Thursday, September 30, 2010

The measure of a man…

In college I took a course on existentialism, so, naturally, we read a fair share of Sartre. I don't recall in which text I read it, but I do recall Sartre made an argument against essence along the following lines. Imagine a famous author that died too young. Perhaps David Foster Wallace, or Franz Kafka, etc. It is a common sentiment, Sartre notes, that "he surely had one more great novel/story left in him, if only…." Yet, Sartre says, this is folly, for as a matter of existential fact, all that so-and-so had in him was what he actually wrote. When his time was up, his "essential" abilities were gone too. Wallace had no great work left in him, since he died having written only as much as he in fact wrote, and, thus, only as much as he could have written. Likewise, Heath Ledger had no future glory in him, since he died having performed only as much as his actual nature allowed him. There is no essence which grounds human potential, Sartre argues, but only the existential exigencies of what each of us does here and now, et puis c'est fini. This view I shall call existential actualism.

Something about this reasoning has always bothered me. Imagine for instance a wine glass falling from a table that is caught in midair by the waiter. Presumably, Sartre would say that the wine glass could not have fallen any further than it did, since it did not fall any further than it fell. But this is not only a truism but also undermines reasoning and physical science. If nothing can fall farther than it in fact fell, then we have no basis for conceiving of what "fall" is, since only what is understood to have traversed from point x to point y is understood to fall. And if something can be understood to traverse the distance from x to y, then it can just as meaningfully be understood to traverse the distance from y to z. Further, if every time an experimenter declared the subject of his study could not in principle have acted differently than it did in fact act, then there would be no basis for inquiring how anything else acts. Hence, there would be no reason for Sartre to look at "humanity" on a case by case basis, since knowing what Human #XYZ did is just to know what "human nature" itself can or cannot do. If human #XXYYZZ can, upon "concrete" investigation" do other than what #XYZ did, then the ascription of "humanness" to #XYZ and #XXYYZZ is equivocal, and Sartre's theory has proved nothing about human nature, much less about the nature of #XYZ. At most he has proved that #XYZ cannot do -P when #XYZ did P. A truism of existential proportions.

An even more fundamental problem with Sartre's position, however, is that it undermines his own theory of existential action, since, if at any time t, agent A could not in principle do otherwise than he is doing, then there is no grounds for saying that A at t+1 could do something different. If A is defined existentially by the concrete actuality of his existence at t, then only an essence which persists from t to t+1 grounds any changes which might be meaningfully ascribed to A. Hence, despite all his passionate exhortations to political, sexual, aesthetic, etc. action, Sartre's existential actualism amounts to a paralyzing form of fatalism that strait-jackets the will inside its immediate existential accidents. In this light, it is even more apt to consider David Foster Wallace vis-à-vis Sartre's argument, since, apparently, as an undergraduate at Amherst, Wallace wrote a paper to refute Richard Taylor's doctrine of fatalism.

In any event, I want to propose a novel scenario which I think further highlights the absurdity (irony alert!) of Sartre's existential actualism. Consider a man, named Jack the Bear, with an incorrigible desire to slap women in the face (if not much else worse besides). Cue the soundtrack of A Clockwork Orange! After a few tragic cases, the authorities realize Jack the Bear is incorrigible and take steps to sequester him from society. In jail, however, it proposed that an electrical device be inserted in Jack's inguinal region, a device which electrocutes him every time a conjunction of various "violent" motor actions and "lustful" intentions occur. (Presumably, neuroscience is advanced at this point to "map" the brain so precisely.) After many trials, the Jack is set free and, lo and behold, every time he gets reaches to fulfil his sadistic-misogynistic urges, Jack is crippled by a shock to the groin. And so he spends his days, never again harming a woman. At his funeral, it is said of Jack that he was a good man, since he never again harmed a woman after some sad earlier moral failures. Yet, would Jack the Bear really be good just because he had not hurt any women after his operation? I should say not. I gope yo agree. A rabid dog on a leash is still rabid, not healthy. Yet, Sartre would have to say Jack the Bear died a virtuous man, since, objectively, he never again committed any violence, nor even rose to half the stature of lashing out. He was a pleasure to live with, in fact (once one learned to ignore his agonized screams and flailing). The absurdity of Jack's case underscores the fact that goodness resides more in the (rational) will than in the (behavioral) effects of the will. Hence, a person, like Jack, is more than his existential actualities. Anything more than what it is in concrete actualities, however, has an essence which dynamically "overflows" anything it does existentially. Hence, anything a man does never fully exhausts what he is essentially.

So, let me ask you: Is it a capacity given by your human nature (or, your essential humanity) to read any farther than the following asterisk? *

I thought so.

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