Final Lecture on Sartre

Ron McClamrock

Spring 1988

Today I'm going to finish talking about Sartre. We'll be touching on everything in Sartre other than what we've done so far, which means I'm just going to wave my hands in the direction of some topics to give you a sense of what's out there, rather than giving any real arguments. First, I'll say a little about some of the main themes we've seen in Sartre's Transcendence of the Ego so far. I'll then say a little about the two key concepts in Being and Nothingness: being-in-itself (the being had by things in the world) and being-for-itself (the being had by consciousness). The whole book is more or less about the relationship between those two things. After that, I'll touch on a few of the other central themes in Sartre's philosophy. And at the end, I'll say a little about where I think Sartre's moves leave you if you start from Husserl, take seriously Sartre's criticisms of him, and then try to re-apply a few of those points to Sartre's own positions.

Transcendence and Realism

The ego and its states as transcendent

In the last couple of sessions we looked at the idea that the ego and its (psychological) states --- its experiences, if you like --- are essentially transcendent. There is no immanence, in Husserl's sense; Husserl is, as Sartre sees it, guilty of falling under the "illusion of immanence". The essence of everything --- including my self and its states of consciousness --- is transcendent: it essentially goes beyond what is given in my consciousness, and depends for its essence on the real aspects of the world on which it is directed.

What consequences does this have? One which Sartre points out is that it "plunges man back into the world" and refutes solipsism. We have now placed ourselves essentially in the world, with no special status, nothing which makes the status of my mind and self essentially different for me than that of others, or of the world in general; "the dualism of being and appearance is no longer entitled to any legal status within philosophy." (B&N, p.4) This is of course to reject solipsism: my thoughts have no special metaphysical status; and they are essentially no different than the thoughts of the others.

Existence and essence

A second consequence of the transcendence of the ego and its states brings out the central catch-phrase of existentialism: "Existence precedes essence". The existence in the real world of my thoughts (and everything else) precedes their definition; this is an explicit rejection both of the Cartesian view of mind (where its essence is known before its real existence in the world) and of the positivist and Husserlian account of the meanings of words and thoughts (where what they mean and refer to is something in the essence of the symbol rather than in the world and in the real existent which is the intentional object of the thought). The reference of thoughts is not secondary to their descriptive essence, but is primary, and in turn determines their intentional essence. As Sartre puts it at one point: The "first procedure of a philosophy ought to be to expel things from consciousness and to reestablish its true connection with the world; to know that consciousness is a positional consciousness of the world." (B&N, p.11)

This clearly gives us what is sometimes called a kind of direct realism about the world. The appearances which reveal the world are "no longer interior nor exterior"; he rejects the idea of the "being behind the appearance". Appearances are not internal pictures, but (intentional) relations to the world; projections of the world, defined by their relationship to it --- by what they are projections of. This is then what it is for the appearance to become "full positivity... as an appearing which is no longer opposed to being, but is the measure of it." (B&N, p.4)

We see here Sartre's rejection of reality as hidden and unreachable, as seen through the "veil of perception" --- the opaque field of representations which shield us from the real things in the world. Appearances here are reality being given; they are projections of things in the world into consciousness, defined by the things themselves; not internally defined ideas from which objects in the world are constructions. We get away from, as he says, "what Nietzsche called `the illusion of worlds-behind-the-scene"', and "no longer believe in the being-behind-the-appearance". (B&N, p. 4)

Appearance and objectivity

What makes something transcendent for Sartre is of course that it's not totally given to me in any particular mental act. Any perception of a transcendent object doesn't give it in its totality. He sometimes says in fact that we might think of a object as an infinite series of possible appearances. "Appearance", once again, in the realist sense: appearings of the world to me, rather than appearances as some kind of internal representation. The idea of the infinite series here is just his way of differentiating between the objective and the subjective --- or rather, between transcendence and immanence. Objects as infinite rather than finite sequences of appearances is the central aspect of his notion of the objective.

