Catalano, Joseph S. Reading Sartre. Cambridge: CUP, 2010.
Anglophone readers of Jean-Paul Sartre's major philosophical treatises have long been indebted to the work of Joseph Catalano. His commentaries on Being and Nothingness and Critique of Dialectical Reason together provide a detailed map of the complicated terrain of Sartre's thought and have proved indispensable to students and academics alike since their first publication in 1974 and 1986 respectively. This cartographic exegesis has grounded his own careful contributions to debates in the philosophy of mind and action, well represented by his collection Good Faith and Other Essays and his monograph Thinking Matter.
His latest book, Reading Sartre, is arguably his most ambitious, drawing together into a single narrative arc not only the two major theoretical treatises on which he has published commentaries, but also the largest two of Sartre's biographical works, the hefty Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr and the gargantuan yet unfinished The Family Idiot: Gustave Flaubert 1821-1857. Although he has brought these works together before, in the final chapter of Good Faith and Other Essays, his aim here is much broader in scope and deeper in detail. The goal of this thorough study, he tells us, is to 'rethink Sartre': although he is trying to clarify the basic structures of Sartre's theory of the place of the individual in the social and material world, he admits that he will inevitably develop only a particular perspective on that theory (p. x). His tone is thus frequently tentative and exploratory and he regularly reminds his readers to take his work as an invitation to 'read more deeply' and allow Sartre's thought to help them, as it has helped him, 'to think more clearly and more honestly' (pp. ix, xii).
Catalano illustrates Sartre's thought with aspects of our social and political life, such as the state of heightened security in which the western world has been operating for the past decade, as well as more personal dimensions of our lives, such as our childhoods and relations with our own children. He may well be right that our lives can be enriched by the ability to see it in Sartrean perspective and is certainly right to imply that we ought to be more philosophical about our quotidian concerns than is usually the case. But in emphasising this import of his book, Catalano downplays the major contribution the book is set to make to academic discussions about or informed by Sartre's existentialism.
In drawing together Sartre's four largest publications, written about a decade apart and together spanning almost his entire career, and in viewing Sartre's major biographical writings as works that develop as well as apply his philosophy, Reading Sartre sets a fresh agenda for the scholarly study of Sartre's writings and for the use of his thought to inform ongoing philosophical, psychological, and political debates. Through careful analysis of the structure and central claims of Sartre's four most substantial works, two of which have so far received scant philosophical attention, and by laying bare the theoretical relations between these works, Catalano facilitates the pursuit of this new agenda just as his earlier commentaries have facilitated discussion of Sartre for nearly four decades. . . .
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