In response to:
Rebel from the January 28, 1965 issue
To the Editors:
I was astonished to read George Lichtheim’s statement, in his review of The Marxism of Sartre, that phenomenology is a form of Platonism. I agree that this is a pleasantly convenient way of explaining why Sartre will never bridge the gap between existentialism and Marxism—Platonism being a doctrine of “ideas” and Marxism of historical “realities.” I object only because it happens to be the wrong explanation of why Sartre finds himself in difficulties.
Phenomenology is primarily a method. Most phenomenologists in the world today would reject Husserl’s notion that it is a science of essences. This includes Sartre, who began his career by throwing out all the “metaphysical” elements in Husserl, and leaving only the method. Whether you accept the “metaphysics” (which, admittedly are vaguely Platonist) or not does not matter; phenomenology is mainly the method. This method could be simply defined in the injunction: Do not theorize: describe. It is mainly a way of keeping some of the grosser errors from creeping in.
Sartre’s difficulties are basically psychological rather than philosophical. Using Husserl’s method, he arrived at completely nihilistic conclusions in Being and Nothingness—life is meaningless, human aspirations are all illusions designed to cloak selfishness, etc. All this came out of his rejection of Husserl’s “transcendental ego”—but this is too complicated a subject to pursue here. His rejection of Husserl’s metaphysics springs from a curious fear of “emotionalism,” a longing for the cleanness of pure abstraction—which can be seen so clearly in Words. It is as logically impossible to get from this kind of nihilism to a Marxist ethic as to square the circle—that is where the trouble lies.
George Lichtheim replies:
I suppose one could go on for a long time arguing (a) whether Sartre understood Husserl (b) whether the Husserl of the Cartesian Meditations was still wedded to the doctrine of essences inherent in his earlier work (c) whether it really matters. As Mr. Colin Wilson rightly says, the subject is too complex for an exchange of correspondence. I don’t disagree with his remarks about Sartre’s psychological approach, but see no reason to qualify what I said about the Platonist implications of phenomenology, as understood by its authorized interpreters. Of course there are heretics who deny that it matters, but the distinction between method and system (familiar in the Hegelian context as well) rings a bit hollow. One is always told that phenomenology is quite simply a manner of describing “the structure of existence,” and that light can be shed in this way on social processes as well, but I am still waiting for concrete examples. In this respect Sartre is just as disappointing as the more orthodox followers of the school, and this cannot be wholly due to his psychological troubles.