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Chapter V: Primary and Secondary Reflection—The Existential Fulcrum

The questions about the nature of truth that took up our whole attention during the last lecture were certainly difficult and involved, and at a first glance it may seem strange that we should have raised them at all before turning to our present topic. But it seemed to me that a first examination of how we ought to understand the notion of truth was a necessary preliminary to everything else. That intelligible background or setting, of which we spoke towards the end of our last lecture, however hard it may be to grasp it in its essential nature, is nevertheless, (since it is not merely a place of encounter, but, as we shall gradually see more and more clearly, communication and will to communicate,) the setting against which our investigation must spread itself out. It may be objected that it is also the setting for every kind of thought that is worthy of the name of thought. Agreed: but the distinctive note of philosophic thought, at least according to my conception of it and I have many authorities for that conception, is that not only does it move towards the object whose nature it seeks to discover, but at the same time it is alert for a certain music that arises from its own inner nature if it is succeeding in carrying out its task. We have already said that the point about philosophic thought is that it is reflective; and it is into the nature of reflection, as an activity, that we must now probe more deeply than we have done so far.

As usual, I shall start with the simplest examples I can find, to show how reflection has its roots in the daily flow of life.

I put my hand, let us say, into my pocket to take my watch out. I discover that my watch is not there; but it ought to be there; normally my watch is in my pocket. I experience a slight shock. There has been a small break in the chain of my everyday habits (between the act of putting my hand in my pocket and that of taking out my watch). The break is felt as something out of the way; it arrests my attention, to a greater or a less degree, according to the importance I attach to my watch; the notion that a valuable object may be lost arises in my mind, and this notion is not a mere notion but also a feeling of disquiet. I call in reflection to help me… but let us be careful here not to fall into the errors of an out-of-date psychology which isolated one faculty of the mind from another. It is very clear in the example I have chosen, and in every similar example, that reflection is nothing other than attention, in the case where attention is directed towards this sort of small break in the daily chain of habit. To reflect, in this kind of case, is to ask oneself how such a break can have occurred. But there is no place here for the kind of purely abstract speculation which, of its very nature, can have no practical outcome; what I have to do is to go back in time until I recall the moment when the watch was last in my possession. I remember, let us say, having looked at the time just after breakfast; therefore at that moment everything was still all right. Between then and now something must have happened to the watch. My mental processes are rather like—there is no avoiding the comparison—the actions of a plumber who is trying to trace a leak. Was there perhaps a hole in my pocket? I look at my pocket and discover that there is no hole. I continue with my task of alert recapitulation. Say that I succeed in recalling the fact that there was a moment when I put the watch down on a table; I shall go, of course, to see whether it is still on the table; and there, let us say, the watch still is. Reflection has carried out its task, and the problem is solved.… Let us notice, however, even in connection with this almost childishly simple example, that I have made my mental effort because something real, something valuable, was at stake. Reflection is never exercised on things that are not worth the trouble of reflecting about. And, from another point of view, let us notice that reflection in this case was a personal act, and an act which nobody else would have been able to undertake in my place, or on my behalf. The act of reflection is linked, as bone is linked with bone in the human body, to living personal experience; and it is important to understand the nature of this link. To all appearances, it is necessary that the living personal experience should bump into some sort of obstacle. One is tempted to use the following sort of metaphor. A man who has been travelling on foot arrives at the edge of a river where the bridge has been carried away by a flood. He has no option but to call a ferryman. In an example such as that which I have just cited, reflection does really play the part of the ferryman.

But the same sort of thing can happen, of course, at the level of the inner life. I am talking to a friend, and somehow I let myself be drawn into telling him something which is an actual lie. I am alone with myself again, I get a grip on myself, I face the fact of this lie; how was it possible for me to tell such a whopper? I am all the more surprised at myself because I have been accustomed to think of myself, up to the present, as a truthful and trustworthy person. But then what importance ought I to attach to this lie? Am I forced to conclude that I am not the man I thought I was? And, from another point of view, what attitude ought I to take up towards this act of mine? Ought I to confess the lie to my friend, or on the other hand would I make myself ridiculous by doing so? But perhaps I ought to make myself ridiculous, to let my friend laugh at me, as a sort of punishment for having told him the lie in the first place?

As in the previous example, what we have here is a kind of break; that is to say, I cannot go on just as if nothing had happened; there really is something that necessitates an act of readjustment on my part.

But here is a third example that will give us an easier access to the notion of reflection at the properly philosophical level. I have been disappointed by the behaviour of somebody of whom I was fond. So I am forced to revise my opinion of this friend of mine. It seems, indeed, that I am forced to acknowledge that he is not the man I believed him to be. But it may be that the process of reflection does not halt there. A memory comes back to me—a memory of something I myself did long ago, and suddenly I ask myself: ‘Was this act of mine really so very different from the act which today I feel inclined to judge so severely? But in that case am I in any position to condemn my friend?’ Thus my reflections, at this point, call my own position into question. Let us consider this second stage. Here, again, I cannot go on as if nothing had happened. Then, what has happened? There has been this memory and this sort of confrontation that has been forced upon me, of myself and the person I was judging so harshly. But what does ‘myself’ mean here? The point is that I have been forced to ask myself what I am worth, how true I ring. So far I had taken myself, so to speak, for granted, I quite naturally thought of myself as qualified to judge and eventually to condemn. Or perhaps even that is not quite the case: I used to behave or, what comes to the same thing, I used to talk like a man qualified to judge others. In my heart of hearts, I did not really think of myself as such a man… Here, for the moment at least, this process of reflection may terminate. Such reflections may leave me in a mood of anguish, and nevertheless I have a certain sense of being set free, the sense of which I spoke in the last lecture: it is as if I had overturned some obstruction in my way.

