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  4. Using Sartre : an analytical introduction to early Sartrean themes
  5. Jean Paul Sartre: Existentialism

The source of this project is a spontaneous original choice that depends on the individual's freedom. Our only way to escape self-deception is authenticity, that is, choosing in a way which reveals the existence of the for-itself as both factual and transcendent. For Sartre, my proper exercise of freedom creates values that any other human being placed in my situation could experience, therefore each authentic project expresses a universal dimension in the singularity of a human life.

Finally, an overview is provided of the further development of existentialist themes in his later works. Sartre was born in in Paris. This was his passport to a teaching career. His phenomenological investigation into the imagination was published in and his Theory of Emotions two years later. During the Second World War, Sartre wrote his existentialist magnum opus Being and Nothingness and taught the work of Heidegger in a war camp. Being and Nothingness was published in and Existentialism and Humanism in His study of Baudelaire was published in and that of the actor Jean Genet in In , after three years working on it, Sartre published the Critique of Dialectical Reason.

He was a high profile figure in the Peace Movement. In , he turned down the Nobel prize for literature. He was actively involved in the May uprising. His study of Flaubert, L'Idiot de la Famille , was published in In , he claimed no longer to be a Marxist, but his political activity continued until his death in Sartre's early work is characterised by phenomenological analyses involving his own interpretation of Husserl's method. Sartre's methodology is Husserlian as demonstrated in his paper "Intentionality: This means that the acts by which consciousness assigns meaning to objects are what is analysed, and that what is sought in the particular examples under examination is their essential structure.

At the core of this methodology is a conception of consciousness as intentional, that is, as 'about' something, a conception inherited from Brentano and Husserl. Sartre puts his own mark on this view by presenting consciousness as being transparent, i. The distinctiveness of Sartre's development of Husserl's phenomenology can be characterised in terms of Sartre's methodology, of his view of the self and of his ultimate ethical interests. Sartre's methodology differs from Husserl's in two essential ways.

Although he thinks of his analyses as eidetic, he has no real interest in Husserl's understanding of his method as uncovering the Essence of things. For Husserl, eidetic analysis is a clarification which brings out the higher level of the essence that is hidden in 'fluid unclarity' Husserl, Ideas, I.

For Sartre, the task of an eidetic analysis does not deliver something fixed immanent to the phenomenon. It still claims to uncover that which is essential, but thereby recognizes that phenomenal experience is essentially fluid. In Sketch for a Theory of the Emotions , Sartre replaces the traditional picture of the passivity of our emotional nature with one of the subject's active participation in her emotional experiences. Emotion originates in a degradation of consciousness faced with a certain situation. The spontaneous conscious grasp of the situation which characterizes an emotion, involves what Sartre describes as a 'magical' transformation of the situation.

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Faced with an object which poses an insurmountable problem, the subject attempts to view it differently, as though it were magically transformed. Thus an imminent extreme danger may cause me to faint so that the object of my fear is no longer in my conscious grasp. Or, in the case of wrath against an unmovable obstacle, I may hit it as though the world were such that this action could lead to its removal. The essence of an emotional state is thus not an immanent feature of the mental world, but rather a transformation of the subject's perspective upon the world. In The Psychology of the Imagination , Sartre demonstrates his phenomenological method by using it to take on the traditional view that to imagine something is to have a picture of it in mind.

Sartre's account of imagining does away with representations and potentially allows for a direct access to that which is imagined; when this object does not exist, there is still an intention albeit unsuccessful to become conscious of it through the imagination. So there is no internal structure to the imagination. It is rather a form of directedness upon the imagined object. Imagining a heffalump is thus of the same nature as perceiving an elephant.

Both are spontaneous intentional or directed acts, each with its own type of intentionality. Sartre's view also diverges from Husserl's on the important issue of the ego. For Sartre, Husserl adopted the view that the subject is a substance with attributes, as a result of his interpretation of Kant's unity of apperception. Husserl endorsed the Kantian claim that the 'I think' must be able to accompany any representation of which I am conscious, but reified this 'I' into a transcendental ego.

Such a move is not warranted for Sartre, as he explains in The Transcendence of the Ego. Moreover, it leads to the following problems for our phenomenological analysis of consciousness. The ego would have to feature as an object in all states of consciousness. This would result in its obstructing our conscious access to the world. But this would conflict with the direct nature of this conscious access. Correlatively, consciousness would be divided into consciousness of ego and consciousness of the world.

