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Chapter VII: Being in a Situation

The argument of the last lecture led us to recognize that we can understand feeling only as a mode of participation, but that the domain of participation, on the other hand, is much more extensive than that of mere feeling as such. To feel is in some degree to participate, but to participate in a higher sense is much more than merely to feel. This point is worth emphasizing, in so far as it may help us to get a clearer notion of the kind of answer—let us be careful not to say, the kind of solution—that will be relevant to our question: ‘Who am I?’ or ‘What am I?’

It will be helpful also to revert, at this point, to the notion of contemplation as such. We shall find contemplation an intelligible notion if we are willing to recognize the ambiguity of the simpler notion (which is, however, the root meaning of the word contemplation) of looking. We can look at or for things in a way that wholly subserves some practical activity. If I am going across a patch of ground covered with boulders, puddles, briars, muddy patches, and other obstacles, I keep my eyes open, I look where I am putting my feet; my attention is continuously directed towards a certain wholly definable kind of activity—that of picking my way from one given point to another—and towards the grip such an activity can get on the material datum, in this case an imperfect thoroughfare, through which it is exercising itself. But a less simple example, one that takes us a stage further, is that of the botanist or geologist who makes use of a country stroll to look for some particular plant or mineral. (To a French ear, the English phrasal verb ‘looking for’ corresponds with wonderful adequacy to the notion it expresses, the ‘for’ just exactly suggesting the purposeful look of the searcher). This, as I have said, is an intermediary example between purely practical looking and contemplation as such; the geologist or botanist is on the look-out for knowledge, his looking does not subserve a practical activity in the usual sense of the term, but on the other hand the knowledge he is seeking to extend may be of a wholly specialized or specializing character; it is significant, in fact, that what he is looking for he would probably call a specimen.

But might we not say that the very essence of contemplation as such consists, negatively at least, in the fact that it can never be brought to bear on a specimen as such; its object, if it has an object, is not considered as being a member of a class or as having a place in a series; it is considered in itself, in its uniqueness, while for the specialist—in spite of any appearance to the contrary—that uniqueness can never be taken into account, Sie kann nicht, as the Germans say, in Betracht kommen. All this, as I have hinted, is assuming that contemplation has an object in the ordinary sense, or rather that what contemplation is brought to bear on remains merely objective: for we may be allowed to ask ourselves—and the question is an extremely important one—whether, when looking becomes contemplation, it does not switch over its direction, turn, as it were, inwards? In so far as we are accustomed to use the word contemplation to indicate the act by which the self concentrates its attention on its own state, or even on its own being, might we not very properly say that contemplation is a turning inwards of our awareness of the outer world?

This idea becomes clearer, it seems to me, if one remembers that there can be no contemplation without a kind of inward regrouping of one's resources, or a kind of ingatheredness; to contemplate is to ingather oneself in the presence of whatever is being contemplated, and this in such a fashion that the reality, confronting which one ingathers oneself, itself becomes a factor in the ingathering.

It is obvious that in the case in which the reality confronting me is interpreted as mere spectacle, mere outer show with no inner meaning, what I have just been saying makes no sense. If it is possible to turn one's impression of a spectacle inwards, that is because, after all, one is not interpreting it as mere spectacle but as something else and something more. Let us see, however, if we can make this clearer. A mere spectator, confronted with a mere spectacle, could properly be compared with a sort of visual recording apparatus; there would be no inwardness either on his side or on that of what he was recording. It may be objected that the notion of a recording apparatus implies one sort of inwardness at least—that of cogs and springs inside the outward casing of the apparatus—but this is mere quibbling. The cogs and springs are simply parts of a mechanical whole, and we must assert peremptorily that to be part of such a whole is not to have inwardness in our sense. This example, however, does serve a purpose in showing what an equivocal notion inwardness is; we seek, mistakenly, for an imaginative embodiment of the notion; but inwardness is really one of the borderlands of the imagination, it lies just out of reach of imagination's evocative power, and is, one might say, transliminal.

Let us recall, however, at this point what we said in chapter five about instrumentality: to be instrumental is, by definition, to be at the service of powers that are not themselves instrumental, and which, for that very reason, can be said to be really inner powers, really to have inwardness. We are betraying the very nature of such powers when we seek to embody them for the purposes of imagination, for as soon as we do so we tend inevitably to reduce them to mere instruments. This is why the spectator, also, betrays his own nature when he chooses to regard himself as a mere recording apparatus; and it is enough, indeed, for him to reflect for a second on the emotion which a spectacle is capable of arousing in him, for the image of himself as a mere apparatus, with which he was satisfied enough at first, to be at once shattered. But it is precisely to the degree in which the spectator is more than simply spectans, it is to the degree to which he is also particeps, that the spectacle is more for him than a mere spectacle, that it has some inner meaning—and it is, I repeat, to the degree to which it is more than a mere spectacle that it can give rise to contemplation. And our term ‘participation’, even though it is so far for us not much more than a makeshift, a bridge hastily thrown across certain gaps in our argument, indicates precisely this ‘something more’ that has to be added to the simple recording of impressions before contemplation can arise. This whole domain is very difficult to explore; but the way through it, I think, is not that of coining new ad hoc terms like ‘appresentation’ but rather that of meditating on the use of prepositions—such as in, and towards, and in front of—in common speech.

