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Cogito: From Descartes to Sartre

Author(s): Weimin MO and Wang Wei

Source: Frontiers of Philosophy in China, Vol. 2, No. 2 (April 2007), pp. 247-264
Published by: Springer
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Front.Philos. China 2007, 2(2): 247-264
DOI 10.1007/s11466-007-0016-0


MO Weimin

Cogito: From Descartes to Sartre*

? Higher Education Press and Springer-Verlag2007

Abstract Cogito, as the first principle of Descartes' metaphysical system,

initiated themodern philosophy of consciousness, becoming both the source and
subject of modem Western philosophical discourse. The philosophies of Maine
de Biran, Kant, Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre,Merleau-Ponty, and others developed
by answering the following questions? Is consciousness substantial or not?
Does consciousness require the guarantee of a transcendental subject? Is Cogito
epistemological or ontological? Am I a being-for-myself or a being-for-others?
Outlining the developmental histoiy of the idea of Cogito from Descartes to
Sartre is important for totally comprehending the evolution and development of
Western philosophy.

Keywords Cogito, consciousness, substance, transcendental subject, Descartes,


When Descartes deduced from Cogito soul and body?mind and material?as
two separate substances, he established the subject in its true meaning in the
history of philosophy. Nourished by the Cartesian Cogito, Western philosophy
has been making itsway formore than three centuries. Almost the entire history
of Western philosophy has unfolded either by reinterpreting the philosophy of
Cartesian Cogito or by criticizing it from different angles. Does consciousness
have substantiality? Does consciousness need to be justified by a transcendental
subject? Is Cogito epistemological or ontological? Am I a being-for-myself or a
being-for-others? Kant, Husserl, Heidegger and Sartre reflected on the problem
of Cogito after Descartes and made milestone contributions. Tracing the

Translated byWang Wei from
Xueshu Yuekan & ?'J(AcademicMonthly), 2006, (3): 69-76

MO Weimin (M)
Department of Philosophy,Fudan University,Shanghai 200433, China

*This paper is supportedby a national project (No. 05FCZD0010) grantedby the Innovation
Base of Philosophy and Social Science.
248 MO Weimin

developing course of the problem of Cogito from Descartes to Sartre helps us

comprehend the evolution and progress ofWestern philosophy in general.

1 The Ego of "Cogito" is not substance

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a number of philosophers attempted to

use other concepts to weaken or transform the active and constructive function
and the substantial-standing of theCartesian subjective ego. Maine de Biran tried
to remould the Cartesian Cogito?"I think"?by his own term volo?"I will".
First, Biran regarded the active aspects of moi as ego; then, by identifying the
ego and itself ("soi-m?me"), he criticized Descartes for establishing the substantial
ego (soul) of thinking and absolute being. He was also not content with Descartes
regarding the impersonal substance of free-thinking soul as the basis of the
experience of Cogito. As soul (substantial ego) transcends any individual
manifestations of will, it becomes the ego without self.As ithides far behind the
automatic appearance of existent ego, it becomes the powerless abstract ego.
Evidently, the "I" of "I think" is no longer the "I" of "I am." Biran tried to
substitute the Cartesian "I think, therefore I am" by "I will, therefore I am." He
thought that the force of will in personal existence ismore fundamental than the
Cartesian substantial ego's Cogito. The initial consciousness of the empirical
ego differs from the impersonal, transcendental, substantial ego. Body does not
oppose itself to soul as in Cartesian philosophy; rather, it is a component of ego
and exists as authentically as ego does.
Biran denounced Descartes for confusing the phenomenal ego with the
substantial ego, whereas Kant went far beyond this. InKritik der Reinen Vernunft,
Kant focused on criticizing the four kinds of deductive paralogism in Cartesian
philosophy, namely the substantiality of soul (the thinking being) from Cogito,
ergo sum?"I think, therefore I am"?the simplicity of soul (the thinking "I"),
the personality of soul and the ideality of the existence of the objects of outer
senses. Because the Cartesian substance of soul transcends the empirical
multitude, it lacks the eternity of an object that substance as substance must
possess and is given as the eternal in experience. Therefore, the Cartesian
substance of soul is void and barren without objective meaning. The Cartesian
Cogito (soul or the thinking being) is no more than a logical subject in the ideality,
and not at all a real subject as foundation of thinking. Therefore, "die Seele ist
Substanz Begriff nicht immindesten weiter f?hre" (Kant 1956, 379a, A351).
As to the simplicity of soul, Kant pointed out that the Cartesian proposition
of Cogito and ergo sum is really a tautology, since "I think" (Cogito) means
"I am thinking", immediately asserting my existence. The simplicity of "I" as
soul origins directly from "I am", viz. the indivisible absolute logical unity of
representation, and is not deduced from "I think" (Kant 1956, 379a, 382a, A354).
Cogito: From Descartes to Sartre 249

