Notes on Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason

Table of Contents

Volume 1



1 Dialectical Monism

Sartre sets out to prove that historical dialectic and materialist dialectic are true:

“It must be proved that a negation of a negation can be an affirmation, that conflicts – within a person or a group – are the motive force of History, that each moment of a series is comprehensible on the basis of the initial moment, thought irreducible to it, that History continually effects totalisations of totalisations, and so on, before the details of an analytico-synthetic and regressive-progressive method can be grasped.”

Sartre admits that most anthropologists reject the above…

He goes on to discuss the form of materialism accepted by “the positivists” (meaning who?):

“the determinism of the positivists is necessarily a form of materialism: whatever its subject matter, it endows it with the characteristics of mechanical materiality, namely inertia and exterior causation. But it normally rejects the reinteriorisation of the different moments in synthetic progression. Where we see the developmental unity of a single process, the positivists will attempt to show several independent, exterior factors of which the event under consideration is the resultant. What the positivists reject is a monism of interpretation.”

Here, Sartre gives us our first clue as to the contribution he is trying to make to many of our notions of ontological reasoning. Instead of seeing the world as discrete objects bumping around without any internal motive force, Sartre wants us to understand that there are some objects that also take the world into themselves. One result from this update to the billiard-ball model of the Universe is that it allows for the “different moments in a synthetic progression” to be seen as a “developmental unity”. But is the entire Universe such a developmental unity, or is there still regions of “mechanical materiality”? Is this developmental unity of synthetic progression that we call “History” merely possible, or is it necessary?

Sartre doesn’t think that this can be done from within the perspective of various domains of investigation: empirical anthropology being one. He uses a critique Lefebve makes of Juarès’ monism to show that when we reject all a priori formulations of a universal process logic (monism, analytical determinism, etc.), we often find ourselves observice a variety of process logics. Sometimes we observe a process to have a dialectical logic, other times an analytical logic. This leaves us in a situation where we can’t figure out why some processes follow one logic and not the others. We aren’t able to show why any of those processes must follow the logic that they do.

This is a huge problem for Marxism, which attempts to prove that dialectical materialism is the necessary process logic of historical development. From within the restrictions of relying on only the empirical evidence from historical research, we can’t demonstrate any particular process logic. There is no grounds from within such restrictions for assuming that dialectical materialism is necessary. Dialectical materialism thus remains a mere assumption, even a assertion.

2 Scientific and Dialectical Reason

“There is a crisis in Marxist culture; there are many signs today that this crisis is temporary, but its very existence prohibits us from justifying the principles by their results.”

“The supreme paradox of historical materialism is that it is, at one and the same time, the only truth of History and a total indetermination of the Truth. The totalising thought of historical materialism has established everything except its own existence.”

“Scientific research can in fact be unaware of its own principal features. Dialectical knowledge, in contrast, is knowledge of the dialectic. For science, there is not any formal structure, nor any implicit assertion about the rationality of the universe: Reason is developing, and the mind prejudges nothing. In complete contrast, the dialectic is both a method and a movement in the object. For the dialectician, it is grounded on a fundamental claim both about the structure of the real and about that of our praxis.”

“Dialectical Reason transcends the level of methodology; it states what a sector of the universe, or perhaps, the whole universe is. It does not merely direct research, or even pre-judge the mode of appearance of objects. Dialectical Reason legislates, it defines what the world (human or total) must be like for dialectical knowledge to be possible; it simultaneously elucidates the movement of the real and that of our thoughts, and it elucidates the one by the other. This particular rational system, however, is supposed to transcend and to integrate all models of rationality. Dialectical Reason is neither constituent nor constituted reason; it is Reason constituting itself in and through the world, dissolving in itself all constituted Reasons in order to constitute new ones which it transcends and dissolves in turn. It is, therefor, both a type of rationality and the transcendence of all types of rationality.”

Ok, so again, Sartre is telling us why his book is necessary. Since Dialectical Reason refers to a method of reasoning and the results of such a method (the knowledge produced), it needs to be shown why its method of reasoning should be adopted by something other than the results of that method. The basic reason why this is a problem for Dialectical Reason is because of the principles of dialectical method themselves. Mainly, that since Dialectical Reason claims that everything is a unity, a developing unity, or a “totalisation” as Sartre calls it, then there is no room for a more primary form of reasoning: it must be a dialectical form. Otherwise, Dialectical Reason becomes a study of mere regions of reality. If it is applicable only to some regions, then it violates its own justification for proceeding as it does and becomes just another form of analytical reasoning. Dialectical Reason must therefor include itself in its own process logic. I guess the alternative would be to suggest that Dialectical Reason has been given to humanity by God, acquired through revelation instead of through reason.

3 Hegelian Dogmatism

“The superiority of Hegelian dogmatism, for those who believe in it, lies precisely in that part of it which we now reject – its idealism.”

This section is very short, but I think the point of it is that since Hegelian dialectics is idealist, it doesn’t have the problem Sartre outlined before. I’ll come back to this if I ever find a reason to, but the purpose of the section seems to be to dispense with idealism as quick as possible and move forward with the project of the book.

4 The Dialectic in Marx

“For Positivists, prediction is possible only to the extent that the current order of succession re-enacts a previous order of succession; and so the future repeats the past.”

“The Marxist future, however, is a genuine future: it is completely new, and irreducible to the present.”

Dialectical Reason and Positivism understand prediction in different ways. We understand why Positivists think they can predict some futures, but not why Marxists do. So Sartre is going to try to explain that to us…

5 Thought, Being and Truth in Marxism

“But that is not all. For Hegel, as we have seen, the apodicticity of dialectical knowledge implied the identity of being, action and knowledge. Marx, however, began by positing that material existence was irreducible to knowledge, that praxis outstrips Knowledge in its real efficacy. Needless to say, this is my own position.”

For idealists, and for Hegel in particular, knowledge, thought, and truth develop identically with material history and/or the becoming of Being. For Sartre and for Marx, knowledge can not be reduced to the becoming of Being; the two domains are irreducible to each other and maintain their distance from each other. This was something he dealt with a lot in Being and Nothingness. For Sartre, consciousness can only create knowledge through reflection. This process of knowledge production through reflection indicates that there is always a gap between the actual changes taking place in reality (what consciousness is consciousness of) and the knowledge that consciousness forms after it observes those changes. This will center praxis in Sartre’s understanding of Dialectical Reason, since one important form of praxis is the process through which consciousness creates knowledge from its experience of reality as it develops. What Sartre will try to show is that praxis is the throne of dialectics, the fundamental process through which Dialectical Reason can be demonstrated as both the process logic of Becoming and the process logic of knowledge production. Again, not like the idealists who think Being, Action, and Knowledge are basically the same thing changing together.

