[excerpts] David Detmer on Sartre's Existentialism]


[excerpts] David Detmer on Sartre's Existentialism

March 2017

On Why “the look” of the Other is Important

Bu as Sartre’s analysis of “the look” in Being and Nothingness makes clear, the Other plays a crucial role in the process. Whereas I live my life “from the inside”, looking out at the world (and away from myself), the Other looks directly at me, taking me for an object, noting my features and evaluating me, just as he or she might do with any other object. Thus, when I see myself as reflected in the eye of the Other, I get a powerful sense of my own objectivity, far more so than is possible through my own unaided acts of reflection.

On Shyness

“The basic idea is that I, through the “shock of the encounter with Other,” can come to recognize that my body, which I had simply lived, is being seen and evaluated by the Other as an object. To put it another way, i begin to understand that my body, which I had experienced as pure subjectivity, has an objective side. My body which had been simply me, becomes instead “a thing outside my subjectivity, in the midst of a world which is not mine.” I experience myself as alienated from my body.”

That’s all pretty obscure and confusing I’m sure. Detmer tries to make it less abstract through the use of examples like the one below.

“As an example of such alienation, Sartre offers an analysis of shyness. Shy people will sometimes describe their state by claiming that they feel themselves blushing or sweating, but Sartre claims that such expressions are inaccurate. What the shy person really means, according to Sartre,   “is that he is vividly and constantly conscious of his body not as it is for him but as it is for the Other.” Party of the shy person’s problem- and it is a problem the rest of us share, even if to a lesser degree- is that one’s body-for-the-Other is “on principle out of reach” fully in the hands of the Other, and thus resistant to one’s attempts to appropriate and to master it. i find that all my attempts to reach it “in order to give it the form and the attitude which are appropriated” are doomed to failure. This would not be a problem if I could find my objectivity in my body as it is lived, or if I could dismiss my body-for-the-Other as illusory. But my body for itself is a conscious center of reference and not an object at all and it turns out that “we in fact attribute to the body-for-the-Other as much reality as to the body-for-us. Better yet, the body-for-the-Other is the body-for-us, but apprehensible and alienated.” As a result, the Other is in a position to accomplish “for us a function of which we are incapable and which nevertheless is incumbent on us: to see ourselves as we are. We thus fund ourselves fully at the mercy of the Other, for it is only through the look of the Other that we can access our own objectivity.

On the More General Nature of Human Relationships and its Potential Traps

… I must turn to the Other for help with this project of becoming an object, for it is the Other, who through his or her look, holds the key to my objectivity. Consequently, it is the other that I must go to for assistance in my quest to attain full being. This helps us to explain why relationships are so important to us.

Sartre “The Other’s freedom is the foundation of my being. But precisely because I exist by means of the Other’s freedom, I have no security; I am in danger in this freedom. it moulds my being and make me be, it confers values upon me and removes them from me…Irresponsible and beyond reach, this protean freedom in which I have engaged myself can in turn engage me in a thousand different way of being. My project of recovering my being can be realized only if I can get hold of this freedom and reduce it to being a freedom subject to my freedom.”

On Indifference

There are definite advantages to indifference. In this sate, “I am at ease; I am not embarrassed by myself, for I am not outside I do not feel myself alienated.” But the cost is high. To the extent that I am spared any worry about being confronted with a negative image of my objectivity, it can only be because I am cut off from my objectivity entirely. Thus, indifference amounts to a complete abandonment of the attempt to ground my being in relations with the Other, and of thereby coming to exists as an in-itself-for-itself. Indifference, therefore, is clearly a failure. 

On Anguish

Anguish arises, then, when I desperately want to escape my ever-present freedom and responsibility to nihilate the given, and wish instead to allow my personality, or resolutions, or motives, or situation to determine for me what I am to do. What I then find is that these objects for my consciousness always fail to perform this desired function, but instead ceaselessly refer me back to my own freedom. I am free because I can exploit  the gap that always exists between my consciousness and its objects. one must always choose by exploiting this gap.

Often we find this consciousness of freedom unpleasant, a fact that is reflected in Sartre’s choice of “anguish” as a name for it. We are thus motivated to flee our anguish by denying our freedom. In this way we try to rid ourselves of the irksome obligation to act and to take responsibility for our actions. But Sartre insists that we know that we are free, so our denial of this knowledge constitutes an attempt at self deception. When I tell myself that I am a victim of circumstances, that I had no choice but to do what I did, and that I am not to blame for the mess I’ve made of things, i am Sartre claims, lying to myself. His name for such self-deceptive lying is “bad faith.”