Furthermore, "Die Einfachheit aber der Vorstellung von einem Subjekt ist darum
nicht eine Erkenntnis von der Einfachheit des Subjekts selbst ..." (Kant 1956,
383a, A355). Thus, Kant criticized Descartes for insisting on the simplicity of
soul so as to separate the soul as subject and thematerial as object, thus denying
that soul has any material component. Although Kant also thought that the
thinking subject does not belong to any tangible material, he did not hold this
position for the same reason as Descartes, forKant regarded the thinking subject
as the object of inner sense, so it does not exist in space. Besides, the extensive
substance related to our outer sense is also simple and is able to think.By proving
the identitywhich necessarily combines with my consciousness is not therefore
the same as the identity which combines with another's consciousness, Kant
refuted the Cartesian viewpoint that soul is personality. By proving that the
thinking "I" has an original connection with the extensive material, Kant criticized
the fourth paralogism. In general, Kant wanted to transform theCartesian subject
" '
of consciousness into which has no substantiality or personality, is not
self-knowing as ego but just as object of reason. That is to say, consciousness was
transformed into being-in-itself which had not yet become being-for-itself. At the
same time,Kant admitted that thematerial being, with extension and movement
and as the object of outer sense, can also be the thinking subject.
In Recherches Logiques, Husserl insisted?just like Descartes?on the
"descriptive psychology" of the true immanence of consciousness or Cogito
activity. However, during his phase of "transcendental phenomenology", he
blamed Descartes for confusing psychological phenomenon with pure
phenomenon. He asserted that the Cartesian ego or Cogito activity is none other
than psychological apperception with empirical components. Far from being
pure, it is not truly absolute "fact" and still needs phenomenological reduction
to purify it. The consciousness which Descartes finally reached is merely
psychological consciousness. Only transcendental consciousness purified by
phenomenological reduction can be the foundation of being of the world. The
roots of themodern dichotomy of dualism lie inCartesian doubt's identifying the
ego with mind, spirit and reason when his doubt makes suspension of judgment
of theworld and body. However, according toHusserl, the posing of the purely
independent soul as substance not only damages the consistency of ego, but also
renders the suspension of meaningless judgement. Because Descartes did not
grasp the genuine meaning of transcendental subjectivity, he was not qualified as
a transcendental philosopher in a rigid sense and he merely gave a direction to
Husserl, who would found the transcendental phenomenology.
While both Husserl and Kant criticized Descartes for regarding soul and ego
as substance, and both of them pointed out that Descartes did not understand
that beyond the ego as being-in-itself derived from the suspension of judgement,
it is impossible to find its congener and theworld, Husserl denounced Kant, just
like Descartes, for his similar ignorance of consciousness and rational ideas.
250 MO Weimin

According toHusserl, Kant merely set the psychological consciousness in time,

instead of transcendental consciousness, as the foundation of knowledge, and
simply set a priori of knowledge by the intellect and reason which appear as
psychological factors. Thus Kant came to the self-contradictory conclusion that
subject or consciousness is both antecedent to theworld and within theworld. It
is obviouslya false conclusion; in fact, any exterior thing is at the same time the
thingwithin consciousness. Therefore, it is impossible to elicit from consciousness
that the reality exists exterior to consciousness. If we generalize that Kant
opposed the Cartesian factual ego using the transcendental ego, we can also say
that Husserl opposed the Cartesian and Kantian psychological ego using the
transcendental ego.
When Sartre criticized the ontological faults of Cartesian rationalism, he
pointed out, "La conscience n'a rien de substantiel, c'est une pure apparence',
en ce sens qu'elle que dans la mesure o? elle s'appara?t. Mais
n'existe c'est
pr?cis?ment parce qu'elle et pure apparence, parce qu'elle est un vide total
(puisque le monde entier est en dehors d'elle), c'est ? cause de cette identit? en
elle de l'apparence et de l'existence qu'elle peut ?tre consid?r?e comme
l'absolu."1 (Sartre 1943, p. 23). That is to say, because only consciousness
revealing itself can be pure revelation, consciousness does not have substantiality.
Similarly, appearance and existence are identified in consciousness, and thus
consciousness has the absoluteness. That is to say, the reason why consciousness
has no substantiality is that consciousness only exists as pure appearance as far as
it appears itself, and the reason why consciousness has absoluteness is that
appearance and existence achieve identification in consciousness.

2 Consciousness does not require transcendental ego

It seems thatHusserl's phenomenology made itpossible for philosophy to find its

concrete basis in real life experience?the true reason why Sartre showed zeal for
it. In his article "Une id?e fondamentale de la ph?nom?nologie de Husserl:
l'intentionnalit?," he repeatedly insisted thatHusserl affirmed that things cannot
be dissolved to consciousness, nor can things enter people's consciousness. After
transcendental reduction of phenomenology, Husserl found the transcendental
ego as his philosophy's starting point. However, Sartre was more radical than
Husserl and declared that all things, including the ego, exist outside of our
consciousness and cannot be assimilated by it; it is not in Cogito thatwe find
ourselves, but in theworld, among others. My "ego" is not the substance; it is the
^Consciousness has nothing substantial, it is pure 'appearance' in the sense that it exists only
to the degree to which it appears. But it is precise because consciousness is pure appearance,
and because it is total emptiness (since the entireworld is outside it)?it is because of this
identity of appearance and existence within it that it can be considered as the absoluteness."
Cogito: From Descartes to Sartre 251

