8 Dec 2012

Pt1.Ch1.Sb3 Somers-Hall’s Hegel, Deleuze, and the Critique of Representation. ‘Sartre and the Transcendence of the Ego.’ summary

Corry Shores
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[Note: All boldface and underlining is my own. It is intended for skimming purposes. Bracketed comments are also my own explanations or interpretations.]


Henry Somers-Hall


Hegel, Deleuze, and the Critique of Representation.

Dialectics of Negation and Difference


Part 1: The problem of Representation

Chapter 1: Deleuze and Transcendental Empiricism

Subdivision 3: Sartre and the Transcendence of the Ego


Brief Summary:

For Kant, the transcendental field is the a priori synthetic unity of our self-consciousness (our transcendental apperception). Sartre shows how in Husserl’s phenomenology, a transcendental subject is not needed, because the unity of consciousness results from the unity of the phenomenal objects we are conscious of (that we are intending). For Sartre, the unity of consciousness results from the continuous unity of the phenomenal object that we aware of, and this is the basis for our unified subjectivity; and so it is not on the basis of a unified subject that we have consciousness of unified objects. Thus the transcendental field for Sartre is the unity of intentional consciousness and not Husserl’s transcendental ego.

What does the non-transcendentality of your ego got to do with you?

Perhaps our sense of our own unity and continuity results from the fact that we are continually conscious of objects that are unified, and so we are not inherently unified independently of our experiences.


Previously we discussed Kant’s transcendental field, the a priori unified self whose unity ensures the coherences within and between our concepts and our empirical intuitions. Now Somers-Hall (SH) turns to Sartre’s Transcendence of the Ego.

Deleuze critiques Kant’s transcendental subject “as the constituting principle that allows the isomorphism between the transcendental categories and empirical judgments” (23). Sartre’s The Transcendence of the Ego provides the “raw material” for this critique (23). SH notes 3 difficulties for reconstructing Deleuze’s “move from transcendental idealism to transcendental empiricism through Sartre's critique of the transcendental ego”. (23)

[1] Deleuze provides almost no commentary on Sartre’s text, and Sartre’s text is directed at Husserl’s transcendental ego rather than Kant’s.

[2] Sartre is not attacking Husserlian phenomenology but rather attempting to save it from certain criticisms. (24) And Deleuze is anti-phenomenological, but Sartre’s essay is in support of phenomenology.

[3] Deleuze does not agree with Sartre that consciousness itself can be preserved for the transcendental field.

Deleuze takes it for granted that Sartre's essay ends in failure, that "it is no more possible to preserve for [the transcendental field] the form of consciousness" (LS, 105) than it is to preserve the I. These difficulties can be resolved if we assume that the argument that Sartre deploys against the transcendental ego in fact cuts deeper than he had anticipated, and finally undermines the foundations of even the reinforced phenomenology he himself proposes. We thereby accept Sartre's argument for the revised specification of the transcendental field without accepting the formulation developed by Sartre to meet this specification. We accept the schematics provided by Sartre while arguing that phenomenology cannot itself provide a solution to the difficulties raised. Thus Sartre's argument would provide the negative critique that leads positively to Deleuze's transcendental empiricism. (24)

Kant’s transcendental ego is not under attack in Sartre’s text, from the phenomenological view, because Kant’s fundamental structures do not fit win a philosophy of description like phenomenology. (24) SH will now discuss “the differences between the transcendental ego and transcendental apperception” (25)

Both Kant’s and Husserl’s systems describe a priori laws of objects. However, Kant sought the conditions for the possibilities of experience. This led him to identify the conditions for the object with the conditions for knowledge of the object [both taking the form of judgment, predication]. (25) [The transcendental unity of apperception allows the intuitive manifold to become unified and to take the form of subject-predicate. Thus]

The identity of these two conditions is guaranteed by the fact that it is the transcendental unity of apperception that allows the categories to condition the object such that the understanding can know it as an object. Thus, the rules governing consciousness necessarily also cover the objects for consciousness. From a transcendental perspective, what consciousness 'knows' is already within consciousness. (25)

Kant is primarily concerned with synthetic a priori propositions, and not with a posteriori ones.