The spectacle as such, we would all agree, is in front of me, facing me, before me; but in so far as it is something more than a spectacle, it is not merely in front of me; shall I say that it is in me, within me, inside me? These prepositions have a subtle idiomatic range; and if I say in this case that the spectacle lies within me, or, as you would more naturally say in English, that it is in my mind, or that it is an inner spectacle as well as an outer one, my emphasis is largely a negative one; it indicates that there is some sense in which the spectacle is not external to me, or not merely external. For in fact we are now at a stage where we have to transcend the primary, and fundamentally spatial, opposition between external and internal, between outside and inside. In so far as I really contemplate the landscape a certain togetherness grows up between the landscape and me. But this is the point where we can begin to get a better grasp of that regathering, or regrouping, process of which I spoke earlier; is this state of ingatheredness not, in fact, the very means by which I am able to transcend the opposition of my inner and outer worlds? There are profound reflections, of which we could make good use at this point, on a relevant topic in a recent book by the Swiss Catholic thinker, Max Picard, The World of Silence.1 There is reason to suppose that ingatheredness is the means by which I am able to impose an inner silence on myself. Such a silence, of course, must not be thought of as a mere absence of mental discourse, but has its own positive value; one might call it a fullness of being which can be reinstated only when the speech impulse has been driven, or drawn, downwards. Human speech, as Bergson perceived with his usual depth of vision, is naturally adapted to the statement of spatial relationships, which are relationships, fundamentally, of mere juxtaposition. And that very sentence, indeed, illustrates this inadequacy of language to the truths of the inner life. Exclusion, shutting out, is itself, of course, fundamentally a relationship of mere juxtaposition; when I say that true inwardness excludes such relationships, the structure of language is forcing me to imply the contrary of what I intend to assert.

Let us get back, however, to our notion of ingatheredness. There is a preliminary observation to be made, round which any subsequent observations will tend to group themselves. Ingatheredness is not a state of abstraction from anything, and in fact the attitudes behind ingathering oneself, and abstracting oneself, are diverse and perhaps at opposite poles from each other. One abstracts one's attention from something, which is as much as to say, leaves it, leaves it aside, perhaps even leaves it in the lurch; ingatheredness on the other hand is essentially a state in which one is drawing nearer something, without abandoning anything. All this will be clearer in a moment. One is drawing nearer something, I have said, but nearer to what? The most natural answer is nearer to oneself; is ingathering not merely entering into one's own self again? But an ambiguity, noticed by us several times already, crops up again here: what self, or rather which self, are we here concerned with? Let us take a literary example. In Corneille's tragedy, Cinna,2 the Emperor Augustus has just discovered that a man who is his creature, on whom he has showered favours, is heading a plot against his life. His first reaction is anger, indignation, a wish to take vengeance on ingratitude. But there is something within Augustus that refuses to yield utterly to these very natural impulses, and in a famous soliloquy, which is one of the high points of French classical tragedy, Augustus forces himself to enter into his own inner depths—into a self which is no longer that of anger and the wish to take vengeance, nor indeed, more generally speaking, of desire or appetite at all. This is a necessarily inadequate version of his soliloquy, in the nearest English equivalent to the form of the original, the heroic couplet:

‘Cease to complain, but lay thy conscience bare:

‘One who spared none, how now should any spare?

‘What rivers of red blood have bathed thy swords—

‘Now crimsoning the Macedonian swards,

‘Now high in flood that Anthony should fall,

‘Then high again for Sextus! Oh, recall

‘Perusia drowned with all her chivalry

‘In blood—such slaughter was designed by thee,

‘The bloody image of thy paths and ends!

‘Thou, turned a murderer even to thy friends,

‘Was not thy very tutor stabbed by thee?

‘Durst then tax Fate with an unjust decree,

‘Now, if thy friends aspire to see thee bleed,

‘Breaking those ties to which thou paid'st no heed?

‘Just is such treason, and the Gods approve!…

‘As easy lost as won, thy state remove,

‘See traitors’ swords in treacherous blood imbrued,

‘And die, thou ingrate, by ingratitude!’

The case of Augustus, in Corneille's tragedy, is the case of any one of us who does really manage to enter into his own depths. In a dramatically personified, a wonderfully concrete shape, this soliloquy does exemplify that inner need for transcendence to which I devoted an earlier chapter. Only, as I have already hinted, we must be very careful indeed at this point to avoid artificially separating one level of the self from the other; we must avoid assuming that the self of reflection and ingatheredness is not the same self as that of lust and vengeance. We are not in the physical world, and cannot say, ‘There is this self, there is that self’, as we might say, ‘There is an apple, there is an orange’. I would prefer to call our two selves, which are not really two selves, or our two levels of the self-which have not, however, the sharp measurable gap between them that the notion of a level physically implies—different modulations of existence; let us remember what we have already said about reflection and its power of fostering such modulations. But, of course, this term, modulation, or modality, or mood—any of these words might be suitable in English—itself needs to be made precise. We are not dealing with what one might call predicable modulations, that is to say of modes of being which are definitely different from each other, but which can be predicated, at different times or in different circumstances, of one and the same subject, or, in the vocabulary of an older philosophy, of one and the same substance. The whole direction of our quest will by and by give us a better understanding of the kind of thing we are dealing with when we talk about these strictly existential modulations, or, if you prefer the phrase, about these varied tones, or tonalities, of existence.

