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9. Some Recent Continental Thinkers

9. Some Recent Continental Thinkers
I have been trying to show how easy it is to slide from one vital question about persons and their identity to another very different question and thus very seriously confusing the issue. The first question the one with which this book is mainly concerned is the one reflected in the point at issue between Kant (and Descartes and others before him) and Hume namely whether we can properly speak of a self or subject which is not to be accounted for in terms of the course of our experiences or some feature of our dispositional nature and the attitudes and stances they determine or of mere bodily continuity. The other is the question how we are to think of ourselves and how we may best come to know ourselves in the sense of understanding what sort of person one is what are our likes and dislikes and how we are likely to respond to various situations and so forth. The first is the more metaphysical and logical question the second more psychological or empirical in a broad sense though none of these appellations should be applied narrowly.

It will be evident from all I have said already that these two questions and the very radical difference between them in no way imply that there are two selves. It is the same me who likes this or that and is also an abiding subject through various changes of disposition or experience. But to ask what we are like — who or what am I? — in the sense of considering what my inclinations or possible stances are like — am I a nice person or a spiteful one or bolder perhaps than might appear? — is a very different matter from asking whether I who have these likes etc. can also know myself as a distinct being over and above my likes and attitudes and not capable of being accounted for or described in any such terms at all. This distinction should be clear from all that has been said already.

When we concern ourselves with the second question in the order of my listing we do find that there is a wide scope for our investigation and very deep and important questions; there is a variety of approaches to the subject and of techniques for the pursuit of it some more adequate than others. We may approach it with some immediate purpose in hand as a counsellor or a priest or in personal self-searching or we may be more concerned with some general principles involved and the methods of study. Are we the sort of creatures that Thrasymachus or Hobbes envisaged or have we some genuine benevolence and concern for others? Are Freudian views about our motivations sound ones do they need modification? Are the social sciences good guides to what human nature is like? How far can we deceive ourselves about what we are like in general or in particular cases? How true is it that there are depths in our natures that are not evident on the surface and how may they be plumbed? What limits and perils are there in various ways of dealing with these issues?
These and their like are very important questions but they are not the questions with which I am particularly concerned in this study. They will become important elsewhere. I have great respect for those who are most skilled in handling them in theoretical and practical contexts alike. They have a very important place in our over-all view of ourselves and any concern we may have for whatever may be said in a final or comprehensive way about our own existence. But I do not wish to take this further now.
The question what we are like in the sense I have just indicated may however easily extend itself into a further question which concerns more the purpose or value of our existence. ‘What is man?’ may be taken in an evaluational sense. It is a famous Biblical question. Some may give it a very non-Biblical answer indeed an outright materialist one; others may turn to bold speculation sometimes more sometimes less religious about some destiny or fulfilment we may be expected to have as individuals or a community. These are also important questions however we may answer them with high expectations or a very limited horizon. But they are not strictly the same as the question what we are like in the descriptive sense and they may involve very wide-ranging issues affecting the scope and justification of speculative and religious enquiry. If ‘What is man?’ is to be considered in religious terms there are obviously many forms and styles of enquiry that come into it including the nature of God and our knowledge of him. But we have to be careful here also not to conflate the phenomenological question of what we may more explicitly discover about ourselves individually or collectively at the level of normal description of what we are like and the wider questions so far as appropriate of some destiny or further purpose our lives may have.
It may be that the latter questions have a bearing on the more initial descriptive question and the way we deal with the latter may affect our investigation of the other. But they are different questions and initially at least they should not be conflated. If they are that could be seriously to the detriment of both enquiries. There is much to be considered at its own level before we move to an over-all view as I hope again to stress elsewhere.
But what I wish to emphasise mainly at the moment is that both the investigations I have just been noting the phenomenological and the speculative one including repercussions they may have on each other need to be very carefully distinguished from the question to which I give philosophical priority the basic or initial question about self-identity namely whether there is a self which is not to be captured in the net of the descriptions which we may offer of ourselves as groups or individuals but is known as subject or agent to each one in the very process by which particular properties come to be initially ascribed. The question whether there is in the traditional meaning a ‘pure self must be considered on its own account without contamination by other important questions we may ask about ourselves and without prejudice to the place such questions may have and their relevance to one another in any final or over-all view we may try to reach.
