Mave dissertation, Lancaster University 1995 Being and Everythingness? Aspects of Freedom and Identity in the Thought of Sartre and Others, with Reference to 'Environmental Ethics'. Nick Hunt ma values and the Environment: Dissertation



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MAVE Dissertation,

Lancaster University 1995



Being and Everythingness?

Aspects of Freedom and Identity in the Thought of Sartre and Others, with Reference to 'Environmental Ethics'.

Nick Hunt

MA Values and the Environment: Dissertation.

 

.

 

Submitted: 30.9.95.

 

Introduction: Towards 'Environmental Ethics'.



'I am the being by whom 'there is' 'being''. - Jean-Paul Sartre .

It might be asked what exactly Jean-Paul Sartre has to do with environmental philosophy. My response is indirect - what isn't to do with 'environmental philosophy'? Is this discipline something concerned only with that which 'environs' us? Is it only to do with thinking about the value of that which is 'beyond' the human? I think not. In an era in which we are evermore aware of the ecological interconnectedness of all 'things', approaches which leave humans out of the picture are I think fatally short-sighted - to me it seems evident that the 'environmental problem' must begin with that particular species responsible for the destruction, for power over the other of 'nature' (I include humans and their own bodies in this term). On this account, humans and their beliefs about the self-other relation should be at the centre of our attention: a quintessentially Sartrean theme. I will argue that Sartre's analyses enable a clearer understanding of why the west has such an instrumental and exploitative attitude to 'the natural' ). Questions like - what is it about the way we live and think that seems so threatening to life? - become answerable. And of course, such a question would seem to be a profoundly existential one.

However, one has to beware of the power of words - 'existential' may not evoke such academic scorn as 'mystic' or 'goddess', but its use-value is surely compromised in the eyes of many 'rationalist' thinkers about 'environmental matters' (how difficult it is to avoid labelling). But I wonder if such scepticism is wise, if this is not a case of dogma effecting the closure of inquiry, especially when those who judge have most probably never practised 'mysticism' or 'worship of the goddess', still presuming to know without doing (as I will argue, such arrogance is quintessentially western). Perhaps such Gnostics might tell us what 'environmental philosophy' is really about, but I somehow doubt it.

Some bitterness might be detected here. Perhaps it has something to do with the discrete disdain for the 'unorthodox' which I have encountered in academia, with the fact that those writers and thinkers who to me seemed most wise in my years of reading and thinking (prior to re-entering academia) do not feature on reading lists, are not given serious attention (although things seem to be loosening up slightly). Having digressed thus, I should hasten to reassure: cafes and black clothes will not be discussed here. Nonetheless, Being and Nothingness will be central to my argument - its effect on me was so profound because I encountered in it just about every theme which, according to what I had learnt in the years beforehand, was precisely what was to blame for our current predicament. These themes can be summed up in one word - dualism. I am convinced that Sartre expressed with utmost sincerity and accuracy the full implications of the western world-view, that he followed through to their logical end mistaken presuppositions regarding what it is to be human. Understanding him is to understand a culture that is profoundly unwell.

So, no discussion of the intrinsic value of ecosystems. Instead, I shall try to show how (Sartrean) dualism must ultimately lead to hate, nihilism and the denial of life, how it may underlie a great deal of mainstream philosophical thinking which should therefore be treated with great scepticism or even abandoned by greens, and finally, briefly and inadequately, how other thinkers in the continental tradition do in fact offer a way beyond dualism. There will of course be holes in such an ambitious task: I can only hope to begin developing a critique on this occasion.

1. Analysis: The World of Being and Nothingness.

The mark of a moderate man is freedom from his own ideas. Tao Te-Ching, 59.

In his most famous work Sartre claims that 'the dualism of being and appearance is no longer entitled to any legal status in philosophy' (BN:xxi)._ He thereby aims to present an ontological explanation of 'the individual in the world', arguing that individual human subjectivity is to be understood as absolute freedom, autonomous and indestructible. While the work begins (and ends) with a discussion of the character of being in general, Sartre is mostly concerned with inquiring into the nature of one 'region of being', the 'for-itself': human consciousness. He thus creates a new dualism: that of the for-itself opposed to the 'in-itself'. He also tries to show how individuals, through undetermined freedom of choice, make themselves what they are (although they often deny this reality through 'bad faith'). This discussion is nested in a wider phenomenological analysis examining other 'universals' such as temporality, finitude, embodiment and human relations: all humans experience these although they will of course vary from person to person.

