A book on ethics and philosophy of values

suivre sur twitter

b) A world devoid of an "unsurpassable horizon": Sartre

Before giving our verdict, let us listen to a great mind immersed in the era of the "grand narratives": perhaps he will help us to understand it better from the inside. Sartre, in Situations, speaks of Marxism as the unsurpassable horizon of our time. Here we have a second diagnosis, using not the concept of "narrative" but the intriguing concept of "horizon". What can this second determination offer us? What is a 'horizon'? What does it mean to be a 'horizon' for something?

The horizon is that which is immensely far away from me; and that which can only ever be far away, since it always moves away when I try to get closer. Its remoteness reveals the power of my gaze, the formidable extent of the domain I can embrace with my gaze. It is often when I contemplate the sea or, from a mountain pass, the landscape of the snowy valleys that I overlook, that a feeling of power seizes my mind and swells it beyond measure.

So when Sartre says that Marxism is the horizon of his time, he means that it is the point of view from which man understands the totality of his time, because every event is included, embraced, in this Marxist horizon. Everything is illuminated and takes on meaning from it. The Marxist is then the one who achieves power through his clear-sightedness, his "understanding of what the epoch wants" (this is how Hegel defines the great man in Reason in History).

The post-modern era would then be defined as a time "without horizons", a time that has lost all horizon. What does that mean?

It is hard to imagine, since it seems that in any landscape the human eye discerns a foreground, a background and finally a background that shapes the horizon. What would a landscape look like if there were only a foreground?

Precisely, it would not be a landscape. It would be more like, for example, a room in which there is a great deal of disorder. A room is in itself a confined place, characterised by the fact that the vanishing lines cannot escape and vanish... anywhere, or do not even have time to form themselves as vanishing lines.

The prevailing bric-a-brac is also important. In a landscape like the ocean, all the elements of the setting, like the waves, naturally point towards the horizon. Nothing obstructs the view, meaning that every object or living thing can be harmoniously integrated into this great movement that draws everything towards the vanishing point. In the mountains, the ruminant in the foreground naturally points towards the sheepfold in the middle ground, and towards the large meadow in the background, which itself blends harmoniously into the powerful mass of peaks finally illuminated by the setting sun on the horizon. The elements of the setting work together, or at least seem to. The horizon is the element of meaning that ultimately makes the union of these objects possible, that constitutes their "being-for-one-another".

In a room filled with a motley assortment of objects, this sympathy between the elements of the décor cannot be found. The books piled on the table do not beckon to the statuette overturned on the floor, nor to the half-open pile of crates that partly crushes a dilapidated piano. The objects are side by side. There is no horizon to unify all these elements.

If our age has no 'horizon that cannot be surpassed', as Sartre's was, this means that the elements that make it up are one beside the other, not one for the other. Our age is a jumble of meanings, rather than a harmonious whole. Man has stopped contemplating the grandiose landscape of the ocean to return to the gloomy room of a dilapidated hotel.

So here we are, armed to try and grasp the axiological character of our times. More precisely, we are armed with two concepts: the 'grand narrative' and the 'horizon'. Could it be that our era is one that has abandoned all attempts at an 'axiological grand narrative', and one that has lost any 'axiological horizon'?