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Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology

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Sartre: The Phenomenological Reduction and

Human Relationships
Thomas W. Busch
To cite this article: Thomas W. Busch (1975) Sartre: The Phenomenological Reduction and
Human Relationships, Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology, 6:1, 55-61, DOI:
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Granted that misunderstanding and misrepresentation are occupational hazards of the study of
a philosopher, the abuse done ,to Sartre in this
regard, even by critics of obvious good will, is
exceptional. In the case of those commentators
who rely primarily on Sartre's literature, it is not
difficult to understand why such problems arise,
since a grasp of the technical philosophy is
essential for a proper understanding of the literature. The repeated failure of commentators who
do address themselves to the philosophical work
to render intelligible such books as Being and
Nothingnessl and Critique de Ia Raison Dialectiquet is that these works have not been read, as
they should be, within the context of Sartre's
interpretation of the phenomenological reduction.
The language of BN may be Hegelian and Heideggerian and the language of CRD may be Marxist,
but the only way to make sense out of these
works is by reference to Husser!. A particular case
of misunderstanding and confusion has been
Sartre's position on human relationships. This

paper will attempt to present an intelligible

account of what Sartre says of human relationships within the context of his interpretation of
the phenomenological reduction.

I. Sartre' s interpretation of the reduction.

The key to understanding Sartre's unique, and

consistent, philosophical viewpoint is his first
philosophical work, The Transcendence of the
Ego.s Here he proposed to reveal the essence of
human consciousness and in the process offer "a
philosophical foundation for an ethics and a
politics which are absolutely positive".~ At the
basis of the entire enterprise is his reworking of
the epoche, the reduction.
With regard to the essence of consciousness,
3artre retained the Husserlian theory of intentionality. What Sartre adds is that while intending an
object other than itself consciousness is not

L'etre et le neant: essai d'ontologie phenomenologique (Paris: Gallimard, 1943). Being and Nothingness: An
Essay on Phenomenological Ontology -hereafter BN - transl. Hazel Barnes (New York: Philosophical
Ubrary, 1956).
2. Critique de Ia Raison Dialectique (precede de Questions de Methode) tome 1: Th6orie des ensembles
practiques (Paris: Gallimard, 1960) - hereafter CRD. English translation of Questions de Methode by
Hazel Barnes, Search for a Method (New York: Vintage Books, 1968). Further portions of CRD, translated
into English, appear in Robert Cumming's The Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre (New York: Modern
Ubrary, 1965).
3. La Tra.nscendence d_e l'ego: esquiss~ d'u~e description phenomenologique (1936). Introduction, notes et
appendices par SylVIe Le Bon (Pans: Vnn, 1965). The Transcendence of the Ego: an existentialist theory
of consciousness- hereafter TE- trans. Williams and Kirkpatrick (New York: Noonday, 1957).
4. Ibid., p. 106.