Kant's main preoccupation is therefore with the validity of propositions given in advance of our enquiry, rather than with a genuine description of subjective life . Once intentionality is seen as one of the primary characteristics of consciousness, consciousness becomes essentially "consciousness of" the object, rather than the Kantian consciousness that deals with representations of objects. The focus instead on intentionality allows us to explore not simply our representation of the object, but also our mode of relation to it. (25)

But when we look at things in terms of intentionality, we notice not just our representations of the objects but also our modes of relation to them, like love them, fearing them, hating them. But “One of the central ideas of moving to this conception of consciousness is that if consciousness refers to an object outside of itself, then the question of how the elements are to be synthesized together into a representation within consciousness does not arise.” (25d) “The object stands transcendent to consciousness and is thereby governed by its own conditions, which are the subject matter of the phenomenological method”. (26a) Kant’s method uses transcendental arguments to uncover the preconditions underlying some existent state, “thus space is an a priori condition for experience in general because it is impossible to conceive of an object outside of a spatial milieu” (27) But Husserlian phenomenology does not presuppose that the object is a function of the understanding. What is needed instead is a pure description of the object, setting aside such assumptions as the object’s existence or non-existence.

The point at issue between Sartre and Husserl in this essay is whether a Husserlian phenomenology presupposes the presence of the transcendental ego for the same reasons that it is required within the Kantian system, namely, to create a point from which various consciousnesses can engage in various acts of apprehension yet still maintain a coherent unity. (26)

But if consciousness arises from a transcendental ego, then Husserl would have the problem of explaining how consciousness makes contact with an object that is transcendent to it. Husserl explains such a connection with his notion of the hyle, which is the medium that “shares the properties of both consciousness and the object, which can thereby communicate between the object and the consciousness.” (26) But then,

Such a medium, or hyle, according to Sartre, undercuts the fundamental doctrine of phenomenology, "to the things themselves," as now consciousness is consciousness not of an object, but instead of the representation of the object through the hyle. Furthermore, in the work of Husserl, the hyle is a function of consciousness, returning us precisely to the theory of contained representations as put forward by Kant. (26)

Kant’s transcendental ego is a condition for the possibility of knowing objects, and is thus not given to empirical consciousness. But Husserl’s epoché suspends theoretical considerations like the notion of a presupposed transcendental ego that is not present to empirical consciousness. (27)

(1) Does in fact the I accompany all our representations? (2) Would such an accompanying I change the structure of the representation. (3) And why is it that the I must be able to accompany all our representations? Is it because it makes possible the unity of our representations? Or is it because our representations are structured in such a way that they may always have an I think prefixed to them?

The structure of Sartre's argument follows these three questions, with his answer to the first attacking the necessity of the transcendental ego, the second presenting an alternative theory of the unification of consciousness, and the third showing the impossibility of a transcendental ego. (27)

Sartre is considering a different possibility. It could be that the unity of our representations is caused by something other than our transcendental ego and nonetheless the ‘I think’ could still accompany all our representations. First SH will examine Sartre’s account of the unity of consciousness. (27)

Sartre thinks that in phenomenology there is a vital distinction between consciousness and the transcendental ego. We are conscious of many different states of affairs, objects, and events, so we Husserlian phenomenology must explain “how these fragmentary experiences in disparate locations and at disparate times can be attributed to the same individual” (27). Also, phenomenology tries to uncover the essence of objects, but they would be sharable by other consciousnesses, and thus “any idea of the individual itself dissolves. There is no way of differentiating one individual from another on the basis of consciousness” (27). Husserl introduces the transcendental ego for two reasons. [1] it guarantees the unity of acts of consciousness, because their unity arises from their common source, and [2] it accounts for personality, because the acts of consciousness form a coherent whole within the transcendental ego, even if they are individually replaceable. (27)

