TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Sartre's Abandonment of Phenomenology

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Damien Booth looks at Ronald Aronson’s “Interpreting Husserl and Heidegger: The Root of Sartre’s Thought” from Telos 13 (Fall 1972).

Readers familiar with Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophical writings understand that he inherited a great deal of his conceptual language from the phenomenological projects of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. In “Interpreting Husserl and Heidegger: The Root of Sartre’s Thought,” Ronald Aronson strips away much of the mystery from Sartre’s concepts and, in so doing, reveals something about the framework that Sartre inherits that may well restrict his philosophical project from the very start. The accusation Aronson levies against Sartre is that he opens up a gap between consciousness and the world, a gap that Husserl wished to close by developing his transcendental phenomenological method. Essentially, Aronson thinks that Sartre abandons the very developments that made Husserl’s and Heidegger’s projects tenable in the first place: “we find [Sartre] erasing all the structures of consciousness (emotional, cognitive, and social) which make the world intelligible and making consciousness into a ‘nothing'” (47). As a result, Sartre becomes tangled up in his “own conceptual apparatus.” To find out why he gets so conceptually confused by these entanglements, Aronson traces Sartre’s key concepts back to their roots in Husserl’s cognitive projects and Heidegger’s hermeneutic phenomenology.

Sartre viewed himself as a “phenomenological psychologist,” using Husserl’s insights to map out human emotion and imagination—exactly as we experience them. Sartre saw in Husserl’s method a way to describe the “psychic” without reducing psychic phenomena to the status of objects. More importantly for Sartre, phenomenology offered philosophy “a way into” the world without attributing to the mind the property of being the origin of the world. Aronson notes how Sartre is struck by the Husserlian notion of “intentionality” (consciousness’s relation to phenomena; consciousness is “consciousness-of“). For Husserl, objects never enter consciousness, but consciousness (through intentionality) moves toward the world. However, for Husserl, consciousness will have essential structures which can be laid open to us eidetically. The quotation above anticipates what Sartre will offer to his readers here. He will erase “all the structures of consciousness” in favor of a view that turns consciousness into nothingness.

Sharply different and separated from the world; existing only as an act towards objects; totally spontaneous and, strictly speaking, nothing; and existing only as it is among objects in the world—these are the traits of consciousness Sartre draws from his encounter with phenomenology. (50)

So the problem, as Aronson sees it, is that consciousness has its own realm, consisting in the different structures that Husserl tried so hard to make more sensible. Sartre takes Husserl’s notion of intentionality out of the context of these structures and, in so doing, concludes that consciousness is nothing but its relation to objects in the world. Crucially for Sartre, consciousness is in-the-world. Taking consciousness in this manner allows more direct philosophical access to the things themselves. Aronson highlights how this is akin to Heidegger’s conception of inderweltsein (being-in-the-world): “Sartre uses Heidegger to prise himself away from Husserl.” (52)

Again, Aronson draws our attention to how Sartre makes use of a notion, and then strips that notion of what makes it so important for its respective thinker. Sartre distinguishes himself from Heidegger by abandoning the idea that objects and Dasein are alongside each other. For Heidegger, the “worldhood of the world” depends upon Dasein. It is our network of ends and practical relations that constitutes the worldhood of the world. (This is embodied by Heidegger’s important distinction between readiness-to-hand and presence-at-hand.) It is this constitution that makes it possible for Dasein to take objects as objects in the first place. Sartre on the other hand notes how consciousness relies on pre-existing objects. His conception of being-in-the-world is one that submerges consciousness in a realm of objects that are essentially de trop (superfluous). All objects are just there, available for a spontaneous consciousness to stumble upon.

Thus, there are no substrata to consciousness. It is an empty vessel, merely a movement toward superfluous things. According to Aronson, Sartre actually empties consciousness of the cognitive structures identified by Husserl. He achieves this by appropriating Heidegger’s being-in-the-world. But Sartre also retains intentional consciousness from Husserlian terminology to strip being-in-the-world of its relations. For Sartre, then, consciousness does not have any practical, social or historical relations to objects. The problem with this view, as far as Aronson sees it, is that this stance allows room for the very skepticism that phenomenology sought to overcome. Subjectivity disappears and consciousness and the world become radically contingent: “by erasing the structures of consciousness, Sartre wreaks havoc with all of the concerns which originally gave rise to the search for those structures” (55). Sartre attempts to circumvent this problem in Being and Nothingness as he introduces his distinction between l’être en-soi (being in-itself) and l’être pour-soi (being for-itself): “The for-itself negates the in-itself—presumably in regular, patterned, predictable ways—and so there emerges an ordered, structured world.” (56)

