Existential aspect of Being: Interpreting J. P. Sartre’s Philosophy

Ivan V. Kuzin, Alexander A. Drikker & Eugene A. Makovetsky

Saint Petersburg State University, Russia

Volume 8, Number 1, 2016 I Full Text PDF


The article discusses rationalistic and existential approaches to the problem of existence. The comparison of Sartre’s pre-reflective cogito and Descartes’ reflective cogito makes it possible to define how Sartre’s thought moves from the thing to consciousness and from consciousness to the thing. At the same time, in Being and Nothingness Sartre does not only define the existence of the thing in its passivity—which in many respects corresponds to Descartes’ philosophy, but also as an open orientation towards consciousness, the latter concept not being fully developed by him. This statement may be regarded as a hidden component of Sartre’s key thesis about the role of the Other in the verification of our existence. The most important factor in understanding this is the concept of the look. Detailed analysis of Sartre’s theses in Being and Nothingness enables us to demonstrate that the concept of the look makes it possible to consider the identity of being-in-itself and being-for-itself (consciousness).

Keywords: Sartre, rationalism, existentialism, thing, being, the look, existence, nothingness, consciousness, the Other

  1. Introduction
  2. Husserl said that being of the object is such “that it is cognisable in itself” (“daß es in seinem Wesen liegt, erkennbar zu sein”). (Ingarden 1992: 176) This statement is important if we are to accept the fact that the possibility of looking at the object correlates with being of the object itself. I can see the object due to the fact that my look at the object is supported by the object itself; thus it possesses something that matches exactly the look as such and makes it possible for the look to focus on that object. The object itself possesses something like the look, but it is ‘something like the look’ rather than the look itself if we traditionally interpret it as an anthropomorphic category:

“…A material thing is not an experience; it is the essence of an absolutely different kind of being, and not ‘a real constituent’ of consciousness, of an experience” (“Also ein materielles Ding ist kein Erlebnes, es ist ein Seiendes von total anderer Seinsart und ist kein ‘reales Bestandstück’ des Bewußtseins, des Erlebnisses”). (Ingarden 1992: 178)

The idea of pre-reflective cogito introduced by Sartre as early as The Transcendence of the Ego demonstrates how his attitude to the thing changed: from treating it as something passive, which was characteristic of classical rationalism, to its direct focus on consciousness. This change was due to the concept of intentionality, developed by Husserl’s phenomenology and transformed by Sartre. Within this framework, it is not only consciousness that is endowed with intentionality but also things themselves, though the latter possess intentionality in a hidden inactive form. This article is an attempt to demonstrate that the notion of the look is a fundamental and basic of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, that may explain both a particular being and being in general.

  1. Method

Our strategy is textual analysis: we will take disputable and not immediately clear elements of Sartre’s discourse in his Being and Nothingness and reveal implicit ideas that enrich and elaborate the generally accepted paradigmatic concept of the French philosopher. This is the nature of philosophical rationality, which is different from scientific rationality. Therefore, the suggested approach is a kind of textual analysis that aims to find certain hidden, intuitive assumptions in the text that are not rationally expressed and included, but, nevertheless, convey certain alternative movements of the author’s thought that are no less existentially important than explicitly stated ideas. Thereby, we acknowledge the possibility of another perspective based on certain aspects that we identify in the text.

This approach is justified since Sartre as any true philosopher, deliberately or unintentionally, tends to mystify and create paradoxes. This becomes obvious in an apparently contradictory indication that, on the one hand, consciousness is insignificant and impersonal, and, on the other hand, inexorably associated with the human being in quite a personal way through the experiencing and the perception of being. The latter can be confirmed by repeated examples from Sartre’s discourse where seemingly impersonal consciousness definitely presents itself in existentially experienced human experience. The most striking example is the detailed characteristic of the essence of the look.

  1. Results

Sartre’s understanding of the factualness of existence is revealed as existence, which is confirmed through consciousness, though not through its reflection apprehending itself as in Descartes’ philosophy, but through its natural focus on something revealed, factually and objectively given, i.e. on being-in-itself. To gradually approach the task at hand we are going to touch upon the following aspects:

  1. The difference between existent and consciousness should be regarded as an external and perceived aspect of being.
  2. Within the same framework it appears possible to interpret mutual independence of being and consciousness as the basis for their unity.
  3. As a result, we suggest that we should treat this idea as an extended concept of the look, a certain universal combining both being-in-itself and being-for-itself while presenting itself as a whole in the form of Otherness.
  1. Discussion
  2. Illusion of difference
    • The problematics of intersubjectivity

The problematics of intersubjectivity may lie in more abysmal layers than the surface level of human interaction. In our view, the attempt to identify Sartre’s look only with the human (as we see in the chapter titled The Look), means a certain simplification of those insights and ideas that manifest themselves in the course of careful analysis and contemplation on Being and Nothingness. The same happens in the case of a commonplace reference to the fact that Sartre’s “attempt to reconcile the two (‘in-itself’ and ‘for-itself’ – I.K., A.D., E.M.) brings him up against a contradiction which reveals the mutually exclusive nature of the categories”. (Martin 1998: 125)

For example, Sartre associates the state of shame only with the human being, which corresponds to a traditional notion that we do not feel ashamed in the presence of things. At the surface level, in his attempt to observe the problem settings, Sartre does not dare to ascribe such an experience to the at-hand existent. The obviousness of this distinction makes the attempt to present being-for-itself as a fundamental characteristic of being-in-itself quite doubtful since the presence of the latter does not create an inter-subjective situation. “Shame is the revelation of the Other not in the way in which a consciousness reveals an object but in the way in which one moment of consciousness implies on the side another moment as its motivation”. (Sartre 1957: 272-273)

Nevertheless, “shame… is the recognition of the fact that I am indeed that object which the Other is looking at and judging”. (Sartre 1957: 261) What is of great importance here is the reference to the human being’s perception of his objectiveness (being-in-itself), which comes from his perception of the Other’s freedom that is responsible for objectification. It is traditionally believed that no objectification can arise from objects co-existing with me, but this is, indeed, an existential illusion, which occurs due to the presence of a more active principle (being of another consciousness) than being of the object. The Other’s consciousness may transform me into an object, though, after all, I am not one myself, and I will perceive myself as an object, though I possess the intention of the subject: “Thus the Me-as-object-for-myself is a Me which is not Me; that is, which does not have the characteristics of consciousness”. (Sartre 1957: 273) But that as well may mean that any object contains a ‘petrified’ consciousness, though we agree that “the fact of being-looked-at can not… depend on the object which manifests the look”…Full Text PDF

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