Existence and Negativity: The Relevance of the Patočka–Bergson Controversy over Nothingness





Jan Patočka, Henri Bergson, Jean-Paul Sartre, negativity, nothingness, phenomenology, existentialism


In in the second half of the 1940s, Jan Patočka emphasized the essentially negative character of human existence. He thus found himself in the neighborhood of Sartre’s existentialism, Heidegger’s philosophy of being, and Hegel’s dialectic, and at the same time in opposition to schools of thought which either completely reject the substantive use of “the nothing,” such as Carnap’s positivism, or relativize it, like Bergson. It is the latter polemic, Patočka’s with Bergson, which is discussed in this article. The concept of negativity in Patočka basically refers to the idea that human existence is defined by a capacity to adopt a distance toward what is pre-given, be it the reality of the physical world or the established habits and rules of a particular society. Negativity qua distance has in Patočka an absolute character. It is this claim that he defends in his critique of Bergson. The article attempts to reconstruct Patočka’s position. I claim that the wager on absolute negativity does not make Patočka a nihilist, but a philosopher of a negative holism, and, in a sense, even a moralist. Above a reconstruction of Patočka’s stance, I spell out some reservations focused especially on the systematic meaning of Patočka’s recourse to negativity. I suggest that negation is an indispensable part of a more complex existential structure Patočka is aiming at. The terms he uses for this structure include “thirst for the absolute,” “thirst for reality,” “restlessness of the heart” and “desire.” To translate these allusions onto a general plan, it is useful to talk about the capacity to establish differences that matter. As general as it seems, this turn of phrase can grasp both Patočka’s emphasis on negativity, and his emphasis on the absolute, the latter – nevertheless – not residing in a distance from being, but in differences established, maintained and abandoned by ourselves within being.

Author Biography

Jakub Čapek, Charles University

Associate Professor of Philosophy