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On Sartres View of Human Freedom by John Deverell

Introduction It is widely assumed that human identity is determined by biological, psychological and social causes. Jean-Paul Sartre asserts instead that the fundamental reality of the human being is independent of forces in the world. Human freedom precedes essence in man and makes it possible; the essence of the human being is suspended in his freedom. What we call freedom is impossible to distinguish from the being of human reality. (Sartre 1993, 113) That is, even though our daily existence is immersed in conditions given by circumstance, the inmost spark of consciousness, the instantaneous nucleus of the human being (Sartre 1993, 186), is able from moment to moment to freely decide how it will respond to opportunities and chances (Sartre 1993, 68) as they emerge. There is no essential self which pre-determines the outcome on each occasion on which we apply our decision-making power. This is a theory which refutes not only psychological determinism of the materialist, scientific kind but also the religious idea that we possess an essential nature given by God. Sartre tries to make sense of the human situation in a Godless universe. Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself. (Sartre 1993, 36) In conducting our lives our task is not to become that which God intends for us, but to make up who we are as we go along. God does not exist, so all possibility of finding values in a heaven of ideas disappears along with Him; there can no longer be an a priori Good, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it. (Sartre 1993, 40-41) And, Im quite vexed that thats the way it is; but if Ive decided to discard God the Father, there has to be someone to invent values. (Sartre 1993, 60) In Sartres thought, however, such a position does not lead to ethical neutrality, wherein all goals are equally acceptable. He offers a justification for valuing some things more than others that is rooted in the human world, with reference to human solidarity, and paradoxically circumscribed to some extent by freedom itself, as he conceives it, which makes demands of truthfulness, authenticity, and respect for the freedom of others.

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On Sartres View of Human Freedom by John Deverell

Sartres depiction of the human condition, to me is highly illuminating. It exposes the presence of a primal mystery at the heart of human existence and draws out implications which highlight the responsibilities inherent in our situation as well as the great range of potentialities that lie within us. In this essay I want to defend the basic structure supporting human freedom that Sartre has identified but at the end recast it in a revised form compatible with belief in God.

Sartre on human freedom In a scientific light it appears that human beings are not free, in that science conceives of people as objects conditioned by causal laws. Sartre establishes the foundation of human freedom beyond the reach of causality by uncovering the human reality of an individual as a subject instead of an object. He achieves this as follows. His philosophical strategy is similar to that of Immanuel Kant, but removes Kants demarcation between phenomenal and noumenal worlds. Kant made a space for freedom by supposing that a mysterious world independent of causality must exist beyond the world as directly experienced by intuition1 and explained by the sciences. It is not clear on Kants reckoning how freedom can be united with consciousness, since his noumenal world is beyond the reach of intuition. There is a gap that is not explained. Sartre, by contrast with Kant, finds the origin of freedom in a location that can be identified by intuition, albeit only just graspable. This location he calls the pre-reflective cogito. Here, being is conscious of objects presented to its perception but not reflexively conscious as a self that is conscious of itself. That such a level of consciousness must exist is deduced from the observation that prior to the reflective consciousness, exemplified in Descartes statement, I think therefore I am, there must be a consciousness that discerns objects outside itself without having yet thought of itself as an object. This pre-reflective

Philosophical definition of intuition from (a) an immediate cognition of an object not inferred or determined by a previous cognition of the same object. (b) any object or truth so discerned. (c) pure, untaught, noninferential knowledge.

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On Sartres View of Human Freedom by John Deverell