“Materialist monism, in short, has successfully eliminated the dualism of thought and Being in favor of total Being, which is thereby grasped in its materiality. But the effect of this has only been to re-establish, as an antinomy – at least an apparent one – the dualism of Being and Truth.”

6 The External Dialectic in Modern Marxism

This is where Sartre begins his critique of The Dialectic of Nature:

“This gigantic – and, as we shall see, abortive – attempt to allow the world to unfold itself by
itself and to no one, we shall call external, or transcendental, dialectical materialism (Ie materialisme dialectique du dehors ou transcendental).”

7 The Dialectic of Nature

“It is clear that this kind of materialism is not Marxist, but still it is defined by Marx: ‘The materialist outlook on nature means nothing more than the conception of nature just as it is, without alien addition.’ On this conception, man returns to the very heart of Nature as one of
its objects and develops before our eyes in accordance with the laws of Nature, that is, as pure materiality governed by the universal laws of the dialectic. The object of thought is Nature as it is, and the study of History is only a particular form of it: we must trace the movement that produces life out of matter, man out of primitive forms of life, and social history out of the first human communities. The advantage of this conception is that it avoids the problem: it presents the dialectic, a priori and without justification, as the fundamental law of Nature.”

Note that Sartre points beyond Engles and towards Marx himself as responsible for suggesting this dialectic of nature. However, a footnote has been added by the editor, pointing out that the quoted sentence was actually probably Engles:

  1. This sentence appears to be by Engels and not by Marx. It is part of an
    unused section of a draft of Engels, Ludwig F ellerbach and the Olltcome of Classical
    German Philosophy. The text of this unused section appears as a section of Dialectics of Nature, trans. C. P. Dutt, Moscow, Progress Publishers, I 934, pp.
    I95-9. Sartre refers to the same remark in The Problem of Method, p. p, n. 9, and
    also below, p. I8I [Ed.]

“This external materialism lays down the dialectic as exteriority: the Nature of man lies outside him in an a priori law, in an extra-human nature, in a history that begins with the nebulae. For this universal dialectic, partial totalisations do not have even provisional value; they do not exist. Everything must always be referred to the totality of natural history of which human history is only a particular form. Thus all real thought, as it actually forms itself in the concrete movement of History, is held to be a complete distortion of its object. Thus all real thought, as it actually forms itself in the concrete movement of History, is held to be a complete distortion of its object. It becomes a truth again only if it is reduced to a dead object, to a result; and thus a position outside man, and on the side of things, is adopted so that the idea can be seen as a thing signified by things rather than as a signifying act”

There are some very relevant points made following the above quote, but since the section is short it makes more sense to read the whole section than to quote it piecemeal. Importantly though:

“Dialectical Reason can only be captured elsewhere, so that it can be forcibly imposed on the data of physics and chemistry. It is well known, in fact, that the notion of dialectic emerged in History a long quite different paths, and that both Hegel and Marx explained and defined it in terms of the relations of man to matter, and of men to each other. The attempt to find the movement of human history within natural history was made only later, out of a wish for unification. Thus the claim that there is a dialectic ofN ature refers to the totality of material facts – past, present, future or, to put it another way, it involves a totalisation of temporality. It has a curious similarity to those Ideas of Reason which, according to Kant, were regulative and incapable of being corroborated by any particular experience.”

8 Critique of the External Dialectic

“Thus a system of ideas is contemplated by a pure consciousness which has pre-constituted their law for them,14 though utterly incapable of justifying this ukase. But in order to grasp materiality as such, it is not sufficient to discuss the word ‘matter’. Language is ambiguous in that words sometimes designate objects and sometimes concepts; and this is why materialism as such is not opposed to idealism. In fact, there is a materialist idealism which, in the last analysis, is merely a discourse on the idea of matter; the real opposite of this is realist materialism – the thought of an individual who is situated in the world, penetrated by every cosmic force, and treating the material universe as something which gradually reveals itself through a ‘situated’ praxis.”

“Our doctrinaires have mistaken for a real recognition of Necessity what is actually only a particular form of alienation, which makes their own lived thinking appear as an object for
a universal Consciousness, and which reflects on it as though it were the Thought of the Other.”

“However one looks at it, transcendental materialism leads to the irrational, either by ignoring the thought of empirical man, or by creating a noumenal consciousness which imposes its law as a whim, or again, by discovering in Nature ‘without alien addition’ the laws of dialectical Reason in the form of contingent facts.”

9 The Domain of Dialectical Reason

“I do not see that we are in a position to affirm or deny it. Every one is free either to hefieve that physico-chemical laws express a dialectical reason, or not to believe it. In any case, in the domain of the facts of inorganic Nature, the claim must be extra-scientific. We merely ask for the restoration of the order of certainties and discoveries: for if there is such a thing as a dialectical reason, it is revealed and established in and through human praxis, to men in a given society at a
particular moment of its development. On the basis of this discovery, the limits and scope of dialectical certainty have to be established.”

“There is such a thing as historical materialism, and the law of this materialism is the dialectic. But if, as some writers imply, dialectical materialism is to be understood as a monism which is supposed to control human history from outside, then we are compelled to say that there is no such thing as dialectical materialism, at least for the time being.”

“This long discussion has not been useless: it has enabled us to formulate our problem; it has revealed the conditions under which a dialectic can be established.”

“Engels’ mistake, in the text we quoted above, was to think that he could extract his dialectical laws from Nature by non-dialectical procedures comparison, analogy, abstraction and induction. In fact, dialectical Reason is a whole and must ground itself by itself, or dialectically.”

“Furthermore, it must be understood that there is no such thing as man; there are people, wholly defined by their society and by the historical movement which carries them along; if we do not wish the dialectic to become a divine law again, a metaphysical fate, it must proceed from individuals and not from some kind of supra-individual ensemble. Thus we encounter a new contradiction: the dialectic is the law of totalisation which creates several collectivities, several societies, and one history – realities, that is, which impose themselves on individuals; but at the same time it must be woven out of millions of individual actions. We must show how it is possible for it to be both a resultant, though not a passive average, and a totalising force, though not a transcendent fate, and how it can continually bring about the unity of dispersive profusion and integration.”

“The dialectic, if it exists, can only be the totalisation of concrete totalisations effected by a multiplicity of totalising individualities. I shall refer to this as dialectical nominalism.”

“In the first place, no one can discoyer the dialectic while keeping the point of view of analytical Reason; which means, among other things, that no one can discover the dialectic while remaining external to the object under consideration. Indeed, for anyone considering a given system in exteriority, no specific investigation can show whether the movement of the system is a continuous unfolding or a succession of discrete instants. The stance of the desituated experimenter, however, tends to perpetuate analytical Reason as the model of intelligibility; the scientist’s passivity in relation to the system will tend to reveal to him a passivity of the system in relation to himself. The dialectic reveals itself only to an observer situated in interiority, that is to say, to an investigator who lives his investigation both as a possible contribution to the ideology of the entire epoch and as the particular praxis of an individual defined by his historical and
personal career within the wider history which conditions it.”

