Sartre is the ultimate existentialist. He named the movement and when people talk about existentialism it’s usually Sartre’s philosophy they have in mind. Emphasis on freedom and choice and responsibility are the center of Satrean philosophy. (These are not central for Nietzsche or Heidegger. They are problematic.)
The title of Solomon’s lecture comes from Sartres idea of “No Excuses” and is based on the idea that one is always responsible.
Sartre denounced his fellow Frenchmen for their cowardice, their collaboration, cooperation, etc. He questioned their choices and motives. If you want to understand human nature, you have to look at humans under stress and so he watched his fellow citizens while being occupied during one of the most brutal wars in history.
What he noticed is that their answers all came out as excuses:
- What can I do? Impotence.
- I didn’t start the war. Innocence.
- Everyone else is doing it. The herd instinct.
- I’m just looking out for myself. Self-preservation.
- I had no choice. Helplessness.
- I was afraid. The appeal to emotion.
We are absolutely free, so we don’t have any excuses. We are responsible for what it is we do. We aren’t free in the sense that we can choose anything we want to do – but that we always have choices.
Absolute freedom is the absence of ultimate constraints. It is our responsibility to recognize our choices even in the most limited circumstances. We are always responsible for what we make of what is made of ourselves. Also, we are not caused to behave by our emotions or motives, but rather emotions and motives are part of the situation in which we choose what to do. We have a picture of emotion being inside us but intruding upon our rationality. We say, I didn’t really mean it. I was just very angry. But you know that what you said was not just a product of anger, but a deep and cutting insight about something you really feel. There is a sense in which the anger is a choice. When we get angry, we make a decision. We feel that flush and we have to decide – do we keep our mouth shut or act on it?
We are as responsible for what it is we do as well as what it is we don’t do. We make choices to the exclusion of other choices we simply choose not to think about. We are not just responsible for deliberate choices, we are responsible for choices made out of default, or out of neglect. No excuses.
Emotions are choices; they involve alternatives and options; and they involve purposiveness. They are “magical transformations of the world.” He wants to move away from the idea that emotions are bodily upsets of physiological intrusions. They are our responsibility and not a source of excuse.
William James, an American Philosopher, wrote an essay called “What is an Emotion?” in 1884. He said an emotion is an upsetting perception which causes in us a physiological disturbance. This perception of the physiological upset IS the emotion. Sartre says James ignores two important features of emotion. 1) Emotions are necessarily intentional. 2) Emotions are always about something. You can’t just be angry, you have to be angry about something. You can’t just be afraid, you have to be afraid of something. All emotions are intentional in that they are always about something. They can’t be mere sensations or feelings because sensations and feelings aren’t about anything. A headache is not about anything. It might be caused by something, like your mother in-law coming to visit. But your mother in-law didn’t cause the headache. A pain in your toe might be because you stepped on a nail. But the pain is not about the nail. But we are sad or joyful or depressed or angry about something.
Emotions have finality. Emotions are purposive. This is a bold thesis because we typically think of emotions caused in us and if they have a purpose, they aren’t our purpose. An emotion is a strategy, a way of dealing with the world. It is chosen and chosen with a purpose for a reason.
There is a story that comes from Aesop called "Fox and the Grapes" that explains this. A fox sees some yummy, delicious grapes and craves them. But with all of his ingenuity, he can’t reach them. So he says, they are probably sour anyway. What Sartre says is that the fox has made a magical transformation of the world. The grapes haven’t changed. But the fox has changed his attitude – he comes to see them as sour. What has changed isn’t the world. What is changed is the fox’s way of seeing the world. This makes sense from a phenomenological point of view. But what about the magical? The fox refuses to accept himself as a failure. He refuses to see himself as up to the difficulty of getting the grapes. He’s not willing to expend anymore energy on a wasted project. This is using emotions to escape from the world. Emotions are a mode of escape behavior. We have our emotions not because they are caused in us. We have them because they are a way to deal with the world so that we can see ourselves as better off than we would otherwise be.
Sartre rejects Freud’s idea of the unconscious. Unconscious mental events are not just unconscious, but those that cannot be made conscious. They are repressed. Sartre also rejects Freud’s idea of psychic determinism. Sartre thinks they are strategies rather than forces within us as Freud says they are.
Part of the magical transformation of the world is the transformation of the body. For instance, fear could be seen as “getting ready to flee” and the bodily sensations follow from the emotion and are not causes of it.
By separating the discussion into two terms, consciousness on the one hand and the world on the other, Sartre puts himself in the French tradition in which he was raised (Cartesianism). But he had read Heidegger and was convinced by the argument that there is nothing to distinguish consciousness and the world at all.
