The existentialist origins of postmodernism

In part, postmodernism has its origin in the existentialism of the 19th and 20th centuries. The Danish theologian and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) is generally regarded as the first existentialist. Kierkegaard had his life profoundly marked by the breaking of an engagement and by his discomfort with the formalities of the (Lutheran) Church of Denmark. In his understanding (as well as of others of the time, within a movement known as Pietism, influential mainly in Germany, but with strong precedence over the English Methodism of John Wesley) Lutheran theology had become overly intellectual, marked by a “Protestant scholasticism.”

Scholasticism was before this period a branch of Catholic theology, whose main representative was Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Thomas Aquinas argued against the theory of the double truth, defended by Muslim theologians of his time. According to this theory, something could be true in religion and not be true in the empirical sciences. Thomas Aquinas defended a classic concept of truth, used centuries earlier by Augustine of Hippo (354-430), to affirm that the truth could not be so divided. Martin Luther (1483-1546) made many criticisms of Thomas Aquinas, but ironically the methodological precision of the medieval theologian became quite influential in Lutheran theology of the 17th and 18th centuries. In Germany and the Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden) Lutheranism became the state religion after the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, and being the pastor of churches in major cities became a respected and coveted public office.

It is against this intellectualism and this facility of being Christian that Kierkegaard revolts. In 19th century Denmark, all were born within the Lutheran Church, and being a Christian was the socially accepted position. Kierkegaard complained that in centuries past being a Christian was not easy, and could even involve life-threatening events. In the face of this he argued for a Christianity that involved an individual decision against all evidence. In one of his most famous texts he makes an exposition of the story in which the patriarch Abraham is asked by God to kill Isaac, his only son. Kierkegaard imagines a scenario in which Abraham does not understand the reasons of God, but ends up obeying blindly. In Kierkegaard’s words, Abraham gives “a leap of faith.”

This concept of blind faith, going against all the evidence, is central to Kierkegaard’s thinking, and became very influential in twentieth-century Christianity and even in other Western-established religions. Beyond the strictly religious aspect, Kierkegaard marked Western thought with the notion that some things might be true in some areas of knowledge but not in others. Moreover, its influence can be seen in the notion that the individual must make decisions about how he intends to exist, regardless of the rules of society or of all empirical evidence.

Another important existentialist philosopher of the 19th century was the German Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche was also raised within Lutheranism but, unlike Kierkegaard, he became an atheist in his adult life. Like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche also became a critic of the social conventions of his time, especially the religious conventions. Nietzsche is particularly famous for the phrase “God is dead.” This phrase appears in one of his most famous texts, in which the Christian God attends a meeting with the other gods and affirms that he is the only god. In the face of this statement the other gods die of laughing. The Christian God effectively becomes the only god. But later, the Christian God dies of pity for seeing his followers on the earth becoming people without courage.

Nietzsche was particularly critical of how Christianity in his day valued features which he considered weak, calling them virtues, and condemned features he considered strong, calling them vices. Not just Christianity. Nietzsche also criticized the classical philosophy of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, placing himself alongside the sophists. The German philosopher affirmed that Socrates valued behaviors like kindness, humility, and generosity simply because he was ugly. More specifically, Nietzsche questioned why classical philosophers defended Apollo, considered the god of wisdom, and criticized Dionysius, considered the god of debauchery. In Greco-Roman mythology Dionysius (or Bacchus, as he was known by the Romans) was the god of festivals, wine, and insania, symbolizing everything that is chaotic, dangerous, and unexpected. Thus, Nietzsche questioned the apparent arbitrariness of the defense of Apollo’s rationality and order against the irrationality and unpredictability of Dionysius.

Nietzsche’s philosophy values courage and voluntarism, the urge to go against “herd behavior” and become a “superman,” that is, a person who goes against the dictates of society to create his own rules . Although he went in a different religious direction from Kierkegaard, Nietzsche agreed with the Danish theologian on the necessity of the individual to go against the conventions and the reason to dictate the rules of his own existence.

In the second half of the 20th century existentialism became an influential philosophical current, represented by people like Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) and Albert Camus (1913-1960). Like their predecessors of the 19th century, these existentialists criticized the apparent absurdity of life and valued decision-making by the individual against rational and social dictates.

