Katharine Wolfe “…The Hands Forgotten in Each Other”: Being-for-Others in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness and Relational Needs

Download PDF

“…The Hands Forgotten in Each Other”:
Being-for-Others in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness and Relational Needs

 

(Click HERE to open this article in the reader.)

…[W]e walked together, hand in hand, silent, sunk in our worlds, each in his worlds, the hands forgotten in each other. That’s how I’ve held out till now.”

Samuel Beckett, Texts for Nothing

…[O]ne remakes oneself by finding meaning in a life of caring for and being sustained by others. While I used to have to will myself out of bed each day, I now wake gladly to feed my son whose birth, four years after the assault, gives me reason not to have died. He is the embodiment of my life’s new narrative and I am more autonomous by virtue of being so intermingled with him.

Susan Brison, Aftermath

Susan Brison’s articulation of her relationship to her son in the above epigraph bespeaks what I willing be calling a relational need: Her son’s need to be fed is her need to fed him, and she feels and responds to it gladly as something the satisfaction of which fulfills them both insofar as her love and care for him connects their mutual welfare. In this respect, Brison’s self-experience in relation to her son shows that there are needs that are not only present when we feel some form of desperation, privation, or penury, but can be present together with feelings of joy, of bliss, and even of freedom and autonomy at the same time that they nonetheless concern some of our most vital interests, and expose and respond to some of our most profound vulnerabilities. Relational needs such as Brison’s thus point to the co-constitution of self and Other, as well as to our capacities to shape both ourselves and our world through investments of meaning and of care in it that concern the welfare of others as a constitutive part of our own self-care.

What does this have to do with Sartre’s Being and Nothingness? Being and Nothingness is perhaps best known for its unflinching commitment to freedom. In Being and Nothingness, Sartre makes freedom the defining attribute of conscious experience – what he calls “being-for-itself” – and, moreover, a ‘nothingness’. Perpetually escaping and ‘surpassing’ itself towards its objects, consciousness is what its objects are not – translucent, indeterminate, and transcendent where they are opaque, determinate, and immanent. Not being what its objects are, moreover, is what makes consciousness free on Sartre’s account. Brison’s experience of freedom in bondedness to another and of autonomy in need offers an important rejoinder to any such notion of freedom.

Further, just as it is known for its unflinching commitment to freedom, Being and Nothingness is equally noted for its treatment of interpersonal relationships as principally, if not exhaustively, conflictual and threatening rather than reciprocal, caring, and mutually supporting. I ultimately hope to show that Being and Nothingness offers a richer account of being-for-others than this conflictual approach might suggest, and that it can offer some important insights towards what I call, following feminist theorists such as Jennifer Nedelsky and Susan Brison, relational selfhood even if these insights are largely held in check by a problematic subject-object dichotomy.

Indeed, it should not go overlooked that, for Sartre, selfhood as such is in fact relational. Although in Being and Nothingness Sartre account of relational selfhood renders it largely negative, the insight that selfhood as such is relational is very rich, and expands to allow for much more positive insights into being-for-others in Sartre’s later writings. For instance, in Notebooks for an Ethics, Sartre speaks of an “appeal to another that is a promise of reciprocity,” and of making a “gift of myself” to another in such a way that “I do not seek my own ends, rather I submit myself to his.” (1992: 284-285). Moreover, in Notebooks for an Ethics, he describes the “structure of authentic love” as “to unveil the Other’s being-within-the-world, to take up this unveiling, and to set this Being within the absolute; to rejoice in it without appropriating it; to give it safety in terms of my freedom, and to surpass it only in the direction of the Other’s ends” (1992: 284-285; 508). These beautiful expressions of relational selfhood, I want to suggest, are made possible by some of the insights of Being and Nothingness, although Being and Nothingness itself focuses much to exhaustively on the negative dimensions of relational selfhood due to its dichotomous ontological purview.

