IN WHAT WAY DOES THE EXISTENCE OF OTHER PEOPLE COMPLICATE SARTRE’S ACCOUNT OF THE BEING FOR-ITSELF?

Sartre has a possessive ontology, arguing that individuals experience the world as if it exists for them; what he calls “being-in-the-world”. The world is seen as filled with objects of instrumental use towards one’s goals and overall project[1]. Yet, the experience of the other’s gaze limits instrumentality, as their look is an immediate affirmation that the other is a subject with thoughts outside of “lawful limits of knowledge” (BN; 252), thereby control[2]. In looking, the other “decentralizes” one’s being (279); defining and “solidifying” what one is (292). In their eyes one becomes[3] the type of person who does___ to attain___, akin to a “given object” (BN; 285); objectified, predictable and no longer radically free (“transcendence-transcended”).

The other’s being transforms the world (BN: 293), one becomes an object amongst other objects (“being-in-the-midst-of-the-world”). The others eyes are oppressive, their apprehensions alienate. Feelings such as guilt or shame come to fruition through the other (BN; 245-6). Banal actions and appearances become shameful[4], one can be determined by one act alone (HC; 220), irrespective of the motivation.

This is a severe problem for Sartre’s ontology of freedom, as, “at each instant the other is looking at me[5]” (BN; 281). Once the other is recognized, one’s situation is always susceptible to being based around the ontological position of the other. No matter how one wills to be seen, the other’s impenetrability destines one to be what the other perceives (BN; 285).  The other’s views become a complex form of facticity, for one is seen as full and determined.

To conserve ontological freedom, one must view the other as an object, maintaining instrumentality through enslavement (BN; 267). Freedom comes at the expense of the other[6].  Adversarial relations are inevitable following Sartre’s logic, ending only in death.

Inez: …One always dies too soon – or too late and yet one’s whole life is complete at that moment, with a line drawn underneath it, ready for summing up. You are your life – and nothing else (HC; 221)

“Death is the victory of the other”; their capricious eyes[7] define one based on the actions employed in a now complete life.  It is only while alive that one is self-determining. The objectifying consequence of the others look puts one outside of oneself. It is only through this outside that we come to define who we are and what our “real motive” is (HC; 215).

The ontology of consciousness entails that: “A man is what he wills himself to be” (HC; 221), yet, in the end, the for-itself will be an in-itself contingent upon the other. This complicates Sartre’s account of being for-itself, as one’s “fate is left in their hands” (HC; 216). Once dead, the power of self-determination goes, who one then is can be assessed only by the other, who can only assess acts (objectivity), not thoughts (subjectivity).


[1] The world one experiences is  “illuminated” and structured around one’s project (BN; 571)

[2] “You can’t throttle thoughts with hands”, one cannot act upon thoughts, the other’s agency alone changes them. (HC; 221)

[3] Sartre’s insistence upon becoming an idea in the eyes of others is objected to by Fanon (2008; 87), who argues that the conception of the black man prefigures activity : “I am not a slave to the idea that others have of me but of my own appearance” (my emphasis).

[4] See keyhole example pp288

[5] This should not necessarily be read literally as Sartre’s ontology makes the “threat” as real as the other’s presence.

[6] It should be noted that such a pessimistic account of human relations is dropped after BN, notably the Roads to Freedom trilogy, Existentialism is a Humanism and Critique of Dialectical Reason

[7] Inez: “You are a coward, Garcin, because I wish it.” (HC; 221)

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