Sartrean Questions and Answers

Jean-Paul Sartre is probably of special interest to those in the liberty movement, as his radical affirmation of complete and total freedom is the animating principle of his philosophy (certainly the earlier, non-Marxist works such as Being and Nothingness). However, Sartre’s work is laden with jargon and confusing, paradoxical concepts, so that he is notoriously difficult to understand. As such, I am posting a few questions and answers that I wrote up in preparation for a test on the philosopher I will be taking.

Because of Sartre’s inscrutability, and my largely amateur understanding of his work, I understand that many of the things I argue he is saying, he may not actually have said. Please correct me in the comments if I have gotten anything wrong. Furthermore, I dont answer the theoretical implications of his ideas in most of my responses, mainly out of laziness, as this was more of a study guide than a polished work. So, if you would like me to expound on that, ask and I will certainly do so.

1. In his presentation of Bad Faith (BF), Sartre claims that in order to be capable of Bad Faith, humans must have a special kind of existence, namely, “to be what I am not, and not to be what I am.” Using Sartre’s examples from his section on “the patterns of bad faith,” explain how Sartre understands bad faith to be possible on this condition that “we are what we are not and are not what we are.” Then, critically discuss (some aspect of) his account of BF, noting what you take to be the strengths, weaknesses, or ethical implications of his account.

Sartre begins his discussion of bad faith by positing that, in order to have bad faith, human beings must be of such a nature that “we are what we are not, and we are not what we are.” Thus, in order to understand how he conceives of bad faith, we must first unpack this intentionally paradoxical and cryptic statement. The entire statement encapsulates Sartre’s definition of the Being-for-itself, which is what it is not, and is not what it is, a Being that is at its core a nothingness, and that which brings forth nothingness into the world.

The first clause, which states “we are what we are not,” refers to the transcendence of the Being-for-itself, and the second clause, which states, “we are not what we are,” refers to the Being-for-itself’s facticity. These two terms must be considered together, and in keeping with the paradoxical nature of the statement, the second clause must be defined first. A facticity is the sum of what we were and what we are now, it is the history that stretches before our birth and up to the present moment, all the choices we have made for good or for bad, and it also includes what we are physically. For example, I am a man, young, 21 years of age, pale complexion, Jewish, charming, and any number of factors (notice the presence of that word, “fact,”?) that I could potentially enumerate here – this is what Sartre calls my “situation.” Why, then, does Sartre say, “We are not what we are?” when it is patently obvious that I am these things?

In order to understand this point, I must also define transcendence, which broadly construed is the overcoming of facticity, the surpassing of our situation through the exercise of our freedom, in order to create a new situation which we then must surpass again. Indeed, this constant process of surpassing, equilibrium, and surpassing again is constitutive of our life as people. So, when Sartre says “I am what I am not,” he is referring to this capacity to transcend my facticity, to exercise my freedom and create a new situation where I am no longer these things which I previously was.

Putting this all together, when Sartre says I am what I am not, he means the possibilities I have before me of surpassing my transcendence, of becoming something different through the exercise of my freedom. Presently I am factically a charming Jewish man of 21 years, but tomorrow I could decide to be baptized, I could lose my charm, and I would be a grumpy Christian man of 21 years and a day. Yet, I am not what I am, because I am these things factically, but I am not them transcendentally, for as these new factors define my current situation, I will inevitably have to surpass and transcend them again, thus I am not what I am now, and I am not what I was previously. What I really am is potential, fluidity, change, or more precisely, the constant nihilation of my facticity by my transcendence.

How does this bear on bad faith? Bad faith is, fundamentally, the inability to understand this paradoxical statement. Or, better yet, the inability to understand how the clauses in this statement function and are related to each other. Taking the example of the waiter, the waiter is not actually a waiter, but he is merely playing at being a waiter, according to Sartre. Factically, of course he is a waiter, the same way factically I am a charming 21 year old Jewish man. However, I also understand that being a charming 21 year old Jewish man is not the summation of my being, I am not entirely these facts, but I am something more, namely my ability to nihilate, my ability to transcend, my freedom. This is precisely what the waiter qua pretender is denying, for his facticity merely provides him with a factical starting point for his freedom; indeed, instead of coming to work at the same time everyday, starting the espresso machines, serving meals, all in the service of merely playing a waiter, he might decide to go on a killing spree, to blow up the espresso machines, to bark like a dog and wag his behind as if it were a tail.