Even with these later articulations of relational selfhood in mind, then, I want to insist that there are nonetheless some crucial aspects of relational selfhood that Sartre’s philosophy not only misses but occludes.[1] While Sartre understands selfhood as relationally constituted, he sets selfhood after and against an immanent form of self-experience that is immediately and non-reflectively tethered to a world filled with meaning and value, and where selfhood is relational, this imminent mode of self-experience is not. With this move, Sartre truncates the extent to which our relations to others can constitute the very investments of meaning and of value that make our world arise. In this respect, Sartre’s phenomenological ontology might be described as, to invoke Beckett’s words once more, forgetful of our hands in each others. [2]

Consciousness as Intentional

In order to set the stage for taking up Sartre’s account of being-for-others in Being and Nothingness, it is important to start with a consideration of Sartre’s account of being-for-itself. For Sartre, “[m]y being-for-itself throws me not only into the world but into a world with others,” and it is only in starting from our self-experience as beings thrown beyond ourselves into the world that we can understand the nature of our being-for-others (1956: 338). At the heart of Sartre’s account of “being-for-itself” in Being and Nothingness is his theory of consciousness as intentional. The concept of intentionality is crystallized in the principle that “[a]ll consciousness…is consciousness of something” (1956: 11). For Sartre, that consciousness is always consciousness of a certain object means that the objects of our conscious experience are not in our consciousness, either in the form of representations or of impressions, but, rather, are outside of us in the world. In Being and Nothingness, Sartre expresses this point thus: “to be conscious of something is to be confronted with a concrete and full presence which is not consciousness” (22).

As intentional, consciousness is a kind of perfect translucency or, in the language of Being and Nothingness, a nothingness; consciousness is a “revealing intuition… of a transcendent being,” not a thing-in-itself (23). Yet that consciousness is intentional also means, according to Sartre “…that consciousness is born supported by a being which is not itself” (23). This dependence of consciousness on the being that it is not means that what is other than consciousness has an ontological priority over it, and, importantly, that consciousness does not begin in a void for all its translucency, but only in immediate relation to what is other than and beyond itself. Without an object, there can be no consciousness. Hence, consciousness is a self-transcending activity only insofar as it is supported by what it is inescapably beyond it and other than it.

In emphasizing both transcendence and radically dependency as fundamental features of intentional consciousness, moreover, Sartre’s account of consciousness understands it quite differently than it is conventionally understood. Neither of these features of consciousness, it must be noted, make it in any sense fundamentally reflective. Indeed, reflexivity, for Sartre, cannot be a basic structure of consciousness insofar as reflection turns away from the world. Yet this does not mean that consciousness has no awareness of itself. Rather, consciousness encounters itself immanently within its transcendent movement towards an object; it encounters itself as just this very movement. To describe consciousness as intentional is to say that consciousness is wholly directed outside of itself towards the things and is at one with itself in its immediate experience of them. As such, consciousness is immediately, rather than reflectively, self-aware. Indeed, it is this aspect of self-awareness immanent in intentional consciousness, as Dan Zahavi notes, that makes intentional consciousness apt to be called “being-for-itself” (2010: 215).

Yet it must also be noted that Sartre’s account of being-for-itself is one that understands it as set apart from and ontologically dichotomous with those very things upon which it depends.  For as much as intentional conscious is translucent and exists in being beyond itself, the support it finds in its surround, and which it depends upon for its own existence, is dense, opaque, and inert. In his account of being-for-others, we will see that this dichotomy between being-for-itself and being-in-itself takes the form of a dichotomous relationship between subject and object that makes true intersubjective experience elusive if not impossible. There is, moreover, a great risk of abstraction in this view of consciousness as fundamentally transparent and self-surpassing, which has implications both for how Sartre understands freedom, and for the extent to which self-experience is understand as relational in his work. 

Intentionality and Being-for-Others

A fascinating feature of Sartre’s account of interpersonal existence in Being and Nothingness is that he insists upon the radical alterity of the Other to me and of myself to the Other at the same time that he treats selfhood as relationally-constituted. Against Husserl and Heidegger, and not unlike Levinas, moreover, he emphasizes that both of these aspects of our being-for-others and of their being-for-me are experienced in our concrete, face-to-face encounters in the world. Our being-for-others and their being-for-me is not merely an ontological background to our lived experience but is something by which we are “touched to the quick” in our lived experience in the world (1956: 302).