Sartre says consciousness is freedom. Freedom is consciousness. Responsibility is the idea that we are the incontestable author of our actions. Consciousness is nothingness. Consciousness is intentionality. It is always about things. We don’t have to look at it as a transcendental ego. We can look at it as an activity. It’s like looking around a room with a flashlight. Consciousness is the beam of the flashlight without the flahslight. It is nothing but an awareness of things in this world. Consciousness is outside of the causal relations of the world. Kant says that consciousness imposes causal categories on the world. It is by seeing the world in a certain way that we see things in terms of cause and effect relationships. But when we examine ourselves, that is not how we see ourselves. Consciousness is not an object of consciousness. Consciousness is not a thing.
The idea of Spontaneity allows Sartre to carve out a middle range between indeterminism and determinism. Much of what we do is pre-reflective. We don’t think about it, we just do it. Consciousness acts and it acts without prior causality.
Sartre eventually gives up the idea that all emotions are a mode of escape behavior. Emotions are still not causes of behavior, but they are spontaneous outpourings of consciousness in which one takes the world in a certain way. Not emotions in consciousness, but emotions as ways of structuring consciousness as one way among many.
Consciousness has the power of negation. What I see is always more than what I see. When we see, we are never passive receivers. Consciousness is an activity not only of receiving, but also of shaping. Desire isn’t just seeing the world. It’s seeing the world in terms of what it is we want. We see things in terms of what we can do with them and how they fit in our plans. Consciousness is also able to perceive lack. If we are expecting our friend at the bar, we notice our friend isn’t there. We construe it in terms of what’s not there.
Sartre tries to focus on the key, essential experiences that define our experience in general. He wants to use this in place of the kinds of arguments philosophers have often given. Nausea is a dissatisfaction and revulsion with the meaninglessness of the world. The status of the external world or the status of our knowledge of the external world is in question. The broader philosophical idea is that somehow we are stuck inside our own experience or own consciousness. It’s a philosophical fabrication that comes out of the Cartesian split. But is the world “out there”? Or is it just an idea? Sartre says existence is not inferred from other experiences it forces itself upon us in a way that is undeniable. Anguish is the sudden spontaneous realization that I could, at any moment, take a step and go hurtling to my death if I’m standing on a cliff. Anguish gives one the basic experience of one’s own freedom. Nothing stands between me and my self-destruction, except my own decision.
Philosophers ask, how do I know that other people exist? Sartre says we know other people exist when we notice someone looking at us when we are doing something embarrassing and we feel embarrassed.
His Being in Nothingness is a Phenomenological Ontology. It is phenomenological because it is from the first person standpoint. It is an ontology because we are describing things in this world.
He uses three concepts:
- Being-for-itself. When we reflect, we recognize that we are conscious. Consciousness is aware of itself aware of objects all the time.
- Being-for-others. Shame and embarrassment.
The self is out there in the world like the self of another. It is an accumulation of actions and experiences. To find out who we are, we have to look back and see what it is we’ve done. Consciousness is an activity directed towards the world and its objects. Sartre also differentiates between self-consciousness (reflective sense) and consciousness (pre-reflective). We shouldn’t always think of consciousness as self-consciousness. Consciousness does not contain the “I” or the “self”. We are both being-in-itself and being-for-itself. We are both body and mind. We have two different sets of attributes. Facticity is the sum total of facts that are true about us. (That I was born on a certain date in a certain year.) Facticity is contrasted with transcendence. This is the sense in one overreaches the facts of ones life. This is also a transcendence of the present. We transcend the present into the future all the time. I am what I am not and I am not what I am.
What we all want is to be pure facticity and pure transcendence. What we really desire is to be God. (God as described as complete in himself. Everything that God can be, he is. God can do anything he wants.) On the one hand, we’d like to determine exactly who it is we are. But at the same time, we have a desire for negative freedom – to be free of constraints. But when you put these together, you get a contradiction. You can say, this is my birthday. But you may think it is too early, or too late and not accept it about yourself and replace it with another fact. How the date plays in his life is subject to transcendence.
Bad Faith: Self-deception about oneself. We can live through our hopes or our fears and deny the facts that are true about ourselves, or simply reject them (like pretending to be 29 rather than 39). Freud says there is a psychodynamic – we cannot take certain positions. Sartre says it is really, “we will not” take certain positions. When we are in bad faith, we misperceive and misjudge ourselves and we do this for a purpose. We don’t want to take responsibility.
Sartre says he is not doing ethics. But bad faith is bad. It is something to be avoided. Sarte is after a theory of integrity.
