Mar 072017

Sofia Miguens, Gerhard Preyer, and Clara Bravo Morando eds., Pre-Reflective Consciousness: Sartre and Contemporary Philosophy of Mind. New York: Routledge, 2016; 532 pp. ISBN: 978-1138925816.

Reviewed by Marco Dozzi, McGill University.

To the extent that the distinction between Analytic and Continental philosophy is valid at all, this collection of essays represents a successful engagement between the two. Admittedly, a Continental philosopher might find the volume’s unmistakable emphasis upon a short, early volume from Sartre’s bibliography curious; while an Analytic philosopher might wonder how any work from Sartre could be relevant to contemporary philosophy of mind. Nevertheless, this anthology demonstrates how productive an engagement between the Continental and Analytic approaches can be, when it is focused upon broad philosophical problems rather than issues characterized by narrowly-defined technical terminology or limited to a very precise historical period or cluster of authors.

Despite its subtitle, this anthology is unquestionably more about contemporary philosophy of mind than it is about Sartre. Notable exceptions are the essays that adopt a more historical approach: these are the essays on Sartre and Brentano, Sartre’s concept of pure reflection, Sartre and Kierkegaard, and Sartre’s play Les jeux sont faits. Manfred Frank accomplishes a magisterial combination of both approaches in the opening essay. There is even one essay in which Sartre is entirely absent, or at least not named (Terry Horgan and Shaun Nichols, “The Zero Point and I”). Nonetheless, Sartre’s influence is apparent in this essay as well as in others, even if he seems to disappear occasionally from the center of attention. The role he plays in such essays is that of the bearer of a single, fruitful idea that can be (at least partially) isolated from its context and applied to diverse domains of thinking. Such diverse applications are often fascinating, and include issues such as time-consciousness, perception and imagination, the body, pain, developmental psychology, and ego disorders.

This isolating tendency certainly gives the reader the impression that many of the larger problems and contexts of Sartre’s philosophy can and should be bracketed off relative to the topic at hand in any given contribution. Several authors take care to call attention to this bracketing and to provide justifications for it. The bracketing is sometimes purely textual: Matthew C. Eshleman, for example, argues that works leading up to but not including Being and Nothingness are more applicable to problems arising outside the circles of Sartre and even Continental scholarship. (180) Other authors view Sartre’s philosophy as divisible in terms of both method and subject matter: Kenneth Williford, for instance, urges that (fortunately, in his view) Sartre’s phenomenology is largely separable from his ontology, and that his phenomenology thereby merits independent treatment. (90-95) Many authors are careful to avoid the excesses of which Sartre has been accused (not by this reviewer) in their estimation of the truth of his ideas. In their view, what is salvageable must often not only be bracketed off from other elements of Sartre’s philosophy, it must receive a (usually self-consciously) speculative interpretation, which may be justified by Sartre’s often provocative but ambiguous writing style. On some occasions, Sartre’s ideas are straightforwardly revised and adapted (for instance, in “A ‘Quasi-Sartrean’ Theory of Subjective Awareness,” written by Joseph Levine).

The secondary literature for most of the essays tends to be presented as Analytic or studied in Analytic contexts—in particular, literature within the field of contemporary philosophy of mind. It is encouraging to see that there is a research community that is open to the possibility of understanding fundamental things about consciousness solely by means of introspection. The viability of introspection as a means of starting analysis is, of course, something generally taken for granted in Continental circles, as Horgan and Nichols observe. (145) Eshleman admirably shows the way that various philosophers in the Analytic tradition do or do not take such viability for granted, and he organizes their views unto a continuum representing where they stand on the issue. (176-178) The notion of pre-reflective consciousness is, understandably, a lynchpin between discourses that seek to navigate between first and third-person approaches to understanding the mind, because the very essence of the idea is something that appears “private” and/or “internal,” yet is nonetheless inaccessible in some respect or to some degree by a conscious agent (falling just shy of the inaccessibility of “unconsciousness” or “the unconscious”). It is therefore important that pre-reflective consciousness be studied both by individuals who take the epistemological weight of introspection for granted as well as those who maintain a degree of skepticism with respect to this method.