Further, selfhood as relationally constituted, for Sartre, is first and foremost immanently lived and pre-reflective just as is being-for-itself (301-302). In this respect, being-for-others, for Sartre, allows for “an intimate relation of ourselves to ourselves” in our immediate, lived experience in the midst of the world that would not be possible without it (301). Caught up in the intentional movement of being-for-itself described above, Sartre emphasizes that neither my actions nor my distinctive orientation towards my surround refer back to a me over and above or before and behind them; I am these acts and these distinctive orientations throwing me beyond myself into the world, and nothing more. This is an important implication and condition of being-for-itself as, ontologically and fundamentally, an absolute nothingness and a perpetual escape from any fixed and solidified existence (349). Yet the fact that I can be perceived by another radically changes this insofar as my existence before another alters my relationship to my self. Aware of myself in a world with others, a new form of self-awareness arises at the level of my unreflective, immediate and intentional existence (349). I become aware of myself as at a distance from myself at the very level of my immediate, non-reflective existence in the world. For Sartre, it is only on condition of this non-reflective experience of myself as at a distance from myself in immediate, non-reflective experience in the world before another that I become able to solidify and sediment my own existence by making myself an object to myself through reflection. Indeed, for Sartre, it is this solidified and sedimented experience that a ‘self’ often signifies: the ‘self’ is not my real, engaged and intentional existence in the world but a kind of frozen denaturing of it in which I experience my existence as less free or indeterminate than it is. Moreover, this artificial congealing of an existence that always and everywhere retains the ability to be something other than it is amounts to an act of bad faith for Sartre.

The self that emerges non-reflectively in being-for-others is like the self that emerges in reflection insofar as it is an objectification of an original, radical freedom for Sartre, albeit one that is in the world rather than in some magical, purely-internal place, above it or beyond it as some reflective notions of the self would have it be. Equally importantly, moreover, the self that emerges for me in my being-for-others, unlike the self I encounter in reflection, is an object that is not my object: This self appears for me only insofar as I am “an object for the Other” (349). Thus, this dimension of my selfhood is there in the world beyond me in relation to another. Insofar as the other sees me as an object in their world, I become immediately and non-reflective an object to myself that I myself cannot know.

This sense of existing immediately and non-reflectively beyond myself seems to open towards some positive implications. It allows, for instance, that one can be much more than one knows oneself to be, and that one’s sense of one’s own person can exceed whatever limitations self-doubt, self-criticism, and failures of self-confidence might reduce it to. It allows that my own impact on the world and influence on others can surprise me in its richness and value, and not only in its capacity, for instance, to do harm or to have consequences I did not intend. It also entails that any attempt I make to concretely and exhaustively know my self rather than immanently live and feel it will inevitably make me something other and something less than I am.

Yet the intimate, non-reflection relationship we have to ourselves by virtue of appearing before Others is largely, if not exhaustively, negative on Sartre’s account insofar as the dimension of my selfhood revealed by it is thought of as nothing other than my existence as an object in another’s world, where this implies for Sartre that I am interpreted, judged, and assessed by that Other in ways that undermine rather than enhance or enable my own subjectivity. Sartre’s principle example of such an experience of being-for-others is the experience of shame. He writes: “I have just made an awkward or vulgar gesture. This gesture clings to me; I neither judge it nor blame it. I simply live it… But suddenly I raise my head. Somebody was there and has seen me. Suddenly I realize the vulgarity of my gesture, and I am ashamed.” (302). The change in my self-experience here arises not because I have turned back upon myself in reflection, but, rather, because the appearance of the other in the world has made me an object of judgment to myself within it “for it is as an object that I appear to the Other” (302).

It should be noted that my existence for myself as an object for another is in no way a distortion of what I am for Sartre. Rather, it is another fundamental and real dimension of my existence; it is that which I am but which I do not know. It is me and yet it is completely incommensurable with any sense of myself I might have in a world all my own. This dimension of my selfhood is not even there potentially in a world without others. In this respect, “I need the Other in order to fully realize all the structures of my being” (303). My objective existence in the world is something there originally for Sartre but not something that is originally for-me; It is only through my being-for-others that I come to experience this dimension of my own selfhood.