At this point, Aronson validly asks whether or not this development is just the reappearance of pre-conscious, sense-making activity. Thus, Sartre shifts between technical talk of the in-itself and the for-itself, and talk referring to people in their everyday lives. (Being and Nothingness is littered with poignant examples: the frigid woman; the waiter; the closet homosexual and, of course, Pierre.) In this way, Sartre can hold onto the notion of a radically spontaneous consciousness while still accounting for the intelligibility of the world as we experience it. It is objects themselves that have various properties, such as loveable, hateful, terrible etc. These things are not merely subjective reactions to objects, but we experience objects exactly as they are. Consciousness “plays no part in constituting the world of our experience. . . . All the qualities of that world lie out of reach, in the world . . .” (57). Sartre thereby stresses the primacy of the individual over history.

This extensive conceptual mapping enables Aronson to give us his key criticism of Sartre’s argument. The position confines us to our experiences to such an extent that the relation between appearance and being is lost. Subjectivity goes from something Sartre abandoned to the very thing that judges our experience. The things themselves, exactly as we see them, are the truth. The way we see the world is the way the world is:

. . . suppress the subject and you suppress any chance of understanding the world and our relation to it. And at the same time you elevate a distorted subjective impression of the world to the status of indisputable truth. (58)

Aronson also thinks that his criticism of Sartre’s conception of consciousness as a nothingness makes his notions of self-determination and freedom untenable. Aronson accuses Sartre of making consciousness a “visitor from philosophy’s remote regions,” when in fact, it is limited by our bodies. Consciousness is in a body. And, as such, we can never be as radically free and undetermined as the Sartre of Being and Nothingness wants us to believe. Not only that, but we can never be free from social, historical, and cultural conditioning. Aronson’s criticisms brings Sartre’s project crumbling down, because for Sartre, absolute freedom depends upon consciousness being nothingness. In exposing the absurdity of the latter, the former becomes just as absurd.

I have presented some key concepts of Sartre’s thought but I have rejected them at each step. When someone’s central positions are so often wrong, we should ask whether he isn’t asking the wrong questions in the first place. (59)

It is with this thought that the article finds its most decisive theme. Aronson wants to know how Sartre could have gone wrong in this manner. Sartre wants to map the technical work of Husserlian transcendental phenomenology onto the world of everyday lived experience. He tries to achieve this by using the necessary components of Heidegger’s project in Being and Time. But Aronson believes that Sartre already has a picture of the world in mind. That is, he already has an attitude regarding the world and he articulates this attitude in a sort of existential jargon, all the while trying to give us the impression that these attitudes are arrived at by philosophical study.

What then do we make of existentialism, philosophy in the world? From Imagination through L’Idiot de la Famille it is largely a study of patterns of withdrawal, or of situations so bad as to demand withdrawal. The main motive of consciousness-in-the-world seems to be to get out of the world. . . . [E]ven the occasional enthusiasm seen in several of Sartre’s early works is not enthusiasm about life, but about discovering intellectual approaches to life. (65)

Aronson’s critique, while scathing, is at the same time a crystal clear account of Sartre’s (mis)appropriation of his phenomenological sources—Husserl and Heidegger. For this reason alone it deserves a careful reappraisal, but he also gives us a glimpse at what may well be wrong per se with “existentialism” (a term Sartre was hesitant to apply to himself) in comparison to transcendental and hermeneutic phenomenology. For Sartre, consciousness is completely ineffectual; the human being has no role to play in the constitution of objects. Instead it merely harks back from them. However, as far as Husserl and Heidegger are concerned, careful, technical description of the levels of human experience will reveal our involvement in the world of objects. Aronson paints a picture of Sartre’s project that leaves it far less theoretically satisfying than the phenomenological works of Husserl and Heidegger.

Read the full version of Ronald Aronson’s “Interpreting Husserl and Heidegger: The Root of Sartre’s Thought” at the Telos Online website. If you are affiliated with an institution that is an online subscriber to Telos, you have free access to our complete online archive. If not, you can purchase 24-hour access to this and other Telos articles at a per-article rate. Follow the article link for more details.

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