for-itself and in-itself: analytic and continental thinking
- Hi Phil,
Thanks for your speedy and intelligent response to my post. I can
understand your irritation at the phrase I used. However, I will not
apologize for it. It was not directed at you, who already have the
opportunity to pursue your interest in Sartre and continental
philosophy and therefore the possibility to change your views on the
validity of analytic philosophy.
I am keen to encourage robust debate on this forum. Following the
kind of thinking Sartre exemplified in his writings is not an easy
option when we are conditioned by our language and education to
consider it at best an also-ran. While there are clearly lots of
unresolved issues in continental philosophy which more recent
thinkers such as Derrida and Foucault have grappled with, and others
continue to develop, for me, Sartre was the one who put the
opposition between continental and analytic thinking in a nutshell.
The "childish name calling" you perceive me to have indulged in is
nothing compared to the tirade of insults and denigrations received
by one such as myself who persists, in an English speaking society
such as the UK, in thinking in the way Sartre recommended.
There is an ideological war raging and it would be futile to pretend
I will respond in detail to some of the points you make below.
> PHIL: I find unconvincing his explanation of why he continuedSo what is your point? That all rationalisation is futile? (That
> smoking after
> attempting to stop. He seemed to engage in rationalising his activity.
> This sort of rationalising is common amongst smokers who want to quit.
sounds extreme, but perhaps that is a consequence of analytic
thinking.) Or is it the fact that it is common somehow invalidates it?
I think maybe the problem is that you see Sartre as making some kind
of an excuse for his "failure" to quit smoking. You assume that he
"is" a person who wants to quit, but that he has failed and is
therefore engaged in rationalising his "failure".
Its not a minor point that determinists wish to refer to the
"character", or other such term indicating fixedness, of individual
humans. Sartre's central point is that to be authentic one can not
and must not do so because it leads to philosophical error. The
identification by Sartre of Sartre as a person who wishes to give up
smoking is not the same as the identification of Sartre by Sartre of
the person who reaches for the packet of Gauloises. There is no
reason why it should be. To consider that it is is to consider that a
human being is an object, a being-in-itself. Which is clearly,
according to Sartre, mistaken.
> PHIL: I would not want to get into an argument about the above. IHmm. I would say that I have as good an understanding of addiction
> take it as
> a biological fact and someone who didn't accept this I would assume
> had little knowledge of the effects of smoking on ourselves.
>> TOMMY: But it is still the person's choice of how to interpret the
>> as far as what they mean is concerned. For example, a feeling of
>> irritability or inability to concentrate may rather "be" the
>> "consequence" of having failed to sleep the previous night, or it
> may be an internal projection caused by the failure to live up to the
> ideal espoused by the conceivers of the Marlboro Man advertising
>> concept (e.g. ruggedness, self-reliance, etc.)
> PHIL: The comment about now to interpret the symptoms of smoking which
> questions whether this feeling of irratibility after not having smoked
> a cigarrete is really the result of smoking or just an effect of a
> poor nights sleep looks okay to me. Perhaps it is a result of both.
> Although to suggest that the irratibility that stems from attempting
> to quit smoking comes from failing to live up to an ideal that stems
> from the Marlboro Man and has nothing to do with the physiological/
> psychological effects of smoking is unwarranted as it ignores
> the known phsyiological/psychological effects of smoking. It would be
> better to say that they may both have a role.
>> TOMMY: It may be that the person is merely imagining the symptoms of
>> nicotine withdrawal which have no objective existence whatsoever.
> PHIL: Your lack of knowledge concerning smoking is showing here.
per se as anyone else. As it happens I have smoked tobacco for many
years, on and off. Sometimes as many as 15 cigarettes a day. I don't
find it difficult to "give up". I do it all the time! Sometimes I
constitute myself as a non-smoker and sometimes as a smoker. It
depends on the company I keep. According to the analytic approach, is
it valid for me to draw any inference from this?
I wasn't trying to defend an either/or construction of the meaning of
the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal. I was merely wishing to point
out that there is probably an infinite number of possible
interpretations of such symptoms and only the one who is doing the
interpreting can possibly give them any semblance of relative validity.
