Saturday, November 8, 2014

Sartre on Living and Knowing

“It is shame or pride which reveals to me the Other’s look and myself at the end of that look.  It is the shame or pride which makes me live, not know, the situation of being looked at”[1].  This passage by Sartre is the inner monologue narrative of a person, the eavesdropper, who is trying to understand themself from the viewpoint of the Other, and at the same time trying to reconcile that viewpoint with their own differing, and suddenly altered, self-view.  The perceptions that are made by the Other and consequently interpreted by the self create a paradoxical duality situation in which the self is both existent and non-existent, perceived and not perceived, shamed and proud[2]. 

The duality state of multiple contradictory possibilities co-existing at the same time for the same object or person has existed as a philosophical concept since the time of the Pythagorean philosophers.  Indeed, Plato talked about these ideas when he said “…and the ancients, who were superior to us and dwelt nearer to the Gods, have handed down a tradition that all things that are said to exist consist of a One and a Many and contain in themselves the connate principles of Limit and Unlimitedness.”[3]  Further to this, the philosophers who believed that there are things that are both observable and unobservable, or independent of the observer (or Other), lend credence to the thoughts and ideas portrayed by Sartre.  It does stand to reason that Sartre’s inspiration for this may have come from those early philosophers. 

 These ideas of duality have even gone beyond just the philosophical world and found themselves being used and applied in modern science.  Erwin Schrodinger is a modern physicist who explored a similar concept to that in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness in relation to quantum physics and temporal mechanics.  From the point of view that there are different realities for any given object that are dependant upon the observed or unobserved state of that object, Schrodinger theorised an experiment.  Schrodinger postulated that if a cat were locked in a box with a decaying isotope which was to release a poison upon its decay, the cat at the instant of the poison being released, would both be dead and alive whilst it was unobserved; yet the moment that something observed the cat, it would be the influence of that observation that would dictate the fortune or demise of the cat[4].  Thus, it is the external factor of the observer, or the Other, that dictates the cats’ actuality. 

Levinas touched on the subject of the observer, or Other, being the one that defines the reality of a person’s being.  When asked about the face, Levinas said that he wondered if a person can talk about a look turned toward the face because the look is knowledge and perception[5].  He continued to say that the best way to understand the face of another is by not focusing on the face.  Levinas qualifies this statement by explaining that when we pay attention to the face, we see the shape of the face, the eyes, their colour, the hair and all the details so that we can describe the facial features.  However, if we do not pay attention to these details and observe the face as a portrayal of the person’s self, we then can understand the person as themself and come to know them, and not their contextual selves, such as a professor, or a son, or a Justice[6]. 

This notion of perception being knowledge, both of self and of Other, fits with the passage about the eavesdropper and the Other by Sartre.  While the eavesdropper was aware of themself before the arrival of the Other, it was a non-existential consciousness of self that they had.  The world consisted of the door and the keyhole and what was able to be observed through it.  There was, for the eavesdropper, no need to define themself as anything other than what they were; trying to see what lay beyond.  There was no sense of self-loathing, no judgement, not even any observance of self while the eavesdropper was alone. 

With the arrival of the Other, the eavesdropper had a shift in perceived reality of themself and went from being an observer to being the observed.  This change, by merit of interaction with the Other itself, resulted in the eavesdropper being forced to see themselves from what the Other might potentially be seeing.  Given the circumstances of eavesdropping that the eavesdropper was found in, while possibly completely innocent, has the ramifications of being socially construed badly, and thus enters the possible shame for the eavesdropper which was nonexistent until forced to perceive themself from the viewpoint of the Other.

This entire exchange between the eavesdropper and the Other is at the heart of the passage written by Sartre.  It is the turning point in the recognition of both the eavesdropper and the Other of whom the eavesdropper is.  Sartre is using this as an example of how people are defined by their experiences and interactions with each other.  When the eavesdropper states that the look is triggering either shame or pride, and that it is that shame or pride that makes them live rather than know the situation, this is key to understanding the base theory and ideas of the phenomenological method to which Sartre subscribed.  This method is the attempt to view and describe life and being as the experience that is being had at the time it is happening, rather than analysing it as a reflective exercise after the fact. 

The fundamental background of this idea can be explained by stating that there are two levels of consciousness or awareness that people have; self awareness that focuses on the self and self awareness that focuses on others, and these two awareness’s are in a constant state of fluxuation between the observed and the observer, as discussed in Danto[7]. 

This is the crux of the difference between living and knowing.  The state of being, whether being for-itself of being for-others is what will effect self knowledge.  As in the example of Schrodinger’s cat, once the observed is observed, its state of being is a fact and decided.  There is no reflection needed to come to the realisation or conclusion of ones self-identity.  When the change is made in the eavesdropper by the look from the Other, the eavesdropper at once knows who they are and are painfully aware of their identity and role; thus the “shame makes me live, not know, the situation of being looked at”. 

Until the event of the Other looking at the eavesdropper and bringing the eavesdropper outside of themself to observe themself, the eavesdropper only had an awareness of themself inasmuch as they were affecting the keyhole.  Once the look from the Other forced the event of the outside perception on the eavesdropper, the eavesdropper then went to a state of cogito ergo cum, and was taken to the state of living in that moment for that experience and was defined by it through the look.  This concept of the difference between living and knowing is important in the understanding of the relationships with other people.  To draw on Levinas, an extreme case for the relationships between people and how perceived identity and meaning shapes us is through the possibility and act of murder when looking at a person.  Levinas said that “Murder is a banal fact: one can kill the Other; the ethical exigency is not an ontological necessity.  The prohibition against killing does not render murder impossible… The face is exposed, menaced, as if inviting us to an act of violence.  At the same time, the face is what forbids us to kill”[8]. 

It is through the look of the Other that one is able to gauge, judge, and define both their own reality and their own identity.  Sartre is demonstrating that through these reciprocal interactions of sadism and masochism, observing and being observed, being objectified and objectifying, that people are able to experience life, gain knowledge, and thus develop a true understanding of themself, both from self and from the Other.  The pride or shame that comes from as result of the look from the Other is dependant upon the perceived context that the look is initiated in, as well as interpreted by the observed.  Ultimately, what the observed chooses to react with when observed by the Other will determine the self-view that is developed in that instant, be it positive or negative, shame or pride. 


Danto, A.  (1991).  ‘Shame, Or the Problem of Other Minds’ (extracts) Sartre.  Fontana Press.

Fidler, D., Guthrie, K., Taylor, T., & Fairbanks, A.  (1987).  The Pythagorean Sourcebook An Anthology of Ancient Writings Which Relate to Pythagoras and Pythagorean Philosophy.  Phanes Press. 

Levinas, E.  (1985).  ‘The Face’ (extracts).  Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo.  Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh. 

Physicsworld.  (2000).  Accessed 20 Sept, 2011.

Sartre, J.  (1956).  ‘The Existance of Others: The Look’ (extract).  Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology.  Philosophical Library, New York. 

[1] Sartre, Being and Nothingness, p. 261
[2] Ibid, p. 260
[3] Plato, Philebus quoted in  Fidler p 20
[5] Levinas, Ethics and Infinity, p. 85
[6] Ibid, p. 85-87
[7] Danto, Shame
[8] Levinas, Ethics and Infinity, p. 86-87
nd Infinity, p. 86-87

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