I tried my best to just “jump into” Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophical masterwork, Being and Nothingness, but I just couldn’t—not even after seven months of struggling through Heidegger’s Being and Time. Being and Nothingness is as difficult (the cynic in me says “incomprehensible”) as Being and Time, but it’s even more frustrating. It’s easy to blame the difficulty of Being and Time on Heidegger’s failure as a writer; it’s easy to say he was just no good at it and that it wouldn’t be fair to expect him to write clearly. But Sartre is a good writer, even a great one, when he wants to be, as you can tell from his fiction and from his wonderful little essay “Existentialism Is a Humanism.” So why is Being and Nothingness so incredibly hard to understand?
For answers, I turned to Paul Vincent Spade, whose excellent and extensive class notes on Being and Nothingness are available online. Spade is clear where Sartre is obscure; I can’t imagine going through Sartre without him. But before he discusses Being and Nothingness, Spade has his students read through an earlier work of philosophy by Sartre, 1937’s The Transcendence of the Ego, which, he warns, may be even more difficult.
He’s right. I took Transcendence slowly and used Spade’s notes, but it still made my head hurt. But halfway through, his points began revealing themselves to me. Essentially, Sartre argues in this book that there’s no such thing as a “transcendent ego”—that mysterious creature posited by Kant and Husserl that creates the world “outside” of the human mind. I’ve not read Kant and Husserl, and so I struggled with this part even after reading Spade’s explanation of their thought.
But when Sartre turns to philosophical egoism, I understand him completely. Egoism, as I’m sure you know, is the notion (put forth by Ayn Rand and some people who are possibly even more unpleasant than her) that human beings necessarily follow their own best interests. Thus, there’s no such thing as altruism; if I see someone in need and I give her something to help her out, I’m doing so only to assuage my own guilty conscience, not because I care about her.
Sartre rejects this notion outright, not because he believes in the goodness of humanity but because it’s a philosophical and psychological absurdity. The reason, it seems, goes back to Husserl, who says that every act of consciousness must be a consciousness of something—consciousness, in other words, is always transitive in the grammatical sense. Thus no consciousness is consciousness of itself—if one wishes to turn the eye of consciousness onto itself, one can do it only by examining a prior act of consciousness. (I’ve believed this for years without knowing the philosophical terms for it; you can’t examine yourself wholly because you can’t examine the part of yourself conducting the examination.)
So how does this assertion disprove egoism? Simple: it disproves the notion of an unconscious ego. (Sartre, I believe, rejects the notion of the unconscious mind altogether, since the word mind designates consciousness and consciousness cannot be unconscious—but one need not go this far to agree with his dismissal of egoism.) Consciousness cannot be consciousness of consciousness, so a person absolutely cannot be aware of herself when she is focused on someone else’s problems. Jane sees Charlie suffering; in her consciousness of Charlie’s suffering, Jane’s ego does not exist, since you can’t be simultaneously conscious of someone else and yourself. The ego enters only later, when Jane reflects upon her response to Charlie. There’s no unconscious egoism involved when Jane gives a dollar to Charlie—there’s only her response to Charlie.
Thus there’s a gulf between consciousness of the world (an imprecise term, and Sartre prefers the more focused but more obscure being-in-itself) and consciousness of oneself (which Sartre calls being-for-itself). Spade describes the act of crossing from one to the other as something violent, something painful in a spiritual sense—even though we do it hundreds of times a day.
I think this explains why The Transcendence of the Ego (as well as Being and Nothingness and other works about consciousness itself) is so difficult to read. Oftentimes, when you read a book, you “lose yourself” in it—you get bound up into the plot of the novel or the argument of the philosophy, and you’re not conscious of your own ego. But that absorption is not possible when reading a book about consciousness; the argument (another controversial term, since Sartre, with his phenomenological background, doesn’t technically “make arguments” but merely “observes,” but let’s not worry about that for our purposes) involves a nearly constant shift from consciousness of being-in-itself (the book) to being-for-itself (my act of reading the book). A writer may be able to write a book about consciousness well or poorly, but it’s going to be difficult no matter what—because the act of reading is always already violent; it constantly shifts your attention.
It’s either that, or I’m just making excuses for my short attention span.