> PHIL: Yes, he would say this. I don't find it very plausibleBut that sounds like as much of a "rationalisation" as you found
> though. That is
> to say I don't find it plausible to look at the irratibility produced
> by nicotine withdrawl as having no no significance other than what I
> accord it. Rather the irratibility forces its own significance on me
> by forcing itself into consciousness in a rather unpleasant way that
> makes me want to remove it by having another cigarrete.
objectionable in Sartre's reasoning about his own "failure" to give
up smoking. What is at issue here? Is rationalisation allowed? If so
in which circumstances?
>> TOMMY: You suggest that it is possible for people to "know" their ownBut our character is only constituted at a particular time by either
>> characters but I believe that Sartre is arguing that this is wrong
>> and an example of the fallacy of essentialism. How do I know when I
>> posit my character as consisting of whatever particular bundle of
>> attributions have seemed to achieve consistency in the past under
> the heading of "my character" that they will not become entirely
>> inconsistent and therefore redundant in the light of a situation I
> am just about to find myself in?
> PHIL: I think this is a good point to make. It seems plausible to
> say that
> we don't know when we will act out of character on any particular
> future occasion. However I think you over state your point by
> suggesting that a single instance of acting out of character makes all
> of our actions that constitute our prior character redundant or that
> the possibility of acting out of character proves that we cannot know
> our own character.
ourselves or others for exactly the same reason as the recipient of a
letter constitutes a lump of inanimate "in-itself" *as* a paper-
knife. Or maybe at another time the person may constitute the same
lump of inanimate matter as a back scratcher or a murder weapon.
I'm not overstating my point: it is either valid to employ Sartre's
distinction between the for-itself and the in-itself, or it is not.
In my view it is valid. There are philosophical consequences which
accrue to that accordance of validity.
Its not a question of whether we can know our own characters, its a
question of whether there is a character to know prior to the act of
>> TOMMY: Your example of an admirer of Sartre is a clever way to tryIt is a fair point that you have made. I will try to act with
>> to work
>> around this problem (you try to invalidate the point he is making by
>> proving that anyone who acceded to it would be in themselves in bad
>> faith) but this is fallacious reasoning and typical, I am afraid, of
>> the kind of pointless philosophizing that the analytical method
> tends to generate.
> PHIL: You seem to have degenerated into childish name calling here
> when your
> initial post led me to believe you were more mature.
courtesy on this forum and expect others to do so. However, the
technique you used to attempt to invalidate Sartre's for-itself/in-
itself distinction is typical of the kinds of tricks analytical
thinkers use all the time. I personally don't think it is a valid way
of proceeding and I will attempt to argue my case to the contrary as
robustly as possible.
Maybe I am beginning to sound like a conspiratorialist here but it
seems to me that so-called analytical philosophy is a trick used by
white English-speaking hegemonists to prevent anyone from drawing any
inferences; which could damage the power "balance" that skews the
interests of the aforementioned to the detriment of others. I believe
that Sartre, especially in his later years, was acutely conscious of
this and used his considerable intellectual powers to create a
powerful critique based on the concept of existential freedom. I
don't think that the power of this critique has in any way been
diluted by subsequent events: on the contrary, it is more relevant
than ever. But you will have a struggle trying to find a voice in
present day Britain or America because of the stranglehold the
analytic style of thinking has managed to impose on (English
So, I hope you will forgive my "childish" comments and begin to
appreciate the profundity of the gulf that separates analytic and
continental thinking; a gulf that can be bridged, no doubt, but only
by extremely robust dialogue that may call either side's basic
assumptions into question.
> PHIL: I agree that a person can always change their views. I am notI think that you have put it in a nutshell here. Analytic philosophy
> about phrasing it as choosing to change their views as this makes it
> sound like what views we hold is an arbitrary matter e.g today I will
> decide to believe in God, tommorow I will become an atheist. This is
> not how most peoples beliefs are arrived at. Rather, as you suggest,
> we tend to choose what makes most sense to us, and this is dependant
> on a host of other factors. We rarely choose what makes most sense to
> us or whether an alternative method of addressing an issue is seen by
> us as satisfactory or not. This was the point I was making. I was
> also making the point that we are influenced by our characters our
> biology, and a host of other factors. It is these factors that enable
> us to predict how others will behave in a fairly reliable way (given
> enough information).
is about developing the power to predict human behaviour and
therefore exercise power over it. It surfaced in the 1950s in a very
explicit way with behavourism, but since then has only tended to be
Behaviourism, as epitomized by the radical American intellectual B.F.
