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The Role of Consciousness in the Movement of Existentialism

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 2755 words Published: 24th Aug 2021

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This paper aims to briefly write about the role of consciousness in the movement of existentialism. We will discuss primarily and briefly the respective existential preoccupations of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche to set the mood of our endeavour; to which we will end by addressing in deeper detail into Sartre’s conception of consciousness and the denial of it, viz. bad faith. Sartre would be treated more deeply because I hold that he is the culmination of existential movement.

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One striking thing to note on Kierkegaard is his three stages of existence, namely the aesthetic, ethical and religious stages. The first two stages, interestingly enough, respectively brings about boredom and existential suffocation, which leads us to the favoured stage of Kierkegaard, the religious stage. This stage is achieved by a “leap of faith”, an acceptance of the finiteness of man when confronted by the reality of death. Whereas the first two exists distracted by the demands of their roles, the third one made a choice when confronted by a realization of the aspect of death. Kierkegaard existential bent is towards a realization of how feeble and insignificant the existence of man when confronted by the reality of death.

Nietzsche is another brand of existentialism. A one-hundred sixty turn from Kierkegaard’s position, he declared God is dead. Though not exactly a metaphysical declaration, it tells us the milieu of Nietzsche is in, with its dying Christian morals and the momentum secular morality is gaining. His ushering of his teachings on the Over-man is a particular point I want to take note. The Over-man is someone who realized his capacity to create outside the dictates of the norms of a given society. The concept of Will to Power is a more important element than pressure for adaptation or survival. Will to power applies to all living things, suggesting that adaptation and the struggle to survive is a secondary drive in the evolution of animals, less important than the desire to expand one’s power. Nietzsche eventually took this concept further still, and transformed the idea of matter as centres of force into matter as centres of will to power. Consciousness makes us understand this demand than any other life forms, and unlike other living things, maximize the world around us to have power.

As pointed earlier, consciousness of one’s position in existence is the root of the existentialist drive. Consciousness of one’s self is the source of freedom. Consciousness of the other limits it. But what is consciousness according to Sartre? All consciousness is the consciousness of something, following from Husserl. It is intentional and directive that goes beyond itself, to a transcending object. This is where the distinction of being-in-itself, or beings that are outside consciousness, arises away from beings-for-itself, or beings that are conscious. But this consciousness is not the Ego of Descartes, since for Sartre the original consciousness is pre-reflective and non-personal. The ‘I’ and ‘Me’ does not come into existence until consciousness itself became the object of reflection.

This distinction brings us into interesting and exciting ontological explorations. Since this position of understanding consciousness is fundamental in Sartre, we see that neither my own existence nor that of the other can be ‘proved’ but that both are ‘factual necessities’ which doubting these existence would collapse into solipsism. Consciousness also establishes the connection between the world and the Ego, neither creating each Other, it insures the active participation of the person in the world. Most importantly this consciousness infinitely overflows the Ego, and this relationship inadvertently is the foundation of bad faith.

Bad faith is a lie to one’s self. This self-deception is possible when the human being divides itself, one level or aspect concealing from the other what it in some sense “knows.” Sartre tells us that the consciousness with which we use to generally consider our objective surroundings, to experience phenomena, is a different degree from the consciousness of ourselves being conscious of these surroundings; we call these two degrees as pre-reflective and reflective consciousness respectively. Despite the unity of a single consciousness, the paradox arises from the condition of its operation, the shift of degrees in how we are conscious. Sartrean bad faith finds its root when human beings are pre-reflectively aware of what they may not reflectively know, and they dismiss the pre-reflective awareness and hide under the reflective one. This is the twofold dividedness in human beings, of psychology and ontology.

