The Historical Oroborus of McIntyre and Sartre

Both Sartre and McIntyre present conflicting views on the role the past plays in guiding the experience of the present. It is obvious that the experiences of the past does shape our decisions in the present, neither of these philosophers would disagree with this claim, but they would disagree as to how, and to what extent. Due to the difference in scope that they take, any answer we reach will be ambiguous towards this end, and it may just turn out they both are correct when we examine how the past is actually used by both of them.

These two views can be seen to be crucial to each other’s existence when we analyze how the past is actually taken up and used. This incompatibility comes from the different perspective each of these philosophers approach the past from. By reifying the perspective of these conflicting views we can thus bring them together and make sense of them, and hopefully avoid fallacy on our way. First, though, we must see exactly what the perceived difference is between Sartre and McIntyre.

According to Sartre the past doesn’t play a huge roll in the direct guidance of the present. In his view the past is separated from any present decision we can make by “nothingness”. This nothingness blocks the direct causal force of the past to actions and decisions of the present, giving rise to anguish.

The past does, though, shape our present in its totality, or essence. It predisposes us towards an action as based on the totality of previous decisions and actions made by us. This is not a direct force, still, since the meaning of past events is shaped in the light of the present and future. Present circumstance guides what our past is to us, and this the past is a fluid reference. Our meaning cannot be completely within our past then, since meaning is the whole of our existence.

McIntyre sees the past more as a narrative that gives meaning to the choices and practices of the present. By practices I mean suitably complex activities offering their own internal good unique to themselves, as opposed to an external good. Further the present is only meaningful within the light of the past. One must fully understand the totality of the past (within a practice), to understand the meaning of the current state of affairs. The present is a response to the past, meaning that past shows the evolution of practice, how it changed, and what current things mean.

McIntyre’s view is almost the complete opposite of Sartre’s perception of the past. In Sartre the present gives meaning to the past, to McIntyre this is flipped, with the presents meaning dictated by the character of the past.

This leaves us with a choice, either one of them is wrong, or neither of them are right, because these views are so incompatible and contradictory with each other. How can present choices both be made meaningful by an absolute past, and dictate the meaning of the past? This is a difficult question to approach, since both of these philosophers seem to be right in their views of the past.

Taking a Heideggerian stance, that the past does inform the present, and the present. This, at first glance, seems to rectify the differences between Sartre and McIntyre. While the current state of our practices do gain their meaning from their narrative history, we can say that this narrative is only meaningful from the point of view of the current state of the practice. A lot of things have happened in the history of art, not of which were recognized as significant movements until art evolved in response to them. What we pay attention to when looking back at history is shaped by our aims in retrospection. Our aims are shaped by our current circumstance, thus we see these events are leading forward to the point of observation.

Thus, from within a practice, history becomes meaningful as a narrative leading to the current point, since this is what we are looking for. Within this new view, we can see that both views are correct, in that this narrative is still meaningful towards where the practice is currently, since it is those instances that lead the narrative to where it is that are the focus of the retrospection. The only difference to McIntyre’s account of the role of the past would have to be that this narrative would have to change with time, and thus is not objective. One could not know this narrative from without the practice, and one could not know the practice without the context of retrospective narrative.

It seems that we reached an absurd conclusion here, something that can be taken as further proof of the incompatibility between these two stances. This conclusion of absurdity would have to presuppose that existence within a practice is all or nothing; this is the fallacy of the excluded middle. To remove this absurdity we must see how practices are entered in the wild, one does not become an artist, a novelist, or a philosopher without first becoming acquainted with the history of the discipline. This training generally comes from people expert (professors, mentors) in the practice. Thus you learn the approach to the field from someone within the field. They naturally pass their interpretation of the nature of the field down, including both the current affairs, and the contextual history. Even without a guide into practice, one must become acquainted from the practice from within the context of the practice. If one followed the full history of art without the context taken by art towards its history, one would know nothing about modern art still. The narrative is the story given about the history; the narrative is behind the history. The narrative is not contained in the history itself, it is contained in how the present interprets the history of the practice.

It can thus be seen that more is self-contained in practices than just their intrinsic goods; their meaning is also self-contained within themselves. Practices give rise to their own meanings by the choice of the past that they choose to acknowledge as meaningful.

In this way we can see that Sartre’s fluid past, and McIntyre’s past as basis are fully connected. It turns practices into dynamic systems, which evolve over time by both the feedback of their present, and their present’s feedback on the past. One cannot say one of these functions is more important than the other, since they both shape the other.

Practices become more postmodern in character. Their meaning is contextual to themselves, and not an external, objective, history. But due to this character both Sartre and McIntyre are correct in their assessments of the past, indeed one could not have a full view without either of them.

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1 comment:

L said...

I found this insightful. Thank you.