Essay 17: Holism in Sartre: What Are the Limits?

In his classic essay, What Is Literature? (also published as Literature and Existentialism) Sartre (1905-1980) gives the reader a sense of wider contexts surrounding everything:

“The work is never limited to the painted, sculpted, or narrated object. Just as one perceives things only against the background of the world, so the objects represented by art appear against the background of the universe.

“On the background on the adventures of Fabrice (hero of Stendhal’s novel, The Charterhouse of Parma) are the Italy of 1820, Austria, France the sky and the stars which the Abbe Blanis consults, and finally the whole earth. If the painter presents us with a field or a vase of flowers, his paintings are windows which are open on a whole world. We follow the red path which is buried among the wheat much farther than Van Gogh has painted it, among other wheat fields, under other clouds, to the river which empties into the sea, and we extend to infinity, to the other end of the world, the deep finality which supports the existence of the field and the earth. So that, through the various objects which it produces or reproduces, the creative act aims at a total renewal of the world.

“Each painting, each book, is a recovery of the totality of being.”

(Jean-Paul Sartre, Literature and Existentialism, Citadel Press, 1980)

In this “educational repair” we are presenting, we encourage students to wrap every lecture, field, topic, subject, discussion, problem in the wider context.

Where exactly to stop contextualizing in this way must be sensed by the student and cannot be stated as a fixed propositional truth.