But at this point a twofold and important realization is forced upon me; on the one hand, I am now able to communicate at a broader level with myself, since I have, as it were, introduced the self that committed the dubious act to the self that did not hesitate to set itself up as the harsh judge of such acts in others; and on the other hand—and this cannot be a mere coincidence—I am now able to enter into far more intimate communication with my friend, since between us there no longer stands that barrier which separates the judge on the bench from the accused man in the dock.

We have here a very striking illustration of that important notion of intercourse, on which I was expatiating the other day, and no doubt we shall later have to remember this illustration when we begin to discuss the topic of intersubjectivity properly so called.

But meanwhile there are certain other observations on the relations between reflection and life that are pertinent at this point. There is a kind of philosophy, essentially romantic, or at least romantic in its roots, which very willingly contrasts reflection and life, sets them at opposite poles from each other; and it is permissible to notice that this contrast, or this opposition, is often stated in metaphors of heat and cold. Reflection, because it is critical, is cold; it not only puts a bridle on the vital impulses, it freezes them. Let us, in this case too, take a concrete example.

A young man has let himself be drawn into saying rash things to a girl. It was during a dance, he was intoxicated by the atmosphere, by the music, the girl herself was a girl of unusual beauty. The dance is over, he comes home, he feels the intoxication of the evening wearing away. To his sobered mood, reflection does present itself, in such a case, as something purely and merely critical: what is this adventure going to lead to? He has not the sort of job that would make marriage a reasonable proposition; if he were to marry this girl, they would have to lead a narrow, constricted life; what would become of love in such sordid circumstances? And so on, and so on… It is obvious that in such cases reflection is like the plunge under an icy shower that wakens one from a pleasant morning dreaminess. But it would be very rash to generalize from such examples, and even in regard to this particular example we ought to ask ourselves rather carefully what real relationship between reflection and life it illustrates. For I think we must be on our guard against a modern way of interpreting life as pure spontaneity. For that matter, I am not sure that spontaneity is, for the philosopher, a really distinct notion; it lies somewhere on these shadowy borders where psychology and biology run into each other and merge. The young Spanish philosopher, Julian Marias, has something relevant and useful to say about this in his Introduction to Philosophy.1 He says that the verb ‘to live’ has no doubt a precise meaning, a meaning that can be clearly formulated, when it is applied, say, to a sheep or a shark: it means to breathe by means of this organ and not that (by lungs or gills, as the case may be), to be nourished in such and such a fashion (by preying on other fish, by cropping grass), and so on. But when we are talking about human life the verb ‘to live’ cannot have its meaning so strictly circumscribed; the notion of human life cannot be reduced to that of the harmonious functioning of a certain number of organs, though that purely biological functioning is, of course, presupposed in the notion of human life. For instance, a prisoner who has no hope of getting out of jail may say without exaggeration—though he continues to breathe, to eat, to perform all his natural functions—that his existence is not really a life. The mother of an airman might say in wartime, ‘While my son is risking his life, I am not really living’. All this is enough to make it clear that a human life has always its centre outside itself; though it can be centred, certainly, on a very wide and diverse range of outside interests. It may be centred on a loved one, and with the disappearance of the loved one be reduced to a sad caricature of itself; it may be centred on something trivial, a sport like hunting, a vice like gambling; it can be centred on some high activity, like research or creation. But each one of us can ask himself, as a character in one of my plays does, ‘What do I live by?’ And this is not a matter so much of some final purpose to which a life may be directed as of the mental fuel that keeps a life alight from day to day. For there are, as we know only too well, desperate creatures who waste away, consuming themselves like lamps without oil.

But from this point of view, from the human point of view, we can no longer think of life as mere and pure spontaneity—and by the same token we can no longer think of reflection as life's antagonist. On the contrary, it seems to me essential that we should grasp the fact that reflection is still part of life, that it is one of the ways in which life manifests itself, or, more profoundly, that it is in a sense one of life's ways of rising from one level to another. That, in fact, is the very point of the last few examples we have been taking. We should notice also that reflection can take many different shapes and that even conversion can be, in the last analysis, a sort of reflective process; consider the hero of Tolstoy's Resurrection or even Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. We can say therefore that reflection appears alien to life, or opposed to life, only if we are reducing the concept of human life to, as it were, a manifestation of animality. But it must be added that if we do perform this act of reduction, then reflection itself becomes an unintelligible concept; we cannot even conceive by what sort of a miracle reflection could be grafted on mere animality.

So much for the relations between reflection and life; we would reach similar conclusions about the relations between reflection and experience, and this links up with what has been previously said. If I take experience as merely a sort of passive recording of impressions, I shall never manage to understand how the reflective process could be integrated with experience. On the other hand, the more we grasp the notion of experience in its proper complexity, in its active and I would even dare to say in its dialectical aspects, the better we shall understand how experience cannot fail to transform itself into reflection, and we shall even have the right to say that the more richly it is experience, the more, also, it is reflection. But we must, at this point, take one step more and grasp the fact that reflection itself can manifest itself at various levels; there is primary reflection, and there is also what I shall call secondary reflection; this secondary reflection has, in fact, been very often at work during these early lectures, and I dare to hope that as our task proceeds it will appear more and more clearly as the special high instrument of philosophical research. Roughly, we can say that where primary reflection tends to dissolve the unity of experience which is first put before it, the function of secondary reflection is essentially recuperative; it reconquers that unity. But how is such a reconquest possible? The possibility is what we are going to try to show by means of the quite general, the (in the parliamentary sense’) privileged, example on which we must now concentrate our attention. We shall soon see that what we have to deal with here is not merely, in fact, an illustration or an example, but an actual way of access to a realm that is assuredly as near to us as can be, but that nevertheless, by a fatality (a perfectly explicable fatality, however), has been, through the influence of modern thought, set at a greater and greater distance from us; so that the realm has become more and more of a problematic realm, and we are forced to call its very existence into question. I am talking about the self, about that reality of the self, with which we have already come in contact so often, but always to be struck by its disquieting ambiguity.