object which I must construct with my actions in the world and relations with

Like Kant and Husserl, Sartre also attacked Descartes for regarding
consciousness as substantial, and he insisted that consciousness exists because it
appears itself.He differed, however, from Kant and Husserl in that he thought
that all things, including Cogito or ego, are exterior to consciousness. He put
emphasis on the primacy of consciousness, especially the primacy of the subject,
and firmly opposed the standpoint of transcendental philosophy. In his essay
La transcendance de I fEgo, Sartre elaborated on such ideas in detail.
According to Sartre, in Kant's philosophy, consciousness is sometimes
without "I" ("Je"), for Kant thought Cogito "doit pouvoir accompagner toutes
nos repr?sentations"2 (Sartre 1966, pp. 13-14). "I" actually does not reside in all
states of our consciousness and optimally synthesizes our experiences. Otherwise,
therewould be no need forKant to say "it should accompany." In fact, forKant,
the transcendental consciousness is no more than the prerequisite for the existence
of an empirical consciousness. In Kritik der Reinen Vernunft,Kant argued that
rational psychology had falsely regarded themere "logical subject of thought" as
"I" and a "thinking thing". In Kant's view, is just a phenomenon, stipulated
just as the things that are represented in space. The transcendental subject is
neither the integration of apperception, nor the correlation of a transcendental
object. When Kant discussed objects and their relationship with knowledge, he
did not involve subject. We know the transcendental subject not only by such
thoughts as its predication, for a transcendental object as thing-in-itself is itself
unknowable, it is neither material nor thinking being.
Husserl remoulded Kant's transcendental consciousness. Transcendental
consciousness is no longer the totality of logical conditions. Rather, it is
imprisoned in our empirical consciousness and forms our empirical consciousness.
Sartre agreed with Husserl in regarding "I" ("Je") as the outcome of the synthesis
and transcendence of consciousness in Recherches Logiques, but opposed the
traditional viewpoint espoused by Husserl in Id?es Directrices Pour une
Ph?nom?nologie, that the transcendental "I" ("Je") is behind each consciousness
and becomes the necessary structure of consciousness. According to Sartre, such
a view was contrary to Husserl's definition of consciousness. Sartre thought
that phenomenology did not need to resort to this unifying and individualizing
"I". In Le?ons sur la Conscience Interne du Temps, Husserl never resorted to the
synthetic strength of "I" when researching the subjective unity of multiple
consciousnesses, for it is consciousness itself thatunifies by the "mutual reversal"
game of intentionality. Such intentionality is the concrete and continuous
persistence of these past consciousnesses. Consciousness constantly returns to

should be able to accompany all of our representations".

252 MO We imi

itself and thus has nothing to do with the relationship between consciousness
and "I." Sartre believed that the phenomenological idea of consciousness denies
the unifying and individualizing function of "I". Moreover, even the unification
and individuality of "I" are offered by consciousness. The "I" of "I think"
(Cogito) is not a self-evident object and self-evidence is not the fountainhead
of consciousness. Only consciousness itself can be the fountainhead of
consciousness. Thus, there is no reason for the transcendental "I" to exist (Sartre
1966, pp. 22-23).
Because the transcendental T" lets consciousness disengage itself and divides
consciousness, it would kill consciousness. Because consciousness is the
consciousness that is conscious of itself, the consciousness of consciousness
understands consciousness itself as absolute immanence, which is totally different
from the consciousness" positional understanding of itsobject. Thus, Sartre called
the consciousness of consciousness "irreflexive consciousness," viz. first-degree
consciousness. In the irreflexive consciousness, there is no place for "I".
Consciousness which is conscious of itself is absolute and pure consciousness.
Importing the three-dimensional, opaque, and personal "I" into the absolute and
pure consciousness would pollute the pure consciousness and fix it, as well
blur it.
Husserl regarded consciousness as the unification of "being" and "appearance"
and he de-substantialized the phenomenon of consciousness, rendering it totally
different from Descartes' substantialized consciousness. Husserlian Cogito was
also different from theCartesian Cogito. Nevertheless, Sartre denounced Husserl
for his looking upon "I" as the necessary structure of consciousness in
The Fourth Meditation' ofM?ditations Cart?siennes. In Sartre's view, Husserl
exalted the opaque "I" to the absolute rank of pure consciousness.The originally
light consciousness becomes heavy and hence loses the quality by wrhich it
afford itself absolute existence with non-existential force. The innerT" ismerely
an object of consciousness. If the "I" is exalted as the necessary structure of
consciousness, all the achievements of phenomenology would be irrecoverably
lost (Sartre 1966, pp. 23-26).
Whereas the Cartesian "I" and "thinking" are on the same layer upon which
"I think" (Cogito) makes its transition to thinking substance, Sartre thought that
the Cartesian Any transcendence, however, must
"I" transcends consciousness.
be suspended. Therefore, Sartre asserted that Husserl did not recognize that
any transcendence would be suspended and thus falsely regarded "I" ("Je") as
transcendental consciousness. Whereas both Kant and Husserl consider "I" ("Je")
as the formal structure of consciousness, psychologists affirm the material
presence of "I" ("Mo/") in all our consciousnesses. However, Sartre insisted on
reconciling the "I" ("Je") as the unification of action with the "I" ("Mo/") as the
unification of states and qualities (Sartre 1966, p. 43). That is to say, Sartre
Cogito: From Descartes to Sartre 253

thought that ego has two aspects, the formal aspect and thematerial aspect, and
that it is ultimately the unification of states of qualities and action. Ego is the
irrational synthesis of subjectivity and passivity, as well as the synthesis of
immanence and transcendence.
Sartre put emphasis on the self-origination and independence of consciousness
in order to deny the priority and supremacy of the subject and get rid of the
difficult problem of solipsism inWestern philosophy. Consciousness is absolutely
immanent and has primacy. Consciousness is caused by the fact that consciousness
must face the "I" and combines with "I," whereas ego is not the necessary
structure of consciousnessand is a mere object of consciousness. Obviously, ego
and consciousness are correlative, but this relation relies on states and qualities as
media. Ego directly becomes the unification of states and action. States are the
media of body and consciousness, while qualities are themedia of states, action,
and ego. States are established by consciousness, while qualities are established

by states. Therefore, consciousness is the foundation of all these. Of course,

Sartre did not say that consciousness is the absolute foundation, the principle of

everything, or the foundation of itself.