1.1: Ontology.

Sartre criticises Cartesian dualism by arguing that its mistake is to understand consciousness as a 'relationship of knowing'. For if we conceive consciousness primarily as knowing or 'representational thought', then an object of knowledge is implied, and so arises the familiar separation of knower and known, of subject and object. While Husserl shows that all consciousness is consciousness of something, he does not escape this dualism. Sartre argues that if we accept the 'primacy of knowledge', if consciousness is only knowledge of objects, then, we must grant priority to subject or object, or face an infinite regress in which each endlessly constitutes the other.

To escape this, Sartre argues that 'there must be an immediate, non-cognitive relation of the self to itself' (:xxix). Prior to Husserl's 'consciousness of something', which Sartre terms 'positional consciousness', there is 'non-positional' or 'immediate' consciousness. This consciousness is not of objects, but of 'consciousness (of) self', it is a 'consciousness of consciousness'. However, this should not be understood as a knowing of the self, because knowledge must refer to objects, and the self cannot be an object to itself._ Instead, Sartre argues, 'immediate' consciousness 'renders the reflection possible; there is a pre-reflective cogito which is the condition of the Cartesian cogito'(:xxix). Moreover, '(A)t one stroke it determines itself as consciousness of perception and as perception' (:xxx; emphasis added).

How does this 'pre-reflective cogito' actually function? Sartre argues that whenever we do something (his example is counting cigarettes) the pre-reflective cogito is present or given with and inseparable from consciousness of the object; yet at the same time it is not some kind of 'extra'; it is 'one with the consciousness of which it is consciousness'. This pre-reflective consciousness (of) self means that 'an intention, a pleasure, a grief can only exist as immediate self-consciousness'. Moreover: 'Consciousness (of) pleasure is constitutive of the pleasure as the very mode of its own existence, as the material of which it is made' (xxx, emphasis added). If consciousness of self is 'constitutive' of our consciousness of things, but not vice versa, then consciousness must be absolute. It is self-determining and in no way limited by the world around it, since '(T)he existence of consciousness comes from consciousness itself' (:xxxi). It follows that consciousness is no-thing, or 'nothing'. It must therefore be a region of being completely distinct from that region in which causality operates, the region of the inert, the passive, the 'in-itself': no other thing 'outside' consciousness, from the inert or objective world can determine the 'for-itself'. And if consciousness is 'self-determined' then it is also 'freedom' in an absolute or ontological sense.

Thus Sartre arrives at his two-world view, a world in which 'being-for-itself' is opposed to 'being-in-itself'. The for-itself, as absolute freedom, can have no content or structuration from the social world, because the latter is in-itself. By contrast consciousness is 'nothingness' in the sense of emptiness; it is 'like a hole of being at the heart of Being' (:617). However, emptiness does not mean inactivity. On the contrary, '(T)he For-itself, in fact, is nothing but the pure nihilation of the In-itself' (ibid). The for-itself negates or 'nihilates' being-in-itself; having the power to question, alter and transcend the world. In other words, the for-itself is the origin of all meaning or essence. Or: humans are primarily active nothingness, not passive being.

1.2:Freedom, Anguish, Individual.

Sartre aims to 'penetrate into the profound meaning of the relation 'man-world'' by examining forms of human conduct (:4). Since 'Human freedom precedes essence in man and makes it possible' and 'there is no difference between the being of man and his being-free' (:25), extensive discussion of individual human freedom is required. Here I think can be discerned Sartre's greatest fear: the horror of being given an essence, and also his solution: the human essence is to have no essence, to be undetermined, absolute freedom. That is, humans still have an essence. But I am anticipating myself. For now, let me stress that for Sartre, to be human means to be free or 'uncaused', able to create oneself and choose one's own project in the world (:24-5). To be free means having the uniquely human ability to actively stand out over the world, the inert in-itself, which can be 'put out of circulation' so that it cannot act on us.