It must be added now that in both sets of questions which I have distinguished from the question of the distinct subject of experience there are many ways in which we may find our existence mysterious and elusive. The talk of mystery and an ‘elusive’ self is not inappropriate here. Quite obviously there is much mystery about our existence if we think of it in religious terms but even at a more mundane level we may find ourselves much baffled or at a loss how to discover or apprehend various depths or complexities of our own natures. It may be that it is only in certain contexts that we may come to be properly known in this way. The danger is however that because we may very sensibly and fittingly speak of ourselves as elusive or mysterious to ourselves or others at this level the invocation of this may be thought to be an adequate recognition of the essential elusiveness of persons in the more radical sense with which I have been concerned in preceding chapters. The case for Descartes and his like may go by the board in this way or the impression may be created that what is at stake has been handsomely conceded that the ‘I’ in all its essential elusiveness and the problems of providing an adequate description of it has been fully taken into account and the course set for placing it in the more complete context of any final philosophical view we may seek.
I have set this out very fully although much of it may be evident from what has been said already because as soon as we move from the more explicitly professional handling of the subject the confusions already apt to bedevil the subject as we have seen even in strictly professional treatment become more pronounced and a good deal more disastrous in their total effect.
This can be seen very clearly if we turn now to the work of some highly regarded and very influential Continental thinkers of today. Many of these especially the phenomenologists and the existentialists have brought the idea of the self into particular prominence in their own writings and have made it in that way a central theme for a great deal of recent theology as well as philosophy. The pre-eminence of Husserl here will be evident to most students of the subject and it may be noted also how closely in some respects my own views follow the lines of his teaching. Indeed the centrality of the subject itself is as plain in Anglo-Saxon and American philosophy even in analytic and empiricist schools as anywhere else; and it is regrettably overlooked what distinctive contributions have been made to the subject by outstanding English and American writers in a more speculative and less restrictive vein than the more fashionable forms of philosophical analysis for example in the work of the thinkers noted already H. J. Paton C. A. Campbell and A. C. Ewing in Britain and Roderick Chisholm and Peter Bertocci (pre-eminent now in the ‘Personalist’ school of philosophy) in America. But it is to others especially existentialists that we owe mainly the centrality accorded extensively today to the inwardness of experience and the individual person at the core of it.
Such thinkers have also been the ones most concerned to relate the emphasis on inwardness to our other concerns and to what may be rather loosely described as our situation as a whole. It is in this context at least no accident that many such writers are men of letters as well as philosophers. The inwardness of persons and the problems and complexities that arise in that way is a dominant theme and preoccupation of novelists and other creative writers in our time and this also as again I hope to stress more elsewhere is a very important pointer and guide to the way we must understand our place in an over-all view. But while the writers alluded to have the advantage in insightfulness and relevance and also perhaps in forceful colourful writing this virtue itself exposes them to sly temptation they do not excel in ruthless analysis and as Plato taught was so vital in philosophy the drawing of distinctions which are significant and relevant as well as sound. For this reason we find them most tantalisingly when our hearts warm to what they say drifting from one important sense in which the elusiveness of the self and the inwardness of experience are effectively presented and stressed to a quite different extension of the same terms and thereby very seriously blurring the very issues which they themselves have helped to bring to the forefront.
It would take disproportionate space in this book to survey the field in which the alleged confusions occur in any comprehensive way. A warning must suffice but to reinforce the warning I shall refer to the work of three outstanding writers whose work admittedly important has been seriously marred and deprived of much of its effectiveness and relevance by little appreciated shifts of emphasis from one important theme to another masquerading as the first.
