. Whereas Kant’s aesthetic imagination helps us shift from narrow, personal experiences of pleasure to universal judgments of taste, Dilthey similarly thinks that imagination can broaden us and test “how local commonalities relate to universally accepted truths” (92). This broadening occurs partly through what Dilthey calls the “typifying imagination.” Artists, for example, can “articulate” felt connections pervasive in an era by exemplifying them into figures, characters, or events (87). Whereas thinking produces concepts, imagination “produces types” (95). And whereas the historian’s imagination merely fills in gaps and supplies coherency, the artist’s has more freedom (e.g. in fiction, painting, etc.). With artworks, we experience their “typicality” not when we understand something generic about them (like norms) nor when we look at particular, material qualities. Rather, for Dilthey, the typicality of an artwork its “distinctive style.” For example: “The style of a Cézanne painting cannot be intuitively defined by the visible lines and colors […]. Style is an inner form that can only be imaginatively captured by following out the intense interplay of the angular and curved shapes that Cézanne projects into our medial horizon of vision” (96).
With respect to this “inner form,” important for Makkreel is Dilthey’s shift from an earlier view arguing that it is discovered through personal introspection, to a later, non-psychologistic, and more contextualized view that the “feelings of a composer like Beethoven are musical from the start and exist in a tonal world” (99). That is, we must be conversant with a broader system of perspectives and facts (as seen “from without”) in order to understand ourselves or others (101). In this sense, Dilthey accepts the Hegelian concept of objective spirit, with the qualification that his rendition of spirit is nothing that “submerges individuals and regulates human interaction in the overall course of world history” but rather is a “locally definable ‘medium of commonalities’ that nurtures each of us ‘from earliest childhood’” (101). The best way to think about such local “artistic medial contexts” is to consider particular examples: “Beethoven cannot but think of Haydn and Mozart when composing a quartet while also striving to chart his own path” (102). Grasping these larger constellations of sense requires tapping into an imagination that “goes beyond reality in such a way as to illuminate it” (85).
This point about the imagination’s power to “go beyond reality” opens up some important avenues for research on additional figures whose inquiries emphasize similar functions. We might think of Feuerbach’s imagination, with its power to alienate us through negating our dependency and this-worldly finitude. This critical route would of course lead into discussions of Marx and Freud but also through Husserl into Sartre’s early works, which contain, as in Dilthey, more positive valences regarding this “going beyond.” In Sartre, for example, beauty is said to be “a value that can only ever be applied to the imaginary and that carries the nihilation of the world in its essential structure.”[iii] Using the very example of Beethoven, he argues that “the performance of the Seventh Symphony […] can be manifested only through analogons that are dated and that unfurl in our time. But in order to grasp it on these analogons, it is necessary to operate the imaging reduction, which is to say, apprehend precisely the real sounds as analogons.”[iv] Sartre thus engages with two themes central to this volume, namely imagination’s link to non-being and, as in Dilthey (and later in Ricoeur), its helpful role in revealing the world through an “as”-structure.
Next, breaking the train of German thought is Nicolas de Warren’s essay on Flaubert’s diagnosis of human self-deception (as interpreted by Jules de Gaultier). The essay proposes a valuable distinction between productive imagination and creative, novelistic imagination (106). With the productive side we imagine ourselves as something other than what we are and thus become self-deceptive. The creative side, by contrast, which is manifest in the novelist’s art, allows us to perceive the self-deception without falling prey to it. The artist’s perception “becomes a truthful mirror of the world by virtue of the imagination’s power of magnification, or modification, which renders visible what remains otherwise invisible” (113). The novelist shares in a kind of “pure perception,” i.e. an “absorption” in the world rather than a scientific “possession” of an object (113). This pure perception generates the novel almost as a by-product and allows an adult to learn that she falsely “pursues a notion of herself for which neither she nor the world affords” (123). Such false images are not merely epistemically worrisome, as de Warren clarifies, since they also impact the world of our desires, as when a person “makes the world around her boring in order to despise the world even more so as to serve as propellant for an even more vengeful and intense abandonment to the imaginary” (129).
