Critique of Dialectical Reason. Jean-Paul Sartre. 1960

Critique of Critical Investigation

1 The Basis of Critical Investigation

We know the abstract conditions which this investigation must satisfy if it is to be possible. But these conditions leave its individual reality undetermined. In the same way, in the sciences of Nature we can have a general idea of the aim of an experiment (experience) and the conditions for it to be valid, without knowing what physical fact is to be investigated, what instruments it will employ, or what experimental system it will identify and construct. In other words, a scientific hypothesis includes its own experimental requirements; it indicates, in broad outline, the conditions that the proof must satisfy; but this initial schema can be distinguished only formally from the conjecture which is to be tested. This is why the hypothesis has sometimes been called an experimental idea. It is historical circumstances (the history of the instruments, the contemporary state of knowledge) which give the projected experiment its peculiar physiognomy: thus Faraday, Foucault and Maxwell, for example, constructed such and such a system in order to get such and such a result. But our concern is with the problem of a totalising investigation, and this clearly means that it bears only an extremely distant resemblance to the experiments of the exact sciences. Nevertheless, it too must present itself in its technical particularity, detail the instruments of thought it employs, outline the concrete system it will constitute (that is to say, the structural reality which will be exteriorised in its experimental practice). This is what we shall now specify. [These moments are in fact for the most part inseparable. But it is appropriate that methodological reflection should at least register an example of the stubbornness of reason.] By what particular experimentation can we expect to expose and demonstrate the reality, of the dialectical process? What instruments do we need? What is their point of application? What experimental system must we construct? On the basis of what facts? What type of extrapolation will it justify? What will be the validity of its proofs?

2 Dialectical Reason as Intelligibility

In order to answer these questions we must have some guide-line; and is provided purely by what the object demands. We must turn, therefore, to this basic demand. But if this demand is reduced to the simple question, ‘Are there ontological regions where the law of being correlatively, that of knowledge can be said to be dialectical?’, there is a serious risk of making it unintelligible and of relapsing either into some form of hyper-empiricism or into the opacity and contingency of the laws formulated by Engels. If we were to discover these regions in the same way as natural regions (for example, an area of the together with its climate, hydrography, orography, flora and fauna, etc.) are discovered, then the discovery would share the opacity of something merely found. If, on the other hand, we were to ground our dialectical categories on the impossibility of experience without them, as Kant did for positivist Reason, then we would indeed attain but we would have contaminated it with the opacity of facts. Indeed, to say, ‘If there is to be any such thing as experience, the human mind must be able to unify, sensuous diversity through svnthetic judgements’, is, ultimately, to base the whole critical edifice on the unintelligible judgement (a judgement of fact), ‘But experience does occur.’ And we shall see later that dialectical Reason is itself the intelligibility of positivist Reason; and this is precisely why positivist Reason presents itself’ at first as the unintelligible law of empirical intelligibility. [I am thinking here of the Critique of Pure Reason rather than of Kant’s later works. It has been clearly demonstrated that, in the very last part of Kant’s life, the requirement of intelligibility led him right up to the threshold of dialectical Reason.]
If, however, dialectical Reason has to be grasped initially through human relations, then its fundamental characteristics imply that it appears as apodictic experience in its very intelligibility. It is not a matter of simply asserting its existence, but rather of directly experiencing its existence through its intelligibility, independent of any empirical discovery. In other words, if the dialectic is the reason of being and of knowledge, at least in certain regions, it must manifest itself as double intelligibility. Firstly, the dialectic as the law of the world and of knowledge must itself be intelligible; so that, unlike positivist Reason, it must include its own intelligibility within itself. Secondly, if some real fact — a historical process, for example — develops dialectically, the law of its appearing and its becoming must be — from the stand-point of knowledge — the pure ground of its intelligibility. For the present, we are concerned only with original intelligibility. This intelligibility — the translucidity of the dialectic cannot arise if one merely proclaims dialectical laws, like Engels and Naville, unless each of these laws is presented as a mere sketch, revealing the dialectic as a totality. The rules of positivist Reason appear as separate instructions (unless this Reason is envisaged as a limiting case of dialectical Reason and from its point of view). Each of the so-called ‘laws’ of dialectical Reason is the whole of the dialectic: otherwise the dialectic would cease to be a dialectical process, and thought, as the praxis of the theoretician, would necessarily be discontinuous. Thus the basic intelligibility of dialectical Reason, if it exists, is that of a totalisation. In other words, in terms of our distinction between being and knowledge, a dialectic exists if, in at least one ontological region, a totalisation is in progress which is immediately accessible to a thought which unceasingly totalises itself in its very comprehension of the totalisation from which it emanates and which makes itself its object.
It has often been observed that the laws stated by Hegel and his disciples do not at first seem intelligible; taken in isolation, they may even seem false or gratuitous. Hyppolite has shown convincingly that the negation of the negation — if this schema is envisaged in itself — is not necessarily an affirmation. Similarly, at first glance, the opposition between contradictories does not seem to be necessarily the motive force of the dialectical process. Hamelin, for example, based his whole system on the opposition between contraries. Or, to give another example, it is difficult to see how a new reality, transcending contradictions while preserving them within itself, can be both irreducible to them and intelligible in terms of them. But, these difficulties arise only because the dialectical ‘principles’ are conceived either as mere data or as induced laws; in short, because they are seen from the point of view of positivist Reason in the same way as positivist Reason conceives its own ‘categories’. Each of these so called dialectical laws becomes perfectly intelligible when seen from the point of view of totalisation. It is therefore necessary for the critical investigation to ask the fundamental question: is there a region of being where totalisation is the very form of existence?