This would however be at odds with the simple, and thus undivided, nature of our access to the world through conscious experience. In other words, when I am conscious of a tree, I am directly conscious of it, and am not myself an object of consciousness. Sartre proposes therefore to view the ego as a unity produced by consciousness.

In other words, he adds to the Humean picture of the self as a bundle of perceptions, an account of its unity. This unity of the ego is a product of conscious activity. As a result, the traditional Cartesian view that self-consciousness is the consciousness the ego has of itself no longer holds, since the ego is not given but created by consciousness.

What model does Sartre propose for our understanding of self-consciousness and the production of the ego through conscious activity? The key to answering the first part of the question lies in Sartre's introduction of a pre-reflective level, while the second can then be addressed by examining conscious activity at the other level, i. An example of pre-reflective consciousness is the seeing of a house. This type of consciousness is directed to a transcendent object, but this does not involve my focussing upon it, i.

For Sartre, this pre-reflective consciousness is thus impersonal: Importantly, Sartre insists that self-consciousness is involved in any such state of consciousness: This accounts for the phenomenology of 'seeing', which is such that the subject is clearly aware of her pre-reflective consciousness of the house. This awareness does not have an ego as its object, but it is rather the awareness that there is an act of 'seeing'. Reflective consciousness is the type of state of consciousness involved in my looking at a house.

For Sartre, the cogito emerges as a result of consciousness's being directed upon the pre-reflectively conscious. In so doing, reflective consciousness takes the pre-reflectively conscious as being mine. It thus reveals an ego insofar as an 'I' is brought into focus: This 'I' is the correlate of the unity that I impose upon the pre-reflective states of consciousness through my reflection upon them. To account for the prevalence of the Cartesian picture, Sartre argues that we are prone to the illusion that this 'I' was in fact already present prior to the reflective conscious act, i.

By substituting his model of a two-tiered consciousness for this traditional picture, Sartre provides an account of self-consciousness that does not rely upon a pre-existing ego, and shows how an ego is constructed in reflection. An important feature of Sartre's phenomenological work is that his ultimate interest in carrying out phenomenological analyses is an ethical one. Through them, he opposes the view, which is for instance that of the Freudian theory of the unconscious, that there are psychological factors that are beyond the grasp of our consciousness and thus are potential excuses for certain forms of behaviour.

Starting with Sartre's account of the ego, this is characterised by the claim that it is produced by, rather than prior to consciousness. As a result, accounts of agency cannot appeal to a pre-existing ego to explain certain forms of behaviour. Rather, conscious acts are spontaneous, and since all pre-reflective consciousness is transparent to itself, the agent is fully responsible for them and a fortiori for his ego.

In Sartre's analysis of emotions, affective consciousness is a form of pre-reflective consciousness, and is therefore spontaneous and self-conscious. Against traditional views of the emotions as involving the subject's passivity, Sartre can therefore claim that the agent is responsible for the pre-reflective transformation of his consciousness through emotion. In the case of the imaginary, the traditional view of the power of fancy to overcome rational thought is replaced by one of imaginary consciousness as a form of pre-reflective consciousness.

As such, it is therefore again the result of the spontaneity of consciousness and involves self-conscious states of mind. An individual is therefore fully responsible for his imaginations's activity. In all three cases, a key factor in Sartre's account is his notion of the spontaneity of consciousness. To dispel the apparent counter-intuitiveness of the claims that emotional states and flights of imagination are active, and thus to provide an account that does justice to the phenomenology of these states, spontaneity must be clearly distinguished from a voluntary act.

A voluntary act involves reflective consciousness that is connected with the will; spontaneity is a feature of pre-reflective consciousness. Is there a common thread to these specific features of Sartre's phenomenological approach? Sartre's choice of topics for phenomenological analysis suggests an interest in the phenomenology of what it is to be human, rather than in the world as such. This privileging of the human dimension has parallels with Heidegger's focus upon Dasein in tackling the question of Being. This aspect of Heidegger's work is that which can properly be called existential insofar as Dasein's way of being is essentially distinct from that of any other being.

This characterisation is particularly apt for Sartre's work, in that his phenomenological analyses do not serve a deeper ontological purpose as they do for Heidegger who distanced himself from any existential labelling. Thus, in his "Letter on Humanism", Heidegger reminds us that the analysis of Dasein is only one chapter in the enquiry into the question of Being.

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For Heidegger, Sartre's humanism is one more metaphysical perspective which does not return to the deeper issue of the meaning of Being. Sartre sets up his own picture of the individual human being by first getting rid of its grounding in a stable ego. As Sartre later puts it in Existentialism is a Humanism , to be human is characterised by an existence that precedes its essence. As such, existence is problematic, and it is towards the development of a full existentialist theory of what it is to be human that Sartre's work logically evolves.

