Sartre and the Rationalization of Human Sexuality
W. M. Alexander
Akin to Plato in his rationalization of sexuality is Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre is probably the end of existentialist philosophy in two senses: in the first place in the sense of extending existentialist premises as far as they can be taken, and in the second place in the sense of serving as the canonical example of existentialist thought.
Since existentialism is the philosophy above all other philosophies which takes seriously the concrete existence of a human in all of its facticity, anxiety, temporality, and fleshliness, and will place this existence before all decisions about essence, it would seem that above all others we can expect from Sartre a philosophy of sexuality. The fate of this expectation is the problem before us.
Sartre not only is the existentialist heir of Kierkegaard and more immediately, Heidegger, but is a French philosopher, and therefore in some sense a disciple of Descartes. All reality is either consciousness or non-conscious being. However, this Cartesianism is qualified by a dialectic derived from Hegel and by Hegelian concepts and explicated through a phenomenological method influenced by Husserl. Yet the net effect of Sartre's picture of sexuality is surprisingly platonic; it is what Plato might be expected to say if he had published his position after World War II.
Sartre's philosophy is presented in his major work, Being and Nothingness, subtitled, An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. (1) Hazel Barnes notes in her introduction that Sartre is one of the few philosophers in the twentieth century to produce a complete philosophical system. This system is presented in Being and Nothingness.
The terms in the title refer to the two primary constituents of reality: being, which is non-conscious, and the negation of being, which is the way Sartre conceives of consciousness. This consciousness of being is examined by a method called phenomenological, which suggests that no pretension is being made to uncover the ultimate nature of reality in a "metaphysics," but that Sartre intends to describe as accurately as possible the structures of reality as it appears.
The dichotomy of being and nothingness is a new version of platonic and cartesian dualism with several severe qualifications. Descartes' consciousness is no longer a substance in Sartre and with the use of the concept of nothing the most serious attempt is made to avoid the reification of Plato's forms. Sartre's consciousness is an essay in greater faithfulness to Plato than Plato himself: a form of pure intellection is not a something.
There is also a dialectic in Sartre which begins with being and its negation. The conceptualization of being (being-in-itself) and its negation (being-for-itself) is borrowed from Hegel, but the third stage, the stage of synthesis in Hegel, is repudiated. Sartre's dialectic is not dissolved or transcended in any synthesis; it is perpetual.
These considerations are important for an understanding of Sartre's treatment of sexuality, since he has insisted that he be understood in a system. An overview of Sartre's argument should be helpful:
"Bad faith" is an act on the part of consciousness in misleading itself about its relationships. Being-for-itself, or the For-itself, exists as body (306ff). Body exists in three ontological dimensions:
Being-for-the-other has three attitudes (cf. 407)
Sartre's discussion of sexuality is found principally in the sections on the first two attitudes above. To anticipate our conclusions, it turns out that Sartre's approach parallels the two characteristics of Plato's philosophy of sexuality.
In the first place, Sartre's interests are platonic. The concern is with the abstract relations of the For-itself, In-itself, and the Other (407). Sexuality is essential to humans in Sartre's philosophy in the same sense that matter is essential. It is not at all clear how sexuality has made any difference in his thought; this objection can be made particularly cogent when one looks in vain in Sartre's philosophy for specific differences between man and woman.
In the second place, Sartre's solutions to the sexual crises of a person are platonic, a perpetual flight on the part of rationality from one dialectical relation to another. In each attitude toward the other, bad faith is inescapable. Since sexuality is a part of the dialectic of bad faith, sexuality also is inescapable (408). (2) However, the flight of reason from sex is indefatigable, just as is the flight of Plato's reason from temporality.
Sartre's point of beginning is Cartesian. His argument starts with a modern version of the ontological argument. Descartes' cogito and Husserl's intentionality are self-evidencing. Since "all consciousness is consciousness of something" (lxii), to be aware of anything at all is to be given infallibly two kinds of reality which are inseparable but undeniable, namely, consciousness and its object.
