Whenever you are conscious, you are conscious of something. Phenomenologists call this feature of being conscious “intentionality,” which means being aimed at or directed toward that something, whatever it may be, which they call the “intentional object.” “Intentionality” and its adjectival form, “intentional,” come from a Latin phrase meaning to aim an arrow; they are technical philosophical terms. Take a look at your own experience and you’ll see what they mean. This feature of being conscious is fairly obvious and non-controversial.
More controversial is what a great many phenomenologists assert: that in addition to being conscious of the intentional object, you are in some less focused way conscious of being conscious. I disagree and have explained my disagreement in some depth elsewhere.(1) One of the earliest and most forceful advocates of this position is Jean-Paul Sartre. In this essay I evaluate Sartre’s argument. (Spoiler alert: I find it lacking.)
In the introduction to his monumental Being and Nothingness Sartre says that
every positional consciousness of an object is at the same time a non-positional consciousness of itself." (2)
That’s not the clearest sentence ever written. What is a consciousness? What does it mean for it to be positional or not? I find Sartre’s obscure language quite aggravating. He sounds profound, but you don’t quite know what he is talking about. And when you figure it out, you find that he is wrong, as we shall see.
In order to decide whether Sartre is right, we have to know what he means by these terms, “consciousness” (“conscience” in the original French) and “positional” (“positionnelle”).(3) Let’s take “consciousness” first.
The term is ambiguous. It can refer to all sorts of things, from a state of being unsedated to the ground of all being. I’ve addressed this deficiency in another paper.(4) For now, we’ll focus on Sartre’s usage.
At one point he seems quite clear:
We said that consciousness is the knowing being in his capacity as being and not as being known." (5)
We don’t need to know in detail what Sartre means by “being” and “being known” to understand that “consciousness” means a conscious entity, a person or perhaps an animal. But if we substitute “conscious entity” for “consciousness” in the sentence cited above, we get this:
Every positional conscious entity of an object is at the same time a non-positional conscious entity of itself."
That makes no sense, so “consciousness” must mean something else. My best guess is that it means an episode or state of being conscious. If so, the sentence becomes this:
Every positional episode of being conscious of an object is at the same time a non-positional episode of being conscious of itself."
That is a bit awkward—what is a positional episode?—, so we might rephrase it as follows:
Every episode of being positionally conscious of an object is at the same time an episode of being non-positionally conscious of being conscious itself.
Both of these are somewhat opaque. Perhaps the meaning will become clearer when we understand what “positional” means. For Sartre, it is an adjectival form of the verb “to posit.” He says
All consciousness, as Husserl has shown, is consciousness of something. This means that there is no consciousness which is not a positing of a transcendent object …" (6)
This usage of “posit” is metaphorical. Usually the term refers to something linguistic, a step in an argument. It means to assume something as a fact or to put something forward as a basis of argument.(7) So how does being conscious of something posit that thing?
This is where Sartre builds on Husserl’s legacy. Phenomenological reflection reveals that there is a cognitive element in every moment of perceiving something. When you see a tree, for instance, you see colors and shapes but you also subliminally interpret those colors and shapes as a tree. The interpretive element, which Husserl calls “noesis”, is as much a part of your experience as the colors and shapes, but usually we don’t pay any attention to it. Analogously to positing a proposition as a basis for argument, when we perceive a tree we posit the tree as the intentional object we are seeing. Sartre calls it a “transcendent” object because it transcends or goes beyond what is immediately given in experience, the sense-data and the interpretive noeses. Husserl’s term is “noema.” Again, I discuss this in detail elsewhere.(8)
Being conscious of something such as a tree positionally means that we posit it as what we are conscious of. We take it to be an object apart from us. Figuratively speaking, we are over here, and we (again, subliminally) posit or suppose that what is over there is a tree. We take a position with respect to it; or, which amounts to the same thing, the tree is seen to be in a position with respect to us.
Fine, but what about “non-positional”? Well, it must indicate something that we do not posit, something that we do not take as an object, something with respect to which we do not take a position. Objects of which we are non-positionally conscious are those in the periphery or background of our experience rather than being in focus. Some examples are physical feelings that we do not attend to, such as the feeling of the shoes on our feet or the ambient sounds around us; fleeting emotional reactions to things we encounter; the experience of highway hypnosis in which we pay little or no attention to the surroundings but nevertheless navigate the road successfully; and many more. Clear and distinct perception is only one end of a continuum, at the other end of which are vague and indistinct presentations, emotional and physical feelings, and finally subliminally or subconsciously presented objects that we can become focally conscious of only with the greatest difficulty. Such objects in the periphery are what Sartre calls non-positional.
The question is whether, paraphrasing Sartre, something that can be referred to as being conscious of being conscious is always and necessarily present in the unattended-to periphery of our experience. My answer is No. It is not the case that every episode of being positionally conscious of an object includes at the same time being non-positionally conscious of being conscious. In my own experience I find that sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. I argue for this thesis in some detail elsewhere.(9) In this essay I just want to examine Sartre’s evidence.
He gives as an example counting cigarettes:
If I count the cigarettes which are in that case, I have the impression of disclosing an objective property of this collection of cigarettes: they are a dozen. This property appears to my consciousness as a property existing in the world. It is very possible that I have no positional consciousness of counting them. … Yet at the moment when these cigarettes are revealed to me as a dozen, I have a non-thetic consciousness of my adding activity." (10)
“Non-thetic” means roughly “non-positional.” When we pay attention to something, our intentional object is like the thesis of an argument, the main thing being focused on. “Non-thetic,” obviously, means the opposite, something not focused on.
