Sartrean Self-Consciousness and the Principle of Identity

Sartre’s Implicit Argument for the Non-Self-Identity of the Subject

in Sartre Studies International

Abstract

I address the problem of what grounds Sartre’s paradoxical claim that consciousness is non-self-identical, and his equally paradoxical gloss on that claim—that the nature of consciousness is to be what it is not and not to be what it is. I argue that there is an implicit argument in Being and Nothingness, which both entails and elucidates Sartre’s claim that consciousness is non-self-identical, and which also maps on to, and clarifies, the explicit argument that Sartre provides for this conclusion. This implicit argument presupposes that we attribute to Sartre a distinctive theory of pre-reflective self-consciousness—what I call the non-iterative theory. I argue that we should attribute the non-iterative theory to Sartre.

Sartre defines consciousness as “being what it is not and not being what it is,”1 a claim he takes to be logically equivalent to the thesis that consciousness lacks self-identity (BN, 47–84).2 This paradoxical mode of expression yields genuine paradox when we find that, by this expression, Sartre does not simply intend the diachronic claim that I, the self-conscious subject, am not identical with my past or future consciousnesses. He intends also the synchronic claim that consciousness fails to satisfy the principle of identity: ∀x(x = x).3

This claim has perplexed many—regarding not only its content but also Sartre’s reasons for holding it. Such a bold conclusion warrants an exceptional argument. Yet, the explicit argument Sartre provides for this conclusion seems weak. Moreover, this explicit argument does not obviously speak to the substantive claims that Sartre makes about non-self-identical consciousness. Crucially, it does not tell us how pre-reflective self-consciousness relates to the experience it apprehends, which merits its being so paradoxically described as “being what it is not and not being what it is” (BN, xli).

I propose an interpretation that will, I hope, dispel some of the confusion that has surrounded Sartre’s position. I suggest that Sartre’s explicit argument for the conclusion that consciousness is non-self-identical masks an implicit argument for that conclusion. This implicit argument clarifies—in a manner that his explicit argument does not clarify—Sartre’s view of the relation of pre-reflection to experience. That clarification is simultaneously a clarification of his paradoxical formula that the nature of consciousness “is to be what it is not and not to be what it is” (BN, 70). The presupposition of this implicit argument is that Sartre holds a distinctive theory regarding the nature of pre-reflective self-consciousness.

Iterative Pre-reflection and Non-iterative Pre-reflection

To state Sartre’s implicit argument for the non-self-identity of consciousness, I need to introduce a distinction between iterative and non-iterative pre-reflection. I am iteratively aware (of) my experience, E, just in case I am aware (of) E and aware (of) my awareness (of) E.4 In iterative pre-reflection, the (of) is iterated. I am non-iteratively aware (of) my experience, E, just in case I am aware (of) E, but not aware (of) my awareness (of) E. In non-iterative pre-reflection, the (of) is not iterated. Correlatively, I shall deem an iterative theory of pre-reflection to be a theory that posits pre-reflection as iterative, and I shall deem a non-iterative theory to be a theory that posits pre-reflection as non-iterative.

I suggest that Sartre’s position will be illuminated if we recognize that he is a non-iterative theorist. The Sartrean “for-itself” is a consciousness (of) experience, but it is not conscious (of) being so conscious. To show this will be my first task. My second task will be to show how this yields the conclusion that the for-itself is non-self-identical. It will be clear that Sartre is at least logically committed to a non-iterative theory of pre-reflection, if we show that an iterative theory is committed to the strict self-identity of the subject. That will also show that questions about iteration and questions about the self-identity of consciousness are closely related.

Edmund Husserl advances a paradigmatic iterative theory of pre-reflection.5 He distinguishes experiences (Erlebnisse) from the experiencing (Erleben) of those experiences. This experiencing of experience—what Husserl terms the “flow” of self-consciousness—has two aspects. On the one hand, it is a pre-reflective awareness (of) experience (it is, for example, an awareness (of) one’s perceptions, desires, hopes, or wishes). Husserl terms this awareness (of) experience a “transverse awareness” (Querintentionalität). On the other hand, it is an awareness (of) itself, as an awareness (of) experience. Husserl terms this awareness (of) awareness (of) experience a “longitudinal awareness” (Längsintentionalität). Because he insists on such longitudinal self-awareness, Husserl advances what I have termed an iterative theory of pre-reflection.6

The crucial question here is this: What is the relation between my awareness (of) my experience, E, and my awareness (of) my awareness (of) E? Husserl’s answer is that, in distinguishing my awareness (of) E from my awareness (of) my awareness (of) E, we make an aspectual (and hence a conceptual) distinction. But we do not thereby distinguish between distinct acts of self-consciousness: “There is one, unique flow of consciousness in which both the unity of [experiences] in immanent time and the unity of the flow of consciousness become constituted at once.”7 What Husserl calls “lived-experience” thus involves the following identity:

(I) My awareness (of) E = my awareness (of) my awareness (of) E.

