Sartre, consciousness, and intentionality

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  • Sartre, consciousness, and intentionality

    Mark Rowlands

    Published online: 4 August 2013# Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

    Keywords Adverbialism . Consciousness . Content . Intentionality . Sartre

    1 Introduction

    There are two conjoined sentences to be found in section III of the Introduction toBeing and Nothingness.1 The first is mundane. The second is rather startling. Buteven more startling is that Sartre seems to take the second to be an obviousimplication of the first. Here are the sentences:

    All consciousness, as Husserl has shown, is consciousness of something. Thismeans that there is no consciousness that is not a positing of a transcendentobject, or if you prefer, that consciousness has no content.2

    The first, mundane, claim is that all consciousness is intentional. The claim is, ofcourse, not utterly mundane: doubted by some, it nevertheless provides the startingpoint for philosophy in the Brentanianhence phenomenologicaltradition, and isalso widely accepted outside that tradition. Let us call this the Intentionality Thesis(IT). The second claim is far less mundane. Consciousness has no content. Let uscall this the No Content Thesis (NCT). This claim seems prima facie implausible. Ifconsciousness has no content then, it seems, there is nothing in it. If this is correct,where, one might think, are we to locate the familiar candidates for denizens ofconsciousness: thoughts, feelings, images, emotions, and so on? If they are not inconsciousness, then where, exactly, are they? However, what is really striking aboutthis short passage is that Sartre seems to regard NCT as a straightforward implicationof IT. Indeed, so obvious does he think this entailment is, he seems to feel little needto support it with any (non question-begging) argument. That NCT is an implicationof IT is, Sartre appears to assume, too obvious to require supporting argument.

    Phenom Cogn Sci (2013) 12:521536DOI 10.1007/s11097-013-9333-z

    1Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, Paris: Gallimard 1943, trans. Hazel Barnes, New York:Philosophical Library, Inc. All page numbers refer to the 1992, Washington Square edition, 1992.2Being and Nothingness, p. 11.

    M. Rowlands (*)Department of Philosophy, University of Miami, Coral Gables, FL 33124, USAe-mail: mrowlands@miami.edu

  • These two sentences, I shall argue, are absolutely central to Sartres arguments andposition in Being and Nothingness. Indeed, it would not be too much of an exaggerationto say that Being and Nothingness is, in large part, merely an attempt to work out theimplications of these sentences, and the assumed connection between them. In thispaper, I shall argue that Sartre was right. NCT is, in fact, a (relatively) straightforwardimplication of IT. If we assume that all consciousness is intentional, then consciousnessis, indeed, a form of nothingness. This claim is as important as Sartre thinks it is.

    2 Consciousness as nothingness: the no content thesis

    In this section, I shall identify, with a little more precision, the content of NCT. In thenext section, I shall try to supply the thesis with (independent) supporting argument.The two tasks are not entirely independent of each other. Thus, for reasons that willnot become fully clear until the supporting argument has been supplied, NCT shouldbe understood as a thesis that applies to objects of consciousness. No object ofconsciousness can be part of consciousness. That is:

    (NCT) Necessarily, any object of consciousness is outside consciousness.

    Sartre uses the term transcendent to refer to items that are outside consciousness.Thus, according to NCT, any object of consciousness is, necessarily, a transcendent thing.

    To properly understand what NCT does and does not entail, we need, first, toobserve the familiar distinction between acts and objects of consciousness. Thisdistinction, in Sartres work, corresponds to the distinction between two types ofbeing: being-for-itself and being-in-itself respectively. This distinction is foundationalto Sartres view. However, in any actual conscious experience, the two regions ofbeing are always indissolubly bound up. That is, in any conscious experience, act andobject can be distinguished but not separated.

