Sartre Online - The Ultimate Sartrean Resource: Phenomenological Ontology and Consciousness
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Phenomenological Ontology and Consciousness

Early Sartrean philosophy is one of a pursuit of being. It is an attempt to grasp being through an investigation of the way being presents to consciousness - phenomenological ontology. Phenomenological ontology refers to the study of being through its appearances. This simplistic definition needs further clarification. First, by phenomenon Sartre refers to the totality of appearances of a thing and not simply a particular appearance. As Wilfrid Desan writes, phenomenology is "a method which wants to describe all that manifests itself as it manifests itself." Moreover, H.J. Blackham observes that in Sartre, "the objects of consciousness, the phenomena, the appearances of things, disclose what is really there as it really is, though never exhaustively." This position is better understood when we come to discuss Sartre's twofold division of being. There we shall find that the in-itself presented to the reflective consciousness in phenomena is a totalized being, being in its plenitude. Blackham continues:

Consciousness implies and refers to an existence other than its own and to its own existence as a question. It is this relation of the pour-soi to the en-soi which is the foundation (and the only condition) of knowledge and action. Knowledge is necessarily intuition, the presence of consciousness to the object which it is not. This is the original condition of all experience. Before the object is defined and interpreted, consciousness constitutes itself by separating itself from it.

Second, most commentators claim that Sartre preferred ontology to metaphysics because the former, as the study of being as being, presupposes the traditional claim of the precedence of essence over existence and the existence of human nature. Moreover, although ontology denotes the study of being, it "does not revive the ghosts of substance, soul, and God." Sartre claims that the basic distinction of Existentialism from other systems of thought is its claim of the precedence of existence over essence and the negation of a primordial human nature. Man first is, and then he makes his essence through the choices he makes. It would thus be inappropriate to use the term metaphysics since it jeopardizes this very distinction.

Consciousness is a being such that in its being, its being is in question in so far as this being implies a being other than itself. We can never have consciousness which is stable; the basic characteristic of consciousness is its dynamicity, spontaneity, and freedom. He follows Husserl's principle of the intentionality of consciousness. Consciousness is first and foremost a consciousness of something. To say that consciousness is consciousness of something means that for consciousness there is no being outside of that precise obligation to be revealing intuition of something - i.e. of a transcendent being.

All forms of consciousness are likewise intentional. Imagination, as a form of consciousness, is intentional. One cannot just imagine, he must always be imagining something. Furthermore, even emotional consciousness is intentional. When Sartre defined emotion as a certain way of apprehending the world, it implies that emotion is a way of relating to the world. In this relation consists the intentionality of emotions. When one loves, he always loves something or somebody.

Second, subjectivity is the consciousness of consciousness. Sartre says that consciousness is a being, the nature of which is to be conscious of its being. When applied to man, Sartre further claims that man is, for the reason that man thinks.

Finally, consciousness is a nothingness. It is a nothingness in the sense that it is always not that thing. It is always in the making, and to try to view it as permanent is to do injustice to its very definition. From this arises the assertion that there is no set of permanent entity which is the human self.

Consciousness is either pre-reflexive or reflexive. Sartre sometimes uses the term non-thetic consciousness or non-positional self-consciousness to pre-reflexive consciousness in discussing this kind of consciousness. It refers to the cogito prior to all forms of reflection. What we have here is not knowledge, but an implicit consciousness of being consciousness of an object. The basic datum of Sartrean phenomenology is basically this kind of consciousness which is prior to all forms of reflection. On the other hand, reflective consciousness, which he sometimes terms thetic consciousness, is the consciousness of the reflecting cogito.

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