An Analysis of Jean Paul Sartre's Beliefs About Experience

Categories: Experience

Sartre claims that the world around us somehow transforms when we enter into an emotional state of being. We will try to explain what the conditions are for such a transformation to take place, how exactly Sartre thinks such transformations are possible and why it is so crucial for us as conscious beings that they do. Magic in Sartre’s philosophy is not meant to mean some sort of illusionary act normally performed by magicians; he is not claiming that we can physically transform the world around us.

Magic is meant to be taken as a process of the consciousness that changes the way in which we perceive the world.

Sartre’s central claim is that the phenomenology of our experience is the only constituent for the experience itself, and that we experience the world in a certain way, by which we are conscious of it. His theory of the intentionality states that all our conscious acts are of something; they have an aboutness which makes us understand the world.

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Reality is formed from objects which have certain qualities. We can experience these qualities because consciousness forms a relationship between the physiological me (the body) and the objects in the world). Emotions are about something which makes us apprehend the world in a certain way, but not in the way that psychologists of emotion would claim. These psychologists say that we experience emotion as a separate entity, absorbed in itself and detached from the object of that emotion. For Sartre emotions are ‘united in an indissoluble synthesis’ (STE p.

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57) with the object of that emotion. The irritation I experience when my friend is late is the disposition to enter into an irritation consciousness of my friend. My irritation becomes a central feature of my world and is intrinsically linked with the way I experience the world at that time. The key to my experience is the distinctive quality my friend takes when I am emotionally conscious of him; in this case it is the quality of irritation. My irritation is projected onto my friend and so our own conscious state is reflected in the world and allows us to apprehend it in a certain way. The theory that emotions are intentional states intends to show that they are synonymous with consciousness states in having qualities in the world as their objects.

McCulloch (1994) highlighted some important difficulties for the intentionality of emotion theory. The problem is that it seems that we can have emotions about nothing. You can be anxious without being anxious about something in particular. Sartre would claim that the intentional object of the anxiety would still be some aspect of our life with which we had reason to be concerned about, and without which we would not be anxious. McCulloch responds by citing the significance of the reflective consciousness. He says that reflection can help us to unearth the appropriate cause of our anxiety. Even if some aspect of your life has caused you to be anxious this does not mean that it is this aspect which you are anxious of. It is therefore conceivable that upon reflection no suitable intentional object may appear, or we might sincerely deny that we anxious at all. We shall see that these problems fail to be significant for Sartre, given that he stresses the irrational (but important) nature that emotions have.

Sartre sees objects of our intentional states as having potentialities. Our actions are the manifestation of different possibilities in the world. Taking the example of typing an essay, the words that are being typed by this hand are the result of the realisation of one possibility over the other. According to Sartre I see an object in terms of the possibilities it has for me. Each possibility will lead to a different outcome, we carry out our actions according to the outcome that we wish to achieve. To illustrate this example let us take a situation where a student has a book placed in front of him. The book has several qualities, it can help him with his studies, it can be used to be thrown as a javelin or to injure someone. This in turn opens up various possibilities; he can read it, throw it across the room or use it to hit someone over the head. To achieve his particular purpose the student decides to read it. This is the possibility which has been realised amongst the other possibilities because the student wants to study and he feels the best way the book can help him do that is by reading it. Had the student been angry with someone who was in close proximity to him at that time, he may have decided to use the book to hit that person over the head. Sartre believes we are directly conscious of the different possibilities each object has, but this only applies to objects which are relevant to achieving our aims. Objects which have no significance lack possibilities because they cannot help us achieve our aims. Sartre believes we are aware of the ends which objects represent in what he calls a ‘hodological chart’, a chart made up of objects which need to be realised and ways to realise them. This chart forms the basis for our intentional consciousness.

In the normal course of events potentialities of objects that are realised lead to expected or deterministic ends. These are ends which are naturally caused or follow from the actions that we take to bring them about. Mentioning the example of the student again, the end he achieves by reading his book will (hopefully) be an increase in knowledge of the particular subject he is studying. More importantly he believes that reading the book, and thus realising a particular potentiality will help him in his studies. In general we see objects as having potentiality which will allow us to meet certain ends. Those ends we believe are determined by our actions.

Now we can start to see what emotions really are. Before we do we need to understand how are conscious states allow us to create the transformation of the world which Sartre is talking about. Emotions are just like actions, like the ones I am undertaking to type this essay. Each word I type has a different set of potentialities, some which are realised and others which are not. When I type these words I am executing the words on the page without having to reflect on what I am doing. In other words I am not conscious of typing no more so that I am conscious of my anger when I am angry. Our actions are carried out on what Satre calls the non-reflective plane. There is a spontaneous transformation from one type of consciousness to another type of consciousness (my anger). Emotions are therefore, according to Sartre, the active transformation of one conscious state to the other in a non-reflective and spontaneous fashion.