Kant examined the condition of the possibility of experience, while Husserl's

phenomenology reduced theworld to the correlative condition of the intentional

object of consciousness. such methods as arbitrarily starting

Sartre considered
from abstraction and he himself would start from the concrete and examine, like

Heidegger, man in theworld and the relation that unifies man and theworld. In
L'?tre et le n?ant, he explicitly pointed out that consciousness is full consciousness
and consciousness can only be limited by itself. However, consciousness
does not precede its own being, for consciousness is not the fountainhead.
Consciousness is a fulfilled being, and exists by itself. Sartre did not intend
to show that consciousness is its own foundation of being: he only showed
that nothing is the cause of consciousness, and consciousness is the cause of its
own way of being. Consciousness exists only through a process of nihilation
or negation that is ascribed to it. In short, consciousness does not come from

nothingness. Prior to consciousness there is no nothingness of consciousness. "La

conscience'est ant?rieure au n?ant et 'se tire' de l'?tre"3 ( Sartre 1943, p. 22).
Sartre proved on an ontological level that consciousness is naturally supported
by being other than itself, for consciousness is the consciousness of something
and consciousness is the relation to the transcendent being. Consciousness can

always transcend itspresent existence (existent) and make itsway to themeaning

of its being. It always goes beyond the ontic (ontique) to the ontological

(ontologique). Sartre held that Husserl made his most important discovery in

3"Consciousness is prior to nothingness and 'is derived' from being."

254 MO Weimin

rigidly defining consciousness as transcendence. However, Sartre thought that

Husserl falsely regarded "the consciousness as object" as non-reality, a relativity
of "the consciousness of action," of which the being is perceived. Sartre firmly
believed that consciousness is not consciousness as the active ego, and thatwhile
the being of the perceived cannot be reduced to the being of perceiver, nor can
it be reduced to consciousness. The perceived being should exist even as

non-reality. That is to say, the being of phenomenon is not the being perceived of
the phenomenon (Sartre 1943, pp. 24-26). "La conscience est un ?tre pour lequel
il est dans son ?tre question de son ?tre en tant que cet ?tre implique un ?tre autre
que lui"4 (Sartre 3943, p. 29).

3 The being ofCogito

In order to substitute phenomenal monism for the dualism of being and appearance

(para?tre), modem philosophy reduced existence to a series of manifestations

of existence. However, Sartre thought, "L'existant, en effet,ne saurait se r?duire
? une s?rie finie de manifestations, puisque chacune d'elles est un rapport
? un sujet en perp?tuel changement"5 (Sartre 1943, p. 13). Therefore, modem
philosophy cannot successfully overcome dualism. Sartre held that appearance
appears and appearance exists, so the view of appearance became the starting
point from which Sartre would discuss the relationship between being and
nothingness; only by such an approach can philosophers overcome the dualism in
modem philosophy.
Because consciousness is the same thing as that which is conscious of,
Sartre regarded consciousness as being and opposed reducing consciousness to

knowledge. In other words, consciousness is not the being to be understood, but

the being that understands. Sartre would discard the primacy of knowledge and

dispel the fantasy of the supremacy of knowledge. In other words, he opposed

importing the subject-object dualism into consciousness. Reflexion is not superior
to reflected consciousness. It is not reflexion that reveals itself as the reflected
consciousness. On the contrary, it is the irreflexive consciousness thatmakes
reflexion possible: the pre-reflexive Cogito is the requisite of the Cartesian
Cogito. Sartre grasped a kind of being that departs from knowledge yet serves as
the foundation for knowledge. In other words, he apprehended the ontological
basis of knowledge.

"Consciousness is a being such thatin itsbeing, itsbeing is inquestion in so faras thisbeing
implies a being other than itself."
5 one
"Yet the existent in fact can not be reduced to afinite series of manifestations since each
of them is a relation to a subject constantly changing."
Cogito: From Descartes to Sartre 255

Sartre from nothingness discussed freedom, from freedom discussed bad faith,
and from bad faith discussed the being of consciousness as its condition of

Regarding the problem of the relationship between being and nothingness,
Sartre was against Hegel, for being is to be whereas nothingness is not to be.
Hegel arrived at nothingness through being. Sartre thought that being and
nothingness are complementary to each other, and that they are two equally
necessary components of the real thing.Being can be thoughtwithout nothingness;
because nothingness is the negation of being, itneeds being tomanifest itself as
the negation of being. While being can be without nothingness, nothingness
completely depends on being, itgains itsbeing from being. This iswhat "le n?ant
hante l'?tre"6 means (Sartre 1943, p. 57).

Being is prior to nothingness and provides the foundation for nothingness, thus
allowing nothingness to serve its function. Nothingness exists inside being. Only
in the substratum of being is itpossible for nothingness to be nihilated. However,

being is not the origin of nothingness. Where then does nothingness originate?
"L'?tre par qui le n?ant vient au monde doit ?tre son propre n?ant"7 (Sartre 1943,
p. 57). Only man can be looked upon as such nothingness. "L'homme est l'?tre
par qui le n?ant vient au monde"8 (Sartre 1943, p. 59). Sartre furtherquestioned:
What should man be in his being in order to let nothingness come into being
through man? His answer: Man should be as a free man. The reason is: "
n'y a pas de diff?rence entre l'?tre de l'homme et son '?tre-libre"9 (Sartre 1943,
p. 60). The reality of man might diffuse a kind of nothingness thatwould allow
oneself to be independent. Although Descartes, following the Stoic school, called
such a possibility as "freedom," Sartre regards it as merely an abstract and
superficial word. Sartre made concrete and deep inquiries: If nothingness should
depend on man's freedom to come into the world, then what on earth should
man's freedom be? Freedom is not what Descartes understood as the sense of
the human soul that can only be assumed and described. Freedom belongs to the
structure of for-itself. The human being restricts the appearance of nothingness,
so the human being appears free. "Ainsi la libert? comme condition requie ?
la n?antisation du n?ant n'est pas une propri?t? qui appartiendrait, entre autres, ?
l'essence de l'?tre humain. Nous avons d?j? marqu? d'ailleurs que le rapport de
l'existence ? l'essence n'est pas chez l'homme semblable ? ce qu'il est pour les
choses du monde. La libert? humqine pr?c?de l'essence de l'homme et la rend

