Sartre's ethics and the dialectic of history: Searching for a ground of hope for the city of ends

Christopher R Harless, Fordham University


What would it take to provide a philosophical grounding for radical hope? Near the end of his life, Jean-Paul Sartre said in an interview that, although he is often tempted by despair, he is "resisting" and he knows he "shall die in hope," adding that "this hope must be grounded." Taking these statements as a point of departure, this dissertation is a critical review of some of Sartre's major philosophical works after 1945, read through the interpretive lens of his desire to ground revolutionary hope. I show that Sartre's early work on ethics in the mid-forties was very much motivated by this desire, but it reached an impasse due to his inability to conceive an adequate philosophy of history. Central to his early ethics is the notion of a "city of ends," a Kantian-styled ideal that he imagines to be the end of history. Hoping for such an end, I argue, requires that one be able to think of history as being (1) unified, (2) capable of being oriented towards an end, and (3) open to human influence (i.e., not fully determined)—a conception of history, in short, that is contrary to many current trends, especially among postmodern circles. I then show how in the Critique of Dialectical Reason, Volumes One and Two, Sartre begins to develop a theory of history that answers to these three demands, arguing in the process that certain key notions such as the practico-inert, totalization, the mediating third, and incarnation, are best understood in light of this larger project of grounding hope. At the end of the study, I argue that his conception of the relation between ethics and history is compelling and offers a viable theoretical support for political action.

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Recommended Citation

Harless, Christopher R, "Sartre's ethics and the dialectic of history: Searching for a ground of hope for the city of ends" (2007). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3271268.