We are now embarking upon the question on which, really, all the other questions hang: it is the question I put when I ask myself who I am and, more deeply still, when I probe into my meaning in asking myself that question.

There is a remark which, in such a setting, may appear trifling and even farcical; yet it is interesting, one must say it, at this point to remind ourselves of how very often nowadays we are called upon to fill in forms establishing what is called our identity. The multiplication of such forms today is significant, and its causes should be looked into; it is tied up, of course, with that growth of bureaucracy we have already spoken of. That growth has a sinister, metaphysical significance, though that significance, apart from such a writer as Kafka and his more thoughtful readers, is not yet generally recognized. My point now is that when one fills in such a form one has a silly feeling—as if one were putting on fancy dress, not to go to a costume ball, but to set about one's daily labours. The most precise fashion in which I can express this feeling in general terms is as follows: I have not a consciousness of being the person who is entered under the various headings thus: son of, born at, occupation, and so on. Yet everything I enter under these headings is strictly true; I should be guilty of telling a lie if I varied the entries from form to form, and, besides that, I would be risking serious trouble. If this form-filling is a game, it is a game I am forced to play. But what is really remarkable is that the filling in of any such form whatsoever would give me the same silly feeling, unless, for a single moment, I could exercise my creative faculty by inventing an identity of my own choice; only the strange thing is that after a short time this invented identity, if I were forced to stick to it, would give me a feeling of peculiar, intimate disgust—like some shabby garment, not my own, that I was forced to drag around with me everywhere. It is, in fact, against the existence of such garments that I have to protest: I am not this garment.… A mental specialist might say that we are here on a dangerous path that can lead to mythomania or even actual insanity. But such a remark has a merely practical value, and is irrelevant to our present speculative discussion. The point I want to make now is that this feeling about identity forms that I have been talking about is no doubt completely foreign to many people: by why? Must we say that such people quite lack the sense of fantasy? I think we can go further and say that the absence of this uneasiness must be linked to a total deficiency as far as the faculty of creation is concerned. Later on, we shall see more clearly why this is so.

Let us try to imagine, now, the sheer dumbfoundedness of the civil servant who, on asking me, ‘So you are Mr. So-and-so?’ received the curt reply, ‘Certainly not’. He would arrive at only one of two conclusions: either this person is insane, or he is passing under a false identity. But what is quite certain is that he would never begin to suspect that for me and him the verb ‘to be’ in that sentence—‘Are you Mr. So-and-so?’—has a quite different meaning. If I am a person of common sense, therefore, I shall try not to step outside the very narrow limits in which what such a creature calls his mind functions, and to stick loyally to his categories, to the headings on the form which he wishes me to fill up, however rudimentary these categories may appear to me to be.

But in compensation there is nothing to stop me personally from facing up to the strange duality which seems to be implied in the uneasiness with which I regard an identity form, and asking myself certain direct questions: if I cannot satisfy myself by saying, ‘I am Mr. So-and-so, the son of Mr. So-and-So, living in Paris or wherever it may be’, what then is the urgent inner need which makes me aware of this dissatisfaction? Really, who am I?

I should like to observe, in the first place, that the question put by the civil servant—‘So you’, let us say, ‘are Mr. So-and-so, and these are your particulars?’—has to do with somebody or other, or rather with some one definite somebody, of whom one might say that he springs to attention, as a soldier does, when his number is called out. It is just as if somebody had said to me: ‘State the identity of Number 98’, and as if I had the job of answering for this unfortunate Number 98—as if Number 98, were illiterate for instance, and so could not fill in the form, or were deaf, and so could not hear the question. But I, who am forced to answer for Number 98, who am I, really? 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.

These are the conclusions at which we can arrive after a first examination of our topic. We shall certainly have to go beyond them. Nevertheless, they throw some light on an aspect of the situation which we cannot pass over without some further comment.

It is only in so far as I assert myself to be, in one sense, not merely a somebody, that I can acknowledge two facts; firstly, that there is another sense in which I am a somebody, a particular individual (though not merely that), and secondly that other somebodies, other particular individuals, also exist. Let us point out that a solipsistic type of idealism would never be able to grasp the fact of my existence, in so far as it is a somebody's existence, neither do I possess any particular ontological privilege in relation to all the other somebodies; indeed, one may go further, it is obvious that if I am a somebody, a particular individual, I am only so at once in connection with and in opposition to an indefinite number of other somebodies; and this enables us to solve a priori, and without any trouble at all, a problem which the philosophers of the past have woven into wantonly intricate tangles: the problem of how I can be certain that anybody, or anything, other than myself, exists.

