Jean Paul Sartre's 'The Transcendence of the Ego'

Sartre's account of why the self is not something we ever really perceive

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The Transcendence of the Ego is a philosophical essay published by Jean Paul Sartre in 1936. In it, he sets out his view that the self or ego is not itself something that one is aware of.

The model of consciousness that Sartre provides in this essay may be outlined as follows. Consciousness is always intentional; that is, it is always and necessarily consciousness of something. The 'object' of consciousness can be almost any kind of thing: a physical object, a proposition, a state of affairs, a recollected image or mood--anything that consciousness can apprehend. This is the “principle of intentionality” that forms the starting point for Husserl's phenomenology. 

Sartre radicalizes this principle by asserting that consciousness is nothing but intentionality. This means conceiving of consciousness as a pure activity, and denying that there is any "ego" which lies within, behind or beneath consciousness as its source or necessary condition. The justification of this claim is one of Sartre's main purposes in The Transcendence of the Ego.

Sartre first distinguishes between two modes of consciousness: unreflecting consciousness and reflecting consciousness. Unreflecting consciousness is simply my usual consciousness of things other than consciousness itself: birds, bees, a piece of music, the meaning of a sentence, a recollected face, etc. According to Sartre consciousness simultaneously posits and grasps its objects. And he describes such consciousness as "positional" and as "thetic." What he means by these terms is not entirely clear, but he seems to be referring to the fact that in my consciousness of anything there is both activity and passivity. Consciousness of an object is positional in that it posits the object: that is, it directs itself to the object (e.g. an apple, or a tree) and attends to it. It is “thetic” in that consciousness confronts its object as something given to it, or as something that has already been posited.

Sartre also claims that consciousness, even when it is unreflecting, is always minimally conscious of itself. This mode of consciousness he describes as "non-positional" and "non-thetic" indicating that in this mode, consciousness does not posit itself as an object, nor is it confronted by itself. Rather, this irreducible self-awareness is taken to be an invariable quality of both unreflecting and reflecting consciousness.

A reflecting consciousness is one that is positing itself as its object. Fundamentally, says Sartre, the reflecting consciousness and the consciousness that is the object of reflection (the "reflected consciousness") are identical. Nevertheless, we can distinguish between them, at least in abstraction, and so talk about two consciousnesses here: the reflecting and the reflected.  

His main purpose in analyzing self-consciousness is to show that self-reflection does not support the thesis that there is an ego situated within or behind consciousness. He first distinguishes two kinds of reflection: (1) reflection on an earlier state of consciousness that is recalled to mind by memory–so this earlier state now becomes an object of present consciousness; and (2) reflection in the immediate present where consciousness takes itself as it is now for its object. Retrospective reflection of the first kind, he argues, reveals only an unreflecting consciousness of objects along with the non-positional self-awareness that is an invariable feature of consciousness. It does not reveal the presence of an "I" within consciousness. Reflection of the second kind, which is the kind that Descartes is engaged in when he asserts “I think, therefore I am,” might be thought more likely to reveal this "I." Sartre denies this, however, arguing that the "I" that consciousness is commonly thought to encounter here is, in fact, the product of reflection. In the second half of the essay, he offers his explanation of how this occurs.

Brief Summary

Briefly, his account runs as follows. Discrete moments of reflective consciousness are unified by being interpreted as emanating from my states, actions, and characteristics, all of which extend beyond the present moment of reflection. For example, my consciousness of detesting something now and my consciousness of detesting the same thing at some other moment are united by the idea that "I" hate that thing--hatred being a state that persists beyond the moments of conscious detestation.

Actions perform a similar function. Thus, when Descartes asserts "I am now doubting" his consciousness is not engaged in a pure reflection on itself as it is at the present instant. He is allowing an awareness that this present moment of doubt is part of an action that began earlier and will continue for some time to inform his reflection. The discrete moments of doubt are unified by the action, and this unity is expressed in the "I" which he includes in his assertion. 

The "ego," then, is not discovered in reflection but is created by it. It is not, however, an abstraction, or a mere idea. Rather, it is the "concrete totality" of my reflective states of consciousness, constituted by them in the way that a melody is constituted by discrete notes. We do, says Sartre, apprehend the ego "out of the corner of our eye" when we reflect; but if we try to focus on it and make it the object of consciousness it necessarily disappears, since it only comes into being through consciousness reflecting on itself (not on the ego, which is something else).

The conclusion Sartre draws from his analysis of consciousness is that phenomenology has no reason to posit an ego within or behind consciousness. He claims, moreover, that his view of the ego as something that reflecting consciousness constructs, and which should, therefore, be regarded as just another object of consciousness that, like all other such objects, transcends consciousness, has marked advantages. In particular, it furnishes a refutation of solipsism (the idea that the world consists of me and the contents of my mind), helps us overcome skepticism regarding the existence of other minds, and lays down the basis for an existentialist philosophy that genuinely engages the real world of people and things.

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Westacott, Emrys. "Jean Paul Sartre's 'The Transcendence of the Ego'." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Westacott, Emrys. (2020, August 27). Jean Paul Sartre's 'The Transcendence of the Ego'. Retrieved from Westacott, Emrys. "Jean Paul Sartre's 'The Transcendence of the Ego'." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 21, 2023).