Random thoughts on random topics

Summer Palace, Beijing

On Sartre on love, lust, and subject

It seems that the entire issue centres around the notion of a subject, or a self. If we start from the assumption that there is indeed a notion of subject that is fundamental, i.e., that cannot be conceived of as somehow constituted by more basic facts, or, reversely, as being constructed from those, we run into the kind of problems addressed by Sartre. Which is not to say, of course, that the analysis he gives is correct if we do grant him the assumption he makes. More on that below. First, let us examine the assumption just indicated a little further.

At the background operates an even more fundamental prejudice, viz., that it is entities (objects, individuals, perhaps even ‘Gegenstände’) that constitute the raw material that the world is made of. This picture is right at the heart of almost all of our western ways of thinking, be they philosophical, scientific, or just those of everyday. It should emphatically not be equated with some kind of material atomism. The platonistic views, the various forms of idealism that have plagued us for so long, the materialistic approaches that have both enriched us and bereft us of so many things that are intrinsically worthwhile, they all share this assumption. They are but different ways (and radically different they are, in some respects) of filling in this picture. The reference to ‘Gegenstände’ is not coincidental: even the view of logical atomism does not succeed in really freeing itself from this idea, viz., that the rock-bottom of what there is, can be, indeed must be, conceived of in terms of individual entities. It is clear that the very notion of a subject as an irreducible category, in terms of which many things simply have to be explained, is almost part and parcel of this picture. And again, it does not matter whether we are dealing with a common-sense notion, or with a more speculative, metaphysical way of conceiving of it: all these different notions take for granted that subjects are real and irreducible.

If the picture is so compelling, and also so successful in many ways, one might ask if there is an alternative. In fact, certain physical theories provide an answer (and, though perhaps not an alternative picture, at least an alternative language). Acknowledging the notion of a field as something as basic as that of an entity, these physical theories do brake the bonds of the old picture. (And that these are strong bonds can be deduced from the fact that even in this realm the attempts to reduce fields to the interactions between entities are numerous.) But pointing out this feature of physical theories is not enough. We must see whether this idea, which has limited application, can be generalised sufficiently. This extended idea would take the notion of an event, or that of a process, as basic. The world (in all its aspects) then consists, not of entities making up complex situations, but of events located in space-time, of processes unfolding themselves. Entities on this alternative picture are best conceived of either as regularities across events, or as bundles of such. (This kind of view is scarce in western philosophy, perhaps the best-known example being Whitehead’s process metaphysics. Interestingly, situation theory provides another example, at least under a certain interpretation. In other traditions this picture is more common.)

The idea of individuals as convenient labels for certain collections of events might strike us as completely absurd, at least at first sight. After all, it is we who, by acting and being in certain ways, ‘make’ events, not the other way around. Or so we feel (and hence, we think). But this is certainly not a good argument. (In a happy phrase of Kant’s, it might be an instance of mistaking the unity of experience for the experience of a unity.) A very rough indication of some reasons why one might nevertheless entertain this idea, involve the following observations. Notice that in our idea of an individual, the criterion of spatio-temporal continuity plays a decisive role. Now we may observe that although the application of this criterion is unproblematic in most cases, there are circumstances in which we find it somewhat harder to apply. One instance is that of a certain type of biological entities that are referred to as ‘colonies’ (certain jelly-fish are examples, as are corals, and perhaps also, but at a higher level, ants). (There is an analogy with problems that arise when we want determine the identity conditions for so-called ‘collective individuals’, such as groups, but I will not go into that now.) Another instance is provided by the phenomenon of metamorphosis, either in real time (caterpillars and butterflies), or in fantasies (frogs and princes). If we take this observation seriously, we must conclude that spatio-temporal continuity may be a good, efficient, successful way of carving up such ‘stuff as we are made of’, but that it certainly is not a necessary feature.  Sufficiently distant (from us) observers might individualise the same stuff quite differently. (The relevance for the issue at hand is obvious: even a temporary merging of stuff might by such an alternative criterion constitute a single individual.)