In compensation, we have still a paradox of our own to play with, the central fact that I appear to myself both as a somebody and not a somebody, a particular individual and not a particular individual, and at this point we must probe a little more deeply into that paradox. Can we get a closer grip on this experience of the self as not being a somebody? Can we assign a positive character to this experience? The experience consists, it seems to me, in recognizing that the definite characteristics that constitute the self in so far as I grasp it as a particular individual, a somebody, have a contingent character—but contingent in relation to what? Can I really truthfully say that, at the same time as I grasp myself as a somebody, I also grasp myself as universal mind? In spite of some testimonies, like those of Amiel in his Journal, it would, I think, be rash to claim this. This mysterious reality in relation to which I see the definite characteristics of my particular individuality as contingent is not really an object for me—or if it is an object, it is one completely hidden by a veil, which seems self-contradictory, for it is part of the notion of an object that it is at least partly unveiled. I shall feel tempted to say, therefore, that it is in relation to myself as subject that these definite characteristics of my particular individuality are felt to be, and acknowledged to be, contingent. But will the introduction of the term ‘subject’ get us out of the wood here? In what sense can I grasp myself as a subject without, to the very degree that I do grasp myself, turning myself into an object? But we should not allow ourselves to be halted here by difficulties which arise, in the last analysis, from an attempt to interpret philosophical thought as springing from the grammatical structure of language; the accusative case being linked, in that structure, to the object, and to the process of objectivization. One, in fact, of the most serious weaknesses of philosophy up to our own times seems to me to have consisted in an outrageous over-simplification (I have already made such a point and we shall have to go into the whole topic much more closely) of the relationships that bind me to myself, a failure to see that an indefinite, perhaps an infinite, number of such relationships can be specified; for I can behave to myself as a master, as a friend, as an antagonist, and so on… I can treat myself as a stranger and, on the other hand, as somebody with whom I am intimate. But to treat myself as somebody with whom I am intimate is to be in touch with myself as a subject. That feeling, which has always been so strong, not only among Christian mystics, but in, for instance, a Stoic like Marcus Aurelius, of a certain sacred reality in the self cannot be separated from an apprehension of the self in its subjectivity.

Nevertheless, if we push our analysis a little further, we cannot fail to strike upon a disconcerting fact. Of this self, felt and recognized as not being the self of some particular individual, can we strictly say that it exists? Of course, the answer will be that it primarily depends upon what one means by ‘exists’; nevertheless, I am forced to take account of very numerous cases in which I do not hesitate to say, without running any risk of contradiction, that somebody or something exists; the real question is whether the current use of the verb ‘to exist’ (quite apart from all the notional elaborations of the idea of existence in recent philosophy) permits us to say that this ‘veiled reality’ also exists. I have no doubt about the answer: it is in the negative. In the usual sense of the verb ‘to exist’, a sense, of course, which we shall have to define by and by, this reality, taken in isolation, does not exist—which does not necessarily mean that it is imaginary, for there is no a priori reason for postulating a relationship between the actual and the imaginary, such that what is not actual must be imaginary, and what is not imaginary must be actual.

But we must now ask ourselves, still holding back from any attempt to define the notion of existence, if there is any touchstone of existence, or rather any existence that will itself serve as a touchstone, that we can put a name to: to be as precise as possible, do I know of an existence such that, if I were to deny it, any assertion by me that anything else at all existed would become quite inconceivable? Let us notice that we are here at the level of phenomenology and not of ontology; in the old-fashioned terms, of appearance and not reality, of manifestation and not ground. The question I am asking myself is by no means a question of the following order: whether in the hierarchy of being there is an absolute existent—which could only, of course, be God—such that it confers existence, that the derivative existence of everything else proceeds from it. No, I am talking merely about myself, in so far as I make a judgment that something or other exists, and I am asking myself whether there is some central significance of existence, or some centrally significant existence in relation to which all these judgments are arrayed and organized. If there is, I would call it an existential indubitable. Now this centrally significant existence, my denial of which entails the inconceivability of my asserting any other existence, is simply, of course, myself, in so far as I feel sure that I exist. But the exact implications of that statement must be carefully elicited; for I risk, at this point, a head-on collision with total or modified scepticism.

Total scepticism would consist in saying: ‘I am not sure either that something exists or what sort of a something it would be that could exist’. But to assert, in this way, that perhaps nothing exists implies the previous taking up of two positions; firstly, I lay down a criterion, no doubt a vague, inexplicit criterion, failing to satisfy which nothing can be said to exist; secondly, I ask myself whether anything I am directly acquainted with satisfies that criterion, and come to the conclusion that I am not quite sure. I will risk saying that a question framed in such hazily defined terms lacks even metaphysical significance; but at the phenomenological level, at least, it is quite obviously meaningless. From our phenomenological point of view, we have only to consider that for us, in the everyday experience we start from, there is that which exists and that which does not exist, and to ask ourselves what meaning we attach to this distinction; we need not ask ourselves whether this existence of everyday experience is or is not an absolute existence, nor whether these two terms, absolute and existent, are congruous with each other, that is whether the notion of an absolute existent conveys anything to the mind. That is a problem which we must tackle much later, in the context of all our other problems.

Relative or modified scepticism, on the other hand, would consist in saying: ‘Possibly I myself do not really exist, I who am asking questions about existence’. Here, I think, we do really run our heads against the existential indubitable. But we must remember that a certain caution is necessary even at this point. If, in the question, ‘Do I exist?’ I take the ‘I’ separately and treat it as a sort of mental object that can be isolated, a sort of ‘that’, and if I take the question as meaning: ‘Is or is not existence something that can be predicated of this “that”?’ the question does not seem to suggest any answer to itself, not even a negative answer. But this would prove simply that the question had been badly put, that it was, if I may say so, a vicious question. It was vicious for two reasons: because the ‘I’ cannot in any case whatsoever be treated as a ‘that’, because the ‘I’ is the very negation of the ‘that’, of any ‘that’ whatsoever and also because existence is not a predicate, as Kant seems to have established once and for all, in the Critique of Pure Reason.