The editors portray the primary objective of the book in similar terms: they describe it as an acknowledgment of the “return of the problem of subjectivity in philosophy of mind” (x), and as an effort in “reconceiving relations between subjectivity and objectivity.” (2) Although these objectives are touched upon, a more primary theme that recurs throughout the volume is an attempt to adequately characterize all consciousness that is not reflective in experiential and/or functionalist terms, and to explain precisely in what measure this kind of experience differs from reflective conscious experience. Despite the general sympathy toward introspection and phenomenology, the respects in which these differences are described are often mechanistic in nature. For example, the language is often limited to talk of mental states reflecting other mental states or “objects” to produce certain kinds of experience, without a corresponding explanation of how such descriptions relate to lived, experiential states. This tendency may reflect an attitude attributable to Sartre himself, who, despite giving us rich and compelling descriptions of conscious experience, also relied upon mechanistic terminology partially appropriated from the empirical psychology of his time. When he did discuss relations between such mechanisms and experience, it was often in terms that were metaphorical and thus ambiguous. This problem is somewhat inherited by the essays in this volume, with some notable exceptions in the essays of Williford (see especially 85), Horgan and Nichols (166), and Levine (350).

The discussion of how to characterize pre-reflective consciousness in experiential or functionalist terms is fascinating, but it does not seem to have been a major concern for Sartre. Similarly, while he took up the question of what precisely distinguishes reflective consciousness from pre-reflective consciousness, the question was quickly passed over: the most that he says is that reflective consciousness is marked by the presence of the ego (TE 65/83), and that reflective consciousness is consciousness that takes itself as an object. (TE 24/40-41) Fortunately, many of the essays investigate and/or critique Sartre’s primary thesis in The Transcendence of the Ego, namely, that there is no ego present to pre-reflective consciousness. (See especially TE 30-31/46-47.) Unfortunately, this is often done only indirectly: the majority of the essays use the term “self” rather than “ego” in this context, and thereby blur what seems to be an important distinction for Sartre. A recurring claim throughout many of the essays is that reflective consciousness makes an implicit self-consciousness explicit; however, insofar as “self” refers to ego, this claim appears false, since Sartre maintains that the ego (at least in its aspect as a lived “I”) is absent from pre-reflective consciousness. Joshua Tepley and Daniel R. Rodriguez Navas should be commended for presenting similar forms of this objection in the volume.

Sartre himself is partially to blame for this mistake. In Being and Nothingness, he introduces the term “self” [soi] as well as “self-consciousness” [conscience de soi], and he uses the latter term in a sense that seems consistent with the idea of a ubiquitous self-consciousness. (It should be noted that he also uses the term “ego”—albeit rarely—in a sense consistent with his previous work). Furthermore, Sartre says in The Transcendence of the Ego that all consciousness is, in addition to consciousness of an intentional object, consciousness of itself. (TE, 23/40) Yet it is not at all clear that Sartre meant “consciousness of consciousness” to refer to an implicit self-consciousness—particularly if “self” is equivalent to “ego,” and particularly in the pages of The Transcendence of the Ego. For this reason, the entire discussion of an ostensible “pre-reflective self-consciousness” demands, at the very least, a justification for using this term instead of “pre-reflective consciousness.” Instead, “pre-reflective self-consciousness” is used in the essays in question without drawing attention to the fact that it is a modification of the volume’s titular phrase.

All told, this frequent reference to a putative self within pre-reflective consciousness does not detract greatly from the excellent essays included in this volume. Each provides a compelling and distinctive analysis, and should be read by Continental and Analytic scholars alike.

Additional Works Cited

Sartre, Jean-Paul. (1978), La Transcendance de l’ego: Esquisse d’une description phénoménologique. (Paris: Vrin), tr. by Forrest Williams and Robert Kirkpatrick as The Transcendence of the Ego: An Existentialist Theory of Consciousness, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1991). Referred to parenthetically in the text as TE. Page references, separated by a slash, will be first to the French original, then to the English translation.