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Reason and Relativism: A Sartrean Investigation.

Whereas French philosophy sought to surpass Sartre by rapidly moving from structuralism to post-structuralism to postmodernism, Hendley's insightful and interesting study of Sartre's theory of dialectical reason and associated epistemic issues suggests that this movement may have been somewhat precipiteux. With unusual patience he sifts through the first volume of Sartre's Critique de la Raison dialectique in order to display his various and numerous attempts to formulate his conception of dialectical reason. The tension between the knowledge of being and the being of knowledge is taken as the central paradox that Sartre's thought tries to resolve.

A novel aspect of this study is that it approaches Sartre in the Critique in terms of the question of cognitive or epistemic relativism as it emerges in the context of a project to disclose the conditions for the possibility of historical knowledge. Framing his critical work in this way leads Hendley into the theoretical domain of Rorty, Foucault, Lyotard, Feyerabend, Habermas, and Kuhn. By doing so he presents Sartre's later thought in a new light, one that is (though it is not called such) clearly post-Marxian.

The problem of the historicity of knowledge is shown to be one that Sartre struggles with in his attempt to develop his socio-historical theory. It is shown that Sartre does, at times, commit himself to the uniqueness of claims to truth, to the historicity of various theoretical methods or structures. Despite this, Hendley does a heroic job of attempting to save Sartre's conception of dialectical reason from the swirl of relativism. For Sartre, all knowledge is practical knowledge, knowledge made manifest in the "totalizing" activity of praxis. Tolerant of Sartre's frequent and often obscure reformulations of his own theoretical notions, the author argues that he puts forward a nontheoretical, nonfoundational basis for a lived, practical comprehension of action, social existence, and social dynamics in his concept of dialectical reason. That there is dialectical reason and that it informs all other modes of reasoning is the most vulnerable notion in the Critique. The author's defense of the "being" and operation of this ostensibly unique mode of reasoning leads not only to an admitted epistemological circularity, but to assertions that are paradoxical and sometimes more than paradoxical (cf. pp. 121, 197-8). By granting that totalization in praxis is interpretation (which invariably entails both theory and what Gadamer long ago called "prejudgments"), the author undermines this emphasis elsewhere on totalization's "nontheoretical," "nonfoundational" nature. The putative "transhistoricity" of dialectical reason (p. 202) is by no means securely defended.

By seeking to present the most difficult to defend of all of Sartre's notions in the Critique, the author takes on a demanding (if not impossible) task. Nonetheless, his study cuts across a number of recent and contemporary issues that are alive and volatile. Whereas others have examined the dialectical interpretation of social action and social dynamics and defended its value, Hendley grapples with the enigma of a "dialectical Reason" while relating Sartre to thinkers that have transformed contemporary thought. This last point alone would make this work valuable and useful.
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Author:Stack, George J.
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1993
Words:508
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