R. D. Laing Criticism

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Forrest Williams (review date 6 January 1966)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Reason and Violence, in The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. LXIII, No. 1, January 6, 1966, pp. 26-8.

[In the following review of Reason and Violence, Williams maintains that, while Laing's summaries of Jean-Paul Sartre's Saint Genet: Comédien et martyr (Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr; 1952), Questions de méthode (Search for a Method; 1963), and Critique de la raison dialectique (Critique of Dialectical Reason; 1960) are accurate and succinct, the book fails to make Sartre's ideas accessible to the reader unfamiliar with his philosophical terminology.]

Reason and Violence is a résumé of the three major works written by Jean-Paul Sartre in the fifties. In a brief foreword, Sartre himself praises the book of R. D. Laing and D. G. Cooper as "a very clear and faithful exposition." There can be no question, indeed, of the economy and accuracy of their summaries of Saint Genet, Questions de méthode, and volume I of Critique de la raison dialeclique, "Théorie des ensembles pratiques." But precisely because these are entirely faithful condensations, one is hard put to conceive the Anglo-American reader to whom the book will be useful. Sartre's philosophic prose is among the most ungrateful in the twentieth century, and a faithfully miniaturized version in English can be of little help to the uninitiated. The two shorter sections, on the Genet essay and on the methodological essay, will be somewhat comprehensible to the noncommunicant of Sartrean philosophy. But certainly the longest section, summarizing the Critique, will baffle the very audience the book presumably wishes to reach. Thus, an American or English reader unfamiliar with the Critique would probably not be able to make head or tail of the key terms, principles, and argumentation which Laing has faithfully compressed into an 85-page résumé.

The short methodological essay, as Sartre has explained, is a general consideration of dialectical method in relation to Marxist theory, derived from the mammoth Critique, and contains much of great interest to all who are concerned with categorical and procedural problems in the study of man and his works. Sartre's study of the celebrated author-criminal, Genet, is a sine qua non for psychologists and literary critics as well as philosophers, and is undoubtedly the most readable of the three résumés, because of its comparative concreteness. The magnum opus, or Critique, is a dialectical theory of the practical dialectic of "ensembles pratiques," or conduct-generated relationships (groupings, collectivities, sociohistorical realities). Though for all the Critique says they might never have existed, G. H. Mead and John Dewey are certainly the two American philosophers to whose themes and concerns Sartre is closest in this gigantic rethinking, almost Augustinian in dimensions and aim, of Marxist theory and practice.

To many non-Continentals, Sartre's intricate dialectical speculations will seem, as Stuart Hampshire has averred recently, recidivist and pre-Marxist. Marx supposedly has liberated us from metaphysics and "all that." But in the minds of most intellectuals in Europe, where Marxism is more actively experienced and debated, Marx's concern with changing the world is not tantamount to our hyperempiricism and political pragmatism. Thus, Sartre's theory of "totalizations," "alterity," "serialization," and "analyticoregressive method," is not generally regarded on the Continent as a vieux jeu polemic of neo-Hegelian obfuscations, but as an interpretation of Marxism which may well be much closer to Marx than our own narrowly pragmatic, even positivistic versions. The publication of Reason and Violence does, for all the difficulty presented by mere résumés, convey some sense of the contemporary relevance of Sartre's Critique.

Robert Coles (review date 13 May 1967)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Life's Madness," in The New Republic, Vol. 156, No. 19, May 13, 1967, pp. 24-8, 30.

[ Coles is an American psychiatrist, educator, nonfiction writer, essayist, and poet whose particular area of interest is the...

(The entire section is 67,089 words.)