3 Totality and Totalisation

From this point of view, and before taking the discussion any further, we must make a clear distinction between the notions of totality and totalisation. A totality is defined as a being which, while radically distinct from the sum of its parts, is present in its entirety, in one form or another, in each of these parts, and which relates to itself either through its relation to one or more of its parts or through its relation to the relations between all or some of them. If this reality is created (a painting or a symphony are examples, if one takes integration to an extreme), it can exist only in the imaginary (l'imaginaire), that is to say, as the correlative of an act of imagination. The ontological status to which it lays claim by its very definition is that of the in-itself, the inert. The synthetic unity which produced its appearance of totality is not an activity, but only the vestige of a past action (just as the unity of a medallion is the passive remnant of its being struck). Through its being-in-exteriority, the inertia of the in-itself gnaws away at this appearance of unity; the passive totality is, in fact, eroded by infinite divisibility. Thus, as the active power of holding together its parts, the totality is only the correlative of an act of imagination: the symphony or the painting, as I have shown elsewhere, are imaginaries projected through the set of dried paints or the linking of sounds which function as their analogon. In the case of practical objects — machines, tools, consumer goods, etc. — our present action makes them seem like totalities by resuscitating, in some way, the praxis which attempted to totalise their inertia. We shall see below that these inert totalities are of crucial importance and that they create the kind of relation between men which we will refer to, later, as the practico-inert. These human objects are worthy of attention in the human world, for it is there that they attain their practico-inert statute; that is to say, they lie heavy on our destiny because of the contradiction which opposes praxis (the labour which made them and the labour which utilises them) and inertia, within them. But, as these remarks show, they are products; and the totality despite what one might think, is only a regulative principle of the totalisation (and all at once disintegrates into the inert ensemble of its provisional creations).
If, indeed, anything is to appear as the synthetic unity of the diverse, it must be a developing unification, that is to say, an activity. The synthetic unification of a habitat is not merely the labour which has produced it, but also the activity of inhabiting it; reduced to itself, it reverts to the multiplicity of inertia. Thus totalisation has the same statute as the totality, for, through the multiplicities, it continues that synthetic labour which makes each part an expression of the whole and which relates the whole to itself through the mediation of its parts. But it is a developing activity, which cannot cease without the multiplicity reverting to its original statute. This act delineates a practical field which, as the un differentiated correlative of praxis, is the formal unity of the ensembles which are to be integrated; within this practical field, the activity attempts the most rigorous synthesis of the most differentiated multiplicity. Thus, by a double movement, multiplicity is multiplied to infinity, each part is set against all the others and against the whole which is in the process of being formed, while the totalising activity tightens all the bonds, making each differentiated element both its immediate expression and its mediation in relation to the other elements. On this basis, it is easy to establish the intelligibility of dialectical Reason; it is the very movement of totalisation. Thus, to take only one example, it is within the framework of totalisation that the negation of the negation becomes an affirmation. Within the practical field, the correlative of praxis, every determination is a negation’, for praxis, in differentiating certain ensembles, excludes them from the group formed by all the others; and the developing unification appears simultaneously in the most differentiated products (indicating the direction of the movement), in those which are less differentiated (indicating continuities, resistances, traditions, a tighter, but more superficial, unity), and in the conflict between the two (which expresses the present state of the developing totalisation). The new negation, which, in determining the less differentiated ensembles, will raise them to the level of the others, is bound to eliminate the negation which set the ensembles in antagonism to each other. Thus it is only within a developing unification (which has already defined the limits of its field) that a determination can be said to be a negation and that the negation of a negation is necessarily an affirmation. If dialectical Reason exists, then, from the ontological point of view, it can only be a developing totalisation, occurring where the totalisation occurs, and, from the epistemological point of view, it can only be the accessibility of that totalisation to a knowledge which is itself, in principle, totalising in its procedures. But since totalising knowledge cannot be thought of as attaining ontological totalisation as a new totalisation of it, dialectical knowledge must itself be a moment of the totalisation, or, in other words, totalisation must include within itself its own reflexive retotalisation as an essential structure and as a totalising process within the process as a whole.