With this point in mind, moreover, Sartre’s account of shame comes to offers glimmers and flashes of the insight that my being-for-others reveals myself to myself as someone who bears an inescapable and insurmountable ethical responsibility in the world. He claims, for instance, that, outside of this relationship to another, one’s acts are immanently justified – their doing and their justification are one for there is nothing beyond them against which they might be assessed (347-348). Being-for-others, however, means that there is a limit to my freedom and that I carry a burden of responsibility with me as an inescapable part of me, irreducible to something that I can definitely and exhaustively know (351). Moreover, he emphasizes that we are responsible for the selves that we are in relation to others and, indeed, that to deny that I am this self that depends on my relation to others would be a gesture of bad faith (303; 350). “Each of my free conducts,” he writes, “engages me in a new environment where the very stuff of my being is the unpredictable freedom of another” and “I accept and wish that others should confer upon me a being which I recognize” (351). All of these gestures troublingly assume that it is only the existence of other people that gives rise to an ethical responsibility in the world and not, for instance, the vital and meaningful natural world which makes my life possible and in which all of my actions take place. Yet they move towards a rich conception of ethics that could well be extended to include our responsibility to the natural world as well as to other people.

Despite some of the richness here, the claim that the other perceives me as an object and only as an object, and thus that this is how I come to experience myself before another subject, continues to dominate Sartre’s sense of what being-for-others entails. Even when another person’s judgment or witnessing of us causes us to feel shame, to stay with Sartre’s own principle example – better suited than many to suggest the sense of objectification before another he emphasizes, we are not necessarily objectified by them so much as made aware of what we have done, given pause to tarry with it, and to feel its meaning and its important in a world that never was and never will be all one’s own. In this way, the relationship that another person bears to us that gives rise to shame not only allows for our subjective capacity to give meaning and value to the world and to shape it accordingly but can even positively demand this of us insofar as shame is an affect that alerts us to our responsibly for what we do.

There are many other lived experiences of being-for-others, moreover, where it is hard to believe that objectification enters in at all. To give just one of numerous available examples, and to speak, for a moment, from my own self-experience, when I first looked upon the face of my newly born sister I did not see an ‘object’ in the world. What I saw was a new beginning, a both completely mundane and utterly miraculous event, and a new source of meaning and significance in my own life that would make it forever different and richer than it was before. When she chastises me now for living too far away and not coming to visit enough, I do not feel myself reduced to an object in her eyes insofar as my actions and my choices have a different meaning and significance for her than for me which I would never assume to fully know. Rather, I feel awoken to and reminded of the fact that my actions matter more and have deeper meanings that they ever would in a world without her in it.

Indeed, at the same time that Sartre emphasizes that one’s fundamental experience of oneself as existing before another is as an object for them, he emphasizes that the Other who causes me to feel shame and who causes me to experience a new dimension of my own selfhood which is both mine and beyond me cannot be an object for me insofar as the Other must be their own source of meaning and significance in the world if they are to reveal me to myself as they do. If there is one key thing that Being and Nothingness brings to an understanding of intentionality that is not there in Sartre’s earlier works on the topic, such as The Transcendence of the Ego or his early essay “Intentionality”, it is just this idea that intentionality is the source of our capacity to invest our surround with meaning and significance. The other is an opening of the world to meaning, just as I am, by virtue of the radical indeterminacy that is their intentional relationship to the world. Where Sartre would call this our ‘nothingness’, it could be described in more positive terms as one’s capacity to shape one’s own life through investments of concern and of care within it, and through the pleasures and the values to which these investments give rise or of which they speak, where this co-related self and world making is never complete but ever on-going.

Sartre emphasizes, moreover, that to view the Other as an object is to act as if I where the one organizing and giving meaning to their world and as if they where like any other object in mine (314). It is a denial of what our existence in a shared world reveals and impresses upon us as a concrete, immediately felt and immanently lived truth: That another person fills the world with meaning and significance just as I do and that the meaning and significance that they give to it is radically incommensurable – although, I would insist, not necessarily incompatible – with my own insofar as we are different subjects.

Although we often attempt to make the Other a knowable object for us in the interest of disavowing the dimension of our own selfhood that exists in being-for-them, when I encounter the other genuinely and authentically I encounter her as outside my own understanding and even beyond my possible experience; I encounter her as “an absence”, as “strange to me”, as “inaccessible to me”, as “out of my reach,” “beyond experience,” and “outside the world” (304; 305; 307; 310; 317). In encountering the other, what I can and must do is not know her but experience just her very un-knowability, that is, her radical difference from me and her existence beyond my own interpretative horizon, together with the un-knowability of the self which I am for myself in being before her. For Sartre, this amounts to a direct experience of her as a subject “in connection with me” and this relation to her, and not that of any objectification of her, is “the fundamental relation” I bear to another (341).