Indeed, without this identity, the iterative theory would open a regress of pre-reflections. Using subscripts “1” and “2” to distinguish between distinct pre-reflections, my consciousness (of)1 E would appear, not (to) itself but (to) the distinct pre-reflection, my consciousness (of)2 my consciousness (of)1 E. That would secure iteration for the pre-reflection, my consciousness (of)1 E. But, since (by assumption) my consciousness (of)1 E is distinct from my consciousness (of)2 my consciousness (of)1 E, the latter pre-reflection would lack iteration. Consequently, the assumption that iteration informs all pre-reflections will require that my consciousness (of)2 my consciousness (of)1 E appear (to) a distinct pre-reflection—and so forth. To halt the regress, the iterative theorist is committed to an identity between some pre-reflection, n, and the pre-reflection that appears (to) n. Simplicity requires that this identity be (I).8

Consequently, for Husserl—and indeed, for all iterative theorists—there is an identity between pre-reflection and pre-reflection’s appearance (to) itself—for that is what (I) holds. Or again, in terms that Sartre later appropriates, there is a “coincidence” of the subject with its appearance (to) itself: “There extends throughout the flow a [longitudinal self-awareness] that, in the course of the flow, continuously coincides with itself.”9

The iterative theorist, therefore, is committed to the strict self-identity of the subject. Consequently, one holding that pre-reflection is non-self-identical is logically committed to the non-iterative theory. Since Sartre holds that pre-reflection is non-self-identical, Sartre is logically committed to the non-iterative theory. That goes some way to showing that Sartrean pre-reflection is (by Sartre’s understanding) non-iterative. To strengthen the case, I need to show that the non-iterative theory is entailed by the premises of the explicit argument that Sartre gives for the non-self-identity of consciousness. I also need to show that the following argument—which, I maintain, is implicit in Sartre—is (non-trivially) valid:

(1) Consciousness is non-iterative.

Consciousness is non-self-identical.

Hereafter, I shall refer to this as the “implicit argument.” Clearly, a core task will be to make explicit what suppressed premises are at work in this implicit argument. Finally, I need to show how passages in Being and Nothingness, which discuss the relation of pre-reflection to experience, can be elucidated in terms of the non-iterative theory.

So, I shall proceed as follows. I first reconstruct Sartre’s explicit argument for the non-self-identity of consciousness and then subject that argument to criticism. That reconstruction and critique provide the suppressed premises for the implicit argument and show that Sartre is logically committed to the implicit argument. Finally, I show how this implicit argument yields the conclusion that consciousness is non-self-identical, and maps on to Sartre’s texts, thus confirming that Sartre does, indeed, hold a non-iterative theory of self-consciousness.

Sartre’s Explicit Argument for the Non-Self-Identity of the Subject

I begin, then, by considering Sartre’s explicit argument for non-self-identity. Sartre says, “What can properly be called subjectivity is consciousness (of) consciousness” (BN, xxxvii):

[But] presence (to) always implies duality, at least a virtual separation. … Presence (to) self … supposes that an impalpable fissure has slipped into being. If being is present (to) itself, it is because it is not wholly itself. Presence is an immediate deterioration of coincidence, for it supposes separation. … [Hence, the subject’s being present (to) himself] separates the subject from himself [that is, precludes self-identity for the subject]. (BN, 77; parentheses added; emphasis in original)10

Sartre’s presentation of the argument is overly concise. As stated, it is not wholly clear what its premises are and what its structure is. However, what is stated is sufficient to support a reconstruction, with the addition of a suppressed premise that Sartre accepts. And the reconstruction will validly yield Sartre’s desired conclusion that consciousness is non-self-identical. The reconstructed, explicit argument runs as follows:

(1) The self-conscious subject just is a consciousness (of) an experience E (“What can properly be called subjectivity is consciousness (of) consciousness” [BN, xxxvii]).