He must make the decision to be a waiter everyday anew, but in attempting to be what he is not (a facticity), he is not being what he is (a transcendence), and so he is vainly attempting to reach security by turning himself into a Being-in-itself. However, in order to even attempt to turn himself into a Being-in-itself, he is implicitly recognizing that he is both factical and transcendent, a Being-for-itself, which is totally inescapable because we could never not make choices – thus, while he wants to have the security of the in-itself he is exercising the for-itself simultaneously, and this is what Sartre means when he says we are trying to be like God, for only God could be this impossible combination in our conception. By being unaware of the contradiction and attempting to turn himself into an in-itself, he is denying his Being as freedom, denying his fundamental nature as both transcendence and facticity, and so imprisoning himself in his condition.

Now, assuming all of this is true, what are some of the ethical implications involved in this account of bad faith? On its head, it does not seem that there is much practical difference between someone acting in bad faith, and someone not acting in bad faith (the contrary word, sincerity, cannot be used here as Sartre has his own meanings for the term) – there could be a waiter in bad faith, and a waiter not in bad faith, and they both could show up to work every day and do all the things waters are known to do. However, probing deeper, there are many important ethical implications involved.

To know what you are doing and why you are doing it, and to affirm this as your own choice, is an extremely difficult thing to do. Let me give an example: in the Second World War, many former Nazis attempted to excuse their behavior in death camps or on the battlefield with the limp excuse “I was only following orders.” Now, this is true in a certain sense, but in a Sartrean reformulation of that statement, the Nazi is really saying “I am merely my facticity, my mode of being what I am not, that is, being a soldier. Thus, I am the object of my commanders, who have ordered me to kill this village of Jews. To be the best object possible, I must flee my freedom and objectify myself, and so it wasn’t me who killed the village, it was my commanders, who were really free to make choices! After all, I could have been killed myself, I had no choice in the matter…” By denying his freedom, the Nazi must also affirm it, for in fleeing into the in-itself he is showing his fundamental nature as a free, factical and transcendent in-itself. If he recognized himself as he ought, as a nihilating being with freedom at his core, he would not make this fundamental mistake; rather, he would understand that his evil actions were completely and totally his own.

In this, Sartre perfectly captures the moral starkness of what some may claim to be moral ambiguity. The fundamental freedom of an individual, though it is set up in certain directions by facticity, is in no way pre-determined by that facticity. The German soldier could at any time refuse, he could run off, he could even kill himself – any of these choices he is free to take, but in confusing his facticity with his transcendence, he is making the fatal error of saying “I am determined; therefore, I could not choose otherwise.” There is nothing further from the truth.

2. For many readers, Sartre’s account of love is both provocative and frustrating. In your essay, first, explain what Sartre considers the motivation for engaging in the project of romantic love. Second, explain the strategies he sees as being used to accomplish this goal. Third, explain why for him love is subject to a “triple destructibility.” Finally, critically discuss his account, pointing out what you find to be its strengths and/or weaknesses. (You may, but are not obligated to, include in your discussion a comparison or contrast with his account of sexual desire.)

To understand Sartre’s ideas about love, I must first lay out how he conceives of love as a relationship between the for-itself and the Other. Fundamentally, the relationship between the for-itself and the Other is one of conflict, a question of who shall control the meaning of the world – me, the for-itself, or you, the Other – a conflict that no one really wins. This is so because, in my conflict with the Other, I want contradictory things: I want what only the Other can give me, my Being as an in-itself, I also don’t want him to have a choice in the matter. I want to force him to recognize me as an in-itself, to give me the security I crave, because his freedom is a threat to my own, for in his freedom lies his ability to not recognize me, to not objectify and therefore fully define my being. Thus, in my relations with the Other I want him to be both free to give me recognition, and also constrained to give me the right recognition, an impossible state of simultaneous freedom and slavery. Not only that, in Sartrean terms I want the Other to be both in-itself and for-itself, and thus to be God, adding a religious dimension of redemption and justification through his Look.