“The dialectic as the living logic of action is invisible to a contemplative reason: it appears in the course of praxis as a necessary moment of it; in other words, it is created anew in each action (though actions arise only on the basis of a world entirely constituted by the dialectical praxis of the past) and becomes a theoretical and practical method when action in the course of development begins to give an explanation of itself.”

“However, we must give notice that the investigation we are undertaking, though in itself historical, like any other undertaking, does not attempt to discover the movement of History, the evolution of labour or of the relations of production, or class conflicts. Its goal is simply to
reveal and establish dialectical rationality, that is to say, the complex play of praxis and totalisation.”

“When we have arrived at the most general conditionings, that is to say, at materiality, it will then be time to reconstruct, on the basis of the investigation, the schema of intelligibility proper to the totalisation. This second part, which will be published later, will be what one might call a synthetic and progressive definition of ‘the rationality of action’. In this connection, we shall see how dialectical Reason extends beyond analytical Reason and includes within itself its own
critique and its own transcendence.”

“If a summary of this introduction is required, however, one could say that in the field of dialectical rationality historical materialism is its own proof, but that it does not provide a foundation for this rationality even, and above all, if it provides the History of its development as constituted Reason. Marxism is History itself becoming conscious of itself, and if it is valid it is by its material content, which is not, and cannot be, at issue here. But precisely because its reality resides in its content, the internal connections which it brings to light, in so far as they are part of its real content, are indeterminate in form. In particular, when a Marxist makes use of the notion of ‘necessity’ in order to characterise the relation of two events within one and the same process, we remain hesitant, even if the attempted synthesis convinces us completely. This does not mean that we reject necessity in human affairs ­quite the opposite; but simply that dialectical necessity is by definition different from the necessity of analytical Reason and that Marxism is not concerned – why should it be? – with determining and establishing this new structure of being and of experience. Thus our task cannot in any way be to reconstruct real History in its development, any more than it can consist in a concrete study of forms of production or of the groups studied by the sociologist and the ethnographer. Our problem is critical. Doubtless this problem is itself raised by History. But it is precisely a matter of testing, criticising and establishing, within History and at this particular moment in the development of human societies, the instruments of thought by means of which History thinks itself in so far as they are also the practical instruments by means of which it is made. Of course, we shall be driven from doing to knowing and from knowing to doing in the unity of a process which will itself be dialectical. But our real aim is theoretical. It can be formulated in the following terms: on what conditions is the knowledge of a History possible? To what extent can the connections brought to light be necessary? What is dialectical rationality, and what are its limits and foundation? Our extremely slight dissociation of ourselves from the letter of Marxist doctrine (which I indicated in The Problem of Method) enables us to see the meaning of this question as the disquiet of the genuine experience which refuses to collapse into non-truth. It is to this disquiet that we are attempting to respond. But I am far from believing that the isolated effort of an individual can provide a satisfactory answer – even a partial one – to so vast a question, a question which engages with the totality of History. If these initial investigations have done no more than enable me to define the problem, by means of provisional remarks which are there to be challenged and modified, and if they give rise to a discussion and if, as would be best, this discussion is carried on collectively in working groups, then I shall be satisfied.”


1 The Basis of Critical Investigation

“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

“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.”

“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.”

“The ontological status to which it lays claim by its very definition is that of the in-itself, the inert.”

“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 analagon.”

“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.”

“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.”

In the new vocabulary of Critique of Dialectical Reason, we can see above that what Sartre had described as the in-itself previously became a totality in this work. The way that totalities are created and known is through dialectical reasoning, through totalisation. Totalisation recognises and unifies totalities into a greater synthesis. Totalisation is also a human activity, it is a form of praxis.

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, 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 totalizing.”

“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.”


“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 example, 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 o ther ninety-nine; his individual reality is affected by the numerical characteristics of being-thehundredth. 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 efficacy. 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.”

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

So the difference between how we tend to routinely think of objects and how Sartre wants us to think about them as parts of a totality or totalisation is that our routine thinking about objects considers objects as beings without anything inside them that can form a relationship with the inside of other objects. The result of this routine ontology of so-called exterior relations is the familiar billiard-ball model of cause and effect: objects relate to each other only by touching their outsides with each other. Sartre wants us to understand that we can’t really understand reality this way because what we experience isn’t just an indeterminate number of discrete objects bumping into each other all the time. Instead, we experience an unfolding reality composed of objects with specific structural relations: wholes, synthetic unities, totalities.

The way that these objects with specific structural relations are held together isn’t like the way that glue holds one piece of wood to another piece of wood. Rather, the specific objects that are parts of specific totalities have an inside, an interiority. This interiority is permeable: it allows things in and out of its borders. What moves in and out of its borders is a little ambiguous, but Sartre insists that this sort of migration between the interiorities of such objects is how they relate with each other. Somehow, the part and the whole totality interact through the interiorization of the whole within each part. In trying to imagine an example of this kind of interior relation, what I imagine is something like RNA and DNA within organic cells. Cells sharing RNA and DNA relate to each other by interiorizing the RNA/DNA, modifying it sometimes, and re-exteriorizing it for the other parts to process. Since the RNA/DNA is the whole, each cell contains within itself the whole of the organism it is a part of.

However, Sartre isn’t talking about biological entities. He is talking about human subjects in their social and historical existence. So if we are talking about individual human beings interiorizing and re-exteriorizing something that binds them together into social units (and ultimately all of humanity into one single human history), what is this something that is migrating into each individual person, transforming within them, and migrating then to others? What is this virus that Sartre is crediting with the function of binding individual human beings as parts into social groups and human history as a whole?

Having read this before, I know it has something to do with how individual human beings relate with the non-human world and also with those things that human beings create. But, I will let Sartre get to that on his own instead of explaining it here prematurely. The question I have at this point can be then stated as, “What is the DNA of society and history and how that DNA modified dialectically?”

5 Critical Investigation and Action

“For when I say that the investigation must be reflexive, I mean that, in the particularity of its moments, it cannot be separated from the developing totalisation any more than reflection can be distinguished from human praxis.”

“The critical investigation .can only be a moment of this process, or, in other words, the totalising process produces itself as the critical investigation of itself at a particular moment of its development. And this critical investigation apprehends the individual movement through reflection, which means that it is the particular moment in which the act gives itself a reflexive structure.”

6 The Problem of Stalinism

“To make myself clearer, let me say that – if, as we assume, the region of totalisation is, for us, human history – the critique of dialectical Reason could not appear before historical totalisation had produced that individualised universal which we call the dialectic, that is to say, before it was posited for itselfin the philosophies of Hegel and Marx. Nor could it occur before the abuses which have obscured the very notion of dialectical rationality and produced a new divorce between praxis and the knowledge which elucidates it.”