Objectivity is being-in-itself. It is uncreated, it is self-identical, it is everything that is non-conscious and non-free. It is simply what it is (lxvi-lxviii).
On the other hand, consciousness is non-objective. It is nothingness. It is not the same as the Ego, which is the self become object. "The For-itself, in fact, is nothing but the pure nihilation of the In-itself; it is like a hole of being at the heart of Being" (617). Sartre refers to a figure of speech used to popularize the principle of the conservation of energy: it is said that if one atom were to pass out of existence absolutely without trace, the universe would become unravelled.
"The For-itself is like a tiny nihilation which has its origin at the heart of Being; and this nihilation is sufficient to cause a total upheaval to happen to the In-itself. This upheaval is the world. The For-itself has no reality save that of being the nihilation of being" (617-618). So Sartre, like Descartes, and we may also say, like Plato before them, has given us two kinds of reality which are completely and utterly incompatible and yet are inextricably bound together.
This incompatibility of what is inseparable, of the subjective and the objective, is what begins all the troubles of humans. For a human is this creature who is conscious of something, who can be subjective and objective.
The name for the beginning of troubles is bad faith. Bad faith is the conscious confusion of the categories of subjectivity and objectivity. It is the attempt of a subject to fool itself into considering itself an object. It is the confusion of subject and object by a self who is aware of the differences. Put another way, a lie is a lie to others; bad faith is a lie to oneself (49).
There are a number of important implications in Sartre's peculiar concept of bad faith, including implications for his analysis of sexuality. The existentialist or psychological implication is basic to all the others. Sartre emphasizes his connection with Kierkegaard at this point. Bad faith is a condition of conscious existence which is an expression of the basic anxiety of humans. Existing as a nothingness at the core of their being, they are constantly attempting to quiet their anxiety by turning themselves into the stability of objects. Another implication is theological. The origin of the gods can be credited to bad faith. Humans create a god to provide for themselves an objective basis for their choice of values and to hide from themselves the secret of these values, which is the
nothingness of subjectivity. God is conjured up to protect humans from their own freedom. There are also implications for psychoanalysis. Sartre offers a model of the psyche which dispenses with the Freudian unconscious. This is a major critique of Freud and suggests the possibility of a different psychiatry which would be based on analyzing the self-deception of consciousness rather than probing the genesis of the unconscious.
One of Sartre's illustrations of bad faith is sexual. The illustration, an analysis of the seduction of a woman who does and does not want to be seduced, calls attention to the significance which lurks in the ambivalence of much sexual behavior, such as flirting for example, in which affirmation and negation alternate (55-56).
Bad faith develops into an important category in Sartre's analysis of sex. This analysis will become clearer after consideration of the categories of the Other and the Body.
Sartre believes that the Other is an irreducible fact created by the subject's awareness that another subject is objectifying him or her. It is manifested through "being looked at." This relation cannot be deduced either from the essence of the other-as-object or from my being-as-subject(257). It is created by a genuine dialectic in which the third stage brings forth a new relation, neither In-itself nor For-itself.
The original bond with the Other first arises in connection with the relation between my body and the Other's body (361). Since for Sartre the "relation of the For-itself with the In-itself in the presence of the Other" is the constituent relationship of sexuality (361), the concept of the body becomes crucial for Sartre's views. Sartre broaches a view of human physical existence that has important implications for sexuality, but unfortunately this is never pursued and ends in abstractions. Sartre's accomplishment is the insight that human consciousness affects a human's entire existence, including the body and its sexual existence. In Sartre's terms, the In-itself and the For-itself are not two separate substances. A human is a body that is conscious; or in different words, a human is consciousness expressing itself in the body. "The body is nothing other than the For-itself"(309).
The reason for the interest in the nature of the body is that the nature of human behavior is at stake. If the body can be understood as an animal organism without reference to consciousness and essentially unaffected by consciousness, which after all is one of a human's distinctive features, then it would seem sexuality can be understood in the same way as an animal function essentially unaffected by any feature distinctive to humans. Human sexuality would be no different from any other sexuality based on a physical organism which approximated human physical structure; the presence or absence of the distinctive psychical endowments of a human would make no difference for sexuality.