If therefore the ‘I exist’ can be taken as an indubitable touchstone of existence, it is on condition that it is treated as an indissoluble unity: the ‘I’ cannot be considered apart from the ‘exist’. It seems necessary, however, to probe more deeply still, for I think a discussion about the nature of this pure immediacy—the pure immediacy expressed by the ‘I exist’—must inevitably intrude at this point. One might, in particular, be tempted to say that the self's immediate certitude of its existence pertains essentially to its sense-experience; and some modern philosophers might be tempted to substitute for the Cogito, ergo sum of Descartes a Sentio, ergo sum. It would be easy, to be sure, to show that this change is a mere change in appearance; for from the moment that, in a mental process, there intervenes anything resembling the process of inference (like the ergo in Sentio, ergo sum), there we have thought; the sentio masks a cogito, or rather it is itself a cogito in an enshrouded and indistinct state. On the offer hand the sum itself, the affirmation, ‘I exist’, seems to lie at another level; above, as it were, and on the banks of every possible current of inference. This is what Claudel expresses with peculiar pungency in the opening lines of his Tête d' Or:

‘Here am I,

‘Weak, ignorant,

‘A new man in the face of unknown things,

‘And I turn my face to the year and the rainy arc, my heart is

‘full of weariness,

‘I lack knowledge or force for action. What shall I utter, what

‘shall I undertake? How shall I use these dangling hands, ‘these feet of mine that draw me on like dreams?

In such lines, we are up against existence in all its nakedness.

But I would rather evoke another image, that of the small child who comes up to us with shining eyes, and who seems to be saying: ‘Here I am! What luck!’ As I wrote a few years ago in my Diary (1943:) ‘When I say, not that I am, but that I exist.… I glimpse more or less obscurely the fact that my being is not only present to my own awareness but that it is a manifest being. It might be better, indeed, instead of saying, “I exist”, to say, “I am manifest”. The Latin prefix ex—meaning out, outwards, out from—in “exist” has the greatest importance. I exist—that is as much as to say: I have something to make myself known and recognized both by others and by myself, even if I wear borrowed plumes.’ There is, to be sure, one difficulty that seems to arise in this connection; we may be tempted to make a distinction between the fact of existing and that of saying, to others or to oneself, that one does exist. But in such a context perhaps the verb ‘to say’ is ambiguous. To clear away that ambiguity as far as possible, let me say that this impossibility of doubting one's own existence of which we have been talking seems to be linked to a kind of exclamatory awareness of oneself; this awareness is expressed in the small child (and, indeed, perhaps already at the level of consciousness of the higher animals) by cries, by leaps, and so on, though naturally with the adult its expression is more measured and restrained—more and more so, the more, for the adult, that immediacy of self-awareness is crusted over by habit and by all the superstructures of an official, compartmentalized life; it is pretty certain, in fact, that we are all tending to become bureaucrats, and not only in our outward behaviour, but in our relations with ourselves. This is as much as to say that between ourselves and existence we are interposing thicker and thicker screens.

But even if this is the case, we must still say, quite peremptorily, that existence and the exclamatory awareness of existence cannot be really separated; the dissociation of the two can be carried out only at the cost of robbing the subject of our investigation of its proper nature; separated from that exclamatory self-awareness (the child's, ‘Here I am! What luck!’), existence tends to be reduced to its own corpse; and it lies outside the power of any philosophy whatsoever to resuscitate such a corpse. But what we should specially notice here, and what cannot be too much underlined, is the massive character of this self, this existential indubitable. If we are, as I think we are, in the presence here of a key datum, or rather a datum on which everything else hinges, we should also acknowledge from the first that this datum is not transparent to itself; nothing could bear a smaller likeness to the transcendental ego, which already in a certain sense in Kant's case, but much more noticeably among his successors, had taken its stance, as it were, at the very heart and centre of the philosophical arena. This non-transparency is implied in the fact, which I mentioned earlier, that I postulate myself as existing both for myself and for others; and when I do so, whatever I am asserting cannot be considered apart from the datum which is now going to take up our attention, I mean, my body; my body in so far as it is my body, my body in so far as it has the character, in itself so mysterious, which we are expressing here by saying it is something I possess, something that belongs to me.

Let us note at once that there could be no clearer example than that which we are now beginning to consider of the special part played in thought by secondary, by what I have called recuperative, reflection. Primary reflection, on the contrary, for its part, is forced to break the fragile link between me and my body that is constituted here by the word ‘mine’. The body that I call my body is in fact only one body among many others. In relation to these other bodies, it has been endowed with no special privileges whatsoever. It is not enough to say that this is objectively true, it is the precondition of any sort of objectivity whatsoever, it is the foundation of all scientific knowledge (in the case we are thinking of, of anatomy, of physiology, and all their connected disciplines). Primary reflection is therefore forced to take up an attitude of radical detachment, of complete lack of interest, towards the fact that this particular body happens to be mine; primary reflection has to recall the facts that this body has just the same properties, that it is liable to suffer the same disorders, that it is fated in the end to undergo the same destruction, as any other body whatsoever. Objectively speaking, it is non-privileged; and yet spontaneously, naively, I do have a tendency to delude myself about it, and to attribute to it—in relation to this malady, or that—a sort of mysterious immunity; sad experience, however, in most cases dissipates such an illusion, and primary reflection forces me to acknowledge that the facts must be as I have stated them.

Let it be clearly understood that secondary reflection does not set out flatly to give the lie to these propositions; it manifests itself rather by a refusal to treat primary reflection's separation of this body, considered as just a body, a sample body, some body or other, from the self that I am, as final. Its fulcrum, or its springboard, is just that massive, indistinct sense of one's total existence which a short time ago we were trying, not exactly to define (for, as the condition which makes the defining activity possible, it seems to be prior to all definition) but to give a name to and evoke, to locate as an existential centre.

