Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Essence and Responsibility [4/11/17: Sartre’s Existentialism is a Humanism, Freedom and Responsibility, and “A Sketch of a Phenomenological Theory”]

            I like Sartre, and agree with most of what he says, which makes this post a tad difficult; because I don’t just want to recapitulate everything he writes.  Fortunately, a few of his assertions don’t sit entirely well with me, so I’ll discuss those.  First comes Sartre’s belief that, as there is no inherent meaning, or essence, to humanity, each actor embodies and creates that essence, and, thus, what a human ought to be, by zir performance.  The issue I take with this, I suppose, is the prescription that any human is a human first, and, thus, all action prescribes what a human ought to do in a given situation.  But an actor—I’ll use myself as an example—is not merely human.
            Indulge me for a moment.  If essence is definition, then no essence can encompass the thing entire; rather, it includes only those characteristics essential to the defined thing.  A paper knife made of bronze, or iron, or tin, or some gem, with handle of wood, or rubber, or none at all, ornate or simple, forged or beaten, is still a paper knife.  These other characteristics can vary because they aren’t those essential to the idea of “paper knife”; really, the only essential characteristic is that it cuts paper.  And I’d argue that essences are contested, assigned, and not inherent, because different observers (different makers-of-meaning-in-the-world) may consider different characteristics essential to the thing.  What’s the difference between a grilled cheese and a melt?  Some meaning-makers will tell you that there is no difference, that they’re different names for the same essence.  Others will tell you that, if the sandwich contains only cheese, it’s a grilled cheese, and, if it contains anything more, it’s a melt.  These meaning-makers consider different sandwich characteristics essential to the thing they speak of; but neither is “right” in that their meaning is endorsed by facticity.  These different essence-definitions are just different ways of understanding the world.
            To return, then, to my question regarding Sartre’s “what is better for one must be better for all,” I am a human.  I have the essential characteristics; I think and perceive, I’m made of meat, bone, and blood, I talk, I have two arms and legs, and I’m the product of, and, in principle, a contributor to a breeding population of organisms like myself.  Of course, the degree to which each of these characteristics is essential is contestable; because, for sure, a human without legs, or who doesn’t talk, or is sterile, or, many will say, who doesn’t think is certainly still a human.  Breezing past that thicket of thorns, though, I certainly have characteristics that are not essential to humanity.  I speak English, I have tan-ish skin, dark eyes, and dark hair, I’m about 6’2”, I run, read, and write for enjoyment, I live in Tempe, AZ, I’m biologically and psychologically male, I was born to these two humans in such-and-such situation and not to some others somewhere else…in short, I am not merely a human, in that those characteristics essential to “human” match, but do not fully describe, me.  In totality, I am a sort of creature of which there is only one:  that is, myself.  Thus, I don’t see why my choices should create prescription for beings that share some, rather than all, characteristics with me; is the capacity for reflection, and nothing else, the only important characteristic?  I don’t think so.  So why am I the model for diverse humanity?  Why ought I act as though others, who differ from me, should act as I do?  Surely those differences in situation, personality, desires, etc. can result in different action without any ontological problem.  More prosaically, I refuse to assume that what is better for me, or, rather, what I like better, is better for all.  One thing is as good as another, and I will choose; but I will not claim that my choice is right.
            My other question, and I’ll keep this brief, is with Sartre’s total responsibility for even emotions.  I admit, Sartre’s claims play into my personal bias; my habit is to attribute everything I dislike in my life, and many things that I do like, to myself.  I see no reason one should be able to evade decision by claiming it was made outside oneself.  Even in a deterministic universe, the actor still acts; though the choice be predetermined, the actor still chooses.  I’ve spoken before about my distinction between intellectual and visceral beliefs, which must, I feel be the constituents of perspective (which, in turn, determines emotional response); and I’ll say simply that I’ve never succeeded in deliberately shifting my visceral beliefs, which I feel to be the more important in determination of perspective, through instantaneous effort or through concerted action.  This does not mean it’s impossible; I suspect Sartre would simply say that I’m responsible for my failure to shift perspectives, if it comes to that.  I just tend to be wary of my tendency toward declaring myself utterly responsible, both out of fear of diminishing others and in shying away from the awareness that I am the agent of my own self-determined sins.  Sartre, I suppose, would say that I need to accept that responsibility and live with it.

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