Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Transcendental Consciousness and the Dialectic of Need

By Caleb Heldt, University of Warwick

In the Logic of Sense, Gilles Deleuze credits Sartre with providing the definitive conditions which characterise a radically impersonal transcendental field in his 1937 essay The Transcendence of the Ego [1]. However, Deleuze immediately qualifies this encomium a few pages later, declaring that,
This field can not be determined as that of a consciousness. Despite Sartre's attempt, we cannot retain consciousness as a milieu while at the same time we object to the form of the person and the point of view of individuation. A consciousness is nothing without a synthesis of unification, but there is no synthesis of consciousness without the form of an I, or the point of view of the Self. What is neither individual nor personal are, on the contrary, emissions of singularities insofar as they occur on an unconscious surface and possess a mobile, immanent principle of auto-unification through a nomadic distribution, radically distinct from fixed and sedentary distributions as conditions of the syntheses of consciousness (LS, 102).
It is this rejection of consciousness in favour of a conception of pre-individuated singularities which marks Deleuze's decisive rejection of phenomenology – in particular the structure of intentionality – while retaining the conditions of the transcendental field marked out by Sartre [2]. From a Deleuzian perspective, Sartre's philosophical project went astray once his analyses abandoned the plane of immanence which he uncovered as the transcendental field in favour of a phenomenological conception of consciousness, allowing the perspective of the subject to be re-installed, a subject whose intentional awareness of transcendent objects (Ego and world) is the very condition of possibility and of transcendence (rather than the actualisation of virtual, or immanent potentialities) [3].

So why, we might ask, does Sartre – on the threshold of a theory of singularities – return to the subject in Being and Nothingness the way he does, as an investigation of transcendence upon which he never turns his back [4]? In all honesty, I think this is a badly posed question, one that loses sight of Sartre's most genuine philosophical commitments. In one way or another, Sartre repeatedly returns to the fundamental insights of The Transcendence of the Ego. Indeed, we must bear in mind that Sartre's early theoretical tome, Being and Nothingness, is a critical ontological inquiry [5]. It is a text which endeavours to describe the phenomena which render transcendence, free action, intelligible and to examine the various ways in which transcendence insufficiently limits itself, giving rise to transcendental illusions (NE, 532) which Sartre refers to as bad faith (mauvaise foi). Rather than pursuing this early revelation of the transcendental field as a plane upon which radically impersonal, pre-individuated spontaneities interact without egological interference, without the self-imposed illusions of bad faith – in the manner pursued metaphysically by Deleuze [6] – Sartre devoted himself to investigating the structures of human thought which give rise to these very illusions and, later, to the material conditions involved in such illusion-constitution.

In short, after opening the transcendental field (of consciousness) as a plane upon which pure (reflective) spontaneities (TE, 96) interact free of egological interpenetration – rendering actions radically impersonal or pre-personal – Sartre chose not to pursue this intuition metaphysically but rather chose to devote himself to an investigative project which would examine the conditions which veil this field in self-deceptive illusions. The project undertaken in Being and Nothingness, then, attempts to describe, phenomenologically, the formal conditions which render possible such illusion-constitution through the degradation of this spontaneity by the introduction into the plenum of Being (which is pure presence, a consequence of its self-identity, its being only what it is) a non-being, a being which 'is not'. Thus, consciousness constitutes present-being by an irremediable absence of (a particular) being, which is to say, by a lack of being. What ties this ontological critique of desire as lack in Being and Nothingness to the project undertaken in the Critique of Dialectical Reason [7] is precisely this conception of lack, although the concerns will shift from the formal considerations of ontology to material ones. As such, Sartre opens 'Book I' of the Critique with an examination of elementary individual praxis in which this ontological desire of Being and Nothingness is analysed in its most primordial ontic manifestation which Sartre calls need, i.e. material (biological) desire. As Sartre says, “Everything is to be explained through need (le besoin); need is the first totalising relation between the material being, man, and the material ensemble of which he is part” (CDRI, 80).

It is precisely because each individual consciousness “exists its body” (BN, 353) [8] as its unalterable facticity that it remains bound to its material environment and is consequently compelled to take a point of view on its material condition, and it is this taking a point of view which yields the possibility of departing from the radical immanence of the transcendental field. From a Sartrean perspective, this explains the way in which lack (or scarcity) becomes an ontological (and materialistic) category governing consciousness's interaction with its situation (or environment) transforming the nature of desire from abundance to a type of desire which is predicated upon lack (most fully elaborated by Sartre in BN and CDRI) [9]. We will spend the remainder of this short essay investigating this moment of departure from the immanence of the transcendental field (as the field of materiality) as Sartre describes it in the early pages of the Critique in the dialectic of need, the moment which we may perhaps call the birth of transcendence and the free project, or praxis.

