restricted access 2. We Are, Therefore I Am—I Am, Therefore We Are: The Third in Sartre’s Social Ontology
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2 We Are, Therefore I Am—I Am, Therefore We Are: The Third in Sartre’s Social Ontology The aim of this chapter is to incite you to read an unreadable book. Jean-Paul Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason ([1960] 2004) unquestionably ranks as one of the most unreadable books of twentieth-century philosophy, matched only, if not exceeded by its parallel project, the equally unfinished Flaubert study The Family Idiot. The Critique, in spite of being the crowning masterpiece of Sartre’s political thinking, fell stillborn from the press, largely due to its unforgiving attitude toward its readers. It is an imposing work that from its opening pages does not seem to want to be read. Such indifference toward any readership is commensurate with the peculiar character of Sartre’s thinking, which arguably attains in the Critique its most consummate form in fusing together unbridled self-absorption (a thinking entirely given to itself) with unsurpassed generosity (a thinking that gives itself entirely for thought). This generosity reflects that indefinable quality of Sartre’s thinking as a pedagogy of philosophical creativity. In Gilles Deleuze’s eloquent homage, Sartre was perhaps the last great “teacher” (maître: untranslatable into any single English equivalent) of philosophy in the twentieth century, who not so much instructs what to think, but more fruitfully displays how to think with an audacity and verve rarely equaled since (Deleuze 2002). The apparent contradiction in Sartre’s philosophical writing of how an unreadable book could at all teach us anything is only resolved as a productive tension within a thinking that tirelessly remained uncompromising toward the gifts of its own genius. As I propose here, the originality of the Critique consists in a sophisticated treatment of central problems in sociology and social ontology.1 The Critique offers a social ontology that challenges entrenched views regarding how to understand the constitutive interaction between the individual (the “I”) and the collective (the “we”). How are social groups and collective actions constituted? What is the relationship between individual and collective Nicolas de Warren 1. Although Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason has received attention as a work of political philosophy , it has not—to my knowledge—yet been appreciated as a sophisticated social ontology. For an exegetical presentation of Sartre’s work, see Catalano 1986. For an analysis of Sartre’s unfinished vol. 2, see Cambria 2009. For an interpretation of Sartre’s Critique that places its Marxism against the background of his earlier existentialist ethics, see Flynn 1984. 48 N. de Warren agency? Sartre’s innovative approach to this cluster of problems is based (in part) on the introduction of a novel concept: the third (le tiers).2 As with other Sartrean creations, the concept of the third operates in both a critical and a productive register. Sartre conceived of the social ontology in the Critique as advancing a critique of sociology and, more generally, targets an assumption that arguably continues to shape numerous philosophical approaches to social ontology today. As he observes: “It is a common error of many sociologists to treat the group as a binary relation (individual–community), whereas, in reality, it is a ternary relation” (Sartre [1960] 2004, 374). If the question of how to understand the constitution of collective agency and action turns on understanding the relationship between an individual subject (a “first-person” structure of intentionality) and a collective subject (a “weintentionality ”), Sartre proposes to question any strict opposition between first-person singular and first-person plural. In thinking of intersubjectivity beyond the stricture of binary terms, the concept of the third underpins a compelling account of how social relations are forged in collective action, or praxis, through which social agency is constituted on an individual and collective plane. With this critique, Sartre rejects a variety of sociological approaches to the constitution of groups: the theory of social contract popular within the French Republican tradition; theories of moral sentiment (natural sympathy for social existence ); and Comte’s positivistic notion of society. Sartre is, however, especially critical of Durkheim’s conception of collective consciousness and its lasting imprint on sociological thought. As Sartre remarks in his 1961 Rome Conference address: Ce qui nous offre la possibilité de comprendre en quoi la subjectivité est indispenable pour la connaissance dialectique du social. C’est parce qu’il n’ya que des hommes, qu’il n’y a pas de grandes formes collectives, comme Durkheim et d’autres l’ont imaginé, et que ces hommes sont oblig...