But let us resume our study of our example from Corneille's Cinna. Augustus finds himself caught up in a certain situation; he is the intended victim of a plot devised by conspirators of whom two at least owe to him everything they possess, and indeed everything they are, but who claim that in killing him they will be suppressing a tyranny that has reduced Rome to servitude. It is obvious that Augustus cannot ignore this situation; on the contrary he must as it were revolve it in his mind, so that he can see it from every side; and the surprising thing is that we here once more come up against what I said earlier about contemplation as a turning inwards of one's awareness of the outer world. It is not a matter merely of turning inwards, of introversion; the word that naturally occurs to us is conversion, though not in any strictly religious sense. The Emperor appears to himself not as the mere victim of human ingratitude, but as responsible, in the last analysis, for the situation in which he finds himself caught up. For in the past has he himself not acted just in the same manner as those who have now decided on his death? So that for Augustus, entering into his own deeper self essentially means, in this case, seeing his situation from the other man's point of view and thus making it impossible for himself simply to condemn the conspirators in the straightforward fashion which at first seemed his only course. The man who returns to his own depths is forced to ask himself the gravest question that can be put to any man's conscience: ‘Who am I to condemn others? Do I really possess the inner qualification that would make such a condemnation legitimate?’

The kind of internal contradiction which we have so often come up against here displays itself in a very striking fashion: to enter into the depths of one's self means here fundamentally to get out of oneself, and since there can be, as I have already several times emphasized, no question of our having two objectively separable selves—a Dr. Jekyll and a Mr. Hyde, as in Stevenson's story—we must suppose that we are here in the presence of an act of inner creativity or transmutation, but also that this creative or transmuting act, through a paradox which will by and by become less obscure, also has the character of being a return—only a return in which what is given after the return is not identical with what was given before: for such an identity—let us suppose, for instance, that Augustus emerges from his painful self-examination just the same man, in every respect, that he was before it took place—would rob the ordeal of all significance and would in fact imply that it had never really taken place. The best analogy for this process of self-discovery which, though it is genuinely discovery, does also genuinely create something new, is the development of a musical composition; even if such a composition apparently ends with the very same phrases that it started with, they are no longer felt as being the same—they are, as it were, coloured by all the vicissitudes they have gone through and by which their final recapture, in their first form, has been accompanied.

But the problem of the feasibility of bringing about a state of ingatheredness, and, more profoundly, of the metaphysical conditions of the ingathered state, entails, from the moment in which we face it in its widest scope, an anxious self-questioning about the relationship that subsists between me and my life; or in other words, it forces us to reflect on this notion of ‘being in a situation’ which we have already considered in the case of Corneille's Augustus.

The very fact that the bringing about of an ingathered state is feasible forces us to abandon an assumption which has been at least implicit in most philosophical doctrines up to our own time: the assumption that we can treat the given determinant conditions, that constitute my empirical selfhood, as contingent in relation to a kind of abstract self, which, in the last analysis, is identical with pure reason. If my real self were this abstract self, obviously the ingathering process would be a process of abstraction, too: it would be an operation, rather against one's natural grain, by which one withdrew oneself from life, towards reason. But this is just what it is not; the highest spiritual experience bears conscious witness against any such interpretation.

To treat the self of given circumstance as contingent in relation to a kind of transcendental kernel is fundamentally to regard that empirical self as a husk of which the rational self can, and in a sense ought to be, stripped. But I can only carry out this stripping in so far as I arrogate to myself the right to abstract myself from a given circumstance and, as it were, to stand outside it. Let us ask ourselves whether the assumption that we can step outside of our skins in this spry and simple fashion is not merely an illusion or even a lie. In abstracting myself from given circumstance, from the empirical self, from the situation in which I find myself, I run the risk of escaping into a real never-never or no-man's-land—into what strictly must be called a nowhere, though it is a nowhere that I illegitimately transform into a privileged place, a high sanctuary, a kind of Olympus of the spirit. However, it is against the idea of such an Olympus that we are drawing up our forces. What I said at the beginning of this book about inclusion, in relation to the notion of an omnicomprehensive experience, is equally true about abstraction; these are merely mental operations that subserve certain determinate purposes, and it is at an equally determinate stage in our journey—not always and everywhere on our journey—that they have their proper place. To arrive at this or that determinate result, we properly make use of abstract thought, but there is nothing in the method of abstraction itself that has any note of the absolute about it. One might assert indeed, taking one's stand against that mirage of abstract, absolute truth that has been thrown up by a certain type of intellectualism, that from the moment when we seek to transcend abstract thought's proper limits and to arrive at a global abstraction, we topple over into the gulf of nonsense—of nonsense in the strict philosophical sense, that is, of words without assignable meaning. There is not, and there cannot be, any global abstraction, any final high terrace to which we can climb by means of abstract thought, there to rest for ever; for our condition in this world does remain, in the last analysis, that of a wanderer, an itinerant being, who cannot come to absolute rest except by a fiction, a fiction which it is the duty of philosophic reflection to oppose with all its strength.

