Hell is Other People (Part II)

I recently came across Andy Martin’s “Beyond Understanding,” a blog posting on www.nytimes.com. I found it a very challenging read and cannot pretend that I understood everything. That said, I recommend you give it a try.  It brought to mind my previous posting, “Hell is Other People.” In that piece I tried to connect the dots between Jean Paul Sartre, autism, and the Theory of Mind.

Could philosophy be used to better understand autism and, more pointedly, my son’s journey? In the NY Times piece, Martin suggests that Sartre exhibited autistic tendencies. If you have a moment, re-read my “Hell is Other People” post while keeping in mind that Sartre may have been autistic. Here’s a link:


Andy Martin is currently completing “Philosophy Fight Club: Sartre vs. Camus,” to be published by Simon and Schuster. Here is a link to his piece and below are excerpts that you may find interesting: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/11/21/beyond-understanding/

“Consider, for example, Sartre’s classic one-liner, “Hell is other people.” Wouldn’t autism, with its inherent poverty of affective contact, go some way towards accounting for that? The fear of faces and the “gaze of the other” that Sartre analyzes are classic symptoms. Sartre recognized this in himself and in others as well: he explicitly describes Flaubert as “autistic” in his great, sprawling study of the writer, “The Family Idiot,” and also asserts that “Flaubert c’est moi.” Sartre’s theory that Flaubert starts off autistic and everything he writes afterwards — trying to work out what is in Madame Bovary’s mind, for example — is a form of compensation or rectification, could easily apply to his own work.

I don’t want to maintain that all philosophers are autistic in this sense. Perhaps not even that “You don’t have to be autistic, but it helps.” And yet there are certainly episodes and sentences associated with philosophers quite distinct from Wittgenstein and Russell, that might lead us to think in that way.The philosopher may tend to interpret what people say as a puzzle of some kind, a machine that may or may not work.

One implication of what a psychologist might say about autism goes something like this: you, a philosopher, are mindblind and liable to take up philosophy precisely because you don’t “get” what other people are saying to you. You, like Wittgenstein, have a habit of hearing and seeing propositions, but feeling that they say nothing (as if they were rendered in Chinese). In other words, philosophy would be a tendency to interpret what people say as a puzzle of some kind, a machine that may or may not work.”


Editor’s Note: Thanks to Mark Bennett for bringing this article to my attention.

Editor’s Note: Also available at: http://www.facebook.com/AdamBehar#!/pages/Autism-Dad/160327080653310

This entry was posted in January 2011 and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Hell is Other People (Part II)

  1. RangeTracker says:

    Thank you for sharing an insight into your life. I have posted your blog address on RangeTracker.org You can find it in the “Special Needs” section.
    RangeTracker is based in Golden Colorado, alas I’m not able to locate a personal local blog on autism as of yet. So, again, many thanks for sharing your experiences, and may you reach out to many, many others who also have family members with autism.

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