In relation to what will become Being and Nothingness , Sartre's early works can be seen as providing important preparatory material for an existential account of being human. But the distinctiveness of Sartre's approach to understanding human existence is ultimately guided by his ethical interest. In particular, this accounts for his privileging of a strong notion of freedom which we shall see to be fundamentally at odds with Heidegger's analysis.

Thus the nature of Sartre's topics of analysis, his theory of the ego and his ethical aims all characterise the development of an existential phenomenology.


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Let us now examine the central themes of this theory as they are presented in Being and Nothingness. Being and Nothingness can be characterized as a phenomenological investigation into the nature of what it is to be human, and thus be seen as a continuation of, and expansion upon, themes characterising the early works. In contrast with these however, an ontology is presented at the outset and guides the whole development of the investigation. One of the main features of this system, which Sartre presents in the introduction and the first chapter of Part One, is a distinction between two kinds of transcendence of the phenomenon of being.

The first is the transcendence of being and the second that of consciousness. This means that, starting with the phenomenon that which is our conscious experience , there are two types of reality which lie beyond it, and are thus trans-phenomenal. On the one hand, there is the being of the object of consciousness, and on the other, that of consciousness itself. These define two types of being, the in-itself and the for-itself. To bring out that which keeps them apart, involves understanding the phenomenology of nothingness.

This reveals consciousness as essentially characterisable through its power of negation, a power which plays a key role in our existential condition. Let us examine these points in more detail. In Being and Time , Heidegger presents the phenomenon as involving both a covering and a disclosing of being. For Sartre, the phenomenon reveals, rather than conceals, reality.

What is the status of this reality? Sartre considers the phenomenalist option of viewing the world as a construct based upon the series of appearances. He points out that the being of the phenomenon is not like its essence, i. In this way, Sartre moves away from Husserl's conception of the essence as that which underpins the unity of the appearances of an object, to a Heideggerian notion of the being of the phenomenon as providing this grounding.

Just as the being of the phenomenon transcends the phenomenon of being, consciousness also transcends it. Sartre thus establishes that if there is perceiving, there must be a consciousness doing the perceiving. How are these two transphenomenal forms of being related? As opposed to a conceptualising consciousness in a relation of knowledge to an object, as in Husserl and the epistemological tradition he inherits, Sartre introduces a relation of being: This is Sartre's version of Heidegger's ontological relation of being-in-the-world.

It differs from the latter in two essential respects. First, it is not a practical relation, and thus distinct from a relation to the ready-to-hand. Rather, it is simply given by consciousness. Second, it does not lead to any further question of Being. For Sartre, all there is to being is given in the transphenomenality of existing objects, and there is no further issue of the Being of all beings as for Heidegger. As we have seen, both consciousness and the being of the phenomenon transcend the phenomenon of being. As a result, there are two types of being which Sartre, using Hegel's terminology, calls the for-itself 'pour-soi' and the in-itself 'en-soi'.

Sartre presents the in-itself as existing without justification independently of the for-itself, and thus constituting an absolute 'plenitude'. It exists in a fully determinate and non-relational way.

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This fully characterizes its transcendence of the conscious experience. In contrast with the in-itself, the for-itself is mainly characterised by a lack of identity with itself. This is a consequence of the following.


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  • Consciousness is always 'of something', and therefore defined in relation to something else. It has no nature beyond this and is thus completely translucent. Insofar as the for-itself always transcends the particular conscious experience because of the spontaneity of consciousness , any attempt to grasp it within a conscious experience is doomed to failure. Indeed, as we have already seen in the distinction between pre-reflective and reflective consciousness, a conscious grasp of the first transforms it. This means that it is not possible to identify the for-itself, since the most basic form of identification, i.

    This picture is clearly one in which the problematic region of being is that of the for-itself, and that is what Being and Nothingness will focus upon. But at the same time, another important question arises. Indeed, insofar Sartre has rejected the notion of a grounding of all beings in Being, one may ask how something like a relation of being between consciousness and the world is possible.

    This issue translates in terms of understanding the meaning of the totality formed by the for-itself and the in-itself and its division into these two regions of being.

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    By addressing this latter issue, Sartre finds the key concept that enables him to investigate the nature of the for-itself. One of the most original contributions of Sartre's metaphysics lies in his analysis of the notion of nothingness and the claim that it plays a central role at the heart of being chapter 1, Part One. Importantly, this is not just a psychological state, because a 'nothingness' is really experienced. The nothingness in question is also not simply the result of applying a logical operator, negation, to a proposition.

