A Review of the Literature up to 1976 by HENRY EYRING and DOUGLAS HENDERSON (Eds.)


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1 Confronted with an impotent subjectivity whose only power was to ‘adhere to the true’ and observe the strict order of essences, Descartes recognized more than anyone else that there could be ‘no difference between thought and truth’ and that ‘true is the totality of the system of thoughts’ (Sartre 1962: 182). It is precisely in his recognition and awareness of the impotent subjectivity of his age that Sartre so admired in Descartes, as well as his ingenious solution to a lost subjectivity in the clutches of Catholic orthodoxy: ‘If anyone wants to save man, the only thing to do, since he cannot produce any idea but only contemplate it, is to provide him with a simple negative power, that of saying no to whatever is not true’ (Sartre 1962: 182).

This is the region of being that is famously disclosed to the protagonist Roquentin, in Sartre’s most wellknown philosophical novel, Nausea (1938). Roquentin feels himself ‘de trop’ or superfluous in the midst of Being; his nausea and boredom reveal to him the contingency of everything that exists around him, including himself: And I—soft, weak, obscene, digesting, juggling with dismal thoughts—I, too, was In the way. Fortunately, I didn’t feel it, although I realized it. But I was uncomfortable because I was afraid—(even now I am afraid—afraid that it might catch me behind my head and lift me up like a wave).

This last point is especially crucial in light of some critics’ objections that Sartre’s commitment to freedom is so radical that it allows us to create anything we want, as though our freedom were not tethered to the world and to others in crucial ways. Rather than creating anything we want Sartre advances the far more plausible claim that our relation to being is such that we can modify it: ‘It is not given to “human reality” to annihilate even provisionally the mass of being which it posits before itself.

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