“In other words, critical investigation could not occur in our history, before Stalinist idealism had sclerosed both epistemological methods and practices. It could take place only as the intellectual expression of that re-ordering which characterises, in this ‘one World’ of ours, the post-Stalinist period.”

“Thus, in its most immediate and most superficial character, the critical investigation of totalisation is the very life of the investigator in so far as it reflexively criticises itself. In abstract terms, this means that only a man who lives within a region of totalisation can apprehend the bonds of interiority which unite him to the totalising movement.”

7 The Problem of the Individual

“These remarks coincide with those I made in The Problem of Method about the need to approach social problems by situating oneself in relation to the ensembles under consideration. They also remind us that the epistemological starting point must always be consciousness as apodictic certainty (of) itself and as consciousness of such and such an object. But we are not concerned, at this point, with interrogating consciousness about itself: the object it must give itself is precisely the life, the objective being, of the investigator, in the world of O thers, in so far as this being totalises itself from birth and will continue to totalise itself until death. On this basis, the individual disappears from historical categories: alienation, the practico-inert, series, groups, classes, the components of History, labour, individual and communal praxis – the individual has lived, and he still lives, all of these in interiority. But if there is a movement of dialectical Reason, it is this movement which produces this life, this membership of a particular class, of certain milieux and of certain groups; it is the totalisation i tself which brought about his successes and his failures, through the vicissitudes of his community, and his personal joys and sorrows. Through his love or family relations, through his friendships and through the ‘relations of production’ that have marked his life, the dialectical bonds reveal themselves. For this reason, his understanding of his own life must go so far as to deny its distinctiveness so as to seek its dialectical intelligibility within human development as a whole.”

“What I have in mind is not an act of consciousness which would make him grasp the content of his life in terms of concrete history, of the class to which he belongs, its characteristic contradictions and its struggles against other classes: we are not trying to reconstruct the real history of the human race; we are trying to establish the Truth of History.”

“In short, if there is such a thing as the unity of History, the experimenter must see his own life as the Whole and the Part, as the bond between the Parts and the Whole, and as the relation between the Parts, in the dialectical movement of Unification; he must be able to leap from his individual life to History simply by the practical negation of the negation which defines his life.”

“From this point of view, the order of the investigation becomes clear: it must be regressive. The critical investigation will move in the opposite direction to the synthetic movement of the dialectic as a method (that is to say, in the opposite direction to Marxist thought, which proceeds from production and the relations of production to the structures of groups, and then to their internal contradictions, to various milieux and, where appropriate, to the individual); it will set out from the immediate, that is to say from the individual fulfilling himself in his abstract praxis, so as to rediscover, through deeper and deeper conditionings, the totality of his practical bonds with others and, thereby, the structures of the various practical multiplicities and, through their contradictions and struggles, the absolute concrete: historical man.”

8 Totalisation and History

“But we have neglected a crucial dimension of the critical investigation: the past. It is clear how I dissolve myself practically in the process of human development, but this still leaves us on the synchronic plane. It remains the case that the totalisation differs from the totality in that the latter is totalised while the former totalises itself. In this sense, it is obvious that to totalise itself means to temporalise itself.”

“Of course, the individual is here only the methodological point of departure, and his short life soon becomes diluted in the pluridimensional human ensemble which temporalises its totalisation and totalises its temporality. To the extent that its individual universals are perpetually aroused, in my immediate as well as my reflective life, and, from the depths of the past in which they were born, provide t he keys and the rules of my actions, we must be able, in our regressive investigation, to make use of the whole of contemporary knowledge (at least in principle) to elucidate a given undertaking or social ensemble, a particular avatar of praxis. In other words, the first use of culture must be in the unreflected content of critical reflexion, to the extent that its first grasp of synchronisms is through the present individual. Far from assuming, as certain philosophers have done, that we know nothing, we ought as far as possible (though it is impossible) to assume that we know everything.”

“We use this knowledge because the dream of an absolute ignorance which reveals pre-conceptual reality is a philosophical folly, as dangerous as the dream of the ‘noble savage’ in the eighteenth century. It is possible to be nostalgic about illiteracy, but this nostalgia is itself a cultural phenomenon, since absolute illiteracy is not aware of itself – and, if it is, it sets about eliminating itself. Thus the starting point of ‘supposing we know nothing’, as a negation of culture, is only culture, at a certain moment of totalising temporalisation, choosing to ignore itself for its own sake. It is, one might say, a sort of pre-critical attempt to criticise knowledge, at a time when the dialectic has not reached the stage of criticising itself”

A lot of interesting commentary on culture, on historians and ethnographers, and other topics. Worth revisiting this section in full.

“it must be recognised that a friendship in Socrates’ time has neither the same meaning nor the same functions as a friendship today.”

“We are proposing not the rewri ting of human history, but the critical investigation of bonds of interiority, or, in other words, the discovery, in connection with real, though quite ordinary, undertakings, structures and events, of the answer to this all-important question: in the process of human history, what is the respective role of relations of interiority and exteriority?”

“And if this total investigation – which can be summed up as that of my whole life in so far as it is dissolved in the whole of history, and of the whole of history in so far as it is concentrated in an entire life – establishes that the bond of exteriority (analytical and positivist reason) is itself interiorised by practical multiplicities, and that it acts within them (as a historical force) only to the extent that it becomes an interior negation of interiority, we will find ourselves situated, through the investigation itself, at the heart of a developing totalisation.”

9 Primary and Secondary Intelligibility

“In other words, if there is any such thing as dialectical Reason, it must be defined as the absolute intelligibility of the irreducibly new, in so far as it is irreducibly new. It is the opposite of the positivist analytical enterprise of explaining new facts by reducing them to old ones.”

“‘Human reality’ is a synthesis at the level of techniques, and at the level of that universal technique which is thought.”

Some really interesting distinctions between analytic and dialectical Reason here…

“If our experiment is a success, we shall see later that dialectical Reason sustains, controls and constantly recreates positivist Reason as its relation of exteriority with natural exteriority.”

“natural science has the same structure as a machine: it is controlled by a totalising thought which enriches it and finds applications for it and, at the same time, the unity of its movement (accumulation) totalises ensembles and systems of a mechanical order for man. Interiority exteriorises itself in order to interiorise exteriority.”

This whole section about how totalities, totalisation, temporality, negation, and projection function within the practical activity of repairing a broken machine is an excellent metaphor for the processes Sartre is explaining.

“But it is clear that this is not the important point; it is not just a matter of studying an individual at work. A critique of dialectical Reason must concern itself with the field of application and the limits of this reason. If there is to be any such thing as the Truth of History (rather than several truths, even if they are organised into a system), our investigation must show that the kind of dialectical intelligibility which we have described above applies to the process of human history as a whole, or, in other words, that there is a totalising temporalisation of our practical multiplicity and that it is intelligible, even though this totalisation does not involve a grand totaliser. It is one thing to claim that individuals (possibly ‘social atoms’) totalise dispersals through their very existence (but individually and each within the private region of his work), and it is quite another to show that they totalise themselves, intelligibly, without for the most part showing any concern about it.”