On Freedom

“The values lies in the doing, and not in the arriving at a permanent stopping point. As Sartre puts it, “Authenticity reveals that the only meaningful project is that of doing (not that of being)… So, originally, authenticity consists in refusing any quest for being…”


Personal Comments:

-I picked up “Sartre Explained” by David Detmer and got excited reading the introduction. The introduction and first chapter is brilliant in how it appeals to the common fascination with heroes and epiphanies. Let me quote the first paragraph of chapter one for you:

“Simone de Beauvoir tells the story of Sartre’s first introduction to phenomenology. Sartre’s friend, Raymond Aron…told him about it one night while he, Sartre, and Beauvoir were having apricot cocktails at a cafe. Aron pointed to his glass and said, “You see my dear fellow, if you are a phenomenologist, you can talk about this cocktail and make philosophy out of it!” Beauvoir reports that “Sartre turned pale with emotion at this. Here was just the thing he had been longing to achieve for years- to describe objects just as he saw and touched them, and extract philosophy from the process.” Indeed, Sartre’s excitement was such as to lead him to stop at a bookstore on the way home to purchase a book Husserl, which he proceeded to read on the street as he walked along. His next step was to make arrangements to travel to Germany for a year to study phenomenology firsthand.”

-Besides this interesting anecdote, Sartre is important because he was one of the few philosophers who was actively political. He’s likely the only philosopher to have had 40,000 people attend his funeral. He was also one of the most helpful voices in the Third World Liberation movements of the post World War Two period.

-I am writing this post because I’m trying to identify what it is about Sartre’s phenomenology that impressed me so much. I felt emotions surge through me every time I read a passage so clearly relevant to my own human experiences.

-He helped me find some clarity as to what the mind, being, and consciousness is.

-His typology of “for-itself” and “in-itself” is useful because it clearly emphasizes the unstable, nonmaterial aspect of humans, and helps explain why the Subject is constantly acting ‘towards’ and seeking to ‘fix’ itself into a permanent Object. 

-This is an interesting way of explaining emotions. For Sartre, the goal of the Subject is to become a “for-itself-in-itself”. It’s emotions are secondary phenomena related to this primary goal, or ‘fundamental striving’ in the vocabulary of Adler.

-It was wild to see all the connections between Adler’s Individual Psychology and Sartre’s Phenomenology. It is in some ways superior because is more primitive.  I think they are just two angles from which they are looking at the same object. But Sartre’s narrative is stronger because it captures power dynamics. Adler understands power as a secondary feature. For Sartre, all Subjects prior to ‘transformation’ seek to constantly Objectify. Adler touches upon the same phenomenon, yet his vocabulary hides the raw dynamics.

-Sartre also has an extreme flair for dramatics. Some of his more notable lines are “Man is a useless passion.” and “Hell is others.” I note that both of these ideas refer to pre-transformation. Sartre believes that freedom is possible. It is funny to note how all of this mirrors the classical religions and how they conceive of man’s time on earth in a similar, pre and post transformation perspective.

-His discussion of the different types of anguish is exhilarating. Here’s a quote on the gambler’s anguish as he tries to quit. The quote more generally, attempts to show how in all matters- the present self cannot rely on the past self. 

“It is that of the gambler [joueur] who has freely and sincerely decided not to gamble anymore and who, when he approaches the gaming table, suddenly sees all his resolutions melt away. 

This phenomenon has often been described as if the sight of the gaming table reawakened in us a tendency which entered into conflict with our former resolution and ended by drawing us in spite of it. Such a description is a description of things, and peoples the mind with opposing forces (there is, for example, the moralists’ famous “struggle of reason with the passions”). Furthermore, it does not account for the facts. In reality-the letters of Dostoevsky bear witness to this – there is nothing in us which resembles an inner debate as if we had to weigh motives and incentives before deciding. The earlier resolution of “not playing any more” is always there, and in the majority of cases the gambler, when in the presence of the gaming table, turns toward it as if to ask it for help; for he does not wish to play, or rather having taken his resolution the day before, he thinks of himself still as not wishing to play anymore; he believes in the effectiveness of this resolution. But what he apprehends then in anguish is precisely the total inefficacy of the past resolution. It is there doubtless but congealed, ineffectual, transcended by the very fact that I am conscious of it. The resolution is still me to the extent that I realize constantly my identity with myself across the temporal flux, but it is no longer me – due to the fact that it has become an object for my consciousness. I am not subject to it, it fails in the mission which I have given it. The resolution is there still, I am it in the mode of not-being. 

What the gambler apprehends at this instant is again the permanent rupture with determinism; it is nothingness which separates him from himself; I should have liked so much not to gamble any more; yesterday I even had a synthetic apprehension of the situation (threatening ruin, disappointment of my relatives) as forbidding me to play. It seemed to me that I had established a real barrier between gambling and myself, and now I suddenly perceive that my former understanding of the situation is no more than a memory of an idea, a memory of a feeling. In order for it to come to my aid once more, I must remake it ex nihilo and freely. The not-gambling is only one of my possibilities, as the fact of gambling is another of them, neither more nor less. I must rediscover the fear of financial ruin or of disappointing my family, etc., I must re-create it as experienced fear. It stands behind me like a boneless phantom. It depends on me alone to lend it my flesh. I am alone and naked before temptation as I was the day before. After having patiently built up dams and walls, after enclosing myself in the magic circle of a resolution, I perceive with anguish that nothing prevents me from gambling. The anguish is me since by the very fact of taking my position in existence as consciousness of being, I make myself not to be the past of good resolutions which I am.”