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'Preface' and 'Conclusions' excerpted from The Transcendence of the Ego: Sketch for a Phenomenological Description

(Originally published as La Transcendance de L'Ego: Esquisse d'une description phénomenologique, in Recherches Philosophiques, VI, 1936-37).


For most philosophers the ego is an "inhabitant" of consciousness. Some affirm its formal presence at the heart of Erlebnisse [lived experience], as an empty principle of unification. Others -psychologists for the most part- claim to discover its material presence, as the centre of desires and acts, in each moment of our psychic life. We should like to show here that the ego is neither formally nor materially in consciousness: it is outside, in the world. It is a being of the world, like the ego of another.


In conclusion, we would like simply to offer the three following remarks:

1. The conception of the ego which we propose seems to us to effect the liberation of the Transcendental Field, and at the same time its purification.
The Transcendental Field, purified of all egological structure, recovers its primary transparency. In a sense, it is a nothing, since all physical, psycho-physical, and psychic objects, all truths, all values are outside it; since my me has itself ceased to be any part of it. But this nothing is all since it is consciousness of all these objects. There is no longer an "inner life" in the sense in which Brunschvicg opposes "inner life" and "spiritual life," because there is no longer anything which is an object and which can at the same time partake of the intimacy of consciousness. Doubts, remorse, the so-called "mental crises of consciousness," etc. -in short, all the content of intimate diaries- become sheer performance. And perhaps we could derive here some sound precepts of moral discretion. But, in addition, we must bear in mind that from this point of view my emotions and my states, my ego itself, cease to be my exclusive property. To be precise: up to now a radical distinction has been made between the objectivity of a spatio-temporal thing or of an external truth, and the subjectivity of psychical "states." It seemed as if the subject had a privileged status with respect to his own states. When two men, according to this conception, talk about the same chair, they really are talking about the same thing. This chair which one takes hold of and lifts is the same as the chair which the other sees. There is not merely a correspondence of images; there is only one object. But it seemed that when Paul tried to understand a psychical state of Peter, he could not reach this state, the intuitive apprehension of which belonged only to Peter. He could only envisage an equivalent, could only create empty concepts which tried in vain to reach a reality by essence removed from intuition. Psychological understanding occurred by analogy. Phenomenology has come to teach us that states are objects, that an emotion as such (a love or hatred) is a transcendent object and cannot shrink into the interior unity of a "consciousness." Consequently, if Paul and Peter both speak of Peter's love, for example, it is no longer true that the one speaks blindly and by analogy of that which the other apprehends in full. They speak of the same thing. Doubtless they apprehend it by different procedures, but these procedures may be equally intuitional. And Peter's emotion is no more certain for Peter than for Paul. For both of them, it belongs to the category of objects which can be called into question. But the whole of this profound and novel conception is compromised if the me of Peter, that me which hates or which loves, remains an essential structure of consciousness. The emotion, after all, remains attached to the me. This emotion "sticks to" the me. If one draws the me into consciousness, one draws the emotion along with it. To us, it seemed, on the contrary, that the me was a transcendent object, like the state, and that because of this fact it was accessible to two sorts of intuition: an intuitive apprehension by the consciousness of which it is the me, and an intuitive apprehension less clear, but no less intuitive, by other consciousnesses. In a word, Peter's me is accessible to my intuition, and in both cases it is the object of inadequate evidence. If that is the case, then there is no longer anything "impenetrable" about Peter; unless it is his very consciousness. But his consciousness is radically impenetrable. We mean that it is not only refractory to intuition, but to thought. I cannot conceive Peter's consciousness without making an object of it (since I do not conceive it as being my consciousness). I cannot conceive it because I would have to think of it as pure interiority and as transcendence at the same time, which is impossible. A consciousness cannot conceive of a consciousness other than itself. Thus we can distinguish, thanks to our conception of the me, a sphere accessible to psychology, in which the method of external observation and the introspective method have the same rights and can mutually assist each other, and a pure transcendental sphere accessible to phenomenology alone.
This transcendental sphere is a sphere of absolute existence, that is to say, a sphere of pure spontaneities which are never objects and which determine their own existence. The me being an object, it is evident that I shall never be able to say: my consciousness, that is, the consciousness of my me (save in a purely designative sense, as one says for example: the day of my baptism). The ego is not the owner of consciousness; it is the object of consciousness. To be sure, we constitute spontaneously our states and actions as productions of the ego. But our states and actions are also objects. We never have a direct intuition of the spontaneity of an instantaneous consciousness as produced by the ego. That would be impossible. It is only on the level of meanings and psychological hypotheses that we can conceive such production -and this error is possible only because on this level the ego and the consciousness are indicated emptily. In this sense, if one understands the I Think so as to make of thought a production of the I, one has already constituted thought as passivity and as state, that is to say, as object. One has left the level of pure reflection, in which the ego undoubtedly appears, but appears on the horizon of a spontaneity. The reflective attitude is correctly expressed by Rimbaud (in the letter of the seer): "I is an other." The context proves that he simply meant that the spontaneity of consciousness could not emanate from the I, the spontaneity goes toward the I, rejoins the I, lets the I be glimpsed beneath its limpid density, but is itself given above all as individuated and impersonal spontaneity. The commonly accepted thesis, according to which our thoughts would gush from an impersonal unconscious and would "personalize" themselves by becoming conscious, seems to us a coarse and materialistic interpretation of a correct intuition. It has been maintained by psychologists who have very well understood that consciousness does not "come out" of the I, but who could not accept the idea of a spontaneity producing itself. These psychologists therefore naively imagined that the spontaneous consciousnesses "came out" of the unconscious where they already existed, without realizing that they had only put off the problem of existence, which really had to be formulated in the end, and which they had obscured, since the antecedent existence of spontaneities within preconscious limits would necessarily be passive existence.