Sartre's "ontological proof" in the introduction to Being and Nothingness is hardly what anyone else would want to call a proof. But it does bring out something of interest about Sartre's conception of objectivity. He begins with the assertion that he takes as the heart of phenomenology, and which comes of course from Husserl: that all consciousness is consciousness of something. He then suggests that there are just two ways to take this: one is as claiming that consciousness always constitutes an object for itself; that any thought is of an object in that thought of a certain kind is constitutive of being an object of a certain sort. But this isn't a relation to an object --- this has missed the sense of being an object, as an essentially transcendent or objective rather than subjective thing. The only other option is that consciousness is essentially a relation to a transcendent being --- a relation to something which is not itself contained in consciousness. This is, of course, Sartre's view. Hardly an overwhelming argument; but it does shed light on an important aspect of Sartre's view: the being of an object, and of objectivity, essentially requires and presupposes transcendence.

Being and Nothingness


The central cleavage in Sartre, on which most other distinctions depend, is that between being-in-itself and being-for-itself. As for being-in-itself, Sartre gives us three characterizations --- all in his own exceedingly cryptic style. As he puts it: being is; being is what it is; and being is in-itself.

But there is a point to each of these assertions. Being "is" in that being-in-itself is actual (rather than just possible) and contingent (rather than necessary). It is "not derived from possibility or reduced to necessity". Being "is what is is" in that it doesn't refer to something else in any way; everything about it is intrinsic to it rather than obtaining by virtue of some intentional relation to something else. What it refers to or what refers to it is no part of its being-in-itself. And being "is in-itself" in that it is not dependent on anything (e.g. us) for its being; it is not a construction of our minds, and it doesn't have to be thought of to exist. Its existence is in itself, rather than in relation to or essentially dependent on something else.

Being-for-itself and nothingness

In contrast to being-in-itself, we have being-for-itself, which is the being of consciousness. Being-in-itself is what it is; but being-for-itself "is not what it is, and is what it is not". Contrary to appearances, this is not just Sartre being contradictory. The point of this claim is that the being and essence of consciousness are not to be found in something "in" consciousness, but in the relationship of consciousness to its object. It "is not what it is" in that its essence is not internal to it, contained in it, or in that sense intrinsic to it; it "is what it is not" in that its existence and essence are to found in its objects, in what it is directed on --- in the world in which it is embedded. Consciousness is then, for Sartre, pure directedness, pure intentionality; other than its relationship to objects appearing, it is nothing at all --- nothingness, in one sense of the word.

Since the essence of consciousness is intentionality or directedness, and since, for Sartre, this presupposes a relation to a transcendent being, the in-itself clearly has a kind of priority over the for-itself. And thus, once again, existence (of the in-itself) precedes essence (the categorizing of the world which consciousness does). It is consciousness that is the source of carving up the world; the for-itself is "the source of all possibility, negation, and finitude". Categorization requires saying where the class ends --- where the lack of that class lies. And this is a part of the job of the for-itself, as the "source of all negation".

This is the second sense in which consciousness is "nothingness" for Sartre. Above, we saw that it is pure directedness, pure intentionality; other than its relationship to objects appearing, it is nothing at all. But it is also nothingness in the sense that it is the source of all nothingness or negation. The lack of something is always produced by the for-itself for Sartre. This is not as cosmic as it sounds; it's just pointing out that the presence of an object is a matter of the object, of the in-itself; but the lack of an object requires something seeing that as being the object which is lacking --- a for-itself must see the lack or negation of the object. So, the existence of the coke can here is a matter of the coke can --- of what it is in itself; but the lack of the coke can over there is not a matter of what is there, but what isn't. The lack or absence is essentially a matter of what it is not, and not what it is --- which is, of course, the mark of the for-itself.

Consciousness as nothingness

One consequence of Sartre's view of consciousness as nothingness and pure intentionality is that he rejects anything that consciousness might be taken to contain. Of course, the most obvious example of this is the transcendental ego, which he took great pains to banish from the interior of consciousness. And the emotions also become properties of objects, as characterized in The Emotions: Outline of a Theory. But perhaps most interestingly, this view moves Sartre to the rejection of anything like Husserl's notion of hyle, and perhaps the similar notion of "qualia" or "raw feels". Everything about consciousness is essentially intentional; thus Husserl's "non-intentional materials" must go. And to the extent that we see qualia as individuated not by their semantic (or informational) roles, but by their "intrinsic character", his view would reject these as well.

