March 31, 2011

Let's not be too condescending out there

Marquette professor of law and far-right media celebrity Rick Esenberg, who for whatever unknown reason decided to affirm pretty much everything I wrote here, tells your scribe to "go read Sartre."

I first read Sartre 30 years ago. While I have not read Being and Nothingness (who has*) I have read much of his fiction and his mordantly funny autobiography and any serious student of Sartre (which I am not) will tell you that the most effective exposition of Sartre's philosophy resides in his fiction. So maybe Prof. Esenberg should "go read" The Age of Reason (and keep "going" from there).

By the way I have enormous respect for Prof. Rick. He's extremely knowledgeable and he's actually a pretty good guy. It's his unseemly dalliances with the wing-nut element — who frequently laud** Prof. Rick's conclusions without bothering to investigate his premises or, as is sometimes the case, to identify his missing premises — where the respect collapses into great fun, not so much out of disrespect for Prof. Rick but rather for the dalliances and the wing-nuttery.

And the latter particular species of disrespect is not condescending because the wing-nut element begs for it continuously, so in a sense it's more correctly something of an act of generosity of spirit (not to mention an act of public service to the general political discourse).

* Other than masochists unsatisfied with reading Being and Time.

** See, e.g., Journal Communications' C. Sykes, P. McIlheran, et seq.


[Redacted] said...

I'm pretty well-versed in Sartre. In fact, I'm embarrassed to say I have read Being and Nothingness. You're not missing that much, and you're exactly right about Sartre's best philosophizing comes from his fiction. The Flies probably does a better job of summing up existentialist thought than just about any other work apart from Kierkegaard, except that Sartre and Kierkegaard would not at all be able to agree on the question of whether God exists.

Speaking for myself, I think Hell must have frozen over for Esenberg to be claiming to be some sort of expert on Sartre and quoting him favorably, particularly because Sartre was a committed atheist, Marxist, and existentialist. I'm fairly certain that Prof. Esenberg is none of those things. I also think bringing up Sartre in a political discussion that doesn't directly relate to personal freedom is a fruitless exercise. Sartre's best writing (i.e., his fiction, all had to do with personal freedom and the consequences of that freedom in the context of a universe where Dostoevsky's worry that without God "everything is permitted" is exactly accurate. His metaphysical writings are incredibly difficult, bordering on obscurantist*, and his political writings (it's generally agreed that he himself recognized this) were entirely incompatible with that doctrine of complete freedom. You simply can't reconcile the kind of Marxism that Sartre favored with that freedom. Hence why his remark that "class must be eliminated at all costs" is pretty much irrelevant to current study of Sartre. He doesn't have much interesting to say about politics.

*I think Being and Nothingness can go on a list of the most obviously obscurantist tracts in history along with Being and Time and a dishonorable mention for Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. Complain all you want about, say, Nietzsche, but at least he made what he was saying fairly easy to discern.

illusory tenant said...

Great comment, thanks. Somewhat relatedly, the most reverent film about Jesus Christ was produced by another committed atheist and Marxist and to top it all off, homosexual (tragically as it turns out).

gnarlytrombone said...

He did believe - at least at some points in his often incomprehensible oeuvre - that the proper ends justified the means

I'm not a fan, and Sartre can be rightly fingered with espousing all manner of extremist politics, but this is a gross oversimplification.

Sartre wasn't drawing upon Marxist consequentialism; he was drawing upon Kierkegaard's concept of committed action. And Kierkegaard, in turn, was drawing upon the Akeidat Yitzchak.

Incomprehensible, indeed.

illusory tenant said...

Forgot to say: The remark about eradicating class was in furtherance to the object of eradicating lies. Sartre's dramatic character had come to the conclusion that eradicating class was the only means of eradicating lies because class propagated lies and lies were ineradicable by any other means.

So we can disagree about the character's proposed means but the end seems at least arguably objectively noble (ask Justice Prosser lately).

gnarlytrombone said...

Gah. What R. said.

Sartre's dramatic character had come to the conclusion.

See that's the thing. I think Sartre and his forbears are asking us to consider whether such choices are rational or even ethical calculations.

Rick Esenberg said...

There is something a tad ironic in Tom accusing others of being snarky. For the record, I do not claim to be an expert on Sartre. The column wasn't about Sartre and I am not going to read any more Sartre. There would be no point. I am no longer a college sophomore trying to pick up girls at the union. I do think it's fair to characterize Sartre as - at least sometimes - arguing for a conflation of means and ends and of course the popular exposition of that phrase has come to stand for exactly that. The column was about turning a supreme court race into a referendum on Scott Walker and the budget repair bill.

illusory tenant said...

Sneering at a judge and a district attorney is not the same thing as engaging in standard internets snark.