final section of Critique of Dialectical Reason. Jean-Paul Sarte. 1960

The Intelligibility of History:
Totalisation without a Totaliser

Written: 1960;
Source: Critique of Dialectical Reason, pp. 805-818;
Translator: Allen Sheridan-Smith;
Transcribed: Andy Blunden.

Now it may be suggested that the struggle in itself, that is to say, the temporalisation of reciprocity, although it creates both dialectical experience and the consciousness of it, may transcend the dialectical comprehension of the agent, observer, or historian. The investigation has shown us the translucid rationality of constituent organic praxis; and it has also revealed that of common praxis (in so far as it is assumed to be objectifying itself in an inert or practico-inert material which passively accepts its determinations). But there is no proof that a praxis of antagonism and reciprocity still has its rationality because each group (or class) signifies in its free praxis the practical freedom of the Other, and vice versa. In other words, it involves a twin-headed temporalisation each moment of which represents not only a praxis, but also its negation by the other praxis, and the beginnings of the transformation of the former in order to outwit the latter and of the latter in order not to be outwitted by the former. But even if this strange reality, the practice of no one, can be related, in a divergent double intuition, to the two agents when two individuals are involved (thus we can comprehend a boxing match provided we are familiar with the sport), can there be a dialectical comprehension of it? Is there not in fact a sort of private negation at the heart of this monster, each outwitting and mystifying the Other, seeking to disarm his freedom and make it his unwitting accomplice, and acknowledging the sovereignty of the Other only so as to get an opportunity of treating him as a thing? And then, even if this individual struggle (between individuals of the same profession, the same age, in a closed field) can really be decoded, will the same apply to the complex phenomenon which has to be described as a praxis-process and which sets classes in opposition to one another as circular totalisations of institutions, groups and serialities? Is it possible to have any clear comprehension of the complex modifications which each class derives from the Other (passively received and actively transformed) and which change the internal relations of different class structures to the degree that they are changed by them? Lastly, let us not forget that class, as such, is also a human product of a product and that, to this extent, its practical reactions temporalise the class-being of its members. Now, this class-being – as practico-inert – belongs to the domain of the anti-dialectic. How are we to grasp the intelligibility of a praxis which has been mortgaged by a passive constitution?

We must reply to these theoretical questions like Diogenes, by walking. Or rather, by recalling that we are constantly struggling for or against our class and that the intelligibility of the struggle is essential to the action of the combatants. This does not mean that the intelligibility is given equally clearly in institutional groups, or combat (or pressure-) groups, and in series. There is a weakening corresponding to internal transformations. But it must be complete in the case of class circularity (not only for the sovereign group, for example, but also for it in so far as the series mediates between it and combat- or pressure-groups), for a very simple reason which is itself dialectical: if praxis ceases to be aware of its end, its means, of the means and end of its adversary, and of the means of opposing the hostile praxis, it simply becomes blind and therefore ceases to be praxis; it is simply an unconscious accomplice of the other action which overwhelms, manipulates and alienates it, and turns it against its own agent as a hostile force. (The simplest example is that of a lost regiment, cut off from the main army, fearing the enemy everywhere, imagining that everything is possible, but lacking any means of anticipating an unpredictable action. Such a regiment is no longer a group: it is a herd; but if it receives information and is able to locate the enemy troops, then – even if the enemy are numerically superior – it becomes a practical community again.) Thus the common praxis – wherever it is manifested determines itself in the dimension of alterity because it adapts to the free praxis of the Other (in so far as it can predict it). The difficulty is that this is not a matter of predicting a physical effect – an inert repercussion of human work – but of predicting a freedom which is itself predicting this prediction. But this is neither other-direction nor alterity: it is reciprocal freedom which is computed and predicted. But the prediction will, if possible, be based on circumstances, knowledge which it will have both of the opposite praxis and of the inert structures from which it emerged (as either sovereign freedom or as fraternity-terror in a fused group). And though this prediction may be precise, it will still be dialectical in that it conceives material conditions, the situation, and knowledge as inert givens which are transcended by a freedom which retains them within it as its orientation and qualification. Thus the enemy is even more directly comprehended than the ally, although, of course, it depends entirely on material conditions whether such comprehension is possible, whether it is abstract and general or real and concrete (for example, information transmitted by intelligence agencies, indications of the relations of forces). And the enemy’s comprehension of his enemy is also present in this fundamental comprehension (all traps and tricks presuppose such a comprehension in the Other). This means that our activity as a praxis-subject (I use this word to refer not to a subjectivity, but to activity itself as self-elucidating) must always include knowledge of itself as a praxis-object (that is to say, as objective movements of groups or troops, seen, for example, from an exclusively quantitative point of view) and transcend this objectivity as a purely material condition. In a sense, the fundamental intelligibility of the struggle can be said to represent a development of dialectical comprehension: it necessarily implies that the praxis of each adversary is determined in accordance with his objectivity for the Other. In other words, in the atomised, massified or serialised crowds which surround us, our reality as subjects remains abstract because we are paralysed by our practical impotence and our reality as objects resides in the evasion which is the Other. The subject-object relation, however, as a variable but ever intense tension, though it is not, or need not be, expressible in words, is immediately given in the praxis of antagonistic reciprocity. But conversely, I comprehend the enemy through the object which I am for him. Or rather, the dialectical moments of the investigation merge into one another: I predict my objectivity for him on the basis of the objective structures which I know to exist in him; and, through costly mistakes, gradual corrections, etc., I predict what he is on the basis of his former actions on me (that is to say, of the predictions which are their intelligible signification). My knowledge is the best possible if I can make a prediction not only of what he will do, on the basis of what he is, but also of what he is on the basis of what he has done, and, finally, of what he will do (predictions based on previous experience).