10 The Plan of this Work

“If History is totalisation and if individual practices are the sole ground of totalising temporalisation, it is not enough to reveal the totalisation developing in everyone, and consequently in our critical investigations, through the contradictions which both express and mask it. Our critical investigation must also show us how the practical multiplicity (which may be called ‘men’ or ‘Humanity’ according to taste) realises, in its very dispersal, its interiorisation. In addition, we must exhibit the dialectical necessity of this totalising process.”

“But it will never be sufficient to show the production of ensembles by individuals or by one another, nor, conversely, to show how individuals are produced by the ensembles which they compose. It will be necessary to show the dialectical intelligibility of these transformations in every case.”

“Of course, this is a matter of formal intelligibility. By this I mean that we must understand the bonds between praxis, as self-conscious, and all the complex multiplicities which are organised through it and in which it loses itself as praxis in order to become praxis-process.”

“However – and I shall have occasion to repeat this still more emphatically – it is no part of my intention to determine the concrete history of these incarnations of praxis. In particular, as we shall see later, the practical individual enters into ensembles of very different kinds, for example, into what are called groups and what I shall call series. It is no part of our project to determine whether series precede groups or vice versa, either originally or in a particular moment of History. On the contrary: as we shall see, groups are born of series and often end up by serialising themselves in their turn. So the only thing which matters to us is to display the transition from series to groups and from groups to series as constant incarnations of our practical multiplicity, and to test the dialectical intelligibility of these reversible processes. In the same way, when we study class and class-being (l’être de classe) we shall find ourselves drawing exam pIes from the history of the working class. But the purpose will not be to define the particular class which is known as the proletariat: our sole aim will be to seek the constitution of a class in these examples, its totalising (and detotalising) function and its dialectical intelligibility (bonds of interiority and of exteriority, interior structures, relations to other classes, etc.). In short, we are dealing with neither human history, nor sociology, nor ethnography.”

“Though it is true in the abstract that groups and series can indifferently produce each other, it is also true that historically a particular group, through its serialisation, produces a given serial ensemble (or conversely) and that, if a new group originated in the serial ensemble, then, whatever it might be, it would be irreducible to the serial ensemble.”

“Thus, dialectical investigation in its regressive moment will reveal to us no more than the static conditions of the possibility of a totalisation, that is to say, of a history. We must therefore proceed to the opposite and complementary investigation: by progressively recomposing the historical process on the basis of the shifting and contradictory relations of the formations in question, we shall experience History; and this dialectical investigation should be able to show us whether the contradictions and social struggles, the communal and individual praxis, labour as producing tools, and tools as producing men and as regulator of human labour and human relations, etc., make up the unity of an intelligible (and thus directed) totalising movement.”

“In this sense it could be said that the aim of the critical investigation is to establish a structural and historical anthropology, that the regressive moment of the investigation is the basis of the intelligibility of sociological Knowledge (without prejudging any of the individual components of this Knowledge), and that the progressive moment must be the basis of the intelligibility of historical Knowledge (without prejudging the real individual unfolding of the totalised facts).”

“The multiple, fundamental bonds between the constituent dialectic and the constituted dialectic and vice versa through the constant mediation of the anti-dialectic, will become clear to us in the course of these new investigations. If the results of the investigation are positive, we shall finally be in a position to define dialectical Reason as the constituent and constituted reason of practical multiplicities. We shall then understand the meaning of totalisation without a totaliser, or a de-totalised totalisation, and we shall finally be able to prove the strict equivalence between praxis with its particular articulations and the dialectic as the logic of creative action, that is to say, in the final analysis, as the logic of freedom.”

11 The Individual and History

“The link of our critical investigation is none other than the fundamental identity between an individual life and human history (or, from the methodological point of view, the ‘reciprocity of their perspectives’).”

“The critical investigation will reveal this interplay of aspects in so far as the totaliser is always also the totalised, even if, as we shall see, he is the Prince in person. And, if the investigation is successful, and we reveal the rocky sub-soil of necessity beneath the translucidity of free individual praxis, we will be able to hope that we have taken the right track. Then we shall be able to glimpse what these two volumes together will try to prove: that necessity, as the apodictic structure of dialectical investigation, resides neither in the free development of interiority nor in the inert dispersal of exteriority; it asserts itself, as an inevitable and irreducible moment, in the interiorisation of the exterior and in the exteriorisation of the interior.”

“To put it more vividly if less precisely, it is initially within itself that free subjectivity discovers its objectivity as the intelligible necessity of being a perspective within totalisations which totalise it (which integrate it in synthetic developing forms). Subjectivity then appears, in all its abstraction, as the verdict which compels us to carry out, freely and through ourselves, the sentence that a ‘developing’ society has pronounced upon us and which defines us a priori in our being. This is the level at which we shall encounter the practico-inert.

“In the regressive moment, we shall find the constituent dialectic, the anti-dialectic and the constituted dialectic. And in the moment of synthetic progression, we shall trace the totalising movement which integrates these three partial movements within a total totalisation.”

“It is thus in this progressive moment that we shall finally understand our original problem: what is Truth as the praxis of synthetic unification, and what is History? Why is there such a thing as human history (ethnography having acquainted us with societies with no history)? And what is the practical meaning of historical totalisation in so far as it can reveal itself today to a (totalising and totalised) agent situated within History in development?”

12 Intellection and Comprehension

This is Sartre just explaining that the difference between intelligibility and comprehension isn’t super important, even fi there are some differences.



1 Need

“If the dialectic is possible, we must be able to find answers to the following four questions:
(I ) How can praxis in itself be an experience both of necessity and of freedom since neither of these, according to classical logic, can be grasped in an empirical process?
(2) If dialectical rationality really is a logic of totalisation, how can History – that swarm of individual destinies – appear as a totalising movement, and how can one avoid the paradox that in order to totalise there must already be a unified principle, that is, that only actual totalities can totalise themselves?
(3) If the dialectic is comprehension of the present through the past and through the future, how can there be a historical future?
(4) If the dialectic is to be materialist, how are we to comprehend the materiality of praxis and its relation to other forms of materiality?

“It should be recalled that the crucial discovery of dialectical investigation is that man is ‘mediated’ by things to the same extent as things are ‘mediated’ by man. This truth must be born in mind in its entirety if we are to develop all its consequences. This is what is called dialectical circularity and, as we shall see, it must be established by dialectical investigation.”

The entire historical dialectic rests on individual praxis in so far as it is already dialectical, that is to say, to the extent that action is itself the negating transcendence of contradiction, the determination of a present totalisation in the name of a future totality, and the real effective working of matter.”

