Saturday, April 16, 2005

Jean Paul Sartre

I don't think I've seen it mentioned anywhere else, but yesterday was the 25th anniversary of the death of Jean Paul Sartre. Say what you will about his existentialism, he had one of the most sophisticated theories of consciousness around. For Sartre, like Brentano and several other existentialists (most notably Maurice Merleau-Ponty), consciousness was a unitary phenomenon, rather than the the dual-natured beast that it is in contemporary analytic philosophy of mind and cognitive science, particularly neuroscience (where models of consciousness still tend to posit the object of consciousness and an entirely separate component which is comprised of attention, or awareness of that object). Given the problems with the two-part theories of consciousness, I think we'd do well to go back to Sartre (and others with unitary theories), and the 25th anniversary of his death is a good time to start rereading him.

13 comments:

Clark Goble said...

Why do you think Sartre is important as opposed to the other contempoary figures? I'll confess to not liking Sartre for a wide number of reasons. To me he's simply someone who was inspired by Heidegger but who missed most of what Heidegger was getting at and who simply added a kind of nihilistic romanticism to it. But then I'll confess I've not read him enough to say that there isn't anything valuable in his thought. Just that I find it difficult to read him or find value that can't better be found elsewhere.

Chris said...

Clark,
I am not really qualified to comment on Sartre's importance for philosophy in general. I think Being and Nothingness is fascinating from a phenomenological perspective, even if it's frustrating and at times difficult to interpret. However, what I find useful in it is its model of consciousness as a unitary phenomenon. In other words, the object of consciousness and self-consciousness are unified, rather than being two separate components that come together to create awareness, as in most analytic conceptions of consciousness. There are others, both before and after Sartre (starting with Brentano and continuing into contemprary phenomenology) who have unitary theories of consciousness, but Sartre's is really a turning point from the problematic theories of Brentano and Husserl to the more sophisticated and potentially useful theories that came after him (e.g., in Merleau-Ponty).

The dual theories of consciousness are incredibly problematic. They are always homoncular to some degree (consciousness of the object and consciousness of consciousness), and tend to lead to infinite regresses (consciousness of the object, consciousness of consciousness, consciousness of consciousness of consciousness, and so on). So, I think it's time that we at least began to look at alternative perspectives on consciousness, and the first third of Being and Nothingness is an excellent place to start. You can probably leave out most of the discussion of nothingness, for-iteself vs. in-itself (though some of that might be important), his phenomenological analysis of time, etc.

Steve said...

Right on. Great to hear someone in cognitive science say this.

Clark Goble said...

Chris, since you are at least somewhat familiar with Sartre let me ask this question. Many criticize Sartre as basically adopting an ego not that removed from Descartes and neglected the complexities and subtleties associated with the meaning of Dasein. i.e. despite the the chapters in Being and Time arguing against Descartes, Sartre Cartesianizes Heidegger.

Now years ago I started on Being and Nothingness and while some things I was very sympathetic to (the existential reversal of the order of essence/existence) other things I wasn't. I was pretty fuzzy on Heidegger at the time, so perhaps I was misreading Sartre on this point.

Do you think this is a valid concern? Do you think that the approach Heidegger offers can offer anything different to Cognitive Science?

Chris said...

Clark,
I've heard the same thing. I'm somewhat reluctant to comment on it, since I'm no Heidegger scholar, but I can definitely see the reason for the criticism. However, Sartre's justification for a somewhat Cartesian alteration of Da-sein (which is probably more Husserlean than Cartesian, but I guess on this point, that amounts to about the same thing) is that he feels by leaving consciousness out of Da-sein, Heidegger undercuts the foundation for a phenomenology of experience. In adding consciousness which is, in some ways, removed from facticity, he's created something like a transcendental ego. However, given the ways in which both phenomenologists and analytic philosophers have struggled to get consciousness without sounding Cartesian, I'm not sure Sartre is to be overly faulted for this.

Chris said...

On the subject of cognitive science, I think Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, more than Sartre, offer ways of thinking about perception and representation (as opposed to consciousness, which neither of them treats as extensively as Sartre, who devotes huge chunks of Being and Nothingness to the topic).