"nothingness haunts being."
Being by which Nothingness arrives in theworld must nihilateNothingness in its
"Man is the being through whom nothingness comes to the world."
"Because there is no difference between being of man and his 'free being'".
256 MO Weimin

possible, l'essence de l'?tre humain est en suspens dans sa libert?"10 (Sartre 1943,
pp. 59-60). Furthermore, Sartre held that human freedom cannot be separated
from the being of human reality (as Heideggerian Dasein). There is no difference
between the human being and the being of man as freedom (?tre-libre). Because
any nothingness roots in the nihilation inside the immanence, in the final analysis,
Sartre's freedom lies in the subjectivity of consciousness: "c'est dans 1'immanence
absolue, dans la subjectivit? pure du cogito instantan? que nous devons d?couvrir
l'acte orginel par quoi l'homme est ? lui-m?me son propre n?ant"11 (Sartre 1943,
p. 81). Freedom is not the property of human essence, rather the being of
consciousness, and consciousness ought to be the consciousness of freedom. So
human freedom precedes the essence of man and makes it possible. Descartes

regarded freedom as a function that belongs exclusively to the human soul,

whereas Sartre started from consciousness and united human being and human
freedom in consciousness.
Freedom is the existence of thistype of human being, who diffuses his own
nothingness and renders his past disfunction; while at the same time his own past
in nihilating forms is also his own future. Thus, the human being sways between
the past and future like a pendulum, naturally bringing him anguish ^angoisse").
Sartre held that "c'est dans l'angoisse que l'homme prend conscience de sa libert?
ou, si Ton pr?f?re, l'angoisse est lemode d'?tre de la libert? comme conscience
d'?tre, c'est dans l'angoisse que la libert? est dans son ?tre en question pour
elle-m?me"12 (Sartre 1943, p. 64). Kierkegaard described anguish as anguish in
the presence of freedom. Heidegger, on the other hand, regarded anguish as the
comprehension of nothingness ("/a saisie du n?ant"). (Ibid.) Essentially, Sartre
synthesized Kierkegaard's and Heidegger's view of freedom. While Bergson's
theory of duration of ego insisted thatmy "ego" is free inside my consciousness
and cannot be transcended by consciousness, Sartre held thatmy being is freedom
only as being and our freedom appears to itself. "Ego" does not exist in the
consciousness as absolute
immanence, therefore Sartre concluded that Bergson
obscured anguish and could not see ontological freedom. Actually, anguish can
neither be obscured nor nullified. I can do no more than letmyself have bad faith

10'Thus freedom as the requisite condition for the nihilation of nothingness is not a property
which belongs among others to the essence of the human being. We have already noticed
ftirthermore that the relation with man of existence to essence is not comparable to what it is
for the things of theworld. Human freedom precedes essence inman and makes itpossible; the
essence of the human being is suspended in his freedom.''
""It is in the absolute immanence, in thepure subjectivityof instantCogito thatwe should
discover theoriginal activitybywhich man is forhimselfhis propernothingness."
"It is in anguish that man gets the consciousness of his freedom, or if you prefer, anguish is
themode of being of freedomas consciousness of being; it is inanguish thatfreedom is, in its
being, in question for itself."
Cogito: From Descartes to Sartre 257

("mauvaise foi") when I comprehend the anguish inwhich I findmyself. There is

always the danger of bad faith concerning consciousness in its being, for the
being of consciousness is at the same time is not its being and is its being. This
possible bad faith should be the unity of being and non-being in the same
consciousness; that is, being for not being ("?tre-pour-n '?tre-pas") (Sartre 1943,
Sartre reviewed the various ideas of several important thinkers in the history of
Western philosophy concerning Cogito: Descartes substantialized the thinking
"I". Although Husserl remained within the limits of descriptive function o? Cogito
and thus avoided Descartes'mistake, he became a phenomenologist by enclosing
himself in the question of Cogito. Heidegger tried to avoid Husserl's descriptive
phenomenology by analyzing being without resorting to Cogito, but his Dasein
was innately deprived of the category of consciousness and was thus unable
to regain the category of consciousness. According to Sartre, philosophy should
start from Cogito, inquire Cogito in the being of Cogito, and find themeans in
Cogito itself for us to avoid the instantaneity. Sartre comprehended Cogito as the
pre-reflexive Cogito and regarded it as the prime condition of any reflexion.
Consciousness has the power of nothingness.The conscious being as
consciousness exists as both presence to itself and departure from itself. The
barely-discernible distance thatbeing brings to itsbeing is nothingness. For-itself
should be its own nothingness. For-itself is the being that stipulates its
own existence. Nothingness is always elsewhere {"ailleurs"). It is through
consciousness or for-itself that nothingness inquires into being. "Le n?ant est la

possibilit? propre de l'?tre et son unique possibilit?"13 (Sartre 1943, p. 115).