“Everything is to be explained through need (Ie hesoin); need is the first totalising relation between the material being, man, and the material ensemble of which he is part. This relation is univocal, and of interiority.”

“Need is a negation of the negation in so far as it expresses itself as a lack within the organism; and need is a positivity in so far as the organic totality tends to preserve itself as such through it. The original negation, in fact, is an initial contradiction between the organic and the inorganic, in the double sense that lack is defined in relation to a totality, but that a lacuna, a negativity, has as such a mechanical kind of existence, and that, in the last analysis, what is lacking can be reduced to inorganic or less organised elements or, quite simply, to dead flesh, etc. From this point of view, the negation of this negation is achieved through the transcendence of the organic towards the inorganic: need is a link of univocal immanence with surrounding materiality in so far as the organism tries to sustain itself with it; it is already totalising, and doubly so, for it is nothing other than the living totality, manifesting itself as a totality and revealing the material environment, to infinity, as the total field of possibilities of satisfaction.”

What the fuck is “univocal immanence”? ChatGPT answers:

“Univocal immanence” is a philosophical concept that is often associated with the work of the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. It is a complex idea that can be understood by breaking down the two key terms: “univocal” and “immanence.”

  1. Univocal: In philosophy, “univocal” means that something has only one meaning or is expressed in a single, clear, and unambiguous way. It contrasts with “equivocal,” where a term or concept can have multiple, conflicting meanings. Deleuze was interested in using language and concepts in a way that avoids ambiguity and allows for clear and precise expression.
  2. Immanence: “Immanence” is a philosophical concept that refers to the quality of being inherent or existing within something rather than transcending or going beyond it. It suggests that everything is contained within itself and does not rely on external factors for its existence or meaning. In contrast, “transcendence” implies going beyond or surpassing the limits of something.

When these two terms are combined in the phrase “univocal immanence,” it suggests a philosophical approach that seeks to articulate a clear and unambiguous understanding of reality that is grounded in the inherent qualities and characteristics of the things themselves. In other words, it implies that the meaning or essence of things is not derived from external or transcendent sources but is found within the things themselves.

Deleuze’s use of the concept of univocal immanence is part of his broader philosophical project, which includes ideas about ontology (the study of being), ethics, and the nature of reality. It can be a complex and challenging concept to fully grasp, and its interpretation may vary among different scholars and contexts.

Ok, so what Sartre is saying is that ontologically, “need” is a universal and fundamental structure of human existence. But what exactly is “need”? In the language of Being and Nothingness, is “need” an in-itself, a being of pure identity with itself, total positivity? Sartre is saying that it isn’t, that need has contains within itself its own nothingness or negation. Need is consciousness of “the total field”. It is an intentional relation between the human being (or other organisms) and the rest of existence. And it is a relation based on lack. So just as Sartre explained how lack operates in Being and Nothingness, here as “need” he shows that there is a negation of the “total field” necessary to its operation. There is a transcendence towards the world, in the same sense as Being-in-the-World is a self-transcendence. But most importantly for question of Dialectical Reason, need is the irreducible primary cause (this “univocal immanence”) of dialectical relations. Need is the foundation for praxis.

Need is a function which posits itself for itself and totalises itself as a function because it is reduced to an empty gesture, functioning for itself and not within the integration of organic life.

And here he clearly states that need is of the “for-itself” type of being.

As soon as need appears, surrounding matter is endowed with a passive unity, in that a developing totalisation is reflected in it as a totality: matter revealed as passive totality by an organic being seeking its being in it – this is Nature in its initial form.

Ok now what is a “passive unity”?

Jean-Paul Sartre, a prominent existentialist philosopher, used the term “passive unity” in the context of his existentialist philosophy to describe a fundamental aspect of human consciousness and subjectivity. To understand what Sartre meant by “passive unity,” it’s helpful to delve into some of the key ideas in his existentialist philosophy:

  1. Existence Precedes Essence: Sartre is known for his assertion that “existence precedes essence.” This means that, unlike inanimate objects or things created with a specific purpose or essence in mind (e.g., a chair’s essence is to be something to sit on), human beings do not have a predefined essence or purpose. Instead, we exist first, and it is up to each individual to define their essence through their choices and actions.
  2. Consciousness: Sartre also emphasized the centrality of consciousness in human existence. Consciousness, in his view, is not just a passive recording device but an active and intentional awareness of the world. It is what gives meaning to our experiences and allows us to make choices.

Now, when Sartre refers to “passive unity,” he is highlighting the idea that human consciousness has two fundamental modes:

  1. Passive Mode: In the passive mode, consciousness is receptive and open to the world. It is like a blank slate, passively receiving sensory perceptions and stimuli from the external world. In this state, there is a unity between the subject (the individual) and the object (the external world). This unity is “passive” because it occurs before the individual exercises their freedom and choice to interpret or act upon these perceptions.
  2. Active Mode: In the active mode, consciousness engages with the world actively, making choices, imposing meaning, and taking responsibility for its actions. This is where human freedom and agency come into play. It is the realm of active choices and decisions that define our essence.

So, when Sartre talks about “passive unity,” he is referring to the initial, non-active, and unreflective state of consciousness, where the subject is fused with the world through sensory experiences before any conscious decisions or interpretations are made. This concept underscores the contrast between the passive, receptive aspect of consciousness and the active, responsible aspect of consciousness that comes into play when individuals make choices and define their essence through those choices.

In summary, “passive unity” in Sartre’s philosophy represents the initial, unreflective connection between consciousness and the external world before individuals actively engage with it through their choices and actions.

ChatGPT again

The ChatGPT kind of explains what Sartre is saying, but Sartre is talking about the way that consciousness unifies the objective world through need. The mode of “surrounding matter” is the mode of passive unity, for consciousness, as consciousness totalises it through the process of need. The point that Sartre is getting at here is that the way that material reality exists for us is first characterized by the way that “need” informs our understanding. He will go on to discuss other modes of “surrounding matter” that are not passive

one could say that the matter outside it subjects the living body to an inorganic statute precisely to the extent that it is itself transformed into a totality. The living body is therefore in danger in the universe, and the universe harbours the possibility of the non-being of the organism. Conversely, if it is to find its being within Nature or to protect itself against destruction, the organic totality must transform itself into inert matter, for it is only as a mechanical system that it can modify the material environment. The man of need is an organic totality perpetually making itself into its own tool in the milieu of exteriority. The organic totality acts on inert bodies through the medium of the inert body which it is and which it makes itself. It is inert in as much as it is already subjected to all the physical forces which reveal it to itself as pure passivity; it makes itself inert in its being in so far as it is only externally and through inertia itself that a body can act on another body in the milieu of exteriority.