The idea that consciousness "comes from itself" arises from these notions of consciousness as nothingness as well. Consciousness is defined in terms of its objects, or what it is directed on --- in terms of what it is not. It is itself nothing. Since negation comes only from the for-itself, and the for-itself is the lack of the in-itself (it is what it is not, and is not what it is), the for-itself (as nothingness or negation) comes from itself (as the source of all nothingness or negation).

Bad Faith

The unconscious

One of the central notions connected with that of the for-itself is the idea of bad faith, or self-deception. Bad faith is Sartre's replacement for the Freudian notion of the unconscious. Bad faith for Sartre is false reflection on my own mental states; a systematic self-deception about the nature of the pre-reflective basis for reflection (which is, of course, for Sartre, appearances or projections of the real world). So, if for example I hate my father but do not admit it to myself, Freud would say that my hatred of my father is an unconscious mental state, which systematically effects my behavior, but which cannot be made conscious without deep analysis and the uncovering of the psychogenesis of that hatred.

Sartre, on the other hand, rejects the notion of the unconscious entirely. For Sartre, this situation would be described as one in which I (consciously) hate my father, and am conscious --- non-thetically --- of that hatred and its object. But in reflecting, I lie to myself, and tell myself that I don't really hate my father. My non-thetic consciousness is of hating my father; but my reflective, thetic consciousness of self --- my consciousness of my self as an (empirical) object --- is that of me as not hating my father. This distortion is imposed because of a desire to not hate my father, and reflection then is twisted by that desire. But I am fully (if non-thetically) conscious of hating my father --- that is, my consciousness sometimes has the form of a hatred of Dad.

The critique of the unconscious

The most central difference between Sartre and Freud which underlies this apparent disagreement is that Sartre thinks that all dealing with the intentional is conscious, more or less by definition. The intentional properties of something are ones it has not in itself, but ones which are to be found in what it is not (what it's directed on) rather than what it is. But being what it is not rather than what it is is the essential mark of consciousness, the for-itself, and nothingness for Sartre. So the only thing which is sensitive to the intentional is consciousness itself.

Pretend that this is so for a moment to understand the disagreement with Freud. If this were so, then consider the process of repression for Freud. Repression is certainly sensitive to the content of mental states --- things get repressed because of what they mean. But since only the for-itself can be sensitive to meaning, repression must be done by a consciousness. In fact, this requires a second consciousness: If it were my consciousness, then as soon as the process of repression considered that meaning to see if it should be repressed, that meaning would be conscious --- and hence, not repressed. So if only consciousness can deal with the intentional, repression would require a second, independent consciousness, which is not mine --- which Sartre takes to be absurd.

The alternative for Sartre is that it's my consciousness which does the repressing --- which means, of course, that even "repressed" thoughts are conscious. This is, of course, just bad faith. I am conscious of all my thoughts; none are unconscious. And it is my consciousness which grasps even the intuitively repressed thoughts. I thus have conscious access even to the things which I do not admit to myself --- I instead lie to myself in reflection about something I perfectly well know; and this is the essence of bad faith.

Furthermore, given Sartre's views about freedom and responsibility, this leaves me not in the moral position which comes from psychoanalysis, in which I am not responsible for my unconscious, as it is not me, not my choices, not something I control. Rather, I am left with total responsibility for my bad faith; I am as responsible for the lies I tell myself as for the lies I tell another. I freely choose to lie to myself, and am responsible for doing so.

The idea that all mental phenomena are conscious (at least when they are potent in producing behavior) is of course one which has been taken over by the cognitive therapy school, although not with the moral overtones which Sartre gives it. Aaron Beck, a founder of cognitive therapy, certainly makes this central position of consciousness critical. However, the emphasis on the free choice of bad faith is entirely dropped; instead, the emphasis is placed on disfunctional generalizations which we use but don't reconsider adequately.

