For Sartre, the In-itself is defined as what is, the knowledge of which is intuitive.10F Here, Sartre reverses the Husserlian definition of intuition by stating that it is not the presence of the thing to consciousness, but “the presence of consciousness to the thing,”11F a claim which denies the presence of a transcendental ego, a pure and original I. This occurs because for Sartre, it is consciousness that presents itself to the world, and is thereby constituted. Consciousness is the permanent game of reflexivity-reflecting. This becomes problematic since consciousness, in merely reflecting a reflex, remains an activity which falls away at the moment that the In-itself vanishes and ceases to exist as thingness. As such, the knowledge of the In-itself remains unknown to consciousness because it is essentially a product of negation, i.e. not-this or not-that, leaving what-is to remain a mystery.12F The In-itself does not hold a certain ‘external relation’, for the relationship of a ‘this’ to a ‘that’ must occur within the For-itself. Consequently, knowledge of the world appears as what the For-itself perceives it to be; on this Sartre states: “an external relation is neither objective nor subjective, but ‘hangs, … in the air.’ It is nothing; its whole being consists in ‘being quoted’ by the For-itself.”13F
Following from this radical separation between things and thought, freedom for Sartre is limited to the extent that I am able to remain as consciousness acting on the Other. However, the Other is not always a tree-root, or a gust of wind, but it is also, and more fundamental to my freedom, an-Other consciousness. My freedom is limited and runs the risk of disintegrating when faced with the Other’s subjective world.14F This falling apart of my universe occurs because in and through the Other’s gaze I am an object in the Other’s world, as much as the Other is an object in mine; to be looked at is to be annihilated in the gaze of the Other, thereby feeling myself transformed from a Subject to myself to an object for the Other. By being looked at I am transcended, my possibilities are transcended by those of the Other, and this because I am no longer the sole actor in the situation, nor the sole perceiver; my actions (intentions) are already perceived and observed by the Other, a situation which renders my possibilities (what I can and shall do) into probabilities (what I may and will do). The Other locates me in space, and posits me in time. This occurs because with the Other’s presence I am forced to acknowledge the feeling and possibility of simultaneous existence. This feeling of simultaneity makes me also feel subject to the Other’s actions, and therewith “I am his slave.”15F However, the Other’s gaze does not endow me with ordinary knowledge, but is literally a “hole in my universe,” and hence a new dimension which gives rise to specific reactions (shame, pride, alienation etc.) proving the Other’s existence, as well as my ‘being’ as ‘object’ of these feelings. It then becomes my duty to myself to render manifest my will, hence ‘act’ according to a ‘choice’ that I have made, in order to alter this situation of ‘objectivity’. It is up to me to become subject again, to free myself from this ‘objectification’. This choice and its responsibility constitute my For-itself, i.e. my freedom, as well as my subjectivity. It is in the very nature of this choice and responsibility that lies my existential angst. According to Sartre, anguish is “far from being a screen which could separate us from action, it is a condition of action itself.”16F It is in this action that my reality is constituted, and lies the essence of my selfhood independent of any socially determined consciousness. This explains Sartre’s demand that consciousness and actuality be distinct, for one may be conscious of many things, but it is only in action that one is able to ground this potential into reality.
Since action denotes a choice which is an expression of subjectivity, what is the relation between the conscious I think and the active I do? In other words, how is an individual to achieve freedom in the world, and what type of action represents an authentic expression of individual will? To answer this question, I must examine how Sartre’s philosophy of being conceives of the relationship between the freedom to act, and the consciousness of this freedom as lived-reality.
One can find an answer to these questions in La Nausie and in subsequent writings. In La Nausie, Roquentin exemplifies the pure consciousness of the For-itself as active self-questioning of the self and its environment. He seems to be stumbling endlessly in a world he did not shape, did not fashion, and is merely observing. Roquentin conceives of himself as a prisoner of a world in which he is able to reflect his essence, but from which he remains separate. Sartre defines the world of free individuals as filled with obstacles and illusions, alien and terrifying. There is no sphere in which social, political and economic relations or conditions are ‘excuses’ for my failure to be free. History is my history, the one that I have written, or have yet to create, all “in respect of concrete circumstances.”17F Freedom is that responsibility that I carry for my choices and my actions.
By separating act and thought, Sartre’s definition of the freedom in the world makes of freedom an impossibility. Sartre insists that consciousness only comes after the act, for consciousness itself is unthinking (irriflichi) and can only acquire meaning and content once reflected, i.e. in terms of an act, an objectification of the will.18F However, once reflected, the meaning and content of this consciousness appears invariably as belonging to a past moment, an earlier self that, since, has been altered by the very action this reflection has brought about. This clearly indicates the niant, the nothingness contained within the Cartesian cogito’s I think; for Sartre, since consciousness cannot reflect prior to an act, then it must be concluded that it is empty, i.e. an “active, individual nonself.”19F
10. Sartre, B&N, op. cit., p. 172.
12. For Sartre, Knowledge “is neither a relation, a quality, nor an activity; it is the essence of the For-itself insofar as it is ‘present to… ‘.” Ibid.
13. Ibid., p. 51.
14. Ibid., p. 256.
15. Ibid., pp. 268, 339, 351. In Sartre’s Roads to Liberty, Vol. II, The Reprieve, trans. Eric Sutton, (London: Penguin, 1982), the look has not only an epistemological value concerning the existence of the Other but also concerning my own existence.
16. Ibid. p. 32 my italics.
17. Ibid., p. 51.
18. Sartre, Being and Nothingness, op. cit., cf. Part IV, ch. 1. : Freedom: The First Condition of Action, pp. 433-481.
19. Hugh Silverman (ed.), “Sartre’s Words on the Self,” Jean Paul Sartre, (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1980), p. 87.