Jean-Paul Sartre is best known for his 1960’s existentialism and Marxist activism, but before he was a big celebrity, he was a phenomenologist who spent a lot of time grappling with Heidegger (his book Being and Nothingnessis an homage in part to Heidegger’s Being and Time, but more importantly (to this topic) with Edmund Husserl. Part of Husserl’s analysis of experience involves a transcendental ego: an “I” that accompanies all of our experiences as an organizing pole. If I see a dead mouse, I’m not just experiencing the table, but also, peripherally, experiencing that it is I seeing this dead mouse (you can see the connection to Descartes’s “I think about dead mice, therefore I am” here).
On this episode, we discuss Sartre’s 1934-written book The Transcendence of the Ego: An Existentialist Theory of Consciousness, where he specifically denies this. When I’m seeing a dead mouse, I do not have an experience of myself at all, he says. I’m totally sucked into the experience of that there dead mousie, and moreover I apprehend it as delicious… delicious in itself, not delicious by reference to me. There’s just no me involved.
When we reflect, however, we create the me, i.e. “the ego.” So instead of the ego being transcendental, i.e. this big structural part of all experience, it becomes a thing in the world, constituted out of the different experiences that we and others have of ourselves: I can reflect upon myself as being a dead-mouse-lover, and like the experience of the dead mouse itself, which may on further examination prove to be a rat, or not dead, or an optical illusion, I could likewise be wrong about these self-apprehensions. Per Hegel, other people might even have more accurate views about us than we do ourselves.
Consciousness itself, though, according to Sartre, is not a thing in the world. It’s not identical to this ego that we find as an object. It’s not personal at all; consciousness is apprehended as wholly free, wholly uncaused, and aware of itself as a consciousness, though not, again, aware of a “self” sitting behind consciousness having these conscious experiences. Confused? So were we, during this recording that took place last Sunday and which will be posted some weeks from now. The core of four was present on this one, with no guest: Mark, Seth, Wes, and Dylan.