Politics and Society

Saturday, December 10, 2011

“The Transcendence of the Ego,” by Jean Paul Sartre

The Ontological Foundation of Petulance
A Meditation

   Written in 1936, some 5-6 years before he took time out from his day job at the French Resistance field office and began to work on his famous treatise, Being and Nothingness (1943), Sartre wrote the remarkable essay, “The Transcendence of the Ego.” It is a seminal work of existential Metaphysics, a refutation of Solipsism, and a document of liberation, all at the same time. The last description fulfills his own stated intention of separating Sartre from the putative doctrinal error of his teacher, Edmund Husserl, who had, in his own philosophical investigations, recently taken a regressive step backwards from “pure” phenomenological description to, in Sartre’s view, merely speculative Metaphysics. He committed this unpardonable sin when he went beyond the bounds of pure Phenomenology – his own creation - and posited a transcendent, concrete Ego as the actual, albeit passive, subjective unity of experience.

   This, in the language of Metaphysics, is the subjective correlate of the Subject-Object dichotomy, which has defined the poles of metaphysical (and epistemological and psychological) inquiry since, at least, the time of Descartes. So far as Sartre was concerned, this regression made Husserl no better than Kant in joining an unholy alliance with an idealist philosophical tradition, which imprisons the Ego in the ontological solitude and isolation known, but not often recognized, as Solipsism. (We note the inexplicably aggrieved, penal characterization of the situation, and ask: Is Husserl out to get Sartre?) A passive, transcendent Ego – a metaphysically distinct, conscious Self - which only receives impressions from the world and processes, or merely constitutes them as experience, cannot be in the world, among the other existent things, as a doer or a maker, a peer, a partner, a lover or a fellow sufferer –nor even in his own favorite role as a whiner about the terrible inconvenience of other people’s problematical subjectivity -, but is, and can only ever be, according to Husserl’s postulate, the sole, lonely spectator of a relentless spectacle of otherness, isolated and cut off from any real connectedness to the world. As Kurtz once said: “The horror. The horror.’ (Try getting invited to dinner parties with that rap!)

   Though it is brief, ‘The Transcendence’ (I mean, of course, the essay) is a polemical document of intent, which states the existentialist’s creed pretty much in toto. (The text I read comprises a little more than a hundred pages with margins so wide on each side my own notes now comprise most of the total word count in the text.*) It could easily be fitted in 50 or so standard pages, with Sartre’s endnotes adding another four or five. But this brevity is actually welcome. Just getting the thesis, without all the proleptic rejoinders and counter-arguments to counter-examples, etc., is a refreshing different approach. Necessarily, it lacks the elaboration of themes that one expects and usually gets (ad nauseum) from philosophical writings, but it offers an opportunity of focus that longer works invariably diffuse.
   I first read the ‘Transcendence’ essay as a Philosophy graduate student, believing reluctantly – but correctly as it turns out – that my erstwhile commitment to Kant’s Transcendental Idealism would have to take account of Sartre’s radical metaphysical thesis and its implications sooner or later. Steeped as I was in the Kantian tradition, that not only over-values precise expression but also fetishizes the rigor of categorical thinking, this prospect was actually experienced as painful. Nothing bothers a stickler for detail more than a sloppy indifference to precise, logical expression and the rigorous articulation of argument. But I read it anyway, thereby generating at the time only more heat than light, more frustration than satisfaction, and, ultimately, more grudge than gratitude. I did, however, come back –finally.

  The thesis is still as challenging as it ever was. Without going too deeply into the details or the background (which would be necessary), suffice it to say that the ‘Transcendence’ essay is a document of critical analysis, intended to repudiate the very notion of an absolutely existing, transcendent subject of consciousness, which stands over and above acts or moments of consciousness as their proprietor. And Sartre is often very convincing in his various approaches to the repudiation of the Ego as a necessary or even (rational!) postulate of Phenomenology, or even as the necessary and inevitable outcome of Descartes’ program of systematic doubt. While some version of the Cogito may forever stand as indubitable, it is by no means obvious – though it may appear so – that behind every thought there must be a subject which is having that thought. Thus (pp 53-54),