De Warren’s essay brings to mind two avenues. First, his essay links self-deception to productive imagination’s power to deny what we are. Flaubert’s characters are shown to succumb “to the universal fiction of striving to be what one is not, and not being what one desires to be” (107). That said, other contributors raise the prospect of finding positive value in imagination’s penchant for proposing non-extant alternatives, i.e. ones worth striving for. Hence, de Warren’s essay raises the question: Could there be a good version of “striving to be what one is not, and not being what one desires to be”?
Second, de Warren’s essay could perhaps be read as an alternative account of what René Girard refers to as Flaubert’s “novelistic truth.”[v] Certainly, Girard’s and de Warren’s readings agree that “truthful forms of fiction” helpfully reveal the dangers of self-deceit and self-imposed insatiability (110). But a difference may reside in whether we think the novelist’s deliverance from self-deception stems from what de Warren emphasizes or what Girard claims. De Warren emphasizes that deliverance is achieved through the novelist’s share in pure perception, or an engagement with the world prior to and free from socially-influenced self-images. On this reading, the problem behind self-deception is that the “spontaneity of an individual’s self-shaping personality” has become “reduced to a condition of mimetic inertness” in our society (112). Self-deception consists in a person concealing from herself the fact that “she is the author of her own fate” (124). By contrast, on Girard’s reading, Flaubert unmasks precisely as self-deceit one’s belief that one is the unmediated, pre-social author of desires, i.e. desires that would be valid simply because they are one’s own. Under the sway of such a belief one fails to see that one’s desires are always mediated through imitation of others’ desires. The novel offers deliverance in that it allows us to see through the vanity of the “romantic lie” and to critically recognize our own interdependency. Hence, if I understand them correctly, these readings not only differ but pull in opposite directions. I should state that I am not unsympathetic per se to either reading of Flaubert; rather, it is the prospect of a dialogue that strikes me as a fruitful avenue to pursue.
As for an important dialogue that is explored in this volume, Saulius Geniusas reviews the Cassirer-Heidegger encounter at Davos. Geniusas frames the debate as hinging only overtly on divergent interpretations of imagination in Kant. On Cassirer’s reading, the productive imagination is formed and contextualized by its share in an independent understanding and reason; for Heidegger, reason is formed and contextualized by the finitely situated productive imagination (138). But the deeper issue between them, argues Geniusas (agreeing with Peter E. Gordon), concerns their basically divergent philosophies, including their views on moral freedom. Cassirer thinks imagination’s share in reason allows it spontaneity and the power to step back from any finite dwelling. Fundamentally “homeless,” we can use our imaginations to “trespass the boundaries of […] merely natural existence and enter into the domain culture,” where we construct an infinite variety of cultural modes of existence (140). For Heidegger, by contrast, the productive imagination defines our existential-temporal mode of receptivity to a world and thus marks us—in both our knowledge and action—as essentially finite. Cassirer, Heidegger thinks, lacks a fundamental ontology of the supposedly fully spontaneous being who “enters into” cultural constellations; he suggests Cassirer’s view would merely define humanity through studies of different cultural—and merely ontic—contexts (139). Cassirer would thus (re)create “the ‘They’ world and the deeper forgetfulness of one’s ontological roots” (140). In response, Cassirer thinks Heidegger’s basic mistake is to refuse the independence of reason, as a source of imagination’s freedom, from finite imagination and intuition. This refusal, argues Cassirer, implies the impossibility of genuine moral autonomy or the universality of ethics in Kant’s sense (147).
Certainly, as Geniusas shows, Heidegger and Cassirer attain a kind of nominal agreement on some broad issues, e.g. that productive imagination “produces the transcendental horizons of sense, the operational fields, or the modes of vision, which predetermine human experience” (150). But their basic trajectories, argues Geniusas, are in the last analysis “fundamentally different” (151). Cassirer’s view leads him to emphasize the constructive possibilities of a humanity drawing guidance from reason, while Heidegger emphasizes the need, in his own words, for a “destruction of the former foundation of Western metaphysics in reason (spirit, logos, reason)” (151). Even if Geniusas might not persuade some who see Cassirer and Heidegger as compatible, his essay does provide a clear statement of how the deeper projects of each thinker determine their overt disagreements over Kant.
