How studying the Hong Kong war made me a (sort of) Existentialist (2): the Resistance

In the previous post I offered an obviously very brief and simplified version of Sartre’s Existentialist philosophy under the rubric ‘How studying the Hong Kong war made me a (sort of) Existentialist’. In this post I’ll explain that statement.

Sartre 1967 crop.jpg

Sartre in 1967

By, CC BY 3.0,

Of course, I need to stress ‘sort of’: I think it’s clear from my current vantage point (Europe in 2016) that all ‘isms’ and systematic philosophies are deeply flawed. In Sartre’s case, for example, he makes an unwarranted leap from ‘freedom’ as (he believes) a fact of consciousness to ‘freedom’ as a moral value  – it is a good thing to fully accept and use your freedom to create your own actions when his philosophy gives him no grounds on which to distinguish good from bad.

So what exactly do I find useful about Existentialism?

I spend a lot of time contemplating the actions of the Hong Kong resistance, the men and women of all races and backgrounds who fought back against the Japanese occupiers while fully realising what would happen to them if they were caught. How could they have shown such courage? I think Sartre’s Existentialism suggests part – it is only part, and it might only be a small part – of the answer.

Why did they do it?

Sir Vandeleur Grayburn, Chief Manager of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, and resistance agent – Code name ‘Night’

Wikipedia – The original uploader was Clithering at Chinese Wikipedia

I think that most of the resisters themselves would have accepted Jesuit Father Bourke’s comment on the banker Charles Hyde as true for them too, whether they saw their patriotism and sense of duty as directed towards Britain, China, India, America or Canada:

Mr Hyde and others thought it their patriotic duty to form a branch of the British intelligence service. (Hong Kong Public Records Office, ‘Father Bourke, ‘Release’, p. 3)

Perhaps we could offer some kind of formula: patriotism PLUS sense of duty PLUS courage PLUS opportunity PLUS hatred of the enemy = resistance? Sartre’s Existentialism stands in opposition to this and all formulae, even ones much more complex and sophisticated than that!

Early in the great masterwork of Existentialist theory he published in 1943 he wrote:

(I)t is a human act only in so far as it surpasses every explanation which we can give of it…(Being and Nothingness, translated Hazel Barnes, 35.)

Philip Mairet, the editor and translator of my edition of Existentialism And Humanism, claims that pre-Existentialist philosophers omitted ‘man, in the total, unfathomable inwardness of his being’. (Existentialism and Humanism, 7.) It’s that unfathomableness I want to take from Sartre (but for a caveat, see below).

In the case I’m discussing, the resistance, feelings of patriotism or duty surge up in consciousness in a particular way: Sartre’s image is that they are surrounded by a shell of nothingness, and what that means in practise is that they never occupy the whole of consciousness and so can’t compel it to act in a particular way. There’s always room for something else in our psyches, and that makes choice not just possible but unavoidable – I tried to explain this using the example of hunger in the previous post.

Moreover, human acts are inevitably directed towards the future, and the future cannot be determined by the past: if I breathe in, it usually implies an intention to breathe out, but I might choose to hold my breath in an attempt at suicide (Shelley has a character in his play The Cenci do away with himself in this unlikely manner!). So even after breathing in has apparently determined what happens next, the outbreath can only come from a free choice. The whole thrust of Existentialism is to deny the proverbial saying that ‘He who says A must say B‘.

So  we choose our future, out of those acts that are possible to us in the situation we find ourselves in, and when a resister contemplates an act of resistance the fear she feels does not stop her doing it nor does her courage (or whatever emotion arises from it) make her do it. She acts in a certain way because she chooses to do so

And even when I’ve chosen to become an agent of the British Army Aid Group, that choice has to be remade at every relevant moment, because in Sartre’s theory even one’s own past decisions can’t take away freedom in the present.

My past acts of resistance might well lead the person observing me to believe I’m going to make a drawing of the Japanese ship in the harbour and send it on to the BAAG in Waichow. But being human means being able to imagine otherwise – the feeling of bravery is only possible because at the very moment I feel it I’m aware of the possibility of being a coward, to tell myself that something is ‘my duty’ means that I know I might not accept it as such, and the past occasions on which I’ve opted to gather information do not exist in my mind as an inert mass forcing a mechanically-operating will to make the same decision now as I did then.

I think Sartre’s theory captures the ultimately mysterious nature of human choice. This was not necessarily his intention: he had no time for explaining things by ‘inexplicable original givens’ (Being, 560) although perhaps it was more the nature of these ‘givens’ (Freudian drives, character traits etc.) than their mystery he objected to.

But can we be content with saying that David Loie, Mateen Ansari, Charles Hyde, Ellen Field and the rest of the Hong Kong resistance committed their ‘valorous acts’ simply because they chose to do so? And that those who collaborated with the Japanese chose that course of action?