There are two ways for me to do this: I can force the Other to deny his own freedom and thus objectify himself, or I can force the Other to affirm his own freedom and objectify me. However, both of these options are impossible. In the first instance, the Other is never truly forced to objectify himself, it is always his own choice to flee or affirm his own freedom. In the second instance, the Other is never truly forced to affirm his own freedom, because just as I cannot force the Other into viewing himself in a certain way, I also cannot force the Other to view me in a certain way. In Sartre’s own words, “we shall never place ourselves concretely on a plane of equality – that is, on the plane where the recognition of the Other’s freedom would involve the Other’s recognition of our freedom.”

Having dispensed with this brief introduction to Sartre’s theory about our concrete relationships with others, I can now elucidate what he thought romantic love was, and how it might be achieved. For Sartre, love is motivated by the desire to be loved, to be made whole through this love, which is a form of the For-itself’s fundamental project qua desire for being. The For-itself “seeks a coincidence with [the In-itself] that is not possible,” and so the desire for being is perennially unsatisfied.

How does one achieve this as an ideal? The short answer is, such an ideal is impossible. When this desire for being takes the form of romantic love, the lover seeks to capture the beloved and shore up his own freedom through that Other by integrating her into his being. He wants her to objectify herself and view him as a freedom, while she wants him to objectify herself and view her as a freedom – thus, both of their consciousnesses are alienated through mutual objectification of themselves before the Other. That is, he wants to possess her freedom and make it the ground of his identity by becoming that freedom. Through this, he attempts to maintain her as an independent freedom, while simultaneously grounding his own existence with her freedom at its base – in this way, he is able to turn himself into an In-itself, for only her freedom is able to name and define him, while maintaining his own freedom as a For-itself. At the same time as he desires her for her freedom, he also wishes her to be outside of him as his object of desire, so that he may maintain the situation of desiring. Thus he wants contrary things: on the one hand, the freedom of the Other qua beloved to join with him in this union, and the facticity of the Other qua beloved to be his object of desire. He wants her to be both a for-itself and an in-itself simultaneously; he wants her to be God, and thus he wants the impossible.

The long answer is, we still try anyway, so let me give an example. Jean-Paul loves Simone, and he loves her to the degree that he is willing to objectify himself for her, to force her to affirm her freedom by recognizing him as an object. However, Simone doesn’t particularly like Jean-Paul, she doesn’t want to objectify him, and so Jean-Paul is incapable of forcing her to affirm her freedom through objectifying him. There are a few possible outcomes here: Simone is free and rejects Jean-Paul’s advances; Simone is free and accepts Jean-Paul’s advances, thinking that having a willing object is rather nice; or, Simone is free and accepts Jean-Paul’s advances by falling in love with him. In all possible outcomes, Jean-Paul fails in his goal, but the third option most spectacularly, because at this point, she will do anything for him, therefore becoming his object. This is part of the reason why Jean-Paul considers man to merely be a “useless passion,” but more on that later.

These three factors correspond to define the “triple-destructibility” of love. In the first place, the motivation for romantic love results in love’s destructibility, as the desire to be loved is an infinite regress – as the fundamental project of Being is defined by the desire to be whole and the consistent impossibility of this desire, so too is the desire for romantic love defined by the desire to be whole in Being, which is perpetually thwarted by the impossibility of ever truly being whole. In the second place, the Other qua beloved may always reject me, may always opt out of the reciprocal structure of mutual free consciousness we have purportedly set up together – instead of being both objectified and free simultaneously, the Other can always define me solely as an object. In the third place, “love is always an absolute perpetually made relative by others,” which dovetails with the second point, that this absolute structure the Other and I have set up is precarious because it depends on our common, mutual, and ongoing affirmation of it. If either of us objectifies the Other, love is lost. Similarly, it seems that other people (not just te beloved Other!) are able to objectify this love as well, so it is never truly possible to be whole unless the beloved Other forms the totality of your world. Otherwise, we are continually subject just to being objectified by their Look.

