Swinging and Nothingness

Leave it to Beaver: For Jean-Paul Sartre centenary, think of Pascal's spiked girdle

Hegel had a clever way of dealing with historical personages he didn't know what to make of—he made history responsible for them. Such figures as the terrific and terrible Napoleon were "world-historical" individuals who, though they seem to be wreaking relentless havoc and creating unjustifiable chaos, are actually, unbeknownst to them, advancing the interests of history. They are pawns in its slow game. French philosopher and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu said that he made his intellectual way by trying to do and say the opposite of what Sartre did and said—all the while admiring him intensely. Bourdieu credited Sartre with enshrining the "myth of the intellectual" (Bourdieu wrote a book called Homo Academicus where he gave taxonomic specifications). As the phrase indicates, it is only a myth. Thinkers were for Bourdieu always deeply entrenched in history, and the world of the mind and the world of the body were never, he claimed, far apart. And yet, he added, this "myth of the intellectual," which no one so well as Sartre embodied and embedded, was "one of the ruses of historical reason," one of the means by which Hegel's history progresses.

Phrased more crudely, what do beautiful women, iron spikes, and pirates have to do with "true philosophy"? Everything and nothing seems the only philosophical answer. Nothing because philosophy is about the essential and not the accidental, about the life of the mind and the rules of reason. Everything because philosophy is also the discipline whose task is the life truly led—and that is a life, for good or ill, with spiked girdles, high-seas adventure, and beautiful women.

Leland de la Durantaye is an assistant professor of English and American literature and language at Harvard University.

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