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Sartre is a Cliff-Hanger and Understanding Sartre through Dennett

May 28, 2016

Being and NothingnessDennett Cover

I have now read and re-read the first 140 pages of Being and Nothingness. It is a cliff-hanger. Besides the mechanics of consciousness, which seem to parallel Dennett’s (albeit 50 years earlier and far less accessible), Sartre paints the picture of human reality bound to incompleteness, to lack and bad faith and anguish.  I’m on the edge of my seat to see what he does with a humanity whose reality is thus described.

It may raise a few eyebrows to compare Dennett and Sartre but both seem to describe the same mechanics of consciousness.

1. We exist.

2. We distinguish between ourselves and the rest of existence.

For Dennett this is the distinction between me/inside and others/outside. For Sartre it is the distinction between the in-itself and the for-itself.

3. We obtain information from the world and this information is uniquely human.

For Dennett this is epistemic hunger driven by evolutionary fitness. It shapes the seemingly unique way we experience the world, the information we receive from the world. For Sartre this is definitional to the for-itself driven by lack. The for-itself continually obtains information from the world, nihilating the in-itself being of the world, contextualizing the world into specific information for us/for human reality. It explains the transphenomenality of our experience in the world. That is, how and why we get information from the world, why we can’t experience the world as it truly exists. But rather, we can continually ask questions of the world around us and continually learn more.

The more which there is to learn comes from human reality. It is not a feature of the world itself. For Dennett, this feature of human reality comes from epistemic hunger, an evolutionarily successful trait. For Sartre, it is an existentially accurate description.

For Dennett, the specific ways in which we experience the world are a product of memetic evolution. Successful memes survive and multiply. Thus we experience thirst as an awareness of the need to find and drink water, for example. Sartre describes the awareness of a desire to drink water when thirsty as a function of human reality. It is not inherent in our bodies nor in thirst itself. But he does not describe the mechanism by which that human reality is realized as the specific desire to drink water.

4. Human reality causes consciousness to appear.

For Dennett, the appearance of consciousness is an evolutionarily successful meme for obtain information, interacting with the world and for the human organism to survive.

For Sartre, consciousness is a function of the in-itself falling into the for-itself. What it seems Sartre means by this is that consciousness appears as we ask questions of ourselves and world. Consciousness comes from the nothingness human reality brings to the world. This nothingness creates the possibility of us perceiving an object as red or blue, for example. The object is what it is. The world is what it is. It exists. The nothingness we bring to the world creates the uncertainty around whether an object is red or blue. We cause nothingness to be part of the world and we then attempt to fill it by obtaining information, by answering the question.

It seems the concept of memes is more helpful/less ambiguous in explaining the appearance of consciousness. But the concept didn’t exists in Sartre’s day. Even if he did, I wonder if he would have used it. He seems to have a specific conception of our being (I’m working hard to avoid the cliche “of the human condition”) which he wants to describe.

5.  Consciousness is an internal conversation which we are occasionally aware of. It is not a thing which exists. It is not who we are.

For Dennett, there is no single thing which is consciousness. There is no Cartesian theater where consciousness takes place. There are conversations and perceptions which become famous in the brain for a period of time (fame in the brain). They rise to the surface and we become aware of them in a heterophenomenological manner. But there is no single thread of a “me” which is my consciousness nor which is me.

For Sartre, the being of consciousness is the consciousness of being. Consciousness arises when we ask questions, when we are aware we are asking the questions and aware we are answering them. It arises from existence and the way human reality is continually formed. It is not independent of the condition of our existence and it is not a thing in itself. It comes from the pre-reflective cogito. I only think because I am. I am only aware that I think because of how I am (i.e. that I bring nothingness to the world). I am, as a being, well before I think. [This can get painfully fun]. I am only conscious when I have knowledge of my consciousness, of asking and answering about myself or the world.

Sartre, so far, does not seem to explicitly address whether there is one stream or multiple conversations which appear as consciousness. I imagine he would be lean toward a single, consistent thread so that his method of introspection and phenomenology could provide a consistent platform for exposition. His rebuttal of Freud also suggests he would lean toward a single thread.

For Dennett, the conversations are tied to evolutionary survival. Sartre has no such imperative driving his exposition. Sartre does not try to explain consciousness. He probes it and describes it. There may be an over arching theme to his exposition. His description of human being seems to hint that there is, that there is something to be said about the way we experience our consciousness. He doesn’t seem to think about it as a mechanism of our survival as a species. Though I’m looking forward to finding out. Perhaps he does, but in a very different way.


Tying it to AI, Sartre, like Dennett, seems to support the proposition that human reality creates/shapes the specific information we obtain from the world. Thus, an artificial consciousness would have to have its own reality and its own information. Otherwise, it would simply be a human automaton. Not a small feat, but different than an artificial consciousness. As discussed previously, communication between us and an artificial consciousness would likely present an interesting challenge and area of research.

From → Philosophy

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