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journal of speculative philosophy, vol. 26, no. 2, 2012

Copyright 2012 The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA
Toward the Concrete
Thomas R. Flynn
emory university
While I was a graduate student at Columbia during the interesting years
of 196870, Lucien Goldmann of Le Dieu Cach fame was a guest professor
(in sociology and French, to be sure, not in philosophy).
I attended his
course on Sartres theater in the Department of French. One day out of the
blue, Goldmann asked the class when existentialism began. What a curious
question, I thought. Is he looking for Pascal, or Augustine, or perhaps even
Socrates? He relieved our silence with 1910, which turned out to be the
year that Lukcs published Soul and Form.
Goldmann was a great admirer
of Gergy Lukcs.
There are a lot of possibilities for the starting date of existentialism,
whether it be Karl Jasperss expounding Eksistenzphilosophie (1938) or his
even earlier conversation with his friend Erich Frank about Kierkegaard
(July 1914).
One might cite Gabriel Marcels calling Sartre an existential-
ist at one of his jeudis chez Marcel, where the younger philosophical
equivalent of le Tout-Paris used to gather to philosophize and network.
But regardless of the chronology, one of the books that had a directive
effect on the existentialist movementone that I think captured its spirit
and drivewas Jean Wahls Vers le concret, subtitled Studies in the History
anniversary sessions: then and now
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anniversary sessions 248
of Contemporary Philosophy (1932).
Not only did it impress both Sartre and
Beauvoir, who referred to it several times in their writings, but it seemed
to have focused their attention and that of others seeking a new philosophy
to address the contingency of our concrete existence as opposed to what
Sartre called the digestive neo-Kantian idealism of their Sorbonne
professors. Not coincidentally, Wahls study discussed the philosophies
of Alfred North Whitehead, William James, and Gabriel Marcel. Of the
many candidates for the distinguishing feature of existentialist philosophy,
I would propose this pursuit of the concrete. Certainly, Sartres attraction
to Husserlian phenomenology was motivated by this concern. Recall
Beauvoirs story of his discovering Husserlian phenomenology upon
Raymond Arons assurance that it would enable him to make philosophy
out of his perception of the apricot cocktail glass before them. Whatever
one thinks of this tale, it is clear that the organization and exposition of
Being and Nothingness, as Joseph Catalano has pointed out, was geared to
rendering ontologically possible an existential psychoanalysis that in turn
would issue in the existential biographies of Baudelaire, Malarm, Genet,
and, above all, his multivolume study of Gustave Flaubert, The Family
Idiot. These are all attempts to grasp what Sartre would subsequently call
the singular universal, in effect, the concrete. In the same vein, Marcel
entitled one of the essays in his Creative Fidelity An Outline of a Concrete
Philosophy (1940).
Mention of Whitehead, James, and Marcel is not coincidental. The
migration of French and more broadly European existentialism to our
shores was eased by a Pragmatism that softened the Yankee suspicion of
abstractions and also fostered by process philosophy, with its critique of
the fallacy of misplaced concreteness and its openness to a more uid
metaphysics. Im not saying that there was an easy exchange among prag-
matists, process philosophers, and existentialists. Some of the problems
are exhibited in the fallout of John Wildes move from the Metaphysical
Society of America (MSA), which was not only neo-Aristotelian but pro-
cessive under the direction of its founder and Wilds Yale colleague, Paul
Weiss. It would be interesting to know what their conversations, if any,
might have been while on the same campus. As someone who straddles
membership in both the MSA and the Society for Phenomenology and
Existential Philosophy (SPEP) to this day, I recall hearing that Wild, whose
work I respected under both descriptions, was especially harsh on his
former friends at the MSA once he left their company.
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existentialism 249
Existential Philosophy Then
As Robert Scharff pointed out in the opening session of our commemora-
tive celebration, there was something signicant at stake in the insistence
on the expression Existential Philosophy rather than Existentialism
in the title of SPEP at its inception. It had to do with the frequent dis-
missal of existentialism as a purely cultural phenomenon, the expression of
postwar Left Bank anguish and narcissism. In fact, even an admired former
colleague and distinguished phenomenologist once spoke rather ironically
about fellow phenomenologists splashing about in the Lifeworld! When
teaching the subject, I have long seen my task as showing the students that
existentialism is a philosophical movement with literary applications rather
than a literary movement with philosophical pretensions. That Sartres
Nausea and Camuss The Stranger and The Plague are philosophical novels
is beyond doubt. And that the authors of each were awarded the Nobel Prize
for Literature is a matter of record (of course, Sartre turned his down). But
the power of what Aristotle called the well formed phantasm to generate
a concept or better, a Hegelian Begriff was never lost on Kierkegaard,
Nietzsche, Marcel, or Sartre, all of whom I would call philosophers of the
imaginary. When criticized for presenting his plays in the bourgeois cen-
ter of the city rather than in venues on the proletarian periphery, Sartre
replied: No bourgeois can leave a presentation of one of my plays without
having thought thoughts traitorous to his class. An example of what
Sren Kierkegaard called oblique communication, this is an instance of
concrete thinking. But it is this close association of existential thought with
its imaginative expression that renders it suspect in some circles, where
the preference is for the silhouette rather than the impressionist portrait.