Sartre talks quite a bit about how consciousness incarnates itself in the body in Being and Nothingness, especially in his discussion of sado-masochism…

Organic functioning, need and praxis are strictly linked in a dialectical manner; dialectical time came into being, in fact, with the organism; for the living being can survive only by renewing itself. This temporal relation between the future and the past, through the present, is none other than the functional relation of the totality to itself; the totality is its own future lying beyond a present of reintegrated disintegration.

The only real difference between primitive synthetic temporality and the time of elementary praxis lies in the material environment which, by not containing what the organism seeks, transforms the totality as future reality into possibility.

Need, as a negation of the negation, is the organism itself, living itself in the future, through present disorders, as its own possibility and, consequently, as the possibility of its own impossibility; and praxis, in the first instance, is nothing but the relation of the organism, as exterior and future end, to the present organism as a totality under threat; it is function exteriorised.

2 The Negation of the Negation

In reality, the dialectic of Nature – whether one seeks it in ‘changes of state’ in general or makes it the external dialectic in human history – is incapable of providing an answer to two essential questions: why should there be any such thing as negation either in the natural world or in human history? And why and in what specific circumstances does the negation of a negation yield to affirmation?

There is no denying that matter passes from one state to another, and this means that change takes place. But a material change is neither an affirmation nor a negation; it cannot destroy anything, since nothing was constructed; it cannot overcome resistances, since the forces involved simply produced the result they had to. To declare that two opposed forces applied to a membrane negate each other is as absurd as saying that they collaborate to determine a certain tension. The only possible use for the order of negation is to distinguish one direction from an other.

Resistance and, consequently, negative forces can exist only within a movement which is determined in accordance with the future, that is to say, in accordance with a certain form of integration. If the end to be attained were not fixed from the beginning, how could one even conceive of a restraint? In other words, there is no negation unless the future totalisation is continually present as the de-totalised totality of the ensemble in question.

The first negation of a negation is this:
“need posits negation by its very existence in that it is itself an initial negation of lack.”

There is some complicated gymnastics towards to end of this section that may be worth revisiting later, but right now it seems like something that will be repeated again when it matters:

When Spinoza says ‘All determination is negation,’ he is right, from his point of view, because substance, for him, is an infinite totality. This formula is thus an intellectual tool for describing and comprehending the internal relations of the whole. But if Nature is an immense dispersive decompression, if the relations between natural facts can only be conceived in the mode of exteriority, then the individual couplings of certain particles and the little solar system which temporarily results from them are not particularisations, except in a purely formal, logical and idealist sense. To say that through entering into a given combination, a molecule thereby does not enter another, is merely to reiterate the proposition one wishes to affirm in a negative form – like a logician replacing ‘All men are mortal’ by ‘All non-mortals are non-men’.

Determination will be real negation only if it identifies the determined within a totalisation or a totality. Now, praxis, born of need, is a totalisation whose movement towards its own end practically makes the environment into a totality. It is to this double point of view that the movement of the negative owes its intelligibility. On the one hand, the organism engenders the negative as that which destroys its unity: discharge and excretion, as a directed movement of rejection, are just opaque and biological forms of negation. Similarly, lack appears through function, not only as a mere inert lacuna, but also as an opposition of function to itself. Finally, need posits negation by its very existence in that it is itself an initial negation of lack. In short, the intelligibility of the negative as a structure of Being can be made manifest only in connection with a developing process of totalisation; negation is defined on the basis of a primary force, as an opposing force of integration, and in relation to a future totality as the destiny or end of the totalising movement. At a still deeper level, and more obscurely, the organism itself as a transcendence of the multiplicity of exteriority is a univocal primary negation in that it preserves multiplicity within itself and unites itself against this multiplicity, without being able to eliminate it. Multiplicity is its danger, the constant threat to it; and, at the same time, it is its mediation with the material universe which surrounds it and which can negate it. Thus negation is determined by unity; indeed it is through unity and in unity that it can manifest itself. In the first instance, negation manifests itself not as a contrary force, but, what amounts to the same thing, as partial determination of the whole in so far as this partial determination is posited for itself.

On this basis, a dialectical logic of negation conceived as the relation of internal structures both to each other and to the whole within a complete totality or within a developing totalisation, could be constructed. It would then become clear that, within the field of existence and tension determined by the whole, every particular exists in the unity of a fundamental contradiction: it is a determination of the whole and, consequently, it is the whole which gives rise to it; in a certain sense, in so far as the being of the whole demands that it be present in all its parts, every particular is the whole itself. But at the same time, as arrest, as turning-back upon themselves, as delimitation, particulars are not the whole, and in fact it is in opposition to the totality (rather than to beings which transcend it) that they particularise themselves. But in the context of this fundamental contradiction, particularisation is precisely the negation of interiority – as particularisation of the whole it is the whole opposing itself through a particular which it governs and which depends on it; and as determination – that is, as limitation – it becomes the nothing which stands in the way of the retotalisation of the whole and which would destroy itself in such a retotalisation. It is the existence of this non-being as a developing relation between the constituted whole and the constituent totalisation, that is to say, between the whole as the fiIture, abstract, but already present result and the dialectic as a process tending to constitute in its concreteness the totality which defines it as its future and its end; it is the existence of this nothingness, which is both active (totalisation positing its moments) and passive (the whole as the presence of the future), which constitutes the first intelligible dialectical negation. And it is within the totality, as the abstract unity of a field of forces and tension, that the negation of a negation becomes an affirmation.

Thus, however, it manifests itself – whether as the liquidation of a partial moment or as the appearance of other moments in conflict with the first (in short, the differentiation or even fragmentation of the partial totality into smaller parts) – the new structure is the negation of the first (either directly or by attracting, through its very presence, the relation of the first to the whole). In this way, the whole manifests itself in the second structure, which it also produces and preserves, as a totality resuming within itself the particular determinations, and erasing them, either by simply destroying their particularity or by differentiating itself around and in relation to them, in such a way as to insert them into a new order which in its turn becomes the whole itself as a differentiated structure.

Such a logic of totalisations would be an abstract system of propositions concerning the multiplicity of possible relations of a whole to its parts and of different parts amongst themselves, either direct or mediated by their relation to the whole. It would be completely useless to devise this system here; it is something which everyone can work out for himself. Let me just remark that the content of these propositions, though abstract, would not be empty, like the analytical judgements of Aristotelean logic, and that, though these propositions are synthetic, they possess in themselves a genuine intelligibility. In other words, they need only be established on the basis of a totality (any totality) in order to be comprehended as certain. We shall return to this later.

