The Evolution of Consciousness: Sartre's "The Transcendence of the Ego"

Mar 20


Max Weber

Max Weber

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In "The Transcendence of the Ego," Jean-Paul Sartre embarks on a profound exploration of human consciousness through a phenomenological lens. This seminal 1937 work signifies Sartre's departure from Edmund Husserl's philosophical teachings. Sartre challenges the traditional view of the ego as an intrinsic component of consciousness, proposing instead that it exists externally, akin to any other object. This article delves into Sartre's arguments, contrasting them with other philosophical perspectives on consciousness and the ego.


Sartre's Phenomenological Breakthrough

The Ego as an Object

Sartre's "The Transcendence of the Ego" presents a radical rethinking of the ego's role in human consciousness. He contends that the ego is not a formal or material part of consciousness but rather an external entity. This perspective implies that our emotions,The Evolution of Consciousness: Sartre's states, and even the ego itself are not our exclusive possessions. Phenomenology, according to Sartre, situates these elements outside of consciousness, rendering them transcendent objects that cannot penetrate the inner unity of our consciousness. This notion suggests that there is no inherent barrier to understanding others' emotions, as consciousness remains the sole domain impenetrable to others.

Consciousness and Intentionality

Sartre upholds Husserl's principle of the intentionality of consciousness, asserting that all forms of consciousness are inherently intentional. Imagination and feelings, for instance, require an object to manifest. They represent ways of relating to the world, and this relational aspect embodies intentionality. Sartre's view diverges from Husserl's by emphasizing the impersonal spontaneity of transcendental consciousness, suggesting that the ego's primary function may be to obscure consciousness's inherent spontaneity.

The Ego and Consciousness

Sartre argues that consciousness sometimes mistakenly identifies with the ego, leading to a false representation of itself. However, even in such instances, the ego does not penetrate consciousness; rather, a part of consciousness becomes absorbed in the ego. The ego enables us to differentiate between the possible and the real, appearance and being, and the willed and the undergone—distinctions that consciousness itself does not make. By transcending the ego, consciousness can overcome barriers and confront the fear inherent in pure consciousness.

Absolute Consciousness and the Ego

Sartre posits that only absolute consciousness exists as absolute. Introducing the ego into consciousness would disrupt its unity by creating a dichotomy between consciousness that possesses an ego and other forms of consciousness. He suggests that recognizing the contemporaneity of "the me" with the world can resolve the subject-object duality that has perplexed philosophers. In Sartre's view, the "me" and the world are both objects for absolute consciousness, connected by its virtue. By removing the ego, we can achieve absolute consciousness, which Sartre sees as the ultimate source and explanation for existence, establishing absolute freedom between the self and the world.

Contrasting Philosophical Perspectives

David Armstrong's Materialism

David Armstrong, an influential Australian philosopher, offers a contrasting perspective in his work "The Mind-Body Problem: An Opinionated Introduction." Armstrong leans towards materialism, arguing that the mind is a physical bodily function rather than a separate entity like the soul. He defines psychological concepts, such as belief and sensory pain, in terms of their physical causes. Armstrong's materialism challenges Cartesian dualism, which posits that mental processes can be identified with physical brain processes. However, he acknowledges the complexity of introspection, suggesting that if it were purely material, it could potentially yield incorrect results, a disparity that continues to fuel philosophical debate.


Jean-Paul Sartre's "The Transcendence of the Ego" remains a pivotal work in the study of consciousness and the ego. By positioning the ego as an external object and emphasizing the intentionality and spontaneity of consciousness, Sartre offers a unique perspective that continues to influence philosophical thought. His ideas stand in stark contrast to materialist views, such as those of David Armstrong, highlighting the rich diversity of thought in the ongoing exploration of the mind-body relationship.

Sources and Further Reading

For those interested in exploring Sartre's ideas further, his original work "The Transcendence of the Ego" is a foundational text. Additionally, readers may find David Armstrong's "The Mind-Body Problem: An Opinionated Introduction" to be a compelling read for an alternative viewpoint on the nature of consciousness. For a broader understanding of phenomenology and its impact on modern philosophy, Edmund Husserl's works provide essential context and insight.