University of St Martin - Fall, 2006 - PHIL232

Wednesday, Nov 15 - Existentialism

Midterm Essay
Monday, Sept. 4 - What is philosophy?
Wednesday, Sept. 6 - Aristotle (1)
Monday, Sept. 11 - Aristotle (2)
Wednesday, Sept. 13 - Aristotle (3)
Monday, Sept. 18 - Nietzsche (1)
Wednesday, Sept. 20 - Nietzsche (2)
Monday, Sept. 26 - Abortion (1)
Wednesday, Sept. 28 - Abortion (2)
Excursus 1: Historical overview
Excursus 2: Abortion in Judaism and Christianity
Excursus 3: Abortion in Islam
Excursus 4: Pro-choice argument
Monday, Oct. 2 - Suicide (1)
Wednesday, Oct 4 - Revision
Monday, Oct 16 - Suicide (2)
Wednesday, Oct 18 - Paradigm shifts
Monday, Oct 23 - Brave New World (1)
Wednesday, Oct 25 - Philosophical Anthropology (1)
Monday, Oct 30 - Sexual History of the USA
Wednesday, Nov 1 - Philosophical Anthropology (2)
Monday, Nov 6 - Race, death, tragedy, and bad faith
Wednesday, Nov 8 - Race, Biology, and Culture
Monday, Nov 13 - Racism and culture
Wednesday, Nov 15 - Existentialism
Monday, Nov 20 - Political Obligation, Moral Duty, and Punishment
Wednesday, Nov 22 - Kant and Moral Obligation
Monday, Nov 27 - War and Peace
Wednesday, Nov 29 - Non-Western Philosophies (1)
Monday, Dec 4 - Non-Western Philosophies (2)
Wednesday, Dec 6 - The End
Final Paper

"I am standing on the platform of the tram and I am entirely uncertain as to my place in this world, in this town, in my family. Not even approximately could I state what claims I might justifiably advance in any direction. I am quite unable to defend the fact that I am standing on this platform, holding this strap, letting myself be carried along by this tram, and that people are getting out of the tram’s way or walking along quietly or pausing in front of the shop windows. – Not that anyone asks me to, but that is immaterial."

-Franz Kafka - from The Passenger - 1908



Jean Paul Sartre


Biographical info

Sartre (1905-1980) is arguably the best known philosopher of the twentieth century. His indefatigable pursuit of philosophical reflection, literary creativity and, in the second half of his life, active political commitment gained him worldwide renown, if not an admiration. He is commonly considered the father of Existentialist philosophy, whose writings set the tone for intellectual life in the decade immediately following the Second World War. Among the many ironies that permeate his life, not the least is the immense popularity of his scandalous public lecture "Existentialism and Humanism," delivered to an enthusiastic Parisian crowd October 28, 1945. Though taken as a quasi manifesto for the Existentialist movement, the transcript of this lecture was the only publication that Sartre openly regretted seeing in print. And yet it continues to be the major introduction to his philosophy for the general public. One of the reasons both for its popularity and for his discomfort is the clarity with which it exhibits the major tenets of existentialist thought while revealing Sartre's attempt to broaden its social application in response to his Communist and Catholic critics. In other words, it offers us a glimpse of Sartre's thought "on the wing."


Metaphysical ideas

On the other hand, he subtitles Being and Nothingness a "Phenomenological Ontology." Its descriptive method moves from the most abstract to the highly concrete. It begins by analyzing two distinct and irreducible categories or kinds of being: the in-itself (en-soi) and the for-itself (pour-soi), roughly the non-conscious and consciousness respectively, adding a third, the for-others (pour-autrui), later in the book, and concludes with a sketch of the practice of "existential psychoanalysis" that interprets our actions to uncover the fundamental project that unifies our lives.