3. In his discussion of freedom and responsibility, Sartre claims that while I am condemned to be free, I am responsible not only for myself but for the whole world. He goes so far as to say I am even responsible for my birth, and for the war that is taking place around me. At the conclusion of the very next chapter, however, Sartre asserts that “man is a useless passion.” In his final remarks concerning “Ethical Implications” of his philosophy in Being and Nothingness, Sartre claims that all human activities are equivalent, so that “it amounts to the same thing whether one gets drunk alone or is a leader of nations.” In your essay, first explicate what Sartre means by these provocative claims. Then, working with the text, develop your own critical philosophical interpretation of Sartre’s position, showing where you think he is consistent or inconsistent, or articulate what you take to be the most important truths he is trying to convey.

For the first statement, Sartre believes that complete and total responsibility for our actions follows from our completely unbounded freedom, for “what happens to me happens through me, and I can neither affect myself with it nor revolt against it nor resign myself to it.” For example, the Second World War is ongoing, and this war is not some non-human event that is happening to me, it is my event completely and totally. This is not to say that I am completely responsible for this war, because it is obvious that a war is much more than a single combatant serving in a single area – it is a concatenation of thousands if not millions of people, environmental factors, etc. Rather, I am completely responsible for the war insofar as it is mine, mine because every action I do in it is mine, and everything that happens within it happens through me. Perhaps I did not have to shoot the German, perhaps I did not have to mine the road, perhaps I did not have to flee from combat – perhaps I should have just killed myself and spared myself all these travails? If I do one thing or another, if I stay and fight or if I desert, that choice is mine, and as he says, “for lack of getting out of it, I have chosen it.” This war is mine because “it arises in a situation which I cause to be and that I can discover it there only by engaging myself for or against it.” That is, any choice I make cannot be distinguished from myself or from the war – the choice, the war, and myself are inextricably linked. Finally, this war is mine because my facticity is such that I am put in the epoch of war, and so all my choices begin from the starting point of the war. I could not be otherwise, and because of this, my decisions cannot fail to engage from this standpoint.

In line with the previous sentiments, I choose to be born because I choose to prolong my birth, to end it, to rejoice over it, et cetera. Any reaction towards birth is merely another way of making it my own, for any such attitude is merely a way of “assuming this birth in full responsibility of making it mine,” mine in the sense of choosing how I shall react based on my factical situation: I am born, and my birth does not constrain my freedom, so I may act in any which way from this standpoint. I could kill myself, I could prolong myself, etc. In Sartre’s distinctive turn of phrase, “my facticity consists simply in the fact that I am condemned to be wholly responsible for myself.”

Sartre considers man to be a “useless passion” because the fundamental project of man is desire for the wholeness of Being, which is another way of saying that the For-itself (freedom, nothingness, transcendence) desires the concrete security of the In-itself (static, defined, factical), which is another way of saying that the self wishes to be God. The For-itself can never be the In-itself, for in attempting to objectify oneself and thus end existential anguish, end the endless cycle of transcendence and surpassing, and finally reach security, one must always negate – it is impossible for freedom to negate freedom, for such would be an act of freedom! Because Sartre defines God as something that is both For-itself and In-itself simultaneously, what we are really doing is trying to become God, because only god has complete existential certainty. Yet, for reasons listed above, it is impossible to be God, and so God does not exist. Man’s fundamental project, the desire for wholeness of Being, is fundamentally flawed and unattainable. Thus, man is a useless passion.