This seems to make intuitive sense. For instance one does not sit there and reflect on the actions of someone on the world and then ‘come back down’ into the non-reflective plane, as Sartre calls it, to feel angry. This notion is linked with the notion of consciousness being mixed up in an inseparable partnership with the world around it. It is active in experiencing the world, rather than being a passive observer, by directing the relationship between the body and the objects around it. Without this relationship our consciousness would be empty. The question remains, why do we undergo this transformation at all? Every object has possibilities which have potential to be realised. Dependent on our aims these possibilities must be realised in specific ways. We have already mentioned that we expect determinate ends through what Sartre calls “pragmatic intuition’ (STE p.62). When we open a window we expect the room to cool down. However it is inevitable that there will be some possibilities which will not be realised. Sartre likens our life to a game of pinball. In this game we have to guide the ball along a certain path in order to achieve an end point. But the game of pinball is difficult; there are plenty of obstacles in the way and plenty of holes down which the ball may fall. When the world becomes too difficult we enter into an unbearable tension which needs resolving.

Magic is a way to resolve the unbearable tension. When my friend is late I enter into the unbearable tension of being made to wait and not wanting to wait. When Sartre’s grapes are too far to reach he enters into the unbearable tension of wanting to eat grapes and seeing ripe grapes which are just out of his reach. The tension is created because there is a conflict between the subject’s plans and his possibilities. Because our consciousness is essentially an activity, and the world is the object of this activity, the only way to change the world is to change the activity itself. The new object of our consciousness creates new possibilities, which leads to certain resolutions. The active transformation of my conscious state, that which Sartre calls the ‘debasing’ of the consciousness, changes the qualities of the objects in the world so the possibilities they represent are no longer disagreeable with our plans. My anger consciousness has brought to my attention the quality in my friend of being infuriating (perhaps it is a normal habit of his), which resolves the conflict I have of wanting to go and see a film with my friend’.

New possibilities arise. I can go off in a bad mood or I can wait to tell him off. Another way my consciousness may have altered is to think that his tardiness was insignificant. Thinking something like ‘oh well, I didn’t want to see the film we are going to be late for anyway’ or ‘I’d rather go to see the film on my own’ is another way of altering my consciousness of the world and thus opening up new ‘agreeable’ possibilities. As if ‘by magic’, I don’t want to see the film anymore even though I had looked up the times for in the newspaper, called my friend and arranged to meet and taken the trouble to walk to the cinema in anticipation of his arrival. My change in consciousness conferred upon the film the quality of ‘not worth watching’ or ‘better seen without my friend’ in the event of his tardiness. However it was an essential move in order to resolve the inner conflict. Of course if our friend had arrived after such a shift in attitude the film would have, most likely, as if by magic become worth watching again or better seen with a friend. However pragmatic our objectives may be (and generally they need to be in order to change and adapt to new situations and environments) magic transforms the world for us in order to achieve a resolution.

Magic is not something which we have control upon. It is used as a ‘tool’ in order to resolve problems. In this sense emotional outbursts, the transformation of the world from one relationship between the body and object to another, are useful. Sartre goes so far as to call it a form of behaviour, something we do in order to fix problems.

If emotions are forms of behaviour, how can Sartre explain how we enter into states of shock at seeing (say) seeing someone appearing from behind a door when we didn’t expect them to be there. The reason why this is a problem is because it is hard to understand how the transformation of consciousness represents the resolution of an unbearable tension. How does going into a state of shock change the qualities of the person (he still appears and is in front of our eyes) and create new possibilities? Sartre’s answer seems to be quite weak. He proposes that as well as being able to affect magic on the world, the objects of the world can turn round and affect magic back onto us, in a sort of two-way relationship. Some sort of interpsychic magical relation somehow governs the body and the way it perceives the world. Although this theory goes along the line of his general theory of magic and the emotions it doesn’t really fit the intentionality theory that is its backbone. For instance what is doing the magic? Which consciousness is in charge? I think Sartre would say that the world is the conscious being behind such magic, or more specifically that other conscious beings in the world are the source of this active transformation. If so is there a set level of magic that can occur in the world? For instance for every turn of magic that we affect on the world is there a corresponding turn of magic which other conscious beings affect back onto us? This is not something that can really be debated at length without going into conjecture and fanciful theories; Sartre may have an answer to these questions or may just label them as insignificant.

What is clear is that Sartre will not accept a purely physiological explanation of such emotions, for him nothing is ‘mechanistic’. If every emotion seeks a resolution, what then do instances of sadness seek to resolve? Sartre may say that the magic involved this time is a form of ‘play acting’ (p.70). It is the only way in which to treat the difficulty of the situation when no other possibilities are available. He cites the example of a young girl sobbing uncontrollably when being asked about some sensitive business (say she was mugged on the street or raped). Here the young girl is sobbing in order to avoid retelling the affairs. By sobbing she is freeing herself of the possibility of pain which such a retelling may cause because she is lacking the will to take such pain. This is a form of behaviour used by the girl when the world becomes too difficult. It is a form of escape which we use when we are trapped by a hungry lion in the corner of the room and have nowhere to go.