            The Cogito affirms too much. The certain content of the pseudo-
            “Cogito” is not “I have consciousness of this chair,” but “There is
            consciousness of this chair.” This content is sufficient to constitute
            an infinite and absolute field of investigation for phenomenology.
            (Italics in original)

   Indeed, if there is one analysis which stands out to me (Sorry, Jean Paul) as brilliant in the essay, it is precisely the argument made about the necessary elusiveness of such a subject. Sartre argues that since it is in the nature of consciousness to be directed (only seemingly) outward, toward things, it is only to be expected that it does not show itself in experience, but only through experience –and then, not as a unifying principle, but as an horizon, a limitation, the contour of experience. Not as the origin of, or the proprietor of, but as the awareness of . . . things.
   And when one becomes self-conscious, what are we aware of? Certainly not of awareness, as such, but only a memory-of-awareness, or an imagination-of-awareness, or a moment-of-awareness, because consciousness is ALWAYS consciousness OF. One can no more likely see or experience consciousness, as such, than one can see the back of one’s own head directly, or the inside of one’s own eyes. The horizon recedes as reflection turns its gaze inward. So, if it is not to be as an object, why should it be at all? Isn’t consciousness itself a mysterious enough symphony without assuming it also must have a conductor who is necessarily invisible and possibly (or often) mad? At least consciousness manifests itself, however obliquely; whereas the I, as proprietor of consciousness, remains as elusive and as opaque even to ourselves as the consciousness (the I) of others.
            “The ego is not the owner of consciousness; it is the object of
            consciousness.” (pg 97)

  Sartre is never more convincing than when he punctures some of long standing illusions we commonly cherish about self-knowledge, the putatively incorrigible knowledge we think we have about our own ‘mental states’, as though this were to each of us a personal repertoire of irrefutable achievement. I must admit, his critical analysis did seem to be a stripping away of illusions worn by habit, literally now and not figuratively speaking. For, once we get beyond the constructs of a self that we only habitually assume and never experience, we must confront with an abashed sense of nakedness the actual flimsiness of our vaunted self-awareness. What is left to behold after the analysis is frankly shameful. One wonders, is this dubious construct really worth fighting for? It put me in mind of Eliot’s observation from “Whispers of Immortality”: “But our lot crawls between dry ribs/To keep our metaphysics warm.”

   However, Sartre does offer us a robe, of sorts, to keep out the chill. He acknowledges an 'ego-life' (note the lower case) as a conceptual adjunct to the unified conception we have of our own consciousnesses (however illusory it may be), when we conceive of them as our own and as constituting a unity. This is also to say, when we think of them as objects of consciousness, not as subjects. He differentiates between levels of consciousness, in fact, describing consciousness “of the second degree as” as the proper realm of the ego-life. It is the level of reflected consciousness, of consciousness as object of the reflective consciousness. We apparently construct – though he doesn’t actually say so or say how – a sense of ourselves, much like our sense of others – corrigible and hypothetical in essence – and call it ‘I’, or ‘me’ which is another, yet even more socially constructed (illusory?) aspect of my self.  What is important for Sartre is that we understand the ontological difference. He writes (pg. 58):
           . . . the unreflected has the ontological priority over the reflected
          because the unreflected consciousness does not need to be reflected
          in order to exist . . . We arrive then at the followings conclusion:
          unreflected consciousness must be considered autonomous. It is a
          totality which needs no completing.

   This last is obviously the point made about the Transcendent Ego. It doesn’t exist. Just as Gertrude Stein said about old Ezra when he was still young, ‘There is no there, there.’ Standing in will be the socio-physical ego, which is as objective, worldly, contingent and dubious as is the ‘problematical’ subjectivity of others.
            “ . . .the ego is an object apprehended, but also an object constituted,
            by reflective consciousness.” (pp. 80-81)
   Now if that’s not already enough of a take-down, consider what this means for all those Freudians and their conception of the Ego (and its Id): since the Ego does not exist, it is not allowed to conceal motives --like pebbles in a pockets. For along with his existence, the Ego is losing his pockets, too. Therefore, there is to be considered no Freudian theory of ulterior motives rising up from the unconscious to control our emotions, for there is no unconscious, nowhere down there to rise up from.

   Obviously, Sartre’s thesis is pregnant with possible disasters for idealist theories as well as for people would like to marry their mothers or kill their fathers. For neither group has now a convenient hook to hang their proclivities on. The critical appraisal of the postulated Ego is performed by a demonstration of the descriptive analysis afforded by Phenomenology. It succeeds, if it succeeds, by showing consciousness for what it is, and from that, also what it is not!
              We may therefore formulate our thesis: transcendental consciousness
           is an impersonal spontaneity. It determines its existence at each instant,
           without our being able to conceive anything before it. Thus each instant
           of our conscious life reveals to us a creation ex nihilo.  (pp. 98-99)

   Whether this doctrine actually solves the problem of Solipsism is now, in my mind (Apologies, again) more than ever, an open question. For it seems to me the essential point about solipsism is that it is a lonely vigil. If transcendental consciousness is indeed impersonal, then whether it is one or many is quite beside the point, since there would be nobody there to notice the absence. And if hell is, indeed, “other people,” as Sartre once famously said, this is no doubt just the way he would want it!

   So, I came back to Sartre’s ‘Transcendence’ again, after more than 25 years, by way of the awkwardly winding path that characterizes my own literary and logico-philosophical mission, and I found it different. I remembered my earlier (haughty) disdain for the categorical sloppiness and the whiny -even eschatological – protests (‘oh, the anxiety!’), and the petulant tone of voice. I remembered the frustration I had experienced with ambiguities that he had seemed to add into the text just to provoke me. These qualities are still there! But, I was different.
    I was less put off this time by his Nietzschean posturing – his programmatic use of the royal “We” - and his (apparently life-long) penchant for ‘framing’ the debate in unfounded and tendentious irrelevancies, which masquerade as (phenomenological) descriptions. (Why is the slave’s first apprehension of his master a ‘NOT’? ** Why not a “Get-back-into-the fields!”? Someone should have told Sartre, that if you are going to authentically “describe” experience, i.e. from the inside, it is best you stick to your own!) This time, I was far less bothered, and now much more bemused by the insight that the likeliest reason Sartre could write so convincingly about in-authenticity (“bad faith”) is, that he, himself, was so obviously a man constitutionally incapable of sincerity, in almost any form. (After proclaiming his solidarity with the downtrodden masses, he joined the Stalinist intellectuals’ drum and bugle corps and piped eagerly and loudly, so as to drown out the shots of the dictator’s firing squads.)
   Like Heidegger before him, who had supported the Nazi regime, his praxis seems perversely at odds with his theory! And, as it was for Nietzsche before him, for Sartre the heroic pose of the existential hero (think Sisyphus) is at once an ideal and an impossibility, so obviously so in view of his character and action, to say nothing of the physical constitution, as to make his assuming the pose almost entirely laughable.
   Leaving aside the man, however, there is still the work; his ideas and his writing. I was, this time, more open to the thesis, that there is no transcendent Ego behind, nor imminent in, the experience of consciousness. That consciousness is – or, at least, might be -, as he says, nothing like a disembodied, all-perceiving eye on the horizon of Reality, but ‘is’ something rather like a spontaneous gust of wind blowing towards objects in the real world, being opposed by them, interacting with them, silhouetting them in its breezes and moving on, or even turning back into the force of its own impulse, to create (to hypostatize) the ominous presence of a storm. I was more willing to listen to the harangue and to hear the urgency in the voice. For, if Sartre’s voice is nothing else, it is urgent.
   I began to realize that evaluating this work was much more akin to evaluating fiction than I had earlier been ready to believe. I could hear in his urgent and hectoring tone an insistent conviction that the categories that he was bent on upsetting – by doing willful and intentional violence to their employment – were not the categories needed to understand his point. (Nor could any others perform better!) He was using these categories inconsistently not out of incompetence, but out of contempt. His whole theory is based on the conviction that the categories, like the Transcendental Ego, are a false construction, doing more to lead us astray than to lead us to truth. Hence, it is the categorical mindset, the one that rests easily only on the neat and consistent employment for the same words (or kinds of words) for the same things (or kinds of things) that he was rejecting.
   I began to think of the style of his propositions in all their opacity as a statement in and of itself –perhaps, as the statement. I realized that Sartre’s (middling to low) concern for consistency, as such, is reflected in his language choices. Not just at the level of words but also at the level of the language of those words. Latin, French, German and English expressions for ‘the I’ and for ‘experience’ are all represented here, seemingly willy-nilly. This is not accidental, I think. It is most probably thematic. If the specific words don’t matter, or can be indiscriminately substituted, how much more (or less) should we expect of concepts?
   Just as, in literature, we may ‘read’ a writer’s intent in his selection of words, details, plot lines and structures, so also in this case we can infer some of Sartre’s deepest convictions, the tacit ones – the ones that he has yet to give expression to, but which are nevertheless involved - in his own selections. The choices he makes add up to a thesis, even if it remains inarticulate. That thesis seems to be, that words – and therefore concepts, at least as traditionally understood – cannot be used successfully to capture consciousness, no matter how strictly regimented and precisely chosen. In fact, it is precisely these qualities of traditional categorical thinking that make traditional (categorical) thinking inadequate (to use Sartre’s term) from the get go, since consciousness is ‘essentially’ un-categorical; it is by its very nature the not-that-either.

   Apparently Sartre believes, then, as did Hegel, that there is a higher level of understanding than that which mere rationality, i.e. discursive thinking, can achieve. Hegel referred to it as Reason (note the capital-R), and explicitly stated (though not without contradiction) that it is Reason, not Aristotelian logic or mere understanding, which resolves the dialectical contradictions that mere understanding posits. (For example, understanding may fix Being, an sich, as its object [thesis], but it is Reason alone which can ferret out the Non-Being [antithesis] which is implicit within (the concept of) Being, thereby discovering the synthesis: Becoming.) Sartre says something vaguely similar when he says:
         The I proffers itself to an intuition of a special kind which apprehends
          it, always inadequately, behind the reflected consciousness. (pg. 53)
In a very cryptic footnote to these lines, he says that there is nothing mystical or magical about this special kind of intuition, only that it is “not the same as, say, confronting a physical thing by an act of perceptual intuition.” So, it is special, non-magical, and different from physical intuitions. Sounds delightful. (Who wants to try passing that off as philosophical rigor?)

   My own intuitions about this theory indicate to me that there is a plethora of presuppositions and agendas behind Sartre’s style and rendering of the existential creed. When I reflect on the “angst” and the appeal to pity for the existential hero, which Sartre intentionally invokes in such dramatic fashion, I am reminded that Kierkegaard also had ‘Dread’ at the heart of his philosophy, as did Heidegger in his “being towards death. These writers left Sartre a legacy, which he seems to have spent rashly. His ad hoc theory about consciousness hiding from itself the truth about Nothingness, as being afraid of its own spontaneity, make me wonder what kind of intellectual economy he was pursuing here. Did he really throw out the Transcendental Ego only to make room for these primordial fears and paranoid projections? Did he think the metaphysical closet was overstuffed? (Isn’t it rather like cyberspace: virtually endless in expanse?)

   However these things may be, finally, it is a fascinating little book by an intriguing thinker and a rebel of the first order. I think I see why Camus finally said no mas, but I think I also know why it probably pained him to do it. He probably didn’t actually solve the problem of Solipsism, even in his own philosophy. Nor is it clear, really, whether he successfully escaped the prison erected by idealism –no doubt just to hold him. What he did do, though, was provide a very plausible case for his own obvious petulance. And that, at least, is something.

*Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, New York; translated by Forrest Williams and Robert Kirkpatrick
**From  “Bad Faith and Falsehood,” in Essays in Existentialism, the Philosophical Library, 1965 reprinted in The Citadel Press edition of 1979, pg. 147

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