Sartre’s Partridges

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An e-mail discussion with the philosopher and Zeteo contributor Ed Mooney has led me back to two paragraphs in Sartre’s L’Être et le néant (Being and Nothingness). One of the oft-quoted (in English) lines from these paragraphs is “my acts cause values to spring up like partridges,” and I harbor hopes of someday grappling, in a short essay or two, with an extrapolation of this line. Very briefly here, this extrapolation would revisit the role of skepticism, as it were confining it to the philosophical or more reflective realm, while in the rest of lives skepticism would seem impossible insofar as all our “acts” (feelings, thoughts, dreams, and statements included) make truth claims and contribute to the evolution and reification of truth regimes, and this largely independently of either the rational basis of our particular claims or any lack of rational foundations.

Quite independently of rationality, our acts contribute to the evolution of truth regimes.

A simple example: If I skip out of work to go to the gym or home to my family, I may well be tacitly making claims about the relative importance of work, fitness, and family. And those claims would not be unique to me, but would be understandable, and only understandable, insofar as they were in dialogue with existing claims (e.g. about “work-life balance”). We are here coming back toward Sartre’s partridges, with the claims of my particular actions being my feet in the grass, and existing claims being the partridges. But for me, as a reader, the partridges remain an odd analogy, for one because they make it hard to visualize or speak about how my actions—my going home early, say—are in dialogue with existing values (and with other people’s actions) and are, in however small a way, altering the contents and status of these values—the partridges that later steps might flush out. (And what do we do with the fact that partridges often spring up when they are hunted, for example with dogs?)

I have outlined an ambitious writing and thinking project which I am not going to undertake here. As a start, it seemed best to go back to Sartre’s original text and to translate it into English as a way of getting to know it better. This done, I have, for Zeteo is Reading readers, converted my translation into a “gloss” (an interpretive translation) and edited it down to several key moments, which are reproduced below, without ellipses, and with some explications and reactions interposed. For readers interested in seeing what has been left out or in a more faithful translation, I have appended the standard translation, completed in 1956 by the American philosopher Hazel Barnes. This translation may also lead to an appreciation of the density and awkwardness of Sartre’s text and to occasional wondering if its assertions might be more brilliant than entirely thought through. (My own wonderings include: To what extent did the capacity of Sartre’s text to provoke frustrated reactions such as “He must not quite mean what he is saying” or “Why was he unable to state this more clearly?” lead to these paragraphs being as much discussed as they were in the glory days of Sartre and of Existentialism?)


The Gloss

The alarm that goes off in the morning reawakens the possibility of going to work, and this is my possibility. If I indeed, and without reflection, get up, this is to accept the alarm’s summons as a summons. The very act of getting up is thus reassuring because it allows me to elude the question “Is work my possibility?” [Or, is this job something that I am indeed choosing?] Therefore, or for example, my unreflective, and likely groggy-eyed getting up separates me from the possibility of quietism, of refusing to work and, ultimately, of refusing the world and death. [Note: This “death” here does not, or has yet to, make sense to this translator/explicator. I can understand how one might refuse to work, and thus, perhaps, choose death. I can understand that organic beings struggle mightily with death. But, as may be clear long before one’s moment comes, refused is not something death can be.]

Refused is not something death can be.

Insofar as grasping the meaning of the alarm is to have gotten up when it calls, this understanding protects me against the rather more harrowing thought that it is I, and I alone, who gives the alarm clock its force. Similarly, what we might call our everyday morals do not involve any ethical anxiety, which only arises when we reflect on our basic relationship to morals. [How we contribute to the making of these morals both before and while they are making something particular/peculiar of us.]

A moral value does not make demands on us because it exists; rather it exists insofar as it is capable of making demands on us. [Thou shalt not kill is not a value on a battlefield.] My freedom—or, let’s say, my ability to respond to or ignore demands—is the sole basis of values. Further, my freedom makes me anxious because free beings—beings able to make choices—necessarily confront values [e.g. the ten commandments, the Golden Rule], and these values may always be called into question. The possibility of upsetting the scale of values is another of our possibilities.