When all possibilities are closed, we magic a world where the lion no longer exists (of course the constraints of magic on the physical world would probably mean we would eventually be eaten!). In these cases the suppression of the will, reducing us to whither up inside, is actually a suppression of the consciousness into nonexistence. Such behaviour may occur in depression. In depression most of the possibilities in the world remain the same but the will to act has diminished, simply because we do not want to employ different means by which to realise those possibilities. Depression can therefore be employed as a way of avoiding the need to acquire those means. We act as if our projects don’t matter, and as if there would be no way of achieving them anyway.

In Sartre’s terminology we become ‘de-charged (p.69). McCulloch (1994) raises a different approach to such examples of negative emotions. In psychoanalytic terms, the girl’s reaction to the questions posed may represent a repressed urge to speak about a painful issue. The same argument may be posed for our own example. Might not the anger I have of my friend being late be a symbol of a repressed urge to see the film? And may not the sadness I have afterwards be an effect of me missing the film rather than of some state of consciousness which denies the film’s existence? These examples go back to the psychologist’s theories of emotion (that they are separable from their object) completely alien to Satrean philosophy of the unity and intentionality of consciousness. If such emotions were separate from their cause, or ‘cut off’, they would no longer be part of the conscience itself, which ceases to be transparent and would no longer be an active component of the world around it. However, we have already pointed out that emotions themselves are not always transparent to those who undergo them, and there may be cases as we have seen like shock which may be due to unconscious significances.

To answer such criticisms we need to go back to intentionality. Emotions are of someone, so one must take an emotion as signifying something of the person. If we are to take the view that emotions have meaning, there must be someone who bestows that meaning upon it. Sartrean philosophy will only allow that it is the single conscious, unifying agent who is the source of the significance, rather than some ego or outside force which would mean the conscience looses its transparency again. One remaining problem is that we are assuming the understanding of emotions has to be a conscious activity, but is this necessarily true? This is where the phenomenological approach relies on the importance of reflection to provide answers. Such reflection surely has to start from an understanding of the agent’s own conscious state.

One of the stranger and less convincing arguments he gives is that behaviour such as running away from a dangerous is an irrational form of fear. He believes that such behaviour is a symptom of a desire to suppress the existence of the dangerous object in our minds by creating time and space between it and us. Speaking in terms of possibilities again, our consciousness changes the world into one where the danger doesn’t exist and hence the possibilities the object of danger represents to us would not be harmful. This may be true but surely a cause of the behaviour would be a rational attempt to be exactly where the danger is not, and thus increasing one’s chance of survival.

The cause of emotions is in the debasing of our consciousness through ‘magic’ when the deterministic paths become too difficult. Although emotions aren’t characterised just by the examples given in this essay, the theory explained behind the transformations of conscious states can be applied to all emotions. His theorem, especially the backbone behind it, makes a lot of intuitive sense. The problem is it is not completely clear how the magic works in all cases. For example no time has been given in this essay to Sartre’s more peculiar arguments for emotions such as joy and ecstasy. Be sure they are not as convincing as his arguments for other less positive emotions. In the examples he gives the reasoning is sound and the phenomenological explanation of emotions definitely works as a strong contender against the physiological one.

The approach only goes to highlight the sense that we have not been getting the full picture’, by being more successful at giving an all round picture of experience. What Sartre’s theory may benefit from however, is more reference and contemplation of other less behaviourist approaches to emotions which may serve to ‘bulk up’ his own. Maybe the real transformation in the world takes place through a combination of neurotic processes in the brain and transformed states of consciousness, which together go to make the emotion. It may even be the case that one is dependent on the other. The case of Damisio’s patients (Currie 2002, Recreative Minds) who lost a certain part of their brains and any corresponding emotional capacity seems to back up such a theory. Perhaps there are degrees to which emotions are dependent on physiological processes. Those such as shock may be heavily dependent whereas others such as depression may be only very lightly or not at all dependent. Of course Sartre may disagree.


  1. McCulloch, G. 1994. Using Sartre, chapters 1, 2 & 8. London : Routledge
  2. Sartre, Jean Paul. 1905- Sketch for a theory of the emotions. Translated by Philip Mairet. London: Methuen. 1962.
  3. Sartre, Jean Paul, 1905- The transcendence of the ego. Translated by Forrest Williams and Robert Kirkpatrick. New York: Hill and Wang. 1997.
  4. Currie, G. Recreative minds: imagination in philosophy and psychology. 2002. Oxford University Press.

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An Analysis of Jean Paul Sartre's Beliefs About Experience. (2021, Sep 25). Retrieved from

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