And yet, for Sartre, encountering the Other as a subject happens only in and through experiencing oneself as an object before the Other: “It is in and through the revelation of my being-as-object for the Other,” he writes, “that I must be able to apprehend the presence of his being-as-subject” (344-345). This means, at least in the frame of Being and Nothingness’s treatment of being-for-others, that there can be no reciprocal and mutual encounter between two subjects in the world. For this reason, my being-for-others is an experience of “my freedom escap[ing] me in order to become a given object” in an alien world (350). Being-for-others pins down the for-itself and closes off its escape routes, rendering it concrete and determinate and stripping it of its perfect translucent and sheer and utter freedom (351-352). Sartre thus calls my being-for-others “[m]y original fall” (352) Further, in my being-for-others, on his account, the world drains away from me and flows towards the Other: “…it appears that the world has a kind of drain hole in the middle of its being and that it is perpetually flowing off through this hole” (345). Things no longer arrange themselves around me but pull away from me because the Other, in reducing me to an object, is this “drain hole” at the heart of my world. Sartre’s speaks of this as an alienation of the world from me coupled with an alienation from my own freedom (353). He thus conceives of my being-for-others as my being in the midst of a world that has been “stolen” from me.

While Sartre denigrates responding to our own objectification and our own loss of the world with attempts to reduce the Other to a mere object and thus reclaim the world for ourselves, how could such a struggle not ensure if what I am to another person can be nothing more than an object insofar as I recognize them for the unique center of meaning that they are? And how could it not ensure if what it means for there to be other subjects in the world is that my world is lost to me? I’ve already raised some objections to the point that another person, as a subject, can only perceive me as an object. What remains to be addressed is this additional and correlated claim that the existence of the Other is a threat to and even a loss of my world.

While Sartre’s notion of being-for-itself as transculent and as a kind of ontological nothingness might make it seem as if we are impartial or disinterested observers of our world, this is not Sartre’s considered position in Being and Nothingness. Rather, he takes it that one’s world reveals itself as having certain meanings and certain values according to one’s projects and investments within it. It does not appear in the same way or with the same meaning to any observer as it does to me. Looking up ahead toward the mountain path I am going to travel before reaching a small summer cabin and enjoying a weekend retreat, for example, I may see an opportunity for exercise, fresh air, and for hearing bird songs, while my partner might see a risk of re-injuring his ankle and of surprising a bear with its cubs. Certain features of the world and certain possibilities it holds open fall back and come forth according to our interests and concerns in relationship to it, and certain features of it appear as constraints or as supports accordingly. Indeed, these dimensions of meaning, and the correlated interests and investments they belie, are what make our surround, in Sartre’s terms, a world and not just a collection of objects (405).

But how can the dimensions of meaning and significance that populate our lived world come from a subject that is pure ‘translucent’ or ‘nothingness’? How can being-for-itself both be a source of meaning, significance, and distinction and remain a complete and utter nothingness? Doesn’t being the source of meaning and differentiation make consciousness, as Hazel Barnes puts it, “into a very formidable something”? (1956: xxiv) For Sartre, we can take up any of a multitude of meaningful and distinct relationships to being precisely because intentional consciousness is, essentially, nothing – a “total emptiness” – standing in contrast to and in distinction from the plenum of being which it tends towards. It is consciousness that, in introducing an ontological gap into this ontic fullness, breaks being open, and thereby introduces meaning into the world – a rupture in the fullness of being is the condition of meaning for Sartre (25). Being-for-itself thus introduces differentiation and significance into Being-in-itself through the distinction of itself from it and through its failure to be what it is, and nothing more.

Yet this way of understanding how being-for-itself introduces meaning, I would argue, requires us to be grossly indifferent to the specific meanings and significances it introduces. As the upshot of the differentiation of itself from being-in-itself, there is no way to explain or justify any particular meaning or value mattering to me more than any other. Without the meaning and significance we find in the world mattering to us – not in general but in its particularity, it begins to feel as if Sartre’s worlds are meaningless worlds. Pure freedom, without any underlying investment of value to guide it, seems to be a painfully apathetic proposition, and what it affords in terms of an open horizon of possibilities is quickly undermined by the seeming indifference of them all.