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unconscious of itself. One and the same act of there ... a world that has its l;leing out there".5
consciousness is focally aware of an object other This realism extends as well to the practical
than itself and non-focally self-aware. This world: "This world is not there for me as a mere
structure of consciousness is seen to exist on two world of facts and affairs, but with the same
levels: pre-reflective and reflective." An example of immediacy, as a world of values, a world of goods,
pre-reflective consciousness would be Descartes a practical world."6 Husser! then sets himself to
while he was actually engaged in doubting. While convincing us that this realism is a "thesis" about
"doing" doubting, Descartes' consciousness was what is immediately given to our consciousness.
focused upon the objects doubted and was non- His methodology in Ideas is Cartesian: we can
focally aware of itself. When reflection occurs radically question this supposed realism, we can
(Descartes' cogito) a new consciousness comes to doubt. "Instead of remaining at this standpoint,
focus upon the "doubting consciousness". This we propose to alter it radically.... The attempt
reflecting consciousness, a consciousness intending to doubt everything has its place in the realm of
consciousness, is non-focally a~~re of itself. This our perfect freedom . ... We put out of action the
structure of consciousness is the basis for Sartre's general thesis which belongs to the essence of the
conception of freedom. Consciousness, while natural standpoint, we place in brackets whatever
always engaged with objects, is never exhaustively it includes respecting the nature of being .. ."7
so engaged. By virtue of non-focal self-conscious- After the suspension of the thesis, Husser!
ness, consciousness always maintains a distance displays the intentional character of consciousbetween itself and its objects. The future studies ness. What is given to consciousness is meant by
on the emotions and imagination were to center consciousness, essentially related to consciousness,
on this ability of consciousness to alter its relations constituted by consciousness. The ego is posited
with its objects, particularly those "real" objects as the subjective pole of intentional acts.
of perception. Consciousness must not be judged
"passive" or in any way a product of real causalSartre holds that the ego is itself constituted by
ity, since by its own efforts it is able to withdraw consciousness, using an interesting example,
from the real into the "unreal". This self- showing that "consciousness suddenly appeared to
activation or "spontaneity" of consciousness itself as infinitely overflowing in its possibilities
becomes the theme of the latter half of TE and the I which ordinarily serves as its unity." A
involves the reduction of the Ego.
young girl who considered herself to be "married"
and "faithful" apprehended in anxiety that she
Sartre contends that the ego, which appears only could act unfaithfully. She had a thesis about
on the reflective level, can in no way be in con- herself - that she was "something" with just
sciousness. The ego must be distinguished from certain possibilities. She was sh_ocked out of this
consciousness, the structure of which will admit "natural attitude" regarding herself with the
no contents. Sartre is here suggesting that Husser! apprehension that consciousness as spontaneous
did not go far enough with the reduction by not freedom creates and sustains the ego: "It can
expelling the ego from consciousness. When happen that consciousness suddenly produces
Husser! differentiates the "phenomenological out- itself on the pure reflective 'level. Perhaps not
look" from the "natural standpoint", as he does, without the ego, yet as escaping from the ego on
for example, in part two of Ideas (1913), he all sides, as dominating the ego and maintaining
portrays the natural standpoint as a realistic the ego outside the consciousness by a continued
attitude. The "fact-world" is "out there ... just as creation." Sartre notes that the ego functions in
it gives itself to me as something that exists out a practical way "to mask from consciousness its
E?mund Husset:l, Ideen zu einer reinen Phiinom_enolog!~ und phiinomenologischen Philosophie, ed. Walter
B1emel, Husserliana Vol. III (fhe Hague: Martinus N!Jhoff, 1950). Ideas: General Introduction to Pure
Phenomenology, trans. W. R. Boyce Gibson (New York: Collier, 1962).
6. Ibid., p. 93.
7. Ibid., pp. 96-97.



TE, p. 100.

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very spontaneity. . . . Everything happens, therefore, as if consciousness constituted the ego as a

false representation of itself ... absorbing itself in
the ego as if to make the ego its guardian and its

morality and politics mentioned at the end of TE.

