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Sartre's Two Conceptions of Consciousness

Sartre's Two Conceptions of Consciousness

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An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Rachael Scally. Originally submitted for Philosophy at None, with lecturer Professor Alweiss in the category of Philosophical Studies & Theology
An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Rachael Scally. Originally submitted for Philosophy at None, with lecturer Professor Alweiss in the category of Philosophical Studies & Theology

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 30, 2012
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12/23/2013

 
Title
: Sartre’s Two Conceptions of Consciousness
Abstract
: This essay examines Sartre’s two conceptions of consciousness and investigates why Sartre choseto abandon his original, non-egological, notion of consciousness and instead adopt an ownership theory of theself. The essay begins with a critical discussion of Sartre’s non-ownership theory of consciousness in
TheTranscendence of the Ego
. It is argued that Sartre initially believed that consciousness could not be owned for three reasons. Firstly, he maintained that experience must already be unified. Secondly, he held thatconsciousness was not necessarily a type of self-awareness. Thirdly, Sartre believed that when we try toaccount for the self, for this ‘I’, that we are simply unable to find it and hence maintained that it was non-meaningful. We then proceed to assess Sartre’s new egological notion of experience in
 Being and  Nothingness
and to investigate what led Sartre to this stark change of mind. It is proposed that Sartre’s alteredview about the nature of consciousness was the result of three key beliefs. Firstly, Sartre supposed that bydemonstrating that our initial self-awareness was not in fact a type of self-knowledge, but rather pre-reflectiveself-awareness, that he had succeeded in solving the problem of reflection. Secondly, Sartre came tounderstand that unless our experiences were already truly ours, we would be incapable of attributingexperiences to ourselves. Thirdly, Sartre realized that his theory of freedom and responsibility would beuntenable without being able to adequately account for our own experience. Finally, the essay examines therole of the conscious body in
 Being and Nothingness
.
Keywords
: Sartre, consciousness, self-reference, self-knowledge, experience.In this essay we will critically examine what led Sartre to abandon his non-egological conception of consciousness in
 Being and Nothingness
. We will firstly consider why Sartre advanced a non-ownershipaccount of consciousness in
The Transcendence of the Ego
. It will be argued that Sartre maintained thatconsciousness could not be owned as he believed (i) that experience was already unified, (ii) thatconsciousness was not necessarily a form of self-awareness and (iii) that when, like Hume, we try to look for the self, for this ‘I’, that we can never find it. We will then proceed to investigate why Sartre rejected thistheory and moved to an egological conception of experience in
 Being and Nothingness
. It will be argued thatSartre moved to an ownership view of consciousness as (i) he believed he could avoid the problem of reflection by demonstrating that our initial self-awareness is not a form of self-knowledge but rather pre-reflective self-awareness, (ii) he realized that we would be unable to attribute experiences to ourselves if theseexperiences were not already ours initially and (iii) that without being able to successfully account for our 1
 
own experiences, his theory of freedom and responsibility would be untenable. It will be contendedthat critics, such as Morris, who argue that Sartre’s notion of the conscious body is sufficient to account for the unity of consciousness, are in error.In
The Transcendence of the Ego
Sartre renounces the traditional philosophical belief that ‘the Ego isan ‘inhabitant’ of consciousness’(Sartre, 2004, p.1). The ego
1
, Sartre argues, is neither ‘formally’ presentat the heart of our intentional experiences, as a meaningless principle of unification, in the way Kantmaintains nor, as the psychologist’s claim, is it materially present in consciousness as the nucleus of our desires and acts. Rather, the ego is outside of consciousness, ‘in the world’(Sartre, 2004, p.1). Sartreopens with Kant’s famous declaration that ‘it must be possible for the ‘I think’ to accompany all myrepresentations’ and proceeds to call this statement into question. Although it seems that we must agreewith Kant in this assertion, is it in fact true, he questions, that the ‘I think’ does ‘accompany them inactual fact?’(Sartre, 2004, p.3). What Sartre holds, contrary to Kant and the tradition, is that the ‘I think’does not create the unity of the world and that this ‘I think’ is simply unnecessary for the unification of experience, as experience itself is already unified. It is not the case that our experience of the world, our sense impressions, which are chaotic and jumbled, need to be structured by our minds in order to bemade meaningful. Sartre argues, thereby operating with a stronger notion of the traditional given, that asexperience is already structured, it is already meaningful
2
to us and, hence, what we need to do is todiscover the structures within experience itself. Sartre argues that it is not the ego which is responsiblefor the unity and coherence of my conscious acts, ‘but rather is itself brought about when consciousness,in one of the actions compromising its stream, recollects several of its past moments and synthesizesthem with its present one’(Detmer, 2008, p.20). Sartre writes that, Kant’s ‘I think’, therefore, ‘appearsagainst the background of a unity that it has not contributed to creating, and it is this pre-existing unitywhich, on the contrary, makes it possible’(Sartre, 2004, p.5). Sartre therefore maintains that the ‘I think’is redundant.Sartre draws a distinction between the empirical ego and the transcendental field
3
. He states thatunlike the empirical ego, which is an object of consciousness, ‘the transcendental field becomesimpersonal…it is
without an I 
’(Sartre, 2004, p.5). This transcendental field of consciousness is a ‘non-I….(or)…nothing precisely because it is the consciousness of all things’(Moran, 2000, p.377). Sartre proceeds to argue against Kant and the tradition, who claim that when we think of something we are
1
As Morris,1985, p.180 notes, Sartre wishes to demonstrate that the non-egological concept of consciousness whichHusserl advanced in the
 Logical Investigations
was correct and that he had fallen into error when, in
 Ideas,
he moved to anegological one.
2
In this respect Sartre follows Husserl, who also argued that when we talk about experience what we find is that we are not just given raw and confused sense data, but rather that what is given already has a structure and is meaningful.
3
Moran, 200, p.377.
2
 
