Sartre and Psychoanalysis

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French philosopher, novelist, and playwright Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980) attended theÉcole Normale Supérieure, received his accreditation in philosophy, and was a resident at the Institut Français in Berlin during 1933-34. He was awarded, but declined, the Nobel Prize for literature in 1964.

Sartre's first major work, The Transcendence of the Ego (1936-1937) published in English in 1957, called into question the interiority of consciousness and, based on Edmund Husserl's phenomenology, he wrote that "the ego is neither formally nor materially in consciousness: it is outside, in the world. It is a being of the world, like the ego of another." The subject does not possess himself and consciousness, "defined by intentionality," provides no privileged self-knowledge because, as Sartre writes, "My I, in effect, is no more certain for consciousness than the I of other men. It is only more intimate." These ideas formed the springboard for a radical critique of introspection, self-knowledge, and inner life.

Sartre developed his ideas further in Being and Nothingness (1943). In this text he suggested that Sigmund Freud's work (which he characterizes as "empirical"), in his estimation, represents a provisional formulation, subject to critique, of what he calls (more by reference to Søren Kierkegaard than to Ludwig Binswanger) "existential" psychoanalysis. He postulates the principle that the human being is a totality, expressed completely through fortuitous conduct. "In other words there is not a taste, a mannerism, or a human act which is not revealing" (p. 568). The goal, to elucidate the actual behavior of human beings, is based on "the fundamental, preontological comprehension which man has of the human person" (p. 568). All conduct symbolizes and conceals, in various ways, the basic choice of every individual subject. Each person must be unveiled and revealed, as Sartre himself would attempt to do with Jean Genet (1952) and Gustave Flaubert (1971-72). With this as a starting point, Sartre moves on to discuss the similarities and differences between Freudian psychoanalysis and what he calls existential psychoanalysis.

In terms of similarities, both analysis and existential psychoanalysis "consider the human being as a perpetual, searching, historization. Rather than uncovering static, constant givens they discover the meaning, orientation, and adventures of this history" (p. 569). With knowledge anterior to logic, the subject has absolutely no privileged capacity for self-knowledge, while conflicts and projects can be apprehended only from the point of view of the other.

But there are also radical differences. Most decisive, according to Sartre, is that for Freud the libido is an irreducible psychobiological given. By contrast, Sartre suggested that the subject's own demarche is centered on choices that cannot be constituted in advance and which vary with each individual. "For human reality there is no difference between existing and choosing for itself" (p. 572) because "consciousness is a being, the nature of which is to be conscious of the nothingness of its being" (p. 47).

In sum, from a somewhat dated view of Freud's work, Sartre fashions a critique that views psychoanalysis as an acceptable albeit awkward and provisional expression of what will become existential psychoanalysis, while on a practical level it is more successful. "Empirical psychoanalysis, to the extent that its method is better than its principles, is often in sight of an existential discovery, but it always stops part way" (p. 573).

Georges LantÉri-Laura

See also: Action-language; Determinism; France; Freud, the Secret Passion ; Phenomenology and psychoanalysis; Politzer, Georges; Thought-thinking apparatus.


Sartre, Jean Paul. (1972 [c1957]). The transcendence of the ego: An existentialist theory of consciousness. New York: Octagon Books. (Original work published 1936-1937)

. (1964 [c1956]). Being and nothingness: An essay in phenomenological ontology. Special abridged ed. New York: Citadel Press. (Original work published 1943)

. (1963). Saint Genet, actor and martyr. (Bernard Frechtman, Trans.) New York: G. Braziller. (Original work published 1952)

. (1976). Critique of dialectical reason, theory of practical ensembles. (Jonathan Rée, Ed.; Alan Sheridan-Smith, Trans.) London: NLB; Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press. (Original work published 1960)

. (1981 [1993]). The family idiot: Gustave Flaubert, 1821-1857. (Carol Cosman, Trans.) Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (Original work published 1971-1972)