Being-in-itself and being-for-itself have mutually exclusive characteristics and yet we (human reality) are entities that combine both, which is the ontological root of our ambiguity. The in-itself is solid, self-identical, passive and inert. It simply "is." The for-itself is fluid, non-self-identical, and dynamic. It is the internal negation or "nihilation" of the in-itself, on which it depends. Viewed more concretely, this duality is cast as "facticity" and "transcendence." The "givens" of our situation such as our language, our environment, our previous choices and our very selves in their function as in-itself constitute our facticity. As conscious individuals, we transcend (surpass) this facticity in what constitutes our "situation." In other words, we are always beings "in situation," but the precise mixture of transcendence and facticity that forms any situation remains indeterminable, at least while we are engaged in it. Hence Sartre concludes that we are always "more" than our situation and that this is the ontological foundation of our freedom. We are "condemned" to be free, in his hyperbolic phrase.

One can see why Sartre is often described as a Cartesian dualist but this is imprecise. Whatever dualism pervades his thought is one of spontaneity/inertia. His is not a "two substance" ontology like the thinking thing and the extended thing (mind and matter)of Descartes. Only the in-itself is conceivable as substance or "thing." The for-itself is a no-thing, the internal negation of things. The principle of identity holds only for being-in-itself. The for-itself is an exception to this rule. Accordingly, time with all of its paradoxes is a function of the for-itself's nihilating or "othering" the in-itself. The past is related to the future as in-itself to for-itself and as facticity to possibility, with the present, like "situation" in general, being an ambiguous mixture of both. This is Sartre's version of Heidegger's "Ekstatic temporality," the qualitative "lived" time of our concerns and practices, the time that rushes by or hangs heavy on our hands, rather than the quantitative "clock" time that we share with physical nature.

The category or ontological principle of the for-others comes into play as soon as the other subject or Other appears on the scene. The Other cannot be deduced from the two previous principles but must be encountered. Sartre's famous analysis of the shame one experiences at being discovered in an embarrassing situation is a phenomenological argument (what Husserl called an "eidetic reduction") of our awareness of another as subject. It carries the immediacy and the certainty that philosophers demand of our perception of other "minds" without suffering the weakness of arguments from analogy commonly used by empiricists to defend such knowledge.

The roles of consciousness and the in-itself in his earlier work are assumed by "praxis" (human activity in its material context) and the "practico-inert" respectively in the Critique of Dialectical Reason. Praxis is dialectical in the Hegelian sense that it surpasses and subsumes its other, the practico-inert. The latter, like the in-itself, is inert but as "practico-" is the sedimentation of previous praxes. Thus speech acts would be examples of praxis but language would be practico-inert; social institutions are practico-inert but the actions they both foster and limit are praxes.

The Other in Being and Nothingness alienates or objectifies us (in this work Sartre seems to use these terms equivalently) and the third party is simply this Other writ large. The "us" is objectified by an Other and hence has the ontological status of being-in-itself but the collective subject or "we," he insists, is simply a psychological experience. In the Critique another ontological form appears, the "mediating" third, that denotes the group member as such and yields a collective subject without reducing the respective agents to mere ciphers of some collective consciousness. In other words, Sartre accords an ontological primacy to individual praxis while recognizing its enrichment as group member of a praxis that sustains predicates such as command/obedience and right/duty that are properly its own. The concepts of praxis, practico-inert and mediating third form the basis of a social ontology that merits closer attention than the prolix Critique encourages.


Ethical ideas

Sartre was a moralist but scarcely a moralizer. His earliest studies, though phenomenological, underscored the freedom and by implication the responsibility of the agent of phenomenological method. Thus his first major work, Transcendence of the Ego, in addition to constituting an argument against the transcendental ego (the epistemological subject that cannot be an object) central to German idealism and Hussserlian phenomenology, introduces an ethical dimension into what was traditionally an epistemological project by asserting that this appeal to a transcendental ego conceals a conscious flight from freedom. The phenomenological reduction that constitutes the objects of consciousness as pure meanings or significations devoid of the existential claims that render them liable to skeptical doubt-such a reduction or "bracketing of the being question" carries a moral significance as well. The "authentic" subject, as Sartre will later explain in his Notebooks for an Ethics, will learn to live without an ego, whether transcendental or empirical, in the sense that the transcendental ego is superfluous and the empirical ego (of scientific psychology) is an object for consciousness when it reflects on itself. We are responsible for our egos as we are for any object of consciousness. Sartre's subsequent works takes pains either to ascribe moral responsibility to agents individually or collectively or to set the ontological foundations for such ascriptions.