Comments on the critique

Of course, a central problem for Sartre's general position in this area is his claim that only the for-itself (consciousness) can deal with the intentional properties of things. At the end today, I'll consider the possibility of the in-itself providing preconditions on the for-itself. But for now, let me just point out this: If thought comes to be seen as any properties other than intentional ones, then processes of the in-itself can respond to those properties. And if those properties are at least correlated with intentional properties (as the morpho-syntactic properties of our language are correlated with its semantic properties, for example), there could be a non-conscious repression mechanism which effectively screens certain kind of thoughts from consciousness. And if thoughts have no properties of the in-itself, it's very difficult to see how they could possibly enter into causal processes and thus lead to actions.

Before leaving this dispute between Sartre and Freud, it's worth noting an interesting difference in the role that different conceptions of meaning are playing here. For Sartre, we're conscious of all our mental states. But we're not conscious of them in the sense that we clearly describe or adequately conceptualize them to ourselves; we don't, say, conceptualize the mental state discussed in the earlier example as "my mental state which is a hatred of Dad." But we are conscious "of" it in the sense of reference; that is, in the sense that the mental state which is a hatred of Dad, that very (mental) object, it is something of which I am conscious, although not explicitly under that very description. My hatred for Dad is not judged by me to be a hatred of Dad; but it is a state or event of which I (1) am conscious of (under different descriptions) in reflection, and (2) is the form of my consciousness pre-reflectively.

For Freud, of course, there are lots of mental states and processes of which we're not conscious, and my hatred of Dad would certainly fall in here. Of course, the sense in which I'm not conscious of it is that I do not (and perhaps can not) correctly conceptualize it; but I am conscious of it in the sense that information from it is carried into my consciousness. It might thus be considered the real object of my thought, although not specifying the form in which the object appears. The unconscious is then represented --- in the sense of reference --- in consciousness; it's just that it is typically mis-represented because of the distorting influence of the "censor" of repression.

When looked at in this way, the disagreement between Sartre and Freud about the unconscious may seem to be a little less about the way the mind works and more about our moral and personal relationship to the states of our own psyches. Both think that reflection systematically distorts, and that this is to account for the disunity of our minds. Both think that this distortion makes for misrepresentation of the underlying states, but that information about those states still ends up in reflection. The difference is now centrally whether the pre-reflective mental state is one which I can access and control, but choose not to, (Sartre), or cannot access and control regardless of my choices (Freud). In short, the disagreement is much more one over responsibility than over the mechanics of the disunity of mind. And if we are unconvinced by Sartre's the view that intentional processes must be conscious, then this is exactly where the disagreement would seem to stand.

A last aside on this: If Grunbaum (in The Foundations of Psychoanalysis) is right about Freud, and the acid test for psychoanalysis is in clinical success or failure, we have an interesting question still to ask: Does taking responsibility for your psychic life (as in "Existential Psychoanalysis") work better clinically than coming to see it as something independent of you and your choices? The relative success of consciousness-based cognitive therapy as compared to more traditional psychoanalysis might be one reason to think so. Perhaps another is the success had in dealing with rape victims by getting them to see the traumatic event as one for which they had some responsibility, and thus some control over. And the view of depression as linked to a sense of a total lack of control over the surrounding world might be a third. In short: If success is the marker of truth here (as at least Grunbaum's Freud thought), the markers may be lining up on Sartre's side of the board on this one.

Contingency and existentialism

Let me turn now to just briefly touch on a few of the big points of Sartre's more general and, I suppose, more well-known "existentialist" views. In order to place them into the framework of Sartre's views as we've seen them so far, let me remind you of two absolutely central ideas for Sartre: (1) Existence precedes essence. This means for Sartre that all essences are transcendent (rather than immanent), and that the real existing object of thought is prior to and in some sense determines the content of the thought. (2) Being-for-itself (consciousness) is the source of all negation/ nothingness. All lack of something, negation of something, emptiness, absence, etc. --- all these things are essentially defined in term of what they are not rather than what they are, and thus are a matter of the for-itself rather than the in-itself.