Since for Sartre consciousness, especially the pre-reflective aspect of it, entails a consciousness of our separation from the world, something that Camus also echoes in his observations of the absurd and this aspect gives us freedom. Freedom then is a product of us being aware. We are also always aware of this aspect in us, our consciousness always ultimately tells us that we are a being-for-itself. This capacity to manipulate these two levels of consciousness makes us interpret the factual limits of our objective situation as overwhelming in light of our reflective consciousness, but at the same time making us aware of alternatives beyond and around these limits because of our pre-reflective consciousness. Psychologically, the pre-reflective awareness that gives us this bad faith is the one that “chooses” to keep oneself in the dark about certain matters such as responsibility in our freedom. Meanwhile ontologically speaking, bad faith has its basis from the dividedness of the human existence that leads to an ambiguous mix of facticity and transcendence. We flee our anguish when transcendence collapse into our facticity and feel like automatons with determined existence; or when we dismiss our facticity into transcendence and be like a battered wife that still prays for his husband to change his ways.

Since nothing prevents consciousness from making choices on its way of being, it fears this boundless freedom, this spontaneity, because it feels that it veers beyond freedom. This brings us anguish. The recognition of our capacity for freedom renders insurance in our pasts or our personality that will lead to usual patterns of conduct meaningless. A consciousness with bad faith wavers back and forth, demanding the privileges of a free consciousness, a being-for-itself, but escaping the responsibilities of having one, of having freedom, by imagining that one is protected in an already established Ego, of pretending to be just a being-in-itself, devoid of any responsibility for perfection. Habits, practices, objects and institutions are instances from where we escape our responsibilities, and maintain distractions from these responsibilities.

Fundamentally, one cannot really escape responsibility by adopting any of external moral systems such as religion or politics, such endorsement is still a choice and which one must take full responsibility for. Bad faith in an attempt to avoid the angst which accompanies the realization that our existence has no coherence except for what we ourselves create. Thus, bad faith comes from within us and is itself a choice – a way that a person uses their freedom in order to avoid dealing with the consequences of that freedom because of the radial responsibility that those consequences entail. To show us better what he means, Sartre writes of a woman who has the choice of whether to go out on a date with an amorous suitor. In considering this choice, the woman knows that she will face more choices later on because she is quite aware of the man’s intentions and desires, but chooses to ignore these possibilities in the hope she will not be answerable to how things will turn out.

The need for choices is then heightened when, later, the man puts his hand on hers and caresses it. She can leave her hand there and thereby encourage further advances, knowing full well where they might lead. On the other hand, she can take her hand away, discouraging his advances and perhaps discouraging him from ever asking her out again. Both choices entail consequences which she must take responsibility for. Sartre declares that the woman is in bad faith and writes,

And during this time the divorce of the body from the soul is accomplished; the hand rests inert between the warm hands of her companion – neither consenting nor resisting – a thing.

The woman treated her hand merely as an object, rather than an extension of her self, and pretends that there is no choice and leaves it to the disposal of the moment. Perhaps she defends her posture because of the uncontrollable passion on her part, perhaps she will cite the presence of social pressure that forces her to comply and adapt a particular etiquette, or perhaps she merely pretends not to notice the man’s actions and intentions. Whatever the case, she acts as though she is not making any choices prior and during that moment that she was just floated by factors out of her reach and into that circumstance which is also out of her reach. Hence, with that mentality in mind, she holds that she has no responsibility for the consequences that will arise. That woman, according to Sartre, means acting and living in bad faith, and concluding that by adapting bad faith one is free from responsibility, is the gravest and dangerous self-deception. One still is responsible even in such deception.

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The reason why bad faith is a problem is that it allows us to escape responsibility for our moral choices by treating humanity as the passive object of larger, organized forces whether it by our genetic make-up, the Will of God, emotional passions, social structures, etc. Sartre argued that we all act to shape our own destiny and as such, we need to accept and deal with the awesome responsibility this imposes upon us. It is not the case, humanity has the capacity of be involved in existence, and surrendering this capacity is a denial of one’s humanity.