Sartre is one of the few philosophers to raise the question explicitly about a sexuality essential to humans. The usual opinion is that sexuality is a contingent matter relating only to the sexual organs, thus a subject which should be relegated to biology or to "empirical psychology based on biology." Sartre notes that Heidegger's Dasein, for example, is non-sexual (383). Existentialist philosophies have not concerned themselves with sexuality. This Sartre would change.
Perhaps it will come as a surprise to see a phenomenon which is usually classified among "psycho-physiological reactions" now mentioned on the level of primary attitudes which manifest our original mode of realizing Being-for-Others (382).
Existentialism, Sartre comments, has not thought of sex as primary because "men and women equally exist." Thus sexual differentiation has nothing to do with existence. In response to this stance of existentialism Sartre raises several questions. Is the For-Itself sexual accidentally? Does sexual life come as a kind of addition to the human condition? Sexuality appears with birth and disappears with death.
Thus the fundamental problem is, "Is sexuality a contingent accident bound to our physiological nature, or is it a necessary structure of being-for-itself-for-others?" (384).
Sartre thinks that this question, whether sexuality is basic to being-for-others, must be answered by an analysis of desire. By desiring the other I discover his or her "being-sexed" (384). An analysis of desire reveals that sexual desire is quite different from strictly physical desires. This insight, that sexuality is peculiar among physical phenomena, that it points to an involvement of the whole person, is not pursued further by Sartre. He sees that sexual love in a human is more than a desire for physical release. Without exploiting this insight his analysis drifts inevitably into the general problem of subject-object relations. Sartre argues that sexuality is not just another desire, that sexuality is basic to human relations, but his qualifications are debilitating and his general satisfaction with abstractions leaves the issue hanging. "The sexual attitude is a primary behavior towards the Other" (406) and "sexual attitude" means masochism and sadism (406-407). Yet it is never shown how these are particularly sexual. The analysis of sexuality turns out to be indistinguishable from the analysis of the relation of dominance and passivity. Sartre thinks that in discussing this problem he is discussing sexuality.
Sartre uses the Hegelian categories (the master-slave relation) and sexual categories (sadism-masochism) interchangeably. The relation with the Other is a sexual relation. This seems a significant observation until it is noticed that the terms can be reversed: the subject-object relation is sexual and what is meant by sexuality is the subject-object dialectic. The particularities of sexuality turn out to be the abstractions of the broadest terms. Compare a description of the relation of the psyche to its body ("thus the For-itself is both a flight and a pursuit; it flees the In-itself and at the same time pursues it" 362) with a description of the relation of the Ego to the Other ("the Other is on principle inapprehensible; he flees me when I seek him and possesses me when I flee him" 408). The description of the sexual relation, it develops, is interchangeable with a description of the relation of the soul to the body, or with any relation between subject and object.
Sartre seems aware of the possibility of making sexuality into an Hegelian abstraction. But he is unable to extricate himself from his adopted conceptual framework. Sartre's For-itself is too free and too much bound. It is free of the natural structures and objective givens in biology and physiology which are found perhaps peculiarly important in sexuality. This is "bad faith" in reverse, the treating of objectivities as though subjective. On the other hand, the For-itself is too much bound or confined to abstract categories. Is sexuality really a dialectic of subject and object? It is this, but is it only this? These broad categories cover all cosmic relationships. Sex disappears into an abstraction. Wherein lies the distinguishing difference of sexuality and what difference does this make? These considerations are nowhere in Sartre.
This is Sartre's sexuality, a bloodless and a passionless dance of the categories.
(1) Translated and with an introduction by Hazel E. Barnes and published by Philosophical Library, New York, 1956. Page numbers placed in parentheses in the text refer to this edition.
(2) Sartre illustrates "bad faith" with a sexual illustration. See pages 55-56.