(2) Consciousness (of) (or presence (to)) “implies duality” (BN, 77)—that is, the relation x is present (to) y is irreflexive: x is present (to) y just in case x is not identical to y.

(3) A self-identical subject must appear (to) itself, and it must be identical with that self-appearance (premise suppressed).

The self-conscious subject is not self-identical.

Let me first elucidate why this argument is valid. That will require me also to remark on its premises. I shall deal first with premises (1) and (3), since premise (2) will invite objections.

Premise (1). According to premise (1), subjectivity just is pre-reflective self-consciousness, and conversely. This premise will (or, at least, can) be accepted by iterative and non-iterative theorists alike. Correlatively, it can be accepted by those who hold that consciousness is self-identical and by those who follow Sartre in denying this self-identity. It is not a premise that is viewed as controversial by those who endorse the view that consciousness’s necessary self-awareness is pre-reflective in structure.11

Premise (3). This premise, too, is uncontroversial. A subject, by definition, must somehow appear to itself. That is what a subject does—it apprehends itself. Granting premise (1), the relevant notion of appearance to here is appearance (to). So, we can say a subject must appear (to) itself, which in turn means that a subject must, in some sense, be its self-appearance. Otherwise, it would not appear to itself, after all. In the case where we have a non-self-identical subject, although that subject will (by definition) not be identical with its self-appearance, it must in some sense be its self-appearance. The term “be” here will not express strict identity, but it will express a sense that somehow identifies that which appears with that (to) which there is this appearance. Otherwise, we would not have in play anything that merits the term “subject.” In the case of a self-identical subject, the term “be” will express strict identity (“=”). The subject will be identical with its appearance (to) itself. Or, in Sartre’s terminology, the subject will “coincide with itself” (BN, 78).

So, premise (3) is uncontroversial; it must be accepted by all parties. The iterative theorist accepts it, since the iterative theorist is committed to the strict identity of the subject with its appearance (to) itself. Sartre accepts it, since he holds that a self-identical subject would “coincide with itself,” would be strictly identical with its appearance (to) itself. Indeed, that is what Sartre means by the expressions “self-coincidence” and “coincidence with self.” Denying self-identity to consciousness, Sartre says, “The for-itself is the being which determines itself to exist inasmuch as it cannot coincide with itself” (BN, 78; translation modified).

Premise (2) This premise is controversial. According to it, there cannot be a strict identity linking consciousness with its appearance (to) itself. It should be clear that, once we grant premises (1) and (3) (as I have elucidated those premises), premise (2) will yield Sartre’s desired conclusion. Granting premise (1), the subject of experience just is a pre-reflective self-consciousness. It is a consciousness (of) consciousness. And granting premise (3), this self-consciousness will be self-identical only if consciousness is identical with its appearance (to) itself. But granting premise (2), consciousness cannot be identical with that which appears (to) it. Consequently, consciousness is not self-identical. It is its appearance (to) itself in a manner that is not that of identity.

Sartre’s explicit argument for the non-self-identity of consciousness, then, is valid. However, the argument (both as Sartre presents it and as I have interpreted it) is too concise to convince, and invites some substantial objections. First, the argument seems not to provide any substance to its conclusion. It seems not to inform us as to the nature of this non-self-identical subject, other than saying it is non-self-identical. It tells us only that consciousness cannot be identical with its self-appearance—that it is thus “ruptured from itself.” As such, it does not enlighten us as to how its premises are supposed to yield the substantive claims that Sartre makes about the subject—in particular, that its subjectivity consists in “being what it is not and not being what it is” (BN, xli).

Second, no one who holds the general position that everything is self-identical will be convinced by Sartre’s argument. They will simply reject premise (2). This objection, however, points the way to answering the first objection. Recall that the iterative theorist is committed to the strict self-identity of the subject. She can accept Sartre’s premise (2) only by opening a vicious regress of distinct pre-reflections. The iterative theorist is, therefore, committed to denying premise (2). In other words, premise (2) commits Sartre to a non-iterative theory of consciousness. This yields the promise that a revised presentation of Sartre’s position—which unpacks the notion of pre-reflection advanced in premise (1) in terms of the notion of non-iteration—might elucidate what the subject’s being “self-ruptured” consists in. It might elucidate how this “self-rupturing” relates an experience, E, to the consciousness (of) E. I shall provide this modified (or implicit) argument later.

