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Sartre and social work: Lessons for social casework values from his existentialist ethical individualism

Anderson, Michael (1999) Sartre and social work: Lessons for social casework values from his existentialist ethical individualism. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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The existentialist moral philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre has been under-explored for its potential to challenge the liberal individualism and positivism which permeate social casework. A study of the progressive shifts of this best known of existentialist philosophers away from an intemperate ethical individualism, through Marxified-existentialism, towards a final morality of communal responsibility, can illuminate many of the discipline's dark comers.

Sartre's fundamental failing is a flawed individualistic premise which obstructs his recognition of a social self: an essential human mutuality in which individuals might in their interaction with others, meet not the limitation of their own freedom, but its realization. He had an obdurate commitment to a conception of humanity as an aggregation of atomized self-concerned individuals fundamentally set one against the other. He saw individual freedom as an anti-social principle, failing to comprehend that people need each other to develop and realize their potentialities as individuals.

Social caseworkers have had on the whole, in parallel with Sartre, an inadequate, excessively individualistic understanding of the meeting of self and others in a social structure, so that social casework helping has become absorbed with an individualized professional assistance characterized by preoccupation with the personality of individuals and with their close relationships. Sartre's early view is an exclusively individualistic understanding of what it is to be human. His radical arguments from this time can serve to clarify problems in the beleaguered occupation of social work, which enshrines an individualistic value orientation of respect for persons which is becoming increasingly discordant with community-oriented forms of practice.

A positive and optimistic philosophy which Sartre was developing in the last years of the 1940's presumes in contrast, an inescapable human inter-dependency and a relational understanding of what it is to be human. This reconsidered philosophy can assist social caseworkers to recognition that care for individuals must inevitably imply concern for their society too and would envisage their efforts as a bridge between those being helped and the wider society. A coherent existentialist philosophy, it would counter the sway of the technocratic, positivistic orientation of theory for professional helping, enabling caseworkers to have confidence in the relevance of written theory because the existentialist outlook would be more congruent with their experienced realities of daily practice. This second philosophical approach of Sartre, would encourage them to engage with their clients in an encounter where they would use a genuinely open discourse in which helper and helped could truly listen to one another as partners.

Sartre 's third moral philosophy was intended to reformulate the relationship between the individual and a society of other people in an original theory combining existentialism with Marxism. His achievement was the creation of a Marxified-existentialist theory rather than as he had explicitly promised, an existentialist-Marxist theory. This doomed attempt to meld the two opposites of his existentialism with Marxism, does nonetheless succeed in elucidating the strengths and limitations of both and demonstrates especially, the inability of an individualistic perspective to explain social phenomena. Examination of Sartre's Marxified-existentialism, can help social caseworkers to better understand the complex issue of the inter-relation of self and the institutionalized communities of others which make up a society.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): Division of Social Sciences, Humanities and Education
Notes: Note to the author: If you would to make your thesis openly available on Murdoch University’s Research Repository, please contact: Thank you.
Supervisor(s): Davies, D., Collis, A., Naish, M. and Hallen, Patsy
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