If one read French, German, or Italian in the 1940s and 1950s, there
were several introductory, survey studies of existentialist thought available
prior to the founding of SPEP in 1961. Examples include Luigi Pareysons
Studi sull esistenzialismo (1943), Otto Bulnows Deutsche Existenzphilosophie
(1953), and Jean Wahl, Les Philosophies de lexistence (1954). Bibliographies
were appearing in several languages:
J. Grard, A. de Waelhens, and J. Lemeere, Bibliographie sur
lexistentialism, Revue international de philosophie, July 1949, with
an addendum on Italian works on existentialism in the same revue,
October 1949;
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Jean Wahl, A Short History of Existentialism (1949); and
R. H. Brown, Existentialism. A Bibliography, Modern Schoolman
31 (November 1953).
Quite a number of books and essays on existentialist themes began to
appear in the mid-1940s and 1950s. Among the earliest studies in English
was Aron Gurwitschs A Non-egological Conception of Consciousness,
in the rst volume of Philosophy and Phenomenological Research (1941).
Parenthetically, we should not neglect what could be called the Buffalo
school of Continental thought, where that journal continues to be pub-
lished, or Marvin Farber of that faculty, who edited Philosophic Thought in
France and the United States (1950). See also the following:
William Barrett, What Is Existentialism? (1947);
Emmanuel Mounier, Existentialist Philosophies (1948);
Marjorie Green, Dreadful Freedom (1948);
A Critical Bibliography of Existentialism (the Parisian School),
special issue of Yale French Studies (1950);
Helmut Kuhn, Encounter with Nothingness (1951);
H. J. Blackham, Six Existentialist Thinkers (1951);
Maurice Natanson, A Critique of Jean-Paul Sartres Ontology (1951);
Kurt Reinhardt, The Existentialist Revolt (1952);
James Collins, The Existentialists (1952);
E. L. Allen, Existentialism from Within (1953);
Iris Murdoch, Sartre: Romantic Rationalist (1953);
Wilfred Desan, The Tragic Finale (1954);
John Wild, The Challenge of Existentialism (1955);
Walter Kaufmann, Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre (1956); and
William Barrett, Irrational Man (1958).
Herbert Spiegelberg collected and in a sense synthesized this material in
his two-volume The Phenomenological Movement (1960).
Renditions of major works include translations of Sartres The
Emotions: Outline of a Theory, Psychology of the Imagination, Existentialism
and Humanism, and Anti-Semite and Jew (all four in 1948) and What Is
Literature? (1949), as well as the following:
Hazel Barnes, Sartres Being and Nothingness (1956);
Heidegger, What Is Metaphysics? (1949) and Being and Time (1962);
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existentialism 251
Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception (1962), In Praise of
Philosophy (1963), and The Structure of Behavior (1963);
Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947);
William Richardson, Heidegger: Through Phenomenology to Thought
(1963); and
Michel Contat and Michel Rybalka, Annotated Bibliography of
Jean-Paul Sartre, 2 vols. (1974).
I would like to mention a couple of anthologies from subsequent
yearsactually subsequent decadesbecause they illustrate how the
existentialist eld in particular but the phenomenological eld in general
had expanded in the Anglosaxophone world, as the French like to say,
since the appearance of SPEP and perhaps because of it; for all of the
individuals contributing to these volumes are or were before their deaths
active members of the society. The rst is George Schraders Existentialist
Thinkers: Kierkegaard to Merleau-Ponty (1967), by eight prominent mem-
bers of what one might call the Yale school of existentialist thought.
The second example is James Watsons Portraits of American Continental
Philosophers, thirty years later (1999). I mention the rst because it is a
clear picture of the Yale school and the latter because, of the twenty-two
philosophers presented, three of whom have died, seventeen are listed on
the program for the ftieth anniversary of SPEP.