Thus we see that in Husserl

the role of the transcendental ego, as unifying consciousness, plays the same role as the transcendental unity of apperception within the Kantian system. The primary difference is that the transcendental ego for Husserl must be accepted as a factual existent, whereas for Kant, it is instead a necessary posit, a formal unity. (27d)

For Satre, consciousness itself can provide this unity. (28a) He takes a Spinozistic view. Consciousnesses are unlimited and yet necessarily separated from all others, and for this reason one person’s consciousness will not be confused with others. (28)

For Sartre, unity of consciousness can result from the unity of the object. For Sartre this is a fundamental tenet of phenomenology, but for Deleuze it is “an empirical thesis about duration derived from Bergson.” (29)

For Sartre then, the claim will be that Kant has misconstrued a fundamental phenomenological fact, namely, the durational experience of time, and so has derived conditions for the possibility of experience that do not relate to actual empirical experience. Sartre observes the fact that time appears to us not as a series of instants, but rather primarily as a continuum, through which the past and present are not separated from one another, but rather are undifferentiated. Consciousness "unifies itself by escaping from itself" (TE, 38) . That is, the unity comes from the order present in the object that is transcendent to consciousness. (29)

For Sartre, consciousness in this sense is seen as intending an object and not just synthesizing representations.

The flux of consciousness itself also participates in this unity through the retention of previous experiences. "It is consciousness which unifies itself, concretely, by a play of 'transversal' intentionalities which are concrete and real retentions of past consciousnesses" (TE, 39). The ego is not needed to unify consciousness as consciousnesses themselves traverse one another in such a way as to provide a decentered unity. (29)

Kant’s transcendental ego help explains the relation of our consciousness to the world. (29-30)

Without the synthetic activity of the subject, representations would "crowd in upon the soul." The distance between self and world would be lost as it is the active taking up of the world that allows the subject to conceive of himself as separate from it. (30)

For Sartre, our representations really do crowd upon our soul, as when we are enthralled by the world.

This does not mean that we cannot reflect on ourselves, but for Sartre, this reflection merely relates to an empirical self, which is itself constituted from the history of our relations to the world. This self for Sartre is real but is not in itself generative. (30)

For Sartre, the transcendental ego fulfills a practical rather than a transcendental function.

Without the ego, consciousness becomes equal to the transcendental field. When consciousness is revealed to itself in this respect, as utterly unbounded and ungoverned, it is struck by dread. Perceptions crowd in upon the soul, and consciousness becomes lost within the world. Without the background of a unity, consciousness is now without concepts such as passion and will, appearance and reality. Thus the transcendental ego becomes equated with the desire to become being-in-and-for-itself in the later terminology of Being and Nothingness, that is, to become a mixture | of passivity and spontaneity. (30-31)

For Kant, synthesis is enacted by the subject, and this validates the subject. Because Sartre has shown that consciousness can unify without needing a subject, this makes the subject merely an implication of the unity of consciousness rather than a transcendental presupposition. (31)

The transversal strands of consciousness provide this unity, and it is this unity of consciousness that permits the attribution of the 'I'. Thus, for Sartre, it is the unity of consciousness that forms the transcendental field, a consciousness that is impersonal through the removal of the concept of the 'I' from its foundational role . Sartre opposes Kant's unity of apperception to the inherent unity of the object itself and the transversal interrelations between specific acts of consciousness provided by protention and retention, which no longer require the centralized synthesis of the Kantian system. The ego still exists but is now a unity on the same level as any other object to which consciousness relates. (31)

Kant’s spontaneity for Sartre is found in consciousness itself, in its nonobjectival nature (its not having a subject-property structure, see ft.6 of ch.1).

For Sartre there are four consequences of his rejection of the transcendental ego, and they are also Deleuze’s conditions for a transcendentally structured empiricism.

First, the transcendental field becomes impersonal, or, if you like, pre-personal, without an I.