Sartre qualifies this: such freedom can only operate within limits. The for-itself cannot choose its 'position' but it can choose the meaning of its 'situation'. The contingencies of the social context, what Sartre calls facticity, may be beyond choice (I can not choose to have been born as a working-class person) but this context provides the situation in which I am free and must create the meaning of my life (or be inauthentic):

This inapprehensible fact of my condition... is what causes the for-itself, while choosing the meaning of its situation and while constituting itself as the foundation of itself in situation, not to choose its position (:83).

Absolute freedom causes anguish: 'Anguish is precisely my consciousness of being my own future, in the mode of not-being... If nothing compels me to save my life, nothing prevents me from precipitating myself into the abyss' (:32). At the moment of freedom, in which the choice is made, I am nothing, being suspended between my past and my future. I have necessarily put my own past 'out of circulation' (nihilated it) since, as knowledge, it should not shape my choice. But I am not yet my future act, and so I am forced to confront my nothingness, the power of my freedom to nihilate myself. This suspension and subsequent anguish may lead to 'bad faith' (inauthenticity) which is the attempt to deny freedom; in bad faith I surrender freedom by treating myself as an in-itself, a thing determined by the causal realm: I have an identity, an unchosen meaning which is false: therefore I am inauthentic and dishonest with myself.

If freedom is absolute and above the empirical, how does Sartre account for individuality? The answer is via facticity. Each mortal 'for-itself' has its unique particularity in terms of personal history and culture. Accordingly, each faces different constraints on her or his actions, due to varying social and economic situations. Some people very obviously are less free than others. However, Sartre is concerned not with this social reality but with ontological freedom:

'To be free' does not mean, 'to obtain what one has wished', but rather, 'by oneself to determine oneself to wish' (in the broad sense of choosing). In other words success is not at all important to freedom (:483).

That is, even in the worst kinds of situations a project is always possible. The torture victim is still 'free' to sustain an active project in relation to his condition. The victim may not achieve the project, but they can still choose; the uniqueness of their project is what creates individuality.

Facticity, the being 'thrown into the world' of the for-itself, is contingent or accidental, having not been chosen. Here a paradox seems to arise. As already mentioned, I cannot choose the social class into which I am born, yet my relation to my facticity must be freely chosen by me since 'facticity cannot constitute me as being a bourgeois or being a worker' - facticity does not constitute me (:83). Since I am not free not to choose, I must choose to 'nihilate' my thrownness in some way, so as to freely recreate its meaning. And it seems that I must choose the meaning of my facticity ever anew, in order to be authentic. This leads to the question of embodiment.

1.3: Sartre and the Body.

Embodiment is clearly a necessary part of one's facticity; it might be thought that the body is what most clearly demonstrates unique identity. For Sartre however, the body is also ultimately contingent. This becomes apparent when he argues that the body is essentially different from the for-itself, yet somehow still identical to it: 'Being-for-itself must be wholly body and it must be wholly consciousness; it can not be united with a body' (:305). He then goes on to show how the body is only experienced secondarily, mediated through my relations with other people.

Since humans have been defined as being primarily pure consciousness, Sartre argues (consistently as ever) that the for-itself must first encounter the world as consciousness, and that this meeting is therefore not that of an embodied self-consciousness, because the body is part of knowledge:

the body, whatever may be its function, appears first as the known. We cannot therefore refer knowledge back to it or discuss it before we have defined knowing; nor can we derive knowing in its fundamental structure from the body in any way whatsoever (:218; my italics).

Before the discovery of the contingent body exists pure consciousness (the pre-reflective cogito). The body appears later, as the 'known' - but how? By the look of the Other: 'the discovery of my body as an object is indeed a revelation of its being. But the being which is thus revealed to me is its being-for-others' (:305). This is what Sartre means when he says that the body is 'absolutely' not the for-itself. However, the body can not just be this; if it were, we should not be able to explain internal sensations such as pain. It must therefore also be what Sartre calls 'my body for-me' or the body 'as being-for-itself' (:309). This is the body as consciousness, not essentialised by the look of the Other. Sartre says that the body is lived 'non-reflectively', as a 'movement of internal self-nihilation', that 'consciousness exists its body' (:329). He goes on to argue that pain is not, therefore, a relation in which my body (a thing) hurts me (consciousness), but that pain is only 'pain-consciousness', constituted by consciousness. It follows that perceptions and feelings, as well as situation, are constituted through my project (:319).

