Consciousness is infinite,
it is continually unbound.

There are no edges, no limits,
no prescribed patterns or paths.

Lariat throws,
droplets sinking.

Being-for-itself, consciousness has
no predetermined essence.

It has to invent for itself,
ever expanding, constantly flowing.

In Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre’s subject of enquiry started to shift and peel away from phenomenology, because he had become fascinated by what phenomenology had led to: consciousness. Such was his enthrallment, that he essentially developed an initial founding premise for his new approach to philosophy: “The first procedure of a philosophy ought to be to expel things from consciousness and re-establish its true connection with the world.”[1] Consciousness, or to make it clear one’s own consciousness, was Sartre’s new starting position.

In contrast to a psychological approach, which tends towards a more intimate study of the internal workings of one’s consciousness, Sartre’s framework focused on separating one’s consciousness from that which is not one’s consciousness: The distinction of ‘that which is conscious’ and ‘that which is not conscious’ had arrived within Sartre’s philosophy. However, Sartre didn’t leave this distinction solely within a discussion fixed upon consciousness. For him, this distinction also took on an ontological bearing.

In some ways this was entirely predictable given that Sartre’s phenomenology rejected what Nietzsche called “the illusion of worlds behind-the-scene.”[2] The hint being, that Sartre desired to understand what there was in the world and that this, however one comes to it, is fundamentally the discipline of ontology. Consequently, within Being and Nothingness, Sartre wore his colours on his sleeve and gave his introduction the title ‘The Pursuit of Being’, which, by such heavy referencing to the word ‘Being’, was an open declaration of serious ontological intent. In retrospect therefore, it is of no real surprise that Sartre cast the results of his separation of ‘what is conscious’ from ‘what is not conscious’ in terms directly representative of his ontological leaning and utilised the magic touchstone and ontological signifier that is the word ‘Being’:

“Since the being of consciousness is radically different, its meaning will necessitate a particular elucidation… being-for-itself (l’être-pour-soi)… which is opposed to the being-in-itself (l’être-en-soi) of the phenomenon.”[3]

The particular elucidation Sartre gave to his description for the “being of consciousness” therefore finds its definition grounded whole-heartedly within an ontological setting as the signifier “being-for-itself.” Such grounding though, goes beyond the level of signification because, for Sartre, the real understanding and ontological relevance of being-for-itself only occurs when it is juxtaposed to its phenomenological other: being-in-itself.

For Sartre, the identity of being-in-itself is completely self-contained, there is nothing else going on: “of this table I can say only that it is purely and simply this table.”[4] The juxtaposition that Sartre wanted us to understand, of course, is that one cannot state the same about a conscious process. Unlike the table, one’s belief cannot be limited and is more than a mere thing defined as ‘belief’; because it is formed from consciousness and not from physical brute matter. The difference is that consciousness has latent within it the power of the infinite, whereas physical objects are wholly finite.

Interestingly, there is a problem with the simplicity of my description. For Sartre, the “appeal to infinity,” popular in Spinoza and Hegel, removes the capacity of infinity because it becomes tamed and constrained. Infinity, by its nature, should not be able to be contained. Its inherent quality is infinite and not finite, whereas setting a phrase to something places that something within the confines of the finite and thereby removes possibilities of infinity. Consequently, Sartre opts out of the problem of reduction by introducing his own term: “Nothingness”.

[1] Sartre, J-P. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes, Routledge, 1995, xxvii.

[2] Ibid., xxii.

[3] Ibid., xxxix.

[4] Ibid., 74.

Published by Dr Jim Walsh

CEO of Conway Hall Ethical Society and author of 'Ethics Starts With You'.

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