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Thomas R. Flynn, Sartre, Foucault, and..

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Thomas R. Flynn, Sartre, Foucault, and Historical Reason, Chicago: Chicago University Press, vol. 1, Toward an Existentialist Theory of History, 1997, 340 pp., $ 24; vol. 2, A Poststructuralist Mapping of History, 2005, 390 pp., $ 25

- Maria Dimitrova
Sofia University

The modern person, unlike the postmodern one, possesses an extremely acute sense of history. Not only epochs and events are organized and dated within historical time, but even the Universe has its own history. Such concepts as evolution and revolution, progress and regress, becoming and development, etc., together with the orientation toward the future, and not to a golden age, are typical of the modern way of thinking. In late modernity, however, this same way of thinking triggers a multitude of antinomies. These usually emerge as conceptualization of our sense of history and of the irreducibility of historical rationality to “pure reason.” The debates on this issue begin in 19th century, but they continue with increased intensity into our own day.
Two of the key names in these debates are Sartre and Foucault. But if the first still tries to find a solution, reconsidering the controversies of modernity, Foucault, for whom Sartre is one of the best known philosophers of his father’s generation, tries to cast aside the whole paradigm of modernity with all its intrinsic aporias, although, finally, he remains linked with it. This link is not just reactive – in the way a historical nominalist reacts against the statements of historical universalism, but is more complex. It is evidence of intolerance, and at the same time, of the attachment to some of the major canonical modern assumptions, which, chased away through the door, come back in through the window. That is why the task of comparing these two positions, which Tho-mas Flynn has embarked on, is not at all easy. However, he has succeeded, thanks to his wide erudition and profound knowledge of the Continental tradition as a whole and of contemporary French philosophy in particular. His professionalism is of the highest quality and commands respect.
Modern society, which proclaims itself as the society of change, cease-lessly compares itself to the previous, premodern or traditional community. And this is the only option open, since the discourse of change implies juxta-position, which comprehends both the same and the different. Hegel’s grandiose construction of World history focuses on this issue reconciling identity and difference in the Whole, that is, in the System – a new concept borrowed from then triumphant scientific discourse. According to Hegel, what is characteristic of the System is that it is always the result of reconciliation. To him, the analytical logic of the natural sciences is not in a position to grasp this result, which is the whole of the history, and only the dialectic has the full right to claim the title of the logic of history. Both Sartre and Foucault borrow the widespread notion of the system and concentrate their efforts to show the process of its creation and recreation. However, Foucault speaks not about the System, but about a multitude of systems or a number of formations with their specific structures and laws, determining the inclusion and exclusion of individuals and groups, while Sartre still wants to show the process of the formation of the System with a “human face.” According to Sartre, the dialectic is not a faceless historical necessity, but an intrinsic dimension of human activitiy. He keeps the dialectical method, but abandons the Absolute Spirit, which – allegedly – manages by cunning to follow its own purposes behind people’s intentions. For Sartre, the human being is condemned to be free, which means that each individual alone chooses how to respond to circumstances. There-fore, no sign, either here on earth or up in heavens, can provide one with direction. The human being deciphers the signs alone as he pleases, and invents man on its own. The man is not the product solely of the conditions but a subject of a singular history and that history had to produce an event through them and against them… The man-event is the totalizing and totalized expression of defined structures in society… and at the same time he is irreversible event that bears in it the mark of all prior events…(1)
Individuals endure history and at the same time make it. Marx’s corrective to the Hegelian invisible hand of history accompanies Sartre in all his works. However, in Sartre’s philosophy, every individual choice, and not only the actions of classes – for example of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie – are important for the outcome of a given situation. Each personal decision is, in fact, a new beginning. Existentialism “humanizes” dialectics. Flynn aptly observes that Sartre substitutes “exemplary biography” for “total narrative” and stresses that a properly existentialist theory of history respects the role of biographical factors in any adequate historical account. It must capture or, better, reproduce those experiential dimensions of choice, risk, and responsibility that mark the event as properly human. (2) As Flynn points out, Sartre affirms the primacy of praxis recovering the hazardous aspect of every human undertaking – it is necessary to take risks and to invent. Subjective decisions change the pace of history. Freedom disrupts history and does not allow foresight based on previous experience, on a kind of a priori sketch, or on some repeatable determinants. To Sartre, freedom is the opening up of History. Dialectics and humanism, however, are Foucault’s main adversaries. This is stressed as a leitmotif in Flynn’s comparative analysis. In many places, Flynn quotes Foucault’s ironic assessment of Sartre: “The Critique of Dialectical Reason is the magnificent and pathetic attempt by a man of the nineteenth century to think the twentieth century. In that sense, Sartre is the last Hegelian and, I would even say, the last Marxist.” (3)