1.4: Situatedness, Meaning and the Other.

The 'paradox of freedom' is that 'there is freedom only in a situation, and there is a situation only through freedom' (:489). The for-itself is responsible for constituting its inevitable situatedness, but this situatedness does not and cannot constitute the for-itself, unless one is in bad faith. Sartre argues, through his discussion of the climber confronting the crag, that the inert 'resistance' of nature is possible only because freedom has already 'integrated' it into its situation by, in this example, the climber's choosing to climb the crag. Even if the climber fails in his or her attempt, it does not mean that the crag somehow limits freedom; freedom does not depend on success. It is the climber's project which gives specific meaning to the crag (:488). The meaning of the contingent in-itself is always constituted by the free project of the for-itself:

For the simple traveller who passes over this road and whose free project is a pure aesthetic ordering of the landscape, the crag is not revealed either as scaleable or as not scaleable; it is manifested only as beautiful or ugly (ibid).

It might appear that Sartre believes that there is another type of situatedness whose meaning is not constituted by the for-itself. If so, the for-itself would not after all be the ultimate source of all essence. This is when the situation is 'neither objective nor subjective, so it can be considered neither as the free result of a freedom nor as the ensemble of the constraints to which I am subject' (:551). Such situations may be structured by others, and these others may give me an 'exteriority' which involves a 'loss of self' or alienation. There is in freedom 'a weakness' which 'causes everything it undertakes always to have one face which freedom will not have chosen, which escapes it and which for the Other will be pure existence' (:526). Our past also seems to compel us to act in certain ways; once we have chosen the meaning of the past in relation to the current project, it 'imposes itself upon us and devours us' (:503). These points suggest that our freedom is limited or conditioned by situation. However, to admit this would open the floodgates and undermine the whole Sartrean project - for how would the authentic human know when he was being devoured - determined - or not? Accordingly, Sartre writes that

my freedom by freely choosing itself chooses its limits; or, if you prefer, the free choice of my ends (i.e., of what I am for myself) includes the assumption of the limits of this choice, whatever they may be... I choose that my choice be limited by something other than itself ( 530, my emphasis).

So, even if I am alienated by the look of the Other (of which more below) this alienation has been freely chosen by me since I have constituted the meaning of the situation - even the slave in chains chooses his limits, 'as free as his master' because always 'a freedom in situation'. Furthermore, as outsiders we cannot know if the slave has less freedom than his master, since 'there is no absolute viewpoint where one could place oneself so as to compare different situations, each person realises only one situation - his own' (:550).

Despite appearances then, Sartre understands all situations as fundamentally individual, portraying humans as being 'islands (of radical subjectivity) unto themselves', each constituting all meaning around her or him. But, since I constitute the meaning of my situation, the other for-itself must, as another island of subjectivity, be perceived as a threat; the Other must necessarily invade my island, and I his. Here I am not confronting simply another in-itself:

'(T)he appearance among the objects of my universe of an element of disintegration in that universe is what I mean by the appearance of a man in my universe...(this) corresponds... to a decentralisation of the world which undermines the centralisation which I am simultaneously effecting' (:255).

The other threatens to reduce me to an object in his world, and my only defence (despite having chosen to be alienated!) is to do the same to him. Sartre describes the experience of being caught while looking through a keyhole, of how one experiences 'shame' which is, he argues, the awareness of having an outside, of finding myself to be an object of the Other's look (:222); I become 'Being-for-Others'. The Other attempts to 'steal' my being-in-situation from me in order to incorporate it into his or her own situation. Short of death however, my ontological freedom must remain intact (to allow the possibility of my falling into bad faith), for I am always free to choose my response, to try and objectify the Other, while never managing to destroy the Other's core-freedom. Thus, '(C)onflict is the original meaning of being-for-others' (364). Social reality is primarily conflictual, a war of all against all.