Being-for-others: Has a paranoid ring to it. Heidegger used Being-with-others which is much less paranoid and non-conflicted. When we say “being-for-others” we think of being used by others, being an object for others, or others being there to manipulate. We are only aware of our own consciousness. We cannot be aware of the consciousness of others. Philosophers sometimes suggests that taking people as other people requires a leap of faith because we cannot prove that other consciousnesses exist. What Sartre says, following from Hegel, is that we can know ourselves only with the recognition of other people. Self-knowledge is not captured by Descartes’s “I think therefore I am.” We become conscious only through our confrontation with others. Knowledge comes, not from observation, but from the experience of being looked at. Being for others is being objectified. We are always on trial in the eyes of others. Sartre says we cannot be indifferent to what other people think of us because this is as much a part of our identity as a clear determinant of who we are.
This leads to another dimension of bad faith: to accept what people think of us as the truth and to define ourselves as who we are for others. (What Heidegger talks about in terms of the Das Man self.) You could be in bad faith in the opposite way and say you don’t care what other people think. This isn’t psychology. It’s part of the essence of being human. We are social creatures in the perverse and disturbing sense that we are the objects of other people’s judgments and how we judge ourselves is very much defined by how we are judged by others.
There is a sense in which we are all guilty: for not living up to others expectations of us or living up to the expectations of others but not living up to our own expectations.
For Sartre, our relationship with other people is basically conflict. It’s always about setting aside their judgments of us or trying to get them to have judgments of us that are in line with our judgments of ourselves. Sartre explains this best in No Exit which is one of philosophies greatest contributions to the theater. The main theme of the play is “Hell is other people”. Our conceptions of ourselves are always compromised by and determined by other people,
It’s not enough to look at the facts about ourselves and what I think about myself, but we have to also take into consideration what others think of us. Even relationships like love and friendship are struggles. Love is a struggle for authenticity. We choose our friends on the basis of our conception of ourselves – those who reinforce the conception of ourselves. If we think of ourselves as not very intelligent, we might take up with someone very intelligent, etc. Friendship is a kind of agreement or contract. “I’ll approve of you in your terms if you will approve of me in my terms.” Friendship involves a mutual identity.
But when we talk about lovers, the picture becomes very different. Sartre introduces love as a seductive strategy. It’s an attempt to win someone over – a sort of control. When this love fails, it results in sadism (a desperate attempt to take control). Or, we can also take a submissive role where the other must please me. When this fails, it results in masochism (a manipulative attitude toward the other). Other possibilities of failed love are indifference (profound indifference – the other doesn’t exist) which can lead to hatred (on the part of the person who wants to exist). Love is a dynamic in which a kind of mutual manipulation is essential.
Sex, like love, is a kind of manipulative strategy in which we try to win over the other to our own self-conceptions. Pleasure is not the aim of sex, but rather a kind of vehicle one uses to control the other person. If you take too much pleasure in it yourself, the pleasure gets in the way and you are very likely to eliminate sex as the power you are trying to attain. Sex is about power. It’s a powerplay.
Hegel uses an example of two people fighting it out until one becomes master of the other and the loser becomes slave. It’s not a stable relationship. Both parties leave quite unhappy. This is the same sort of view Sartre wants to give us. It’s not benign. Sex and love are much more complicated, threatening and dangerous than we tend to think. He’s trying to dig us out of the nonsense about love that has been piled on us for 2000 years.
An example of a traditional myth comes from Plato’s Symposium which is supposed to characterize the true nature of love: Aristophenes tells us love is the product of an ancient history. We were double creatures, two sets of legs, two sets of heads, two sets of arms. Zeus threatened to split us in two and he did. Ever since, we’ve been running around trying to find our other half. The other is a completion.
The idea of completing ourselves with another person is at odds with Sartre’s view. There is no such perfect fit. Even in the best relationship, there is a kind of struggle going on. If you pay any attention to your relationship, what becomes clear is that there is a struggle going on and there is an accommodation over the years that makes it seem like less of a struggle. Sartre says we are trying to maintain our own conception of ourselves in the face of the judgments of the other person.
Solomon corrects Sartre because he says that what Sartre doesn’t take seriously enough is the fact that very often our conceptions of ourselves are not only in the face of the other, but there is a kind of cooperation that takes place on the level of actually trying to think of ourselves in mutual terms. But it is true that the way we think of ourselves is always at risk because of the other person.
Relationships, however stable they may seem, are never truly stable. They exist in metastability – any situation which appears to be perfectly in balance can fall into disarray from the slightest imbalance. The same is true about our conceptions of ourselves. It may seem stable, but it is metastable. One thing can throw the entire thing into catastrophe.
Solomon says he doesn’t endorse Sartre, but what Sartre does is opens our eyes to all the complexities of relationship. Sartre had a life long relationship with Simone de Beauvoir. Despite a few infidelities on both their parts, they maintained an intimate closeness until Sartre’s death. They were one of the main couples, in fact the premiere philosophical couple, of the 20th century. Contrast this with Bertrand Russell, who despite all of his many words, went through quite a few marriages and found none of them satisfactory.
Sartre claimed that true being with others was something people found together under threat. You only learn to be with others in extreme circumstances.