In his final statement, Sartre considers all actions to be equivalent, to the degree that the man drinking alone and the leader of nations are fundamentally the same. In his first statement in “Ethical Implications,” he says that “ontology itself cannot formulate ethical precepts… [ but] ontology has revealed to us the origin and nature of value, [which] is the lack in relation to which the for-itself determines its being as a lack.” This lack is the same lack driving the self’s fundamental project, the union of For-itself with In-itself, and as such animates all the self’s actions – the lack of meaning drives the search for meaning, and this search for meaning is what creates value. Ontologically man is a unceasingly striving passion, and so from his facticity he abstracts meanings: the bread is necessary to live (a value) because it is nourishing (a fact). The value is important because I, a human being, need to live, and so I attach this value to the factical being of the bread in order to make sense of it as an object for my consumption. And this is why “it amounts to the same thing whether one gets drunk alone or is a leader of nations.” For, the drinking or the leading are simply facts, simply behaviors, when we consider them strictly as phenomena. However, because value is a lack, we are forced to give these behaviors a meaning, and this meaning is wholly self-made and contingent on ourselves; perhaps the drunk is superior to the leader of nations, at least he hasn’t killed people or fleeced the citizenry! This is all to say, of course, that the moral agent “is the being by whom values exist.”

Now, Sartre is operating on the same basic claim with all three statements: that man is what he is not, and is not what he is, which leads him to the vain endeavor of attempting to unite For-itself with the In-itself, or in other words, to become God. In the first statement, man’s responsibility for war is contingent on his responsibility for himself, on his Being which is fundamentally nothingness, fundamentally something that is nothing (that nihilates), and so it cannot help but make the war its own. Whether it runs away from it, or embraces it, or passively lets it go by, all of these options are its own because they are freely chosen – they are even more one’s own (if that can be said) because man’s facticity places him in the situation of war, and he must respond and make it his own regardless of any conflicting desires. In the second statement, man is a useless passion precisely because, as a For-itself, he attempted to unite himself with the In-itself, to become existentially secure, to become God – but this is impossible, for in trying to become an In-itself, he is really trying to get rid of his nihilating capacity by nihilating it, which is impossible. In the third statement, Sartre is saying that this constant search for wholeness of Being is what creates values, values which must exist and be imposed on bare facts: the bread is nourishing (a fact) because it is necessary for me to live (a value). Facts are never just facts, but are always categorized into a system of value by the For-itself.

Thus, in all these statements, Sartre is consistently using the same premise to argue that all of these conclusions issue from it, so in that sense he is certainly consistent. The question now becomes, do these conclusions really issue from the premise? The first conclusion, that man is responsibility for war and even his birth, is consistent with the premise, for Sartre does not literally imply that an individual man is responsible for his own birth, as it is factically obvious that his parents “made” him. Rather, he is arguing that a man’s birth has special significance to him, that he freely chooses what that birth means to him and what he will be as a development from that point. In essence, to be responsible for one’s own birth is to be responsible for the factical situation one finds oneself in. The second conclusion follows from the premise in a much clearer way, and is simply a concise statement of value placed on this ontological principle of being: man qua For-itself wants to be united with In-itself, but this is impossible, though throughout life he will continue to struggle and surpass himself in this goal. Sartre’s value judgment is pessimistic, “man is a useless passion,” but he could have just as easily said that “man is a delightful passion” or “man’s great perseverance in response to this existential impossibility is at turns puzzling and admirable.” He could have even referenced Camus’ essay on Sisyphus. Incidentally, the second statement ought to be considered as a result of the third, that to be a drunk or a ruler of nations is to be equivalent, for the only difference between them can be found in their value as an imposition by the For-itself in response to its own factical situation. Sartre looks on man’s striving pessimistically, but the fact (man strives) only presupposes that a value (man’s striving is a useless passion) will be placed upon it, though because man is free, such a value could really be anything, as I showed above. Thus, it seems safe to conclude that Sartre consistently used one principle in making each of these statements, and each statement was a valid conclusion to take from that principle as a premise.

4. At least partly motivated to undermine the philosophical “Problem of the Existence of Others,” Sartre presents his famous account of “The Look.” But rather than offering us relief that the problem has been definitively dissolved, Sartre leaves us with the conclusion that we engage in hopeless and inevitable conflict between ourselves and Others. In your essay, first, relying on explicit references to Sartre’s text, explain in detail how Sartre argues on phenomenological grounds that the “Philosophical Problem of the Existence of Others” was fundamentally misguided. Then, develop your own critical discussion of his account of “The Look,” noting where you agree or disagree with his presentation.