Thus reciprocal action is characterised, in its basic antagonistic structure, by the fact that it encloses the agent as an object and the Other as a subject in the prospect of a reversal which has to be produced (the Other becomes a pure passive object, the agent asserts himself as free praxis); in other words, the free practical dialectic of the one involves a grasp of the free dialectic of the other both as freedom and as a double means (a means of predicting the enemy action and thus outwitting it, and a means of making the Other an accomplice in an action aimed at subjecting him, by proposing a false goal for his freedom). In its basic principle, struggle is, for everyone, an opportunity to develop the multiplicity of human dimensions in a synthetic tension, since one has to be an object-subject for a subject-object who is the Other, and since one interiorises an other comprehended freedom within one’s own freedom. But, this does not prevent one from being materialist. That is to say, it is essential to determine (a) the action of the Other on the basis of the inorganic reality of the conditions in which the Other exists, (b) one’s own action against the Other on the basis of one’s own initial material and inert conditions, and (c) the Other’s prediction of the action undertaken on the basis of possibilities which have been calculated (or established as precisely as the situation allows) so that the Other has precise information as to material conditions, etc..

Struggle is the only human practice which realises everyone’s relation to his object-being in urgency (and sometimes in mortal danger). And, of course, the object that I am for the Other is altered by the fundamental structures and material conditions which have given the Other a constitution as an object. However, objectivity for this other tends to approximate indefinitely to objectivity pure and simple (such that synchronic and diachronic totalisation can establish it in the very tension of their contradictions) in so far as it is not the Other determining it in me but myself tending to produce it under the pressure of the Other. In particular, on the relatively simple plane of military conflict, an army, through its leaders, must always have a strictly objective awareness of its being (number, arms, means of communication, relation to bases, and everyone’s combativity – in connection not only with the past and, for example, with good or bad supplies, but also with the future, that is to say, with the real meaning of the struggle it is engaged in for each soldier) and this consciousness must be as lucid, and at least as strict as that of the enemy (for the enemy may be ignorant of certain weaknesses, it may be poorly informed). In short, an army which did not see its praxis and its limited range of choice as strictly defined by its object-being, and which, consequently, did not interiorise its entire objectivity as its being-outside-itself in the practical field, and which did not produce its action as a transcendence of this objectivity (in so far as it is strictly determined and known) – in short an army which was ignorant about itself in the way that an individual – apart from individual conflicts – is ignorant of himself (slightly, though not completely, by mistaking his own capacities, etc.) – would be heading for defeat. In fact, the practical project must also define, in a synthetic bond (the determination of a tactic or strategy) the objectivity of every army, through the praxis-subject of the Other; and this involves not only – though this is the basic structure – calculating the relation of forces, but also calculating it in the prospect of a particular action. In the same way, and in the same perspective, one not only has to realise one’s own objectivity on the basis of a particular action by the enemy (the enemy attack on a particular formation, in a particular place, reveals this formation in its objective fragility as a point which may be breached and, as such, as needing reinforcements), but one also has to reassess the praxis-subject of the Other as object, that is to say, as the means of a praxis directed against the enemy (one allows him to advance in order to cut him off from his bases; thus one benefits from the enemy plan itself in so far as it is a project).

