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From Ontology to History. Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Timeline. 1943 – Publication of Being and Nothingness. 1945 – Liberation. Publication of Phenomenology of Perception. Les Temps Modernes founded. 1947 – Publication of Humanism and Terror.

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from ontology to history
From Ontology to History

Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty

  • 1943 – Publication of Being and Nothingness.
  • 1945 – Liberation. Publication of Phenomenology of Perception.Les Temps Modernes founded.
  • 1947 – Publication of Humanism and Terror.
  • 1949 – News begins to reach Western Europe regarding the scale of Soviet labour camps
  • 1950 – M-P writes ‘The USSR and the Camps’ to which Sartre gives his signature. Publication of The Communists and Peace. N. Korea invades S. Korea. M-P imposes political silence on LTM.
  • 1952 – Show trial and execution of Rudolf Slánský. Sartre attends Stalin-backed World Peace Conference in Vienna.
  • 1955 – Publication of The Adventures of the Dialectic
  • 1956 – Soviet invasion of Hungary.
  • 1958 – Algerian Crisis.
merleau ponty s political shift
Merleau-Ponty’s Political Shift
  • Humanism and Terror (1947)= deeply Marxist and deeply sympathetic to the USSR:“Considered closely, Marxism is not just any hypothesis which can be replaced tomorrow by some other. It is the simple statement of those conditions without which there would be neither humanism, in the sense of a reciprocal relation between men, nor any rationality in history. In this sense it is not a philosophy of history; it is the philosophy of history, and to give it up completely would be to strike out historical reason. After that there are no dreams or experiences.”
  • Adventures of the Dialectic (1955)= liberal, non-communist. Attacks Sartre and his ‘ultrabolshevism’:“History is not an external god, a hidden reason of which we need only record our conclusions.” “One historical solution of the human problem, one end of history could be conceived only if humanity were a thing to be known”“Historical epochs become ordered around a question of human possibilities rather than around an immanent solution of which history will be the result.”“Are you or are you not a Cartesian? The question does not make much sense since those who reject this or that in Descartes do so only in terms of reason which owe a lot to Descartes. We say that Marx is in the process of becoming such a secondary truth.” (Signs)
two ontologies of freedom sartre
Two Ontologies of Freedom: Sartre
  • Human existence must be understood purely in terms of negation. The human subject is fundamentally a lack of being. It identifies itself insofar as it is not the objects of its experiences. It is not a self. It is ‘être-pour-soi’.
  • Meanwhile, the material world and its objects are understood as an absolute plenum of being, a completely ossified ‘être-en-soi’. The pour-soi and the en-soi are thus in complete opposition. There is a fundamental bifurcation of being.
  • We can equate human freedom with this nothingness. Thus the fundamental truth of human existence is that we are absolute freedom. We exist beyond any situation in which we find ourselves and beyond any description of ourselves which involves the ascription of determinate properties. There is no meaning in the world which we did not put there in an act of free choice.Thus we are famously “condemned to be free”.
two ontologies of freedom merleau ponty
Two Ontologies of Freedom:Merleau-Ponty
  • Bifurcation of being into the for-itself and the in-itself is both unworkable and shown to be erroneous via phenomenological enquiry.
  • Appropriates Heidegger’s concept of ‘being-in-the-world’ (or existence) as the truth of human life.
  • We are of and in the world rather than being completely alien to it. Sinngebung is both centrifugal and centripetal.
  • Sartrean account in fact makes freedom unintelligible. If every instance of action is equally free, there is no background upon which the free act can be distinguished. The slave is as free in chains as in liberty.
  • There must be obstacles which we do not choose if there is to be something to do - there must be a situation or field. A kind of ‘sedimentation of life’. In contradistinction with Sartre, we are “condemned to meaning”.
B&N derives human relationships as intrinsically antagonistic as a consequence of ‘the gaze’ as the original form of experiencing the Other.

PhP argues that such relationships only occur on the basis of a pre-existent community between individuals.

class consciousness
‘Objectivist’ definition: An individual’s class is constituted by the obtaining of certain facts about his life. Defined from without.

Sartrean/Rationalist definition: An individual’s class is the result of an absolutely free choice which iscapable of transcending his situation.

Merleau-Ponty’s third way: becoming aware of oneself as belonging to a certain class is to understand the style of one’s ‘being-in-the-world’

Class consciousness
reconciling ourselves with history
Reconciling ourselves with History
  • Merleau-Ponty’s commitment to Marxism lasted only so long as Marxist thought seemed to conform with his own understanding of the ontology of human existence. His politics was inescapably connected with his Phenomenological philosophy.
  • World events revealed Marxism as inherently impaled on the same dualisms as more abstract philosophies, leaving its advocates into increasingly absurd positions of historical determinism (PCF) or utopian revolutionary fantasies in which each individual chooses his own principles (Sartre).
  • Merleau-Ponty was always opposed to both sides of such a dualism, as we can see in his conception of history and the past as an ‘ambiguous presence’, a structure of intersubjective experience:“The true Waterloo resides neither in what Fabrice nor the Emperor nor the historian sees, it is not a determinable object, it is what comes about on the fringes of all perspectives.” (PhP)
  • The failure of Marxism pushes this understanding of history further, to a rejection of any kind of teleology in history – no end of history. This is arguably more a rejection of Hegel than Marx. Regardless, he no longer understands Marxist theory as separable from Marxist practice.
  • Thus he takes up a Weberian, noncommunist understanding of history as a staggeringly complex nexus:“history does not have a direction like a river, but a meaning” (AD).