Lectures: Sartre

Lectures: Sartre


I. Philosophy in the 18th and 19th Centuries

A. In England and France, after the mid 18th century, the focus was not so much on metaphysics and epistemology, but ethics and political philosophy

  • France: Voltaire (1694-1778), Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)
  • England: Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) (not to mention the earlier work of Locke and Hume, etc.)

B. Germany became the focal point of metaphysics and epistemology

1. This is especially due to the work of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), perhaps the most important philosopher since Descartes

  • Kant’s philosophy, called transcendental idealism, can be seen as a synthesis of the empiricsm of people like Berkeley and Hume and the rationalism of people like Descartes and Leibniz
  • Distinction between two realms of reality: the phenomenal realm = the empirical realm of experience, and the noumenal realm = the realm of “things in themselves”
  • Kant thought that we only really had knowledge of the phenomenal realm, we know its “real”, although it is dependent on the mind
  • But this leaves open the possibility that there may exist things independent of our mind somehow corresponding to these things. We can’t prove that there is, and we don’t know that there is, but we often will make the assumption that there is in order to “ground” religion and ethics

2. Followers of Kant form of movement called “German Idealism”

  • Includes: Arthur Schopenhauer (1786-1860), G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831)
  • Karl Marx (1818-1883): not an idealist, but influenced by Hegel (so, no, England and France didn’t have all the important political philosophers)

II. The Road to Existentialism

A. Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), danish philosopher

  • Focused heavily on the experience of faith
  • Came to the conclusion that belief in God could not be based on reason, the claims are religion are ultimately absurd
  • But we must choose to believe something in life; living a life of atheism just as or more absurd
  • Leap of Faith: We believe not because of reason, but because we just choose to
  • The book Fear and Trembling, explores the meaning of Abraham and Isaac story, and the limitations and irrationality of faith
  • Existentialist themes: focus on absurdity of certain lifestyles and belief systems, the necessity of our choosing who we want to be without reason as a guide, individual choice, giving life our own meaning, total engagement in a project we decide upon

B. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), German/Swiss philosopher

  • belief system focused on the awareness that God does not exist (explain real meaning of “God is dead”)
  • ethics is a human creation and should serve human needs
  • Christian ethics is used destructively: represses our instincts, keeps us from the pleasures of the body, makes us focus on an otherworldly existence rather than on becoming the best sort of people we can on earth
  • Advocated a new sort of morality based on individual excellence and the Übermensch
  • Existentialist themes: the awareness of God’s nonexistence, ethical conflict, individuality, the central role of humanity

C. The birth of phenomenology under Czech-German philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859-1938)

  • phenomenology = the study of the essential structures of conscious experience
  • Very Cartesian: throw away every day belief in nature of reality around us and just focus on what’s going on in our experience, certain thoughts, certain sensations, certain ideas
  • But unlike Descartes, Husserl didn’t want rush to prove that our experience means exactly what we used to think it meant. Let’s just study experience as experience, and understand how it’s structured, and what the important features of it are.
  • Focus on the subject/object relation
  • Still even when focusing on the object, Husserl focused on the object as object of consciousness, not as something existing outside experience
  • Claimed he wasn’t doing ontology or metaphysics, wanted to remain neutral about the existence/reality of anything outside our experience

D. Martin Heidegger (1889-1978): existential phenomenology

  • arguably the first genuine existentialist, certainly one of the most important philosophers of the century
  • student of Husserl, although he ended up working with the Nazis and denouncing his old teacher
  • ironically, his most important work Being and Time (1927) was dedicated to Husserl
  • agreed with Husserl on importance of phenomenology, but unlike Husserl insisted that to do phenomenology was the same as doing ontology or metaphysics. What things really are can be understood only in relation to how they are experienced by things that experience them.
  • called human existence Dasein, or “being there”, who exhibit Being-in-the-world. Central ontological concept.
  • The world must be understood in relation to Dasein’s experience of it. The world is Dasein’s “there”. It is what surrounds us and makes up our experiences. IMPORTANT: To understand the world is not to understand it merely in terms of material objects around us. Our “there” is more than our physical there. It also includes the constellation of roles, expectations, hopes, desires, fears, emotions, relations to others, concerns, etc., which shapes the character of experience from moment to moment.
  • Even “objects” must be understood in relation to Dasein. It’s a metaphysical mistake only to think of a hammer in terms of it’s outward “qualities” or “properties” the way that Berkeley might. What’s most important metaphsycially about hammer is not its shape and size and solidity. What’s important about a hammer is how it fits into Dasein’s “world”—it is a tool, it has a use. In that sense, it is like an extension of us, something “ready-to-hand”. Only when the head of the hammer comes off do we think of it in terms of its physical presence, or it’s being as “present-at-hand”
  • We’ll be talking more about Heidegger on and off. Sartre’s philosophy is basically Heideggerian.