Clark Goble said...

Interesting. I've been in a discussion of Heidegger over on my blog and I noticed that my interlocutor adopted a very Sartrean reading of Heidegger. I notice that among Sartreans (and in varying degrees Sartre himself) authenticity is given quite a different twist - almost given an ethical meaning it doesn't have in Heidegger.

But that's probably neither here nor there. The connection of Sartre to Husserl is a good one. I can see that now that I think of it.

Chris said...

Clark,
Just to be clear, the "Cartesian" bent in Sartre comes not from anything like substance dualism. Sartre's dualism comes from the difference between the for-itself and the in-itself. The for-itself (consciousness) is transcendent in the sense that it is not its own facticity.

Sartre speaks out against the "transcendental ego" in Husserl and other phenomenologists both before and during Being and Time, but in this sense he means an ego that is somehow removed from experience (or prior to it). One could argue that in some ways, Sartre's being-for-itself suffers from the same problem, but it does so in a distinctly different way (its no-thing, so it does so more as a possibility of experience, rather than as a transcendental being that exists prior to experience).

Fido the Yak said...

If you're interested in Sartre's phenomenology of consciousness, I think L'Imaginaire would be a good place to start. It's straightforward, accessible Husserlian phenomenology. I have Webber's translation under the title The Imaginary, which is widely available now. I've also seen an older translation under the title The Psychology of the Imagination.

Chris said...

I just finished reading The Imaginary for the first time since I took an undergraduate course on existentialism. It's definitely a very good starting place for Sartre, and since he references it so frequently in Being and Nothingness, it's important for understanding that work as well.

Fido the Yak said...

I've aslo been reminded of Sartre's L'Imagination (Imagination: A Psychological Inquiry), which iirc is rather short and sticks in my mind for a little exegesis of the passage in Lucretius' on simulacra, which would be in Book 4 of De rerum natura. I'll have to put an order in for Imagination, as my memory is not as reliable as I remember it being. Anyway, it's interesting what Lucretius lumps together in Book 4, which some commentators wrongly regard as haphazard. It speaks the point you are pursuing, Chris, although I suppose it raises other problems about matter, temporality and alterity and so on that you might rather brush aside as trivial or cold. How amicably does one interpret Lucretius vis-a-vis Sartre?

On unitary consciousness, a fascinating secondary work is Selflessness in Sartre's Existentialism and Early Buddhism by Phra Thepsophon. (BTW I have been searching in vain for an online translation of the Abhidhamma Pitaka but am only finding secondary sources so far.) I might tend to agree with Thepsophon that the Buddhist doctrine of dependent co-arising leads to an understanding of consciousness that cannot be easily reconciled with Sartrean existentialism--but there's something troubling about the prospect of needing to reset the whole system back to Heraclitus just to make some experientially obvious point. To follow Thepsophon's path, it might be edifying to revisit Husserl on internal time consciousness and see what use Sartre made of that, or Merleau-Ponty for that matter, who wrote "The fact that even our purest reflection appears to us as retrospective in time, and that our reflection on the flux is actually inserted into that flux, shows that the most precise consciousness of which we are capable is always, as it were, affected by itself or given to itself, and that the word consciousness has no meaning independently of this duality" (PP, p. 426).

Sartre's treatment of the same problem in Being and Nothingness ("Original Temporality and Psychic Temporality: Reflection") boggles and, upon reflection, boggles some more. I can see why one would want to sidestep it.

dresden said...

I know I'm a rather late comer to this discussion, so you may or may not even get this comment, but I figure I'd try anyway.

Have you ever read Sartre's essay "Intentionality: A Fundamental Idea of Husserl's Phenomenology"? It was written in 1939, after Nausea but before B&N. While nowhere near as thorough as B&N (it's very short), it is no less lucide and certainly much more concise and straight-forward.

My SO is working on his doctorate in philosophy, is especially interested in phil of mind, and is a great admirer (and close reader) of Sartre; he introduced me to the essay as something useful that often goes overlooked.

Just found your blog a few days ago--I enjoy it very much--was combing through it in insomnia (skimming for things I actually know a little about), and thought I'd mention it; you might find it illuminating.

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