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The following text constitutes section II of Sartre’s Sketch for a Theory of the Emotions (Esquisse d’une théorie des émotions, 1939), entitled ‘The Psychoanalytic Theory’.

On the Psychoanalytic Theory of the Emotions

We cannot understand an emotion unless we look for its signification. And this, by its nature, is of a functional order. We are therefore led to speak of a finality of emotion. This finality we can grasp very concretely by the objective examination of emotional behaviour. Here there is no question at all of a more or less obscure theory about emotion-instinct based upon a priori principles or postulates. Simple consideration of the facts brings us to an empirical intuition of the finalist meaning of emotion. If we try on the other hand to fix, in a complete intuition, the essence of emotion as an interpsychological fact, we see that this finality is inherent in its structure. And all the psychologists who have reflected upon the peripheric theory of James have been more or less aware of this finalistic signification -this is what Janet, for instance, decorates with the name of ‘psychic’; it is this that psychologists like Cannon and Sherrington try to reintroduce into their descriptions of the emotional facts with their hypothesis of a cerebral sensibility; it is this, again, that we find in Wallon or, more recently, among the Gestalt psychologists. This finality presupposes a synthetic organization of behaviour which could only be the 'unconscious' of psychoanalysis, or consciousness. And it would be easy enough, if need be, to produce a psychoanalytic theory of emotional finality. One could show, without great difficulty, that anger or fear are means employed by by unconscious urges to achieve symbolic satisfaction, to break out of a state of unbearable tension. One could thus account for this essential characteristic of emotion -that it is 'suffered', that it surprises, develops of itself according to its own laws, and that conscious efforts cannot modify its course to any very appreciable extent. This dissociation between the organized character of emotion -the organizing theme being relegated to the unconscious- and its ineluctable character, which it would not have for the consciousness of the subject, would render something like the same service in the psychological domain as the Kantian distinction between the empirical and the noumenal does in the domain of metaphysic.
It is certainly true that psychoanalysis was the first to lay the emphasis upon the signification of psychic facts: that is, it was the first to insist upon the fact that every state of consciousness stands for something other than itself. For example: this clumsy theft perpetrated by a sexual obsessive is not simply a clumsy theft. It refers to something else from the moment that we begin to consider it in the psychoanalyst's way as a phenomenon of self-punishment. We can see that a psychoanalytic theory of the emotions would be possible. Does it not already exist? There is that woman with a phobia for laurel. If she sees a clump of laurels, she faints. The psychoanalyst discovers that in her childhood there was a painful sexual incident associated with laurel bushes. What will be the corresponding emotion? A phenomenon of refusal, and of censorship. Not refusal of the laurel itself, but a refusal to relive the memory connected with laurels. Here the emotion is a flight from the revelation to follow, as sleep is sometimes a flight from a decision to be taken, and as the illnesses of certain young women are, according to Stekel, a flight from marriage. Naturally, emotion is not always an escape. We already have indications from the psychoanalysts of an interpretation of anger as a symbolic gratification of sexual tendencies. And certainly, none of these interpretations is to be thrust aside. That anger can signify sadism is in no doubt at all. That fainting away from passive fear signifies flight, the quest of a refuge, is also certain, and we shall try to show the reason for it. What is in question here is the principle itself of psychoanalytic explanation -that is what we want to consider here.
The psychoanalytic interpretation conceives the conscious phenomenon as the symbolic realization of a desire repressed by the censor. Note that, for consciousness, the desire is not involved in its symbolic realization. In so far as it exists by and in our consciousness it is only what it gives itself out to be: emotion, desire for sleep, theft, laurel-phobia, etc. If it were otherwise, if we had any consciousness, even only implicit, of the real desire, we should be in bad faith, and that is not what the psychoanalyst means. It follows that the signification of our conscious behaviour lies wholly outside that behaviour itself or, if one prefers it so, what is signified is entirely cut off from the signifier. This behaviour of the subject is, in itself, just what it is (if by 'in itself' we mean for itself), but it can be deciphered by the appropriate techniques as one would decipher a given language. In a word, the conscious fact is related to what it signifies, as a thing which is the effect of a certain event is related to that event: as, for example, the ashes of a fire extinct upon a mountain are related to the human beings who lit the fire. Their presence is not contained in the remaining cinders, but connected with them by a relation of causality: the relation is external, the ashes of the fire are passive considered in that causal relation, as every effect is in relation to its cause. A consciousness which had not acquired the necessary technical knowledge could not grasp these remains as signs. At the same time, the remains are what they are; that is, they exist in themselves, irrespective of all significant interpretation: they are fragments of half-burnt wood, and that is all.