This new, implicit argument will not convince those objectors who are committed to the view that everything is self-identical. It should, however, convince them that they can sustain this view only if they reject non-iterative accounts of self-consciousness. My aim in this article is not to settle this dispute between iterative and non-iterative theorists. Mine is the more modest aim of articulating the break from identity in terms of non-iteration.

A third objection to the argument comes from within Sartre’s own ranks. A defender of non-iteration might claim that the consciousness (of) E is self-identical, for she might claim that non-iterative self-consciousness just is an experience E’s being literally aware (of) itself, in the sense of strict identity. She too, then, will deny Sartre’s premise (2), that presence (to) “implies duality.” As it turns out, this objector is mistaken. We shall see that non-iteration does preclude the self-identity of the subject. But the point is, Sartre’s explicit argument does not show this; it does not even address it.

We shall, then, avoid begging the question against this third objection if we modify Sartre’s argument by replacing premise (2) with the premise that consciousness is non-iterative. Although modifying his argument, this will not misrepresent Sartre’s position, for we have seen that Sartre’s original premise (2) entails that consciousness is non-iterative. The rejection of iteration, however, must count as a new premise, for it does not follow from (1) and (3).

Sartre’s Implicit Argument for the Non-Self-Identity of the Subject

The revised argument—what I have called Sartre’s implicit argument—will thus take the following form:

(1) The self-conscious subject just is a consciousness (of) an experience, E.

(2*) Self-consciousness is non-iterative.

(3) A self-identical subject must appear (to) itself, and it must be identical with that self-appearance.

The self-conscious subject is not self-identical.

Evidently, this new, implicit argument differs from Sartre’s explicit argument only by having premise (2*) replace Sartre’s original premise (2). Furthermore, we have seen that premise (2*) is entailed by Sartre’s original premise (2). So, Sartre is committed to this implicit argument.

I have urged that premises (1) and (3) are noncontroversial. All parties—iterative and non-iterative theorists—will (and should) accept them. That renders the argument general in this sense. If by conjoining premise (2*) to premises (1) and (3) we can deduce the conclusion that consciousness is non-self-identical, then that result will be independent of the particular nuances of Sartre’s philosophy. It will hold for all non-iterative accounts. Sartre’s position will thus emerge as one that correctly takes the non-iterative position to its logical conclusion. So, I turn now to showing that this implicit argument is, indeed, valid.

According to premise (2*), the consciousness (of) E cannot be conscious (of) itself as a consciousness (of) E. For, if it were, then it would be iterative. It would be a consciousness (of) consciousness (of) E. Yet, E is all that is present (to) the non-iterative consciousness (of) E. Two important consequences follow. These will be deduced, respectively, by the following arguments, Argument A and Argument B.

Argument A

It follows, first, that the non-iterative consciousness (of) E cannot be identical with E. This follows via the following argument. For any x, y, z, if x is identical to y, then x is present (to) z if and only if y is present (to) z. Consequently, if E is identical with the consciousness (of) E, then E is present (to) the consciousness (of) E if, and only if, the consciousness (of) E is present (to) the consciousness (of) E. But whereas E is, the consciousness (of) E is not, present (to) the consciousness (of) E. This follows from the definition of “non-iteration.” Therefore, by modus tollens, the consciousness (of) E is not identical with E.

Consider the following objection to this argument: x might satisfy distinct descriptions, “D” and “D*,” and be present (to) z under the description “D,” but not under the description “D*.” Then D (i.e., x under “D”) is present (to) z, but D* (i.e., x under “D*”) is not present (to) z. But we cannot conclude that D is distinct from D*. On the contrary, D = D*. Likewise, we cannot conclude that E is distinct from the consciousness (of) E on the grounds that E is, but the consciousness (of) E is not, present (to) the consciousness (of) E, for E might satisfy the distinct descriptions “E” and “the consciousness (of) E,” and be present (to) the consciousness (of) E under the first, but not the second description.

However, this objection conflates pre-reflective presence (to) with reflective presence to. My desire, for example, appears to my reflective consciousness in profile, “under a description.” Thus, I can reflectively misdescribe my desire. But, unlike reflective presence to, pre-reflective presence (to) is immediate. If x is present (to) z, then x is present (to) z immediately, as it is, without profile and not under a description. If the consciousness (of) E is to be present (to) the consciousness (of) E, then the consciousness (of) E must apprehend the consciousness (of) E immediately, as it is, without profile. It must apprehend it as a consciousness (of) E. However, that requires iteration. It requires that the consciousness (of) E be a consciousness (of) consciousness (of) E. But that contradicts premise (2*), which holds that consciousness is non-iterative. Therefore, the non-iterative consciousness (of) E—that is, the non-iterative subject—cannot be identical with E. This will serve as a lemma in establishing the second consequence.