consciousness flickers at the edges of everyday awareness. During intense focus on an activity, the mind is not occupied with consciousness of itself, but with the activity at hand. However, upon being interrupted and asked what one is doing, suddenly one is aware that I was counting, or whatever. (See Wicks 21) This demonstrates that somehow pre-reflective consciousness is aware that it is conscious, even while not watching itself. Further, as soon as consciousness turns its attention away from some outer object and toward itself, it makes of itself an object. This object, consciousness as it is in its own reflection, per Descartes, cannot be the fundamental level of consciousness. The irreducible subject, then, which is the human presence in the world, resides even deeper than the self-conscious I of the ego. It must be identified with pre-reflective consciousness. Note that scientific method overall confirms its models inductively by means of probabilities. Bearing this in mind the following statement of Sartres shows the primacy of subjectivity to science:
Every theory which takes man out of the moment in which he becomes aware of himself is, at its very beginning, a theory which confounds the truth, for outside the Cartesian cogito, all views are only probable, and a doctrine of probability which is not bound to a truth dissolves into thin air. In order to describe the probable you must have a firm hold on the true. Therefore, before there can be any truth whatsoever, there must be an absolute truth; and this one is simple and easily arrived at; its on everyones doorstep; its a matter of grasping it directly. (Sartre 1993, 51)

The implication motivating Sartre here is spelled out in his next paragraph: The effect of all materialism is to treat every man, including the one philosophizing, as an object, that is, as an ensemble of determined reactions in no way distinguished from the ensemble of qualities and phenomena which constitute a table or a chair or a stone. We definitely wish to establish the human realm as an ensemble of values distinct from the material realm. (Sartre 1993, 51) The irreducible conscious subject is at the core of human existence, before anything particular can be said to identify who we essentially are, and so

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On Sartres View of Human Freedom by John Deverell

Sartre says, as previously quoted: Human freedom precedes essence in man and makes it possible; the essence of the human being is suspended in his freedom. What we call freedom is impossible to distinguish from the being of human reality. (Sartre 1993, 113) As I understand it, the point here is that the properties of the human being that identify the human essence (in Aristotles terms) are properties of our objectively knowable selves in the world, whereas the subjective knower cannot be ascribed any properties at all, for properties are a projection of knowing. The knower comes before the known. The idea that existence precedes essence is further explained by Sartre:
It means that first of all, man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and, only afterwards, defines himself. If man, as the existentialist conceives him, is indefinable, it is because at first he is nothing. Only afterward will he be something, and he himself will have made what he will be. Thus, there is no human nature, since there is no God to conceive it. Not only is man what he conceives himself to be, but he is also only what he wills himself to be after this thrust toward existence. (Sartre 1993, 35-36)

It would be foolish to suppose that inherent freedom allows an individual to be or become absolutely anything at will and Sartre does not claim it. For a start, each person is an absolute upsurge at an absolute date and is perfectly unthinkable at another date. (Sartre 1993, 66) Freedom is exercised in relation to the opportunities that arise in the particular situations that come with being alive at that absolute date. Our being is immediately in situation; that is, it arises in enterprises and knows itself first insofar as it is reflected in those enterprises. We discover ourselves then in a world peopled with demands, in the heart of projects in the course of realization. (Sartre 1993, 135) The circumstances constituting the facts of our individual lives define us as objects in the world. This objective aspect Sartre calls our facticity. On the other hand transcendence is the domain of our free reality as subjects. Thomas Flynn comments: Given the fundamental division of the human situation into facticity and transcendence, bad faith or inauthenticity can assume two principal forms: one that denies the freedom or transcendence component (I

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On Sartres View of Human Freedom by John Deverell

can't do anything about it) and the other that ignores the factical dimension of every situation (I can do anything by just wishing it). The former is the more prevalent form of self-deception but the latter is common to people who lack a sense of the real in their lives. (Flynn 2011) The process of creating ourselves requires that we make choices but since there is no higher authority than ourselves there is an arbitrary element in moral choice. (See Sartre 1993, 56 and 58) Arbitrary it may be in a sense, but not pure caprice, for man is in an organized situation in which he himself is involved. Through his choice, he involves all mankind, and he cannot avoid making a choice (Sartre 1993, 54) I interpret this to mean that since human nature is not defined for us in advance, it is up to us to define it, and in every choice that we make we are adding to the collective edifice of human identity built up over time (as well as our own personal identities). But the edifice is rather fragile. Sartre is disinclined to rely greatly on his fellows. Tomorrow, after my death, some men may decide to set up Fascism, and the others may be cowardly and muddled enough to let them do it. Fascism will then be the human reality, so much the worse for us. Our essence, in the sense of a definition of who we are, belongs to the past. Essence is all that human reality apprehends in itself as having been. Transcendence beckons from the future; man first of all is the being who hurls himself toward a future and who is conscious of imagining himself as being in the future. (Sartre 1993, 36) Sartre likens the process of ethical decision-making to the work of an artist in creating a painting. He suggests that there is no such painting as definitely the right one that the artist should create. The artist establishes the value of the painting in the act of creating it. With ethics: We are in the same creative situation. We never say that a work of art is arbitrary. When we speak of a canvas of Picasso, we never say it is arbitrary; we understand quite well that he was making himself what he is at the very time he was painting, that the ensemble of his work is embodied in his life. (Sartre 1993, 55) By acting, we