D. Other figures (Many of them literary): Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Jaspers, Marcel, Camus, Merleu-Ponty, Ricoeur, De Beauvoir, etc.

III. Sartre’s Life

  • Born in 1905 in Paris, where he lived most of his life
  • Studied at the École Normale Superieure in the late 20’s, where he met Simone de Beauvoir, his long time companion and lover (We’ll be talking a lot more about her in a few weeks)
  • In the early 1930’s, he travelled to Germany where he studied with Husserl and Heidegger, where he basically became convinced of much of Heidegger’s philosophy
  • Returned to France, worked as a professor, wrote his Masterpiece Being and Nothingness in the late 30’s and early 40’s. 
  • Joined the French army later during WW2, eventually became a prisoner of war
  • Released; joined the French resistence, worked as Newspaper editor
  • Rest of his life devoted to editing Newspapers and writing
  • Turned down the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964
  • Always remained very active politically, called himself a Marxist more and more, especially towards the end of his life, although he was always suspicious of Russia and the French Communist Party
  • Died in 1980 after years of blindness

IV. The book

Your text, Existentialism and Human Emotions, can be seen as divided into two parts, one long essay and bunch of smaller pieces at the end. The longer essay entitled just “Existentialism” in book is actually a translation of an essay Sartre wrote in 1947 originally published as “Existentialism is a Humanism”. The remainings parts are excerpts from Being and Nothingness , Sartre’s masterpiece, written in the early 40’s.

You’ll probably find the stuff towards the end of the book more difficult to read. Being and Nothingness was meant as a very technical exposition of a very complex and interwoven philosophical system, and it was not meant to be understood by someone who was not already familiar with the work of people like Husserl and Heidegger. The first essay however was an attempt to explain existentialism to a wider audience and to try to clear up some misconceptions that the general public had about it. Hopefully it will be easier, if not altogether easy, to read. In it, Sartre is mainly concerned with countering some objections to existentialism. We’ll get around to talking about them, but first I want to get some aspects of Sartre’s basic view on the table.

V. The Basics of Sartre’s Ontology and the Definition of Existentialism

A. Cartesian starting point

  • Sartre shares with Heidegger and Husserl their “Cartesian starting point” the idea that the central organizing concept in philosophy should be consciousness
  • Also saw himself as doing phenomenology, a study or analysis of the basic structures of experience
  • Shared with Heidegger the idea that traditional metaphysics was impoverished by leaving out the full range of our experiences of the “world” around us
  • Wanted to focus more on human situations, the concerns of human living, emotions, values and the like
  • “Every truth and every action implies a human setting and a human subjectivity” (p. 10)

B. The difference between being-in-itself (être-en-soi) and being-for-itself (être-pour-soi)

These are the two major kinds of things in Sartre’s metaphysics. The difference between the two is explained in temporal terms.

1. For being-in-itself, “essence precedes existence”

  • Take something like a chair or, to use Sartre’s example, a paper cutter.
  • These are things that we designed to be what they are. Someone decided to make something, and formed an idea of what that something should be.
  • Let’s suppose that some person decided to make this chair. She first decided what she wanted to make. From that very moment the “what-the-chair-is”, the essence of the chair was determined even before she actually made it and brought it into existence.
  • By the time the chair exists, it already is everything it is going to be, its existence is complete and self-contained; it is already a something
  • The essence of being-in-itself is set by the past

2. Sartre argues that people like Descartes must think of humans this way

  • Descartes thinks that people are the creations of God and that we have a determinate essence pre-set by God
  • Thus when we come into existence we must already be what we are; our essence must precede our existence
  • There is a set universal human nature we all represent
  • Who and what we are is already determined before our birth by God’s will

