sartre’s phenomenology of consciousness ( imagination as negation )

According to Sartre, if all consciousness is consciousness of something, then consciousness is always intentional and is always directed at an object outside of itself, hence any object of consciousness cannot be a part of consciousness. If whatever object consciousness posits to itself is not a part of itself, then consciousness must be without content, must be in itself empty, itself a nothingness. It is a void that appears only in the filling and once filled, nihilated.[…]It is a perpetual positioning-towards-the-world and as such is itself empty and without content; consciousness is pure intentionality and in-itself, nothingness. Having established that consciousness is utterly intentional Sartre goes on to argue that consciousness always posits or re-presents a real object to itself as an image that is imaginary and thus unreal.

In The Imaginary: A Phenomenological Psychology of Imagination Sartre debunks the “illusion of immanence”, which states that images are direct visual representations of external objects found inside consciousness. On the contrary, images are grasped by means of reflection when the attention of consciousness turns away from an object and re-intentions itself at the manner in which that object of perception is given. “The word image can therefore only indicate the relation of consciousness to the object; in other words, it means a certain manner in which the object makes its appearance to consciousness, or, if one prefers, a certain way in which consciousness presents an object to itself.”[1] This manner in which objects present themselves to consciousness is by means of the image or by imagination which Sartre means as “an act that envisions as an actual body an absent or non-existent object by means of a physical or mental content, but which appears only through an ‘analogical representative’ of the envisioned object.”[2] For consciousness to construct an image is for it to construct an object of imagination, i.e. not real, a thing of mere semblance. The “object as an image is an unreality.”[3] What this imaginary function of consciousness presupposes is a primordial-ontological distance between the subject and object and what makes this imagination possible is the negating function belonging to consciousness.

The imaginative act isolates, constitutes, and nihilates the real-object of the image and posits that object as nothingness. Consciousness isolates by directing its intention on the real-object, it constitutes by its perception towards it, and it annihilates the real-object by positing an unreal one in its place. “If I imagine Peter as he might be at that moment in Berlin- or simply Peter as exists at the moment…I grasp an object which is not at all given to me or which is given to me simply as being beyond reach. There I grasp nothing, that is, I posit nothingness.”[4] As a result the remaining image that lays before consciousness is a deficient “analogical representative” that is created from consciousness, and as such is created from “nothing”.


[1] Sartre, Jean-Paul. The Psychology of Imagination. New York: Philosophical Library, 1948. p.8.
[2] Ibid., p.75.
[3] Ibid., p.177. Semblance taken as truth is a recurring theme in Nietzsche’s writings. See aphorism 192 in Beyond Good and Evil.
[4] Ibid., p.263. Sartre relates this phenomenon with that of the hallucination and the dream, pp.213-255.

Sartre’s conception of the intentional consciousness is important for our inquiry for it gives us a situated problem, a concrete starting point. The problematic ramifications of consciousness-being-intentional are plenty, but two stick out for us- 1. If consciousness can only posit imaginary objects- deficient representational images- then it’s impossible to have sure knowledge of the real world and others, and 2. if so, then reality is pure construction by consciousness, that whatever exists, exists by being contingent on consciousness. With the first point, as of this writing, I am in agreement with. But to qualify my position, I would only agree that we are not privy to any direct and immediate access to the real world and others, which leaves a backdoor open for ‘indirect’ means; which is what ex nihilo seeks to explore. The second point is what I will explore as a concrete starting point; that if whatever is, only is because of consciousness, then if there [is] to be some [thing] outside of consciousness then it can only ‘be’ in the mode of not-being, a not-is– a Nothingness.

The most common argument in response to Sartre’s ‘idealism’ is that the sense of touch is direct and immediate. Also, that his arguments don’t apply to the blind. However, these counter-arguments miss entirely what Sartre has done so let’s clarify. By ‘image’ he means a ‘relationship’; it’s a way in which we relate, intuit the world, and not simply how we ‘see’. It’s typical to associate ‘image’ with vision and sight, but in this case the point being made is that any sense data is automatically translated by consciousness into an image, meaning that these sense datum are processed as representational of the objects that they reference in the real world, hence ‘image’. It also helps to know that the english words ‘reflection’ and ‘perception’ can be translated into french as ‘image‘. Native to the french language is a sensitivity towards representations. If you were to refer to a work of art as an image, in french you would call it a ‘représentation’. So all to say, it’s not so easy to dismiss Sartre’s ‘idealism’ and that the problem of consciousness is legit and not for the faint of heart. It’s the source of a lot of nihilism, violence and rhetoric of identity/ipseity.

To summarize, there is no escaping consciousness, it is part of our nature. As such it is in our nature or being to mistake our mental representations of reality with reality itself. As a result it is also in our nature to objectify. Imagination is bound up with consciousness, you can’t have the one without the other. We relate to the world via imagination and its not at all like Disney’s ‘world of imagination’. No, it’s not some fantastic and creative element of our minds that allow us to dream; it’s what negates/nihilates the real world, it’s what functions as a sedative precisely so we don’t have to have anything to do with the real world cause Being is utterly self-involved. Hence ‘reality’ as we perceive it is merely a projection of our-selves. The intentionality of consciousness towards objects is what characterizes in large part the practice of phenomenology, where an eidetic intuition leads one’s gaze to an essence behind phenomena. It will be argued that this intuition of phenomenology privileges a transcendent ego/self that does not escape the problem presented by the Sartrean consciousness- the problem of whether or not there can be access to phenomena in reality. This will be explored in the next section.

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