Episode 47: Sartre on Consciousness and the Self

Discussing Jean-Paul Sartre's The Transcendence of the Ego (written in 1934).

What is consciousness, and does it necessarily involve an "I" who is conscious of things? Sartre says no: typical experience is consciousness of some object and doesn't involve the experience of myself as someone having this consciousness. It's only when we reflect on our own conscious experiences that we posit this "I." The ego is our own creation, or more precisely a social creation. This means that far from being some primordial structure of all experience, this transparent thing inside us that we have more immediate knowledge of than anything else, the ego is an object: it has parts we don't see, and we can be wrong when we make judgments about it. Other people might even know us better than we know ourselves.

This is a difficult text, and we spend lots of time bickering about what Sartre might mean by terms like "transcendent" or "non-positional consciousness," so surely you will love that. Read more about the topic.

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End song: "Thing in the World," by Mark Lint. This song was begun around 1996 but mostly written and wholly recorded just now, with Mark playing all the instruments, with lyrics actually motivated by this Sartre reading.

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  1. PW says

    Another great episode.

    “The ego is an intellectual construct that defines itself through its reflection in the world” rough idea is developed in Hofstadter’s “Godel, Escher, Bach” and “Figments of reality” by Stewart and Cohen.

    (Possibly this was mentioned in the podcast ..)

  2. Kyle says

    Nothing like listening to an excellent and very thought provoking discussion and then being overwhelmed by toilet humor….”Suddenly being overcome and filled with the quality of rupugnance and hatred when somebody farted in the room”
    That cracked me up…
    Although I would think the perception would be repugnance, and then hatred perhaps on reflection and rendering a judgment. Flatus does not usually inspire hatred.

  3. says

    Appreciated this episode. I’d read a lot of Sartre but have never discussed this book w/ anyone. Found that the selections read on this podcast were the ones I had highlighted and could relate to some of the comments. Just a great show with a worthy objective.

    • Profile photo of Seth Paskin says

      Thanks James! This was one of my favorites as well. You might want to check out Mark’s close reading of the first section of Being and Nothingness.

  4. Simone says

    This episode is really great. Really really great.

    I especially love when Seth’s response to Mark’s comment about Heidegger’s ‘bullshit’, “Hey Heidegger invented that! He wasn’t steeped in it, he INVENTED it. Don’t make me take my earrings off!”

  5. Profile photo of Alex Kalgin says

    Brilliant episode. The song at the end is great, too. I have to admit, I skip the closing songs most of the time, but this one was so good, that I even went and downloaded it in good quality and have been listening to it since :).

    Is it possible to find the lyrics of “Thing in the World”? :) I checked Mark’s website, but it does not seem to have it.

  6. JAMES BRIGGS says

    The hard stuff is easy. 1. transcendent means not in or of the world. That’s the whole idea that the world doesn’t feel and we do making us alien and absurd. 2. non-positional consciousness means many things but the most basic is that consciousness doesn’t a position just like space doesn’t have a position. Space is a place where energy can occur and consciousness is a place where thoughts emotions and perceptions can occur.

    What is consciousness, and does it necessarily involve an “I” who is conscious of things? Seems difficult but all he is saying is consciousness is rarely self conscious. Instead waking consciousness is usually aware that it is conscious of something other than itself and experiences it as an other.


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