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On Sartres View of Human Freedom by John Deverell

establish the value of our acts. All the same, there is a factor which deeply colours the process, namely the importance of freedom itself, for the ultimate meaning of the acts of honest men is the quest for freedom as such. (Sartre 1993, 57) Flynn writes: Sartre sometimes talks as if any choice could be authentic so long as it is lived with a clear awareness of its contingency and responsibility. But his considered opinion excludes choices that oppress or consciously exploit others. In other words, authenticity is not entirely style; there is a general content and that content is freedom. Thus the authentic Nazi is explicitly disqualified as being oxymoronic. (Flynn 2011) Freedom is the inmost reality of humankind but if we fail to exercise our freedom, succumbing to bad faith instead, we will not realize freedoms potentiality in the concrete performance of our lives, thus allowing ourselves to wallow in the condition of objects under control of external forces rather than free subjects. As an upshot of the whole structure in which humans find ourselves, inevitably we are afflicted by anguish. This is because the acute responsibility of forever having to define ourselves anew, if we do not dishonestly avoid it, weighs on us heavily. We have been thrown into this position by the fact of having been born. Just exactly who we might think we are at any given moment is a convenient illusion. Previous patterns of exemplary behaviour may crumble; or we may suddenly find our feet and go in a better direction. What the existentialist says is that the coward makes himself cowardly, that the hero makes himself heroic. Theres always a possibility for the coward not to be cowardly any more and for the hero to stop being heroic. (Sartre 1993, 50) We have to be on our mettle then. That is the existential challenge.

David Rose on the pre-reflective cogito There are ways of interpreting Sartre other than that summarised above, but the present interpretation, centred on the primacy of the pre-reflective cogito outside

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the bounds of causality, is broadly confirmed by David Rose. He makes this point in contention against Mary Warnock, who he says does not see it this way. Warnock understands Sartre's for-itself as an essence like the Cartesian cogito, when it should most properly be understood as an existence. She commits an ontological error when she assumes that the original project is an account of human nature as a what. If the human being is a what, a thing present-at-hand, then one can apply the category of causality to it and the paradox of freedom arises. However, Satre is describing the who, the fundamental way in which human-being exists in the world. (Rose 2003, 9) Rose begins his discussion by positioning Sartre as a libertarian in contrast to the determinist and the compatibilist. The determinist view, which I alluded to in the opening sentence of this essay, holds that the human being is a physical object like all others, subject to the physical laws of the universe and, once all the laws are known and the initial conditions revealed, the human being is as predictable in his or her behaviour as a billiard ball. The compatibilist agrees about causation but regards freedom as liberation from restrictions on fulfilling ones desires. Sartre is the proper name most commonly associated with the position of the libertarian as he rejects any deterministic theory of action and, equally he does not accept compatibilism: if freedom means uncaused, to describe freedom as acting on one's desires without impediment is to say one's action is caused by a desire or a personality trait. To be free is to reject all possible explanations of knowing, doing or being which refer to something prior to and external to consciousness. (Rose 2003, 2) As I previously stated and Rose affirms, the pre-reflective cogito is the locus of freedom. Rose shows how Sartre begins with Descartes cogito and then modifies it, drawing on insights from Martin Heidegger. What Sartre gets out of I think therefore I am (cogito ergo sum) is that everything begins from the subjective. Rose writes: For there to be phenomena, one must be experiencing and if one is experiencing, one exists. This is a familiar transcendental argument that, for Sartre, proves that if there is consciousness, then there must exist a

