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Podcast transcript

Jean-Paul Sartre: Key Concepts

 Assoc Professor Jack Reynolds

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Jean-Paul Sartre: Key Concepts is available now from Acumen Publishing.

Russell Hoye

Hi, I'm Russ Hoye, the Director of La Trobe sport and the host of Sport Unpacked, a regular podcast series. You’re now listening to a podcast from La Trobe University.

Matt Smith

Hello, I'm Matt Smith. Welcome to a La Trobe University podcast, and today on the podcast, we’ll be hearing about the French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, or to get the proper pronunciation ...

Steven Churchill

You can say Sartre. Sartre’s good. That’s an acceptable pronunciation. It’s not the full French one, close enough.

Matt Smith

What’s the French pronunciation?

Steven Churchill

Sartre.

Matt Smith

Yeah, I won’t be doing that. They don’t have spit shields on the microphones.

Steven Churchill

No, no. I think that’s probably fair enough, hey?

Matt Smith

So I've got two guests in the podcast with me today. Firstly, the young man that you just heard from.

Steven Churchill

Hello, I'm Steven Churchill. I have served as a tutor here at La Trobe University and also as a lecturer at the Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy.

Matt Smith

And also somebody who’s been in a podcast before.

Jack Reynolds

Hi, I'm Jack Reynolds. We’ve talked before, a philosopher and Deputy Dean in the faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences.

Matt Smith

Together they’ve edited a book. It’s called Jean-Paul Sartre. It’s published by Acumen and will be coming out at the end of October 2103. Firstly, a bit of background about Sartre.

Steven Churchill

In any history of philosophy I think Sartre figures as probably one of the greats. There would be few philosophers who probably achieved the balance of both living fame and posthumous fame which he did, because he made so many contributions across so many different fields. He was a philosophical novelist, a dramatist, a playwright who wrote plays with philosophical themes, he wrote psycho-analytical autobiographies, many different contributions across a whole gamut of literary forms basically.

Matt Smith

And he’s quite recent.

Steven Churchill

He died in 1980, and he was 74, turning 75 at the time, and so essentially he had seen much of the major events, historically, of the 20th century in particular, and I think that you definitely would describe him as a modern philosopher in the truer sense of the word.

Matt Smith

What sort of level did he reach? Are we talking about well-known philosophy circles.

Steven Churchill

I think that this perhaps is what made Sartre the exception that he was, in the sense that he achieved, I would say, mainstream penetration to a degree that most philosophers haven’t. If you think about the fact that he, for example, won a Nobel Prize for literature in 1964 for example. There are very few other philosophers who have made such a wide ranging contribution in that sense. I don’t know whether Jack would prefer to come in on this, but I can’t think of another philosopher who probably has quite the same mainstream saturation in that sense.

Matt Smith

Jack?

Jack Reynolds

Yeah, I think it’s certainly arguable that Jean-Paul Sartre’s the most famous philosopher of the 20th century. Maybe his compatriot and partner, Simone de Beauvoir, is also a rival. But both of them were culturally famous as much as anything, synonymous with a sort of French Parisian scene.

Matt Smith

Did they reach Monty Python’s philosopher song level?

Steven Churchill

I think that they probably both deserved that acclaim, but I'm not sure that they feature in that song. Although there is a Monty Python sketch involving Sartre, where two characters get on the train and go to Paris to visit him. And then they end up in Jean-Paul’s apartment, but he’s never actually seen – he’s just kind of this doddery old man who’s in the back room and his maid is constantly making up excuses as to why he can’t be seen. He made the Monty Pythonesque level but not quite to the same extent perhaps as some.

Matt Smith

Tell me about the thought behind assembling this book then. Why was this book something that you felt the need to do?

Steven Churchill

Hopefully I'm not stepping on Jack’s toes when I say this but I think that basically what has occurred in recent times I think, is that Sartre has perhaps in some ways been relegated to the history of ideas and the history of philosophy for some people. Yeah, sure, he was great in the mid to late twentieth century but perhaps doesn’t have the same cachet in modern times if you like. And I think that that has to do also with the fact that Sartre’s body of work, his oeuvre if you use the French expression, was just so massive. I mean, he wrote philosophical works that in some cases were thousands of pages long, and so basically what has tended to happen I think is that only a very small fraction of his vast contributions are often taken up, even when those small number of, say for example, his debut novel Nausea or his famous lecture Existentialism is a Humanism, even those that are taken up are perhaps only studied on a very glossed-overall basic level, and so what we wanted to do I think was to bring out the whole of his body of work, as best we could, in a short amount of time, you know, in a relatively short book, and to go into detail on some of those texts that perhaps haven’t had the recognition they deserved.

Jack Reynolds

I suppose I'd only add, not just that we want to re-introduce people to the whole expanse of Sartre’s thought, but I mean there’s also a sense in which philosophy can be subject to fads and things come in and out of fashion, and I think it’s true intellectually that perhaps from the 1980s and maybe a generation almost until now, Sartre was somewhat out of fashion, but he’s coming back in and I think he’s not coming back in merely because he happens to be fashionable again, but rather because people are discovering some of the insights that he had, and sort of no longer concerned with the next great thing on the French scene, being able to discover Sartre’s thought again on its own terms.

Matt Smith

So what sort of contributions did you get to this book?

Steven Churchill

Speaking from my perspective, I tried as best I could to get as many of the great Sartrian scholars that I'd read in secondary literature over the years on Sartre through the course of my Honours research and my research for my Masters degree and to try to get them as best I could to contribute. So for example, we have Adrian van den Hoven, who’s an expert on Sartre and as a novelist and playwright, we have David Detmer who’s someone of an expert on aspects of self-deception and bad faith in Sartre’s philosophy. Basically I think what we tried to do was to bring as many specialists in particular topic areas to the fore as we could.