Argument B

It follows, second, that the non-iterative consciousness (of) E cannot be self-identical. For, granting premise (3)—

(3) A self-identical subject must appear (to) itself, and it must be identical with that self-appearance.

—the non-iterative consciousness (of) E is self-identical only if it appears (to) itself and it is identical with that self-appearance. Yet all that appears (to) it is E. Consequently, the non-iterative consciousness (of) E is self-identical only if it is identical with E. But Argument A shows that the non-iterative consciousness (of) E cannot be identical with E. Consequently, the non-iterative consciousness (of) E is not self-identical.

This revised, implicit argument seems to me to be valid and makes no appeal to Sartre’s original premise (2), that presence (to) “implies duality” (BN, 77). Granting its validity, we must conclude that consciousness is non-self-identical if, and only if, it is non-iterative. For, as I showed earlier, the iterative theorist must accept self-identity. She can reject self-identity only on pain of a regress of pre-reflections. Since Sartre avows a commitment to the non-self-identity of consciousness, and since the implicit argument maps on to, and elucidates, Sartre’s explicit argument for non-self-identity, we have a strong case for the claim that Sartre is, by his own understanding, committed to the non-iterative theory.

To Be What One Is Not and Not to Be What One Is

We can confirm this result if we now turn to some of the more challenging passages of Being and Nothingness. Earlier, I criticized Sartre’s explicit argument for the non-self-identity of consciousness for failing to articulate how this break from identity yields the substantive and paradoxical claims that Sartre makes about non-self-identical consciousness. In particular, Sartre’s explicit argument fails to relate the non-self-identity of consciousness to its “being what it is not and not being what it is” (BN, xli). If, however, we attribute to Sartre a non-iterative theory of self-consciousness, then it becomes possible to articulate Sartre’s paradoxical claim.

As I have observed, if we assume that self-consciousness is non-self-identical, then we must say that I am my consciousness (of) E in a new sense of “am,” a sense that acknowledges that the subject is somehow dual, in some sense “ruptured from itself.” Term this new sense “am*.” Then—drawing from the above, implicit argument—to unpack what it means to be what one is not, and not to be what one is, the key exegetical keys are, I suggest, the following.

(a) In general, a subject must appear (to) itself and it must, in the relevant sense, be its self-appearance. Consequently, non-iterative pre-reflection—qua subject of experience—must, in the relevant sense, be its self-appearance. Otherwise, it would not be a subject at all.

(b) Recall that the iterative theory asserts the following identity:

(I) My awareness (of) E = my awareness (of) my awareness (of) E.

(I) asserts an identity between iterative pre-reflection (my awareness (of) my awareness (of) E) and its self-appearance (my awareness (of) E). It thus meets the demands of condition (a) and satisfies the principle of identity. Debarred from instancing that identity, the only possibility a non-iterative self-consciousness has of being self-identical, while meeting condition (a), is to be identical with the experience, E, which it apprehends, for E is all that appears (to) it. That is, its self-identity is possible only if

(II) My awareness (of) E = E.

However, we have seen that, on the non-iterative theory, (II) is false. My awareness (of) E cannot, on the non-iterative theory, be identical with E. For, we saw in Argument A of the implicit argument that my awareness (of) E “transcends” (is other than) E in the following sense. Whereas E does, my awareness (of) E does not, appear (to) my awareness (of) E. Or again, my awareness (of) E “escapes” my self-awareness, but E does not. So, my awareness (of) E and E cannot be strictly identical, since they instance distinct properties.

(c) As a consequence of (a) and (b), the relevant sense in which a non-iterative consciousness (of) E must be E is this. It must be* E.

Applying the above, if my self-consciousness is non-iterative, then I am* my experience, E, since a subject must appear (to) itself, and E is all that appears (to) me. Yet, since I also am* my consciousness (of) E, I “transcend” (am* other than) what appears (to) me, and cannot be identical with E. In this sense, I am* not what I am* (BN, xli). I am* E, yet am* not E.

Again, addressing the being of consciousness, Sartre says, “If being is present (to) itself, it is because it is not wholly itself” (BN, 77; parentheses added). That is, what is presented (to) consciousness in self-awareness “is not wholly itself.” I am* what is presented (I am* E). Yet, being* also a consciousness (of) E, I “transcend” (am* other than) what is presented.

