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Toward the Concrete

While I was a graduate student at Columbia during the “interesting“ years of 1968–70, Lucien Goldmann of Le Dieu Caché fame was a guest professor (in sociology and French, to be sure, not in philosophy).1 I attended his course on Sartre’s theater in the Department of French. One day out of the blue, Goldmann asked the class when existentialism began. What a curious question, I thought. Is he looking for Pascal, or Augustine, or perhaps even Socrates? He relieved our silence with “1910,” which turned out to be the year that Lukács published Soul and Form.2 Goldmann was a great admirer of Geörgy Lukács.

There are a lot of possibilities for the starting date of “existentialism,” whether it be Karl Jaspers’s expounding Eksistenzphilosophie (1938) or his even earlier conversation with his friend Erich Frank about Kierkegaard (July 1914).3 One might cite Gabriel Marcel’s calling Sartre an existentialist at one of his “jeudis chez Marcel,” where the younger philosophical equivalent of “le Tout-Paris” used to gather to philosophize and network. But regardless of the chronology, one of the books that had a directive effect on the existentialist movement—one that I think captured its spirit and drive—was Jean Wahl’s Vers le concret, subtitled Studies in the History [End Page 247] of Contemporary Philosophy (1932).4 Not only did it impress both Sartre and Beauvoir, who referred to it several times in their writings, but it seemed to have focused their attention and that of others seeking a new philosophy to address the contingency of our concrete existence as opposed to what Sartre called the “digestive” neo-Kantian idealism of their Sorbonne professors. Not coincidentally, Wahl’s study discussed the philosophies of Alfred North Whitehead, William James, and Gabriel Marcel. Of the many candidates for the distinguishing feature of existentialist philosophy, I would propose this pursuit of the concrete. Certainly, Sartre’s attraction to Husserlian phenomenology was motivated by this concern. Recall Beauvoir’s story of his discovering Husserlian phenomenology upon Raymond Aron’s assurance that it would enable him to make philosophy out of his perception of the apricot cocktail glass before them. Whatever one thinks of this tale, it is clear that the organization and exposition of Being and Nothingness, as Joseph Catalano has pointed out, was geared to rendering ontologically possible an existential psychoanalysis that in turn would issue in the existential “biographies” of Baudelaire, Malarmé, Genet, and, above all, his multivolume study of Gustave Flaubert, The Family Idiot. These are all attempts to grasp what Sartre would subsequently call the “singular” universal, in effect, the concrete. In the same vein, Marcel entitled one of the essays in his Creative Fidelity “An Outline of a Concrete Philosophy” (1940).

Mention of Whitehead, James, and Marcel is not coincidental. The migration of French and more broadly “European” existentialism to our shores was eased by a Pragmatism that softened the Yankee suspicion of abstractions and also fostered by process philosophy, with its critique of the fallacy of “misplaced concreteness” and its openness to a more fluid metaphysics. I’m not saying that there was an easy exchange among pragmatists, process philosophers, and existentialists. Some of the problems are exhibited in the fallout of John Wilde’s move from the Metaphysical Society of America (MSA), which was not only neo-Aristotelian but processive under the direction of its founder and Wild’s Yale colleague, Paul Weiss. It would be interesting to know what their conversations, if any, might have been while on the same campus. As someone who straddles membership in both the MSA and the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (SPEP) to this day, I recall hearing that Wild, whose work I respected under both descriptions, was especially harsh on his former friends at the MSA once he left their company. [End Page 248]

Existential Philosophy “Then”

As Robert Scharff pointed out in the opening session of our commemorative celebration, there was something significant at stake in the insistence on the expression “Existential Philosophy” rather than “Existentialism” in the title of SPEP at its inception. It had to do with the frequent...


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