Kheper Home | Western Philosophy Home | Topics Index | New or updated | Search

"What proof did she really have that it was God?"

--Jean Paul Sartre

Wayne Ferguson

	There was a madwoman who had hallucinations; someone used to
	speak to her on the telephone and give her orders. Her doctor
	asked her, "Who is it who talks	to you?"  She answered "He says 
	it's God."  What proof did she really have that it was God? If
	an angel comes to me, what proof is there that it's an angel? 
	And if I hear voices, what proof is there that they come from 
	heaven and not from hell, or from the subconscious, or a 
	pathological condition? What proves that they are addressed to 
	me? What proof is there that I have been appointed to impose my 
	choice and my conception of man on humanity? I'll never find 
	any proof or sign to convicne me of that.  If a voice addresses 
	me, it is always for me to decide that this is the angel's 
	voice; if I consider that such an act is a good one, it is I 
	who will choose to say that it is good rather than bad. . . .
	We have no excuse behind us, nor justification before us. We 
	are alone, with no excuses. . . . man is condemned to be free.
	Condemned, because he did not create himself, yet, in other 
	respects is free; because, once thrown into the world, he is
	responsible for everything he does.. . . The existentialist 
	does not think that man is going to help himself by finding 
	in the world some omen any which to orient himself. Because 
	he thinks that man will interpret the omen to suit himself. 
	[from Sartre's "The Humanism of Existentialism." tras. by Bernard 

I prepared the following texts and "observations" for a summer course on "French Phenomenology and Existentialism" at Marquette University. They are still of interest to me inasmuch as they relate to the question of human freedom. The notion of "free will" is often evoked by those who desire someone else's behavior to conform to their own moral standards (which they assume to be absolute). They believe they know what others "ought" to do and they also believe that others are "free" to do as they ought. Anyone who does otherwise is judged to be deficient in good will. I believe that these texts demonstrate that Sartre's notion of freedom is of no help to traditional moralists in their effort to persuade others to behave differently. Indeed, one of Sartres chief insights is that there is no one and no thing outside our own will to whom or which we can look for moral guidance. Moreover, we cannot by taking thought alter that which we freely intend. Nevertheless, the possibility remains that we can--on the level of reflective consciousness--be more or less attuned to and in sync with the pre-reflective upsurge of freedom which is our fundamental project.

6-14-90 General observations and questions concerning Part IV, chapter 1, of Being and Nothingness.

I found this chapter extremely interesting. The question that remains in my mind is "On what level of consciousness is freedom operative--reflective or pre-reflective? or does this question somehow miss the point? As I look back over the first twenty or thirty pages of the chapter, I find the following passages that would seem to confirm the relevance of my question:

The voluntary act is distinguished from the involuntary spontaneity in that the latter is a purely unreflective consciousness of causes across the pure and simple project of the act. As for the motive, in the unreflective act it is not an object for itself but a simple non-positional self-consciousness. The structure of the voluntary act, on the other hand, requires the appearance of a reflective consciousness which apprehends the motive as a quasi-object or which even intends it as a psychic object across the consciousness reflected-on (451) [Paper back edition 581].

In an extended passage just prior to the one quoted above, Sartre indicates that all deliberations--characteristic of my "voluntary" acts--are actually just another mode of action pursued in service of a fundamental project which from all indications arises unreflectively and constitutes being-for-itself:

Past motives, past causes, present motives and causes, future ends, all are organized in an indissoluble unity by the very upsurge of a freedom which is beyond all causes, motives, and ends. The result is that a voluntary deliberation is always a deception. How can I evaluate causes and motives on which I myself confer their value before all deliberation and by the very choice which I make of myself? . . . if I am brought to the point of deliberating, this is simply because it is a part of my original project to realize motives by means of deliberation rather than by some other form of discovery (by passion, for example, or simply by action, which reveals to me the organized ensemble of causes and of ends as my language informs me of my thought). There is therefore a choice of deliberation as a procedure which will make known to me what I project and consequently what I am. And the choice of deliberation is organized with the ensemble motives-causes and end by free spontaneity (450-451) [581].

If there remains any doubt as to the primary level on which freedom operates, consider the following description of "intention" which underlies reflection deliberation:

Now that we have defined cause and motive, it is necessary to give to this project which underlies reflection the name intention. To the extent therefore that the will is an instance of reflection, the fact of its being placed so as to act on the voluntary level demands for its foundation a more profound intention. It is not enough for the psychologist to describe a particular subject as realizing his project in the mode of voluntary reflection; the psychologist must also be capable of releasing to us the profound intention which makes the subject realize his project in this mode of volition rather than in a wholly different mode. Moreover, it must be clearly understood that any mode of consciousness whatsoever may have produced the same realization once the ends are posited by an original project. Thus we have touched on a more profound freedom than the will . . . (452) [582].

The verdict is in, then. Reflective deliberation as to the proper course of action is only one mode of volition and always presupposes a more fundamental choice on the pre-reflective level. This more fundamental choice is the upsurge of freedom that constitutes being-for-itself. It is still conscious, according to Sartre, and still free, but it would seem to be fundamentally pre-reflective. This is further borne out in Sartre's assertion that the will--on the level of reflective volition can sometimes appear to conflict with the fundamental project of the For-itself. For example, Sartre says that his fundamental project may be one of inferiority and he will, therefore

persist in manifesting [himself] in a certain kind of employment because [he] is inferior in it, whereas in some other field [he] could without difficulty show [himself] equal to the average. It is this fruitless effort which I have chosen, simply because it is fruitless--either because I prefer to be the last rather than to be lost in the mass or because I have chosen discouragement and shame as the best means of attaining being (472) [608].

In a case such as this, Sartre indicates, an individual will always be in bad faith on the level of the reflective will:

It is obvious, however, that I can choose as a field of action the province in which I am inferior only if this choice implies the reflective will to be superior there. To choose to be an inferior artist is of necessity to wish to be a great artist; otherwise the inferiority would be neither suffered nor recognized (472) [608].

Regarding this same artist, Sartre, continues:

. . . this very will is in bad faith; that is, it flees the recognition of the true ends chosen by the spontaneous consciousness (473) [608] .

Yet even this bad faith is in service of the artists more fundamental project, for the subject must be desperate in his pursuit of greatness in order to realize his more fundamental project of inferiority. Thus, any reflective volition is always secondary to a pre-reflective project which is fundamental. This explains how the will can appear to conflict with the fundamental project:

Thus presented, the "paradox" of the inefficacy of voluntary decisions will appear less offensive. It amounts to saying that by means of the will, we can construct ourselves entirely, but that the will which presides over this construction finds its meaning in the original project which it can appear to deny, that consequently this construction has a function wholly different from that which it advertizes, and that finally it can reach only details of structures and will never modify the original project from which it has issued (476) [612].

It seems, then, that we have correctly interpreted this fundamental project as originating on a pre-reflective level. Furthermore, we must also dispose of any idea that the reflective level can ever change the original project. Rather, as the above cited texts make clear, we can only reason from the perspective of our fundamental project which is the perspective in light of which we choose reflective deliberation as a mode of volition in the first place.

Sartre, Jean Paul Being and Nothingness. Hazel E. Barnes, trans. New York:
Philosophical Library, 1956.

Kheper index page
Topics index page
Western Philosophy home page

Kheper Home | Western Philosophy Home | Topics Index | New or updated | Search

images not loading? | error messages? | broken links? | suggestions? | criticism?
contact me

original content copyright © 1995-2003 Wayne Ferguson - reproduced with permission
original url
page mirrored on Kheper 2 August 2004