But also, I am* what I am* not (BN, xli). That is, I am* E. First, because the consciousness (of) E cannot, as a matter of structure, distinguish itself from E: “consciousness (of) belief, while irreparably altering belief, does not distinguish itself from belief” (BN, 75).

This calls for some elucidation. For an iterative theory, I am distinct from my first-order experiences (say, from my desires, perceptions, actions, hopes, and wishes). I am conscious (of) my consciousness (of) E, and the fact that I am so conscious enables me to distinguish my consciousness (of) E from E. (For the iterative theorist, I can make this distinction as readily as I can make a distinction between my perception and my perceptual object.) Moreover, the iterative theorist will claim that the translucency of pre-reflection guarantees that E and my consciousness (of) E are as discrete as they are apprehended as being.12 On no account, then, is an iterative subject to be identified with her experiences. However, the non-iterative subject cannot be aware (of) any such distinctness, since the consciousness (of) E cannot appear (to) itself as a consciousness (of) E. All that is present (to) the non-iterative subject is E.

Consequently, the non-iterative subject does not—cannot—apprehend E as distinct from itself. Its apprehension (of) E must rather, somehow, identify itself with E, or be neutral regarding any such identification. But it cannot be neutral. For, I am* what I am* not, second, because I, this consciousness (of) E, can be nothing other than E’s self-awareness: “belief is nothing other than the consciousness (of) belief” (BN, 77). “Belief … must [be*] its own presence (to) itself” (BN, 78; parentheses added; emphasis in original). Since a subject must appear (to) itself, and since E is all that appears (to) the subject, the subject must be* E. So, I—the non-iterative subject—do not apprehend my belief as mine as an iterative subject apprehends itself as owning its (distinct) experience. My “ownership” of my belief is closer than that, since I am not strictly distinct from my belief: I am* my belief. We are, then, once more forced to say that I, the non-iterative subject, must be* E—that is, be* what I am* not.

Hence Sartre’s paradoxical conclusion—I am* what I am* not and am* not what I am*—a paradoxical conclusion, moreover, to which any non-iterative theorist is driven. I am* E, but (since I am other than E, because I am conscious (of) E) I am* not E. I am* the consciousness (of) E, but am* not the consciousness (of) E (since I am* E, and the consciousness (of) E is* not E).

Neither identical with, nor wholly distinct from one another, E and the consciousness (of) E constitute a “unity” which is* a “duality.” A unity: “Consciousness (of) [E] and [E are*] one and the same being” (BN, 75). A duality: because, without iteration—without the identity, (I), stated above—the consciousness (of) E can be self-identical only if by “coinciding with” (being identical with) E. And that, we have seen, is impossible: “The for-itself is the being which determines itself to exist inasmuch as it cannot coincide with itself” (BN, 78; translation modified).13

But we must not lose sight of the fact that it is my non-iterative awareness (of) my experience that precludes self-identity for my experience. And it is my non-iterative awareness (of) my experience that precludes self-identity for me. Sartre says, for example:

Thus by the sole fact that my belief is apprehended as belief, it is no longer only belief; that is, it is already no longer belief, it is troubled belief. Thus the ontological judgment “belief is consciousness (of) belief” can under no circumstances be taken as a statement of identity.

(BN, 74–75; emphasis in original)

Being non-iteratively aware (of) my belief, I “trouble” my belief. That is, I preclude the possibility of its being self-identical. Hence, being non-iteratively apprehended as my belief, my belief “is already no longer [self-identical] belief, it is troubled belief.” An iterative awareness (of) belief would not thus “trouble” belief. An iterative self-awareness, we have seen, is self-identical and distinct from the experiences it apprehends. So, the self-identity of my belief is not compromised (or “troubled”) by my iterative awareness (of) it.

I suggest, therefore, that the assumption that Sartrean pre-reflection is non-iterative elucidates, and is required to elucidate, those parts of Being and Nothingness that seek to articulate the relation between pre-reflection and experience—between the consciousness (of) E, and E. It is that relation, between pre-reflection and experience, that involves the break from identity and that informs the meaning of the formula “I am what I am not and am not what I am.”