Can we admit that a fact of consciousness could be like a thing in relation to its signification -that is, receive its meaning from outside like an external quality- as, for instance, this having been burnt by men who wanted to warm themselves is a quality external to the burnt wood? It would seem, first and foremost, that the effect of such an interpretation is to make consciousness into a thing in relation to what is signified: it is to admit that consciousness can constitute itself into a meaning without being aware of the meaning that it constitutes. There is a flagrant contradiction in this, unless we are to regard consciousness as an existent of the same type as a stone, or a pond. But in that case we must finally give up the Cartesian cogito and treat consciousness as a secondary and passive phenomenon. In so far as a consciousness makes itself it is never anything other than what it appears to be. If, then, it has a signification, it must contain this within itself as a structure of consciousness. This does not mean that the signification must be perfectly explicit. There are many possible degrees of condensation and of clarity. It only means that we should not interrogate consciousness from outside, as one would study the remains of the fire or the encampment, but from within; that we should look into it for the signification. The consciousness, if the cogito is to be possible, is itself the fact, the signification and what is signified.
Truth to tell, what makes an exhaustive refutation of psychoanalysis so difficult is that the psychoanalyst himself does not regard the signification as conferred entirely from outside the consciousness. For him, there is always an internal analogy between the conscious fact and the desire it expresses, since the conscious fact is symbolical of the expressed complex. And for the psychoanalyst this symbolic character is obviously not external to the fact itself, but is constitutive of it. Upon this point we are in full agreement with him. That the symbolization is constitutive of the symbolic consciousness can be in no doubt whatever to anyone who believes in the absolute value of the Cartesian cogito. But this needs to be rightly understood: if symbolization is constitutive it is legitimate to see an immanent bond of comprehension between the symbolization and the symbol. Only, we must agree upon this, that consciousness constitutes itself by symbolization. In that case there is nothing behind it, and the relation between symbol, symbolized and symbolization is an intra-structural bond of consciousness. But if we go on to say that the consciousness is symbolizing under the causal compulsion of a transcendent fact -which is the repressed desire- we are falling back upon the theory previously indicated, which treats the relation of the signified to the signifying as a causal relation. The profound contradiction in all psychoanalysis is that it presents at the same time a bond of causality and a bond of understanding between the phenomena that it studies. These two types of relationship are incompatible. The theorist of psychoanalysis also establishes transcendent relations of rigid causality between the facts under observation (a pincushion in a dream always signifies a woman's breasts, entry into a carriage signifies the sexual act), whilst the practitioner assures himself of success by studying mainly the facts of conscious understanding; that is, by flexible research into the intra-conscious relation between symbolization and the symbol.
For our part, we do not reject the findings of psychoanalysis when they are obtained by the understanding. We limit ourselves to the denial that there is any value or intelligibility in its underlying theory of psychic causality. And moreover we affirm that, in so far as the psychoanalyst is making use of understanding to interpret consciousness, it would be better to recognize frankly that whatever is going on in consciousness can receive its explanation nowhere but from consciousness itself. And here we are brought back to our own point of departure: a theory of consciousness which attributes meaningful character to the emotive facts must look for that meaning in the consciousness itself. In other words, it is the consciousness which makes itself conscious, moved by the inner need for an inner signification.
And indeed, the advocates of psychoanalysis are at the same time raising a difficulty of principle. If consciousness organizes emotion as a special type of response adapted to an external situation, how does it manage to have no consciousness of this adaptation? And it must be granted that their theory renders a perfect account of this discrepancy between the signification and the consciousness -which need not astonish us since that is just what it was made for. Better still, they will say, in the majority of cases we are struggling, in our conscious spontaneity, against the development of emotional manifestations; we are trying to master our fear, to calm our anger, to restrain our weeping. Thus we have not only no consciousness of any finality of emotion, we are also rejecting emotion with all our strength and it invades us in spite of ourselves. A phenomenological description of emotion ought to resolve these contradictions.


  Jean Paul Sartre. A french philosopher of the 20th century.
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