3. Sartre suggests that the definition of an existentialist is someone who believes on the contrary that for humans, “existence precedes essence”—this is what it is to constitute being-for-itself

  • The human mind just finds itself in a certain situation, that is, its finds itself existing
  • But what the human mind is is of its own choosing
  • The mind is consciousness, but consciousness is a “nothingness”, a room/space/void for other things to enter
  • Consciousness is not itself a something. It is not complete and self-contained the way that being-in-itself is… we are always conscious of something else.
  • We are conscious of a certain fact, of a certain emotion, of a certain object, of a certain desire, of a certain value, etc.
  • By making choices with regard to how to direct our consciousness, we define and determine the nature of our consciousness, and thus the nature of our reality

4.Being-for-itself is a particular way of being in time, a way of having an essence in which what we are is determined by our future, by “hurling ourselves” into or imagining oursleves in the future

  • humans are free to choose what we are
  • but we must understand this in terms of the totality of choices we make and the totality of ways in which we direct our consciousness over time
  • Each of us has a plan of being, a pattern of choosing into which all our day-to-day choices and desires and values fit
  • Consider how much of who you are and what you do is determined by the sorts of long-term goals you have. Why are you sitting in this class? Different reasons, for most, to get a college degree? Why a college degree? To get a job? Why a job? Think about how everything you do fits into your individual plan of life, a pattern of choosing and imagining yourself in your future.
  • Sartre suggests that what you are, your essence, resides in your relationship towards this pattern of choosing.
  • Each of us must determine our own plan, our own project
  • Sartre calls this our “original project”, “original plan”, “original choice” or “fundamental project”, etc.
  • Our being is always directed into the future and ultimately towards death—the milestone that completes the pattern of our existence. The contradiction of our existence as for-itself is that our essence only becomes complete when our existence is no more.

VI. Modes of Being

A. Preliminary Remarks

  • Sartre sees himself as doing phenomenology—that is, as studying the essential structures of conscious experience.
  • There are certain characteristic features or modes of experience that in some structure all the rest, according to the existentialist.
  • These are given the name of certain emotions, and this is no accident. However, they are not meant to refer to merely the same thing as the emotion. They are meant to refer to modes of being, or ways of relating to existence.

B. Basic definitions

  • Anguish = the awareness of our own freedom
  • Forlornness = the awareness of God’s nonexistence
  • Despair = the awareness that we cannot control the actions of others
  • Shame = the awareness of being objects of experience by others

C. Anguish (also translated as “Anxiety” or “Angst”)

  • We are aware of ourselves as being freely choosing beings
  • Certain moments when this especially true: cliff case; driving case; naked in classroom case
  • As good phenomenologists, we cannot deny our own freedom
  • Freedom is also a burden; it is in some sense a terrible freedom
  • Nothing beforehand can tell us how to choose or take the responsibility away from us
  • Every choice equally arbitrary and equally absurd
  • We have a strong desire for there to be rules or guidelines telling us what to do; or better, we want to automatically do the “right thing”
  • The desire to be God = “The desire to be in-itself-for-itself”. We want at the same time to be freely choosing, self-directing, have a conception of our own future, etc., but also want to have no uncertainty, no fallibility, to respond automatically in the right way, just like God. (Remarks about being a “machine”, etc.)
  • Combine this with forlornness, we realize that this is impossible, there is not a right thing. Things are only good or bad because we choose them.
  • Combine this with shame, and we realize that when we act we are conferring value on something for all people, we are exemplifying how we want others to ask
  • Terrible burden of the freedom of choosing for all people
  • Can’t get rid of it. Hear angels = have to choose to believe them. Ask someone else = have to decide whom to ask and to accept what he/she says.

D. Forlornness (also translated as “abandonment”)

  • God does not exist. This makes a difference.
  • Nothing is good a priori
  • Other ethicists try to pretend that they can have absolute good without God. The existentialist does not believe this.
  • No one else is responsible for who we are. We are alone, with no excuses and no justification for our actions.
  • Can’t even let feelings be our guide, because they have to be interpreted and weighed

E. Despair

  • Even though we feel as if we are choosing for all people; we are aware that others are free and independent; we can never be sure of our actions
  • With others, we have only probabilities, never certainties
  • Must concern yourself primarily with your own possibilities
  • Limit yourself to what you know
  • Does that lead to Quietism? No.
  • I’m going to do everything I can to bring something about… I have my own projects which do involve others. (I can’t help that.)
  • I’m not going to sit at home and let others do what I cannot. That’s ignoring despair.
  • We are nothing other than our plan.