Numerous publications such as Studies in Phenomenology, the
Continental Philosophy Review, Sartre Studies International, the International
Philosophical Quarterly (a joint publication between Fordham and the Jesuit
faculty at Louvain), the Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology, and
just to be ecumenical, the Review of Metaphysics (long associated with its
founder, Paul Weiss, and the MSA), to name but a fewsuch established
and respected journals witness the continued strength and relevance of
existential phenomenology in the English-speaking world. One could
survey this material by means of graduate programs that pay consider-
able attention to existentialist theses and themes. Certainly the New
School gures prominently there, as do Yale, Pennsylvania State, and
Northwestern universities for historical reasons. Among Catholic institu-
tions Boston College, Fordham, Duquesne, and St. Louis University would
rank high in those days, with James Collins already mentioned and Alden
Fishers translation of Merleau-Pontys The Structure of Behavior (1963)
counted among them.
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But one could survey the material in terms of the issues that
existentialist considerations brought to the table in its conversations with
other major philosophies of the day, especially Marxism in its various
guises. To be sure, there were closer elds for internecine warfare, with
personalists, pragmatists, and Thomists, for example, but the exchange
that received the most attention was the ongoing struggle with Marxism,
especially hard-line Soviet-style Communism that began in the streets and
cafs of Left Bank Paris in the mid-1940s and ended in the same locales in
1968. I recall two grafti from the events of 1968 that caught my attention
in this respect: All power to the imagination (a critique of the French
Communist Party, which, Sartre insisted to his Maoist friends, lacked imag-
ination) and Structures dont take to the streets (a thinly veiled attack
on Althusserian Marxism). The issue was existential humanism. Curiously,
this is a matter that has returned in post-poststructuralist critiques of a
sclerotic existentialism on the part of many critics today, including
some members of SPEP. Let me focus on the Parisian frame of the debate
because much of it reverberated in American locales, especially during the
late 1960s and early 1970s.
In the immediate postwar years, the question was theoretical but
particularly strategic: how to win the minds of the youth coming of age in
the immediate postwar era. The French Communist Party survived the war
with a chiey positive image thanks to the courage of many of its members
in the Resistance. The party saw existentialist philosophy as a warmed-over
bourgeois individualism that had little new or relevant to offer the next
generation. The existentialist response was stated in the Presentation
of Les temps modernes and broadcast, somewhat regrettably, in the lecture
advertised as Is Existentialism a Humanism? (1946). It was elaborated in
subsequent publications like What Is Literature? (1947) and given impres-
sive ontological grounding in the Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960).
Raymond Aron said of this project, from which he distanced himself,
that it undertook the impossible task of uniting Kierkegaard and Marx. In a
sense, he was right. This was the enterprise to which Sartre was committed.
But Aron sold him short when it came to the social ontology of the Critique
of Dialectical Reason. So, too, did his erstwhile friend and colleague at Les
temps modernes, Merleau-Ponty, in his uncharacteristically harsh book The
Adventures of the Dialectic (1955). Could existentialism formulate a social
theory in response to its Marxist critics without abandoning what was most
properly its ownits abiding sense of individual moral responsibility?
I have argued elsewhere that Sartre could indeed, as he put it, reintroduce
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existentialism 253
man into Marxism, that is, pace Aron, unite Kierkegaard and Marx. His
key was exchanging consciousness for praxis, static descriptions for dia-
lectical relations, and turning the whole on the ontological theory of the
mediating third party.
Concomitant with this discussion was the primacy of free organic
praxis, the nature and force of what Althusser called structural causality
and the very notion of a meaning/direction (sens) to history. Again my
point in mentioning this controversy is that it was played out by various
authors and in different media on this side of the Atlantic. Ron Aronson,
Bill McBride, James Marsch, Bill Martin, Doug Kellner, Betsy Bowman,
Bob Stone, and Fredrick Jameson as well as my own Doktorvater, Robert
Cumming, are names that immediately come to mind. And the New
Left Review in addition to the above-mentioned publications devoted a
considerable amount of space to the issue over the years.
So much for existentialism then. How does it fare today? The
E still stands proud, if somewhat chastened, in the heading of SPEP.
Does it deserve more than historical honorable mention before retiring
(along with its adherents/supporters) to the golden shores of lotus-eaters,
nut-gatherers, and extinct volcanoes? Many of its themes are perennial
even if their specic spin has changed. The basic issues of the individual
and the social, of citizen and government, of biography and history, despite
their respective vestures, are still recognizable in the antiWall Street
movement, for instance.
Existentialist Philosophy Now?