It is easy to see that the dualism of body and soul, as it is postulated, for instance, in the Cartesian philosophy, springs from primary reflection, though in one peculiarly obscure passage, indeed, Descartes was led into talking of the union of body and soul as a third substance; but what I propose to do here is not, in fact, to comment on such well-known philosophical doctrines, but to get directly to grips with that non-transparent datum, which is constituted by my body felt as my body, before primary reflection has performed its task of dissociating the notion of body from the notion of what is intimately mine. But how will secondary reflection proceed in this case? It can only, it might seem, get to work on the processes to which primary reflection has itself had recourse; seeking, as it were, to restore a semblance of unity to the elements which primary reflection has first severed. However, even when engaged in this attempt at unification, the reflective process would in reality still remain at the primary stage, since it would remain a prisoner in the hands of the very oppositions which it, itself, had in the first instance postulated, instead of calling the ultimate validity of these oppositions into question.

Everything, however, becomes fairly clear if we set the matter in the following perspective, keeping within the limits of that traditional logic, the logic not of the process but of the thing, which remains faithful to the age-old distinction between the subject and the predicate. With the categories of such a logic in mind, we shall be led either to consider the body and soul as two distinct things between which some determinable relationship must exist, some relationship capable of abstract formulation, or to think of the body as something of which the soul as we improperly call it, is the predicate, or on the other hand of the soul as something of which the body, as we improperly call it, is the predicate. The arguments that tell against the two latter interpretations have been put forward so often, and besides are so obvious in themselves, that I do not think there would be any point in going over them again now. Besides, they are implied in the whole general drift of our investigation. There remains to be considered a dualism of body and soul which can, however, take extremely different forms; we can have psycho-physical parallelism, as in Spinoza, or we can have psycho-physical interactionism. But in both cases, body and soul, at least, are treated as things, and things, for the purposes of logical discourse, become terms, which one imagines as strictly defined, and as linked to each other by some determinable relation. I want to show that if we reflect on what is implied by the datum of my body, by what I cannot help calling my body, this postulate that body and soul are things must be rejected; and this rejection entails consequences of the first importance.

We should notice, in the first place, that to say ‘my body’ is to reject psycho-physical parallelism; for it is to postulate a certain intimacy of relationship between me (whatever exactly I mean by ‘me’ here) and my body for which the parallelist schema has no place. I may be told that my belief in the existence of this intimacy is a simple illusion on my part, which it is the business of the philosopher, as such, to clear out of the way. But let us remember, once more, that we are proceeding, throughout the whole of this discussion, in a strictly phenomenological fashion; that is to say, we are accepting our everyday experience, and asking ourselves what implications we can draw from it. From this phenomenological point of view we have to ask ourselves where the philosopher, who is eager to clear this illusory belief out of the way, is taking his stand. He is taking his stand on some height where he has abstracted from his own experience, where he has put aside, as unworthy of consideration, the fact that he himself has this feeling of an intimate connection between himself and his body; but it is surely permissible to think, in that case, that for the richness of experience he is substituting mere abstract schemas, and that, far from transcending experience, he has not yet reached the stage of grappling with it. From my own point of view all I have to bear in mind is that my own experience implies the possibility of behaving in a various number of definite ways towards my own body; I can yield to its whims, or on the other hand I can try to master it. It can become my tyrant, but I can also, or so it seems, make it my slave. It is only by sheer prodigies of acrobatic sophistry that I can fit these facts into the framework of the parallelist thesis; and at the point in our discussion we have now reached, I can see no worthwhile reason for trying to do so. In compensation every experience of this kind does presuppose, as its basis, that opaque datum: my body. What we must now see is whether an analysis of the notion of ownership in general—of whatever the ‘my’ of ‘my body’ implies—can set that datum in a clearer and more penetrating light.

Is my body my body, for instance, in the same sense in which I would say that my dog belongs to me? The question, let us first of all notice, of how the dog originally came into my hands is quite irrelevant here. Perhaps I found it wandering wretchedly about the streets, perhaps I bought it in a shop; I can say it is mine if nobody else puts in a claim for it—though this is still quite a negative condition of ownership. For the dog to be really, not merely nominally, mine there must exist between us a more positive set of relations. He must live, either with me, or as I, and I alone, have decided he shall live—lodged, perhaps, with a servant or a farmer; whether or not I look after him personally, I must assume the responsibility for his being looked after. And this implies something reciprocal in our relations. It is only if the dog recognizes me, obeys me, expresses by his behaviour towards me some feeling which I can interpret as affection or, at the very least, as wholesome fear, that he is really mine; I would become a laughing-stock if I persisted in calling an animal that completely ignored me, that took no notice of me at all, my dog. And the mockery to which I would be exposed in such an instance is very significant. It is linked to a very positive idea of how things must be between my dog and me, before I can really say, ‘This dog is mine’.

Let us now try to see what relationship there may be between such a mode of ownership and the link between myself and my body that makes my body mine. We are forced to recognize that the analogy is rather a full and exact one. There is first of all my indisputable claim to my body, as to my dog. I recall, in this connection, the title of a very bad novel that came out in Paris a few years ago: My Body is My Own. This claim, this right to one's own body, this instinctive feeling that my body belongs to me, can be held in check only under slavery. The slave's master thinks, on the contrary, that the slave's body belongs to him; because he has bought that body, or for some other reason that has to do with a particular historical situation. But it must be pointed out that even where slavery exists as a social fact, it is always more or less obscurely resented by the slave himself as essentially unjust and not to be justified, as incompatible with a human right written, as it were, into the very build of the slave's own nature; and I would even go as far as to say that a creature who had lost even the very obscurest awareness of the rape committed on him by slavery would no longer be quite human. But that is a limit which, so long as life itself persists, can never be quite reached; the slave really cannot rid himself of the feeling that his body is his own.