A significant but impressive and cautious precursor of much that we find today in the context indicated is the nineteenth-century philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey. He was reacting especially against Neo-Kantian philosophers of his day notably the Baden school but had also in mind more severely empiricist thinkers such as J. S. Mill and others who came under a similar attack from their own idealist compatriots such as Green and Bradley. Dilthey draws a sharp distinction between the way we give a scientific account of the course of things in the world around us and unify our impressions of it and the understanding we have of our own experience and the course of our lives. ‘The methods by means of which we study psychic life history and society are very different from those which have led to the knowledge of nature’.1 ‘Hypotheses do not all play the same role in psychology as in the study of nature’.2 ‘In the domain of psychic life it is impossible to specify the facts with the exact determinacy which is required of a theory through the confrontation of its consequences with such data’.3
The main consideration here and in many variations on the same theme is ‘the lived’ character of ‘the inner experiences themselves’. We have to heed what is ‘continuously given as life itself’.4 But we are also warned in the same context of the dangers of ‘depending only on a subjective and equivocal psychology of life’.5 As Professor Rudolf A. Makkreel observes in his introduction to the same volume: ‘The concept of lived experience is somewhat difficult to define and therefore has often been confused with that of inner experience …Lived experience is broader in scope and certainly does not carry the subjective connotations so often associated with inner experience’.6
It is not altogether clear what is being rejected here but the main emphasis is unambiguous. What Dilthey wants to bring into prominence is a peculiar unity of psychic existence which is given in all experience itself as an ineradicable feature of it. There is as Professor Makkreel puts it again ‘an originally experienced sense of connectedness’.7 There is an essential ‘psychic nexus’ in all experience ‘an inner connectedness (Zusammenhang)’ because psychic life is itself a nexus’8 ‘The human studies are distinguished from the sciences of nature first of all in that the latter have for their objects facts which are presented to consciousness as from outside as phenomena and given in isolation while the objects of the former are given originaliter from within as real and as a living continuum’.9 It is this vital continuum that matters and by contrast with science where a system of nature is established by ‘inferential arguments which supplement the data of experience by means of a combination of hypotheses’ in the human studies ‘the nexus of psychic life constitutes originally a primitive and fundamental datum’.10 The experienced (erlebte) whole (Zusammenhang)is primary here’.11
This is the proper ‘psychological base’ for human studies and it enables us to avoid the dilemma of a purely subjective approach and also ‘a superficial and sterile empiricism’ an ‘increasing separation of life from knowledge’.12 No ‘transcendental method’ ‘no legerdemain of the Kantian school’13 will avail of itself for the ‘theoretician of knowledge’ there presupposes and imports into his theory the ‘nexus in his own living consciousness’14 the ‘unique nexus’ which ‘is originally and continuously given as life itself’.15 There is no stage in which this is absent but what is thus immanent in all experience can be made more explicit by reflection and understanding the latter including in Dilthey’s later thought much concern with expressions of experience and language. This has much to do with our knowledge of one another and the initial disposition to regard our own inner experience as the intuitive basis for the understanding of others tends to give way to the more refined and objective understanding that comes through reflection on language and expression. This is not mere self-completion nor on the other hand a self-transcendence involved in the concepts of objective expression and intentionality. The outer mode is taken up into the inner and reflected out again into our grasp of experience as a whole.
As Professor H. A. Hodges puts it: ‘Thus lived experience and understanding though theoretically separable are in practice bound up with one another. We are present to ourselves in lived experience but this experience needs to be clarified by understanding’.16
This understanding penetrates to ‘mental attitudes (Stellungen) which lie deeper than the surface series of psychological events and control it in the interests of wider purposes’.17 The insights of our own lived experience provide the intuitive basis for the understanding of others and to this extent the understanding of others is an extension of the initial experience of myself. Self-understanding is fundamental but in later thought the emphasis is shifted by Dilthey to the greater role of understanding with conscious reflection on the expressions of others. How far this shift goes is not clear but it certainly does not seem to be a case of dispensing with the immediacy of the lived experience or superseding it. Even in our knowledge of others we need the insights of our knowledge of ourselves. Thus Hodges continues in the context from which I have quoted already: ‘But further the understanding of others would be essentially impossible as a process without the living movement and intimacy of lived experience …Lived experience gives my experience reality and life understanding gives it comprehensiveness and objectivity. The two are thus inseparable and together form the basis of all our commerce with the world of the mind’.18
The question how far understanding may be thought to go beyond Erlebnis or lived experience and to function independently in terms of reflection on language and expression is important for my present purpose. But it is not as important as the question of how we are to understand the initial continuum and nexus of lived experience. Just what does the lived experience disclose to us? One is disposed to assume that it gives us an immediate awareness of our own mental processes but the more we consider the emphasis on inwardness and immediacy in the appropriate contexts the more it seems to be concerned with the nexus itself the continuum the wholeness and comprehensiveness which is initially evident however incomplete in the most elementary and unreflective experience. Is there more than this initial and self-developing unity and just how must we understand that?
