Institutional Abjection

7 January 2009


One of the philosophical essays that most influenced my personal intellectual development was Sartre’s 1945 lecture “Existentialism is a Humanism”. There were other profound influences on my thinking, of course, some of them obscure and some of them as well known as Sartre, but it is Sartre’s lecture that I wish to invoke today. I understand that it has recently been re-issued in a new edition that includes an interview with Sartre about the lecture, though I haven’t yet had an opportunity to read this.

French playwright and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre is shown in his study in Paris, on November 28, 1948.

French playwright and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre is shown in his study in Paris, on November 28, 1948.

This lecture includes Sartre’s definition of existentialism as “existence precedes essence”. Sartre’s formulation of existentialism in a three-word aphorism belongs to that small group of philosophical purple passages that will be remembered and debated. Among them I also number Plato on the philosopher-king, Bacon’s “Knowledge is power,” and Kronecker’s remark on the natural numbers (“Die ganze Zahl shuf der liebe Gott, alles übrige ist Menschenwerk.”). The concision, scope, and unambiguous character of Sartre’s formulation make it a worthy focus of debate, a principle to be extrapolated in the light of new and future evidence, and a continuing point of reference for philosophical thought, whatever its inadequacies as a “popular” presentation of his doctrines, and despite the fact that Sartre’s formulation was decisively rejected by Sartre’s contemporaneous luminaries of existentialism, Jaspers and Heidegger.

Plato on the Philosopher-King: 'Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, and those commoner natures who pursue either to the exclusion of the other are compelled to stand aside, cities will never have rest from their evils — no, nor the human race, as I believe — and then only will this our State have a possibility of life and behold the light of day.'

A few days ago, in Institutional Succession, I wrote that the body of non-teleological biological knowledge that we have gained of biological species might be profitably applied to non-biological species, so that we can also conceive of non-biological species in a consistently and coherently non-teleological fashion. I also wrote that my experience of coming to understand natural selection has encouraged me to consciously seek non-teleological explanations of natural (and, for that matter, non-natural phenomena). For lack of a better term, one could say that I am seeking an alternative to teleologizing thought: conceiving the world in terms of process rather than ends attained. One could call this a deontological perspective.

Natural selection means that biological entities are not produced according to a plan, but are the result of contingent selection pressures. Here existence not only precedes essence, but there is no essence to speak of, only existence.

What has this to do with Sartre’s lecture on existentialism as a humanism? Sartre points out that there are clear cases of things that exemplify the negation of his dictum that existence precedes essence. Specifically, manufactured objects are made according to a plan that is conceived in the mind of the designer and manufacturer. Of an object of manufacture, designed before brought into being, and produced for a certain end, we can truly say that essence precedes existence. In so far as contrived beings have essences, those essences come before their existence, which existence is contingent upon the whim and pleasure of the designer and producer.

According to Sartre, there is 'at least one entity' for which existence precedes essence, and that entity is man if nothing else.

When Sartre made the claim that existence precedes essence, he carefully formulated his assertion such that there is at least one entity for which existence precedes essence, and that entity is man. In other words, at least for man if for no other existent (“existent” is a philosopher’s term for “thing” loosely understood), our existence comes first, and any essence that follows is a result of our own effort and actions. Well, this is obviously the ground of a distinction: we can distinguish between existents for which existence precedes essence on the one hand, and on the other hand existents for which essence precedes existence.

A railroad timetable is a convention, set up to order the world in a certain way. The world follows this order to a certain extent, but extenuating circumstances can forces changes to the plan. Is this real or ideal or a synthesis of reality and ideality?

Now, there is a very important sense in which human institutions are an exception to the proscription on teleologizing that I have consciously imposed on my own thinking. Institutions, as social technologies, are practical implementations of human intelligence (as I noted that Frederick Ferré defined technology in Civilization and War as Social Technologies), and as such the essence of an institution is the conception in the minds of its creators.

But it isn’t quite that simple. Human institutions in fact occupy a middle ground between things definitely created to a plan and things that emerged organically within the context of history. Human institutions that are the result of a practical application of intelligence are social technologies and therefore teleological in their inception (though not necessarily teleological in their outcomes – this is an important idea to which we will need to return later).

Human institutions that are the result of gradual historical accretion, emerging imperceptibly from history, such that their origins are lost in the mists of time (and as often as not transformed into mythology), are essentially organic, though we here employ that term in an expanded sense not unlike the extended sense of species when speaking of entities beyond specifically biological species. Such organic institutions were preceded by no plan or conception, and therefore can be said to belong to the class of existents for which existence precedes essence.

Still, things aren’t that simple. Most human institutions are a hybrid of practical applications of intelligence and imperceptibly gradual evolution. This happens in two ways: evolutionary social structures are guided by intelligent intervention, and intelligently designed social structures are subject to evolution as soon as they are put into practice.

Given the hybrid character of most institutions, institutions do not clearly belong to either the class of existents for which existence precedes essence or the class of existents for which essence precedes existence. Institutions occupy an ontological gray area, and probably some of them shade off in one direction, being more design than accident, while others shade off in the other direction, being more accident than design. Georges Bataille had an interesting term of such ontological gray areas: institutions are abject.

not the best known among twentieth century philosophers, but certainly among the most interesting.

Georges Bataille: not the best known among twentieth century philosophers, but certainly among the most interesting.

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(The terms abject and abjection were later appropriated and popularized by Julia Kristeva in her Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, but their origins are in Bataille’s The Accursed Share).

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For more on Sartre see Existence Precedes Essence.

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