6 Existentialists

French adventures of the dialectic

In France in the thirties and forties there was a fashion for studying the works of Hegel especially the Phenomenology of Spirit. Hegel was not well know in France and the attraction of his work was that it provided an alternative tradition to the mainstream rationalism that extended from the Encyclopedists through positivists like Comte and Durkheim. In Hegel France found a rationalist tradition that allowed for conflict and reversal, where the positivist vision of a steady progress seemed more questionable. But in content these investigations tended to emphasise the contradiction in Hegel beyond his intention, to the point where these become irreconcilable. In France Hegel was a Trojan Horse containing Heidegger and Husserl's Phenomenology.

Alexandre Kojeve's lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit at the Ecole Practique des Hautes Etudes between 1933 and 1939 were attended by Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Andre Breton, Georges Bataille, Jacques Lacan, Alexandre Koyre, Eric Weil and Emmanuel Levinas. Kojeve's lectures gave an existential reading of Hegel, influenced by Jean Wahl and Koyre, that emphasised the earlier Phenomenology over the later, more conservative Encyclopaedia. Kojeve's lectures built Hegel's system on the 'master-slave' dialectic - the interaction of dominant Self and subordinate Other. The other source for the reading of Hegel was Jean Hyppolite's translation of the Phenomenology and his commentary, Genesis and Structure of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, which was influenced by Heidegger and Husserl's phenomenology (p323). Hyppolite taught Louis Althusser, Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault in the forties and later taught Jacques Derrida at the Ecole Normale. Sartre's lover Simone de Beauvoir did her dissertation on Hegel.

Above all it was the category of 'the Other' in Kojeve and Hyppolite's reading of Hegel that had most impact on French thought. Whilst for Hegel the dialectic of master and slave was surmountable, as both poles of the conflict were moments in the development of Spirit, the secularised opposition of Self and Other was untranscendable - others were always radically separate from the self. This radical separation is attributed to Heidegger's correction of Hegel in Sartre's bible of existentialism Being and Nothingness (1943), where there is 'not the slightest bridge between me and the Other' (p335). The Heideggerian motif of the They is here reformulated as the Hegelian category of the Other. However, there is one important distinction in the development of the idea of the Other from that of the They, that is made clear in de Beauvoir's feminist tract The Second Sex (1949). There de Beauvoir reverses the polarity of authentic being and the They, to take the standpoint of the Other, woman, the second sex. In Being and Time, Heidegger had rejected the possibility of a universalist standpoint associated with the They - an attack on Lukacs ( 'the "they" is not something like a "universal subject" which a plurality of subjects have hovering above them.' p166). Interestingly, de Beauvoir, like Sartre, agrees that the universal subject is an impossibility, but in a manoeuvre that will characterise all discussion of the Other hereafter, she privileges the standpoint of the Other because it disrupts universality.

Back in Germany

While France was looking over the abyss, Germany had fallen right in and been pulled out again. With the relocation of the Frankfurt Institute back to Germany in 1953, the tenor of the newer work was more conservative. While the French were preoccupied with the impossibility of social interaction, the Germans were desperate to prove it possible. Adorno's heir was Jurgen Habermas, who in the sixties and seventies developed a phenomenological social theory that depended much more upon Husserl and Schutz' ideas of intersubjectivity and the lifeworld, that Habermas called a communication-theoretic approach. Making communications the model of social interaction, Habermas dethroned the subject - whether the individual subject of classical liberalism or the collective subject of Marxism in favour of the flux of communication between subjects.

There was in the Germany of the sixties a 'back to Marx' movement, with the republication of Lukacs' History and Class Consciousness, and newer works by Adorno's assistant Alfred Schmidt, Elmar Altvater and others. But as Lukacs said at the time, the interest in his book was not for its Marxist orthodoxy, but because of the more existential formulations it contained. Sociologists inspired by the Frankfurt School continued to think of themselves as 'Marxists', but their concerns had shifted from the realm of production to questions of 'legitimation' (Offe) and 'recognition' (Honneth), in keeping with the phenomenological approach.

Post modernists