Skinner in his 1950s book, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, has always
been quite impressive in its ability to predict animal behaviour
according to its assumptions and rationale. However, it quite quickly
ran into difficulty when applied to human behaviour (and social
planning) for reasons that should be obvious. Animal "behaviour" only
takes place, and is seen to take place, in a setting organised by
human beings. Not only does this apply to the sensory and hermeneutic
apparatus used to observe and analyse all behaviour, animals live in
a world that actually, physically (to a greater or lesser extent)
submits to the will of man.
But man is different, radically different, at least to himself, and
does not submit to the rationales of behaviourists. Although on a
basic level, certain behavioural traits in humans may be seen to have
been elicited by certain stimuli in a fairly reliable one-to-one
correspondence, as soon as an experimental subject *perceives
himself* to be acting according to any kind of determinism projected
by someone with power, such as the controller of the boundaries of an
experimental situation, he will tend to apply some critique to the
rationale according to which his behaviour is being evaluated. This
may be an explicit rejection of a doctrine such as behaviourism or it
may be simply that the subject will refuse to conform to a particular
That refusal may be seen as fundamental to what it means to be a
The more the behaviourist pushes the boundaries of the level of
control he exerts over an experimental situation, the more that
situation, to the extent that it contains an experimental subject who
is human, changes in ways that the behaviourist cannot predict.
This may be thought of as similar to the predicament faced by a
dictator, king or other kind of absolute ruler in the "experimental
situation" that is human society. It is not a new thought: 2500 years
ago Solon, one of Athens' most impeccably democratic thinkers, said
"tyranny is a very pretty position. The trouble is, there's no way
out of it".
- That's an interesting point you made. Sorry I haven't able to respond, I've been really busy lately. "Menal life" is pretty accurate, considering that "consciousness" is very vague when you hear about it. As far as Man being "naturally violent" I think this is inherently true. It's like most of us have to rely on the rules and laws of society keep us from "giving in", while others can draw that control within themselves. I don't know if that particular topic can inspire an interesting discussion, but I would like somebody who's well-versed in Sartre to respond to this while referencing some of his texts.
scarey1917 <scarey1917@...> wrote: "theoryphil2004" wrote:<<<<<<<So there is no inconsistency in being
created and being free. There is only an inconsistency between being
an inanimate object such as a paper-knife and being free...The other
criticism that might be levied at Sartre is to question whether his
rejection of human nature is warranted or not.>>>>>>>>>
And it gets even more complicated, Theoryphil. In the last paragraph
of E&HE Sartre states that "Existentialism is nothing else than an
attempt to draw all the consequences of a coherent atheistic
position." But then a few lines later he says: "Existentialism isn't
so atheistic that it wears itself out showing that God doesn't exist.
Rather, it declares that even if God did exist, that would change
nothing." So evidently even if the supreme artificer created us, we
are still stuck down here with our unsupportable total freedom,
including the freedom to tell God to go jump in the lake! We decide
the significane of God, just as we decide the ultimate significance
of things, situations, and ourselves.
And don't think that a view of human nature as a "given" or even the
acceptance of the "unconscious" mind would be a problem for Sartre's
theory of freedom, as long as such nature or mind were relegated to
the side of the Situation which the for-itself freely takes up, or
not. So for example one could argue from Sartre's point of view that
man is "naturally violent", but then go on to say that this "given"
receives existential significance within the project of the for-
itself (I decide to give in, or not, to these given tendencies).
In "Being and Nothingness" the ultimate problem is Sartre's total
identification of man with consciousness, which of course is the
influence of Descartes and modern philosophy. But consciousness is
only one aspect (a very interesting aspect!) of man's total being. As
Marx said, consciousness is the consciousness OF an objective being.
Lately I have prefered the term "mental life" rather
than "consciousness", since the former would take into account all
the various unconciousness functions that make up about 99% of brain
activity and which belong to the being of man.
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