However, in so far as the enemy praxis is capable of becoming a means of its own failure, that is to say, in so far as it can become a praxis-object, it must itself be conditioned in itself by inertias, shortages, and ignorance – which of course is true of every praxis. Relative ignorance of the future and incomplete knowledge of the past are the material conditions enabling freedom to be treated as freedom-object (by a freedom which is better situated in relation to the past and the future). This is alienation, as a moment of struggle; but this alienation – which transforms the praxis of a group into passive activity, that is to say into a practico-inert process – comes to the praxis through the opposite praxis and through its action on the material conditions. The narrow pass is a passivity of the enemy praxis through the ignorance of the army leaders; the ambush transforms this passivity into a destiny through work (transportation of troops, weapons, etc.). On this basis, the free praxis of the enemy is no more than his illusion; it disguises an instrumental process which presents itself to the soldiers doing the ambush (and, after a certain moment, to those who fall into the trap) as a passive activity produced by the manipulating group within the manipulated group.

However, this freedom which has become a thing, that is to say freedom seen from the point of view of its alienation and through the realisation of this alienation, retains the signs of freedom as its seal. In fact this appropriated freedom, in so far as it has walked into the trap, becomes for both groups the means of its own liquidation as praxis. So from this point of view one can see an agreement about the object gradually being realised in the course of struggle. When the praxis of the surrounded group reveals its alienation, it still does not destroy itself; when it is surrounded, the organised group seeks to defend itself, to avoid extermination if possible, to hold out as long as it can, etc.; in short, it treats its own interior action as a past alienation which has to be transcended (if only in a hopeless battle or in surrender), and which therefore has to be preserved in the transcendence, at the very moment when the group which laid the ambush is trying to draw the consequences of this practico-inert activity of the Other, as the objective result of its own practice. Thus the agreement – which manifests itself in combat – arises, here, from the fact that alienated freedom has become for one of the groups and through the other the objective mediation between the two groups, that is to say, the object of antagonistic actions. (In this moment, any action by the surrounded group presupposes an admission of its own ‘mistake’ as a betrayal by common freedom and a recognition of enemy praxis as constituting a dangerous passive activity which is identical with ‘the mistake’ and is simply a means of eradicating it).

Thus we arrive at a first level of intelligibility in struggle in that the dialectical intelligibility of a project comprehends the comprehension of the project of the Other. This particular form of dialectical rationality is obviously an irreducible moment of the investigation: the bond between the two actions is both dialectical and anti-dialectical in each action considered on its own. It constitutes itself, in effect, as a negation of the Other to the degree that the Other is already in it as its negation. At this level this is not a genuine organic transcendence of an objective, existing condition, such as, for example, the transcendence by my project (by my praxis) of the previous moment of this praxis itself as mere transcended-being. The struggle is in itself the attempt by one free praxis to transcend another free praxis, and conversely; and consequently there can be no formal determination of the relationship between these two transcendences of transcendences, which necessarily include in themselves the permanent possibility (actualised in the moments of the struggle) of being transcended. For the transcendence itself is called into question by the Other, both in himself and in the Other, in so far as it only requires some lucky action which fully exploits the real situation to transform it, alive, into a practico-inert object (matter worked for the Other). Here in fact one can see, against the background of scarcity, the profound threat which man presents to man: man is the Being by whom (by whose praxis) man is reduced to the state of a haunted object – to the state of a worked matter whose functioning is determined and which is penetrated by ineffectual dreams (that is to say whose human transcendence would always be there, though as a self-confessed illusion which was incapable of disappearing).