So, what the dialectic of need unveils initially, in the first instance, is not an absence of a particular transcendent object which is apprehended as lacking in the environment, but prior to the constitution of a lack in the environment consciousness, or rather the (conscious) organism, finds itself in the presence of an environment which it constitutes co-extensively with its presence as need: “Need is a negation of the negation in so far as it expresses itself as a lack within the organism” (CDRI, 80; bold emphasis added). This consciousness of need is not a consciousness of a past need, but a consciousness of a present need through and through. The organism constitutes the lack it feels within its own being – hunger, for example – as a negation of its being which “threatens the organism as a whole with disintegration – the danger of death” (CDRI, 81). Need, in becoming elementary praxis, is posited as the negation of this negation. So, in the first instance, need-consciousness does not constitute its present environment by a particular lack but rather exists this lack in its own being as a necessity imposed by biological functions, which is to say, in the language of Being and Nothingness, its facticity. But “the negation of this negation is [only] achieved through the transcendence of the organic [of the organism's own being] towards the inorganic: need (le besoin) is a link of univocal immanence with surrounding materiality” (CDRI, 80). Initially, then, the organism “reveal[s] the material environment, to infinity, as the total field of possibilities of [the] satisfaction” of its need as the negation of the felt internal lack” (CDRI, 80) Or again:
As soon as need appears, surrounding matter is endowed with a passive unity, in that a developing totalisation is reflected in it as a totality: matter revealed as passive totality by an organic being seeking its being in it – this is Nature in its initial form. Already, it is in terms of the total field that need seeks possibilities of satisfaction in nature, and it is this totalisation which will reveal in the passive totality its own material being as abundance or scarcity (CDRI, 81).
This is significant because in the first instance of need the organism, as we have said, does not constitute the external environment by a lack, by scarcity, because – ontologically speaking – being-in-itself lacks nothing; it is what it is and it is pure presence to itself. However, this present-being becomes constituted by a lack, by scarcity, in the initial moment of elementary praxis insofar as for the organism “the material environment..., by not containing what the organism seeks, transforms the totality as future reality into possibility,” i.e. into an as yet non-existent state of (its) being (CDRI, 83; bold emphasis added). This is to say that the origin of possibility as praxis lies in the fact that the organism apprehends the present environment as incapable of satisfying its present need, so it posits a future reality, an end, which would satisfy its present need:
Need, as a negation of the negation, is the organism itself, living in the future, through present disorders, as its own possibility and consequently, as the possibility of its own impossibility [i.e. its own non-existence, or death]; and praxis, in the first instance, is nothing but the relation of the organism, as exterior and future end, to the present organism as a totality under threat; it is function exteriorised (CDRI, 83).
As such, the consequence of the failure of the organism's present environment to provide the requisite conditions for the satisfactions of its (biological) need is that transcendence, as elementary praxis, proves to be an adaptive function (the exteriorisation of its interiority, i.e. of its interior lack or negation) capable of being utilised by the (human) organism. By constituting its present environment by the scarcity of the “inorganic or less organised elements or, quite simply,...dead flesh, etc.” (CDRI, 80) which the organism lacks and as such threatens it with death, it is compelled to seek out a new environment which would satisfy its needs: “It is at this ambiguous level that the dialectical transition from function to actions can be seen. The project, as transcendence, is merely the exteriorisation of immanence” (CDR, 83).