Even for the few who find the alternative picture sketched above not implausible, there is, of course, a problem, viz., how to account for the undeniable fact that we do have a notion of a self, of some personal identity. It seems that here several routes are open. One of them, which strikes me as not altogether far-fetched, is to look upon the self, in sense of the ‘I’ that we identify with, as being a partly biological, partly social construction. The biological source is mainly based on application of the spatio-temporal continuity criterion, which, although not completely unproblematic here (dreaming, sleeping), seems applicable to the events that we think we participate in, and which, on this account, go into making us up as separate individuals. The social constraints are more of a functional nature, and seem to be based, to a certain extent, on some preliminary stage of biological make-up. But notice that the two are not strictly temporally ordered. Psychotic disorders of various kinds provide relevant material here. (Cf., also Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage.) Taking our lead from this admittedly very rough idea, we can now see that the issue at hand needs to be reformulated: given that, as we undeniably do, we  have a notion of a self (for whatever reasons), but taking into account that this notion is essentially a construction, not something fundamental,  the issue turns out to be anthropological, rather than metaphysical in nature. An account of lust and desire, of love and tenderness, should take as its starting point neither our material biological make-up, nor seek refuge in some metaphysical realm, which is not to deny that such factors do play a role. The crucial phenomena to be accounted for appear on the anthropological level: it is how we see ourselves, and how we act in these matters given the way we see ourselves, that is all important.

This, in effect, is my main objection to Sarte’s analysis. Where Sartre goes wrong, – and he does go wrong, I think, even if we grant him his metaphysical notion of subject –, is that he blurs over the distinction between biological, psychological, social, metaphysical, and aesthetic aspects and the concomitant reasons and causes. The unitary notion of subject forces one to either take a reductionist stance, which he obviously rejects, or to try one’s hand at a unificatory, higher-level analysis, e.g., in terms of an exclusively metaphysical notion. The latter is Sartre’s line and that is where he goes wrong. And he has to go wrong, because of the monolithic nature of the subject that he uses. The alternative view allows at least room for another approach that is neither reductionist nor transcendent: on the heterogeneous view of the subject one can acknowledge all aspects as real and, most important of all, as unrelated (to a certain extent, i.e., at least unrelated to such an extent that we do not fall into the reductionist pitfall). Neither are we forced to deny that they are present at the same time: in desire and lust, as well as in love and tenderness, all these aspects can be distinguished, albeit not always in the same form and to the same extent. Which is not to say that the heterogeneous approach by itself provides such an analysis. For that we need the one thing that philosophers almost always refuse to look at: our personal experience.

One important characteristic of the notion of a subject, or self, is that it refers to a limit. A subject is something that is distinguished from other things, – other subjects, or objects. (In effect, from within a subject all other subjects appear as objects, albeit of a special type.) This raises two questions. One concerns the nature of this limit, the other the reality thereof.

A distinction that seems relevant here is that between a limit  that sets off one part of reality from another, and a limit  that defines a certain entity. A border between two countries is an example of the first kind, the ordinal number omega one of the second. Let us call them ‘limit-between’ and ‘limit-to’. What is the nature of the limit of a subject?.

One way to answer this question is to investigate the notion of transgression of a limit. Transgression of a limit-between means transcendence in a more or less literal sense; crossing of a border, going from one location to another. The moment someone transcends a limit-between, he cannot be said to belong to either location, to be an integral part of what is on either side. This means that the limits of a subject are not limits-between a subject and other subjects. (Of course, the subject can recognise limits-between itself and other subjects, but then it reflects upon itself from the outside as it were, i.e., it regards itself and the others basically as objects.)

It seems therefore that the limits involved are limits-to, transcendental conditions  that define the subject, rather than delimit it. Transgression of a limit-to means re-definition, broadening or narrowing down, changing one’s identity. In the context of lust such a change is the incorporation of the other, or the letting oneself be incorporated. That being so, the crucial question is whether this incorporation is appropriation. It seems not, for to appropriate something, or someone, means to make it, or them, my own, it is to change relationships, not relata. But in this very act of transgression it is the ‘my’ that is re-defined.

As for the reality of limits, it is important to note that any transgression is both conscious and temporary. Is it reality that changes, or the subject’s self-image? Which raises a preliminary question: is there a reality to a subject distinct from its self-image? A quick ‘yes’ presumably only indicates that we can look upon subjects as objects, but that is beside the point.

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 10/01/1997