In his discussion of the "immediate structures" of

the for-itself, Sartre writes, almost as an aside,

that "only reflective consciousness can be dissociated [desolidariser] from what is posited by
the consciousness reflected-on. It is on the reflecThe phenomenological outlook, gained by this tive level only that we can attempt an epoche, a
reduction of the ego, is referred to by Sartre as a putting between parentheses, only there that we
"pure" reflection and constitutes a recovery of can refuse [refuser] what Husserl calls the mitsubjectivity which had hidden itself in favor of machen."ll The stage is set for the refusal by
the world. His entire philosophical outlook is phenomenological consciousness of the project to
based on the possibility of such a "purifying" be God, the impossible synthesis, which is the
reflection which has the effect of restoring freedom value haunting pre-reflective consciousness. It is
and responsibility, first to our individual lives in in this sense that the footnote ending the chapter
BN, and then to social. economic and political on "Bad Faith" must be understood. The footnote
institutions in CRD.JO
tells us that it is possible to "radically escape bad
faith. But this supposes a self-recovery of being
BN is certain to be misunderstood if it is not which was previously corrupted."zt The "selfread in the light of Sartre's treatment of the reduc- recovery" is the recovery of free consciousness, by
tion in TE. Sartre's ontology resolves a question means of the purifying reflection. In bad faith free
that was unresolved in TE: why does conscious- consciousness "corrupts itself" by fleeing from
ness flee itself, identifying with the ego? Why, in itself.
other words, does consciousness embrace the
natural attitude with respect to the ego? Sartre's
The section on "Having, Doing and Being",
analysis of the pre-reflective cogito in BN reveals
which is a detailed discussion of the project to be
the well-known "passion to be" as an answer to
God, contains a very significant treatment of play.
the question. The vocabulary of the unhappy
Play is contrasted with the "spirit of seriousness",
consciousness is Hegelian: as self-consciousness,
which is nothing else than the natural attitude.
being for-itself lacks coincidence with itself; lack
brings about desire, action, value. Value, what is
Play . . . strips the real of its reality. . . . Play
lacked, is the synthesis of self-consciousness with
releases subjectivity. . .. As soon as a man appreitself, while, of course, it remains self-conscioushends himself as free and wishes to make use of his
freedom . . . then his activity is play. The first
ness. By definition the synthesis is impossible and
principle of play is man himself; through it he
thus "man is a useless passion". Bad faith (the
escapes his natural nature.... It might appear then
natural attitude) is understandable as an oblique
that when a man is playing, bent on discovering
himself as free in his very action, he certainly could
attempt to realize the impossible synthesis.
not be concerned with possessing a being in the
Always in the background of the discussion of
world. His goal, which he aims at through sport or
pantomime or games, is to attain himself as a certain
the natural attitude and the impossible synthesis
being, precisely the being which is in question in
is the possibility of effecting the purifying reflechis being. . . . This particular type of project, which
tion of the phenomenological reduction which
has freedom for its foundation and its goal, deserves
a special study. It is radically different from all
would put us once more on the way toward that
others in that it aims at a radically different type of
9. The important texts on the reduction occur in TE, pp. 100-103.
10. The nove~, Nausea .(193~~ .~ust also be read ~thin the context of Sartre's reworking of the reduction.
Whe~eas m TE he IS cnticlZlng Husserl for fatting to extend the reduction far enough to encompass the
eg'?, m Nausea he can }?e seen t~ take Husserl to. task for going too far with the reduction, by considering
Bemg as only a meamng relative to and constituted by consciousness.
II. BN., p. 75. The ori~nal ~anguage ~f this i~portant text reads: "Mais l'analyse de doute methodique que
Husserl a tentee a. bien mis en lu~uere ce fait que seule Ia conscience reflexive peut de desolidariser de ce
que pose las consCience refteche. C est au mveau reftexif seulement qu'on pent tenter une epoche nne mise
en~re parentheses, qu'on peut refuser ce que Husserl appelle Ie 'mit-machen'."


lbzd .. p. 70.


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being. It would be necessary to explain in full detail

its relations with the project of being-God, which
has appeared to us as the deep-seated structure of
human reality. But such a study cannot be made
here; it belongs rather to an Ethics and it supposes
that there has been a preliminary definition of
nature and the role of purifying reflection (our
descriptions have hitherto aimed only at accessory
reflection); it supposes in addition taking a position
which can be moral only in the face of values which
haunt the For-itself.JS

This is a clear indication of the possibility of a

purifying reflection which would refuse what is
posited by the pre-reflective consciousness.
Through the purifying reduction "nature" is
escaped, insofar as the drive toward the synthesis
is natural to the pre-reflective consciousness. The
first step toward effecting the purifying reflection is
"existential psychoanalysis" which "acquaints
man with his passion".l~ As the concluding
remarks of BN state, existential psychoanalysis
can be used "as a means of deliverance and
salvation".J5 Having thematized the passion to be,
freedom can "take itself for a value" in opposition
to the value naturally posited by pre-reflective
consciousness. The natural value is unattainable.
Man will never be God. From this point of view
all projects are equivalent failures: "it amounts to
the same thing whether one gets drunk alone or
is a leader of nations".16 What Sartre is suggesting
is that, although it is impossible to be God, it is
possible to choose existing as a man. Man can
choose his own alienated condition (freedom) and
accept responsibility for this world. An ethics of
"conditioned freedom" is promised. BN does not
put man in a paralizing nihilism, but deals with
the corruption of free consciousness by itself, so
that an ethics and politics of freedom can eventuate.
Of course, the ethics has not appeared.J7 Instead
we find Sartre constructing another huge work.