There clearly is more but this itself seems to be conceived mainly if not wholly in terms of the interplay of the strictly cognitive features of experience with emotive and purposive factors which are in turn deemed to be the essence of evaluation. In the extension of Dilthey’s initial themes to aesthetics and historical understanding with which he was especially concerned it is this interplay that comes into prominence. And thus although Dilthey could not be thought to have fallen foul of ‘the philosophical breakers of Charybdis’19 with the Neo-Kantians in seeking to avoid the reef of ‘tedious empiricism’ he does come a little close to neglecting his own warning. It is some kind of transcendental unity some essential and peculiar wholeness that is most distinctively evident in the lived experience also and extended and made more explicit in understanding and reflection on our expressions. It is this that is brought into prominence in ‘adult psychic life’.20
The position is thus not so very far removed from that of more typical nineteenth-century idealists like the British philosophers Green and Bradley and especially those at the close of the preeminence of idealism in British philosophy who were concerned to preserve a place for distinct persons as at least a special centre of unification within the ultimate whole. How far this comparison can go is not perhaps easy to settle but it gains strength when we find a drift also towards a more corporate doctrine of persons than might be suggested initially in the prominence given to lived experience and immediacy. There is ‘a rediscovery of the I in the Thou’ and although this carries with it the insistence ‘that the individual is an intrinsic value’ this is itself attenuated in the notion of the individual as ‘a structural configuration of certain dominant qualities’.21 As Professor Makkreel puts it: ‘The individuality of the self is defined in terms of the structural articulation of the acquired psychic nexus. No qualitative uniqueness need be posited to explain individuality’.22 There is a sense indeed in which individuality ripens and is itself the goal of history. The individual is also thought of as a point of intersection of various cultural systems which have themselves ‘a structural unity comparable with that which we find in an individual’.23
It is not essential to understand this in a severely corporate sense but it is also hard to see how that can be avoided when the individual and his lived experience is thought of mainly in terms of configurations of qualities and wholeness. The epistemological ego is certainly rejected the concept of the self being ‘explicated out of consciousness’ and individuality ‘defined through a psychic nexus that has been acquired’.24 We can thus also ‘speak of trans-personal subjects without reifying them’25 and they can be ‘logical carriers of objective spirit’26 a Zeitgeist though not the anthro-pormorphism of a Volksseele.
It is in these contexts that we see most clearly how the insistence on inwardness and an indispensable immediacy of experience can be given much prominence and made fundamental in very different contexts from those of the individual’s immediate awareness of the course of his own experience and of himself as the irreducible subject of it. If there is a discovery of the self and a mystery which remains it is that of the proper placing of items of experience and the setting of our lives in a context which is not yet completely manifest to us. This is very different from the self-disclosure of immediate experience and the mysteriousness of the subject solely in the sense that it cannot be caught in its essence in descriptive characterisation.
It does not follow by any means that we must withhold from Dilthey the proper credit for all that he does say although I suspect that he himself thought that he had said most if not all that it is important to say about the primacy and immediacy of lived experience. Others who came after him were certainly confused and assumed that in setting our experiences in relation to one another and in the complexities of a wider context including in some instances the radically different mystery of some ultimate transcendent source of all there is they were exhibiting what is most distinctive and beyond ordinary explication in our awareness of ourselves. This is very strikingly evident in the work of Gabriel Marcel to which I now turn.