Let us return to need. When the project passes through the surrounding world towards its end – in this case, the restoration of a negated organism – it unifies the field of instrumentality around itself, so as to make it into a totality which will provide a foundation for the individual objects which must come to its aid in its task. The surrounding world is thus constituted practically as the unity of materials and means. However, since the unity of the means is precisely the end, and since the end itself represents the organic totality in danger, a new, inverted relation between the two ‘states of matter’ emerges here for the first time: inert plurality becomes totality through unification by the end into an instrumental field; it is in itself the end fallen into the domain of passivity. Its character as a completed totality, however, far from being damaged by its inertia, is actually preserved by it. In the organism, bonds of interiority overlay those of exteriority; in the instrumental field, it is the other way round: a bond of internal unification underlies the multiplicity of exteriority, and it is praxis which, in the light of the end, constantly reshapes the order of exteriority on the basis of a deeper unity. On this basis, a new type of negation arises, for this is a new type of totality which is both passive and unified, but which is constantly reshaping itself, either through the direct action of man or in accordance with its own laws of exteriority. In either case the changes occur on the b asis of a pre-existing unity and become the destiny of this totality even if their sources lie elsewhere, at the furthest corner of the world. Everything which takes place within a totality, even disintegration, is a total event of the totality as such and is intelligible only in terms of the totality. B ut as soon as the ferment of the totalised plurality produces a few passive syntheses, it shatters the relation of immediate integration between the elements and the whole, within the constituted whole.

The relative autonomy of the part thus formed necessarily acts as a brake on the overall movement; the whirlpool of partial totalisation thus constitutes itself as a negation of the total movement. By the same token, even in the case of a transformation necessary for praxis, its determination becomes its negation: the relation of the integrated elements to the partial whole is more precise, less ‘indeterminate’ than its relation to the overall totalisation, but poorer and less comprehensive. As a result of its new bond of exteriorised interiority, the element loses the set of objective possibilities which each element possessed within the general movement; it becomes impoverished. Thus the relation of this partial totality to the total totality takes the form of conflict; absolute integration requires that every particular determination should be eliminated to the extent that it threatens to constitute a new plurality. Conversely, inertia and the necessities of partial integration require each part of the relative totality to resist the pressures of the whole. Finally, the determination of a partial totality, within the detotalised totality, must also determine the ensemble which remains outside this integration, as a partial totality, albeit negatively. The unity in exteriority of those regions which lie outside the zone of partial integration (in the first instance, those which have not been integrated) is transformed into a unity of interiority, that is, into an integrating determination, simply because, within a totality, even exteriority is expressed by relations of interiority. At the same time, the relation of the new totalisation to the whole varies: it may start to posit itself for itself, in which case the developing totalisation is completely shattered; it may identify itself with the whole itself and strive to reabsorb the new enclave; finally, it may be torn apart by contradiction, positing itself both as the whole, or at any rate, as the very process of totalisation, and as a partial moment which derives its determinations from its opposition to the Other.

What the fuck is an “immense dispersive decompression”? ChatGPT couldn’t even define it for me. Does Sartre mean that because all matter had once been compressed before the Big Bang, it is now dispersed?

Anyway, I think the point of that whole part is to explain the basic contradiction that arises from the first, primary negation: the contradiction between part and whole. I think Sartre wants to emphasize the notion of internal relation throughout this? I know from reading ahead that the idea of partial totalisation is brought up a lot…

3 Labor

Labour of any kind always exists only as a totalisation and a transcended contradiction. Once it has constituted the environment as the milieu in which the labourer produces himself, every subsequent development will be a negation precisely to the extent that it is positive. And such negations can be grasped only as moments which posit themselves for themselves, since the force of inertia increases their separation · within the whole. Hence the subsequent task of labour must be to put the created object back in contact with the other sectors within the whole and to unite them from a new point of view; it negates separation.

In a realist and materialist system there can be no justification for asserting, a priori, that the negation of a negation must give rise to a new affirmation, as long as the type of reality in which these negations occur remains undefined.

But even within a totality the negation of the negation would be a return to the starting point if it did not involve a totality being transcended towards a totalising end. The elimination of the partial organisations of the instrumental field would simply bring us back to the original non-differentiation of the unified environment (as when one destroys the traces of an event, an experience or a construction), unless the movement to eliminate them is accompanied by an effort to preserve them – that is, unless they are regarded as a step towards a unity of differentiation in which a new type of subordination of the parts to the whole and a new co-ordination of the parts with one another is to be achieved.

The oscillation which opposes the human thing to the thing-man will be found at every level of dialectical investigation. But the meaning of labour is provided by an end, and need, far from being a vis a tergo pushing the labourer, is in fact the lived revelation of a goal to aim at, and this goal is, in the first instance, simply the restoration of the organism.

“Vis a tergo” is a Latin phrase that translates to “force from behind” in English. It is used in various contexts to refer to a driving force or pressure coming from behind. This phrase is not commonly used in everyday conversation, but it can be found in different fields, such as physics, biology, or art, to describe various phenomena or concepts. The meaning and significance of “vis a tergo” would depend on the specific context in which it is used.


Determination of the present by the future, oscillation between the inert and the organic, negation, transcended contradictions, negation of the negation – in short, developing totalisation: these are the moments of any form of labour, until – at a dialectical level that we have yet to consider – society develops the division of labour to the point of the specialisation of machines. The process is then inverted: the semi-automatic machine defines its environment and constructs its man, so that the inorganic comes to be characterised by a false but effective interiority, and the organic by exteriority. Man becomes the machine’s machine; and to himself he is his own exteriority. But in all other cases, the dialectic appears as the logic of labour.

To consider an individual at work is a complete abstraction, since in reality labour is as much a relation between men as a relation between man and the material world.

At this level, the truly dialectical type of intelligibility appears, combining the direct conflict between the parts (to the extent that dialectical Reason includes and transcends· analytical Reason) with the constantly shifting hidden conflict which modifies each part from within in response to internal changes in any of the others, and establishing alterity in each part both as what it is and as what it is not, as that which it possesses and as that by which it is possessed.


1 Isolated Individuals

Here we get a definition for exis, which secondary sources have said are an erroneous spelling of hexis. However, it actually looks like Sartre is trying to create a neologism based on the notion of exigencies:

In southern Italy, the agricultural day labourers, the semi-employed bracciante, eat only once a day or even, sometimes, once every two days. In this situation, hunger ceases to exist as need (or rather, it appears only if it suddenly becomes impossible for the labourers to get their single meal every one or two days). It is not that hunger has ceased to exist, but that it has become interiorised, or structured, as a chronic disease. Need is no longer the violent negation which leads to praxis: it has passed into physical generality as exis, as an inert, generalised lacuna to which the whole organism tries to adapt by degrading itself, by idling so as to curtail its exigencies (exigences).

2 Duality and the Third Party

3 Reciprocity, Exploitation and Repression


1 Scarcity and Mode of Production

2 Wroked Matter as the Alienated Objectification of Individual and Collective Praxis

3 Necessity as a New Structure of Dialectical Investigation

4 Social Being as Materiality: Class Being


1 Series: the Queue

2 Indirect Gatherings: the Radio Broadcast

3 Impotence as a Bond: the Free Market

4 Series and Opinion: the Great Fear

5 Series and Class: the French Proletariat

6 Collective Praxis


Volume 2