And individual undertaking may, of course, produce results which apparently resemble the action of a group on inanimate matter: a mountaineer may lose his way or make mistakes which lead him to fall into a crevasse. But in fact the resemblance is quite superficial: praxis, by definition, has ignorance and error as basic structures. In this case, the coefficient of adversity of matter is a special case or the adversity of the world as man’s environment, and failure is still action proclaiming itself, if only in despair, as action. Defeat in struggle, in contrast, is produced by freedom and is comprehended as such. At this level, there is only one man: the man who realises himself as a man (as free praxis) by transforming the Other into a non-human object. And this man is in fact seen by his victim as the free realisation of humanity, producing itself through the de-humanisation of the Other. Thus struggle involves a reciprocal possibility that one of the two combatants will become a man and create the rule of man through the other’s becoming-inert: and in the developing struggle, man and the destruction of man are given as abstract reciprocities which will be determined by concrete circumstances. It is this affirmation of dialectical Reason based on the negation of dialectical Reason in the Other (and comprehended as the possibility of being negated by the Reason of the Other) which we call the level of the anti-dialectic, that is to say, the irreducibility in each of the praxes of both.

On the other hand, the praxis of the individual (or group) is always a comprehension of the Other (and tends to be a totalising comprehension: the limits are fixed only by the conditions of the struggle, and in any case they vary) and produces itself as a transcendence of the material results achieved by the Other in so far as it comprehends this praxis in the light of its own objectives. In other words, the signification of an antagonistic action necessarily includes the signification of the Other, in that each of them is both signifier and signified. In the simplest and most theoretical case, that of a game of chess, the arrangement of the white pieces, at each move, defines its intelligibility through the double depth of the future: to comprehend a move is to see it in terms of the responses it ought to elicit from black (in so far as it is a specific modification of a determinate field in which the power relations are strict and completely known), but these responses themselves have practical significations only in so far as they allow white to occupy new positions. So there are, in principle, two series (two successions of moves, white and black). But in practice move No. 1 (by white) is made in the prospect of a complex of subsequent operations; and since these operations can be carried out only if the complex of black positions is rearranged, this first move (the first in this particular operation, not the first in the game) is played in order to elicit a certain response from black (a displacement of pieces) to make way for move No. 2 by white. Now, this second move, which was planned from the very ‘conception’ of the project, is itself a means of provoking a certain defence by black whose function for white will be to make way for move No. 3, that is to say, the development of the attack, etc.

Thus this is a miniature practical field which gains in rigour and precision what it loses in extension and complexity and which is always seen (by every adversary) both in its synchronic and in its diachronic totalisation. Every move is really a complete rearrangement, a transformation of the relations of all the pieces within the synthetic field. The future is relatively limited (in theory the game might go on for ever; but in practice the drama is quite short), but within the double, reciprocal temporalisation one can discern one series of successive objectives (each white move being directly aimed at a certain response by black, this response enabling white to achieve a second objective, etc.). Now, from the point of view of white, who is on the offensive, the temporal succession of white moves intertwines with that of black’s responses until they become one: in effect, each position strictly implies the other. Thus, in so far as the options for black are gradually narrowed down to one (that is to say, to necessity), as in chess problems and ‘end-games’ and (this is partly the same thing) the more manifest the practical superiority of white, the whole operation will appear to reduce to the work of a single player on a material whose laws have been determined in advance. It suffices that the practical movement is defined by its end (check-mate), and this end by the rules of the game. Then it is possible to treat the black defence as a series of negative and predictable reactions, which can and must be governed, controlled, and elicited by white, that is to say, in short, as a negative, indirect instrumentality which white must be able to exploit in order to achieve his ends. At this level there is no longer any adversary: in chess problems, indeed, the player is usually alone, and exploits the black defence in order to reach the solution as quickly as possible: ‘mate in three moves’, etc. The way is open for a mathematics of games. But this mathematics is itself subordinate to action: it appears only when action is intentionally eliminated in favour of simple succession (that is to say, to allow analytical Reason to determine certain relational systems which have to be reactualised by praxis).

