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Helium - Where Knowledge Rules

by Vicki Phipps

Before we can begin to understand The Transcendence of the Ego, we need to know something about the
man, Jean Paul Sartre. A French philosopher and writer, he was the leading advocate of Existentialism during
the years after World War II, whose core of philosophy was the notion of free will as it relates to personal
responsibility. As he stated in an interview, "In the end, one is always responsible for what is made of one."
He was also noted to say this in a bolder way, "man makes himself."

The Existentialist say we have absolute individuality and absolute freedom to choose our destiny. Their
conceptions of freedom and values come from their view of the individual, and since we are all ultimately
alone and isolated island within a an objective world, we have absolute freedom over our internal nature and
the source of our value can only be internal. This philosophy also says that we have no predetermined nature
or essence which controls what or who we are, what we do or what becomes valuable to us. We are free to
act independently of determination by outside influences, so we are ultimately responsible for our own destiny,
and due to our free will, we create our own human nature. They argue that we are thrown into existence first
without a predetermined nature and only later do we construct our nature, personality and our essence though
our actions, which we choose.


Because of his own physical frailty and the horrors of the war, Sartre was aware of the main constraints to
human freedom, but he never deviated from Descartes' philosophy of human consciousness being free and
distinct from the physical universe it exists within. He believed we are never free of one's, "situation," but he
stated that we are always free to deny or negate that situation and try to change it. To be a human, Sartre
said, is to be conscious. It's to be free to imagine, free to choose and responsible for one's lot in life. In other
words, the reality of our lives depends on how we perceive that reality to be.

Early on, as a young student, Sartre was intrigued and influenced by Edmund Husserl's new philosophical
method, "phenomenology," so his first essays were directly in response to Husserl and his method. He wrote,
"The Imagination," in 1936, which established the ground work for much of what he later wrote, which
described,"the celebration of our remarkable freedom to imagine the world other than it is and the way that
this ability informs all of our experience."


Transcendence of the Ego was written in 1937, where Sartre reconsidered Husserl's main idea of a,
"phenomenoiogical reduction," which was the idea of examining the essential structures of consciousness,

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and Sartre argued that one can't examine consciousness without simultaneously recognizing the reality of
actual objects in the world, so there can be no such reduction. In a novel Sartre wrote in 1939, Sartre made
this point within the book titled, "Nausea." Sartre's bored and nauseated narrator confronts a chestnut tree in
the park and is surprised that its presence is simply recognized by the nauseated narrator, but absolutely
could not be reduced. The Transcendence of the Ego states that Sartre reconsiders the notion of the self,
which Husserl had identified with being conscious. Sartre, on the other hand argues that self is not in
consciousness, much less identical to it. He explained that self is, "out there," like the self of another, but
another way to explain it is that the self is an ongoing project in the world with other people, but it's not simply
self-awareness or self consciousness as in, "I think, therefore I am." It's this separation of self and
consciousness and the rejection of the self, or the ego, as simply self conscious that provides the framework
of Sartre's philosophy.

When we become aware of our ego and its roles, we become aware there's a being in there as well, which
holds the soul. We exist for deeper reasons than our roles. He describes consciousness as, "nothing."
According to Sartre's philosophy, consciousness is an activity, "a wind blowing from nowhere toward the
world." He often resorted to metaphors when arguing his point, that it's through the nothingness of
consciousness and its activities that negation comes into play. Our ability to imagine the world as different
than it actually is, and the inescapable need of imagining ourselves to be other than we seem to be is the
philosophical focus of Transcendence of the Ego. Because the consciousness is nothingness, it's not subject
to the rule of causality. Sartre's central argument of, "The Being," and, "Nothingness," was what he insisted on
with the primacy of human freedom, or free will. He insisted that consciousness can't be understood in causal
terms. Instead, it's always self determining and, "it always is what it is not, and is not what it is." In other
words, we human beings are always in the process of choosing a destiny, and since consciousness is,
"nothing," the ego is always on the way to becoming something. We accumulate people, things and
happenings, due to our life facts, which means our roles and things prove we exist, but during our lives we
remain free to envision new possibilities to reform ourselves to become what we imagined and dreamed of.
This comes from the being, not the ego or our roles.

Sartre seemed to reinterpret our life in the light of new ambitions, or our, "transcendence." This means that we
can't be anything, and when we try to establish ourselves as, "something or someone," by roles or by
identifying with being a certain way, like shy, kind, mean or whatever we call ourselves, we are within, "bad
faith," Sartre claimed. He went onto explain that bad faith is viewing yourself as something, fixed and settled,
and that's why he completely rejected Freud's theory of the unconscious determination of our personalities
and behavior. He claimed it's also bad faith to view oneself as beings of infinite possibilities, and at the same
time, ignore the restrictive facts and circumstances within which all choices must be made.

We are always trying to define ourselves, but we are also free to break away from what we are and always
responsible for what we've become. Sartre explains there is no easy resolution or balance between facts and
free will, but it's a kind of tension, which results in frustration. We seem to need to be both God and ourselves,
but this is not so much blasphemy as it is an expression of the frustration we feel. It's a form of original sin,
Sartre said.


It seems Jean Paul Sartre believed life is even more complicated than he explained in his documented
philosophy, and he stated that there is a third basic ontological category on a part with the being in itself and
being for itself, and not derivative of them. He calls this, "Being for others." He argued that to say it's not
derivative is to say that our knowledge of others is not inferred from others behavior. We ourselves are not
completely constituted by our self determinations and the facts about our lives. Sartre explains this through
the every day example of our experience in being with other human beings, in what he called, "the look." We

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all know that look people tend to give us when we do something humiliating and we find ourselves defining our
being as being an idiot. We also tend to catch others in some act that we interpret as unflattering. This is what
becomes an essential aspect of ourselves. It leads to conflicts. Sartre used the phrase, "Hell is other people,"
to describe this conflict.

As for the ego, Sartre's view conflicted with Husserl, who adopted the view that the subject is a substance
with attributes due to his interpretation of Kant's unity of apperception, which claims that the, "I think," must be
able to go along with any thing, "I am," conscious of. This view reified, "I," into a transcendental ego, but this
move is not needed, according to Sartre, as he said in The Transcendence of the Ego.


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