Marcel returns repeatedly in meditative and more impressionistic works like Being and Having and in more systematic and comprehensive statements of his views like his two volumes of Gifford Lectures with the general title Mystery of Being to the themes of mystery and the peculiar way in which the self at the core of it is ‘uncharacterisable’27 or ‘rebellious to descriptions’.28 He presents this extensively in terms of an inwardness of experience and a something beyond the Me which has qualities and can be identified in terms of them. ‘To identify’ he declares ‘is in fact to recognise that something or someone has or has not such-and-such a character and conversely such-and-such a character is relative to a possible identification’.29 But this is significant only at the level of ‘Having’ which means here having predicates — ‘I return to the category of having in so far as it is implied in the fact for a subject of having (i.e. of carrying with it) predicates’.30 But ‘the question “What am I?” has no equivalent on the level of Having’.31 As it is also put but a little more obscurely:
I must develop what I said about the uncharacterisable. We cannot think of a character without attaching it to a subject by the link expressed by the verb to belong. But this supposes a sort of pattern whose nature we must try to make clear. We are here in an order which essentially carries with it the use of the expression ‘also’; this character is chosen among others. We are not however faced with a collection as phenomenalism would have us believe there is always the transcendence of the qui.32
I am again preoccupied by the question what it means to possess qualities. The word ‘also’ seems to me only to have meaning in the order of Having. Perhaps recourse to the category of Having for thinking of qualities is an expedient a makeshift necessary if we are to conceive (or persuade ourselves that we conceive) the juxtaposition of qualities.33
But to think of myself in these ways in the world of Having as being characterised by qualities or predicates is also to think of myself in terms of ‘disposability’. At a certain level or in a certain way we have to think in terms of qualities or predicates to be ‘conscious of being fixed within a zone or determinate scale’.34 But this is only ‘what a superficial inquiry would seem to show’35 and it is when we think of ourselves as being ‘non-disposable’ persons that we are liable also to ‘self-preoccupation’. We have an ‘ego-centric topography’ which can only be corrected in ‘encounters’ which make us ‘sharply aware of the accidental character of what I have called our mental space and of the rigidities on which its possibility rests’.36
In these latter nuances we seem to be passing into a somewhat different universe of discourse for the main theme or a different setting and it becomes clear that what we are led to is the transcendence of the level of characterisation and determinate qualities. This is what detachment and charity ‘as absolute disposability’37 properly involve. ‘The world of the Same and the Other is the world of the identifiable’.38 But love transcends the opposition of the same to the other by planting us in Being’.39 This is the proper ‘transcendence of the qui’ already mentioned. It is ‘a function of the attitude I take up in the face of the qui’.40
What sets out therefore as a promising account of ‘the distinction between what we have and what we are’41 in terms of an ultimate identity of the individual person which is not reducible to attributes and history becomes inflated into the totally different consideration of divine or absolute transcendence. Characterisation belongs to the world of limited finite existences and their relations but God as infinite being is in his essence beyond this however hard that thought may be. This is why ‘any doctrine of the Attributes would tend inevitably to lead us astray. The I am that I am of Scripture would be truly the most adequate formula from an ontological point of view’.42
This is no doubt important however much it may admit of being qualified in other ways. It has also a bearing for those who accept it on our conspectus on everything else the world of nature and our personal and moral relations. But it is an entirely different concern. The elusiveness of our own identity is very peculiarly bound up with the finality of the distinctness of persons their irreducible individuality and it is in this context where the other retains its integrity as distinct existence that love and detachment have their proper place not in a metaphysical dilution of self and other in an extension of strictly religious transcendence to all there is. The sense in which the self is non-characterisable has a very important place in a final religious view but in itself it is religiously neutral and can be admitted quite as properly by the agnostic as by the believer. To acknowledge that there is ‘a kind of mystery there’ though that term is not the most apposite to what is at the core of self-awareness does not require us to ‘believe we could find a whole theory of the Thou within it’.43 The ‘thou’ at the finite level is a quite separate issue.