One major theme of Sartre's existentialism is the nausea of confronting being. Nausea, for Sartre, is a kind of philosophical vertigo which comes from grasping the utter contingency of all existence. To grasp this, one can begin by reflecting on the utter contingency of your being where you are now. Consider all the details which had to be just so simply in order for human beings to exist on this planet --- the expansion rate of the universe, the balance of chemicals on the Earth, the cosmic rays penetrating the atmosphere to cause exactly the right mutations in earlier organisms, and so on. Consider in addition all those precise coincidences needed for your parents to be born, to meet, to have children. Add to this all those improbable circumstances necessary for your being born --- for say, exactly that sperm cell to fertilize exactly that egg, so that you and not one of your possible siblings were born. And, of course, pile on all the circumstances necessary for you to have come to where you are today, reading this --- the influences of parents, friends, and teachers; the circumstances of education, employment, and affection. How likely is that all of those factors came together in exactly the way they did? It is so absolutely, utterly unlikely that we find ourselves perched on a pinnacle of utter improbability, of total contingency, and the height of improbability is dizzying. There is absolutely no reason that there should have been such a ridiculous coincidence of events; but such a ridiculous coincidence is exactly what the existence of each of us rests upon. My own non-existence is so immensely much more likely than my existence that the foundation of my existence is left as a needle-thin tower of improbability. It is from this that the existential vertigo of nausea comes.

It's important to see that the point here really has very little to do with issues about determinism at, say, the physical level. Regardless of whether some kind of physical determinism is true about the world (or even about our actions), the sort of utter contingency which is important for Sartre still remains. The critical point for the purposes of nausea or existential vertigo is that there is no reason why the real world is the real one rather than some other possible world being real. There may be causes (say, stated in some micro-physics) such that the state of the universe at the big bang determines my existence and position now. But that does not give a reason why I am here rather than not --- that is still, if you like, a kind of cosmic accident.

So it's not determinism that's at issue here, but a kind of fatalism. There is no reason that I should have been born, even if it turn out that there is a physical causal story to tell about how the physical events which were my birth came to happen. There is no explanation for it as my birth. My birth was not destined, in that nothing was working to insure that I was born, even if the physical event of my birth was causally necessitated by the initial conditions of the universe and the blind laws of nature. To twist around Leibniz, we might call this the "principle of insufficient reason": there is no reason for anything being the way it is (even if there are causes of it); this is not only not the best of all possible worlds, it is as unlikely as any, and thus utterly contingent.

A world without reason

Sartre in fact goes on to expand on this sense of total contingency. Remember that for Sartre, being-for-itself is the source of all negation and nothingness. This means that a conceptualization of the world --- dividing it into A's and non-A's --- depends essentially on the for-itself for the negation. We might then, for example, reconceptualize tree roots as a grotesque hand, clutching the earth. What emerges from the "blooming, buzzing confusion" of being and is carved off by the for-itself by negating is thus also utterly contingent. We have, even given the utterly contingent state of being-in-itself, on top of this the extreme contingency of experiencing the world under this conceptualization rather than some other equally possible one. There is no reason to find the world this way rather than another; hence the amplification of contingency and the resultant sense of existential vertigo.

This is probably the most central theme of existentialism in the popular sense: The world and our existence in it is totally without reason; there is no reason or meaning for anything. Human existence then seems to be an entirely unlikely absurdity, like the random coalescing of particles in deep space into a 1968 VW Beetle --- totally without purpose and reason; a cosmic accident. The grasping of this absurdity, our own absurdity, produces the nausea of confronting existence.


If all negation comes from the for-itself, and the for-itself is the realm of consciousness which is what we control, then we come to Sartre's conception of total freedom. We choose everything about our world, in that even the way in which we conceptualize the world --- as a matter of the for-itself --- is something that we choose rather than something that is forced on us by the in-itself. Thus in some extremely pervasive sense, we choose the way the world looks to us. We make our own conceptualization of the world, in something like the Kantian sense. But in contrast with a Kantian view, that way in which we make our carving of the world is a matter of choice --- since, as in intentional activity, it can only come from the for-itself.

This total freedom of course extends to the freedom to create our own values in the world. Value is placing what is not in an object in it, or removing what is in it from it --- creating a lack. In either case, values depend essentially on negation and nothingness. Hence, just as before, these things depend on the for-itself, and thus fall under our pure freedom. The in-itself provides no values, so ethical truths are in no sense written into the cosmos for Sartre. This way of putting the point leads one to the most nihilistic characterization of Sartre's view of ethics: that there are only the ethical values that each individual creates for him or her self. In fact, Sartre was far less nihilistic than this; sometimes advocating a kind of Kantian universalizability in ethics, and often supporting some kind of Marxist view with what hardly looks like nihilistic argument. But the topic of the ethical implications of Sartre's existentialism is a huge one, and not one we'll have time to take up here.


