Jean-Paul Sartre

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French philosopher, novelist, and playwright Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980) attended theÉcole Normale Supérieure, received his accreditation in philosophy, and was a resident at the Institut Français in Berlin during 1933-34. He was awarded, but declined, the Nobel Prize for literature in 1964. Sartre's first major work, The Transcendence of the Ego (1936-1937) published in English in 1957, called into question the interiority of consciousness and, based on Edmund Husserl's phenomenology, he wrote that "the ego is neither formally nor materially in consciousness: it is outside, in the world. It is a being of the world, like the ego of another." The subject does not possess himself and consciousness, "defined by intentionality," provides no privileged self-knowledge because, as Sartre writes, "My I, in effect, is no more certain for consciousness than the I of other men. It is only more intimate." These ideas formed the springboard for a radical critique of introspection, self-knowledge, and inner life. Sartre developed his ideas further in Being and Nothingness (1943). In this text he suggested that Sigmund Freud's work (which he characterizes as "empirical"), in his estimation, represents a provisional formulation, subject to critique, of what he calls (more by reference to Søren Kierkegaard than to Ludwig Binswanger) "existential" psychoanalysis. He postulates the principle that the human being is a totality, expressed completely through fortuitous conduct. "In other words there is not a taste, a mannerism, or a human act which is not revealing" (p. 568). The goal, to elucidate the actual behavior of human beings, is based on "the fundamental, preontological comprehension which man has of the human person" (p. 568). All conduct symbolizes and conceals, in various ways, the basic choice of every individual subject. Each person must be unveiled and revealed, as Sartre himself would attempt to do with Jean Genet (1952) and Gustave Flaubert (1971-72). With this as a starting point, Sartre moves on to discuss the similarities and differences between Freudian psychoanalysis and what he calls existential psychoanalysis. In terms of similarities, both analysis and existential psychoanalysis "consider the human being as a perpetual, searching, historization. Rather than uncovering static, constant givens they discover the meaning, orientation, and adventures of this history" (p. 569). With knowledge anterior to logic, the subject has absolutely no privileged capacity for self-knowledge, while conflicts and projects can be apprehended only from the point of view of the other. But there are also radical differences. Most decisive, according to Sartre, is that for Freud the libido is an irreducible psychobiological given. By contrast, Sartre suggested that the subject's own demarche is centered on choices that cannot be constituted in advance and which vary with each individual. "For human reality there is no difference between existing and choosing for itself" (p. 572) because "consciousness is a being, the nature of which is to be conscious of the nothingness of its being" (p. 47). In sum, from a somewhat dated view of Freud's work, Sartre fashions a critique that views psychoanalysis as an acceptable albeit awkward and provisional expression of what will become existential psychoanalysis, while on a practical level it is more successful. "Empirical psychoanalysis, to the extent that its method is better than its principles, is often in sight of an existential discovery, but it always stops part way" (p. 573).


