The Diary and the Map
Satre and Foucault on making sense of history

Thomas R. Flynn, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Philosophy


Vol. 8 No. 1
September 2005

Return to Contents

Women's Work?
Gender Equity in the Hard Sciences at Emory

Harvard's promise

Gender in the hard science faculty ranks at Emory

Hard sciences faculty by gender at other institutions

"What's happening along the way? Why aren't women choosing academia proportionately, and why aren't women staying in academia?"

"I think the 'nature versus nurture' question is not meaningful, because it treats them as independent factors, whereas in fact everything is nature and nurture."

The Crisis in the Humanities
So what else is new?

Sweeping Away the Dust of Everyday Life
Jazz and the Emory Experience

The Diary and the Map
Sartre and Foucault on making sense of history

This Old Sarcophagus
Life, death, money and chemistry in the Carlos Museum


With the centenary of the birth of Jean-Paul Sartre this year, interest in his thought has exploded. In addition to a major exhibition at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, more than thirty books on his work have appeared this year in France alone. But when considering Sartre’s preeminence, one inevitably thinks of his “successor” as the next reigning Left Bank intellectual, Michel Foucault. It is difficult to separate Sartre and Foucault. Notwithstanding their generational difference or perhaps because of it, one tends to associate their names in death as was done so frequently while they were alive.

Despite a shared sense of social commitment that occasionally brought them together in public, they were often sharply critical of each other’s philosophy, whether directly or indirectly through colleagues. Seen as the models of existentialism and (post)structuralism respectively, they represent the incompatibility of these two philosophical “styles.” Nowhere is that discrepancy more sharply drawn than in their respective approaches to the philosophy of history. Though Foucault favors the spatial metaphor, it was Sartre who captured the telling image when he claimed that history should be likened to a motion picture, whereas Foucault replaces the film with the slide show.

Existentialism and Structuralism have commonly been considered inimical to what has come to be called the philosophy of history, but for opposing reasons. Sartrean existentialism was seen as irremediably individualistic, while Foucault’s philosophy seemed to leave no place for the individual agent. The penultimate line of Sartre’s play “No Exit,” that Hell is other people, was taken for the epitaph on the tomb of his social philosophy. At best, what one could expect from such a premise, it seemed, was a theory of history as the war of all against all. And while this would confirm the suspicion that “Existentialists” were Angst-ridden pessimists, it seemed incapable of accounting for the positive exchanges, group effort, and collective phenomena that are so much a part of our historical experience. In other words, Existentialism seemed prepared to offer us a series of biographies but not a plausible account of the nature of historical causality in the larger sense: history as “our” story, not just as mine.

The challenge for a properly existentialist theory of history is to account for “collective” phenomena, such as the storming of the Bastille, without sacrificing the freedom and responsibility of the individual agent—the hallmarks of existentialist thought. My first volume, Sartre, Foucault, and Historical Reason: Toward an Existentialist Theory of History, analyzes the social theory that Sartre develops to meet this challenge. I survey his nascent theory from its dawning as he asks how one might “comprehend” the relation between the German kaiser’s way of living with his physical deformity (Wilhelm II was born with a withered arm) and his Government’s foreign policy leading to the Great War. My survey then passes through Sartre’s interpretive link of Stalin’s personality with the specifics of Soviet industrialization and culminates in his massive “existentialist psychoanalysis” of Gustave Flaubert’s life and times—a work he described as “a novel that is true.”

This union of history and biography respects the impersonal structures and unintended consequences of history even as it seeks to convey the agent’s experience of the risk of choice and the pinch of the real (for example, the anguish a commander might feel in sending his troops into battle and his realization that the outcome lies beyond his control). Without this existential choice, history would be the slide show that Sartre believed Foucault had made of it.

The so-called “structuralist” method is similarly conceived as antithetical to historical narrative but from the other side. On this reading, agents are more the products then the producers of social relations. Foucault, who rose to fame on the structuralist wave in the mid 1960s, vigorously resisted identification with this movement, which he characterized as “formalist.” And yet his “archaeological” studies were well known for their attacks on “the history of the philosophers” such as that of Sartre. He particularly criticized their naïve views of the efficacy of individual efforts in historical events, their neglect of the linguistic dimension of social interchange, and their insensitivity to the determining role of social structures such as kinship rules or economic systems in their historical accounts. As historian Paul Veyne remarked apropos Foucault’s “revolutionizing” of the discipline, history resembles comparative geography more than it does literature.

Foucault is noted for his use of spatial metaphors, the best known of which is probably his adoption of Jeremy Bentham’s “panopticon” (a hub and spoke arrangement) to chart the relations of surveillance and control that, on Foucault’s reading, characterize not only the ideal layout of a prison, but that of our schools, barracks, hospitals and factories—which, Foucault insists, resemble prisons. This use of “spatialized” reasoning with its proper logic, which seems to reduce historical “agents” to mere functions of the structures that make them possible, is integral to Foucault’s manner of doing history. The argument is in the architecture.

Now the problem is how to retain a place for individual initiative (freedom and responsibility) amidst the impersonal forces and structures of our social life. As Foucault turned toward the ways in which people become “subjects” in various contexts and practices, he seemed willing to recognize the uses of freedom and even of responsibility that so concerned the existentialists. But he continued to reject their sense of a continuous “subject” of history/biography who would unify histories into a single History (Sartre’s ideal of a “city of ends”). Foucault is no utopian.

After summarizing Sartre’s case as analyzed in volume 1, I reconstruct the Foucauldian position(s) in volume 2. Though the existentialist and the structuralist stances invite a “dialectical” synthesis that would incorporate the salient features of each into some higher, comprehensive viewpoint, such an argument would award the palm to Sartre, whose theory is “totalizing” from the start. Rather, I apply a kind of spatialized reasoning to Foucault’s own work, examining each of the three “stages” of his thought—archaeology, genealogy, and problematization—as so many “axes” along which one may chart the full expression of his work. Doing so reveals a suggestive contrast between the Sartrean theory of history as “pyramidal” and the Foucauldian as “prismatic.”

In other words, Sartre’s view of history culminates in his ideal of free individuals cooperating in a society liberated from material scarcity and the violence that such scarcity entails. History as we have known it is read as leading to this high point: the peak of the historical pyramid. The image of the prism, on the contrary, invites us to note the continuous relevance of each axis to every so-called “stage” of Foucault’s work.

Rather than reading archaeology, genealogy, and problematization as three successive stages that culminate in a holistic view such as Sartre’s, I read Foucault’s entire work under each of these categories of investigation. Thus, I look for relations of power (usually ascribed to his genealogies) in his earlier and his later works as well, and I offer evidence of some form of subject-formation at work in his earlier works. Such an axial rather than developmental reading also respects the open-ended nature of the Foucauldian oeuvre, a term he disliked. But most promising for a continued dialogue with existentialists is Foucault’s remark toward the end of his life that the “space” enclosed
by these three axes be denominated “experience.”

But lived experience is an expression popular with the later Sartre. That is, the “structuralist Foucault” can be read as a philosopher of experience. Not that I would turn Foucault (back?) into an existentialist. Such “conversions” by means of a definition are as futile in philosophy as they are in religion. But I show how an axial reading enriches our understanding of the kind of “history” pursued by both philosophers even as it reveals the promise and the limits of their respective premises and methods.

Thomas R. Flynn is the author of Sartre, Foucault, and Historical Reason, Vol. 2, A Poststructuralist Mapping of History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2005). The first volume is subtitled Toward an Existentialist Theory of History (Chicago 1997). Because of prospective sketches in the first volume and retrospective summaries in the second, each can be read as a freestanding volume.