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JEAN-PAUL SARTRE

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 phenomenologists would 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.