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Failures of Recognition - Sartre and Beauvoir

Sartre and the Struggle for Subjectivity

The compulsion nevertheless to attempt to perceive a solid self in this way is at the heart of the conflict within the self that Hegel and his later commentators have described, and has its roots in the particular ontological situation of the self. For Sartre, the struggle of the master/slave dialectic - which Sartre interprets in a psychological sense as the story of general human interaction - is the story of a struggle for subjecthood. Simply put, the desire of a subject or conscious being at any one time is the desire for subjecthood, and the only way to achieve this subjecthood is to claim it for oneself, and thereby turn the Other into an object. The inequality that inevitably arises in the master/slave story and in human relationships in general is a result of different levels of fortitude, physical or psychological. The full humanity of self-consciousness is the constant struggle for mastery. Those who fail to achieve this full humanity are the victims of someone else’s having achieved mastery over them. According to Sartre, Hegel’s belief that the master/slave dialectic could be overcome or resolved was the result of a kind of misguided ontological and epistemological optimism. Crucially, nothing can be a subject and an object at the same time. The key passage is this one:

Hegel’s optimism ends in failure: between the Other as object and the Me as subject there is no common measure., d cannot know myself in the other if the other is first an object for me: neither can I apprehend the other in his true being - that is, his subjectivity. No universal knowledge can be derived from the relation of consciousnesses.

This is what we shall call their ontological separation.22

For this, and other reasons, recognition, for Sartre, will always fail. As Robert Williams says, ‘Sartre , like Kojeve, fails to see that for Hegel recognition has an ontological structure capable of supporting a wider range of instantiations than master/slave, conflict, and domination’.23 His criticism falls short of the mark, and it is instructive in the content of this chapter to observe exactly where the mistakes are made. It is particularly interesting to note that Sartre’s practical observations about the possibility of recognition are supported by an ontological (in sense (c)) claim about the possibility of extrapolating theoretical philosophical conclusions from practical philosophical premises, which is precisely the line of argument I am adopting in this work.

Sartre’s position is, on one level, a manifestation of the psychological compulsion I discussed above - the compulsion to perceive the whole self, a ‘solid’ self, at any particular moment in time. Moreover, in the light of Sartre’s comments one extend this conception further. Part of the same psychological phenomenon is a desire for a ‘view from nowhere’24 as far as subjectivity and objectivity, or subjecthood and objecthood, are concerned. What does it mean, for Sartre, to be a subject ? It means to become a master and thereby enslave someone else. Sartre’s description seems to suggest that there can be some kind of truth as regards who is a subject and who is an object. It is difficult, given the epistemological premise discussed earlier, to imagine from whose point of view this could be ascertained. The assertion that it is impossible to be a subject and an object at the same time also seems to presuppose a single perspective that has some kind of privileged epistemological status.

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