Being-For-Itself
August 16, 2010

Cover: 1964, 7th printing of Nausea; New Direc...
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Right now I’m about a third of the way through Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, and so far I’m finding it to be an immense pleasure. Effectively, this is the first time I’ve been able to really engage with Sartre’s fiction; I read the original text of Hui Clos (No Exit) in high school French, but given that French was never my strong suit I probably would have gotten more out of reading the Wikipedia synopsis. As for his straight philosophy (specifically Being and Nothingness), I found it maddeningly cryptic and elliptical. I wanted to grapple with the ideas he was proposing, but the presentation made much of it incomprehensible to me.

Nausea personalizes and makes concrete Sartre’s existentialism, which is a great way to clarify both the structure of his phenomenology and his own feelings on its implications. Given that he is one of the great giants of existentialism, and I’m probably one of the last American philosophy majors to unself-consciously identify as an existentialist, the clarification has been invaluable.

I’m particularly interested in the book’s treatment of one of the author’s key concepts from Being and Nothingness: being-for-itself. In the latter work, Sartre argues that consciousness is the being-for-itself because it is that which can observe itself. Because it has that ability, it is, itself, nothing; any of its features can be discarded or remolded at a moment’s notice. The fact that we are, ourselves, nothingness surrounded by (for lack of a better word) thing-ness is profoundly disturbing to us. This comes up a lot in Nausea, in various forms: Roquentin, the main character, is unsettled by the fact that his own reflection in the mirror doesn’t signify anything to him. As a professional historian, he reads up on the fictional (I think) Marquis de Robellon, and is disturbed by the Marquis’ seeming fluidity of character. Robellon, it seems, has embraced the nothingness at his core and set out to simply be whatever he needs to be in any given situation.

I’m of two minds about being-for-itself. On the one hand, I’m something of a soft determinist: I believe that we spend about 99.9999% percent of our lives blindly reacting to external stimuli in predictable, far from unique ways. In fact, I’d argue that this is empirically true; go ahead and ask a political scientist or behavioral psychologist if we’re all the precious little snowflakes we think we are. To the extent that our behavior seems determined by our deepest inner selves, that is because we are remarkably talented at rationalizing our own actions.

On the other hand, I think this feeling of essential emptiness is a good description of one of the fundamental anxieties of self-consciousness; and considering Sartre’s existentialism is founded in phenomenology, the philosophy of describing the character of one’s experiences, that makes all the difference.

Take, for example, my fear of heights. I rarely feel agitated when I’m gazing through a thick pane of glass or over a high railing, but climbing a ladder or standing anywhere near an unprotected ledge can be profoundly distressing. Intellectually, I understand that the only way I’ll fall is if I let go of the ladder or walk off the ledge, two things which I have no interest in doing; on a visceral level, I experience letting go or walking off as real options. That I would never do such a thing is sort of beside the point. The point is that I’m being presented with the choice, and the only things preventing me from making the wrong choice are hardwired self-preservation and my incomplete, shallow perception of myself and what I’m like.

We block out most of these choices just to get through the day without being paralyzed by anxiety. But I think realizing that we are, at our core, not really anything in particular can also liberate us from those of our own habits and behaviors we dislike. That there is a behavioral or physiological element to those habits and behaviors—one which Sartre downplays far too much—makes breaking them one of the most difficult things you can do. Yet doing so can also be the most profound disclosure of your own freedom and agency.

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“Bracketing” and The Second Sex
May 29, 2010

Le Deuxieme Sexe
Image by ainudil via Flickr

Fortuitously, the day on which I was planning about writing about Simone de Beauvoir’s philosophy of love as articulated briefly in The Ethics of Ambiguity also happens to be the day that the New York Times decides to run a review of the newest translation of her landmark feminist work, The Second Sex. I haven’t read The Second Sex, but it’s the work that Beauvoir is most well-known for, so I was curious to learn a little about the content.

Here’s what I learned: If the passages excerpted in the review are any indication, then The Ethics of Ambiguity is the better of the two, by far. Here’s a taste from the review:

 Females of all living species are “first violated … then alienated” by the process of fertilization. Derogatory phrases like “the servitude of maternity,” “woman’s absurd fertility,” the “exhausting servitude” of breast-feeding, abound. (How could they not, since the author sees heterosexual love in general as “a mortal danger?”) According to Beauvoir, a girl’s first menstruation, which many of us welcomed with excitement and pride, is met instead with “disgust and fear. ” It “ inspires horror” and “signifies illness, suffering and death.”

Yeeeeah. Wow. But the misstep I find most intriguing is when Beauvoir insists that, “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” That sounds a lot like Sartre’s argument—which I criticized yesterday—that biology plays no causal role when it comes to sexual desire. Nor, Beauvoir argues, does it play any causal role when it comes to gender identity. Even if you think gender is fluid and malleable (which I do), that seems kind of absurd.

And it’s absurd for the same reason. Beauvoir and Sartre both, I think, ignore the lessons of the existentialist’s best friend: the phenomenologist.

Phenomenology is a philosophical tradition very closely tied to existentialism; so much so that many major works of phenomenology contain pretty major traces of existentialist thought (such as in Heidegger’s Being and Time), and vice versa (such as in Sartre’s own Being and Nothingness). This cousin to existentialism concerns itself with the study of being-in-the-world, or the organizational features of our experience of the world. Most works of phenomenology do this without making any judgments about the character of the world itself.

Husserl, one of the fathers of phenomenology, called this “bracketing,” by which he meant setting aside questions about the world around us. For example, a phenomenologist might describe the experience and sensation I have of typing out this blog post on a keyboard and staring at a screen, but he is describing it only as it exists in my head, without making any judgments about the nature of the actual keyboard or screen … or, for that matter, about whether they even exist at all.

Existentialism works best, I think, when it, too, brackets these questions. That’s because, while existentialist notions of the nothingness and infinite freedom of consciousness don’t seem to bear out from empirical study—human beings are fairly predictable and causally determined, by and large—it is an incredibly potent description of the phenomenological experience of being a person.

So Beauvoir and Sartre are correct to a certain extent. Sartre is correct that one doesn’t experience sexual desire as a purely biological sensation (what would it even mean to have a sensation like that?), and Beauvoir is correct that one experiences the behavior and social conventions we attach to gender identity as completely conscious, voluntary things that we could shed at a moment’s notice. But just because we experience the sensation of freedom, doesn’t mean we are free in anything beyond the phenomenological sense.

Update: Okay. Maybe I’m just digging myself deeper, but I feel like I need to clarify some things. So for the record, here’s what I was not doing in the above post:

1.) Offering a critique, in any way, shape, or form, of feminism.

2.) Offering any meaningful critique of the whole of The Second Sex. (It’s no sleight to say that it’s not as good as The Ethics of Ambiguity on a conceptual level, because The Ethics of Ambiguity is damn near perfect.)

3.) Dismissing Beauvoir (who, I should stress again, is one of my favorite philosophers).

4.) Suggesting that gendered behavior is solely the result of rigid biological determinism.

This post was meant mostly as a critique of existentialism. For that critique, I took as a premise that while much of gender is fluid and culturally constructed, biological/physiological factors are not completely irrelevant. That doesn’t just apply to gendered behavior but to a whole host of different character traits; I just chose to focus on gender specifically because it seemed timely with the review coming out today.

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