CRD, of which we have the first of two projected

volumes and in which Sartre declares himself a

disciple of Marx. What has happened?
CRD was launched because Sartre discovered,
after BN, another type of alienation, another type
of natural attitude which calls once more for a
purifying reflection. In BN alienation occurred
because consciousness fled itself, hiding its freedom from itself, putting itself into the natural
attitude. There is, however, social alienation,
through which society attempts to hide a man's
freedom from him, imposing on .him the natural

In BN, while treating of Being-for-Others,

Sartre wrote, without realizing its full ramifications that.
I, by whom meanings come to things, I find myself
engaged in an already meaningful world which
reflects to me meanings which I have not put into
it ... and ... I meet with a meaning which is mine
and which I have not given to myself, which I
discover that I 'possess' already.I8

His work on Genet is a testimony to the power of

this truth. A child first sees himself through the
eyes of Others, learns his identity within a given
social, economic, political structure and "internalizes" the identity given to him.
Genet is a child who has been convinced that he is,
his very depths, Another than Self . ... In his very
depths, Genet is first an object - and an object to
others ... and we shall see that it is simply a matter
of progressively internalizing the sentence imposed
by adults .... This type of alienation is widespread.
Most of the time, however, it is a matter of partial
or temporary alienation. But when children are
subjected, from their earliest days, to great social
pressure, when their Being-for-Others is the subject
of a collective image accompanied by value judgments and social prohibitions, the alienation is
sometimes total and definitive. This is the case of
most pariahs in caste societies. They internalize the

Ibid., pp. 580-581.

Ibid., p. 626.
Ibid., p. 627.
16. Ibid.
17. According to Contat and Rybalka, Les Ecrits de Sartre (Paris: Gallimard, 1970), Sartre has completed the
work on ethics: "Au debut 1969, il nons a dit en effet que son ethique dialectique est a l'heure actuelle
entierement constituee dans son esprit et qu'il ne prevoit plus maintenant que des problemes de redaction."
P. 426.
Mentor, 1963), pp. 44-47.


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objective and external judgments which the collectivity passes on them, and they view themselves in
their subjective individuality on the basis of an
'ethnic character,' a 'nature,' an 'essence' which
merely express the contempt in which others hold

In internalizing his social essence the child, or the

man who has the child within him, is unlike the
young woman in TE or the waiter in BN who
"know" their freedom, but do not notice it. The
child does not know his spontaenous freedom. but
is fascinated by the world. This alienated subjectivity must be brought, through purifying reflection, to see that the society, of which it is itself a
part, is constituted by man. The social essence,
like the ego, comes to be reduced. Purified or
moral consciousness must now assume responsibility for society.
CRD (vol. 1) addresses itself to this "alienation
from without", but now from the point of view
of economics. The essence of society is grasped in
terms of need, scarcity, the practico-inert, labor,
etc. But always in the background is the purifying
reflecion, the restoration of subjectivity to the
making of history. The difference is that the return
of society to a human constitution demands more
than an inward conversion of attitude. It involves
revolutionary praxis:
Now, in the present phase of our history, productive
forces have entered into conflict with relations of
production. Creative work is alienated; man does
not recognize himself in his own product, and his
exhausting labor appears to him as a hostile force.
Since alienation comes about as the result of this
conflict, it is a historical reality and completely
irreducible to an idea. If men are to free themselves from it, and if their work is to become the
pure objectification of themselves, it is not enough
that 'consciousness think itself'; there must be
material work and revolutionary praxis.~O

The phenomenological reduction must be exercized within a situation of need and scarcity. The
"ethics of deliverance and salvation", which takes

freedom as its end, cannot be content with inward

conversion but demands materialization in authenic institutions.21
2. The reduction and human relationships.