4 Critical Investigation and Totalisation

Thus the dialectic is a totalising activity. Its only laws are the rules produced by the developing totalisation, and these are obviously concerned with the relation between unification and the unified.
[A few examples: the whole is entirely present in the part as its present meaning and as its destiny. In this case, it is opposed to itself as the part is opposed to the whole in its determination (negation of the whole) and, since the parts are opposed to one another (each part is both the negation of the others and the whole, determining itself in its totalising activity and conferring upon the partial structures the determinations required by the total movement), each part is, as such, mediated by the whole in its relations with the other parts: within a totalisation, the multiplicities (as bonds of absolute exteriority — i.e., quantities) do not eliminate, but rather interiorise, one another. For exarnple, the fact of being a hundred (as we shall see when we discuss groups) becomes for each of the hundred a synthetic relation of interiority, with the other ninety-nine; his individual reality is affected by the numerical characteristics of being-the-hundredth. Thus quantity can become quality (as Engels said, following Hegel) only within a whole which reinteriorises even relations of exteriority. In this way the Whole (as a totalising act) becomes the relation among the parts. In other words, totalisation is a mediation between the parts (considered in their determinations) as a relation of interiority: within and through a totalisation, each part is mediated by all in its relation to each, and each is a mediation between all; negation (as determination) becomes a synthetic bond linking each part to every other, to all, and to the whole. But, at the same time, the linked system of mutually conditioning parts is opposed to the whole as an act of absolute unification, to precisely the extent that this system in movement does not and cannot exist except as the actual embodiment and present reality (here and now) of the whole as a developing synthesis. Similarly, the synthetic relations that two (or n + 1) parts maintain between themselves, precisely because they are the effective embodiment of the whole, oppose them to every other part, to all the other parts as a linked system and, consequently, to the whole in its triple reality as a developing synthesis, as an effective presence in every part, and as a surface organisation. Here we are only giving a few abstract examples; but they are sufficient to illustrate the meaning of the bonds of interiority within a developing totalisation. Obviously these oppositions are not static (as they might be if, as might happen, the totalisation were to result in totality); rather they perpetually transform the interior field to the extent that they translate the developing act into its practical efficacity. It is no less clear that what I call a ‘whole’ is not a totality, but the unity of the totalising act in so far as it diversifies itself and embodies itself in totalised diversities.]
That is to say, the modes of effective presence of the totalising process in the totalised parts. And knowledge, itself totalising, is the totalisation itself in so far as it is present in particular partial structures of a definite kind. In other words, totalisation cannot be consciously present to itself if it remains a formal, faceless activity of synthetic unification, but can be so only through the mediation of differentiated realities which it unifies and which effectively embody it to the extent that they totalise themselves by the very movement of the activity of totalising. These remarks enable us to define the first feature of the critical investigation: it takes place inside the totalisation and can be neither a contemplative recognition of the totalising movement, nor a particular, autonomous totalisation of the known totalisation. Rather, it is a real moment of the developing totalisation in so far as this is embodied in all its parts and is realised as synthetic knowledge of itself through the mediation of certain of these parts. In practice, this means that the critical investigation can and must be anyone’s reflexive experience.


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