But let us notice also that our itinerant condition is in no sense separable from the given circumstances, from which in the case of each of us that condition borrows its special character; we have thus reached a point where we can lay it down that to be in a situation and to be on the move are modes of being that cannot be dissociated from each other; are, in fact, two complementary aspects of our condition.

I have been pondering over our present topic for a great many years. It was about two years before the first World War, that is, in the days when I was starting on the investigations that led to the writing of my first Metaphysical Diary, that I was first led to postulate what I then called the non-contingency of the empirically given. I was chiefly interested in raising a protesting voice against a then fashionable type of transcendentalism, but I was also ready to acknowledge, from that date onwards, that the non-contingency of the empirical could be affirmed only in a rather special sense… as it is affirmed, in fact, by the subject itself, in the process of creating itself qua subject. But in the sequel, though my thought did not exactly evolve in the ordinary current sense of that term, I found myself attaching a much more positive and actual meaning to this notion; in the first instance, it had been a kind of anticipatory glimpse of the shape of a thought whose full content was still to come. The notion of an ordeal, or test, to which the self subjects itself in the state of ingatheredness has played an essential part in our argument; Corneille's Augustus underwent such a test. That notion, however, should now enable us to grasp also in what sense a man's given circumstances, when he becomes inwardly aware of them, can become, in the strict sense of the term, constitutive of his new self. We shall be tempted, of course, and we must resist the temptation, to think of a man's given circumstances, or of the self's situation, as having a real, embodied, independent existence outside the self; and of course when we think of a man's situation in this falsely objective way it does become hard to see how it could ever become his inner ordeal. But, in fact, as Sartre, for instance, has very lucidly demonstrated, what we call our given circumstances come into our lives only in connection with a free activity of ours to which they constitute either an encouragement or an obstacle. These remarks about circumstances should be linked up with my earlier remarks, in chapter four, about facts. I spoke there about the reverberatory power of facts, as I might speak here about the reverberatory power of circumstances; but I insisted also that in themselves facts have no authority, and I might even have said no autonomous validity, and I might say the same thing now about circumstances.

There does, however, seem to be a very strict connection, if not even a kind of identity, between what I called earlier an inwardness and the non-contingency of given circumstances. In fact, we might say that we can hardly talk about inwardness except in the case where a given circumstance has positively fostered inwardness, has helped on some growth of the creative spirit. An artistic example might clarify things here. An artist like Vermeer, we might say, did not paint his View of Delft just as he would have painted some other view, if he had lived somewhere else; rather, if he had lived somewhere else, though he might still have been an artist, he would not have been Vermeer. He was Vermeer in so far as the View of Delft was something he had to paint; do not let us say, however, ‘He was Vermeer because he painted the View of Delft’, for the conjunction ‘because’, in its causal sense, has no bearing at all on the matter. Nothing, at our present level of discourse can allow itself to be reduced to a mere relationship of cause and effect. If for Vermeer the view of Delft had been a mere spectacle, if he himself could have been reduced to the condition of a mere spectator, he would never have been able to paint his picture; let us even assert that he would not have been an artist at all.… One might be tempted at this point to proceed to an examination of the contrast, the deep-rooted contrast, between the artist and the photographer. But even there we would have to be cautious. For in the last analysis the photographer cannot himself be strictly compared to his own camera, his own purely objective apparatus for recording views; even he, in so far as he is endowed with a certain inwardness, has in an indefinable sense something more about him than there is about his camera, however perfect an instrument it may be (it is not the camera after all that chooses what angle it is set at). And in my own case, I who am neither painter nor photographer am still something more than a mere spectator, in so far as I am capable of admiring the spectacle that I am contemplating. Do not let us ever forget, indeed, that to admire is already, in a certain degree, to create, since to admire is to be receptive in an active, alert manner.

Experience, indeed, proves to us in the most irrefutable fashion that beings incapable of admiration are always at bottom sterile beings, perhaps sterile because exhausted, because the springs of life are dried or choked in them. But in the case in which we do genuinely admire a landscape, or for that matter even a human face, we cannot really feel at all that the coming together of this landscape and this face, and of ourselves, is merely fortuitous. In the case of genuine admiration, I am somehow raised above the level of mere contingency; and yet at a first glance I seem to be without the categories that would enable me to designate or specify the level to which I am raised. For if I am not at the level of mere contingency, I am certainly not at that of mere necessity either. But in fact, from this point of view, nothing is more important than to acknowledge—in this following in the wake of all philosophers, Schelling for instance, who have thought deeply about art—that in this realm the opposition between contingency and necessity must be completely transcended.