Sartre's conclusions are completely - elegantly - consistent with his basic dualistic premise: man is different: 'the being through whom nothingness comes into the world'. In effect, each human creates the meaning of the world from a position outside it. And if consciousness is primarily the 'individual upsurge' of nihilating freedom in the world, then multiple sources of meaning must collide. Hence, there is virtually no account of 'collective' or 'shared' meaning and experience in Being and Nothingness. I say 'virtually' because Sartre does suggest that there is a 'we-subject' which arises when subjects pursue common ends, and he writes that it seems that this 'overcomes the original conflict of transcendences' (:425). To admit this however, would again be to destroy the fundamental premises of his project. I shall return to this below.

2: Critique - The Problems of Dualism.

Men are born soft and supple; dead, they are stiff and hard.

Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible is a disciple of death. Tao Te-Ching, 76.

My intention now is to try to show how the main themes of Being and Nothingness are ultimately incoherent, and also how they relate to mainstream 'liberal thinking'._ I shall start with 'the look' and inter-human relations, moving onto the problem of the body and self-identity, attempting to show how the weaknesses and contradictions of Sartre's position resemble those of the liberal tradition as identified in recent feminist and communitarian criticism. If valid these criticisms not only point to the difficulties of adapting traditional individualistic approaches to cater for 'environmental' issues, but they also reinforce claims of mind-body dualism and the 'domination of nature' thesis so often heard in green literature and 'perennial wisdom'. In other words, they support the grand contention that dominant western thinking is fundamentally flawed - dualistic - and that the crisis around us is being - at least in part - created and worsened by leaving basic dualistic premises unchallenged. Such thinking manifests itself as 'subjectivism' and 'objectivism', and determines both the dominant ways in which we view the world and the way we treat it.

2.1: Looking into 'the Look' - Sartre and Social Relations.

The ordinary man keeps reaching for power; thus he never has enough. Tao Te-Ching, 38.

To 'see through' all things is the same as not to see. C.S. Lewis.

A recent documentary entitled 'Monkey in the Mirror' revealed how certain troops of semi-domesticated Japanese monkeys have expanded in numbers from their regular troop-size of 40 or so individuals to huge groups of a thousand or more._ Normally peaceable behaviour has been transformed; individuals no longer know each other on a face to face basis and are liable to be attacked without warning. When eating the behavioural differences were particularly pronounced; the monkeys gorge free grain as quickly as possible, before their 'rivals' get there; and, intriguingly, they adopt a novel defence strategy - they avoid all eye-contact assiduously. This, the programme speculated, was to minimise the chances of provocation and conflict. It would seem that 'if looks could kill' is no empty threat._

This links into my argument conveniently. As outlined earlier the look represents for Sartre the sole way in which one realises one's self or 'exteriority': 'my freedom is alienated in the presence of the Other's pure subjectivity which founds my objectivity. It can never be alienated before the Other-as-object' (:375)._ The ontological basis of social relations is a reciprocal 'ebb and flow' of objectification, as the possibility of 'being looked at' is a permanent one. Notice however the example of the monkeys: it is when their social relations become abnormal that hostility and conflict result. This abnormality does not deny that 'the look' is a common occurrence, and plays an important part in social relations, but it implies that it can become the norm under various pressures, in this case competition over food and space.


Directory: users -> philosophy -> awaymave -> onlineresources
onlineresources -> Mave dissertation, Lancaster University 2001 The Role of Culture in the Perception of Nature in the United States Martin J. LeBlanc Acknowledgements
onlineresources -> Mave dissertation, Lancaster University 1994 Mind, systems and the sacred: a paradigm change in values for environmental survival? Noel G. Charlton
onlineresources -> Mave dissertation, Lancaster University 2001 Social Ecology and Feminism: Can Socialist Ecofeminism be the Answer? Megan Salhus
onlineresources -> The Last Refuge Of The Unquantifiable: Aesthetics, Experience And Environmentalism Michael Hannis
onlineresources -> The Myth Of Green Consumerism: Consumption, Community And Free Markets Michael Hannis
onlineresources -> Corporate Nature
onlineresources -> Foucault's Discourse Karl Rogers
onlineresources -> What might it mean to say nature has “intrinsic value”? Do you think it has? Introduction


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