Concluding Remarks

This article sought to show that a commitment to non-iteration underpins Sartre’s claim that the for-itself is non-self-identical. Provided this discussion is cogent, it shows that the for-itself is non-self-identical if, and only if, it is non-iterative. It also yields the more general thesis that non-iteration brings non-self-identity with it. This was shown by the fact that, in addition to the premise that consciousness is non-iterative, Sartre’s implicit argument contains only two further premises, each of which is unobjectionable; indeed, each of which would (and should) be accepted by the iterative theorist. Sartre’s position thus emerges as one that correctly takes the non-iterative theory to its logical conclusion.

I have not sought to assess the truth of the non-iterative theory of pre-reflection. My aims have been purely explicatory and exegetical. The scope of my discussion has also been limited to the theory of self-consciousness. I have not enquired whether constraints from other areas of interest—for example, self-deception, the lived body, freedom—might have imposed a non-iterative theory on Sartre. To assess such putative constraints, and the problems incurred by the non-iterative theory, will require another occasion.

Acknowledgments

I am grateful to the editors and to two anonymous referees for Sartre Studies International.

Notes
1

Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel Barnes (London: Routledge, 1990), xli (hereafter cited in text as BN).

2

Throughout, “awareness” and “consciousness” are used synonymously. I also follow Sartre’s usage and treat the terms “consciousness” and “the for-itself” synonymously. (This is not Sartre’s sole use of the term “for-itself.” Sometimes he uses “being-for-itself” to describe the mode of being of consciousness.) Finally (as is explained later), I follow Sartre in treating pre-reflective self-awareness as the self-conscious subject: “What can properly be called subjectivity is consciousness (of) consciousness” (BN, xxxvii). So, one can speak equally of the non-self-identity of consciousness, or of the non-self-identity of the self-conscious subject.

3

For any x, x is identical with itself. Sartre expresses this principle, somewhat informally, as “A is A” (BN, 74). Throughout, I deal only with Sartre’s claim that consciousness is non-self-identical. I do not address Sartre’s richer claim that consciousness lacks self-identity (BN, 73–105, 557–615). According to this richer claim, the position, in brief, is this. Not only is consciousness non-self-identical. From its own perspective, it lacks self-identity: “What the for-itself lacks is … itself as in-itself” (BN, 89). Consequently, consciousness is somehow structurally geared toward “attaining” self-identity while remaining consciousness. It “seeks” a “coincidence with itself”: “Each human reality is at the same time a direct project to metamorphose its own For-itself into an In-itself-For-itself” (BN, 615). But such a self-coincidence is impossible. Consciousness is thus deemed a futile passion—a perpetual “attempt” at this impossibility of self-coincidence.

4

I throughout adopt Sartre’s useful device of using parentheses to distinguish pre-reflective awareness (of) experience from reflective awareness of experience.

5

See esp. Edmund Husserl, On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time, trans. John Brough (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1991).

6

Sartre, of course, accepts Husserl’s notion of transverse self-awareness. In The Transcendence of the Ego, trans. Forrest Williams and Robert Kirkpatrick (New York: Noonday Press, 1960), 39, Sartre says, “It is consciousness which unifies itself, concretely, by a play of ‘transversal’ intentionalities which are concrete and real retentions of past consciousnesses.” Yet, in this passage, the notion of longitudinal self-awareness is notable by its absence. Neither here, nor (to my knowledge) anywhere else, does Sartre endorse it.

7

Husserl, On the Phenomenology, 84. Again, Husserl says (ibid., 393): “[Longitudinal consciousness and transverse consciousness are] two inseparably united intentionalities, requiring one another like two sides of one and the same thing, [and] interwoven with each other in the one, unique flow of consciousness.” In other words, transverse consciousness (of) experience and longitudinal consciousness (of) consciousness (of) experience are two distinct aspects of one and the same thing: the flow, or pre-reflective self-awareness.

The distinctness of aspects here does not, of course, impugn the identity:

(I) My awareness (of) E = my awareness (of) my awareness (of) E.

In (I), one and the same pre-reflection is referred to under each of its two necessary aspects. Analogously, consider the case of lying. My lying to S regarding P and my misrepresenting (to S) my lying as a sincere endorsement of P are two necessary and distinct aspects of the one act of lying. A lie is always, in that sense, double. Hence, we can refer to the same action, under each of its two aspects, in the following true identity:

(A) My lying to S regarding P = my misrepresenting, to S, my lying as a sincere endorsement of P.

Indeed, without this identity, we would open a regress of acts of lying. My misrepresenting, to S, my act of lying that P would itself be a distinct lie and, consequently, would also need to be misrepresented, to S, as a sincere endorsement of the truth, and so on. Assuming iteration, the parallel regress of pre-reflections will open unless the identity (I) is accepted.