And this analysis is completely consistent with the ontological explication of lack in Being and Nothingness where Sartre describes hunger, qua desire, as a state of the body, as a form of lived facticity in which,
the For-itself immediately flees...toward its possibles; that is, toward a certain state of satisfied-hunger the In-itself-for-itself of hunger. Thus hunger is a pure surpassing of corporal facticity; and to the extent that the For-itself becomes conscious of this facticity in a non-thetic form, the For-itself becomes conscious of it as a surpassed facticity. The body here is indeed the past, the passed-beyond (BN, 409).
It is necessary to bear in mind, in this perhaps risky dialogue between the ontological and the material conditions of consciousness qua need and desire, that what is at issue in both of Sartre's analyses – and that of which Deleuze and Guattari are critical – is precisely the conception of lack and the understanding of desire and need in terms of lack. Whereas for Deleuze and Guattari, “Desire is not bolstered by needs, but rather the contrary; needs are derived from desire: they are counter products within the real that desire produces. [And as such] Lack is a countereffect of desire” (AO, 27), for Sartre this cannot be the case, at least not in the first instance. As he says, “We will not get out of the difficulty by making desire a conatus [10] conceived in the manner of a physical force. For the conatus...can not possess in itself the character of reaching out toward another state. The conatus as the producer of states can not be identified with desire as the appeal from a state” (BN, 111). Desire, for Sartre, is constituted (impurely) reflectively as lack as a result of, or rather co-extensively with need [11]. It is the appeal outward from a conscious state of need (hunger, for example) toward another as yet non-existent state of consciousness which would be a satisfied need (e.g. the In-itself-for-itself of hunger, or the ideal totalised totality of consciousness as satisfied hunger), which is to say, in the language of the Critique, need is the transcendence of lack by way of the exteriorisation of immanence, and it is this capacity, extended beyond its appropriate realms, which gives rise to (an array of) transcendental illusions.

While this no doubt would be the place to examine the constituent structures involved in a Sartrean conception of pure or non-accessory desire, we have already gone beyond the bounds of the present forum [12]. Let me conclude by saying that Deleuze's intuition regarding the fundamental nature of desire is Sartrean in spirit, only Sartre accords a greater significance to the role of negation and thereby transcendence than Deleuze is willing to allow. In any case, I would like to suggest that, in a sense, their respective projects can be viewed with a certain degree of complementarity given their mutual starting point, namely the transcendental field; their projects diverge, however, as Sartre sought to understand the ways in which human reality has veiled from itself its radical capacity to act spontaneously and impersonally, whereas Deleuze's project discarded these illusions at the outset in order to develop what he came to refer to as a 'transcendental empiricism'. So despite any disagreements as to what constitutes the proper field of study for an ontology or a metaphysics, the world-view of each ultimately returns to the transcendental field as a (possible) reality of lived (human) experience.

Caleb Heldt is a graduate student at the University of Warwick. His research (see here) focuses on the role of the imagination (what Sartre refers to as 'image consciousness'), affectivity and memory in providing the conditions of possibility for the phenomenon of self-deception or 'bad faith' (mauvaise foi) in Sartre's thought.