For Sartre, one is the master of one’s own project. In a world of consciousness, you are a painter with a blank canvass of reality, taking charge of what you paint and with what colour. But freedom is not absolute, as we are limited by our body, the things around us, i.e. being-in-itself, and by other people, i.e. hell is other people. The concept of beings-for-itself tells us that existence precedes essence, so the dictum of Sartre goes. This is only meant that conscious beings determine their essence, their position in the plethora of existence, without anyone telling us before where we meant to be. A fundamental claim in existentialist thought is that individuals are always free to make choices and guide their lives towards their own “project,” regardless of any circumstances even if it is overwhelming. The claim holds that individuals cannot escape their freedom, and surrendering one’s freedom is still a matter of choice and one is responsible for the consequences and sufferings of pretending not being free. For instance, in our politics, even if a politician cheated the results of the election, or forced his will and seized the government, our reactions are always a matter of choice. Rebellion or compliance to name a few, are some of these choices, and to blame it in circumstances is an instance of bad faith. One must be held responsible for the choices one had made and not blame it in circumstances.

Freedom then is not absolute, but rather a continuing flux of action, choices and responsibilities. Some quiver at the capacity and pretends not to have one, of being a being-in-itself, but those who accept relish in existence for itself and for other people. Freedom is a shared experience and responsibility, adjusting as one’s consciousness flows with the contours of the objects around us and the other.

Existence precedes essence, as Sartre famously coins and summarizes the underlying principle of existentialist projects before him. What he means by this is that determining of essence is not some static definition in the world of ideas, but rather always a possible realization only seen with action in the world of existence. Essence is determined by action. You do your essence by existing as such. Man is a rational animal, as essentialists would claim, then following their formula that essence precedes existence, we could see that whether they are actively rationalizing or not, they are still rational animals, but for Sartre this is not the case. One must rationalize and one must act with rationality, before one becomes and be receives the privileges given to a man. Surely it is strange to call a fool, who lacks rationality, or a murderous villain, which have rationality yet savage, as human beings. It is also a deep injustice to give respect and privileges due to a man, on such beings, and further it is also a deep injustice of not holding them accountable of their actions since they hide under the notion of being a man.

As a human being, a being-for-itself, one cannot claim our actions are determined by forces exterior to the self; this is the core statement of existentialism. One is “doomed” to this eternal freedom because human beings exist before the definition of human identity exists, before one chooses what to be. One cannot define oneself as a thing in the world, as one has the freedom to be otherwise. One is not “a philosopher”, because at some point one ceases the activities that define the self as a “philosopher”. Any role that one might adopt to escape the responsibility and flux of invention and creation, does not define the self, because the self is, again, free and not constant – it cannot be a thing in the world.

Though one cannot assign a positive value to definitions that may apply to oneself, one remains able to say what one is not, one is defined by what one is not. When men go about the world, they have expectations which are often not fulfilled. For example, I’m meeting someone in a café, but upon arriving he is not there where we thought we would meet him, so there is a negation, a void, a nothingness, in the place of the one I’m expecting. When looking for my friend, his lack of being, there becomes a negation; everything I see as I search the people and objects about him are “not him.”

This inner anguish over moral uncertainty is a central underlying theme in existentialism, as the anguish demonstrates a personal feeling of responsibility over the choices one makes throughout life, whether it is to God or to one’s self. Without an emphasis on personal choice, one may make use of an external moral system as a tool to moralize otherwise immoral acts, leading to negation of the self. According to existentialism, dedicated professionals of their respective moral codes should, instead of divesting the self of responsibility in the discharge of one’s duties, be aware of one’s own significance in the process. A doctor must not only memorize the oath, nor the procedure of medicine that is involved, but being in the process of healing he is recognizing the impact that he is doing and the weight of his responsibilities for every actions he commit.

This recognition involves the questioning of the morality of all choices, taking responsibility for the consequences of one’s own choice and therefore; a constant reappraisal of one’s own and others’ ever-changing humanity. One must not exercise bad faith by denying the self’s freedom of choice and accountability because such denial not only denies one’s fundamental capacity and the betrayal of the self, it also gives us an illusion of complacency and stagnation, of pretension of being a being-in-itself. Taking on the burden of personal accountability in all situations is an intimidating proposition – by pointing out the freedom of the individual, Sartre, together with the existentialists like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, seeks to demonstrate the social roles and moral systems we adopt to hide us from being morally accountable for our actions. Every existentialist then challenges us to go out of these comfort and stagnant forms of existence and exist as human beings by overcoming this tendency to surrender and seize our freedom and face the responsibilities and consequences it produces.


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