More on Sartre’s Atheism

30 September 2009


sartre seated

Yesterday in A Note on Sartre’s Atheism I discussed Sartre’s atheism and especially pointed out that Sartre not only went without theology but also without mythology. It is important to point this out because the two, while often conflated, can be treated — or indeed used — in isolation from each other. A philosopher might well reject theology while preserving an enthusiasm for mythology, or might reject mythology as vulgar and superstitious while admiring the refined theology of scholasticism. There is more — much more — to be said on this head.

Among the points I made yesterday was the skeptic’s — and thus, by extension, the atheist’s — commitment to the tangible and the visible as revelatory of the material. A nice illustration of popular attitudes toward irreligion and its commitment to the tangible is to be found in the 1941 film The Devil and Daniel Webster. The devil — Scratch — offers the simple farmer Jabez seven years of good luck in exchange for the farmer’s soul. Here is part of their dialogue:


That’s right, Mr. Stone — there is —
(whipping a paper from his pocket)
— just one little formality. I’d like your
signature here — see. And when it’s done —
it’s done for seven years.
(as Jabez looks up)
It’s our usual form. Of course — we may be
able to take up the question of a renewal in
due time.


(staring at the paper
Scratch holds before him)
What does it mean here — about my soul?


Well, why should that worry you. A soul — a
soul is nothing. Can you see it, smell it,
touch it? — No! — Think of it — this soul
— your soul — a nothing, against seven whole
years of good luck! You will have money and all
that money can buy. Upon my word, Neighbor
Stone, if it weren’t for my firm’s reputation
for generous dealing–

The immateriality of the soul here stands in sharp contrast to the gold shown just earlier in the same scene. Upon revealing gold under the boards of the floor of the barn, Scratch tells the farmer Jabez “Don’t be afraid of it. Pick it up. Feel it in your hands.” Gold here serves as the paradigm of the tangible. (The film version of “The Devil and Daniel Webster” is based on a short story by Stephen Vincent Benét which is in turn based on the short story “The Devil and Tom Walker” by Washington Irving which is in turn a retelling of the Faust story. The film is also known by the title “All That Money Can Buy.”)

Scratch, the devil, and farmer Jabez Stone huddle over a hoard of gold coins.

Scratch, the devil, and farmer Jabez Stone huddle over a hoard of gold coins.

The kind of materialism embodied in this scene manages to conflate philosophical materialism (the doctrine that there is only one kind of thing in the word, such that every actually existing thing is material) with what sociologists call materialism (acquisitiveness of material possessions, which in its extreme form is called conspicuous consumption). The vulgar conception of materialism makes it possible to begin talking about the one and by gradual degrees finish by connecting it to the other. Thus the enervating spiritual effects of acquisitiveness are shown either to follow from or lead to a philosophical doctrine thus tainted by association.

For some, conspicuous consumption takes the form of Manolo Blahnik shoes.

For some, conspicuous consumption takes the form of Manolo Blahnik shoes.

Few philosophers today offer their formulations in terms of materialism, or, if a variety of materialism is put forward, it is a little more philosophically refined and observes subtle distinctions like that between reductive materialism and eliminative materialism. But that does not mean that because philosophers have moved away from materialism simpliciter that they have embraced theism. On the contrary, theism today is yet more unusual than materialism. Contemporary Anglo-American analytical philosophy is dominated by various formulations of naturalism.

What is philosophical naturalism? That is difficult to say, although for the untrained mind it is virtually indistinguishable from materialism. But the distinctions observed by the trained mind are distinctions worth observing. The vulgar materialism sketched above forces one into untenable positions, like conflating important differences because one begins with the postulate that all existing things are of the same type, namely, material things. We all know, from our own thoughts, that a thought is a different kind of a thing than a stone, though both are equally real and equally part of our ordinary experience of life. Thus naturalism emerges to accommodate something more sophisticated than vulgar materialism.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty

Maurice Merleau-Ponty

But for Sartre, this conception of naturalism was not yet available; it had not yet been formulated. For Sartre, nature scarcely exists. One can sense Sartre’s palpable puzzlement in an exchange he recorded with his long-time phenomenological colleague Maurice Merleau-Ponty. In an essay titled “Merleau-Ponty Vivant” Sartre wrote:

I asked him whether he was working. He hesitated. “I may possibly write on nature,” and then to lead me on, he added, “I read a sentence in Whitehead which struck me: ‘Nature is in tatters’.” As you may have already guessed, he didn’t add another word.

Jean-Paul Sartre, Merleau-Ponty Vivant, published in English translation by Benita Eisher in The Debate Between Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, originally published in Les temps modernes in 1961

The idea that nature might be a fitting object for philosophical reflection seems to have struck Sartre as mysterious, the mystery compounded by Merleau-Ponty’s cryptic account of his work to Sartre. And Whitehead — here is a philosopher who represents a tradition so far removed from existentialism and phenomenology that one can’t imagine how Merleau-Ponty would have happened upon the sentence he quoted. But Merleau-Ponty followed up on the idea — mentioning nature was not just a strategy to mystify Sartre — and his posthumous writings on nature have since been published.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty's posthumously published lecture notes on nature.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty's posthumously published lecture notes on nature.

Naturalism as it is known in Anglo-American analytical philosophy, however, is another beast entirely. It is an outgrowth of the concrescence (to use a Whiteheadian term) of science and philosophy that has emerged in modern, industrialized societies. Ironically, the more that industrialization alienates us from nature, the more comprehensible nature becomes. Indeed, nature even becomes an ideal, and our attempts at restoration and mitigation seek to recreate a lost idyll of nature.

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For Sartre and Merleau-Ponty this sense of naturalism — philosophically informed natural science and scientifically informed philosophical theories — would not have been conceivable. For both, science was an institution of Western civilization, and we must see that for the both of them science was as corrupt and as compromised as any institution of contemporary society. Sartre could not be, could not have been, a naturalist in the contemporary sense, and thus was left only with his atheism.


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