Nothingness is the nothingness of being and can only come into being by the
peculiar being of human reality. So Sartre regarded man as the unique foundation
of the nothingness inside being.
Being of consciousness (for-itself) is contingent. For-itself is supported by the
eternal contingency of in-itself which fades away little by little but can never
be removed. Sartre called such contingency facticity of for-itself ("facticit? du
pour-soi") (Sartre 1943, p. 119). It is this facticity that can say that for-itself is,
for-itself exists, though we never realize the facticity and always grasp the
facticity through for-itself. Sartre reminded us that we should not confuse
the facticity of for-itselfwith the Cartesian substance with thinking attribute. The
latter is in-itself establishing itself by regarding for-itself as an attribute; it can
produce thinking without vanishing in the process. Sartre's for-itself is the
nihilation of in-itself. In-itself can only be established by resolving itseif into
for-itself. So in-itself is not a substance having for-itself as an attribute, but in
its decompression itwill be nihilated into a for-itself which becomes its own

"Nothingness is thepeculiar possibilityof being and itsunique possibility."
258 MO Weimin

Sartre insisted that research on human reality should startwith cogito. However,
the Cartesian cogito was actually conceived from an instantaneous angle in
temporal dimension. Descartes restricted human reality to the being of cogito,
and thus making human reality have only an unimaginable and instantaneous
truth. In fact, cogito should also in its own way intervene between the past and
the future. Avoiding Husserl's confusing consciousness of cogito, Heidegger
elaborated upon Dasein (or human reality) so as to show that cogito is a
self-escaping process in the project of its various possibilities of what it is.
This project of itself beyond itself becomes Heideggerian comprehension
("comprehension') (Sartre 1943, p. 121). According to Sartre, "L'en-soi concret
et r?el est tout entier pr?sent au c ur de la conscience comme ce qu'elle se
d?termine elle-m?me ? ne pas ?tre"14 (Sartre 1943, p. 122). We cannot talk
about human reality while neglecting the consciousness of Cogito. We must start
from Cogito, for comprehension becomes comprehension only when it is the
comprehension of consciousness. However, Sartre endowed Cogito with profound
meaning; that is to say, Cogito is the re-throwing outside itself For-itself
ceaselessly stipulates that itself not be in-itself. For-itself can only support
nihilation by stipul ating itself as the deficiency of being. Nihilation becomes thus
the original relation between being-for-itself and being-in-itself.
Value haunts freedom. The relationship between value and for-itself is very
particular: value "est l'?tre qu'il a ? ?tre en tant qu'il est fondement de son n?ant
d'?tre."15 Sartre also regarded the possibility as that which for-itself lacks to
become itself, for the possibility exists as an actual deficiency of being. Ego is
in-itself, it is not for-itself, nor does itbelong to for-itself Thus, Sartre made the
being of Cogito break through the substantialist limit of Cartesian Cogito's
instantaneousness and transcend temporally to the value and the possibility
(Sartre 1943, p. 141). It is only in the temporal transcendence that can Cogito
refuse the instantaneousness and transcend to itspossibility.

4 Being for others

Subject comes from the world and is beyond consciousness; it is the absolute
consciousness that connects "I" and the world. The subject in the world will
certainly contact others, and my being associates with others' beings. Concerning
the problem of others' beings, Sartre argued thatHusserl, just likeKant, did not
avoid solipsism. Sartre himself thought that he was able to avoid solipsism by
denying the priority of "I".
"the concrete and substantial in-itself fully presents in the core of consciousness and it

presents as the thing other than itself, which is stipulated by consciousness."

"value is thebeingwhich for-itselfshouldbe, forfor-itselfis thefoundationof thenihilation
of its being."
Cogito: From Descartes to Sartre 259

The immanence of consciousness is the immanence of Cogito. Sartre started

from Cogito and found that human reality is being-for-itself. Each individual
has the problem of Cogito as well as the problem of
of the immanence
its being-for-itself. Thus there is a division between the immanence of my
Cogito and the immanence of others' Cogito. Sartre, however, thought that
being-for-itself does not yet cover the entirety of human reality, and does not
follow up on the relationship between man and being. The being of man is not
only being-for-itself, but also being-for-others ("?tre-pour-autruF). In other
words, Sartre would extend theCartesian Ccogito. Sartre's discussion of for-itself
as condition and his criticism of Heidegger's view of death both elaborate upon
the being for others of for-itself.
Meanwhile, Sartre defined the essential characteristics of the body as knowable
for others. Thus, the nature of my body leads me to the existence of others and
my being-for-others. Being-for-myself is as fundamental as being-for-others.
"Car la r?alit?-humaine doit ?tre dans son ?tre, d'un seul etm?me surgissement,
pour-soi-pour-autrui"16 (Sartre 1943, p. 255). My judgment upon myself affirms
the appearance of myself as an object to others. Thus others become the
indispensable medium between "I" and myself. Sartre would comprehend
pre-ontologically the existence of others and the relationship between my being
and others' beings. L?vinas' theory of others finally resorted to God as the
absolute others whereas Sartre's theory of others, which asserted that I determine
others and others determine me, intended to avoid solipsism without resorting to
God?which is neither ego nor others.
Sartre denounced Husserl and Kant for establishing the epistemologica! relation
between my being and others' beings. In Sartre's view, they did not avoid
solipsism: "C'est que, en effet, simon ego empirique n'est pas plue s?r que celui
d'autrui, Husserl a conserv? le sujet transcendantal, qui en est radicalement
distinct et qui ressemble fort au sujet kantien"17 (Sartre 1943, p. 272). For Husserl,
my intentional reality is the only reality, while others are mere objects of empty
intention and are principally evasive and cast off. Sartre asserted that Hegel
was more persuasive than Husserl on the solution of the problem of others.
In La Ph?nom?nologie de Esprit, Hegel did not set Cogito as the starting
point of philosophy; instead, he stated that the possibility of Cogito is provided
by the being of others. Being-for-others is indispensable to my conscious
being as self-consciousness. Although Hegel studied the relationship between