By twisting and divergent paths, we have now perhaps reached a point where we can arrive at a deeper understanding of the nature of ingatheredness. In 1933, in Positions et Approchcs Concrètes du Mystère Ontologique,3 I expressed myself as follows: ‘It is within my ingatheredness that I take my stand or, more accurately, equip myself to take my stand towards my own life; in some sense I do withdraw myself from my own life, but not as the pure knowing subject does in idealist theories of cognition; for in this retreat, I am still carrying with me what my life is and also perhaps what my life is not, what it lacks. For it is at this point that we become aware of a gap between our beings and our lives. I am not my life; and if I am in a position to judge my life, it is only on the express condition of first being able to make contact once more with my being, through an ingatheredness that transcends every possible judgment on my life and every representation of it’. I think that today I would somewhat modify these statements. For instance it is not exactly the truth if one says, bluntly and flatly, ‘I am not my life’; for, as one of the characters in a recent play4 of mine says, ‘Yes and no, that is the only possible answer where it is we ourselves who are in question’. I ought to say both that I am my life and that I am not my life; the apparent contradiction tends to vanish away if we understand that I am weighing the actual life I have been leading in the balance of the potential life I carry within me, the life that I aspire to lead, the life that I would have to lead if I wanted to become fully myself; it is into this life of potentialty and aspiration that I penetrate when I turn inwards. But here again, as we did a short time ago, we have come to a place where the opposition between contingency and necessity must be transcended. It must be transcended as soon as anything at all resembling a personal vocation crops up; it is in the name of such a vocation—which imposes itself on me not as a fate, not as the mask of dire necessity, but rather as an appeal to me—that I may be led to condemn a life which is the very life which, up to the present, I have actually been leading.

It is from a similar point of view that we must treat the notion of an encounter, a notion whose importance has apparently not, at least until our own time, been clearly recognized by philosophers. As long as we keep our argument at the level of the thing, of the physical object, the encounter or collision of two objects can obviously be considered only as the fortuitous intersection of two series, of which one at least must be dynamic. A car bumps into a bus or into the side of a house. Their paths, as we say, crossed. But at this point we may be tempted to forget that, though there can be can be a collision between two objects, there cannot be an encounter or a meeting in the fullest sense of the word except between beings endowed with a certain inwardness: and the encounter between such beings resists, of its very nature, the attempt to express it in merely visual terms, where the collision of billiard or croquet balls, for instance, obviously does not. It is also clear that, at the level of the strictly human encounter, there is a whole scale of possible meetings that ranges from the quite trivial to the extremely significant. The nearer I get to the lower end of the scale, that is to say to a basic triviality, the nearer I get to an encounter that can be treated as an objective intersection of paths; humanly speaking it is nothing but a kind of elbowing. Every day in the street or the tube I elbow my way through hundreds of other people, and this elbowing is not experienced in any real sense as an encounter. All these unknown people present themselves to us, in fact, as mere bodies occupying a certain share of space in the lebensraum in which we have to maintain our own share of space and through which we have to thrust our way. But it is enough for some small thing to happen, something which is objectively speaking nothing at all, for us to transcend this subhuman level: for instance because of something about the tone of voice in which someone in the crush says, ‘I beg your pardon’, or perhaps because of something about the smile accompanying such a simple phrase, there is a sudden spurt of clarity, of a clarity that has nothing in common with that of the intellect, but that can somehow light up, as a flash of lightning would, the obscurity—which is to say, fundamentally, the solitude—through which we are groping our way. Let us suppose now that two or three days later we encounter again ‘by chance’, in the house of some third person, or in a hotel, the person whose smile lighted up our way for us; we find something very significant in this fresh meeting; and if somebody says to us contemptuously that it is a mere coincidence, we shall have a very distinct feeling, though not one that we can justify, that the person who expresses himself in this way has never reached the level of a human reality that cannot be reduced to the elementary schema of statics and dynamics that applies certainly well enough to physical objects in whose repeated collisions, (if they were to collide several times), there certainly could be nothing but coincidence. This does not mean that we are acknowledging my right to explain this second meeting in, as it were, a mythological fashion, but only that the meeting takes place at the level of inwardness, that is to say, of creative development.

At this point in our argument, indeed, it should be obvious that as soon as there is life, there is also creative development. Or rather, to express the notion as I have expressed it already, in a vocabulary which is also that of Karl Jaspers, there is creative development as soon as there is being in a situation; and, of course, for our purposes, the term life does need to be defined in this way, phenomenologically, and without any reference to the data of biology. The etymological link between ‘life’ and ‘liveliness’ in English—there is a similar link between ‘vie’ and ‘vivacité’ in my own language—is very instructive in this connection; we ought no doubt to be able to demonstrate that what we call life, in a phenomenological context, is inseparable from the living being's interest, which moreover is a contagious interest, in life. A really alive person is not merely someone who has a taste for life, but somebody who spreads that taste, showering it, as it were, around him; and a person who is really alive in this way has, quite apart from any tangible achievements of his, something essentially creative about him; it is from this perspective that we can most easily grasp the nexus which, in principle at least, links creativity to existence; even though existence can always decay, can become sloth, glum repetition, killing routine. It may be that these rather simple remarks have a real relevance to ethics, and that they enable us to safeguard the idea of man's personal dignity without having recourse to that ethical formalism, which is so often sterilizing in its actual effect on conduct, and which is too apt to disregard the element of the irreducible in human situations and acts. It should be added that in placing creativity at the basis of ethics, we at the same time transcend that sort of ethical individualism for which the individual tends to be thought of as something self-contained, a monad; while on the other hand the direction of growth of our ethics would be towards that open community of which what I have called the ideal city is only the anticipatory skeletal form, the abstract ground-plan.