Here Sartre describes his own experience, and we have no reason to doubt him. While he focuses on the items being counted, his activity of counting is present in his experience in the background. And that background acquaintance with his activity, he says, is what enables him to report what he is doing.
If … anyone should ask, “What are you doing there?” I should reply at once, “I am counting.” This reply aims not only at the instantaneous consciousness [i.e. moment of being conscious] which I can achieve by reflection but at those fleeting consciousnesses [moments of being conscious] which have passed without being reflected on, those which are forever not-reflected-on in my immediate past. …" (11)
The “instantaneous consciousness” achieved by reflection is simply noticing that he is counting. (Or that he was just now counting, since now he is thinking about counting rather than actually doing it.) He says that his background acquaintance with his activity in moments just past is what enables him to answer. So far, so good, but then he attempts to universalize the situation.
It is the non-thetic consciousness of counting which is the very condition of my act of adding. If it were otherwise, how would the addition be the unifying theme of my consciousnesses [moments of being conscious]? In order that this theme should preside over a whole series of syntheses of unifications and recognitions, it must be present to itself, not as a thing but as an operative intention …. " (12)
By “syntheses of unifications and recognitions” he means the noetic, interpretive element in moments of being conscious by virtue of which our experience seems to be continuous. He says that he would not even know that he has been adding if not for the “non-thetic consciousness of counting,” by which I think he means the appearance of his activity of counting in the background or periphery of all the things present to him in his experience. His intention to count the cigarettes is operative, meaning not focused on but having an effect nevertheless.
But notice that he does not claim that he actually finds an appearance of counting in the periphery of every experience that results in knowing how many items there are. He says such an appearance “must be” there. It is an assumption, not a phenomenological observation.
The assumption of a background, or non-positional, appearance of counting is an explanation of how he is able to answer the question. But it’s not the only possible explanation. Sartre asserts that he must have been conscious of his experience, i.e. known what he was doing, all along in the background. Another explanation is that he could simply have recognized it based on tacit prior knowledge.
Suppose that you are concentrating on something: reading a book, perhaps, or fixing a broken pipe or working a difficult puzzle. Your attention is focused on the book (or more precisely the story or argument in the book), the pipe or the puzzle. Someone asks you what you are doing, and you tell them. How do you know? You have a flash of recognition. Perhaps that recognition comes from having been peripherally aware of your activity of concentrating. Or you could just as well simply see what you are doing and recognize it because of prior knowledge. You have read other books, fixed other things, worked other puzzles. Your knowledge of doing those things does not have to have been phenomenally present in the dim background while you were reading, repairing or working. What you know is tacit; you don’t pay attention to it, and you might not even be able to articulate it.(13) But you know it nevertheless.
We are seeking an explanation of how someone knows what they are (or have just been) doing when asked. We have two alternatives: (a) having been non-positionally conscious of it all along and (b) noticing it when asked and recognizing it based on tacit knowledge. How shall we choose? The best explanation is not that every episode of being conscious of something includes at the same time being non-positionally conscious of being conscious. Sometimes that may be true, but often it is not, at least in my experience. So I think Sartre is wrong.
One’s own experience is key to the whole question. I assert that I, the author, am not always non-positionally conscious of being conscious. Others assert not only that they are, but that everyone is, including me and you, dear reader. There’s no way to decide objectively which is true. The best each of us can do is to examine our own experience and decide for ourself.
As fascinating as the question is for some of us, no doubt it is pretty much irrelevant to most. But the activity of examining yourself is not irrelevant. Knowing yourself is key to a fulfilled and happy life. If you want such a life, examine yourself, exercise the distinctively human function of self-reflection and find out who and what you are.
(1) Meacham, “Being Conscious of Being Conscious.”
(2) Sartre, Being and Nothingness, p. liii.
(3) Sartre, Lêtre et le néant, p. 19. The sentence in French is “toute conscience positionnelle d’objet est en même temps conscience non positionnelle d’elle-même.”
(4) Meacham, “How to Talk About Subjectivity (Don’t Say ‘Consciousness’).”
(5) Sartre, Being and Nothingness, p. li.
(7) https://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/posit as of 3 November 2022. See also https://www.dictionary.com/browse/posit and https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/posit.
(8) Meacham, “Under The Hood.”
(9) Meacham, “Being Conscious of Being Conscious.”
(10) Sartre, Being and Nothingness, p. liii.
(13) Wikipedia, “Tacit knowledge.”
Meacham, Bill. “How to Talk About Subjectivity (Don’t Say ‘Consciousness’).” Online publication https://www.bmeacham.com/whatswhat/TalkAboutSubjectivity_v4.html and https://www.academia.edu/34066339/How_to_Talk_About_Subjectivity_Dont_Say_Consciousness as of 2 November 2022.
Meacham, Bill. “Being Conscious of Being Conscious.” Online publication https://www.bmeacham.com/blog/?p=1660.
Meacham, Bill. “Under The Hood.” Online publication https://www.bmeacham.com/blog/?p=2121.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes. New York: Philosophical Library, 1956. Available online at http://www.ahandfulofleaves.org/documents/BeingAndNothingness_Sartre.pdf as of 27 April 2020.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. Lêtre et le néant: Essai d’ontologie phénoménologique. Corrected edition with index by Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1943. Online publication https://prepasaintsernin.files.wordpress.com/2020/06/sartre-etre-neant.pdf
as of 12 October 2022.
Wikipedia. “Tacit knowledge.” Online publication https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tacit_knowledge as of 5 November 2022.
How To Be An Excellent Human
Mysticism, Evolutionary Psychology and the Good Life by Bill Beacham, Ph.D.