Jack Reynolds

Yeah, so we managed to get contributors from many parts of the globe. There are certainly beyond Steve and I – there are a couple of other Australians, we have many people from the USA, from the UK and from France, so we tried to have a pretty broad coverage and I think we did manage to collect most of the best Sartrian scholars in this volume and one of the things I'll say – of course I'm biased about the volume that we think is a virtue of it – there’s a consistency of quality I think in the contributions, so sometimes you can get these sort of volumes and they have a few good pieces, a few weaker pieces, but I think at least, and I think Steve concurs, that we’ve got a good quality overall collection.

Steven Churchill

One thing I'm perhaps particularly proud of is that I think is does make a contribution to the scholarship in the sense that it does try to grasp Sartre’s work as a totality.

Matt Smith

One thing that you both wrote in this book is his legacy. Can you tell me a bit about that?

Steven Churchill

I suppose what that chapter first of all tries to do is to look at the ways in which Sartre himself and his inner circle, so his lifelong companion Simone de Beauvoir, and various others, actually tried to present a particular public image of him in order to cement his legacy as a man and as a philosopher. And one of the things that’s very notable is that there’s an effort to produce a particular view of Sartre as a stoic man who, yes, he was once a star and is now blind and past his prime, but he’s very stoic and looking forward to the future in various different projects.

And then we move on to look at the ways in which Sartre’s legacy was contested by the various philosophers that followed Sartre, so for example Michel Foucault, the great structuralist doyenne, Gilles Deleuze and various others and then comes the part of that chapter that I think Jack had the greatest influence on, which is the way in which the Academy has returned to Sartre.

Jack Reynolds

My final third, or half of that chapter, was I suppose trying to draw attention to the way in which one of Sartre’s colleagues and sometimes friend, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, has sort of, unlike Sartre, not quite achieved the same levels of fame, but in academic circles, has retained influence in various developments in cognitive science, in psychology and other fields, and a lot of Merleau-Ponty’s thought was undertaken in dialogue with Jean-Paul Sartre’s thought, so even though Sartre has himself not often acknowledged as being important to these fields, his influence upon Merleau-Ponty was consequently also an influence upon those fields, and also I suppose I was trying to highlight the way in which Sartre offers us different resources from those that Merleau-Ponty does, for thinking about perception of other people, for thinking about our relations with others, and things like that, and so even though Sartre influences Merleau-Ponty, who’s subsequently been taken up in various fields of academic enterprise, he also allows for new and different insights than Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy allows. So that’s what I was trying to draw attention to.

Steven Churchill

Yes, I think that it’s very important to point out that particularly in French academic circles, Merleau-Ponty is regarded as a great phenomenologist, whereas Sartre is perhaps regarded as a sort of fly-by-night phenomenologist, who sure, did a bit of it, but perhaps isn’t you know, of Merleau-Ponty’s stature. And I think that that perhaps is a common perception, and yet, when you look at even back to Sartre’s very earliest work on the imagination, his first book, that was actually reviewed and debated in dialogue with Merleau-Ponty and in fact Merleau-Ponty assented to most of the insights in that work. If htere’s one thing that I take, philosophically, from Jack’s contribution, is that perhaps this perception of Sartre as a sort of phenomenologist who got into phenomenology as a sort of sideline, needs to be re-assessed and actually that he ought to be viewed as perhaps making major contributions to that field, rather than just sideline ones.

Matt Smith

So not just directly though?

Steven Churchill

Ah, I certainly think that he makes contributions that will have direct relevance, for example, one of the things that Jack looks at quite a bit in his section is the way in which Sartre’s insights in both ontology and phenomenology could be used to help understand social cognition better for example. One of the things that Sartre perhaps does is he looks at the conflictual elements of human relations in a way that perhaps other phenomenologists haven’t done, and the existential difficulties and issues that arise out of our cognition of others.

Jack Reynolds

One of the things I suppose that I draw attention to, not just the conflictual dimension of Sartre’s account of how we establish our own personal identity through interaction with others, through their perspective upon us, but Sartre also offers a resolute emphasis upon the importance of the body and pre-reflective cognition we might say, and this is something that Merleau-Ponty subsequently took up in great detail and adjusted aspects of Sartre’s thought, but I mean one of the things about contemporary psychology, perhaps some of the psychologists here at La Trobe might dispute this, but a lot of contemporary psychology is very intellectualistic or mentalistic in terms of how we understand others, so I may be positing your particular beliefs or your desires and when I posit those things, it allows me to make sense of things you do, Matt, for example when you turn the microphone off or something, I'll infer that you’re bored. That sort of thing, so it’s very much an inferentialist or sort of even a Cartesian model.

Now Sartre was influenced by Descartes, but he sort of turns that, the cogito, the thinking thing, on its head and affirms the importance of embodied and a pre-reflective cogito, in engagement with others. So I think that’s one of the things that Sartre contributes and can potentially have significant impacts upon the way in which we think about how it is that we apprehend that someone is angry or someone is happy or some of these other cognitive states that we attribute to others.

Matt Smith

I will now turn the fader down on Jack but I hope he doesn’t take it too personally. That was Jack Reynolds and Steven Churchill and their book is Jean-Paul Sartre – Key Concepts and it will be out at the end of October 2013 from Acumen.

That’s it for the podcast ... That’s it for the La Trobe University podcast for today and if you want even more philosophy, then Jack Reynolds was in charge of an iTunes U subject last semester called Philosophical Problems. You can find a link to that on our blog, that’s at podcast.blogs.latrobe.edu.au. I'm Matt Smith. You’ve been fantastic and thanks for listening.

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