On Sartre and Heidegger Despite Lacan's criticisms of the absolute autonomy of the self assumed by existentialism, he recognises in Sartre a fellow Hegelian. When Lacan wisHes to discuss problems of alternation and ambivalence he often turns towards the analysis of the dialectic of self and other, of seeing and being seen, of humiliation and domination to be found in Sartre's Being and Nothingness. Let me briefly outline some of the similarities between the discourses of Lacan and Sartre. Lacan described Being and Nothingness as essential reading for psychoanalysts because of the acuity of its presentation of the other and of the gaze.? Sartre believed that the gaze is not located just at the level of the eyes. The eyes may well not appear; they may be masked. The gaze is not necessarily the face of our fellow being; it could just as easily be the window behind which we assume he is lying in wait for us. It is an X, the object when faced with which the subject becomes object. Lacan also has important things to say about this topic. The eyes, as one of the modes of access for libido to explore the world, become the instrument of the 'scopic drive'. A drive, we must remember, is not just pleasure-seeking, but is caught up in a signifying system. This signifying process comes to affect all looking. The eye is not merely an organ of perception, but also an organ of pleasure. There is, of course, a difference between the eye and the look. The subject can, in a way, be seized by the object of its look. As Lacan points out, 'it is, rather, it that grasps me'.8 Lacan recommends Sartre's phenomenology as essential reading because it can contribute to our understanding of intersubjectivity. The latter's phenomenology of 'being in love' is judged 'irrefutable'; Sartre believes that the self remains irremediably opposed to the Other. Drawing on Hegel's parable, of the master-slave relation, Sartre reinterprets the struggle for recognition and argues that the attempt by each self to reduce the other to an object is impossible. What happens is this: to the other person, who looks at me from the outside, I seem an object, a thing; my subjectivity with its inner freedom escapes his gaze. Hence his tendency is always to convert me into the object he sees. The gaze of the Other penetrates to the depths of my existence, freezes and congeals it. It is this, according to Sartre, that turns 36 Jacques Lacan love into perpetual conflict. The lover wishes to possess the beloved, but the freedom of the beloved cannot be possessed; hence the lover tends to reduce the beloved to an object for the sake of possessing it. Love is menaced always by a perpetual oscillation, between sadism and masochism. In sadism I reduce the other to a mere lump, to be beaten and manipulated as I choose, while in masochism I offer myself as an object, but in an attempt to entrap the other and undermine his freedom.9 One of the most important concepts in Lacan's thought is desire. This is, of course, one term in the need-demand-desire triad. I ~all briefly attempt to explain the meaning of these terms. Like his \mentor, Hegel, Lacan begins from the experience of physical nee4' We all realise that the child is for a long time dependent upon others for the satisfaction of its basic wants. Need can be defined in basically biblogical terms. Lacan argues that a crucial transformation take/place when the child's plea for satisfaction begins to be expre~a in language, since the request for satisfaction is now ac~p~nied by a plea for recognition as the subject of the need to _be satisfied. This is what Lacan calls demand. It is out of this process that there emerges what Lacan terms desire. Desire is that which goes beyond demand and conveys the subject's wish for totality. It can never be fulfilled. I mention this because there are close connections between Lacan's and Sartre's concept of desire. Lacan's term disir comes from Hegel, through Kojeve, and phenomenology. Sartre speaks of man being torn between a 'desire to be' and a 'desire to have'. For both Sartre and Lacan desire is defined in terms of a 'lack of being'. Some parallels can also be found between Lacan's 'mirror phase' and Sartre's early work. In both cases the ego is viewed as an illusory representation, as a source and focus of alienation. Optical metaphors are used by both authors. Lacan introduced the mirror phase in 1936. With the mirror phase Lacan began to work with a concept of the human subject who does not have his own unity in himself, but with a subject who finds his unity only in the other, through the image in the mirror. This gives us the matrix of a fundamental dependency on the other, a relationship defined not in terms of language but in terms of image. In philosophical terms Lacan's mirror phase takes its inspiration from Kojeve's Hegel, whereas Sartre's pure phenomenology owes its primary inspiration to Husser!. I should add, in parentheses, that though Lacan was ~

The uses of philosophy 37 influenced by Sartrean existentialism he was also critical of it. He could not accept its bleak pessimism, its faith in selfconsciousness, the sear~h for liberty within a situation of enslavement, and its denial of the efficacy of action.10 Another similarity between Lacan and Sartre is their interest in Heidegger.

See Also


  1. Sartre, Jean Paul. (1972 [c1957]). The transcendence of the ego: An existentialist theory of consciousness. New York: Octagon Books. (Original work published 1936-1937)
  2. ——. (1964 [c1956]). Being and nothingness: An essay in phenomenological ontology. Special abridged ed. New York: Citadel Press. (Original work published 1943)
  3. ——. (1963). Saint Genet, actor and martyr. (Bernard Frechtman, Trans.) New York: G. Braziller. (Original work published 1952)
  4. ——. (1976). Critique of dialectical reason, theory of practical ensembles. (Jonathan Rée, Ed.]]
  1. ——. (1981 [1993]). The family idiot: Gustave Flaubert, 1821-1857. (Carol Cosman, Trans.) Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (Original work published 1971-1972)

Sartre, J.P., 84, 89, 182 Seminar XI Sartre, Jean-Paul 25, 310, 325 Ecrits