Second, the I only appears at the level of humanity, and is only one aspect of the me, the active aspect.

Third, the I Think can accompany our representations because it appears as the foundation of unity which it did not help to create; rather, this prior unity makes the I Think possible.

Fourth, one may ask if personality (even the abstract personality of an I) is a necessary accompaniment of consciousness, and if one cannot conceive of absolutely impersonal consciousnesses. (TE, 37) [32]

So our consciousness does not have a subject-property structure, because it is impersonal. It is merely the intentional awareness of unified phenomenal givennesses. And this impersonal awareness of objects is the condition for objects (to appear), so the conditions of objects themselves relies on the nonobjectival transcendental field (32). [The condition for the knowledge of objects, it seems SH is saying, is the I or the I think, which exists at the level of the empirical and no longer is identical with its transcedental correlate:]

The conditions for objects and the conditions for the knowledge of objects can no longer be identical precisely because the transcendental field is not quantitatively identical with the field of empirical states of affairs. As the transcendental field no longer has an objectival structure, knowledge of objects is now a matter of empirical correspondence of propositions to determinate objects, whereas the conditions of objects themselves rely on the nonobjectival transcendental field. This is because the I, which exists at the level of the empirical, or the human, no longer finds a transcendental correlate . (32)

The synthesis of the empirical is no longer the synthesis of the transcendental. The understanding and its concepts are on the side of the transcendental. Thus “Once the responsibility for the synthesis of the empirical is taken out of the hands of the subject herself, it becomes possible that the functions generating this synthesis are completely alien to the understanding of the subject.” (32) [For Sartre, the personal I results from a unity that is in the objects and not in itself.] “Thus, the personal becomes a signifier for the structures of the empirical world or, in the language of phenomenology, of the natural attitude.” (33) Recall the fourth consequence which is really a question. “Fourth, one may ask if personality (even the abstract personality of an I) is a necessary accompaniment of consciousness, and if one cannot conceive of absolutely impersonal consciousnesses.” (32) For Sartre consciousness is impersonal, but for Deleuze it is personal but preindividual.

what is logically prior to all individualized states of affairs is not itself individuated. Consciousness, while lacking content, is still an individuality. It is like a point in a geometrical space that automatically brings with it the axes through which it is specified. (33)

For Sartre, each of our transcendental fields can be shared by other consciousness in our encounters with others.

Thus, although the two consciousnesses share the same transcendental field, each one asserts his own right to be an individual, and this struggle between individuals itself takes place within the transcendental field. Each has the potential to "disintegrate" the other's relations to the world through "the unfolding about itself of its own distances." This means that I see the other as a part of the transcendental field, but as a part that individuates itself through the particular relations it holds to the world about it. The look is the attempt by each consciousness to subsume the other within its own synthesis of the transcendental field. The disintegration is literally the failure of this synthesis. The transcendental field therefore allows the possibility of multiple different syntheses. This is to say that consciousness is not merely an individuating but also a personalized presence within the transcendental field (syntheses are multiple and depend on the particular consciousness) . (34)

[So because our look attempts to subsume others within the syntheses of our own transcendental fields, we can say that in fact for Sartre our consciousness is personal. But this personality cannot come from a preunified transcendental ego but rather from the potential for it to distinguish itself from the consciousnesses it is trying to subsume.]

As this contradicts the first implication of the removal of the transcendental ego, we can now see that what guarantees the prepersonal nature of the transcendental field is precisely that it is also preindividual. The possibility of different syntheses implies that consciousness itself in some sense 'personalizes' the empirical in its synthesis of it. (34)

SH ends this section by noting that

We have therefore seen the reasons Sartre wishes to remove the notion of the transcendental Ego. Deleuze is much more of a classical metaphysician than Sartre, and therefore the implications he takes from the depersonalization of the transcendental field are very different from those of Sartre. (35)

Somers-Hall, Henry (2012) Hegel, Deleuze, and the Critique of Representation. Dialectics of Negation and Difference. Albany: SUNY.

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