The same themes presented by Marcel in a loose and somewhat exploratory impressionistic way in Being and Having become the core of the more exhaustive and systematic presentation of his views in his Gifford Lectures Mystery of Being.44 But the outcome is the same and what we find in miniature in Being and Having is on the whole more perspicuous and easy to apprehend than the suppositions to which we are led through extended deviations in the Gifford Lectures. In Volume 1 of the latter we read much that is suggestive and promising about the ‘disquieting ambiguity’45 of talk about the self and the complications of ‘self-discovery’ and entering ‘into the depths of one’s self’46 and ‘the pure immediacy expressed by the “I exist”’47 and also about the inwardness and mystery of selfhood. The account we might give of ourselves in filling a form for an official is rejected48 as utterly inadequate indeed beside the point in answer to the question ‘Who am I really?’. The answers that I give to satisfy the official or anything like it that I might just invent are like shabby garments not my own and ‘I have to protest: I am not this garment’.49 Marcel declares:
The real fact the thing that complicates the whole business that is the truth of it is that I am myself and not somebody else; if I were somebody else the question would be put again when my turn came up but it would still be exactly the same sort of question. There is thus or so it seems to me a sense in which I am not a definite somebody; from the moment when I start to reflect I am bound to appear to myself as a as it were non-somebody linked in a profoundly obscure fashion with a somebody about whom I am being questioned and about whom I am certainly not free to answer just what I like at the moment when I am being questioned.50
We have thus ‘a paradox’ ‘that I appear to myself both as a somebody and not a somebody’.51 The problem is then to ‘get a closer grip on this experience of the self as not being a somebody’.52 In similar contexts there are references to a ‘veiled reality’53 and the declaration that the ‘immediacy of self-awareness is crusted over by habits and by all the superstructures of an official compartmentalized life’.54 Between ourselves and existence we are interposing thicker and thicker screens’.55 There is we are told a ‘non-transparency’ of personal existence.
All this might seem from my point of view to be entirely on the right lines. This is why some who share my views are encouraged to find support as they take it in the sort of Continental philosophy to which I am referring in this chapter. And to some extent they are warranted to do so. The self in its more than characterisable form is brought into prominence. But our allies are in fact more uncertain than they seem. For what lies beyond the screen in the ‘immediacy of self-awareness’ and its non-transparency is not the ultimate individual subject but in ways partly reminiscent of what was more explicitly maintained in idealist metaphysics some extension or completion of the individual into a context where its proper reality is wholly absorbed into its significance in transcendent being — in the strict sense.
This can be seen well in what is said about the words ‘my body’. We cannot give an exhaustive account of the body in biological terms. It is the body of some person my body is mine; and we have to ask as one of the central questions in philosophy how the mind is related to the body. What does my ownership of my body involve? Marcel gets to the heart of the problem as he understands it with the strange insistence that my body is mine in the same sense in which my dog belongs to me. But even allowing for a sense in which a dog is mine other than legal ownership the dog is attached to me obeys me etc. this is far removed from the sort of question we have in asking how my body belongs to me. For Marcel however ‘my link with my body’ is really the model ‘to which I relate all kinds of ownership’.56 But to sustain this it must also be held that ‘I am my body’.57 I certainly cannot be ‘reduced to a completely dematerialized ego’.58 But to this end we have to think ‘of the body not as an object but as a subject’.59 The body ‘as properly mine’ is ‘something felt; I am my body only in so far as I am a being that has feelings’.60 But this again is not to be thought of ‘as a sort of kernel of subjective certitude’.61 For we have ‘passed beyond the interpretation of sensation as the transmission and reception of a message’.62 For that requires some ‘mediation’ and that ‘ad infinitum’ for we give it a ‘determinate spatial locus’ in ‘the infinite network of determinate spatial loci in general’.63 We must pass ‘beyond the limits of idealism’ and ‘beyond the interpretation of sensation as the transmission and reception of a message’64 the main concern here being it seems to avoid the menace of solipsism; when I talk of myself as a ‘physical apparatus’ it is ‘not really about myself that I am talking’.65 We have to bring in instead the notion of ‘an existential immediate that is to say of something I am66 and this involves ‘non-objective participation’ illustrated in the notion that when people are praying together they are ‘melted into a single love.’67
The last supposition is what gives us our key to the complexities of this discussion in which ‘I am my body’ but not in any ordinary sense. Marcel seems to dissolve any problems we may have about ourselves and our bodies and ourselves and other persons also in one insistence on an all-embracing transcendent. The mystery of this is the model of all mysteries and it is the one thought that is to be invoked to solve all our problems. Even ‘the peasant’s soil transcends everything he sees around him’ and ‘is linked to his inner being’.68 The self is also essentially ‘in a situation’. It cannot be stripped of ‘the empirical self’ for there is an ‘ingathering’ such that ‘the reality confronting which one ingathers oneself itself becomes a factor in the ingathering’.69 This does not imply a doctrine of a ‘universal mind’70 but rather some ‘togetherness’ ‘between the landscape and me’ by which I ‘transcend the opposition of my inner and outer worlds’71 and achieve also an ‘inter-subjectivity’72 an ‘awareness of a suprapersonal unity’73 in which persons are subsumed in such a way that ‘the words I and You cease to denote two nuclei quite distinct from each other’74 telepathy being thought to be inconceivable if we think in those terms.