What is more important than anything else, in fact, is to recognize the nexus which links these different aspects of spiritual reality. To recognize—it should be clear by now that it is around a series of acts of recognition that the body of thought I am striving to present to you is gradually building itself up; and perhaps it may not be unhelpful if we reflect for a few moments on the essential nature of recognition. There is, however, a language problem here, but we shall have to try to get over it. The French verb ‘reconnaître’ needs, apparently, two separate English verbs to cover the whole scope of its meaning, ‘recognize’ and ‘acknowledge’: (though there are certain senses, perhaps slightly archaic, in which ‘recognize’ can be used for ‘acknowledge’ even in English—to recognize somebody as your King is, for instance, the same thing as to acknowledge him as your King). Moreover, there is a third sense of the French verb, a sense which expresses the activity of scouts who spy out the land in front of advancing troops, and the English do not describe this activity as recognition but, borrowing the actual French verb in an obsolete spelling, as reconnoitring. In what I have to say about recognition, this range of meanings of ‘reconnaître’ and ‘reconnaisance’ in French must be borne in mind; it being my assumption of course that these are not merely three disconnected meanings, which one word through some accident of language happens to have, but that they are intimately connected with each other, and even really aspects of the same basic meaning. For the Englishman, with his three different words for what are likely to seem to him three wholly separate uses of ‘reconnaître’, this assumption may not seem so obvious as it seems to me. In our use of the word ‘reconnaître’, in fact, in the present context, we are closer to the English ranges of ‘reconnoitre’ than to the English ranges of ‘recognize’; I am reconnoitring, at the philosophical level, rather as I would if I had just arrived in a strange town. I begin by feeling quite lost there; that means that, wishing to explore the town, I find myself back, after a few minutes, where I started; or perhaps I find myself confusing two different streets because they look rather like each other. But my reconnoitring begins to lead to actual recognition from the moment when I find that I am at least sure of the route I have to follow for my immediate practical purposes; take the first turning on the right and then, a little farther on, turn left into a small square… This route that I feel sure of becomes a sort of axis, and I make little explorations first to one side of it, then to the other. It is clear in this example that the set of operations by means of which I carry out my reconnaissance and gradually begin to recognize my whereabouts is related to a certain desired line of action, an essentially mobile line; the thing is to get from one particular point in the town to another particular point; not just from anywhere to anywhere. There are a certain number of places that interest me for one reason or another: the post office, the town hall, the cathedral, the theatre, and so on… It is between these points that I must create precise relations, all referred to my own body or to the ancillary means which my body has at its disposal—buses, trams, tubes, and soon—for transporting itself from one place to another. It is interesting also to note that if there is any centre out from which these connective lines radiate, it is the place where I am living, a place which has a quite special relationship with my body. But let us notice that what we have to do is to create connivances, a network of connivances between my body and these secondary centres of interest, each of which itself is linked with some precise kind of activity: buying stamps, getting hold of an identity card or a ration book, attending a religious ceremony, and so on.…

Let us notice, now, that we can also reconnoitre on this sense at the psychological or the social level. Perhaps it is a matter of some human environment in which it is necessary that I should learn to find my way about. Possibly somebody has warned me, ‘You will meet such and such a person, he will be very nice to you, but be cautious, he is not reliable; on the other hand, there is another of your new associates who will seem to you at first rather brusque in his manners, even disagreeable, rather, but that's only on the surface, he's a very decent chap indeed, behind his forbidding facade’. Bearing this information in mind, I will modify my way of behaving… which in such a case, of course, is above all my way of talking. Perhaps I am a naturally trustful person, and I would be inclined to make friends at once with the person who was very nice to me; now I know that I ought to be a little wary of him, just as if I had been warned that in some dark corner of my house or my hotel there was a hidden step that one had to be careful not to stumble over.

