Heidegger was a Nazi. Jean-Paul Sartre was a French resistance fighter. However, they were
both mid twentieth century Europeans who experienced the second world war and the events
leading to it in their own ways. The immense popularity of Sartre's brand of existentialism
following the war makes it evident that his ideas reflected the ideas of his period, which makes
him particularly important for our study. But perhaps we should step back for a moment to re-examine what it is we are attempting to accomplish in this work.
In Aristotle's description of mind and imagination, mind was made up of thoughts. Thinking of
something entailed becoming in some way what was being thought. Therefore mind did not exist
until it began to think. In fact it did not become something, what the
call an essent, until it thought of itself. Imagination, on the other hand, was the imaging
mechanism of the senses. It was what produced an image of what the senses detected. This was
an important distinction because it made imagination a part of the body and not in any way
connected to the mind. At the same time mind had some kind of access to imagination because it
used its imaging capacity to produce images of what was remembered or thought of. Although he
does not go into detail concerning this relationship, Descartes called imagination a part of the
body, he also said that it could not in any way be part of the mind or soul. But he also said that
the mind (soul) imagines, indicating that he saw the same kind of connection that Aristotle did.
But both Descartes and Aristotle begin their deliberations with an assumption of the existence of
the world. Sartre, on the other hand, approached the problem following the "phenomenological
turn" through which all belief in the existence of an external world is suspended. But, the problem
is the same. The data out of which images of the external world are constructed is collected
through the senses. But images thus constituted are immediate. The mind deals constantly with
images that are not immediate, that are in fact images of the past or even the future. Therefore,
for both Aristotle and Descartes the connection between the mind and imagination had to be
tenuous. And it had to be under the control of the mind. Any explanation of the operation of the
mind as a creative agency must in some way include some similar kind of tenuous connection
between the mind and immediate experience. At the same time, a phenomenological explanation of
this process must by its very nature avoid the intercession of a body-centered imaging system.
Phenomenologically speaking, experience involves only the stream of consciousness. Therefore
this involves a much more complex explanation. The answer to this problem serves as the
fundamental ground of Sartre's philosophy.
Husserl's view of consciousness was as a system of absolute being. But as Sartre saw it, it was
never a pure consciousness, it was inhabited by the pure ego. Husserl's ego is thus granted a
permanence. Sartre thus claimed that the phenomenological reduction had not been completed
because he gave special dispensation to the ego. To avoid that trap
Sartre proposed the idea of a transcendental consciousness.
Transcendental consciousness is an impersonal spontaneity. It determines its existence at
each instant, without our being able to conceive anything before it. Thus each instant of
our conscious life reveals to us a creation ex nihilo.... There is something distressing for
each of us to catch in the act this tireless creation of which we are not the creators.
But this is the Aristotelian concept of imagination purged of the existence of body. Descartes
went through great extremes to show how imagination operated through the body and the senses
through purely mechanical means. He demonstrated how activities of the physical person, that is
the body, could be completely automatic without involving the mind. Of course their idea of mind
would only roughly correspond to Sartre's idea of the ego, or the I. However, one way or
another, whether through Aristotelian or through phenomenological approaches, in order for the
ego, or mind, or self, by whatever name you choose to call it, to sense subjective time, both future
or past, it must be disconnected from the stream of experience. If the stream of experience
processes itself through the bodily senses, Aristotelian imagination, or through a transcendental
consciousness, the ego, or mind, must be separate, and it must come into existence as an
emergent property of that experiential process. This, then was the basis for Sartre's approach to
existentialism. The I, being a creation of the stream of experience in the transcendental
consciousness, must create itself.
All values and all truths, in a phenomenological sense, are emergent only in an ego. But, since
transcendental consciousness is not only spontaneous, but also impersonal, it is also nothing. The
necessity of the ego, then to give values and truths to the stream of consciousness, and to itself as
an emergent creation of the flow of consciousness is the source of existential dread.
...Since all physical, psycho-physical, and psychic objects, all truths, all values are outside
it; since my me has itself ceased to be any part of it. But this nothing is all since it is
consciousness of all of these objects.
The important part here is that by making the ego an emergent property of the stream of
consciousness, it is not something permanent. It must constantly recreate itself and in doing so
recreate the structure of values and truths in the world. In Sartre's simplest terms, existence
precedes essence. Man is what he makes himself.
In an irrational world, a world where contradictories are allowed, God is a necessity. Such a
world might conceivably come into existence by pure chance. But it would soon disintegrate into
the confusion of contradictories. It requires an outside force to hold it from continuously
returning to the chaos out of which it was formed. In a rational world, on the other hand, God is
possible but not necessary. In fact, if the ego constitutes itself out of a stream of consciousness
that in itself is nothing then God can be easily described as a creation of the ego. Sartre is fond of
saying that the non-existence of God is unfortunate because without God man becomes ultimately
responsible for the world he exists in. Consider that these ideas were developed in France during
the German occupation. In Sartre's philosophy there are only two kinds of existence. There are
things that exist in themselves, that is, they exist only as they are. This would include things like
stones, trees, and furniture. Then there are those things that exist for themselves, and this only
includes man. Man is nothing other than what he himself creates. Thus there is no existence that
would correspond to what the religious call God.
If two events occur in this impersonal stream of consciousness that have absolutely nothing to do
with each other, but because of their simultaneity a third event occurs. Then a meaning can be
placed on this coincidence. This meaning, Sartre would say, is placed on the event by the I, the
person for whom the event has meaning. There is no rational meaning to it since it does not
involve any rationally related causes. At the same time there is no contradiction involved thus it
does not involve irrationality. The person experiencing the event chooses whether the event has
meaning or not and what that meaning is. But this does not mean that there exists a deeper
meaning, not connected with the person and not necessarily known by the person. This possibility
has been rejected only by the assumptions embedded in the phenomenological approach. At the
same time such a possibility could never be determined through reason since there are no logical
connections involved. Thus the existence of a relevant God is a possibility in a rational universe.
But the acceptance of such an existence would have to be through an act of faith as explained by
Kierkegaard. Such a God would be detectable only through a pattern of such events. Thus, once
the leap of faith has been taken the person becomes sensitive to this pattern. As Jonathan
Edwards put it, he gains a new spiritual sense.
Is this leap of faith more illogical than Sartre's insistence on Atheism as the only path to a full life?
It is another assumption. Just like the assumption that the world is rational. An assumption each
person must make for himself.