This is not thought to be ‘a mere flat denial of continuing personal identity’75 for there is ‘a continuity of an historical becoming’76 at some level where we do distinguish between ‘He She or It’77 but there is also a ‘dimension beyond life’s probing’78 — where ‘the opposition of the successive as such and the abstract as such can be transcended at a supratemporal level which is also as it were the very depth or inwardness of time’79 the mystery of ‘the absolute Here-and-Now’ ‘the trans-historic depth’ of the Eternal Thou.
Viewed in this way the mystery and the essential inwardness and elusiveness of the self are not indications of something peculiarly characteristic of selfhood and personal identity but of some all-inclusive union of all things in a mystical monism where all our normal problems simply disappear. By contrast I have been holding that however important it may be to recognise the transcendent and the depth it gives to finite existence we are not unaware of what we are except in the inability to characterise it beyond each one’s apprehension of himself in being himself a mystery if the term is appropriate at all which essentially involves and underscores the ultimate distinctness of persons which is much imperilled in the peculiar course of the emphasis on depth and inwardness in the speculations of Gabriel Marcel.
We find very much the same situation in essentials in the work of other writers who do not have the explicit religious motivation of Marcel or any proper recognition of a strictly transcendent source of present existence though they use the term in a rather different way. Conspicuous among these is J. P. Sartre the outstanding existentialist philosopher. Even more than Marcel his own involvements were many including the world of general literature as well as academic study. This has made it seem especially impressive to many who welcome this broad concern and insight into the emphases appropriate at present that he should have brought questions of personal existence and involvement to the centre of the stage for himself and others.
A great deal of Sartre’s more severely philosophical thinking takes its course as a reaction against the teaching of his own original mentors especially Husserl and Heidegger and in particular as the retention in subtle ways of features of the thought of these thinkers which he seemed to be most firmly rejecting. He never broke away entirely from their spell. This accounts more I suspect than the particular cast of his own mind and his style of writing for the difficulty of making his own position precise enough and for the paradoxical character of his central themes. The pre-eminence of consciousness for his own system is clear and however difficult it may be to discover how precisely this must be understood it is certain that any form of materialism or of positivism is being rejected. There is some sense and that of radical importance for Sartre in which mental existence is genuine and matters; and yet in the account that he gives of it it seems to melt away into preconceptions about what the world in general must be like. Insights into states of mind and crucial situations of personal perplexities and decisions tend to be overlaid by permutations of thought which partly ring the bell and partly bewilder.
It would be a very complicated business to follow this out in all its ramifications in Sartre’s writings and as with other thinkers who present us with highly convoluted systems of thought there is a risk in seeking to lay hold of a few indisputable themes — we may do injustice to other things that are said. But it is a risk worth taking for the desperation with which Sartre struggles to maintain an accceptable position in the varieties of his acceptances and repudiations seems to me to highlight very clearly the need for a view of the self of the kind I am seeking to present in this book.
The main ambiguity is that of the nature of consciousness itself. Sartre makes a move now very familiar when he observes:
When I run after a streetcar when I look at the time when I am absorbed in looking at a portrait no I is present. There is consciousness of the streetcar having-to-be-caught etc. and non-positional consciousness of that consciousness. On these occasions I am immersed in the world of objects; they constitute the unity of my consciousness; they present themselves with values with qualities that attract or repel — but I have disappeared I am nothing. There is no place for Me at this level of consciousness. This is not accidental it is not due to a temporary lapse of attention but to the structure of consciousness itself.80
Just how must all this be understood? ‘The world of objects’ itself constitutes ‘the unity of my consciousness’. Could this be interpreted in a severely phenomenalist sense objects being just objects of consciousness? This would be hard to reconcile with the strong realist streak in Sartre’s thought. It is ‘the being of the world which is implied by consciousness’ ‘this table this package of tobacco’.81 In opposition to the idealists Sartre insists that it is the real world that we apprehend in the appearance themselves ‘not a noumenal being which is hidden behind them’.82 But is the unity and being of consciousness itself then just some aspect or modification of the world as presented is this what is meant by ‘constitutive consciousness’ a consciousness of things which are ‘transcendent’ in the sense of not being exhaustively presented but where the consciousness is also ‘immanent’? Is there no ultimate wedge to be driven between consciousness and the world apprehended?