F. Shame

  • “The Other”—as part of our subjective experience, we experience others. The general form of our experience of others… our awareness of other people as other minds is our awareness of “The Other”
  • We are constantly aware of ourselves as objects for the Other
  • Keyhole example; Jealousy example
  • Need to have others in order to recognize truth about self… only jealous, nasty, etc. ,if the Other recognizes you as such
  • We are free to make of ourselves what we will, but always alongside the Other in a form shaped by what the Other thinks

VII. Bad Faith

  • Anguish, Despair, Forlornness and the like are all intrinsic parts of all our experiences
  • What if I say that I don’t feel one of them? Or that there are times in which they are not present?
  • It’s possible to mask our anguish, to “flee from it”, to shove it out of our consciousness
  • Example: Abraham case, Student case
  • Not avoiding choice, not avoiding anguish. Even if we pretend to ourselves that we “had” to do what we did because of God’s command (genetics, environment, etc.) none of this is really true; we cannot avoid free choice
  • We can either accept freedom, and make choices with the absurdity of each choice in mind or we can try to pretend that the choice is not totally free.
  • To do the former is to live authentically.
  • To pretend as if there is no choice, that we could not help being in the situation we are, to blame it on environment or genetics is to live in bad faith.
  • You can live in bad faith by not taking responsibility for actions, by pretending as if your actions are the result of genetics or environment or human nature or the actions of others, etc., by acting not as if you are choosing for all people, etc., by pretending God exists and prescribes what is right and what is wrong.
  • Is there anything bad about living in bad faith? Not absolutely. There are no moral absolutes. Nothing is moral or immoral except relative to a certain person’s choices. Can I choose to live in bad faith? Wouldn’t that then be good for me?
  • Sartre’s response: There’s nothing stopping you from deciding that ignoring your forlornness and anguish, etc., is right. But it is nevertheless a form of self-deception or dishonesty, and that’s what I’m going to call it. If you want to live in a state of self-deception or dishonesty, you can, but that’s what it is nonetheless.

VIII. Objections Raised Against Existentialism

A. Quietism

  • Given despair, we have no guarantee that we can make things better
  • In fact, there is no absolute “better”, there is no ultimate good worth striving for
  • Wouldn’t that lead to quietism (= nonaction)?
  • Sartre’s response: Quietism is itself a form of ignoring despair. It says “Let others do what I cannot.”
  • Existentialism says that we are our plan, we are what we make of ourselves. In other words, we are our actions.
  • Existentialism calls for engagement with a plan of our own choosing. It would only lead to quietism if our plan were to do nothing. Why would we choose that as a plan?

B. Isolation

  • Given the starting point of I think, therefore I am, doesn’t existentialism lead to isolation?
  • Sartre: not for bourgeois reasons, not out of self-interested. Rather, because they are interested in the truth, and this is the foundational principle on the way to truth.
  • Existentialit phenomenology discovers not only the self, but others… through the Other
  • Always aware of myself as being in the presence of others (Despair, Shame)
  • Can’t make sense of my own mind, my own experiences, my own self independently of others
  • Cannot be anything unless others recognize me as such
  • It’s true that existentialism denies a universal human nature that controls what we do. But there is a universal human condition: limited to subjectivity, to having to choose, to make a plan. Objective because each of us does it. Subjective because we each live it individually.