What concerns us in this example is not the abstract moment where praxis effaces itself before rigid relations; it is the moment where it becomes practically indifferent whether to attribute the complex of practical operations to a reciprocity of combat or to the isolated activity of an individual on an inert and strictly determined material. What is taking place? Simply this: if one of the adversaries is able to predict precisely the reactions of the other and elicit them by his action, and if his prediction corresponds for the enemy to the necessity of his reactions (that is to say, to their alienation), reciprocal and antagonistic action tends to become identical with individual action. But this can only mean that the dominated adversary has become no more than an object: and a basically similar transformation of the defeated takes place, only with less rigour, in the relations between a victorious army and a routed enemy. It is the relative unpredictability of the adversary – in so far as this unpredictability is comprehended and constitutes the ignorance of the Other – which allows struggle to retain its reciprocity. However, the mere fact that the limit-objective of everyone’s action involves the integration of that of the Other as a simple indirect means shows that the comprehension of the other is the dialectical intelligibility of everyone’s own action as its obverse, its organ of control, and its means of transcendence. And at the same time this comprehension posits itself as temporary because it takes place in the prospect of integrating the enemy into its victorious praxis and turning him into an inert, docile means of carrying victory to the limit.

In short, between the two limit-possibilities (becoming an isolated agent, and being transformed into worked matter by enemy praxis), each of which reduces the struggle to a mere practical rearrangement of the field by the sovereign and which are also the goals pursued by each of the adversaries (and sometimes realised by one of them), the praxis of struggle arises in everyone as the comprehension of his object-being (in so far as it exists for the Other and threatens to enclose him one day in the Other) through his practical existence as a subject. In its attempted transcendence of this concrete objectivity (which only succeeds in so far as it is not prevented by the Other), the praxis of struggle awakens, actualises, comprehends and transcends the constitutive praxis of the Other in so far as he is himself a practical subject; and in its action against the Other, on the completion of this very transcendence and through the mediation of the field of materiality, it reveals and produces the Other as an object. From this point of view, the anti-dialectical negation appears as a moment in a more complex dialectic. At first, in fact, this negation is precisely what is transcended: the praxis is constituted for both as the negation of a negation: not only through everyone’s transcendence of his object-being, but practically through everyone’s attempts to liquidate the practical subject in the Other outside and from the outside and to recover his objectivity through this transcendent (transcendante) destruction. Thus the antagonistic negation is grasped by everyone as a scandal which has to be transcended. But at the level of scarcity its origin does not lie in this revelation of scandal: it is a struggle for life; thus the scandal is not only grasped in its appearance as scandal, but also profoundly comprehended as the impossibility that the two should co-exist. Consequently the scandal is not, as Hegel supposed, the mere existence of the Other, which would take us back to a statute of unintelligibility. It lies in suffered (or threatened) violence, that is, in interiorised scarcity. In this respect, although the original fact is logically and formally contingent (scarcity is only a material given), its contingency is far from impairing the intelligibility of violence. What is important for the dialectical comprehension of the Other, is the rationality of his praxis. Now this rationality appears in violence itself, in so far as this is not the contingent ferocity of man, but everyone’s intelligible reinteriorisation of the contingent fact of scarcity: human violence is meaningful (significante). And as this violence is a negation of the Other in everyone, negation, in its reciprocity, becomes meaningful in and through everyone, as scarcity turned practical agent, or in other words as human-scarcity. Thus practical negation is constituted as a negation of scandal-negation both in so far as the latter is the Other in everyone and in so far as this Other is interiorised scarcity.