Sartre might insist that what gives any choice we make in the world and any correlated horizon of meaning and significance that corresponds with it any worth is just that fact that I have freely chosen it. This is how, in “Existentialism is a Humanism,” Sartre articulates his response to a student seeking advice from him on which of two possible courses of action is the right course to choose – staying with his mother and protecting her well-being, tied to his own, or joining his country’s fighting forces and acting in the interest of a larger social and political welfare (2007: 30-31; 49-50). Sartre’s understands the horizon of meaning and significance that we bring to our experience of our intentional surround and the value that accompanies it to be a function of our ability to do something with it as free. Our freedom thus seems to be the one and only value, if we can even call it this, in the world, and the world may justifiably be treated as instrumental to achieving a particular set of goals I freely will.

Contrast this with how meaning and value comes to fill Susan Brison’s world as she awakens needing to fed her son described in my introductory epigraph: She awakens joyfully, needing to feed him because he needs to be fed. Indeed, his need to be fed is her need to feed him. Moreover, this need gives to her world color and meaning insofar as she is intimately bonded with him. Her bond to him and her corresponding need to care for him doesn’t negate or trump her own projects or interests; Rather, her bond to him and the care that moves her in relationship to him is at once her tie to him and to the world. It is a world-making bond. Beckett’s words capture this beautiful: Even when we feel ourselves as somehow in a world of our own, our hands lie in one another’s. A world is not something we have unto ourselves, but something always and immediately shared; it is shared from the moment of our birth and even before birth in a mother’s womb. What is more, the ties that bind us in the world are not infringements on our capacity to bring meaning and value to it, but can be one of the richest sources of meaning and value our actions could possible have.

Certainly, these ties that connect us to others and our corresponding investments of meaning, care, and value in the world are not etched in stone. Moreover, for as much as the relational aspects of our selfhood can be affirming and enriching, how we are treated by others in a shared world can also be deeply damaging and harmful. Brison’s Aftermath, from which this passage is drawn, is a philosophical exploration of the aftermath of sexual violence. She illuminates the extent to which a relational self can be deeply injured and even broken through our relations to others and through how others treat us. Our relational selfhood reaches so far that it is not at all uncommon for survivors of violence to feel as if they have died and that the world that was can never be regained. At moments, moreover, Brison’s analysis of trauma makes use of the subject-object distinction employed by Sartre, albeit, importantly, by no means does she employ it as a way to understand our relational selfhood at large: “Victims of human-inflicted trauma,” she writes, “are reduced to mere objects by their tormentors: their subjectivity is rendered useless and viewed as worthless” (2002: 48).

She adds, moreover, that insofar as human-inflicted trauma “destroys the belief that one can be oneself in relation to others” (Brison quoting Judith Herman 1992, 53), it likewise destroys one’s ability to “be oneself even to oneself, since the self exists fundamentally in relation to others” (40). Further, at the same time that Brison stresses that the relational nature of selfhood shows itself in such experiences of trauma, she also stresses that it shows itself just as powerfully in the self’s rebuilding through establishing new relationships after such traumas. Thus, as she writes, the relational self is “…vulnerable enough to be undone by violence and yet resilient enough to be reconstructed with the help of emphatic others,” and through new investments of care in the world such as her bond with her son (2002: 38).

While both relational selfhood in general and relational needs in particular bespeak real vulnerabilities to harm, then, they also show that vulnerability can be much more than such a liability. Indeed, Sartre notes that our being-for-others is an immediate and non-reflective mode of awareness of our own vulnerability, that is, of our own liability to harm and to danger as well as of our own dependency (347; 358). In our most intimate and deep-reaching relations to others, we are absolutely vulnerable to harm in the world, but this vulnerability is not merely the upshot of the fact “that I have a body which can be hurt,” as Sartre describes it, but follows from what it means to be invested in one’s world at all – I am vulnerable in the world insofar as what happens in it matters to me, and, in this respect, vulnerability is not purely negative but is part of having a meaningful relationship to others and to one’s world.

At one point in Being and Nothingness, Sartre himself writes: “…I have always known that the Other existed,… I have always had a total though implicit comprehension of his existence… which comprises a surer and deeper understanding of the nature of the Other and the relation of his being to my being than all the theories that have been built around it” (338). Nonetheless, in beginning with being-for-itself qua pure intentional consciousness and attempting to understand being-for-others through it rather than starting from our self-experience in a shared world he misses the extent to which our relations to others shape and even form our investments of meaning and value in the world. He misses, to take up the language of Annette Baier, who Susan Brison turns to in her own treatment of relational selfhood, that we are all always and already “second persons”, that is, persons “who grow up with other persons,” who were “long enough dependent upon other persons to acquire the essential arts of personhood”, who “come after and before other persons”, and who are “essentially successors, heirs to other person who formed and cared for [us]” (Baier 1981: 180-184).