When it comes to the question of looking after my dog, or my body, the analogy is still relevant. Thinking of my body, I am bound to envisage the inescapable responsibility laid upon me to provide for its subsistence. Here, too, there is a limit, though this time an upper limit, that implied by a total asceticism; but here too we are leaving life, though leaving it at a more elevated level (it is the yogi, of course, rather than the Christian Fathers of the Desert, that I have in mind). We should notice, also, that these two ideal limits, these two possibilities—that the slave might say, ‘This body is not mine’, and the yogi, ‘Looking after this body is not my responsibility’—are in the highest degree characteristic of our situation or our condition, call it what you will. This is a fact we must never lose sight of.

Finally, what I have said about the dog's obedience applies also to my union with my body; my body is only properly mine to the degree to which I am able to control it. But here, too, there is a limit, an inner limit; if as a consequence of some serious illness, I lose all control of my body, it tends to cease to be my body, for the very profound reason that, as we say in the common idiom, I am ‘no longer myself’. But at the other extreme, possibly as a yogi I also cease to be myself, and that for the opposite reason, because the control exercised by the yogi over his body is absolute, whereas in the mean position which is that of what we call normal life, such control is always partial, always threatened to some degree.

Having recognized the fulness and exactness of this analogy, we must interpret it, but not without first recognizing that, in spite of its fulness and exactness, it has its specious side; my dog, like, to be sure, any other object that belongs to me, presents itself to me as something distinct from that spatio-temporal being that I am, as external to that being. Literally speaking, it does not form part of that being, though after a long association between my dog and myself a special and mysterious link may be created, something that comes very near, and in a rather precise fashion, to what we shall later call intersubjectivity.

But our central problem here has to do with the idea of having as such. It is not, I think, very difficult to see that my link with my body is really the model (a model not shaped, but felt) to which I relate all kinds of ownership, for instance my ownership of my dog; but it is not true that this link can itself be defined as a sort of ownership. In other words it is by what literally must be called a paralogism that I seek to think through my relationship with my body, starting off with my relationship with my dog. The truth is rather that within every ownership, every kind of ownership I exercise, there is this kernel that I feel to be there at the centre; and this kernel is nothing other than the experience—an experience which of its very nature cannot be formulated in intellectual terms—by which my body is mine.

We can throw at least a little light on our argument at this point by making the following observation. The self that owns things can never, even in thought, be reduced to a completely dematerialized ego. It seems to me impossible even to conceive how a dematerialized ego could have any claim, or any care, to possess anything; but the two notions of claiming and caring are implied, of course, in every case of something's being possessed.

In the second place—and this observation derives from, and may throw light on, that previously made—my possessions, in so far as I really hold to them, or cling to them, present themselves to me as felt additions to, or completions of, my own body. This becomes extraordinarily clear at any moment when, for whatever reason, the link between myself and my possessions is snapped or even threatened. I have at such moments a sort of rending feeling which seems quite on all fours with my feeling when the actual wholeness of my body is threatened in some way; and indeed such words as ‘rending’ or ‘wrenching’, which are quite commonly used to express people's feelings about losing their possessions, are themselves very significant in this connection.

I shall say once more that having, possessing, owning, in the strong and exact sense of the term, has to be thought of in analogy with that unity, a unity sui generis, which is constituted by my body in so far as it is my body. No doubt, as I have already said, in the case of external having, possessing, ownership, the unity is imperfect; the object that I possess can be lost, can be stolen, can be damaged or decayed—while I, the dispossessed possessor, remain. I remain, but affected by my loss, and the more affected the more deeply, the more strongly I was, if I may coin the term, a haver. The tragedy of all having invariably lies in our desperate efforts to make ourselves as one with something which nevertheless is not, and cannot, be identical with our beings; not even with the being of him who really does possess it. This, of course, is most strikingly so in the case where what we want to possess is another being who, just because he or she is a being, recoils from the idea of being possessed. That, for instance, is the point of Molière's L'Ecole des Femmes, a comedy which strikes us even today as one of the world's imperishable masterpieces; while the penultimate sections of Proust's great novel, with their account of Marcel's desperate attempts to hide Albertine away, and thus make himself feel sure of her inside himself, provide a tragic illustration of the same theme.

But in relation to this whole matter of possession, what is at once characteristic and exceptional about my own body is that, in this solitary instance, it does not seem that we can assert, in the case of the thing possessed, the usual relationship of independence of the being who possesses. More precisely, rather, the structure of my experience offers me no direct means of knowing what I shall still be, what I can still be, once the link between myself and my body is broken by what I call death. That is a point to which we must return, to deal with it at length, in my second volume; and we shall then have to ask ourselves whether there is any way of getting out of this metaphysical blind alley. But for the moment we must simply admit that, swathed up, as it were, in my situation as an incarnate being, there is this riddle, which, at a purely objective level, appears to admit of no answer at all.

To explore this situation more thoroughly, we must tackle it from yet another angle, and naturally it is still secondary reflection that we are calling on to help us.