It is now common to distinguish three distinct ethical positions in Sartre's writings. The first and best known, existentialist ethics is one of disalienation and authenticity. It assumes that we live in a society of oppression and exploitation. The former is primary and personal, the latter structural and impersonal. While he enters into extended polemics in various essays and journal articles of the late 1940s and ‘50s concerning the systematic explanation of people in capitalist and colonialist institutions, Sartre always sought a way to bring the responsibility home to individuals who could in principle be named. As Merleau-Ponty observed, Sartre stressed oppression over exploitation, individual moral responsibility over structural causation but without denying the importance of the latter. In fact, as his concept of freedom thickened from the ontological to the social and historical in the mid ‘40s, his appreciation of the influence of factical conditions in the exercise of freedom grew apace.

Sartre's concept of authenticity, occasionally cited as the only existentialist "virtue," is often criticized as denoting more a style than a content. Admittedly, it does seem compatible with a wide variety of life choices. Its foundation, again, is ontological-the basic ambiguity of human reality that "is what it is not" (that is, its future as possibility) and "is not what it is" (its past as facticity, including its ego or self, to which we have seen it is related via an internal negation). We could say that authenticity is fundamentally living this ontological truth of one's situation, namely, that one is never identical with one's current state but remains responsible sustaining it. Thus, the claim "that's just the way I am" would constitute a form of self-deception or bad faith as would all forms of determinism, since both instances involve lying to oneself about the ontological fact of one's nonself-coincidence and the flight from concomitant responsibility for "choosing" to remain that way.

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 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.

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. Sartre's thesis is that freedom is the implicit object of any choice, a claim he makes but does not adequately defend in his Humanism lecture.

Though critical of its bourgeois variety, Sartre does support an existentialist humanism the motto of which could well be his remark that "you can always make something out of what you've been made into." In fact, his entire career could be summarized in these words that carry an ethical as well as a critical message. The first part of his professional life focused on the freedom of the existential individual (you can always make something out of…); the second concentrated on the socioeconomic and historical conditions which limited and modified that freedom (what you've been made into), once freedom ceased to be merely the definition of "man" and included the possibility of genuine options in concrete situations. That phase corresponded to Sartre's political commitment and active involvement in public debates, always in search of the exploitative "systems" such as capitalism, colonialism and racism at work in society and the oppressive practices of individuals who sustained them. As he grew more cognizant of the social dimension of individual life, the political and the ethical tended to coalesce. In fact, he explicitly rejected "Machiavellianism."

If Sartre's first and best known ethics corresponds to the ontology of Being and Nothingness, his second, "dialectical" ethics builds on the philosophy of history developed in the Critique of Dialectical Reason. In a series of unpublished notes for lectures in the 1960s, some of which were never delivered, Sartre sketched a theory of ethics based on the concepts of human need and the ideal of "integral man" in contrast with its counter-concept, the "subhuman."What this adds to his published ethics is a more specific content and a keener sense of the social conditions for living a properly human life.

Sartre's third attempt at an ethics, which he called an ethics of the "we," was undertaken in interview format with Benny LÚvy toward the end of his life. It purports to question many of the main propositions of his ethics of authenticity, yet what has appeared in print chiefly elaborates claims already stated in his earlier works. But since the tapes on which these remarks were recorded are unavailable to the public and Sartre's illness at the time they were made was serious, their authority as revisionary of his general philosophy remains doubtful. If ever released in its entirety, this text will constitute a serious hermeneutical challenge.




Retrieved on 7th Nov. 2006

To think about       

"Any society that values creativity also needs to enable criticism. If we cannot question the way we are doing things and thinking about things at present, it will not occur to us that they could be thought of or done differently. (...) So philosophy is important partly because cultural criticism is so important."

CHRISTENSON, Tom (2001). Wonder and Critical Reflection. An invitation to Philosophy, p. 37. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc.


This page was updated on Nov 21, 2006
at 10.00 PM St Martin Time (-4 UT)