Sartre approaches our being-for-others as if our projects in the world, and our corresponding investments of meaning and significance in it, precede it, and as if our relations to others appear only secondly as “the limit of my freedom” and a threat to it (351). But this is simply not the case. Brison’s awakening to fed her son is not something she could elect not to do without hurting herself because her own welfare and her own sense of value in the world is so deeply connected to him. This deep and intimate connectedness stems from certain investments of care and of love that are not merely passive or biological, but are shaped and created through her and her interaction with him. For this reason, this bondedness is an expression of her freedom and her autonomy at the same time that it reveals that this freedom and autonomy is enriched, if not ultimately constituted, through her investments of care in a world shared with others.

Sharing a world with others and having investments in it that commit us to it and to those we share it with in ways that exceed our momentary volitional control means, moreover, that there are certain things that one cannot do, cannot will, and cannot endure, but these ‘cannots’ are not a mere limitation of our freedom but a pivotal aspect of what makes freedom meaningful. Further, it is not a delusion about oneself that makes one experience one’s investments of care in the world as at one time informing one’s freedom and limiting what one can do and what one can endure, but, rather, a rich and powerful attunement to one’s selfhood, and one’s freedom as a component of it, as constituted by much more than willful, volitional intent, or a subjectivity that begins in a world unto itself. Living out one’s own welfare as intimately tethered to that of others – such as Brison does in feeling a relational need to care for her son awakened by his own need for that care – is a profound part of making a world, and with it, a horizon of meaning, values, and investments, through, and not against or in spite of, our relations to others within it.

Works Cited

Baier, Annette. 1981. “Cartesian Persons”. Philosophia. Vol. 10; Issue 3-4. 169-188.

Beckett, Samuel. 2010. Texts for Nothing and Other Shorter Prose, 1950-1976. Ed. Mark Nixon. London: Faber and Faber.

Brison, Susan. 2002. Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of a Self. Princeton, N.J.:             Princeton U.P.

De Beauvoir, Simone. 1954. She Came to Stay. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 2002. The Phenomenology of Perception. London: Routledge.

Nedelsky, Jennifer. 2012. Laws Relations: A Relational Theory of Self, Autonomy and Law. New York: Oxford U.P.

——— 1989. “Reconceiving Autonomy: Sources, Thoughts, and Possibilities.” Yale Journal of Law and Feminism. Volume 1: Issue 7. 7-36

Sartre, Jean-Paul. 2007. “Existentialism is a Humanism.” In Existentialism is a Humanism. Trans. Carol Macomber. New Haven, CT: Yale U.P. 17-73.

——— 1992. Notebooks for an Ethics. Trans. David Pellauer. U. of Chicago P.: Chicago.

——— 1970. “Intentionality: A Fundamental Idea of Husserl’s Phenomenology.” Trans. Joseph P. Fell. Journal of the             British Society for Phenomenology. V.1; No.2; pg. 4-5.

——— 1960. The Transcendence of the Ego: An Existentialist Theory of Consciousness. Trans. Forrest Williams and Robert Kirkpatrick. New York: Hill and Wang.

——— 1956. Being and Nothingness. Trans. Hazel E. Barnes. New York:             Washington Square Press.

Zahavi, Dan. 2010. “Shame and the Exposed Self”. Reading Sartre: On Phenomenology and Existentialism. Ed. J. Webber. London: Routledge. 211-226.


[1] See, for instance, Nedelsky’s “Reconceiving Autonomy: Sources, Thoughts, and Possibilities” (1989: Yale Journal of Law and Feminism. Vol. 1: Issue 7. 7-36) and Laws Relations: A Relational Theory of Self, Autonomy and Law (2012: Oxford U.P.)

[2] A more elaborate treatment of Sartre’s work in regards to the issue of relational needs would address his account of need in both Critique of Dialectical Reason and, more surreptitiously, as it appears in Being and Nothingness’s account of desire.