In the volume’s final essay, George H. Taylor mines Paul Ricoeur’s broader corpus for a thesis on imagination moving beyond his merely explicit views. His explicit views emphasize the power of productive versus merely reproductive imagination and show how the former allows us to understand images separately from any concept of originals. This inquiry then helps us grasp how fictions can be efficacious in altering reality (159). As for Ricoeur’s more implicit views on imagination, Taylor draws on texts from the 1970s and 80s to highlight the concept of “figuration,” a term avoiding merely visual connotations and allowing Ricoeur to analyze metaphor (167). In epistemology, the concept of figuration expands on Kant’s suggestion of an ever-present, “common root” between understanding and sensibility. It implies that reality is only ever given as already saturated with “symbolic” mediation (166). “We do not see; we see as—as the icon, as the figure” (170). Similarly, Taylor finds a parallel role for figuration in Ricoeur’s view of human action: no action is just physical motion; each act always points to or modifies some extant role or another (166). These twin “as”-structures thus always mediate for us between sense and concept, or between deeds and their narration (165). Since there is thus no mode of human life without figuration’s various modes, we can never fully leave behind what Hegel calls “picture thinking” (173). All modes of thought or action occur on the backdrop of an already instituted and “readable” world (171).
In this respect, Taylor’s essay points to a question we have already raised. Several contributions caution against the dangers of denying a connection with one’s past or of losing the link between imagination and memory. Yet it is likewise true that what will arise anew for (and from) each of us tomorrow “is not” as of today but rather, if it indeed comes to be, will emerge tomorrow with an unparalleled uniqueness (at least in some stratum of its emergent reality). Does not the human tendency to overlook the newness in each historical moment (emerging in some sense from “non-being”) constitute a distinct danger, alongside that of forgetting the sedimented nature of the meanings and roles we adopt? While this volume does at times speak to this concern, it refrains—perhaps for the best—from lingering on it or on the metaphysical quandaries involved in references to non-being and creativity. On this issue, interested readers might thus benefit from a sister volume in the “Social Imaginaries,” i.e. the analysis of the Ricoeur-Castoriadis debate.[vi] Taylor, it should be mentioned, also helpfully contributed there.
Done and to be Done
As I have indicated, the merits of this volume are clear. It offers a valuable combination of introductory guidance and original theses. It contains helpful clarifications of how philosophical concepts develop through inter-philosophical dialogue but also in conversation with the arts. It likewise opens avenues for exploring the grand, metaphysical question of human creativity in history. If we approach it aware of its deliberate focus on the Kantian and continental tradition, we will see that its chapters develop a coherent “conceptual history” of a core moment in philosophy. We thus have reason to hope that it will achieve its goal of enabling broader studies on productive imagination. And as it stands, this volume’s essays—appropriate to the productivity they investigate—already instantiate one of the volumes frequent themes: human creativity arises in and with a community of contributors, both extant ones and ones hoped for.
[i] “Social Imaginaries,” Rowman & Littlefield International, last accessed: July 24, 2018: https://www.rowmaninternational.com/our-publishing/series/social-imaginaries/.
[ii] Apart from its emphasis on imagination’s mere negativity, we may note the proximity of Nikulin’s account to the thesis of Cornelius Castoriadis’ essay, “The Discovery of the Imagination” (from 1978; in World in Fragments: Writings on Politics, Society, Psychoanalysis, and the Imagination, ed. David A. Curtis, Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1997). Castoriadis argues that fear of imagination’s creativity has led philosophers to attribute the truly instituting power not to us but to other beings (e.g. ancestors, gods, God, nature, etc.). Both Nikulin and Castoriadis seem to me to echo, somewhat divergently, Heidegger’s reading of Kant as having discovered but later denied the radical implications of productive imagination.
[iii] Jean-Paul Sartre, The Imaginary: A Phenomenological Psychology of the Imagination, trans. Jonathan Webber, London and New York: Routledge, 2004, p. 193.
[iv] Sartre, Imaginary, 193.
[v] René Girard, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure, trans. Yvonne Freccero, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1965.
[vi] See Suzi Adams (ed.), Ricoeur and Castoriadis in Discussion: On Human Creation, Historical Novelty, and the Social Imaginary, London and New York: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2017.
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?