necessarily aware that we are thinking of something, that consciousness is not necessarily reflectiveconsciousness. The ‘I’, he argues is not primary and reflective consciousness appears only as asecondary occurrence. It is unreflective consciousness which is ‘first order’ consciousness
4
 and is non- positional, non-thetic, pre-personal and pre-reflective and does not posit an ‘I’ which accompanies all of our representations. When I’m wrapped up in activities, ‘when I run after a tram, when I look at thetime, when I become absorbed in the contemplation of a portrait, there is no
 I 
’(Sartre, 2004, p.13).WhenI’m engaged in the world, there is only consciousness of ‘the tram-needing-to-be-caught’(Sartre, 2004, p.13). In other words, in everyday experience we do not constantly think about the fact that we are doingsomething, we do not continually say to ourselves, ‘I am running to catch a bus’ or ‘I am walking intotown’, we simply do these things, without thinking of the fact that we are actually engaged in theseactivities. Sartre, therefore, maintains that consciousness is not always reflective or self-conscious andthat it is not the case that the ‘I’ is always present. For the majority of our everyday lives, the ‘I’ is rather not reflective and consciousness is only aware of its immediate projects. In un-reflected consciousnessthe ‘I’ has, therefore, eliminated itself and what we have is rather the immediate awareness of what weare actually doing. Sartre argues that if the ‘I’ emerges at all it is on the reflective level, when we ask ourselves what we have been doing. In fact, as Sartre states, this unnecessary ‘I’, if it existed, would be aimpediment, as ‘it would violently separate consciousness from itself, it would divide it, slicing througheach consciousness like an opaque blade’(Sartre, 2004, p.7). In other words, constant reflection wouldconstitute a hindrance to the flow of our conscious experience. Unlike reflection, consciousness isimperceptible and constitutes no barrier between ourselves and the world. It is consciousness in factwhich ‘renders the unity and personality of my ‘I’ possible’(Sartre, 2004, p.7).In a similar way to Anscombe and Wittgenstein
5
, Sartre, therefore, questions whether our constantuse of the ‘I’ in discourse refers to anything other than mere linguistic convention. Although we allfrequently make statements such as ‘I am in pain’ or ‘I am cold’, as Hume contends, it seems that whenwe try to account for this self, for this ‘I’, that we are unable to find it and hence, it is non-meaningful.As soon as we attempt to comprehend this ‘I think’, we render this ‘I’ into an object of consciousness,which stands opposed to us like other objects in the world and to which we are directed
6
. Sartre arguesthat there is nothing distinct about the first person pronoun and that consciousness is aware of itself as anobject of representation like any other object, the ‘I’ ‘becomes conscious of itself insofar as it isconsciousness of a transcendent object’(Sartre, 2004, p.7), which can be verified from a third person perspective. What he argues is that when we reflect on what we have been doing we employ the first
4
Sartre, 2004, p.8.
5
Alweiss, 2012, p.2.
6
Sartre, 2004, p.8.
3

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