    Acts of consciousness include things such as seeing (and perceiving more gener-ally), thinking, remembering, desiring, imagining, emoting, anticipating, dreading,and so on. An object of consciousness is that of which I am aware when I engage inan act of consciousness. Suppose I am thinking about an object: a shiny, red tomatothat sits on the table in front of me. That is, I am thinking that this tomato is red andshiny. On the one hand there is the object of my thought: the tomato. This is atranscendent object. But I am also thinking about the tomato in a certain way, asfalling under a given mode of presentation: as being red and shiny. Assuming mythought is true, the content of my thoughtthat the tomato is red and shinyis whatwe might regard as a state-of-affairs. I can be aware of objects and aware of states-of-affairs. Typically, a subjects awareness of objects is via his or her awareness ofstates-of-affairs.3 Both of these thingsobject and state-of-affairsare not part ofmy consciousness. They are, as Sartre puts it, transcendent items. This claim isunremarkable. Suppose now, however, that I close my eyes and mentally picturethe tomato. I attend to the mental image I have formed.4 This image is now an object

    3 Some might reject this claim of dependency, but the claim is not important for my purposes.4 As we shall see, Sartre would reject this account of what is going on when I visualize the tomato. Herejects the idea that there are mental intermediaries. I use this example for expository purposes only.

    522 M. Rowlands

  • of my consciousnessan object of the act of mentally imagingand if NCT is true,is therefore also a transcendent object, something that lies outside my consciousness.This claim is slightly less unremarkable.

    As a first approximation, one might think of NCT as supplying a challenge: try topoint to the contents of consciousness. As you say Here is one!mentally pointingto a thought, experience, feeling or sensation, for examplethis becomes an object ofyour consciousness and so is, if NCT is correct, precisely not a part of yourconsciousness. To identify the contents of consciousness, we must make them intoobjects of consciousness, and therefore, if Sartre is correct, this makes them transcendentobjectsobjects that exist outside consciousness. Conversely, if consciousness existsonly as acts of consciousness, then it is a pure directedness towards the world, andnothing more:

    All consciousness is positional in that it transcends itself in order to reach anobject, and it exhausts itself in this same positing. All that there is of intention inmy actual consciousness is directed toward the outside, toward the table; all myjudgments or practical activities, all my present inclinations transcend them-selves: they aim at the table and are absorbed in it.5

    If we think of the world as a collection of actual or potential objects of conscious-ness, then, as Sartre puts it, the entire world is outside consciousness.6 Consciousnessis, in this sense, empty.

    3 Supporting NCT

    Sartre supplies very little in the way of non question-begging argument in favor ofNCT, seeming to regard it as an obvious implication of IT. By way of support, we canfind little more than this passage:

    A table is not in consciousness, not even in the capacity of a representation. Atable is in space, beside the window, etc. The existence of the table in fact is acenter of opacity for consciousness; it would require an infinite process toinventory the total contents of a thing. To introduce this opacity into conscious-ness would be to refer to infinity the inventory which it can make of itself, tomake consciousness a thing, and to deny the cogito. The first procedure of aphilosophy ought to be to expel things from consciousness, to know thatconsciousness is a positional consciousness of the world.7

    This passage alludes to his earlier rehearsal of Husserls position that objects canbe regarded as structured series of appearances.8 There is, Sartre argued, no finitenumber of appearances that could exhaust any given object. And even hallucinations

    5 Being and Nothingness, p. 11.6 Being and Nothingness, p. 17.7 Being and Nothingness, p. 11. Emphasis is mine.8 The concept of an appearance, for Sartre, is not a mentalistic one. Appearances are not mentalentities (ideas, images, and the like). Appearances are objects of awareness and, as such, are beings-in-themselves. This, he think, distinguishes his position from that of Husserl. It is not clear, however, thatthis is really the case.

    Sartre, consciousness, and intentionality 523

  • need not be given all at once in their entirety. Thus, to locate objects in consciousnesswould entail that, at any given time, there are parts of consciousness that areinaccessible to consciousness. Consciousness would, in this sense, be opaque. Sartrethinks this conclusion is nonsensical. However, this can scarcely be regarded as anargument for NCT. The question of whether consciousness is or is not opaque depends,in part, on the question of whether it has contents. If, contrary to Sartres claim,consciousness does have contents, then these contents may both fail to be given all atonce. Indeed, the grasping of a given content at a given time may preclude the grasping ofanother content at that time.9

    That Sartre thought it unnecessary to provide much in the way of argument forNCT is a result of his regarding it as such an obvious implication of IT. Others maynot regard this as an obvious implication of IT at all. Indeed, given that IT is endorsedby so many and NCT by so few,