Jean-Paul Sartre’s Phenomenological method, Existentialism and Ontology

G. Vedaparayana
Sri Venkateswara University, Tirupati    

Jean Paul Sartre is one of the most significant French phenomenologists who has not only been influenced by the German Phenomenology of Husserl and Heidegger but brought it to the streets of Paris. To Sartre, Phenomenology is the study of the ‘nature’ and the structure of consciousness by expelling ‘things’ from it and truly relating it to the world. The Sartrean phenomenology is ontological and existential in character. It is founded on the monism of the phenomenon which steers clear of the dualisms of appearance and reality, essence and accident, interior and the exterior, the perceiver and the perceived and so on which had been plaguing philosophy for a long time. It works on the conception of the phenomenon which implies both the being of the subject and the object. It studies consciousness as being in the world and as both being and nothingness. To Sartre, consciousness is not a substantial entity but a non-substantial absolute which is empty of all content -- physical, psychological or metaphysical. Consciousness is intentional in the sense that it cannot but exist as a revealed revelation of something other than itself. Consciousness arises as a revealing-intuition of that which it is not. It is what it is not and is not what it is. Consciousness is a being of temporality and finitude. It is a being which is both finite and infinite in the sense that it has an infinite number of perspectives on its object. Thus Sartre reduces all the traditional dualisms to the single dualism of the finite and the infinite constitutive of the being of consciousness.

Consciousness is a being of freedom which determines itself through the autonomy of choice. Freedom is not in vacuum but in a situation which is its facticity. Freedom is irremediably coupled with responsibility for itself and for its world. The being of freedom is the same as the being of human reality which is anguishing and unhappy since freedom is the foundation of itself without any foundation other than itself and choice is ubiquitous and responsibility is overwhelming. Human reality is condemned to the freedom of sorrow since choice and responsibility manifest in all modes of consciousness including the mode of overcoming unhappiness. The state of happiness implies a being which is both a being of consciousness ( the- being-for-itself) and the being of the thing (the-being-in-itself). The being-in– itself-for–itself is an impossibility for it implies a contradiction of the two opposed beings existing in one and the same being. But the existence of the human reality is such that it exhausts itself in pursuing the phantom being of the being-for-itself-in-itself. Human existence is condemned to the tragic finale of the failure to attain the status of the being of God, for the concept of Man-God is a contradiction in terms. Sartre’s phenomenological ontology is a demonstration of the fact that human existence is essentially dreadful, meaningless and it has only the meaning which we choose to give it. The hope lies in accepting freedom without escaping it into bad faith. There is no world other than the world of human subjectivity. Thus the Sartrean phenomenology is not a philosophy of despair and nihilism but hope and optimism, for in man existence precedes and conditions essence.                                         

This paper is an attempt at an exposition of Sartre’s phenomenological and existential ontology of consciousness as being in the world. In the process the paper also seeks to bring out Sartre’s agreement and disagreement with his predecessors like Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger on the seminal issues such as the epoche, consciousness, the ego, intentionality, the hyle and intersubjectivity in respect of the former (Husserl) and the concept of human existence, the being in the world, nothingness and Being in regard with the latter (Heidegger). The paper also discusses the distinction between Husserl’s eidetic and transcendental phenomenological idealism and Sartre’s existential phenomenological ontological realism on the one hand, and Heidegger’s Phenomenological fundamental ontology and Sartre’s existential phenomenological ontology, on the other.  The paper concludes with a note that Sartre has taken phenomenology to greater heights by questioning and improving over Husserl’s and Heidegger’s phenomenology. He has successfully exhibited its relevance to the concrete reality of the life- world by demonstrating it even in the form of literary writings.