From this point of view, what is indissolubly negated by praxis is negation as the condition of man (that is to say, as a conditioning readopted in violence by the conditioned) and as the freedom of an Other. And in fact the scandal of the presence in me (as a mark of my object-being) of the Other’s freedom as the freedom-negation of my freedom, is itself a determination in rationality in so far as this negative freedom actualises in practice the impossibility of our co-existing in the field of scarcity. In short, on the basis of scarcity, and in the prospect of the annihilation of the Other, struggle is, for everyone, a deepening of the comprehension of others. To comprehend, in an immediate sense, is to grasp the praxis of the Other, through its ends and means, as a simple, objective, transcendent temporalisation. To comprehend in struggle is to grasp the praxis of the Other in immanence, through its own objectivity and in a practical transcendence. I now comprehend the enemy through myself and myself through the enemy. His praxis does not appear as a pure transcendent temporalisation which I reproduce without participating in it; urgency forces me to discover my objectivity and adopt it in every detail; it forces me to penetrate, as far as concrete circumstances permit, the activity of the enemy. Comprehension is an immediate fact of reciprocity. But as long as this reciprocity remains positive, comprehension remains abstract and external. Struggle, in the field of scarcity, as negative reciprocity, engenders the Other as Other than man, or as anti-human; but at the same time I comprehend him, in the very springs of my praxis, as a negation of which I am a concrete practical negation, and as mortal danger.

For each of the adversaries, this struggle is intelligible; or rather, at this level, it is intelligibility itself. Otherwise, reciprocal praxis would in itself have no meaning or goal. But what concerns us is the general problem of intelligibility, particularly at the concrete level. Now, if a situated dialectic is possible, then social conflicts, battles, and regular conflicts, as complex events produced by the practices of reciprocal antagonism between two individuals or multiplicities, must in principle be comprehensible to the third parties who depend on them without participating, or to observers who see them from outside without being in any way involved. From this point of view, nothing is fixed a priori: the investigation has to be continued. In fact every adversary realises the intelligibility of the conflict because he totalises it for himself in and through his own praxis; but the reciprocal negation is, for the third party, the very reality of struggle. We have seen how the mediation of the third party realises the transcendent objective unity of positive reciprocities. But is this unity still possible when each action is aimed at destroying that of the Other and when the observable results of this double negation are nil or – as usually happens – when the teleological significations which each adversary has inscribed in it have been partly erased or transformed by the Other, so that no trace of concerted activity is any longer to be seen? Similarly, to take the example of individual combat, each blow dealt by the one is dodged or parried or blocked by the Other – but not completely, unless they differ greatly in strength or skill. And the same observation – as we saw in The Problem of Method – applies to most of the historic ‘days’: they often ended indecisively. Thus the effects cannot be attributed entirely either to the rebels or to the government forces, and they have to be comprehended not as the realisation of a project, but in terms of how the action of each group (and also of chance, accident, etc.) prevented them from realising that of the Other, that is to say, to the extent that they are not practical significations, and that their mutilated, truncated meaning does not correspond to any one’s practical plan so that, in this sense, they fall short of being human. But if this is what the historian recreating the ‘days’ of 20 June or of 10 August 1792 has to do, is it really appropriate to call this recreation intellection?

These questions bring us at last to the real problem of History. If History really is to be the totalisation of all practical multiplicities and of all their struggles, the complex products of the conflicts and collaborations of these very diverse multiplicities must themselves be intelligible in their synthetic reality, that is to say, they must be comprehensible as the synthetic products of a totalitarian praxis. This means that History is intelligible if the different practices which can be found and located at a given moment of the historical temporalisation finally appear as partially totalising and as connected and merged in their very oppositions and diversities by an intelligible totalisation from which there is no appeal. It is by seeking the conditions for the intelligibility of historical vestiges and results that we shall, for the first time, reach the problem of totalisation without a totaliser and of the very foundations of this totalisation, that is to say, of its motive-forces and of its non-circular direction. Thus, the regressive movement of the critical investigation has demonstrated the intelligibility of practical structures and the dialectical relation which interconnects the various forms of active multiplicities. But, on the one hand, we are still at the level of synchronic totalisation and we have not yet considered the diachronic depth of practical temporalisation; and on the other hand, the regressive movement has ended with a question: that is to say, it has to be completed by a synthetic progression whose aim will be to rise up to the double synchronic and diachronic movement by which History constantly totalises itself. So far, we have been trying to get back to the elementary formal structures, and, at the same time, we have located the dialectical foundations of a structural anthropology. These structures must now be left to live freely, to oppose and to co-operate with one another: and the reflexive investigation of this still formal project will be the object of the next volume. If the truth is one in its increasing internal diversification, then, by answering the last question posed by the regressive investigation, we shall discover the basic signification of History and of dialectical rationality.