Sartre's Phenomenological Ontology and the German Idealist Tradition

Dissertation, University of California, Irvine (2004)

John David Wise
East Stroudsburg State University
A relation between Sartre's phenomenological ontology and the German idealist tradition is frequently assumed in the secondary literature on Sartre. The literature that confronts this question usually adopts a piecemeal approach, treating individual philosophers, usually Hegel, in the mode of comparison and contrast. This approach, though fruitful in a limited fashion, obscures the broader question of Sartre's relation to German idealism as a whole. This study attempts to place Sartre in the context of an internal debate within idealist thought, as one player in an ongoing dialogue. Its task is the establishment of Sartre's phenomenological ontology in Being and Nothingness as essentially idealist in both form and content. ;This work proceeds primarily through interaction with primary texts, beginning with Sartre's early piece, Imagination: A Psychological Critique. From this book we abstract a critical methodology that we discover is ubiquitous in Sartre's early works. In particular, we examine the application of it to the idealists in Being and Nothingness, learning both its failures in terms of representational accuracy and its successes in advancing Sartre's argument. These discoveries lead us to explore the distinction Sartre draws between metaphysics and ontology, which is critical to understanding the nature of Sartre's entire project. Having clarified this distinction, we return our attention to the critical methodology, which displays both an intimate connection to, and important distinctions from, Hegel's dialectical logic. Notably, if Sartre's position is best understood as an ongoing 'moment' in the developing narrative of idealist thought, we conclude that the profound nature of Sartre's relation to Hegel is that of opposition. Sartre's opposition to Hegel in turn may be seen as analogous to the Kantian project of establishing intellectual space for ethics in the face of scientific rationalism. Sartre, I argue, reinstitutes Kant's "Copernican revolution" on the ontological level as a response to the necessitarianism issuing from Hegel's dialectical logic. This response intends to place the realm of ethics forever beyond the possibility of doubt by forbidding metaphysical speculation any functional relevance to human existence. To live as anything other than free moral agents is to live in bad faith
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