"Because within one and the same upsurge the being of human reality must be
for-itself-for-others." It is highly important to point out that Sartre mistranslated Heidegger's
Dasein as "human reality".
17"Because, in fact, ifmy empirical ego isn't more certain than that of others, Husserl has
conserved the transcendental subject which is radically different from it and resembles very
much to the Kantian subject".
260 MO Weimin

being-for-itself and being-for-others, Sartre asserted that Hegel's research

remained within the limits of epistemology and that knowledge was still the
measure and basis when he discussed the
problem of being. Furthermore, Sartre
criticized Hegel for his epistemological and ontological optimism. IfHusserl's
fault was measuring being by knowledge, then Hegel's fault was identifying
knowledge and being. "C'est que mon rapport ? autrui est d'abord et
fondamentalement une relation d'?tre ? ?tre, non de connaissance ? connaissance,
si le solipsismedoit pouvoir ?tre r?fut?"18 (Sartre 1943, p. 283). That is to say,
only by apprehending the problem of the relationship between self and other on
an ontological level can we refute
Heidegger also strongly believed that the relationship between human realities
should be a relation of being, which should ensure the mutual dependence of
human reality in its essential being. Heidegger also set being-with-others as the
essential structure of my being. "Certes Heidegger ne part pas du cogito, au sens
cart?sien de la d?couverte de la conscience par elle-m?me..."19 (Sartre 1943,
p. 284) Dasein ismy Dasein, but Sartre thoughtHeidegger measured my human
reality in terms of being in the world, thus rendering the problem of others
meaningless, "Autrui n'est plus d'abord telle existence particuli?re que je
rencontre dans le monde?et qui ne saurait ?tre indispensable ? ma propre
existence, puisque j'existais avant de la rencontrer?, c'est le terme ex-centrique
qui contribue ? la constitution de mon ?tre"20 (Sartre 1943, p. 284). Sartre thought
that Heidegger tried to substitute being-with Mitsein", "?tre-avec") for
being-for-others ("?tre-pour-autrui"), which was still pure affirmation without
foundation. Later on, when Sartre discussed the relationship with others, he
explicitly pointed out, "Z '?tre-pour- autre pr?c?de et fonde l'?tre-avec-Yautre"21
(Sartre 1943, p. 455). Sartre interrogated Heidegger: "Mais c'est pr?cis?ment
cette coexistence qu'il faudrait expliquer. Pourquoi Heidegger s'est-il cru autoris?
? passer de cette constatation empirique et ontique de Y ?tre-avec ? la position
de la coexistence comme structure ontologique de mon '?re-dans-le-monde'?
Et quel type d'?tre a cette coexistence? Dans quelle ,esure la n?gation
fait d'autrui un autre et qui le enti?rement, n'allons-nous pas tomber dans un
monisme? Et si on doit la conserver comme structure essentielle du rapport ?

"Because my relation to the others is first and fundamentally the relation between and
being, and not the relationbetween knowledge and knowledge, if the solipsism should be
Certainly,Heidegger does not startfrom the Cartesian Cogito and it is established by
consciousness discovering itself.
"The other is no longer first a particular existence which I encounter in theworld?and which
could not be indispensable to my own existence since I existed before it. The
Other is the ex-centric limit which contributes to the constitution of my being."
The being-for-others precedes and founds the being-with-others
Cogito: From Descartes to Sartre 261

autrui; quelle modification faut-il lui faire subir pour qu'elle perde le caract?re
d'opposition qu'elle avait dans l'?tre-pour-autrui et pour qu'elle acqui?re ce
caract?re de liason solidarisante qui est la structurem?me de l'?tre-avec"22 (Sartre
1943, p. 286)? Sartre connected Heidegger's ontological view with Kant's view
of the abstract subject: Heidegger said thathuman reality coexists by means of its
ontological structure, that is to say by means of nature, in the name of essence
and universal, so failed to explain any concrete being-with. In other words, the
ontological coexistence ("coexistence ontologique") that appears as the structure
ofmy "being in theworld" cannot serve as the foundation of the ontic being-with
("?tre-avec ontique") at all. Sartre even asserted that "Il serait vain, en
cons?quence, de chercher dans Sein und Zeit le d?passe,ent simultan? de tout
id?alisme et de tout r?alisme"23 (Sartre 1943, p. 288).
In Sartre's view, the reason why other's being is not a groundless hypothesis is
that there is a Cogito correlative to others' beings. Descartes only guessed the
existence of others, while Sartre affirmed the existence of others. "Une th?orie
de l'existence d'autrui doit donc simplement m'interroger dans mon ?tre, ?claircir
et pr?ciser le sens de cette affirmation et surtout, loin d'inventer une preuve,

expliciter le fondement m?me de cette certitude"24 (Sartre 1943, p. 290). Sartre

meant did not prove the existence of others. Nevertheless, Sartre
held that the only possible starting point concerning the problem of others is the
Cartesian Cogito. Only Cogito can base us on the factual necessity of existence
of others and then combine of the existence of others with my own
the Cogito
Cogito. We must require for-itself ("pour-soi") to provide us with for-others

("pour-autrui"). Absolute immanence is expected to throw us into absolute

transcendence. What I shall find in the innermost of myself is not reasons to
believe others, but the others themselves other than "I". What Cogito is expected

"But it is precisely this co-existence which must be explained. Why does it become the

unique foundationof our being?Why is it the fundamentaltypeof our relationwith others?