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On Sartres View of Human Freedom by John Deverell

pre-reflective cogito, which is conscious of being conscious of x. (Rose 2003, 7) While Kant discerned the a priori unity of consciousness in the subject, it was Heideggers move to locate the unified subject ontologically prior to knowledge. The modes of being Sartre describes [being-in-itself and being-for-itself] are derived from this approach. (Rose 2003, 7) The difficulty for Sartre is connecting the utterly free consciousness with an individual person living in the world. His solution is continuity over time: this series of acts is me (Rose 2003, 4) And: There has to exist an a priori unity of consciousness, otherwise this particular moment of consciousness would be impossible, and this a priori unity makes possible the empirical, synthetic unity that is me in the world. (Rose 2003, 9) In the end Rose concludes that Sartre is not in fact a simple libertarian. The self is an ongoing project formed by my acts. Through action of the self in the world, the isolated metaphysical freedom (Rose 2003, 13) of pure consciousness connects somehow with the humdrum realities of the causal matrix in the presence of other consciousnesses. Freedom is self determination achieved through wrestling with the exigencies of life and other people. Only within a social context, that is the actual structures of being-for-others, can freedom be meaningful rather than absurd.

Richard Creel on God as the guarantor of human freedom Richard Creels position on human nature is markedly different from Sartres and he appears not to understand the primacy of the pre-reflective cogito on the same terms that Rose does. Although he accepts Sartres point that the human being has no pre-defined essence, he holds that there is an essence which man might choose in his freedom (Creel 1984, 285). However, he continues, Sartre denies that there is such an essence, declaring that man is a futile passion; theism holds that there is such an essence, writ on the hearts of men and declared through revelation. (Creel 1984, 285). On the other hand, According to theism as well as Sartre, man does not have an inherent essence

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which determines his behaviour in the sense that other creatures and things have determining essences. (Creel 1984, 285) And: It appears, then, that if there is a God, God would have created people without an essence in the sense that Sartre says people have no essence. But does Sartre have an argument/or belief in the existence of freedom? (Creel 1984, 286) Creel wants to show that God is the true guarantor of freedom and that it is therefore contradictory of Sartre to try to uphold freedom while denying God. Theism affirms that freedom exists first in God who is free from all dependence and who is free to actualize any possibility consistent with his goodness. (Creel 1984, 289) If one is a believer in Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, the Divine foundation of freedom is confirmed by Scripture, and furthermore, if one feels he is free and believes he has been created by a God who could have created him free, then - since God is not a deceiver he has a reason to trust his feeling of freedom. By contrast, Creel regards Sartres attempt at positing the grounds of freedom elsewhere than in God as mere speculation unsupported by evidence.
The inductive evidence favours determinism, not libertarianism, in two respects. First, it seems obvious that by far most of the processes of nature are causally and lawfully determined. Consequently, in so far as man is obviously a part of the natural scheme of things, it would seem a matter of special pleading to make an exception of man with regard to determinism for no other reason than that he feels free or would like to think he is. Second, progress with regard to the understanding and prediction of primate behaviour has been made and continues to be made. To be sure, the progress is slight at this time, but it appears to be statistically significant and there is no empirical reason to assume that it will not continue. For both these reasons the inductive evidence favours determinism, and I know of no countervailing inductive evidence upon which the libertarian can build a case. Consequently, one who would justify libertarianism rather than hold it on faith, must do so deductively, that is, by means of some major premise which overrides the inductive arguments. So far as I can conjure, there is no premise which the atheist could hold consistently and from which he could deduce a defence of libertarianism. Hence, the atheist is limited by his own world view to being a rational determinist or an irrational libertarian. (Creel 1984, 290)


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The inductive evidence does the theist no more good than it does the atheist, of course. It leans where it leans, but there is a crucial difference. The theist has a reason for thinking that the incompleteness of our ability to predict human behaviour is due not to the youth of the behavioural sciences but to the nature of man, who is made in the image of God. (Creel 1984, 290)

