It was a holiday weekend so I indulged myself in a little philosophy: Patrick Baert’s . Regular perusers of this blog will know I recently outed myself as a teenage existentialist, in reviewing Sarah Bakewell’s excellent new book . Bakewell explains (and critiques) the philosophy, and sets it in the context of wider philosophical currents. Baert explores a few years in French history, those of the German occupation during World War 2 and the immediate post-war years, to explain why existentialism and why Sartre in particular struck a chord with the public and become so influential.
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It is fascinating in its exploration of why writing came to be seen as so central to French national identity and why Sartre was particularly adept at using writing about politics to appeal to the French public at that time of national defeat and subsequent rebuilding. So, oddly, although Sartre and De Gaulle were poles apart politically, both played an important part in rebuilding the nation’s sense of cohesion and dignity.
Baert’s final chapter has some general reflections on the role of public intellectuals and writing as a performative political act. He argues that the generalist public intellectual of Sartre’s type cannot exist in modern social contexts, but have been replaced instead by public intellectuals with expert domain knowledge. Sartre wrote about social and economic issues with no knowledge of the facts or the social science, and nobody would get away with that now. I’m not sure I buy the argument about the perfomative character of people who pontificate about the economy, at least not in a straightforward way, but having said that, there’s some appeal (to a writer) in the idea that words are sufficiently powerful to shape social reality. Man the keyboards!