    The first is a purely logical construction that reveals nothing about the world, while the second does. Sartre says it points to an objective fact. However, this objective fact is not simply given independently of human beings. Rather, it is produced by consciousness.

    Thus Sartre considers the phenomenon of destruction. When an earthquake brings about a landslide, it modifies the terrain. If, however, a town is thereby annihilated, the earthquake is viewed as having destroyed it. For Sartre, there is only destruction insofar as humans have identified the town as 'fragile'. This means that it is the very negation involved in characterising something as destructible which makes destruction possible. How is such a negation possible? The answer lies in the claim that the power of negation is an intrinsic feature of the intentionality of consciousness.

    To further identify this power of negation, let us look at Sartre's treatment of the phenomenon of questioning.

    Using Sartre : an analytical introduction to early Sartrean themes

    When I question something, I posit the possibility of a negative reply. For Sartre, this means that I operate a nihilation of that which is given: Sartre then notes that this requires that the questioner be able to detach himself from the causal series of being. And, by nihilating the given, he detaches himself from any deterministic constraints. And Sartre says that 'the name Our power to negate is thus the clue which reveals our nature as free.

    Below, we shall return to the nature of Sartre's notion of freedom. The structure and characteristics of the for-itself are the main focal point of the phenomenological analyses of Being and Nothingness. Here, the theme of consciousness's power of negation is explored in its different ramifications.

    Hell Is Other People (Jean-Paul Sartre / No Exit / Existentialism)

    These bring out the core claims of Sartre's existential account of the human condition. The analysis of nothingness provides the key to the phenomenological understanding of the for-itself chapter 1, Part Two. For the negating power of consciousness is at work within the self BN, By applying the account of this negating power to the case of reflection, Sartre shows how reflective consciousness negates the pre-reflective consciousness it takes as its object.

    Jean Paul Sartre: Existentialism

    This creates an instability within the self which emerges in reflection: This lack of self-identity is given another twist by Sartre: That means that the unity of the self is a task for the for-itself, a task which amounts to the self's seeking to ground itself. This dimension of task ushers in a temporal component that is fully justified by Sartre's analysis of temporality BN, The lack of coincidence of the for-itself with itself is at the heart of what it is to be a for-itself.

    Indeed, the for-itself is not identical with its past nor its future. It is already no longer what it was, and it is not yet what it will be. Thus, when I make who I am the object of my reflection, I can take that which now lies in my past as my object, while I have actually moved beyond this. Sartre says that I am therefore no longer who I am.

    Similarly with the future: I never coincide with that which I shall be. Temporality constitutes another aspect of the way in which negation is at work within the for-itself. These temporal ecstases also map onto fundamental features of the for-itself. First, the past corresponds to the facticity of a human life that cannot choose what is already given about itself.

    Second, the future opens up possibilities for the freedom of the for-itself. The coordination of freedom and facticity is however generally incoherent, and thus represents another aspect of the essential instability at the heart of the for-itself. The way in which the incoherence of the dichotomy of facticity and freedom is manifested, is through the project of bad faith chapter 2, Part One. Let us first clarify Sartre's notion of project.

    The fact that the self-identity of the for-itself is set as a task for the for-itself, amounts to defining projects for the for-itself. Insofar as they contribute to this task, they can be seen as aspects of the individual's fundamental project. This specifies the way in which the for-itself understands itself and defines herself as this, rather than another, individual.

    We shall return to the issue of the fundamental project below. Among the different types of project, that of bad faith is of generic importance for an existential understanding of what it is to be human. This importance derives ultimately from its ethical relevance. Sartre's analysis of the project of bad faith is grounded in vivid examples. In thus behaving, the waiter is identifying himself with his role as waiter in the mode of being in-itself. In other words, the waiter is discarding his real nature as for-itself, i. He is thus denying his transcendence as for-itself in favour of the kind of transcendence characterising the in-itself.

    In this way, the burden of his freedom, i. The mechanism involved in such a project involves an inherent contradiction. Indeed, the very identification at the heart of bad faith is only possible because the waiter is a for-itself, and can indeed choose to adopt such a project. So the freedom of the for-itself is a pre-condition for the project of bad faith which denies it. You do not currently have access to this article. You could not be signed in. Sign In Forgot password? Don't have an account? Sign in via your Institution Sign in. Purchase Subscription prices and ordering Short-term Access To purchase short term access, please sign in to your Oxford Academic account above.

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