One point which Sartre certainly has in mind here is that there is no pure consciousness in the sense maintained by some mystics — especially in the East — namely a consciousness with no sort of object; consciousness for Sartre must always be ‘of’ something and in this I for one readily concur. But it does not follow that consciousness is not something to be prised apart from the world it apprehends. The position is made more difficult when Sartre in line with bolder reductionists diverts attention to dispositional matters and irrelevances for the present issue such as the ability to ask questions. This may be important in some aspects of understanding what consciousness is like but it does nothing to indicate what it is to be conscious in distinction from the world being there.
This is not eased by talk of ‘self-reflective’ consciousness because this itself as in Ryle’s account of being self-conscious is understood in terms of special ways of noting things and of activity akin to noting peculiarities of any experience which is mine without considering any more basic sense in which they are mine or belong. But even if we hesitate to take Sartre the whole way with reductionist and immanentist views of consciousness one thing is clear — he has no place for a proper subject as a distinct existent required to make sense of our being conscious at all. As stated in the quotation above — ‘I have disappeared I am nothing’. There is simply ‘the unitary organization of immanence’83 or as it is also put:
At the limit of coincidence with itself in fact the self vanishes to give place to identical being. The self can not be a property of being-in-itself. By nature it is reflexive …The self refers but it refers precisely to the subject. It indicates a relation between the subject and himself and this relation is precisely a duality but a particular duality since it requires particular verbal symbols. But on the other hand the self does not designate being either as subject or as predicate …In fact the self cannot be apprehended as a real existent …84
Or as we also read: ‘To introduce into the unity of a pre-reflective cogito a qualified element external to this cogito would be to shatter its unity to destroy its translucency; there would then be in consciousness something of which it would not be conscious and which would not exist in itself as consciousness’.85
This is even more starkly put in another context:
Phenomenology can still be reproached for providing an escapist doctrine for drawing a piece of man out of the world and thereby turning our attention away from real problems. It seems to me that this reproach no longer has any justification if the Me is made an existent strictly contemporaneous with the world whose existence has the same essential characteristics as the world …It is sufficient that the Me be contemporary with the World and that the subject — object dualism which is purely logical finally disappear from the preoccupations of philosophers.86
Not surprisingly Professor Peter Caws sums up the position in an excellent concise survey of Sartre’s treatment of consciousness and subjectivity87 when he says: ‘The Sartrian Ego has the elusiveness of a burst bubble and the outcome of the analysis is an empty I correlative to a Me reduced to nothingness together maintaining a spontaneous unity of states and actions’.88
These tortuous moves and ambiguities are not however without significance. I have followed them in the case of Sartre as of the other philosophers discussed in this chapter in outline but with as much explicit reference to actual text as reasonable space would allow because they seem to me in their persistence and influence as much as in their difficulty and ambiguity to show what obstacles and frustration we set up for ourselves if we fail to appreciate that at the core of all awareness there is the self which is aware and which must itself be understood to be an entity as much as entities in the world around us but with the peculiarity that it cannot be known or described like external objects in terms of special attributes but only in the awareness of himself that each one has in his own case in any experience whatsoever. With this allowed the seeming emptiness and elusiveness of mental existence can be properly appreciated as they are only dimly recognised in the writings to which I have just been alluding without desperately seeking to reduce them in turn to external reality or some phenomenological account of what we find our actual experiences to be or to involve. Acknowledge the proper elusiveness of the self and we can be spared much wandering in alluring mazes from which there is no proper exit.

From the book: