Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Jean-Paul Sartre

Here’s another French philosopher (after Henri Bergson) whose name is often spoken in a Monty Python falsetto. Bergson had the relatively minor privilege of being the correct response to a Python game-show question, “What great opponent of Cartesian dualism resists the reduction of psychological phenomena to physical states?” As we have seen already, Bergson is by no means the only possible correct answer to the host’s question—arguably any phenomenologist would fit the bill, certainly including Husserl. In the Python episode, the question gets posed to a nasty moronic old biddy played by Terry Jones in drag who, after being prodded to “have a guess,” miraculously produces Henri Bergson’s name. (“Oh that’s lucky, I never even heard of him!”)

Perhaps as a sign of the two philosophers’ relative standings in the Franco-Anglo world circa 1970, Sartre received much more extensive Pythonic treatment, as the occasional subject of an entire episode, whose best gag involves John Cleese in drag calling up “Mrs. Sartre” and, upon learning that Sartre cannot come to the phone, inquiring in deliberately awkward French, “Quand sera-t-il libre?” Cleese laughs uproariously and puts his/her hand on the phone: “She says he’s spent the last sixty years trying to work that one out! – Oh, très amusant, Madame S!”

But the fictional Mrs. Sartre’s quip is not a philosophically apposite one, for the first thing a student learns about Sartre’s philosophy is that he does not anticipate the dawn of human freedom as a not-yet-attained telos. Rather, the human being (or “man,” as Sartre is more likely to put it) is always already free. In Sartre’s philosophy the correct response to the question “When will he be free?” can only be “He always has been free and will remain free until the moment of his death.” Freedom is the very condition of human being, which Sartre calls the pour-soi (for-itself), as distinct from the determined en-soi (in-itself) that is all non-human things. Death for the pour-soi is nothing more than the cessation of freedom, that is, the return of the pour-soi to the en-soi.

Sartre also calls death the return to ontological plenitude. The pour-soi is marked by le néant (nothingness), which is the ontological nature of freedom. “The world is inhabited by ‘little pools of non-being,’ or negatités, each of which is constituted by a negating consciousness” (Cutrofello, 67). In the death of a consciousness, its negatités vanish, and the néant that permits their constitution dissipates too as consciousness’s body returns to the state of non-intentional matter in-itself.

These negatités and the néant are both deduced by Sartre from his model of the three cognitive operations: perception, conception, and imagination. An act of perception has a real object but works through adumbration, which is to say that no act of perception gives the object in all its reality (cf. Husserl). Acts of conception are somewhat tangential to the basic argument here; they grasp the object totally but abstractly (non-concretely). An act of imagination produces an image, which is irreal but not abstract: “Like perception, an image represents only a particular aspect of its object. But because it is unreal, the imagined object does not contain within itself anything more than is revealed in the image [. . .] Thus imagining is like conceiving in that it presents its object all at once. But this is only because there is no object apart from the image itself [. . .] Imagining neither intends emptily [like conceiving] nor fulfills [like perceiving] – rather, it is an intending of emptiness itself” (Cutrofello, 65).

Every act of imagination, for Sartre, has as its prerequisite the negation of an object of perception, through the suspension of perception itself. (One cannot perceive and imagine the same object, and each cognitive act has only one object, thus perception must be suspended during an act of imagination.) Sartre interprets Husserl’s intentionality thesis to mean that consciousness is the capacity for the constitution or deconstitution of objects of perception. “To deconstitute an object of perception is not to cease to be conscious but to constitute something whose non-being is constituted through the deconstitution of the object of perception”—that is, to constitute an image (Cutrofello, 66). This is the heart of freedom, néant: “Consciousness is free in the sense that it can imagine various ways of not being the particular being that it negates” (67). The key terms here are “imagine” and “various.”

Sartre’s famous concept of mauvaise foi (bad faith) takes two possible forms: either the pour-soi can deny its facticity, deny the fact that it is also the en-soi that it inherits from the past (this is the bad faith Sartre calls denial); or the pour-soi can desire to eliminate its néant and to identify completely with its facticity and implicitly deny its transcendence (freedom) (this is the bad faith known as desire). For Sartre, bad faith as desire is the desire to be dead without having to die—that is, to be nothing more than one’s own past (to no longer suffer from the anxiety that accompanies having a present, being free) without having to give up one’s relationship to the future (i.e., “the ideal of coinciding with one’s past while miraculously retaining on’s relationship to the future,” Cutrofello, 69). God is precisely the idea of such a being whose pour-soi is the ground of its en-soi (who necessarily exists, rather than contingently existing as do we mortals); thus for Sartre we are all not only “condemned to be free” (his famous formulation) but also condemned either to deny that we exist as matter (the path of the idealist), or to desire to be God.

This being-God Sartre also calls sincerity; it is, he says, irrealizable. (I’m not sure precisely how this differs from the mundane old word “impossible.”) Are we then condemned to insincerity (bad faith)? It would appear so, but Sartre does hold out the promise of, not sincerity, but authenticity, a condition irrealizable in the social regime we now inhabit. Why this is so, and Sartre’s prescription for changing that regime, will be the topic of my next post on Sartre (which, due to the organization of Cutrofello’s book, will arrive in a couple of months . . .)

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