A final aspect of Sartre's approach worth touching upon is his position as an author of fiction --- an unusual role for an academic philosopher. Of course, many themes in Sartre's philosophy also receive some substantial treatment in his works of fiction. Perhaps the most notable example is his 1938 novel Nausea, which focuses centrally on the existential vertigo of confronting existence and its utter contingency. His short story "The Wall" is also a particularly good example of a work of fiction where the theme of the absurdity which comes from the utter contingency and accidental nature of our lives and deaths.

For someone with Sartre's philosophical views, it should not seem so unusual to work out some of his views in a literary form. There are a few natural reasons for this. One is that because existence precedes essence and all essences are thus transcendent, philosophical questions require their "dasein" or real embedding in the world to have their real meaning. Literature and biography allow for the consideration of these questions by characters in a real context, embedded in the world. Another reason is that the interplay between the for-itself and the in-itself is central to Sartre's thought, and literature allows for the examination from the perspective of a character, and the shifting of perspective from his to one outside him. Yet another reason is the actual utter contingency of the world in fiction. There is no reason that the world in a work of fiction is one way rather than another other than the whim of the author; in fiction not even apparent consistency in the world or our perception of it is required. This allows for the emphasizing of the parallel contingency and resultant absurdity which Sartre finds in the real world.

Transcendence Reiterated

I'd like to wrap up now with a couple of suggestions about how we might carry out further the consequences of a couple of Sartre's themes. It's at least interesting to think about whether he might have mis-applied some of his central ideas, or perhaps failed to carry them far enough. There are three topics I'd like to comment on here: the transcendent essence of the for-itself, the possible tempering of utter contingency, and the restricting of the idea of freedom and responsibility.

The transcendence of essence and the for-itself

First, then: If all essence is transcendent, then why not that of intentionality and the for-itself? The one domain in which Sartre seems to hold on to some kind of a priori conception is in the definition of consciousness --- that it can contain nothing, and that it must always be characterized in terms of what it is not (its pure intentionality) rather than anything intrinsic to it.

But why couldn't it turn out that the for-itself and intentionality be naturalistically characterizable? Once consciousness is "plunged back into the world" (as Sartre seems to require in The Transcendence of the Ego), why shouldn't there be what Husserl would have called a "science of the world" to deal with it and give us theories which denied the pure nothingness of consciousness? Perhaps a naturalistic psychology of the contents of consciousness could determine the transcendent essence of mind and consciousness. Sartre was himself extremely suspicious of scientific theorizing in general; but if we are somewhat hesitant to share that idiosyncrasy of his, we might look for the structure of the for-itself in a scientific psychology.

The restriction of contingency

This may in turn bear on the other two themes mentioned above. The point about the factual utter contingency of the way the world is, our own existence, and even how we see the world in some way are ones with which I have substantial empathy. But Sartre's further amplification might be one which we could reject. If the for-itself is conditioned by structures of the in itself --- so, for example, the structure of the visual system in the brain places preconditions on how I perceive the world --- then there may be a fairly strong sense in which we do not choose the way the world looks to us. There may, in addition, even be some reasons why the world looks to us the way it does, having to do with what organisms like us were selected for. As soon as the for-itself is placed back into the arena of the transcendent, questions of choice and reason may at least be ones which can be addressed in this framework.

The tempering of pure freedom

This brings us to the third question here, that of freedom. If what I said a minute ago is right, then there are restrictions on our freedom to see the world (and in that sense, make the world) any way we choose. But another consequence of the transcendent nature of the for-itself might be that freedom to act is also conditioned by the world. If the for-itself is itself "plunged back into the world", all the traditional problems about human freedom (e.g. free will and determinism, etc.) may come back to haunt us.

To avoid this, Sartre must reject the idea that the for-itself could possibly be examined from the standpoint of seeing it as conditioned by or a part of the in-itself. But seeing the for-itself from that perspective is exactly what his arguments for the transcendence of all essence seem to suggest we must do.