Hans Grelland on intentionality and the act of perception An aspect of Sartres thought which Hans Grelland brings out is the role of ontological freedom in enabling us to choose not only our acts but our very perceptions by which we constitute the meaning of our acts in the first place. He also expounds Sartres related idea of the project, which is the overall aim that a person is working for with each act that they commit. Grelland traces to Husserl, Sartres concept of constitution, whereby we shape our own perceptions during the act of perception, and goes on to say: This freedom, this power of influencing the appearance of the perceived object, is, essentially the freedom expressed in Sartres philosophy. (Grelland 2006, 22) The perceiving consciousness always directs its attention towards an object in which it has some intentional interest. The intention involved helps to shape the way that perceptions are constituted. The subject is therefore not just a passive recipient of impressions but a participant in the process of perception who exercises a certain interpretive freedom. (Grelland 22) Where Husserl was mostly interested in the observing and thinking subject (Grelland 2006, 27), Sartre focused much more on the acting subject. To Sartre the conscious subject is certainly intentional, as in Husserl, but it is also something that exists through its projects, and a project is essentially the same as an intention. (Grelland 2006, 28) Actions point beyond themselves in seeking to achieve the aims of the relevant projects or overcome some lack which the act intends to remedy.

Evaluation of the commentators views I share the perspective presented by Rose and the concluding part of my essay

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will rely on his conclusions. My reasoning there will implicitly support his view. Likewise with Grelland. Creels argument is essentially an inductive argument for determinism, modified by possible evidence on the other side that God wishes to grant freedom to human beings. He entertains the hypothesis that perhaps not all events in the world are caused, if there is a transcendently free God, who wants to break the circuit in some cases, such as when humans are making decisions. Without a free God to break the circuit, all that is left is the operation of causal operations of natural law. What Creel doesnt seem to appreciate is that Sartre posits the foundation of human freedom outside the circuit. Sartre, I think would agree that events in the world are caused, whereas human decisions are not events in the world but events in the subject. Sartre therefore shows how freedom is possible and in fact necessary to human existence. In Creels favour, perhaps Sartre is not so clear about how decisions can be events in the mind of a physical being, constituted of the operation of brain mechanisms (trying to avoid anachronism in my phrasing here), while also in some sense not events in the world. My answer to this would be that an analysis that reduces decision making to the firing of neurons (in todays terms), is an objective construction rather than subjective, and does not defeat Sartres point that all thought begins in the subjective realm. Creels argument falls into confusion over just how there can be a human nature that is equivalent to the image of God writ on the hearts of men (Creel 1984, 285) while at the same time does not determine human behaviour. He does not say where in the structure of human being this non-determining but choosable human nature can be found. Sartre says that we create human nature on the fly but Creel implies that we select it from some part of ourselves that cannot be within the core of our existence (for he says he agrees that existence precedes essence), and yet is so fundamental as to be written on our hearts. By pushing human nature into no-mans land, neither here nor there, he opens the door to determinism, which he proceeds to defend very well, without providing

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us with anywhere to escape from its exigencies. He wants to show that Gods freedom guarantees human freedom, but he does not show where in the structure of human being, God has put the capacity for freedom. The result is that God might well be free, but this is of no consequence to human beings. Conversely, Sartre would say that he has deduced human freedom from the structure of human existence, and this obtains whether or not there is a God. (See Sartre 1993, 62) My reply to Creels theistic argument for free-will ironically amounts to a defense of Sartre against determinism. However, I agree with Creel that God makes a contribution, not as a circuit-breaker but as the originator of existence, whose apophatic nothingness lies behind the nothingness of original consciousness in the human realm. I will develop this idea in the last part of the essay.