Such examples could be multiplied indefinitely. They all converge towards a central idea, which is at once very simple and very important, that the act of reconnoitring, of getting to recognize my surroundings in the widest sense, is hardly separable from the sense of familiarity that is gradually created between me and the background, whatever it may be, of my habitual activities. We shall, of course, try to find a metaphor for this activity of reconnoitring; in each case it is as if I had to make a little mental sketch map, to which I could refer as I went on. But it is important to see that what matters is not the map as such, the map as a mental object, but the use I make of the map. We all know people who literally do not know how to read a map, that is to say who are unable to establish a correspondence between the map itself and the concrete conditions under which they are called upon to make use of it. But this correspondence—this ability to compare the map with the countryside around one, to get it orientated correctly, and to find one's way by it—is, of course, what is required. And there are other cases where the map is not properly comparable to a mental object at all, where it consists of a set of motor impulses that fit in with each other; this seems to be the case with animals, who, to all appearances, are capable of reconnoitring, of finding their way about, but who would, needless to say, not be capable of reading any kind of map at all.

We must now continue with our process of turning our awareness of the outer world inwards, and ask ourselves what it is to reconnoitre, or to fail to reconnoitre, at the level of our own lives; what it is to find our way, or not to find our way, in ourselves. A character in one of my plays, Le Chemin de Crète,5 a woman, makes this speech to her lover: ‘It is strange that you who cannot find your way about in your own life, who are lost there as in a dark forest, should plan the lives of others, should cut broad roads through them, never suspecting for a moment that your roads break down on uneven ground or get lost in dense thickets’. It seems to me that at this point we should place our main emphasis on the idea of a man's interests or values, an idea which cropped up a short time ago when we spoke of life and its centres being created in relation to extremely determinate modes of activity, modes of activity determined, in fact, by such interests. To make no reconnaissance in life, and thus to fail to recognize one's surroundings and to find one's way, is to be a prey to confusion. Life in such a case is like a page of manuscript all scribbled over with erasures and alterations. That is only a simile, of course, but its concrete meaning is that a life, let us say my life, has been so cluttered up with various odd jobs I have had to do, and perhaps, too, with amusements that met only some secondary interest of mine, that now I am no longer able to make out what is the relative importance of any particular occupation of mine as compared with any of my other occupations. I say the relative, not the absolute, importance: I am speaking solely of the importance of an occupation for me, not for others, nor from some ideal standpoint—of its importance merely from my own point of view. What is very strange indeed in this case is that I can no longer ever get at my own point of view. Thus I may, for instance, impose on myself a set of very wearisome duties, without taking account of the fact that they are in some sense fictitious duties, and that I would be far more true to myself if I had the courage to set myself free of them. But it is not quite clear what ‘true to myself’ means in that sentence; we are up against the old difficulty that crops up every time we talk of the self. However, it should be clear enough in this instance that if we have a distinct conception of what ‘myself’ means in the phrase ‘true to myself’, that conception is related solely to the idea of creativity. This self to which I have to be true is perhaps merely the cry that comes out to me from my own depths—the appeal to me to become that which, literally and apparently, I now am not.

But we are now in a position to grasp the nexus that links the act of reconnoitring, and the fact of recognition on the one hand, with creation and creativity on the other. To recognize one's own nature at any level whatsoever is possible only for a being who is effectively acting, and to the degree to which he is effectively acting; though his activity may be exercised within extremely narrow limits and not be perceptible to the outside observer. A paralytic, for instance, who is placed in a seat beside a high window in Montmartre, say, or the Pincio, may still have to reconnoitre, to find his way about, in the scene that he is contemplating. He remains an active being, though his activity has been reduced to an exploring glance; and in so far as he is a reflective being his reconnoitring may lead to a kind of self-recognition. But obviously, if he is suffering from a total paralysis, and to the degree to which he is nothing more than an inert object (though to be nothing more than that, in the case of a living being, is inconceivable), this possibility of reconnaissance and of recognition no longer exists.

All these remarks should help us to get a more exact grasp of the meaning of the idea of a situation, an idea, indeed, of which we have already made use in a former lecture.

It is very difficult indeed to define the notion of a situation, in the sense of the word that interests us here, for every attempt at a definition runs the risk of transforming the notion into that of a set of objective relations, that is, of relations cut off from the being that I actually am, and indeed from any other being to whom my fancy or my feelings might lead me to compare myself. Our best course here, therefore, is, as it has so often been in the past, to start off from concrete examples. One can start, for instance, as I have done in one of my own books (Du Refus à L'Invocation, p. 116), with the idea of a house or a hotel which has ‘a bad situation’. Let us take in fact, of these two alternatives, the hotel. I say the hotel has a bad situation, and underlying my assertion there must be a grasp, by myself, of certain objective relationships between the hotel and its surroundings; let us say that the hotel is near a tannery which gives out disagreeable smells. If the hotel has a bad situation, that is because the hotel's very purpose is to harbour travellers, and travellers will certainly be put out by the smell of the tannery. If somebody says to me after a certain lapse of time, ‘The hotel has been sold, people were no longer going to it’, I shall explain the hotel's failure by its bad situation. But the notion of a situation need not necessarily have a merely spatial application. I can say that a man is in a good or a bad situation. Here again, underlying my assertion, there must be certain objective data; but these data have reference to a being capable of saying, ‘My situation’, have reference, that is to say, to the man's existence as something which he does not passively suffer but actively lives.