Like some other pioneers of post-modernity, Foucault argues that the figure of Man is the center of the modern episteme. In Foucault’s view, Sar-tre’s existentialism is sealed within this narcissism. Foucault rejects not only the constituting role of the transcendental subject but also the constructive role of the empirical subject. Flynn brilliantly reveals Foucault’s attitude toward Sartre and to the modern type of discourse in general. To Foucault, the subject is, in reality, a subjected agency. “What is already dying in us (and whose death our present language carries) is homo dialecticus – the being of departure, of return, and of time…That man was a sovereign subject and the servant object of all discourses about man that have taken place for a long time, especially those about alienated man. And, fortunately, he is dying beneath their chatter.” (4) In Foucault’s view, autonomy (in the Kantian sense) is a mirage and his intention is to show what is disclosed after the mi-rage is dispersed. He writes that “it is no longer possible to think in our day other than in the void left by man’s disappearance. For this void does not create … a lacuna that must be filled. It is nothing more, and nothing less, than the unfolding of space in which it is once more possible to think.” (5)
Flynn suggests calling Foucault the philosopher of spatialized reason in history, unlike Sartre, who deserves the name of the philosopher of temporalized reason. Flynn’s comments are guided by the understanding that for Foucault the field of experience is the space enclosed by three axes – namely, knowledge, power, and subjectivation. Then, the corresponding axial reading can be the key to Foucault’s entire project. (6) According to Flynn’s interpretation, the three axes have conditioned the three modes of Foucault’s analysis: archeological, genealogical, and problematical, respectively. Perhaps because Flynn’s intention is “to think with Foucault about Foucault,” he sees the form of experience in Foucault’s ocular as a prismatic one, while according to Sartre, Flynn insists, the model of experience is the pyramid.
In the light of Flynn’s study, the anti-humanist principle of Foucault arises from the post-structuralist conviction that a mutual incompatibility between the being of language and the being of man exists. Constituting the space between words and things, discourses are practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak. There is a special kind of power – the power specific to discourse – to represent the order of things. As Flynn stresses, Foucaut speaks of mapping discursive formations, rather than recounting their descent.
It is a common place that one of the most significant merits of Foucault is his consideration of power in an unexpected way, that is, positively. In his opinion, “we must cease once and for all to describe the effects of power in negative terms. In fact, power produces reality. It produces domains of objects and rituals of truth. Not only knowledge but the individual as well belongs to this production.” (7) Flynn very clearly explains that the genealogical approach to history in Foucault’s works focuses on power and the non-discursive just as archeology attends to the discursive. Genealogy has as its goal to uncover the relations of power that underlie our most disinterested practices. Its model is struggle and strategy, not meaning and consensus. According to Flynn, the professed aim of Foucault is to free history from the grip of phenomenology and from its thesis of “constituting consciousness,” which supports the idea of historical continuity. Continuous history is the correlate of consciousness. Foucault has become for many “an apostle of discontinuity,” but quoting his direct statements as well as referring to his writings as a whole, Flynn shows that Foucault’s interest is directed to “differences without identity,” that is, to transformations rather than simply historical breaks and incommensurability. Foucault does not tolerate totalization in any form and opposes linear pro-gress; hence, the accumulation of dialectical development. Transformation is not one-dimensional change, nor advance through returning to the origin, nor preservation, nor transcendence, but a disjunction and replacement. Flynn’s conclusion is that Foucault resists the thesis about “original choice” in History and the Sartrean hermeneutics that seeks to reveal it.
Foucault does not agree with the anthropocentrism of the modern discourse, where he situates Sartre too. Foucault’s thought is against any pan-centrism. As Flynn successfully puts it, the “Self” in Foucault’s philosophy remains prismatic, his historical intelligibility polyhedral, and his “experience” non-foundational and derivative. Flynn finds an appropriate emblem for the style of each of the two thinkers he compares: the map for Foucault and the diary for Sartre.
With the help of a comparative study, Thomas Flynn manages to recon-struct the implicit theories of history employed by two of the leading French intellectuals of their respective generations. As the author says, “[in] many ways and for most of us they personify the cultural movements of existential-ism and post-structuralism,” and in a wider perspective they appear as the key figures of twentieth century humanism and positivism respectively. Flynn himself has traveled many times over the explored territory and has delved deeply in order to reveal some spots of Foucault’s thought which have remained in darkness or semi-darkness until now, as well as to re-examine Sartre’s stance with the aid of some materials unpublished in Sartre’s lifetime. Since Flynn wants to reconstruct the theories of history of both Foucault and Sartre, he fulfills this intention not by applying a biographical method, as probably Sartre would recommend, nor by using cartography as a method, ac-cording to Foucault’s suggestions, but by tracing the changes of philosophical categories and their links within conceptual networks. Actually, Flynn provides an outstanding commentary on the both positions.
Let’s mention that in such a way – by texts and commentaries, by comments on commentaries and new texts, and new commentaries about new texts, and again commentaries on texts about texts, and so on – philosophy has been made, taught, and transmitted throughout the centuries. Flynn carries out very well this mission of shrewd commentator, because as a great connoisseur, he succeeds in exposing Sartre’s and Foucault’s views (at first glance paradoxical for their contemporaries), showing the doxa agains whose background they emerge and can be understood and evaluated. Flynn shows how Sartre and Foucault confront the doxic clichés, motivated by the desire to pay homage to truth and freedom: for Sartre, the truth of freedom, and in the case of Foucault, the freedom of truth, as Flynn summarizes.

1 See Thomas R. Flynn, Sartre, Foucault, and Historical Reason, vol. 1, Toward an Existentialist Theory of History, 300, note 16.
2 Thomas R. Flynn, Sartre, Foucault, and Historical Reason, vol.1, 150
3 Ibid., 150.
4 Cited by Thomas R. Flynn, Sartre, Foucault, and Historical Reason, vol. 2, A Poststructuralist Mapping of History, 377, note 6.
5 Cited by Thomas R. Flynn, Sartre, Foucault, and Historical Reason, vol.1, 326 note 36.
6 Thomas R. Flynn, Sartre, Foucault, and Historical Reason, vol.2, 312
7 Ibid., 328.