Conclusion We began with Sartres claim that original consciousness is freedom, and we have seen that a coherent account of the human situation can be built on this foundation. Pre-reflective consciousness is freedom because it upsurges prior to anything in the world that could control it. Belief in God can be consistent with Sartres account if the image of the Divine Being in humanity is considered as both the origin and destination of human existence: its Alpha and Omega. The following is an attempt to reconfigure Sartres system on theistic lines. In the structure of existence, the human beings unknowable origin is an empty consciousness, a nothingness; while the unattainable destination is to become one with the plenitude of all things. Humanity neither remembers its origin nor has a real hope of attaining its destination; our story starts forever in the midst of action. On the journey from origin to destination, we continually have to make choices. Freedom is the necessity of having to make choices. My identifiable self at any one moment is constituted of the choices I have made up to this point, plus an indefinable element from the new choice in front of me

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in the present moment. The meaning of true freedom is to escape from inertness as a mere object and become an active subject. To achieve this requires that I subjugate all limiting forces that would make of me an object. So, paradoxically, freedom may be used up, diminished, exhausted, by freely choosing to succumb to objectifying forces. But freedom used in submission to self-expansive demands increases freedom. Limiting forces are those deterministic influences of nature and social conditioning which would drag us down. Expansive demands are the attractions exerted by virtues, talents and opportunities for union with others, as yet unrealized. For Sartre, God is an unwanted authority who preordains that I shall fulfill my identity in a fixed way, or not at all. This understanding of God is not necessary. God may be conceived to supply both the nothingness of my origin and the allness of my destination. The commandments of God need not be seen as impositions on freedom but as invitations to strive for a greater abundance of life, i.e. greater freedom from the chains of natural causation. As the purpose of obedience to Gods commands is to expand in virtues and powers, although appearing to constrain, religious submission is the opposite of constraint. Rather, it is the same as the process of discipline whereby arts and crafts are learned, turning inept novices into virtuosos of control over their media of expression. It is indeed strange that humanity has the capacity to choose this or that. This is the capacity of a being which is a nothingness at the start and only gradually becomes somebody. In our biological existence we have a nature conferred by evolution, but in our human existence we are what we make of ourselves, and the possibilities, in principle, are limitless. The limitlessness of our possibilities reflects the limitlessness of the Creator who bestows those possibilities. That we can reach out for them in freedom is due to the fact that we are freedom, as Sartre says. Now, I submit that if original consciousness is freedom, it is also faith, for it appears to believe directly in its primary intuitions, unconditioned by any

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reason (deductive or inferential) for so believing. If this is right, then we should combine faith into the structure that Sartre has proposed in his statement mentioned earlier that the ultimate meaning of the acts of honest men is the quest for freedom as such. (Sartre 1993, 57) We will have to say that the meaning of the acts of honest persons is also the quest for faith as such. Faith at this point in my argument refers simply to confidence in ones perceptions. As Grelland has shown, not only what we do but also what we believe, how we grasp hold of the world with our minds, is in a profound sense a matter of choice. This, too, implies to me that faith and freedom are inextricably intermingled. To be human is to live between the poles of the nothingness of absolute freedom and the universe-of-everything towards which freedom desires to expand, through its projects. Faith, or in other words, intentionality, links those two poles, in combination with freedom. Human reality proves its freedom when it believes a falsehood. It proves its faith by believing in a truth. This situation arises from the structure of consciousness which ensures no amount of empirical evidence can determine the ultimate question as to why evidence is even required in the first place. Evidence is needed to justify belief because of the possibility of being mistaken. That possibility in turn exists because the knowing consciousness is not mapped to the world in an automatic correspondence. The correspondence being not automatic, inherently consciousness is free to believe as it chooses. But from the possibility of there being any correspondence at all, and because confidence in a sufficiency of correspondence for practical purposes is the everyday assumption of a normal human life, consciousness has faith. Consciousness finds evidence through faith in its perceptions. Evidence does not find consciousness. Faith, or consciousness, reaches out mirror-like from the receptivity of nothingness towards its intentional objects, and in this way, the end is in the beginning. The ultimate intentional object is thought of in religion as God, the ultimate, never attainable, Truth. This connection is suppressed in Sartres writings, but present in the margins. With that marginal comment, I break off

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this intervention in an unending discourse.

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