Sartre, Jean-Paul (1905–80)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DD062-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved March 05, 2024, from

2. Early philosophy

Sartre’s first published philosophical works were L’Imagination (1936a), a history of theories of imagination up to the theory of Edmund Husserl, and ‘La Transcendance de l’ego’ (The Transcendence of the Ego) (1936b). The Transcendence of the Ego shows hostility to any kind of essentialism of the self. In it Sartre argues (against Husserl) that the ego is not transcendental but transcendent, that is, it is not an inner core of being, a source of my actions, emotions and character, but rather a construct, a product of my self-image and my image in the eyes of others, of my past behaviour and feelings. Sartre maintains that consciousness is not essentially first-person but is impersonal, or at most pre-personal, and that it is characterized by intentionality, that is to say it is always directed at something other than itself. In this context Sartre positions himself in relation to the Kantian ‘unity of apperception’, arguing that although the ‘I think’ must be able to accompany all my representations, it does not always do so, at least explicitly. I may turn my attention at any moment away from what I am doing and direct it towards myself as agent, but this reflexivity is not a permanent, thetic feature of consciousness. Later, in L’Être et le Néant (Being and Nothingness) (1943a), Sartre claims that it is precisely this very reflexivity – the self-consciousness of consciousness – that personalizes consciousness and constitutes the human subject, but in The Transcendence of the Ego such a notion is absent and he is more concerned to argue against the identification of consciousness with selfhood than to explore the ways in which consciousness relates to the notion of subject.

In his Esquisse d’une théorie des émotions (Sketch for a Theory of Emotions) (1939) Sartre turns his attention to another area of human experience in order to show that this, in its turn, cannot be described in essentialist terms. Emotions, in Sartre’s account, are chosen rather than caused: emotion involves a ‘magical’ attempt to transform reality by changing what can be changed (my own feelings) rather than what is less easily malleable, that is, the outside world. In the face of extreme danger I may faint from fear: the danger has not disappeared but I am no longer conscious of it. Sartre here takes a radical position which he maintained but modified in later years, as his recognition of the degree to which we are formed by external conditions gradually increased. He is careful to distinguish between various areas related to emotion – passion, feeling and so on. Emotion is not sustainable continuously through time, but is subject to fluctuations of intensity, and may at times be replaced by alternative feelings. In this sense too Sartre rejects essentialism: like Proust he believes in the ‘intermittances of the heart’: love, for example, is not a continuous emotional state, but an amalgam of affection, desire, passion, as well as, perhaps, jealousy, resentment and even occasionally hatred. Love is not the permanent compelling state we may like to imagine: it is the product of a decision and a commitment (see Emotions, nature of §4; Emotions, philosophy of §4).

These two works form the grounding for Sartre’s early theory of human freedom along with a second work on the imagination. In L’Imaginaire, psychologie phénoménologique de l’imagination (The Psychology of the Imagination) (1940) Sartre picks up the threads of Husserl’s theory of imagination and develops it further by showing how phenomenological psychology works in practice. Unlike traditional empirical psychology it is not based in a positivist methodology in which evidence depends on an accumulation of examples. The phenomenological method operates through a particular type of introspection or intuition in which the phenomenologist examines a single example, or a series of examples, of the phenomenon to be analysed (here imagination) and deduces from the example the general principles and features of the phenomenon. In this way Sartre describes what he calls the ‘poverty’ of the image – the fact, that is, that I can never find in it any more than I have already put there. If, say, I do not know the number of columns in the Parthenon, I can count them if I look at the temple in reality; if I merely imagine the temple the number of pillars will depend not on the real building but merely on my own implicit estimate. I cannot learn anything from imagination as I can from perception. But the reverse of this ‘poverty’ of the imagination is its freedom – in imagination I am not constrained as I am in perception by the material world around me. Indeed, imagination is not merely image formation – in Sartre’s account it is itself constitutive of the freedom of consciousness. Without imagination we would be ‘stuck in the real’, unable to escape from the present moment of time and our immediate surroundings. It is imagination that allows us to step back from our material environment and take up an (imaginary) distance from it, in Sartre’s terms to ‘totalize’ it, to see it as a ‘world’ with order and pattern. In Being and Nothingness Sartre will also maintain that the imagination is the source of the purpose and finality we see in the world, but The Psychology of the Imagination concentrates rather on the different functions of imagination and image formation in the narrower sense (see Imagery; Imagination §2).

Citing this article:
Howells, Christina. Early philosophy. Sartre, Jean-Paul (1905–80), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DD062-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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