Erik's Reviews > Critique of Dialectical Reason, Vol 1: Theory of Practical Ensembles

Critique of Dialectical Reason, Vol 1 by Jean-Paul Sartre
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Apr 16, 12


This is an advanced work on Dialectical Theory, Existentialism, Epistemology and Ontology. Anyone unfamiliar with these concepts, or traditions should seek more introductory works first and then move on to this fascinating but difficult study.

The Critique of Dialectical Reason grew out of Sartre's increasing disagreement with Marxist theory, as well as his disenchantment with the realities of life in Soviet Russia. In immediate terms this book grew out of the intellectual sparing between himself and Communist intellectuals that began with his book 'Search for a Method". More comprehensively this book is the culmination of Sartre's philosophical and political engagement with the world.

Sartre's early existentialist philosophy stressed above all individual freedom and responsibility. Later, his political commitments, and the plight of oppressed groups, (presented to him in Simone de Beauvoir's increasing Feminism, as well as his friendship with Franz Fanon, and his rejection of capitalism) tempered many of his individualistic axioms. But, as Sartre became increasingly impacted by the Marxist arguments regarding class and material circumstances, he also became disenchanted with their rejection of individual rights and needs in favor of collective spirit. To Sartre neither the idealistic philosophy of capitalist society, nor the deterministic materialist dialectics of Marx (arguing that man's consciousness was determined by his material conditions) were adequate: He sought a middle route.

In doing so Sartre combines Hegel's idealistic dialectics: dialectics of spirit, history, and logic, and Marxist materialist dialectics and examines their efficacy in understanding historical events.

The result is one of the most difficult and frustrating books ever written. In order to transcend the ironically binary categories of both idealistic and materialistic dialects, and to avoid universalism, (a big concern in France at the time with the emergence of Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, Lacan, etc) while also avoiding relativism, (which he argued Foucault among others will guilty of) Sartre is forced to create an army of specialized terms to equip him to proceed with his inquiry.

Critique volume 1. is well over 800 pages and bears the mark of having been written by a man propelled by uppers (up to 20 tablets of codrain per day). It is sprawling and loosely organized monster of a book. Luckily, the editing work has included a decent glossary of terms, (a much better one is included in Vol. 2.) The Glossary is crucial, and it makes sense for a committed reader (which is the only type of reader who has any hope of finishing this book) to buy Vol. 2 at the same time in order to utilize the glossary.

Length and difficulty aside this is an astounding and important work that cannot be overestimated.

Unfortunately, since the nature of the work regards both epistemology and ontology, it is impossible to reproduce the main conclusions of the book. Much in the way that Kafka wrote, Sartre's greatest insight, his liberation of Dialectical Reason from specifically idealist or materialist chains requires diligent attention. It is a method of thought that he is convincing one of, the only way to learn is such aspects of mental grammar are through mimicry. We have to read Sartre's convoluted book in order to experience the methodology of his thinking.

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message 1: by Dinesh (new)

Dinesh Devaraj Thank you so much for your brilliant analysis. I am currently making my way through this book. I completely empathise with those who say it should be written in simpler format in order to more effectively engage with the people, but at the same time Sartre's level of self-understanding is truly one of the most inspirational experiences of my life. He is a real master of thought, despite any possible errors that lie in his thinking...


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