We may therefore formulate our thesis: transcendental consciousness is an impersonal spontaneity. It determines its existence at each instant, without our being able to conceive anything before it. Thus each instant of our conscious life reveals to us a creation ex nihilo. Not a new arrangement, but a new existence. There is something distressing for each of us, to catch in the act this tireless creation of existence of which we are not the creators. At this level man has the impression of ceaselessly escaping from himself, of overflowing himself, of being surprised by riches which are always unexpected. And once more it is an unconscious from which he demands an account of this surpassing of the me by consciousness. Indeed, the me can do nothing to this spontaneity, for will is an object which constitutes itself for and by this spontaneity. The will directs itself upon states, upon emotions, or upon things, but it never turns back upon consciousness. We are well aware of this in the occasional cases in which we try to will a consciousness (I will fall asleep, I will no longer think about that, etc.) In these various cases, it is by essence necessary that the will be maintained and preserved by that consciousness which is radically opposed to the consciousness it wants to give rise to (if I will to fall asleep, I stay awake; if I will not to think about this or that, I think about it precisely on that account). It seems to us that this monstrous spontaneity is at the origin of numerous psychasthenic ailments. Consciousness is frightened by its own spontaneity because it senses this spontaneity as beyond freedom. This is clearly seen in an example from Janet. A young bride was in terror, when her husband left her alone, of sitting at the window and summoning the passers-by like a prostitute. Nothing in her education, in her past, nor in her character could serve as an explanation of such a fear. It seems to us simply that a negligible circumstance (reading, conversation, etc.) had determined in her what one might call "a vertigo of possibility." she found herself monstrously free, and this vertiginous freedom appeared to her at the opportunity for this action which she was afraid of doing. But this vertigo is comprehensible only if consciousness suddenly appeared to itself as infinitely overflowing in its possibilities the I which ordinarily serves as its unity.
Perhaps, in reality, the essential function of the ego is not so much theoretical as practical. We have noticed, indeed, that it does not bind up the unity of phenomena; that it is limited to reflecting an ideal unity, whereas the real and concrete unity has long been effected. But perhaps the essential role of the ego is to mask from consciousness its very spontaneity. A phenomenological description of spontaneity would show, indeed, that spontaneity renders impossible any distinction between action and passion, or any conception of an autonomy of the will. These notions have meaning only on a level where all activity is given as emanating from a passivity which it transcends; in short, on a level at which man considers himself as at once subject and object. But it is an essential necessity that one not be able to distinguish between voluntary spontaneity and involuntary spontaneity.
Everything happens, therefore, as if consciousness constituted the ego as a false representation of itself, as if consciousness hypnotized itself before this ego which it has constituted, absorbing itself in the ego as if to make the ego its guardian and its law. It is thanks to the ego, indeed, that a distinction can be made between the possible and the real, between appearance and being, between the willed and the undergone.
But it can happen that consciousness suddenly produces itself on the pure reflective level. Perhaps not without the ego, yet as escaping the ego on all sides, as dominating the ego and maintaining the ego outside consciousness by a continued creation. On this level, there is no distinction between the possible and the real, since the appearance is the absolute. There are no more barriers, no more limits, nothing to hide consciousness from itself. Then consciousness, noting what could be called the fatality of its spontaneity, is suddenly anguished: it is this dread, absolute and without remedy, this fear of itself, which seems to us constitutive of pure consciousness, and which holds the key to the psychasthenic ailment we spoke of. If the I of the I Think is the primary structure of consciousness, this dread is impossible. If, on the contrary, our point of view is adopted, not only do we have a coherent explanation of this ailment, but we have, moreover, a permanent motive for carrying out the phenomenological reduction. As we know, in his article in Kantstudien [Eugen] Fink admits, not without some melancholy, that as long as one remains in the "natural" attitude, there is no reason, no "motive" for exercising the epoch [epoché]. In fact, this natural attitude is perfectly coherent. There one will find none of those contradictions which, according to Plato, lead the philosopher to effect a philosophical conversion. Thus, the epoch appears in the phenomenology of Husserl as a miracle. Husserl himself, in Cartesianische Meditationen, made an extremely vague allusion to certain psychological motives which would lead to undertaking reduction. But these motives hardly seem sufficient. Moreover, reduction seems capable of being performed only at the end of lengthy study. It appears, then, as a knowledgeable operation, which confers on it a sort of gratuitousness. On the other hand, if "the natural attitude" appears wholly as an effort made by consciousness to escape from itself by projecting itself into the me and becoming absorbed there, and if this effort is never completely rewarded, and if a simple act of reflection suffices in order for conscious spontaneity to tear itself abruptly away from the I and be given as independent, then the epoch is no longer a miracle, an intellectual methoid, an erudite procedure: it is an anxiety which is imposed on us and which we cannot avoid: it is both a pure event of transcendental origin and an ever possible accident of our daily life.

