To begin with, the thing-in-itself is infinite and overflowing. Sartre refers to any direct consciousness of the thing-in-itself as a “pre-reflective consciousness.” Any attempt to describe, understand, historicize etc. the thing-in-itself, Sartre calls “reflective consciousness.” There is no way for the reflective consciousness to subsume the pre-reflective, and so reflection is fated to a form of anxiety, i.e. the human condition. The reflective consciousness in all its forms, (scientific, artistic or otherwise) can only limit the thing-in-itself by virtue of its attempt to understand or describe it. It follows, therefore, that any attempt at self-knowledge (self-consciousness – a reflective consciousness of an overflowing infinite) is a construct that fails no matter how often it is attempted. Consciousness is consciousness of itself insofar as it is consciousness of a transcendent object.
The same holds true about knowledge of the “Other.” The “Other” (meaning simply beings or objects that are not the self) is a construct of reflective consciousness. One must be careful to understand this more as a form of warning than as an ontological statement. However, there is an implication of solipsism here that Sartre considers fundamental to any coherent description of the human condition. Sartre overcomes this solipsism by a kind of ritual. Self consciousness needs “the Other” to prove (display) its own existence. It has a “masochistic desire” to be limited, i.e. limited by the reflective consciousness of another subject. This is expressed metaphorically in the famous line of dialogue from No Exit, “Hell is other people.”
சார்த்தர் கண்ணாடியை உருவகமாகப் பயன்படுத்துகிறார். நம்மைச் சுற்றி இருப்பவர்கள் பளிங்குக் கண்ணாடியாக இருக்க, அடுத்தவர்களுக்கு நாமே கண்ணாடியாக இருந்து பிரதிபலிக்கிறோம்.
…“hell is other people” has always been misunderstood. It has been thought that what I meant by that was that our relations with other people are always poisoned, that they are invariably hellish relations. But what I really mean is something totally different. I mean that if relations with someone else are twisted, vitiated, then that other person can only be hell. Why? Because…when we think about ourselves, when we try to know ourselves, … we use the knowledge of us which other people already have. We judge ourselves with the means other people have and have given us for judging ourselves. Into whatever I say about myself someone else’s judgment always enters. Into whatever I feel within myself someone else’s judgment enters. … But that does not at all mean that one cannot have relations with other people. It simply brings out the capital importance of all other people for each one of us.
Michel Foucault, another French thinker, argues that the modern soul “is itself a factor in the mastery that power exercises over the body. The soul is the effect and instrument of a political anatomy; the soul is the prison of the body.”
This sense of being always judged and condemned to eternal guilt if we step out of line comes from being disciplined—supervised, trained, and corrected, at home, at school, in church, in prisons and courtrooms, and in the workplace.
Our identities were waiting for us at birth. The moment we emerge from our mother’s wombs, we are assigned our names, kinship relations, nationalities, gender, race, and class. As we participate more and more in the on-going social whirl, we accumulate other identifiers—educational achievements, criminal records, credit ratings, buying patterns, employment histories, and so on and on.
We are thus gradually drafted into an organized and ongoing game of exercising and submitting to authority. The expectations of friends, co-workers and families combine with the laws and rules of institutions to ensure that the demands that others make of us become the demands we make of ourselves.
If there is one word for this pay-off, it is recognition. There is nothing worse for any of us than to be invisible, to go unrecognized, to count for nothing in the eyes and the lives of others. So to be recognized as players in the game of social life requires us to play the games that others play, to use the forms of exchange that are already in use. The pay-off for sociality, in other words, is to exist, to be recognized. The need for recognition is as basic as any of our needs; without it, we die or go crazy.
Recognition is not just an individual need, it’s a mutual need. It’s impossible to receive it without giving it. What good does your recognition do me unless I recognize you as well? If I have no respect for you, your respect for me is meaningless to me. So I can be confident in my own existence only to the extent that I recognize the existence of others.
So there’s always a tension, an on-going contradiction we have to live with, between our need to assert ourselves as individuals and our need to belong to the community in which we can be recognized as individuals. Growing up is a matter of learning to balance these two imperative needs: asserting one’s own will and recognizing the will of others.