First, I must begin by defining what a traditional formulation of the “Problem of Other Minds” (or as Sartre calls it, the “Problem of the Existence of Others”) and then examine what Sartre calls the “Look,” his response to and recasting of this skeptical problem, before I am able to analyze whether his reformulation on the one hand and dismissal on the other is justified.

In brief, the Problem of Other Minds is the question: “If I observe that I have a mind, and I see other people walking around who do things similarly to me, how do I really know that they have minds? How do I know that they are not just “philosophical zombies,” wandering around and interacting with me in a way I might interact, but with the important difference that they don’t actually have minds like I do?” He sidesteps the initial problem as misguided, because in the setup it is given, and with the metaphysical assumptions it implies about how one attains knowledge or ascertains reality, it is impossible to solve – we really cannot prove or disprove the existence of other minds when it is set up this way.

In his chapter “The Existence of Others,” Sartre argues from analogy that just as we are ashamed not reflectively, but before someone, we can become aware of that someone through our response to their presence or, as he will call it, their “Look.” As he says, “by the mere appearance of the Other, I am put in the position of passing judgment on myself as on an object, for it is as an object that I appear to the Other.” He goes on: “this object is not an empty image in the mind of another, [because] that would be wholly imputable to the other… [however] shame is by nature recognition. I recognize that I am as the other sees me.” What he is saying here that even if the Other existed, and I was his object, I would not be an object solely to him, but I would recognize that I have become his object, we would be connected in this way through this mutual experience: recognition of an act by the Other, and a recognition of that act as shameful by the self.

Having shown how Sartre recasts the Problem of Other Minds, I will now endeavor to show his solution with the concept of the “Look.” The “Look” for Sartre is, briefly, the experience of one consciousness, one For-itself, being viewed by another consciousness, or the Other, which creates the mode of Being Sartre calls “Being-for-others.” Sartre uses the example of the man in the park to illustrate this most cogently. The man in the park is a man sitting on a park bench, minding his own business, and you are also there, minding your own business. Suddenly he looks up and into your eyes. You become instantly unnerved. Why is this? According to Sartre, up to this point the entire world has been constituted by your own consciousness, arranged according to your view, organized entirely around you. However, at this point the world “comes on to you differently.” The man is threatening you with his look, threatening in the sense that it is disruptive to your own solipsistic order of things. Really, the threat is the recognition of another point of view, another consciousness, which on principle you can never occupy, and so the world must also revolve around the Other’s point of view as well as your own. Both you and the Other constitute the world, but now you see the Other, and the Other sees you, and so your own private point of view has suddenly and rudely been intruded upon by this Other. Furthermore, this intrusion is completely beyond your control – it is unequivocally and entirely his. Fundamentally, his freedom does violence to your freedom, because he objectifies you. This is not an attempt, like one’s own fundamental project, but a successful endeavor – the entire project of your life is a “useless passion” according to Sartre, but the Other is able to quickly and easily define you as an object in his world, of great or limited significance depending on his independent and free assessment. Because of this, you are exposed and vulnerable to his judgments, and thus “I recognize myself in the Other’s judgments of me, even though I may not know what they are. His judgments cut me to the core.” I recognize his judgments but they are entirely beyond my control.

This is Sartre’s response to the Problem of Other Minds. Instead of facing the problem in the way that it is formulated, Sartre says that “the fundamental way I come into contact with other minds is not by knowing they are out there, but by means of feelings of shame, pride, etc,” feelings that only manifest in a social sphere in response to the “Look” of the Other. Thus, we can infer that other minds exist because, if they did not, we would not be affected in the way that we are by their presence and gaze. This also implies a very important point, which is that our Being is not isolated but is fundamentally social. We exist in relation with and in contrast to other people, and so our lives can be defined in their terms; this Sartre calls the “Being-for-others,” the situation where I recognize that the Other is a subject, thereby becoming his object and thus a Being-for-him.

In more formal terms, Sartre solves the problem in the following way:

A consciousness can only constitute given things its own way – a subject cannot project any other consciousness on a given but its own

Nevertheless, the world we experience does include references to others

Because only I can constitute the world, yet there are things in the world that are constituted by others, how did they get there? The conclusion is: someone else put them there.