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  • Existentialism as a World Theory
  • Alex Taek-Gwang Lee (bio)

Existentialism and the Third World

The Cold War following the traumatic experiences of enduring warfare forced the Korean intellectuals to distort the political implication of the global philosophical movements and emphasize its empirical elements through their translations of Sartre. The ideology of the Cold War distorted Sartre's influence on the Korean intellectuals, and their reception of his philosophy was saturated with the myth of Bildung. For them, existentialism was regarded as a channel through which they could get access to the cosmopolitan ideals of the Enlightenment. Of course, there lied the irony of national identification behind this passion for global intellectualism.

Nationalism made an excuse for reading Sartre, even though his philosophy must be classified leftist thought. Existentialism was clearly supportive of the Third World against the political polarization of the Cold War. From the nationalist perspective, existentialism showed a possible way towards the philosophy of the non-European, but at the same time, it seemed pro-communist to those who agreed with the anti-communist world order. The Korean War devastated the public sphere, and the frame of the Cold War severed a nation into two peoples. Each Korea competed to command ideological hegemony in the political conflict. In this way, existentialism served as the alternative prism of intellectualism by which Koreans in the South could critique the Stalinist Koreans in the North.

Indeed, Sartre was a symbolic intellectual leading the anti-Stalinist left and as such suggested another perspective contra orthodox Marxist-Leninism. During the colonial period, Keijo Imperial University, now Seoul National University in the capital city of the Korean Peninsula, was a shelter for Japanese Marxists and its academic tradition of Marxism influenced many Korean students and scholars even after the end of the Second World War. In a sense, North Korea was a perfect laboratory for them in which they tried to realize the Marxist theory. Drawing on Lenin's and Stalin's ambition about the "reform in humanity," Koreans taking on North Korea as their republic [End Page 405] were optimistic about the victory of socialism. On the contrary, Koreans in the South had to prove their ideological justification in opposition to the overwhelming popularity of socialist demands. From this historical background, Sartre's critique of Stalinism provided those who railed against North Korea with a compelling logic to validate their anti-communism.

This situation in which the intellectuals in South Korea received Sartre was quite the opposite of the one in which existentialism was taken as the theoretical rationale of the non-aligned movement in the Third World. For instance, Sartre was the only European philosopher attracting public attention in the Middle East. Furthermore, his engagement with the political situation of the Third World changed the relationship between the West and the non-West. According to Yoav di-Capua,

On both sides of the Mediterranean, Sartre, his intellectual circle, and their new Arab interlocutors were eager to demonstrate that, against the polarizing logic of the Cold War and the sociopolitical stagnation of Europe, decolonization could produce revolutionary societies that were as egalitarian, free, and patriotic as they were anti-imperialist and humanistic. For Europeans of the Left and colonized people of recently liberated domains, that, in a nutshell, was the promise of Third Worldism, and, far from being a provincial African, Asian, or Arab project, it was, in a variation on the old theme of colonial universality, a promising universal counter-project of its own.

(di-Capua 2018, 2)

Existentialism shaped the new idea of counter-universality, and further paved the way towards "Third Worldism" for both Western and non-Western intellectuals. What is this "Third Worldism"? It is merely the sublimation of the Cold War, the conflict of two ideological poles, the U.S. and the USSR in particular. Many thinkers of decolonization in the Third World, such as Franz Fanon inspired Sartre and his philosophical circle in France. Without the political movements in the former colonial countries, the mapping out of European thought would be unlike what we know today. However, it is undeniable that the non-European reception of existentialism was rooted in a deep longing for the European...


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pp. 405-413
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