Jean-Paul Sartre and the Nature of Consciousness

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Jean-Paul Sartre and the Nature of Consciousness

“Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism” - Jean-Paul Sartre “If God did not exist, everything would be permitted” -Dostoevsky

It is nearly impossible to remove individual ideas from Sartre’s magnum opus; they do not function as distinct, discrete concepts that are bricked together like the foundation of a house. Rather, the concepts Sartre addresses in Being are all part of a continuum, a single thread woven together to for the whole of the work. Picking at one idea in an effort to remove and examine it reveals that one idea leads to the next until the entire work is unwound. In fact, in some ways, Being and Nothingness is an examination of a single idea –the nature of our existence- examined through various lenses. Sartre considers the nature of human existence in various ways; primary among these are considerations of human consciousness, largely as defined by how we perceive ourselves and how we perceive others. Ontological questions are as old as humanity itself. They form the core of the earliest philosophical considerations, and remain at the core of the work of Sartre in the 20th Century. How we perceive ourselves, and how we perceive the world, are the most fundamental precepts of nearly all philosophical inquiries. Sartre considers these ideas in all of his works; Being and Nothingness is perhaps the most significant, if not always the most accessible, of his works that address such concerns. The nature of being is fundamental to Sartre’s philosophy; defining the nature of being is, ultimately, the goal of Being and Nothingness. Sartre was greatly influenced by Kant, another philosopher who considered the nature of being as fundamental to understanding the world and ourselves. While Kant’s views color much of Sartre’s works, Sartre would ultimately diverge from Kant in some fundamental ways. Consider the nature of objects as things-in-themselves. How we perceive objects, in the Kantian view, is based on a combination of factors. Clearly, we bring much of ourselves, our knowledge, our experiences, to bear when we seek to understand an object. That is why different people can examine the same object and yet draw entirely different conclusions about the nature, purpose, or function of the object. In the Kantian view, things existed in themselves entirely apart from our perception of them. Thus, our understanding or perception of an object was formed both from the inherent nature of the object and from our own consciousness. Whether we existed or not, the object would still exist, and would carry with it certain immutable attributes. Then, stipulating the existence of the observer, the observed object would have attributable to it not just its inherent characteristics, but also the characteristics to which the observer ascribed. Though there were some overlapping ideas between Sartre and Kant, Sartre’s philosophy about the nature of understanding the outside world was ultimately a rejection of the Kantian view. Simply put, Sartre saw the notion that objects had attributes unto themselves, apart from human perception or definition, as being entirely improvable, and thus, impossible. In the Sartreian view, objects had no existence outside of the realm of perception. This, loosely defined, is known as Solipsism; solipsism has been rejected by many philosophical schools of thought, but remains a core precept in Sartre’s view of existence. In the book “Using Sartre,” author Gregory McCulloch delineates five themes he finds present in Sartre’s work. These themes are quite simply stated (if not necessarily easily understood), and thus they make a convenient set of points on which to rest discussions of Sartre’s views on consciousness....
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