Scruton on Sartre

by Chris Bertram on June 24, 2005

Roger Scruton has an immensely enjoyable , sometimes insightful, occasionally brutally stupid, and often deleriously silly article on Jean-Paul Sartre in the latest Spectator (registration required). After reading it you could always revisit Paul Jennings’s splendid Report on Resistentialism .



des von bladet 06.24.05 at 10:00 am

I’m not registering with anything for a dose of old Scroot-Scroot, of course, but if someone could tell me how I can remember which of the New Statesman and the Spectator is which without actually having to ever read either, I’d be wildly grateful.

(Looking at the covers doesn’t work for me; my eyes slide off them without managing to read anything, which is presumably a psychological self-defence mechanism honed on the paleologically ancient Veldt.)


Tom Womack 06.24.05 at 11:53 am

New Labour, New Statesman.


des von bladet 06.24.05 at 12:06 pm

Perfick! Thanks very!


James Kroeger 06.24.05 at 1:14 pm

It is actually possible to identify the essential flaw in Sartre’s existential reasoning. All of the depressing conclusions he arrived at proceeded from a flawed fundamental assumption about the nature of our existence. He mistakenly assumed that we have the power to create our needs, simply because we can choose to not get them satisfied.

On the contrary, all human needs—biological, emotional, mental—are externally imposed on “us”, the minds that are thought to possess unbounded freedom. Choosing not to get a need satisfied does not establish that you do not have the need. What is it that informs us that we actually “have” needs? The pain/pleasure events that accompany an existing need’s deprivation/satisfaction.

It is not possible for us to create new, not-previously-existing needs by assigning “pain” and/or “pleasure” to the deprivation/satisfaction of the need we want to create.

If we understand this essential a posteriori fact-of-experience, it is not difficult to understand Sartre’s anguish. If we were actually able to create & annihilate our needs, we would necessarily be unable to experience “meaning” or “purpose.” But the fact that all of our needs are externally imposed on us restores to us the right—by logic—to perceive and embrace meaning in our lives.


abb1 06.24.05 at 1:24 pm

He says (or at least it sounds like) that French Communist party collaborated with the Nazis – is that a fact? I guess he’s talking about the period between Molotov-Ribbentrop and Barbarossa; still, was it really ‘collaboration’?


abb1 06.24.05 at 2:21 pm

This piece is a total nonsense, isn’t it? Is it joke of some kind?


des von bladet 06.24.05 at 4:56 pm

Abb1: There was a spectacular piece a while back on ’68 and Foucault which could be adequately compressed to “It’s people like him what cause unrest!”.

He’s a complete twit, but he lives the joke. (Man.)


Backword Dave 06.24.05 at 7:00 pm

I’m demi-fond of Scruton. I think he’s very often a terrible logician, and at other times philosophises with a hammer in entirely the wrong way (that he, he knows where he’s going, and by God he’s going to get there). However, he is entertaining. And you’ve had seven comments and none has touched on his first sentence: “A spectacular example of this occurs at the end of L’Être et le néant …” hands up who made it to the end. Never mind that it sounds like one of the passages written when the amphetamines and pernod didn’t agree. Sartre: “I feel sick! This must be Kierkegaardian tembling!” Passer-by: “Mon Dieu! These cafe intellectuals; another one pissed as a fart before lunch.”


Neil 06.24.05 at 9:34 pm

What’s insightful, Chris? Scruton is as ignorant of Sartre’s philosophy as he is of his life. The description of le visqueux in B&N has nothing to do with God; Sartre did not hate his paternal grandather; there was no religious tension in his home’ Sartre’s German was weak, not fluent; Sartre forged a medical release from the prisonner of war camp; he had a small role in the resistance (printing anti-German leaflets); he did not repudiate the legacy of the enlightenment as Scruton implies (after all, Sartre’s hero is Descartes, the enemy of the post-structuralists); The Critique represents a rejection of the doctrine of the for-itself as source of all meaning and values and therefore a decisive break with existentialism, not its continuation….

It’s just a waste of time reading Scruton when he’s in polemic mode (almost all the time). It’s a journey into his fevered imagination, which is not a place I would choose to go.


des von bladet 06.25.05 at 6:56 am

Incidentally, _I’m_ the true defender of the legacy of the Upplysning (“Englightenment”) and so is my wife.


jlsb 06.25.05 at 5:02 pm

Thank you, Neil.

I had nowhere near the patience…


Backword Dave 06.25.05 at 5:28 pm

Oops. I realised (on trying to read the whole thing), that Chris linked to page 4 of the Speccie piece. It didn’t start with JPS’s disgust at slime (which I thought was intentionally hard to understand).

All the same, I disagree with neil, though he’s clearly better informed than I am. Sartre’s German being weak (which was news to me) is an indictment, given that he cites Marx, Hegel, Husserl, Nietzsche, so often. His insistence on “action” given that (again through neil) he had a “small role in the resistance (printing anti-German leaflets)” seems hypocritical compared to braver souls like Koestler or Camus.

Finally, and I don’t wish to go all heavy on you, but neil’s: “The Critique represents a rejection of the doctrine of the for-itself as source of all meaning and values and therefore a decisive break with existentialism, not its continuation” doesn’t look to this detached observer as anything like a repudiation of Dr Scruton’s charge of “totalitarianism.”


Neil 06.25.05 at 9:45 pm

Backword D,

Sartre was a sloppy scholar (I say this as something of a fan). He read the Germans largely in translation, and certainly creatively misunderstood them. There were good translations of most of the people you mention, but there is a rumor that he only read selections from Hegel, never the entirety of any of his works (but then, Kant read Hume only in translation, and also only selections).

It isn’t really fair to accuse him of hypocrisy. He tried to engage in direct action, but his resistance contacts – wisely – refused his services. He did take risks: he had a printing press, which was nearly discovered. And it took a great deal of obtuseness on the part of the German censors not to see Les Mouches as the anti-fascist play it was.

As for totalitarianism in the Critique: well, he certainly celebrates action by the masses. Under certain circumstances, he argues, atomised individuals can become a ‘fused group’, almost a single organism, and take action in defence of itself, and this, he implies, is a kind of ecstatic moment. His example (the Critique is a long meditation on the French revolution, in many ways) is the storming of the Bastille. He thinks it takes action by others, who threaten the lives of people, to produce a fused group. It is a response to this threat. But once the threat is dealt with, the return to what he calls seriality, the separate lives of distrustful individuals, is inevitable. You get totalitarianism as a result of the attempt to maintain the fused group, in the absence of an immediate threat from outside. By internalising the threat, people attempt to eternalise the fused group. But they only ossify it. Sartre’s exmaple is the terror, though in the second vol. there is a long meditation on the cult of Stalin as an attempt to preserve the group.

So: totalitarianism, in Sartre’s view, is a failed attempt to preserve something worthwhile. There is no hint of an endorsement of totalitarianism, unless you think tout comprendre, tout pardonner.


Brendan 06.26.05 at 5:42 am

‘seems hypocritical compared to braver souls like Koestler ‘

Hmmm! Well some of us might wish that Koestler had been a lot less brave at least in his casting aside of bourgeois’ (or anyone’s) morality…..compared to him, Sartre’s ‘cowardice’ don’t look so bad.

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