  1. Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, trans. Mark Lester and Charles Stivale, ed. Constantin V. Boundas, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), 98-99; hereafter LS. Sartre, The Transcendence of the Ego, trans. Forrest Williams and Robert Kirkpatrick, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1991), hereafter TE.
  2. LS, 105; Deleuze, 'Immanence: A Life' in Pure Immanence: Essays on Life, trans. Anne Boyman, (New York: Zone Books, 2005), 33 n2; Deleuze, and Félix Guattari, What is Philosophy?, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 47.
  3. Cf. 'Immanence: A Life', 25-33. As Sartre says in TE, “Potentiality is not mere possibility: it presents itself as something which really exists, but its mode of existence is potency” (TE, 71). But for Sartre, these potentialities really exist only because they belong to a transcendent object, namely the ego. In BN, potentiality is predominantly associated with present worldly objects. For a concise explication of Deleuze's position, drawn from the work of Henri Bergson, see 'The Actual and the Virtual', in Deleuze, and Claire Parnet, Dialogues II, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007),148-152. For Sartre, Bergson's consciousness is fundamentally egological (cf. TE, 80). 
  4. Sartre, Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology, trans. Hazel E. Barnes, (London: Routledge, 2003), hereafter BN.
  5. In his eulogy to Merleau-Ponty, published in Situations IV in 1964, Sartre referred to Being and Nothingness as his “eidetics of bad faith” [Sartre, 'Merleau-Ponty', Portraits, trans. Chris Turner, (London: Seagull Books, 2009), 442 n75]. Of equal import, in the Notebooks for an Ethics, Sartre declares that, “The very fact that Being and Nothingness is an ontology before conversion takes for granted that a conversion is necessary and that, as a consequence, there is a natural attitude” [Sartre, Notebooks for an Ethics, trans. David Pellauer, (Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press, 1992), 6; hereafter NE]. Also, in the penultimate chapter of Being and Nothingness itself, Sartre states that the preceding investigation was aimed only at an accessory or impure reflective analysis, asserting that an analysis of purifying, ethical reflection was as yet to be undertaken (BN, 602).
  6.  No doubt, many Deleuzians would resist this designation, asserting that the plane of immanence upon which virtual potentialities are actualised refers to a Deleuzian ontology. And this may well be so from a Deleuzian perspective; however, from a Sartrean point of view, even a conception of an absolutely pure reflective consciousness which never lapse into bad faith is a postulation that belongs more appropriately to a metaphysics. And it should not be overlooked that Deleuze said of himself in the Dialogues, “Je me sens pur métaphysicien” [cited in Beistegui, Miguel, Truth and Genesis (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004), 221].
  7. Sartre, Critique of Dialectical Reason, vol. 1, ed. Jonathan Rée, trans. Alan Sheridan-Smith, (London: Verso, 2004), hereafter CDRI.
  8. This a position Sartre maintained throughout his career, from his early writings on the imagination – in which Sartre emphasises the role which fatigue plays in the tendency toward image-consciousness [Sartre,  The Imaginary: A Phenomenological Psychology of the Imagination, trans. Johnathan Webber, (London: Routledge, 2004), 71.] – until the final years of his life, as can be seen in his 1975 interview with Michel Contat in which he declares, “For me, there is no difference in nature between body and consciousness” ['Autoportrait à soixante-dix ans', Situations X, (Paris: Gallimard, 1976), 146 cited in Barnes, Hazel E., 'Sartre as Materialist' in The Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, ed. Paul Arthur Schlipp, (La Salle, IL.: Open Court Publishing Company, 1981), 684 n11.]. 
  9. For Deleuze's critique of desire as lack see Deleuze's seminar from 26 May, 1973 entitled 'Dualism, Monism and Multiplicities (Desire-Pleasure-Jouissance)', trans. Daniel W. Smith, Contretemps 2, May 2001, pp. 92-108, esp. 95 & 101: “it is true that Western philosophy has always consisted in saying: if desire exists, it is the very sign, or the very fact, that you are lacking something. Everything starts from that. A first wielding of desire-lack is brought about; from there, it goes without saying that desire is defined as a function of a field of transcendence' desire is desire for what one does not have” (101). In Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari criticise desire conceived as lack in a similar capacity, albeit within the context of a critique of psychoanalysis and capitalistic mechanisms with their notion of 'desiring-machines' as productive of desire. See Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem and Helen R. Lane, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), esp. 28n for a brief critique of Sartre's conception of scarcity; hereafter AO.
  10. In the manner of Spinoza, to whose conception of desire Deleuze's is closely akin. See Deleuze, Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza, trans. Martin Joughin, (New York: Zone Books, 1990).
  11. A fact which many of Sartre's commentators fail to recognise, Deleuze (it often seems) included, is that the phenomenological and ontological descriptions in Being and Nothingness are intended to focus upon impure, or accessory reflective consciousness (BN, 602), which is to say the egological consciousness of The Transcendence of the Ego. This should be clear from the above characterisation of the conscious passage from one state to another, since states are transcendent unities of consciousness, which is to say they are fundamentally egological (cf. TE, 60-68). Sartre's examination of pure or non-accessory (reflective) consciousness appears in an introductory form in his discussion of temporality in Being and Nothingness, but this serves predominately to delineate the characteristics proper to psychic (or egological) temporality (BN, 177-193). Since Sartre associates pure or non-accessory consciousness with an ethical mode of consciousness – as it is free of egological interpenetration and aligns itself with the conditions he set out in The Transcendence of the Ego of a radically impersonal or pre-personal spontaneity – this modality of consciousness is not the subject of his 'eidetics of bad faith' in Being and Nothingness. Rather, it is that which he famously promised to study in a subsequent work on the final page of his phenomenological ontology, which did not appear in published form during his lifetime. Consequently, the best clues to what Sartre intended by this ethical, non-accessory modality of consciousness are to be found in the Notebooks for an Ethics. It is in this text where he makes the most explicit link between desire and non-accessory consciousness (cf. NE, 417).
  12. I have written of desire in relation to the various modalities of (un)reflective consciousness elsewhere. See my 'The Magical and Bad Faith: Reflection, Desire and the Image of Value', in Sartre Studies International, Volume 15, Issue 1, 2009: 54–73,

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