Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Sartre and Levinas as Phenomenologists

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Sartre and Levinas as Phenomenologists

Article excerpt

More than a little ink has been spilled recently debating the purity of various ostensible phenomenologists. Two philosophers whose work may seem to pose a particular challenge along these lines are Jean-Paul Sartre, who explicitly uses phenomenology to develop a full-fledged ontology in Being and Nothingness, and Emmanuel Levinas, a 'phenomenologist' whose primary concern in Totality and Infinity and Otherwise than Being is an Other who does not appear in the mode of intentional consciousness. Indeed, it should be admitted that neither Sartre nor Levinas carries out a Husserlian epoché, if we understand this as a complete bracketing of transcendent, and particularly ontological questions. Nevertheless, I would argue that Sartre's ontological con- cerns and Levinas's inquiry into a non-intentional phenomenality do not mark a break with phenomenology, but rather grow out of their phenomenological analyses of human experience and support these. In order to defend this sugges- tion, I would like to discuss the sense in which Sartre and Levinas remain engaged in a phenomenological project. It is not my goal to comprehensively characterize the senses in which Sartre and Levinas each is and is not a 'phenomenologist.' However, drawing on their accounts of fundamental human experience, it will be possible to defend the claim that Sartre's and Levinas's approaches are mean- ingfully 'phenomenological.' To identify broadly the primary sense in which Sartre and Levinas remain phenomenologists, one need only observe that each undertakes a careful study of the structure and contents of conscious experience in order to describe the foundations of the subject-object correlation and identify its conditions. Each, furthermore, accomplishes this by developing the Husserlian notion of intentionality, focusing on the ways in which the intentional character of consciousness enables its lived encounter with what is transcendent to it.

For Sartre, this project means accepting the pre-reflective cogito as one's starting point, describing the phenomena that appear there and the way in which they do so in order eventually to reach the being of consciousness itself. In utilizing the cogito this way, Sartre believes that he is avoiding mistakes made by Descartes, Husserl, and Heidegger.1 The first of these, he claims, "fell into the error of substance" by attempting to pass from the functional description of consciousness to its existence "without a conducting thread" (i.e., the analysis of intentionality and modes of phenomenality constituted by conscious function). Husserl, meanwhile,

warned by this error, remained timidly on the plane of functional description. Due to this fact he never passed beyond the pure description of the appearance as such; he has shut himself up inside the cogito and deserves-in spite of his denial-to be called a phenomenalist rather than a phenomenologist. . . . Heidegger, wishing to avoid that descriptive phenomenalism which leads to the Megarian, antidialectic isolation of essences, begins with the existential analytic without going through the cogito. But since the Dasein has from the start been deprived of the dimension of consciousness, it can never regain this dimension.2

Sartre's goal, therefore, is to describe the structures and meaning of human exis- tence in the world starting from "the dimension of consciousness." His rejection of what he takes to be Heidegger's attempt to bypass consciousness is an affirmation of the Husserlian endeavor, despite his refusal to accept Husserl's limited (i.e., idealist) conclusions.

If Sartre starts out, with Husserl, in the interiority of the cogito as the source of conscious experience, he also continues with him a step further to the inten- tional character of that experience. In the Introduction to Being and Nothingness, Sartre argues that a proper clarification of consciousness' intentional character supports the realist conclusion that the objects of consciousness are things in the world, not representations or ideas of them. …

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