It is not after reflecting on moral values that members of the bourgeoisie came to call themselves respectable.

But, normally, my relations with values is above all reassuring. I find myself caught up in a world with values. The stressful view, by which the existence of values is tied up with my freedom, is a quite secondary and indirect phenomenon. The immediate is the world with its demands, and, in this world my acts cause values to spring up like partridges. My indignation gives me the negative value of baseness, and my admiration gives me the positive value of greatness. [This, too, does not seem right. An online dictionary (Collins) defines indignation as “anger or scorn aroused by something felt to be unfair, unworthy, or wrong.” Which is to say that this feeling of something being base or otherwise off precedes the indignation; without having a value system already in place I might be able to feel some things, such as ecstasy, but not something like indignation.]

Sartre goes on: My obedience to a whole host of taboos makes it possible for me to appreciate the existence of these taboos. It is not after reflecting on moral values that members of the bourgeoisie came to call themselves respectable; rather, as the bourgeoisie took its place in the world, people of this emerging class found themselves caught up in “respectable” behaviors. And thus respectability came into existence, and it makes no sense to call its values into question. Like the little park signs that forbid walking on the grass, the values [of my times, society and social class] are sown along my path like a thousand little demands.

— William Eaton, Zeteo Executive Editor


From Hazel E. Barnes’s standard translation of the two paragraphs in Being and Nothingness

The alarm which rings in the morning refers to the possibility of my going to work, which is my possibility. But to apprehend the summons of the alarm as a summons is to get up. Therefore the very act of getting up is reassuring, for it eludes the question: “Is work my possibility?” Consequently it does not put me in a position to apprehend the possibility of quietism, of refusing to work and finally the possibility of refusing the world and the possibility of death. In short, to the extent that I apprehend the meaning of the ringing, I am already up at its summons; this apprehension guarantees me against the anguished intuition that it is I who confer on the alarm clock its exigency—I and I alone.

Value derives its being from its exigency and not its exigency from its being. Sartre

Similarly, what we might call everyday morality is exclusive of ethical anguish. There is ethical anguish when I consider myself in my original relation to values. . . . Value derives its being from its exigency and not its exigency from its being. It does not deliver itself to a contemplative intuition which would apprehend it as being value and thereby would remove from it its right over my freedom. On the contrary, it can be revealed only to an active freedom which makes it exist as value by the sole fact of recognizing it as such. It follows that my freedom is the unique foundation of values and that nothing, absolutely nothing, justifies me in adopting this or that particular value, this or that particular scale of values. As a being by whom values exist, I am unjustifiable. My freedom is anguished at being the foundation of values while itself without foundation. It is anguished in addition because values, due to the fact that they are essentially revealed to a freedom, cannot disclose themselves without being at the same time “put into question,” for the possibility of overturning the scale of values appears complementarily as my possibility. It is anguish before values which is the recognition of the ideality of values.

Ordinarily, however, my attitude with respect to values is eminently reassuring. In fact I am engaged in a world of values. The anguished apperception of values as sustained in being by my freedom is a secondary and indirect phenomenon. The immediate is the world with its urgency, and this in this world where I engage myself, my acts cause values to spring up like partridges. My indignation has given me the negative value “baseness,” my admiration has given me the positive value “grandeur.” Above all my obedience to a multitude of taboos, which is real, reveals these taboos to me as existing in fact. The bourgeois who call themselves “respectable citizens” do not become respectable as the result of contemplating moral values. Rather from the moment of their arising in the world they are thrown into a pattern of behavior the meaning of which is respectability. Thus respectability acquires a being; it is not put into question. Values are sown on my path as thousands of little real demands, like the signs which order us to keep off the grass.

{Note that the first of Sartre’s paragraphs is quite long. Barnes broke it up into several shorter paragraphs, and the extract above picks up in the middle of her rendering of that first paragraph.}



Partridges illustration by Charles Defeo (1892-1978); prints available from the Niagara Falls Gallery.

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