8
Formally, let b denote my experience, and let a denote my pre-reflective apprehension of b. Also, let Rxy range over my conscious episodes, meaning “x is aware (of) y.” Finally, let “[]” be a nominalization operator. “[]” renders “Rab (a is aware (of) b)” as “[Rab] (a’s being aware of b).” Then the following formal identity models Husserlian lived-experience:

[Lived-Experience] [Rab] = [Ra[Rab]].

Granting [Lived-Experience], any substitutional regress formed by substituting “[Ra[Rab]]” for “[Rab]” in [Lived-Experience]—to yield: [Rab] = [Ra[Ra[Rab]]]; [Rab] = [Ra[Ra[Ra[Rab]]]]; etc.—is trivial and non-vicious. It corresponds to no ontological regress. To see this, consider that, in the alleged regress, the series members “[Rab] = [Ra[Ra[Rab]]]” and “[Rab] = [Ra[Ra[Ra[Rab]]]]” successively follow the first series member, “[Rab] = [Ra[Rab]].” But, since “[Rab] = [Ra[Rab]]” is true, we can substitute “[Rab]” for “[Ra[Rab]]” in “[Rab] = [Ra[Ra[Rab]]]” to yield “[Rab] = [Ra[Rab]].” By the same substitutional move, we can reduce the next member of the series, “[Rab] = [Ra[Ra[Ra[Rab]]]],” first to “[Rab] = [Ra[Ra[Rab]]],” and then to “[Rab] = [Ra[Rab]].” That is, any series member of the alleged regress can be reduced back to “[Rab] = [Ra[Rab]].” An important consequence of this is that, though the (of) is iterated in iterative self-consciousness, it cannot be reiterated. There is no logical room for (ontological) reiteration. The series of (of)s necessarily terminates at two.

9

Husserl, On the Phenomenology, 391.

10

Sartre is inconsistent in applying his own device of adding parentheses around the term “of” to express pre-reflection. The context makes clear that here parentheses are implicit.

11

Premise (1) does not exclude (what is doubtless true) the claim that self-consciousness must supervene on some distinct physical base. It does not exclude the possibility that such a supervenience base will be needed to ensure my identity-through-time on those occasions when I lose self-consciousness. The attack on premise (1) will come not from physicalism (in its various forms) but from reflective (or “representational”) accounts of self-consciousness. Higher-order representational accounts are defended by David M. Rosenthal, “Higher-Order Thoughts and the Appendage Theory of Consciousness,” Philosophical Psychology 6, no. 2 (1993): 155–166; and William G. Lycan, Consciousness and Experience (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996). Self-representational theories are defended by Uriah Kriegel, “The Same-Order Monitoring Theory of Consciousness,” Synthesis Philosophica, 44 (2007): 361–384; and Kenneth Williford, “The Self-Representational Structure of Consciousness,” in Self-Representational Approaches to Consciousness, ed. Uriah Kriegel and Kenneth Williford (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), 111–149. I defend pre-reflective accounts of self-consciousness against reflective accounts in Maiya Jordan, “Representation and Regress,” Husserl Studies 33, no. 1 (2017): 19–43.

12

According to the translucency of pre-reflection, if I am aware (of) my experience as F, then my experience is F. For, my awareness (of) my experience, not being an intention, has no intentional content that might misrepresent my experience (to) me. Pre-reflectively, I apprehend my experience immediately, as it is, qua experience. Both iterative and non-iterative theorists accept this notion of translucency. For the iterative theorist, therefore, if I pre-reflectively apprehend my consciousness (of) E as being distinct from E, then my consciousness (of) E is, indeed, distinct from E.

13

For Sartre, nothingness is the “fissure” that “separates” the consciousness (of) E from E (BN, 78).

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Contributor Notes

Maiya Jordan is a PhD student at McGill University working under the supervision of Professors Alia Al-Saji, David Davies, and Ian Gold. She received a BA honours (2010) and an MA (2011) in philosophy from the University of Sheffield. Her main research interests are in philosophy of mind and phenomenology. She is currently finishing her dissertation on issues surrounding self-awareness and self-deception, where she puts forward a Sartrean (literalist) account of self-deception. She also defends (Husserl Studies, 2017) a pre-reflective account of self-awareness against representationalist accounts.

Sartre Studies International

An Interdisciplinary Journal of Existentialism and Contemporary Culture