There are as many areas of existentialist relevance today as there are elds
of moral responsibility, especially creative moral responsibility. This
harkens back to Sartres advice in Existentialism Is a Humanism to the
young person with the moral dilemma of choosing between faithfulness
to his widowed mother and loyalty to his countrythe kind of cases that
existentialists have traditionally specialized in and the things that novels
and movies are made of. Choose, he counsels, that is, invent.
There is
obviously a continued need for the existentialist virtue of authenticity and
its disvalue of bad faith in current ethical discourse. Doubtless, this ts
existentialism as a style of life (as Nietzsche and Foucault might say). But it
has always supported a content as wellthough that content, freedom,
has expanded and deepened as Sartres thought grew more contextual
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anniversary sessions 254
and concrete. I am not going to pursue this tack because it invites, even
demands, ramication into contemporary issues of feminism, racism, neo-
colonialism, environmental study, globalization, and others that exceed the
scope of my talk but not the interests of the audience. I would reserve these
corollaries to the basic question of humanism and its supposedly unsal-
vageable, harm-producing connotationsan implicit attack on coffee-table
existentialismfor another time.
Rather, I wish to raise another philosophical topic of ancient interest that
has returned to challenge us in our very notion of what philosophy is and
should be doing today. I have in mind what has come to be called by Pierre
Hadot, Michel Foucault, and others Philosophy as a Way of Life.
In his last
lectures at the Collge de France, Foucault, with explicit reference to Hadot,
distinguished the Socratic ideal of care of the self from the Platonic-Delphic
model of Know thyself, insisting that such self-knowledge grew increas-
ingly abstract and antiseptic as philosophy became more professionalized
and beholden to the model of the natural sciences in its concept of its goal
and how it should pursue it. The Socratic ideal of self-care, on the other
hand, became increasingly separated from the professional philosophical
model and instead was assumed by spiritual directors, confessors, political
commissars, psychologists, and psychoanalysts. Though Hadot took issue
with Foucaults sharp distinction and separation of this contrast, he agreed
that ancient philosophy up to and including the Stoics and Epicureans was
less about information and more about personal formation.
Foucault implicitly, as I recall, and Hadot explicitly cite Kierkegaard,
Nietzsche, and the existentialists as philosophers who have retained
that formative view of their teaching. Foucault granted that the German
Romantics and Hegel combined the formative and informative dimensions
as well. It is this role of existentialist thought in various guises that I
propose as a hopeful beacon for its revival in the twenty-rst century after
suffering eclipse by structuralist, poststructuralist, and possibly even
post- poststructuralist philosophies over the last decades. That said, you
can imagine the surprise and the renewed hope I felt when I received the
rst ofcial announcement for the next World Congress of Philosophy
scheduled for Athens in 2013. The ofcers of the International Federation
of Philosophical Societies that sponsors these gatherings selected as the
theme for the entire meeting Philosophy as Inquiry and Way of Life.
Sufce it to say in virtue of the foregoing that existentialism has indeed
survived. After all that has occurred in the philosophical world over the last
half century, fty/fty is not a bad split!
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existentialism 255
1. Lucien Goldmann, The Hidden God, trans. Philip Thody (1955; New York:
Humanities Press, 1964).
2. Gergy Lukcs, Soul and Form, trans. Anna Bostock (1910; New York:
Columbia University Press, 2010).
3. It was in that discussion that the movement of existentialism was started
(Erich Fank, Erich Franks Work: An Appreciation by Ludwig Edelstein, in
Wissen, Wollen, Glauben [Zurich: Artemis Verlag, 1955], 419).
4. Jean Wahl, Vers le Concret. tudes dhistoire de la philosophie contemporaine
(1932; Paris: Vrin, 2004).
5. Thomas R. Flynn, Sartre and Marxist Existentialism: The Problem of Collective
Responsibility (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984).
6. Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism Is a Humanism, trans. Carol Macomber
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 33.
7. Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life, trans. Michael Chase (Oxford:
Blackwell, 1995); and Michel Foucault, The Courage of Truth: Government of
Self and Others II, trans. Graham Burchell (Houndmilles, England: Palgrave
Macmillan, 2011).
anniversary sessions: then and now
The Challenge of Existentialism, Then and Now
William L. McBride
purdue university
John Wilds highly successful book The Challenge of Existentialism dates
from 1955;
it was published by Indiana University Press and based on
his 1953 Mahlon Powell Lectures at Indiana University. Wild was then still
teaching at Harvard, where he had been for many years, but was to remain
there for only ve years more, at which point, in 1960, he leftthe rst
tenured philosopher to do so in modern times in what was still, after all, a
relatively recent history, the system of graduate philosophy education as we
know it having developed only in the late nineteenth century. It behooves
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