2. This conception of the ego seems to us the only possible refutation of solipsism. The refutation that Husserl presents in Formale und Tanszendentale Logik and in Cartesianische Meditationen [Meditation V] does not seem to us capable of unsettling a determined and intelligent solipsist. As long as the I remains a structure of consciousness, it will always remain possible to oppose consciousness, with its I, to all other existents. Finally, then, it is really the me who must produce the world. Small matter if certain layers of this world necessitate by their very nature a relation to others. This relation can be a mere quality of the world that I create and in no way obliges me to accept the real existence of other I's.
But if the I becomes a transcendent, it participates in all the vicissitudes of the world. It is no absolute; it has not created the uuniverse; it falls like other existences at the stroke of the epoch [epoché]; and solipsism becomes unthinkable from the moment that the I no longer has a priveledged status. Instead of expressing itself in effect as "I alone exist as absolute," it must assert that "absolute consciousness alone exists as absolute," which is obviously a truism. My I, in effect, is no more certain for consciousness than the I of other men. It is only more intimate.

3. The theorists of the extreme Left have sometimes reproached phenomenology for being an idealism and for drowning reality in the stream of ideas. But if idealism is the philosophy without evil of Brunschvicg, if it is a philosophy in which the effort of spiritual assimilation never meets external resistances, in which suffering, hunger, and war are diluted in a slow process of the unification of ideas, nothing is more unjust than to call phenomenologists "idealists." On the contrary, for centuries we have not felt in philosophy so realistic a current. The phenomenologists have plunged man back into the world; they have given full measure to man's agonies and sufferings, and also to his rebellions. Unfortunately, as long as the I remains a structure of absolute consciousness, one will still be able to reproach phenomenology for being an escapist doctrine, for again pulling a part of man out of the world and, in that way, turning our attention from the real problems. It seems to us that this reproach no longer has any justification if one makes the me an existent, strictly contemporaneous with the world, whose existence has the same essential characteristics as the world. It has always seemed to me that a working hypothesis as fruitful as historical materialism never needed for a foundation the absurdity which is metaphysical materialism. In fact, it is not necessary that the object precede the subject for spiritual pseudo-values to vanish and for ethics to find its bases in reality. It is enough that the me be contemporaneous with the World, and that the subject-object duality, which is purely logical, definitively disappear from philosophical preoccupations. The World has not created the me; the me has not created the World. These are two objects for absolute, impersonal consciousness, and it is by virtue of this coonsciousness that they are connected. This absolute consciousness, when it is purified of the I, no longer has anything of the subject. It is no longer a collection of representations. It is quite simply a first condition and an absolute source of existence. And the relation of interdependence established by this absolute consciousness between the me and the World is sufficient for the me to appear as "endangered" before the World, for the me (indirectly and through the intermediary of states) to draw the whole of its content from the World. No more is needed in the way of a philosophical foundation for an ethics and a politics which are absolutely positive.

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