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Sartre’s Bad Logic

by Bill Meacham on July 1st, 2018

Last time I asserted that being conscious of something does not always or necessarily include or entail being conscious of being conscious. French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre thinks it does. Since the Monday evening group of the philosophy club is studying Sartre, it seems appropriate to examine his argument. It’s a bad one. Sartre falls prey to faulty logic.

In the introduction to his influential Being and Nothingness, Sartre asserts that “every positional consciousness of an object is at the same time a non-positional consciousness of itself.”(1) He says that “the necessary … condition for a knowing consciousness to be knowledge of its object is that it be consciousness of itself as being that knowledge.”(2) Let’s ignore the somewhat mysterious usage of the term “consciousness,” as if consciousness were an agent who is conscious. Let’s ignore also the fact that he seems to conflate being conscious of and being conscious that.(3) Instead, I want to focus on the logic of his argument. Here it is in its entirety:

This is a necessary condition, for if my consciousness were not consciousness of being consciousness of the table, it would then be consciousness of that table without consciousness of being so. In other words, it would be a consciousness ignorant of itself, an unconscious—which is absurd.(4)

The form is a reductio ad absurdum. From the premise that consciousness of a table is not consciousness of consciousness of the table he purports to derive a contradiction, that consciousness is unconscious. Hence, the premise is false, and consciousness of a table is consciousness of consciousness of the table. But the argument fails because Sartre begs the question.

The passage contains four phrases, the first three of which have the same meaning:

  • consciousness [that is] not consciousness of being consciousness of the table
  • consciousness of that table without consciousness of being so
  • consciousness ignorant of itself

So far, he just says the same thing in different words. But then he asserts something else:

  • an unconscious

The movement from the third phrase to the final one is not explained, nor is it authorized by reference to any rule of logic. Sartre just asserts that consciousness ignorant of itself is the same as an unconscious. But that is just what he wants to prove! His premises include his desired conclusion, so the inference proves nothing.

Not only does Sartre fail to prove his point, it is patently false that consciousness ignorant of itself is an unconscious. Rephrasing the idea, Sartre asserts that an instance or episode of being conscious of a table that does not include being aware of being conscious of the table is thereby unconscious. But that episode of being conscious is certainly not unconscious! The contents of that episode of being conscious include the table, focally, and a great number of other things that are not in focus: the floor, the ambient temperature, perhaps objects on the table, etc. It is quite the opposite of unconscious, a state in which none of those contents would be present to one.

It is peculiar that Sartre, examining experience in the phenomenological tradition of Husserl, should rely on logic for such an important assertion about the nature of experience rather than on direct observation. But he does, and he gets some other things wrong about Husserl as well. But that is a topic for another time.


(1) Sartre, Being and Nothingness, p. liii.

(2) Idem, p. lii.

(3) The phrase “as being that knowledge” indicates what Dretske calls awareness of fact, having an idea or concept. In this case, the concept seems to be that one knows or is a knower. Again, Sartre’s language is less than perfectly clear.

(4) Sartre, Being and Nothingness, p. lii.


Dretske, Fred. “Conscious Experience.” Mind, New Series, Vol. 102, No. 406 (Apr., 1993), pp. 263-283. Online publication as of 18 December 2015.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes. New York: Philosophical Library, 1956.

From → Philosophy

  1. Parmenides permalink

    Fermi famously asserted of some argument, “That’s not even wrong.” Meaning, I guess, that it was insufficiently precise to have a truth value. I’d say that the passages of Sartre you quoted are not even wrong.

  2. Gene R permalink

    I think that in Bill’s charitable rendition the passage from Sartre morphs from a poetic nonsense into a kind of an argument. Logically deficient of course, but an argument nevertheless.

  3. Beau Quilter permalink

    I’ve been enjoying your blog lately, and appreciate the education you’re giving me in basic philosophical concepts.

    You may not have time for this, but I wonder what you would make of Richard Beck’s proposal that “Everyone, even atheists, engages in moral hallowing.” (I think he’s a prof of psychology at an evangelical university).

    Basically, he is arguing on his blog that virtually all ethical reasoning ultimate requires “metaphysical grounding”.

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