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Existentialism is an Antiracism

T Storm Heter

This special issue explores how existential thinking can be a living, global force that opposes racist praxis and thought. We are used to hearing that the “heyday” of existentialism was the middle of the twentieth century. In truth, because existential thought is future-oriented, the heyday of existentialism may be yet to come.

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Existential Philosophy and Antiracism

An Interview with Lewis R. Gordon

T Storm Heter

Lewis R. Gordon is Professor of Philosophy (and Head of the Department of Philosophy) at the University of Connecticut. His two most recent books are Freedom, Justice, and Decolonization (New York: Routledge, 2020) and Fear of Black Consciousness (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022). Since his first monograph, Bad Faith and Antiblack Racism (1995), Gordon's many writings have challenged Sartre scholars to move beyond narrowly Euro-centric ideas of reason, humanity, and existence. The existential philosophy pioneered in Bad Faith and Antiblack Racism (a revision of Gordon's 1993 Ph. D. dissertation), placed the issue of antiracism at the heart of the study of existence. A prolific and highly visible philosopher, Gordon's writings have inspired an explosion of interest in Africana Existentialism, an open-ended, creolizing philosophy. In the interview below, Gordon outlines the existential situations that face us today. How is human liberation possible given the soul-killing forces of white supremacy, capitalism, and ongoing colonization? Gordon insists on the importance of antiracist institution building, including the transformation of white spaces, especially in academic journals, at conferences, and in university philosophy departments. Importantly, Gordon reminds us that Sartre was one of the few European writers to offer “a genuine engagement with Black intellectuals.” Like Sartre's famous assertion that “Existentialism is a Humanism,” Gordon's message is that Black Existentialism is a Humanism. Challenging the Euro-centric notion that human existence is an abstract, color-less category, Gordon teaches us a new way of thinking and listening. Misguided by parochial notions of human reason, many white (and/or non-Black) philosophers have closed their minds and ears to the calls of Black liberation, thinking they have nothing at stake, or that they must remain mere “allies.” Gordon's work shows us a different path: Black liberation is a universal ethical injunction. Existential philosophy dissolves the supposed contradiction between action and theory, between universal and concrete, between ally and freedom fighter. Done properly, existential philosophy is, in Gordon's words, “a form of epistemological decolonial practice.”

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Authenticity and Others: Sartre's Ethics of Recognition

T. Storm Heter

This article presents a novel defense of Sartrean ethics based on the concept of interpersonal recognition. The immediate post-war texts Anti-Semite and Jew, What is Literature? and Notebooks for an Ethics express Sartre's inchoate yet ultimately defensible view of obligations to others. Such obligations are not best understood as Kantian duties, but rather as Hegelian obligations of mutual recognition. The emerging portrait of Sartrean ethics offers a strong reply to the classical criticism that authenticity would license vicious lifestyles like serial killing. In addition to acting with clarity and responsibility, existentially authentic individuals must respect others.

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Editors’ Introduction

Constance L. Mui and T Storm Heter

Readers will recall that we devoted a special issue to anti-Black racism in 2021, in support of the Black Lives Matter movement which gained momentum following the 2020 murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd by police officers in Louisville and Minneapolis. The present issue continues to address the problem of racism from a Sartrean perspective, with an interview of the pioneering Black Existentialist thinker Lewis R. Gordon, followed by articles that take up related themes in freedom and oppression.

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Book Reviews

Matthew C. Eshleman, David Lethbridge, J. C. Berendzen, and T Storm Heter

T Storm Heter, Sartre’s Ethics of Engagement Review by Matthew C. Eshleman

Jean-Paul Sartre, The Aftermath of War Review by David Lethbridge

David Sherman, Sartre and Adorno: The Dialectics of Subjectivity Review by J. C. Berendzen

Yiwei Zheng, Ontology and Ethics in Sartre’s Early Philosophy Review by T Storm Heter