It should be obvious at once that a being of this sort (a being in a situation, a being that can say, ‘My situation’) is not an autonomous whole, is not, in your expressive English phrase, self-contained; on the contrary such a being is open and exposed, as unlike as can be to a compact impenetrable mass. One might even say that such a being is permeable. But here as always the objective image must be subject to correction based on the fact of my existence, of my awareness of myself as existing. What we are driving at is not a kind of porousness, like that, for instance, of a sponge. It would be better to think of that sort of aptness to be influenced, or that readiness to take impressions, which is called in English ‘suggestibility’ or ‘impressionability’, a notion which reflection finds it hard to get a grip on, partly because we have a tendency to represent the notion to ourselves in physical terms, and these are obviously inadequate. Suggestibility or impressionability is usually linked to a certain lack, in the human character, of inner cohesion. Somebody who is all of a piece with himself cannot really be very suggestible or impressionable; and therefore it is the nature of this lack of inner cohesion that we ought to try to throw more light on. We shall be inclined at first, no doubt, to treat it as a mere lack. But that is a superficial view, and to realize how superficial it is we have only to think of the sort of man who is all stubbornness and resistance, the sort of man for whom it is as impossible to be receptive to a new idea as to welcome a new acquaintance. Is not his case the real case of inner lack? Can we possibly consider hardness and obstinacy as positively valuable qualities? This is the moment to recall what we previously said about receptiveness, and about how receptiveness cannot be considered as something merely passive.

But at this point we must obviously make certain delicate and subtle distinctions; for if there does exist a certain relationship between suggestibility, impressionability, on the one hand, and the gift of welcoming new ideas and acquaintances on the other, nevertheless the relationship can certainly not be considered as that of mere identity; for a mind can be welcoming without being inconsistent; but inconsistency is just what threatens the excessively suggestible or impressionable person, the person, that is, who lacks defences against the solicitations exercised on him from outside by whatever it is given to him to encounter in life. No doubt the man who is capable of welcoming somebody else's ideas does feel a momentary propensity to make them his own, to take them under his wing; but this propensity, if it were yielded to in every case, would obviously be a symptom of a kind of intellectual deficiency. We ought to be capable of understanding a new idea without therefore necessarily adopting it; and in reality there is no possibility of tolerance except in a society where that distinction, between grasping a notion and accepting it, is maintained. It must be regretfully asserted, however, that this distinction, which was respected by all the best minds of the last century, is today in danger of being altogether obliterated from the popular consciousness; is, indeed, almost obliterated already.

There are many reasons for this regrettable state of affairs; one of them no doubt is the gasping, hurrying rhythm of our lives; I am not referring only to the relative absence of true leisure today, but also to the increasing incapacity even of genuinely philosophic minds to follow out a long continuous task, the sort of task that requires perseverance and a good wind, in the long-distance runner's sense. Every student today is forced to get his results as quickly as possible, no matter by how many improper short cuts, so that he can get his degree or his doctorate and land his job. The results of scholarship are measured by a temporal coefficient; the point is not merely to get one's result, but to get it in as little time as possible. Otherwise the whole value of one's researches may be called into question, even the possibility of earning a modest livelihood may be swept away. This is a very serious matter, for such conditions are at the opposite pole to those required for the real flowering of the intelligence, in the richest sense of that word. The rather vulgar comparison that occurs to me at the moment is that of a man who needs a few suits in a hurry, who cannot spare time for a fitting, and who therefore has to take one off the peg in the nearest shop. But one cannot insist too much on the point already put so forcibly by Bergson, that true intelligence is the enemy of the ready-made, that, if one may put it so, all its genuine creations are made to the customer's measure.

One might also bring in at this point a notion of cardinal importance, though one that has been sadly neglected, the notion that is expressed, and expressed very exactly, by the German word distanz. I do not think that the word ‘distance’, either in French or English, denotes quite the same notion, and it has certainly not the same range of associations. We might, however, use for distanz the English word aloofness, on condition that we took that word as denoting a positive and valuable quality and not what it can also denote, a mere disinclination to participate. What we are concerned with is a kind of borderland which thought must keep in existence between itself and its object; or, to express this more dynamically, we are concerned with the act through which thought is stiffened to resist the temptation to engulf itself in its own object and become merged with that object. There are more and more people today who give the impression of flinging themselves blindly into an idea or an opinion; and a rather vulgar type of pragmatism has, of course, played an utterly sinister part in encouraging this tendency. Nothing could be more false, indeed, than the supposition that, by naintaining this borderland of aloofness in existence between thought and its object, one is tending towards a scepticism which will by and by paralyse all one's positive thinking. On the contrary the human mind can remain properly critical only on condition that it preserves this aloofness, and the almost complete vanishing away of the critical spirit in our contemporary world is, without any doubt at all, one of the worst of the several calamities that today threaten the human race.

  • 1.

    Die Welt des Schweigens, Zurich, 1948.

  • 2.

    Act IV, Scene 2.

  • 3.

    Included in The Philosophy of Existence.

  • 4.

    L' Emissaire, in Vers un Autre Royaume.

  • 5.

    Broadcast from London in June, 1950, under the title Ariadne.