That would seem to be either nonsense, or unhelpful, or both, and Sartre himself gives the lie to it when he discusses those French people who went over to the Nazis:

(E)very nation has its underside, that fringe of failures and embittered men who were quick to profit from disasters and revolutions….(Paris Under Occupation, Kindle edition, Location 296)

In this passage Sartre acknowledges that a subjective fact (being embittered) and an objective fact (social failure) can contribute to the individual’s choice of the path of collaboration. As the post-war period went on, and he identified more and more with the socialist left, he became concerned to integrate the Marxist focus on social factors, particularly class, into his theory. In 1960, a couple of years after Gunn first published the poem discussed in the previous post, Sartre was abandoning the ‘classic’ Existentialism that inspired it. In Search for a Method (1960) he claimed to view his philosophy as an adjunct to Marxism:

It {Existentialism} is a parasitical system living on the margin of Knowledge, which at first it opposed but into which today it seeks to be integrated.

But he stresses he isn’t going to seek to ‘dissolve’ Existentialism into Marxism, his monumental Critique of Dialectical Reason – to which Search for a Method  was a preface attempted to bring the two together, with concessions on both sides. In it Sartre abandoned Gunn’s ‘solitary man’ and sought to discuss such matters of obvious concern to Marxists as ‘class being’: if, as his earlier work had claimed nobody ‘is’ a thief or a coward but has to re-make themselves as such freely at every moment without being forced by their own past decisions or their current motives (such as greed or fear) then shouldn’t we say the same about class?  But to argue that no-one ‘is’ a proletarian or a bourgeois is apparently to undermine Marxism, which insists on the objective reality independent of individual consciousness of classes and their relations (Critique of Dialectical Reason, 231 ff.)

Sartre’s answer need not detain us. It’s based on creating a new vocabulary of analysis and what in Being and Nothingness he called ‘facticity’, the existence of the unchosen objective realities (like class, nationality and gender) that constitute the possibilities of an individual but do not take away their freedom to choose.

It is indeed necessary to analyse the ‘facticity’ of the resisters and of everyone else caught up in the dark world’s fire of the occupation, but I don’t find Sartre of more than occasional use in that analysis, brilliant though his insights often are.

And I must end by pointing out that I’ve been engaging in a sleight of hand. I’ve stated that I find Existentialism useful because it points me towards the inexplicable and incomprehensible aspect of choice. I’ve developed this idea in discussing the actions of the men and women of the Hong Kong resistance. These are actions which, in a perfectly ordinary and unphilosophical sense of the word, I find it hard to understand: how could people have been so brave and have risked so much?

Tombstone of Mateen Ansari: By Cougarwalk at en.wikipedia, CC BY 3.0,

But Sartre intended his theory to apply to all acts, so we must accept an equally ‘unfathomable’ element in the decisions I soon expect to take when I make myself lunch, and in the very fact of my choice to eat at about noon.

The 600 plus pages of Being and Nothingness don’t seem nearly so necessary to me in an analysis of what is about to happen in my kitchen as they do in trying to understand the actions of the men and women who fought back against the Japanese.

Note: In the final part of this series I’ll explain why I think it’s useful for historians of the Hong Kong occupation to keep Paris under the Germans in their line of vision.



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2 responses to “How studying the Hong Kong war made me a (sort of) Existentialist (2): the Resistance

  1. Les Bowie

    Thanks, Brian, for this interesting reflection on the what it is that moves people to make the choices they do, especially when the choices may be harmful or destructive to themselves or others. Some choices are made instantaneously as when a person throws him or her self into a rescue situation for another person threatened with bodily harm. There is no time for rational choice here. It appears that emotion is the driving force for this behaviour, but the impulse to act must derive from a view of ones connection to and responsibilities for others. How much of this is learned and how much a result of personality is not immediately evident. In such heroic acts there is usually little to no premeditation. And then there is the suicide “bomber” whose character and culture lead to self destruction, not in an effort to save others but rather to maim and kill, inspired by blind belief in an ideology or driven by a consuming hatred of others.

    Thanks for this specifically, and for your perceptive, thorough writings so well articulated.

    • Hi, Les. Many thanks for your comments and the interesting reflections on what lies behind choice of action.
      I would agree with what I take to be the view of ‘classic’ Sartrean Existentialism on two points: 1) all actions are like those of your rescuer in that they are based on an ‘upsurge’ of desire to act in a certain way – and we then typically apply a thinking process to the ‘upsurge’ and if this ends with us carrying out that action we tell ourselves and others that we did it because of an idea that in fact came later (‘I saved him because it was the right thing to do/that’s how I was brought up/I’m a Christian etc.’) 2) No ‘upsurge’ takes away our freedom and forces us to act in a particular way.
      My problem (as I think it was Sartre’s) is to account for that initial ‘upsurge’ – why does one person become a rescuer and another suicide bomber? And if we could ever give a full answer to those questions, would we have dissolved individual freedom in determinism of one kind or another?
      It’s good to have your input, as always.

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