Obviously, a correct reading of the section on

"Being-for-Others" in BN is dependent on the
distinction between impure reflection (the natural
attitude) and purifying reflection (the phenomenological viewpoint). The chapter, "The Existence of
Others", discusses the objectification of prereflective consciousness. Being-for-itself has an
"outside"; human reality is both subject and
object. Sartre's description of the experience of
objectification in terms of shame, danger, a fall.
slavery smacks of a manichean strain that runs
through his work and is particularly visible in the
earlier period. But even if conflict is the original
meaning of objectification there remains the decisive question of what conflict will mean in the
light of purifying reflection. Sartre does not take
up this question in BN, but he does devote a
chapter, "Concrete Relations with Others", to
human relationships within the context of bad
faith. The consciousness in bad faith either
attempts to be wholly subject (by hiding its objectivity and the subjectivity of the other) or attempts
to be wholly object (by hiding its subjectivity and
the objectivity of the other). Based on a lie. such
relationships can only form a "hellish circle" and
are doomed to failure. It is precisely after Sartre
makes that observation that there appears a footnote which refers to the possibility of "an ethics of
deliverance and salvation", which implies a "radical conversion of consciousness".~! Making sense
of this footnote is an appropriate test for a
commentator's ability to make sense out of BN.ZS
Mrs. Warnock, for example, notes it by remarking
that "within the context of Being and Nothingness
the footnote is impossible to understand".t4

18. BN., p. 510.

19. Saint Genet: Comedien et Martyr (Paris: Gallimard. 1952). Saint Genet, trans. B. Frechtman (New York:
20. CRD., p. 20; Search for a Method, pp. 13-14.
21. Our argument is that there is an underlying unity to all of Sartre's work: of perspective, which is the
phenomenological reduction as reworked in TE, and secondly, of intention, which is the aim of constructing
a "positive" (humanistic) morality and politics. There is the further question of logical unity, e.g., whether
he builds a logical bridge between ontology and ethics. On this question see Thomas Anderson, "Is a
Sartrean Ethics Possible?", Philosophy Today 14 (Summer, 1970).
22. B.N., p. 412.


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According to our inte~pretation, BN must be read

in the light of this footnote (and the footnote on
bad faith and the discussion of play), which means
within the context of TE. Because she does not
read BN and CRD within the framework of
Sartre's interpretation of the reduction, she is
compelled to understand the "radical conversion
of consciousness" as simply a gratuitous and
contradictory move into Marxism. Mr. Manser, a
more astute critic, informs us that the types of
relationships discussed in "Concrete Relations
with Others" should not be considered the only
possible human interrelationships, as is apparent
''both from his personal relationship with Simone
de Beauvoir and from his later commitment to
certain forms of political action".!5 However, the
footnote should not at all be su~prising, even to
such a sympathetic critic as Mr. Manser, since it
is patently intelligible in the light of what Sartre
is about in BN. His purpose is not to discuss
authentic human relationships in that book, but to
examine the inauthentic consciousness and the
motive for becoming inauthentic.
The closest that Sartre has come to discussing
authentic human relationships is his What is
Literature? Here he considers the act of writing
to be the creation of an aesthetic object. We know
from his second study of the imagination that, for
him, the aesthetic object is not real. It is an object
of imaginative, not perceptual consciousness. In
thus transcending the real, the act of writing is a
free act. Reading, as well, is a free act, since the
reader must re-create the aesthetic object. The
reader, as it were, loans his freedom to the writer,




who through the analogon (the paper and print,

etc.) projects the consciousness of the reader into
the aesthetic world. Thus considered, reader and
writer bring about a "formal kingdom of ends",
that is, a relationship wherein frreedoms recognize,
respect, and co-operate with one another. In this
sense, "the work of art, from which ever side you
approach it, is an act of confidence in the freedom
of man. . . . Although literature is one thing and
morality a quite different one, at the heart of the
aesthetic imperative we discern the moral imperative. "Z6 Sartre immediately translates this formal
recognition, respect and co-operation of freedoms
into a normative statement about the content of
literature: "It would be inconceivable that this
unleashing of generosity provoked by the writer
could be used to authorize an injustice . . . or
simply abstain from condemning the subjection of
man by man. "Z7 To use freedom to deny freedom
is "inconceivable" to Sartre. The reciprocal recognition of freedoms seems to form the basis of a
categorical imperative. The reciprocal recognition
of freedoms, the formal kingdom of ends, must
not just remain formal and abstract. Formal good
will must be transformed "into a concrete and
material will to change this world by specific
means in order to help the coming of the concrete
society of ends".ZB An authentic society must be
constituted for moral reasons.
It is within this moral perspective that we must
read CRD. Here we find being-for-itself examined
through the material needs of its facticity. These
needs, within the context of scarcity, set up a
relationship of enmity between men:

Actually, the "test" can be extended to understanding the footnote about escaping bad faith and the discussion of play. Within a reading of Sartre as Hegelian, these brief texts make no sense. A case in point
is Richard Bernstein's recent Praxis and Action (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1971).
Bernstein is aware of the footnotes and the concluding section on "ethical implications" but, because he
does not distinguish impure from pure reflection, accuses Sartre of "bad faith" for the statements about
escaping from bad faith. He fails to see that purifying reflection creates a context wherein the aim is not
that of being God.
Mary Warnock, The Philosophy of Sartre (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1967), p. 130.
Anthony Manser, Sartre: a philosophic study (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), pp. 97-98. Mr.
Manser is indeed aware of Sartre's references to authenticity in BN - the footnotes we have mentioned and
the text on play. However, in our judgement he does not render these references intelligible, as they should
be, in the light of the reduction. Because of this he fails to read CRD in terms of the reduction, which,
again, in our judgement is crucial.
"Qu'est-ce que Ia Iitterature?," Situations II (Paris: Gallimard, 1964). First appeared in Les Temps
Modernes in installments from February-July, 1947. What is Literature?, trans. B. Frechtman (New York:
Harper, 1965), pp. 56-57.
Ibid., p. 57.
Ibid .. p. 270.

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But if the individual member we are considering

recognizes himself, through his need and his praxis,
as among men, he discloses each of them in the
perspective of the object of consumption or the
manufactured product; and-on the elementary level
on which we are-he discloses each of them as the
simple possibility of consuming an object that he
needs. In short, he discovers each of them as the
material possibility of his own annihilation through
the material annihilation of an object of primary

scarcity. With the group-in-fusion is "the sudden

restoration of freedom" ..u Not only is .there a
reciprocal recognition of freedom in the group, but
the effective capacity of freedom to eventuate the
material kingdom of ends occurs. The subjectivity
of the phenomenological reduction as applied to
scarcity is the group-in-fusion.

From this point of view, given need and scarcity,

the for-itself finds itself "constituted" in enmity
with others: "scarcity realizes the passive totality
of the individuals of a collectivity as the impossibility of coexistence".S'O The natural attitude
looms again, since man considers himself a
product of the environment and ineluctably pitted
against others. A phenomenological reduction is
called for wherein free subjectivity is restored to
this situation. The human (active, free constituting) must be brought to bear on the nonhuman
(passive, inert, constituted). The human (the
authentic) involves the recognition of the human
in the praxis of all men. The recognition of myself
in the Other and the Other in me is interiorized
in the group-in-fusion. In "seriality" man is constituted from without "as molecules of wax are
inertly united". In this case man is still ontologieally free, but reduced to impotence in combatting

BN did not foreclose the possibility of authentic human relationships. If BN is read within the
context of Sartre's presentation of the reduction in
TE, it is evident that a purifying reflection can be
effected which delivers a consciousness from bad
faith. From what was said in What is Literature?
authentic relationships involve reciprocal recognition, respect and co-operation of freedoms. Within
the context of social alienation and scarcity, the
establishing of an authentic society is called for
by a purifying action. In tum this demands communal action. Read this way it becomes unnecessary to accuse Sartre of a contradiction between
his philosophy (which would present human
relationships as inevitable conflict) and his
personal life (which is committed to social


Villanova University

CRD., p. 205; The Philosophy of lean-Paul Sartre, p. 436.

CRD., p. 205; The Philosophy of lean-Paul Sartre, p. 437.
CRD . p. 425; The Philosophy of lean-Paul Sartre, p. 472.