C. Leads to Pure Caprice

  • Because existentialism denies a priori values and says that every choice is equally absurd, it seems to say that people can do whatever they want, no matter what, and that there is no basis to pass judgments on others
  • What about the Nazis? Can Sartre say they were wrong? Can he pass judgment?
  • But they can: Can point out when someone is living in bad faith/ deceiving him or herself by saying that it wasn’t a free choice, by not involving all of humanity, by not taking responsibility
  • Comparison to work of art: Given an individual’s project and whole series of actions and choices, some are more fitting than others. Nothing is right a priori, but some things are more right than others given the the larger scheme of our individual plan.
  • Picasso analogy
  • Some choices based on error, some on truth
  • Some value to freedom. Sartre himself declares that freedom, insofar as it what makes choice possible, is the ground for all values. It’s always dishonest not to have freedom as a value, because that would involve freely choosing against freedom. If I want freedom for myself, I must want freedom for others.
  • Still, this provides only a vague sort of ethics. It cannot make concrete decisions for us. That’s up to us.
  • Further charge: exisentialism doesn’t take values seriously, since we choose our own?
  • Sartre: that’s just the way it is. No way around it.

D. Anti-Humanism

  • According to existentialism, humans are not made in God’s imagine, nor can they be said to be good by nature because there is no human nature
  • Doesn’t that make it anti-humanist, doesn’t that make it deny the dignity of humans?
  • Sartre: humanism has two meanings, (1) humanity overall is amazing and lives up to the highest sort of absolute value, (2) humanity is at the center of existence, humans make of themselves what they will.
  • (1) is absurd. There can be no judgment about humans overall.
  • (2) is the heart of existentialism. All ethics, all value are made by humans and can be made for humans
  • Compare this to other philosophies, that reduce humans to being-in-itself

IX. Consciousness as Nothingness

  • The title of the book we’re now reading excerpts from is Being and Nothingness, which refers to the in-itself and the for-itself respectively
  • In what way is for-itself a nothingness? The for-itself is the conscious mind.
  • Consciousness is always consciousness of something else. There is no such thing as pure consciousness.
  • The for-itself is therefore like a space to be filled. By itself it is nothing; it is a void.
  • Therefore, consciousness must always be understood with respect to what it is consciousness of
  • The constellation of things that I am conscious of is “my world”. (being-in-the-world). Remember that this includes not only the physical objects in my environment, but everything that might enter into my consciousness (values, desires, etc.)
  • For Sartre, this is all connected with freedom. Because the in-itself is not a nothingness, it already is everything it is by itself, it cannot be free. It has only one possibility of being.
  • We, on the other hand, because we are a space to be filled, have many possibilities of being, insofar as our worlds may be characterized in many ways.
  • Very different from traditional ontology. They say things as substances… individually existing things. For Sartre, one can’t understand consciousness without its world, or for that matter, the things in the world without the role they play in consciousness. Nothing is independent. There are no substances in the old sense.

X. Consciousness in a Situation

  • Again, there is never simply pure consciousness
  • Therefore, from moment to moment, consciousness always finds itself within a world or within a situation
  • My situation is me. I am not separate from my situation, any more than consciousness is separate from what it is conscious of.
  • War example: if I am in a war,I am that war. It is inconceivable to imagine me in a different situation.
  • My situation as a “thrown project”. I am thrown into a situation. There are aspects of it that I didn’t choose, to be sure. I didn’t choose to be born. This is called facticity.
  • Sartre never focuses on facticity, and thinks it is in bad faith to constantly stress that side of the coin.
  • For him, that I am thrown into a certain situation is just what shapes my possibilities-for-being, that is, it shapes what choices I have, and how I can respond to the situation I find myself in.
  • The situation is always mine. Aspects of it may be beyond my control, but how I react to it, the values I place on things, the desire I have, what I see as important, whether I struggle against it—these are all parts of my situation that I shape. Every situation is mine.
  • It is in this sense that I actually choose to be born. I can always get out of it my suicide, etc. If I am in a war, I choose that war by accepting it or not accepting it, etc.
  • Responsibility = “consciousness of being the onconestable author of an event or of an object”. To be authentic is to accept responsibility for myself and my being in a situation.
  • Facticity shapes freedom. Freedom shapes facticity. It limits my possibilities of being from which I choose myself.

XI. For-itself and Value

  • Ontology can tell us some things about value. It can tell us where value comes from (the choices of the for-itself) and that valuation is inevitable (The for-itself must always choose certain values.)
  • Other things ontology cannot tell us: what values to have, what is valuable in a certain situation.
  • The spirit of seriousness denies this. It says that values exist independent of human choice and attitude.
  • This must be repudiated. It is an attempt to be free of anguish.

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