Why did Heidegger believe thathe was authorized to pass from this empirical and ontic
establishment of being-with to a position claiming co-existence as the ontological structure of

my 'being-in-the-world?' And what type of being does this co-existence have? To what extent
is the negation which makes the Other an other and which constitutes him as non-essential
maintained? Ifwe suppress it entirely, are we not going to fall into a monism? And ifwe are to

preserve it as an essential structure of the relation to the Other, then what modification must it

undergo in order to lose the character of opposition which ithadin being-for-others and acquire
this character as a connection which creates solidarity and which is the very structure of

"Consequently itwould be in vain to look in Sein und Zeit for a simultaneous surpassing of
all idealism and of all realism."
"A theory of the Other's existence must therefore simply question me in my being, must
make clear and precise the meaning of that affirmation; in particular, far from inventing a

proof, itmust make explicit the very foundation of that certainty."

262 MO Weimin

to reveal to us is that others concern our existence concretely and "from the ontic
angle." The other cannot appear as an object, "En aucune fa?on, autrui ne nous
est donn? comme objet"25 (Sartre 1943, p. 307). The other is, in principle, the
man looking atme. If the other is objectified, thebeing-of-looking ("?tre-regard")
of the other would be subverted. The other is the being watching me while I have
not yet looked at him. If I am to be objectified, the other's looking atme would
be his necessary condition, for the other's looking makes me lose any objectivity.
"Je suis regard? dans un monde regard?"26 (Sartre 1943, p. 309). It is through the
world that the other looks at me. The looking not only remoulds myself, but also
totally changes theworld. Nevertheless, Sartre held thatwe should not primarily
seek others in theworld, and thatwe should seek others in consciousness which
makes itself to be what it is. Because the certainty and factual necessity of others
is exactly the certainty and factual necessity ofmy consciousness, I am forever in
danger in the present world that I can only foresee. "Le conflit est le sens originel
de l'?tre-pour-autrui"27 (Sartre 1943, p. 404). Although the other is not given to
us as an object, the other is the object forme just as I am the object for the other.
"Cet objet qu'autrui est pour moi et cet objet que je suis pour autrui, ils se
manifestent comme corps"2* (Sartre 1943, p. 341). Sartre started from the absolute
immanence ofmy consciousness and integratedmy consciousness onto my body
as a life object through a series of reflexive actions. Sartre turned then to
investigate my body and the other's body.
Descartes thought thatmind is easier to know than body and completely
separated reflexive thinking from bodily movements. Thus, he irrecoverably
expelled the body from consciousness. However, Sartre started from our being in
theworld and regarded for-itself as the relationship with theworld, thinking that
the world exists in the face of consciousness. Only in theworld can we have a
body. The original relationship between us and the world, that is our being

emerging from the being itself, is body's disclosing as the foundation of body.
Although Sartre was not content with the solution provided by Descartes, which
excluded the body from consciousness, he did not give primacy to the body. The
body merely shows the individuality and contingency of the original relationship
between us and things as tools. The body is not the contingent thing that is
annexed tomy soul, on the contrary, the body ismy being's perennial structure.
Body is the permanent condition for the consciousness of theworld and formy
consciousness projecting to transcend my future. It is proper to say that in his
milestone work L'?tre et le n?ant, Sartre still reiterated the ideas in his earlier La

25"The other is in no way given to us as an object/'

"I am looked-at in a world which is looked-at."
"Conflict is the original meaning of being-for-others."
objectwhich theOther is forme and thisobjectwhich I am forhim aremanifested
each other as a body.
Cogito: From Descartes to Sartre 263

transcendance de l'Ego, i.e. that ego or subject is not the perpetual structure of

Frankly speaking, Sartre indeed revised in Critique de la Raison Dialectique

his earlier view of human relationships and began to emphasize the impact of
social and historical events on individuals; however, his subjectivist principles
prevented him from properly treating the relationship between "I" and theOther,
immanence and transcendence, freedom and necessity.
Although Merleau-Ponty also rejected the Cartesian conception of the ego
as substance inner life, he was different from Sartre in many respects.
Merleau-Ponty have used his philosophy of perception to weaken or
even replace Sartre's philosophy of consciousness. Sartre set the nihilating
consciousness as the starting point of philosophy?which Merleau-Ponty
opposed. Merleau-Ponty insisted that the synthesis of consciousness is only a
temporary, fragmentary and lateral synthesis of separate parts. Both Husserl and
Sartre held that consciousness has intentionality, while Merleau-Ponty thought
that the body has intentionality and that the attitude of existence is body's
grasping theworld and others. I perceive by means of my body, and both subject
and object dissolve in the ambiguous perception of existence.
Ifwe say thatMerleau-Ponty substituted his theory of perception of existence
for Sartre's pre-reflexive Cogito, then philosophers such as Cavaill?s, Bachelard,
Canguilhem, L?vi-Strauss, Foucault, Derrida and Deleuze mostly advocate their
philosophies without the Cartesian Cogito or even philosophies opposing the
Cartesian Cogito. Ricoeur claimed to hold himself at an equal distance from the
Cogito exalted ("cogito exalt?") by Descartes and from the Cogito humiliated
{?'cogito humili?") by Hume and Nietzsche (Ricoeur, 1990, pp. 27-35), alternating
between the Cogito philosophy and the zn?-cogito philosophy. Obviously,
Sartre's existential philosophy acted as a link between the preceding and the
following movements in the history of French philosophy. It showed unique
features that cannot be found in Husserlian phenomenology or Heideggerian
ontology, but while Sartre denounced Kant, Husserl and even Heidegger for
solipsism, he himself tended to assume the primacy of consciousness. Not
only are the others consciousness and what consciousness itself is, but also the
two kinds of attitude toward the others can be viewed as a relation between
consciousness Ifwe say thatHusserl elaborated a philosophy
and consciousness.
of consciousness as epistemology, then we can say that Sartre developed a

philosophy of consciousness as ontology.


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