When we were recording the episode, we were all aware that we got hung up on unreflected consciousness and how consciousness of consciousness was not reflected consciousness or self-consciousness. As a result, I thought we gave short shrift to the latter half of the essay. If that sounds convoluted, listen to the episode. There’s nothing wrong with the way the conversation went – that’s the nature both of such dialogues and a good example of the strengths and weaknesses of our format which was recently discussed here.
Listening to the episode, we did actually hit on the major themes of reflected consciousness and the ego, but in very short order. I want to call out a few things to clarify.
- Sartre takes consciousness to be ‘intentional’ in the Husserlian sense. This means that consciousness is always consciousness of something – it always has an object (external to it).
- This does not mean that consciousness is a ‘subject’ – it is simply the unity of all of the moments of being conscious of something. If you like, you can think of it as the unity of experience or perception.
- Unreflective consciousness is the bare act of consciousness of external objects without awareness of being conscious. Sartre talks about being in the moment (looking at a landscape, chasing a bus) and we discussed maybe a sliding scale where some animals experience without any awareness of it. We referenced Nagel talking about what is was like to be a bat – there is nothing it would be like to be something that was strictly unreflective.
- People though, have an awareness of being conscious in unreflected consciousness, but it is not the awareness of self-reflection. It is not an awareness of ‘self’. It is simply an awareness that consciousness is not the object that it is intending (apprehending, experiencing). At this point, awareness is “impersonal”. Consciousness is not taking itself as an object.
- In reflected consciousness, consciousness takes itself as an object – or more precisely takes its states, etc. as objects. This gives rise to self-awareness and a concept of an “I” or an ego. At this point one can talk about a ‘me’ that has consciousness and it becomes personal. It’s kind of like the birth of identity.
- In a similar way to that in which consciousness is the unity of intentionality (experience), the ego is the unity of reflected consciousness. It arises from the motion of consciousness rather than being a separate substance that grounds or makes possible consciousness.
There is some very cool stuff here. At the level of unreflective consciousness, consciousness doesn’t belong to a subject. “Impersonal” here can be read as ‘in common’. It’s a restatement of the phenomenological thesis that our experience shows that we are all conscious of the same objects and that those objects are external. This counters skepticism about both the existence of the external world (or at least our epistemic access to it) as well as providing a way to bridge experience with others.
By making the ego a unity that arises from consciousness rather than an object, Sartre places limits on how we can know or experience the ego when we try and take it as an object – when we take an intentional stance towards it. Because the ego is the totality of consciousness, even though consciousness can take the ego as an object, it can’t take it all in at once. He talks about the ego as being at the horizon of consciousness – always an object you can only see at the periphery, as it were.
This inversion of the traditional view of the ego is pretty unsettling: the ego no longer grounds your identity and experience, nor is it something to which you have privileged access. It is fluid and constantly being constituted by consciousness. You have access to the states that make up your reflected consciousness – and no access to other’s reflected states – but this doesn’t guarantee some kind of superior epistemic position. Rather, they are simply more ‘intimate’ than those of others.
I really like this because it suggests a fragility of identity that I think we experience often in our lives and which is in no way articulated by Cartesian subjectivism. I was drawn to the Phenomenological enterprise because of the prioritization of experience over substance-based subject/object dualism. For me, Heidegger made a heroic attempt to articulate an alternative way of thinking about human existence against this dualism while Husserl, even though he was the catalyst, ultimately couldn’t escape it. Sartre does a nice job of providing a phenomenological view of consciousness and the ego that satisfies what I want out of the Husserlian enterprise without taking Heidegger’s radical leap.
When I am given such an unexpected pleasure, I truly experience the joy of philosophy…
(P.S. the contents of this post were neither reviewed nor likely endorsed by Mark, Wes or Dylan)