"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
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."
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.
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.