I cannot avoid being tempted to think of my body as a kind of instrument; or, more generally speaking, as the apparatus which permits me to act upon, and even to intrude myself into, the world. It does look, for instance, as if Bergson's philosophy implied a doctrine of the body-soul relationship of this sort; though this cannot be taken as a definitive interpretation of that philosophy. What we must do in this case, however, is just what we did when we were examining the notion of having, owning, possessing; we must ask ourselves what being an instrument implies, and within what limits instrumental action is feasible. It is obvious that every instrument is an artificial means of extending, developing, or reinforcing a pre-existing power which must be possessed by anyone who wants to make use of the instrument. This, for instance, is true of the simplest tool, for instance of the knife or the hoe. It is equally, however, true of the most complicated optical apparatus conceivable. The basis of such an apparatus is our power of seeing and the possibility of extending that. Such powers are what one might call the very notes of an organized body's activity; it might even be contended that, considered realistically—that is to say, dynamically, functionally—such a body consists merely of its assembled powers. The word ‘assembled’, however, seems to convey in a very inadequate fashion the kind of totality which we have here in mind; so it might be better to say that each of the body's powers is a specific expression of its unity—and I am thinking of the unity of an apparatus, an apparatus adaptable to many purposes, and considered, by us, from the outside. Only let us remember that it is not a body, but my body, that we are asking ourselves questions about. As soon as we get back to this perspective, our original perspective, the whole picture changes.

My body is my body just in so far as I do not consider it in this detached fashion, do not put a gap between myself and it. To put this point in another way, my body is mine in so far as for me my body is not an object but, rather, I am my body. Certainly, the meaning of ‘am’ in that sentence is, at a first glance, obscure; it is essentially, perhaps, in its implications, a negative meaning. To say that I am my body is to negate, to deny, to erase that gap which, on the other hand, I would be postulating as soon as I asserted that my body was merely my instrument. And we must notice at this point that if I do postulate such a gap, I am involved at once in an infinite regress. The use of any instrument whatsoever is, as we have seen, to extend the powers of the body, or in a sense to extend the body itself. If, then, we think of the body as merely an instrument, we must think of the use of the body as being the extension of the powers of some other body (a mental body, an astral body, or what you will); but this mental or astral body must itself be the instrument that extends the powers of some third kind of body, and so on for ever.… We can avoid this infinite regress, but only on one condition: we must say that this body, which, by a fiction modelled on the instruments that extend its powers of action, we can think of as itself an instrument, is nevertheless, in so far as it is my body, not an instrument at all. Speaking of my body is, in a certain sense, a way of speaking of myself: it places me at a point where either I have not yet reached the instrumental relationship or I have passed beyond it.

But let us walk warily at this point. There is a way of conceiving the identity of myself and my body which comes down to mere materialism, and materialism of a coarse and incoherent sort. There would be no point in asserting my identity with the body that other people can see and touch, and which for myself is something other than myself, in so far as I put it on the same level as any other body whatsoever, that is, at the level of the body as an object. The proper position to take up seems, on the contrary, to be this: I am my body in so far as I succeed in recognizing that this body of mine cannot, in the last analysis, be brought down to the level of being this object, an object, a something or other. It is at this point that we have to bring in the idea of the body not as an object but as a subject. It is in so far as I enter into some kind of relationship (though relationship is not an adequate term for what I have in mind) with the body, some kind of relationship which resists being made wholly objective to the mind, that I can properly assert that I am identical with my body; one should notice, also, that, like the term ‘relationship’, the term ‘identity’ is inadequate to our meaning here, for it is a term fully applicable only in a world of things or more precisely of mental abstractions from things, a world which our incarnate condition inevitably transcends. It goes without saying, by the way, that the term ‘incarnation’, of which I shall have to make a frequent use from now on, applies solely and exclusively in our present context to the situation of a being who appears to himself to be linked fundamentally and not accidentally to his or her body… In a former work of mine, my Metaphysical Diary, I used the phrase ‘sympathetic mediation’ to convey the notion of our non-instrumental communion with our bodies; I cannot say that I find the phrase wholly satisfactory, but even today, that is to say, twenty-five years later, the phrase seems to me the least inadequate way, if only that, of conveying the slippery notion. To elucidate the meaning of the phrase, we should recall the fact that my body, in so far as it is properly mine, presents itself to me in the first instance as something felt; I am my body only in so far as I am a being that has feelings. From this point of view it seems, therefore, that my body is endowed with an absolute priority in relation to everything that I can feel that is other than my body itself; but then, strictly speaking, can I really feel anything other than my body itself? Would not the case of my feeling something else be merely the case of my feeling myself as feeling something else, so that I would never be able to pass beyond various modifications of my own self-feeling?

But this is not the end of our difficulties: I shall be tempted to ask myself whether I am not forced to make use of my body in order to feel my body—the body being, at one and the same time, what feels and what is felt. Let us notice moreover that at this point the whole question of instrumentality intrudes itself once more surreptitiously into our argument. My postulate has been simply that feeling is a function which can be exercised only thanks to some apparatus or other—the apparatus, in fact, of my body—but by postulating this I have once more committed myself to all the contradictions, with which we are already well acquainted, of the instrumental view. Ought we not therefore to conclude from this that feeling is not really a function, that there is no instrument that enables us to feel? Was it not, really, just this fact that feeling is not instrumentally based that my rather obscure expression, ‘sympathetic mediation’, was intended to convey?

However that may be, we have certainly at this point laid upon ourselves the duty of enquiring into the fundamental nature of feeling. We shall not start by criticizing philosophical explanations of feelings; but by criticizing, rather, our common, everyday ways of grasping at the fact of feeling, of representing feeling to ourselves, long before we have reached the stage of philosophical reflection.

  • 1.

    Introduction à la Philosophic. Madrid, 1947