Intentionality and the Ego
In The Transcendence of the Ego (1936) Sartre criticizes Husserl’s conception of consciousness. I intend to add to this critique. Husserl supposes that in addition to the usual objects of consciousness there exists a further object christened the “transcendental ego”: it is the reference of “I”, the source of the unity of consciousness, and a constituting agent with respect to the intentional objects of consciousness (e.g., the objects of perception). This implies that consciousness inherently possesses a dyadic structure, a bipolarity, a subject-object axis: I am aware of this. It has a kind of double reference—to the ego and to the objects the ego contemplates. Sartre contends that this is false: there is no ego embedded in consciousness per se, only the objects that consciousness apprehends outside itself. The ego enters, according to Sartre, only when consciousness acts reflectively, taking itself as object; it doesn’t enter at the basic level of intentional directedness—as when you see or think about things in general. Consciousness necessarily posits (Sartre’s term) the objects of its essential intentionality, but it only sporadically posits an ego, as when it turns back on itself. The ego is not part of the constitutive structure of consciousness. It might well be true that there has to be an ego (self, subject) in order for consciousness to do what it does, but this is not part of its essence quaphenomenological reality. There no doubt has to be a body and brain in order that consciousness should achieve its essential intentional directedness, but this is not part of its phenomenology. Consciousness is not as of an ego that transcends it (i.e., non-reflective consciousness). Now, I think Sartre is quite right in this contention, and that his case can be strengthened. Consider this analogy: if I say “New York is noisy” I refer to New York and its acoustic properties, but I don’t refer to myself. I am there in the background, a necessary condition of this particular act of speech, but there is no “I” in my sentence. I can go on to say “I just said that New York is noisy”, thus engaging in a self-reflective act, but I don’t typically do that. It is the same with consciousness: I can think about the world without thinking about myself in having that very thought. Speech is not invariably self-positing, and neither is thought (or perception, emotion, etc.). Moreover, if (first-level) consciousness did posit an ego alongside its other posits, it would be possible for it to exist without those other posits; but that is clearly impossible, because it would be empty of what gives it reality (by the principle of intentionality). It would be the mere apprehension of the solitary ego devoid of reference to anything outside of consciousness. But consciousness is necessarily about something distinct from itself, of something separate and alien. The idea of a consciousness containing only reference to the pure ego is not intelligible (Husserl would agree, given his allegiance to Brentano). The transcendent ego is not enough transcendence (“going beyond”) to sustain an act of consciousness. Secondly, if the ego were contained in consciousness as an intentional object (and how else is it to be contained?), there would have to be another ego to be the subject of that apprehension, unless we thought that it could be aware of itself. But intentionality is inherently irreflexiveby definition: this would be an inhabitant of consciousness being directed at itself, like a perception being a perception of itself. Not surprisingly, Husserl didn’t postulate that his transcendent ego occurred in consciousness by way of the intentional relation, but rather in some other way—as a “constituent”. But this violates the whole doctrine of intentionality, and is anyway obscure. The fact is that the way consciousness gives access to the ego is (or would be) quite different from the way it gives access to other objects, but this difference is never explained. Thirdly, if the ego has a nature, this nature would have to constitute part of the nature of consciousness itself; but consciousness has no nature apart from what its objects confer (the doctrine of intentionality again). If the ego is identical to the psychological subject (the “empirical ego”), then consciousness will be invaded by desires, personality traits, and so forth; but nothing like that is found within the precincts of consciousness as such (it is an “emptiness”, as Sartre says). The same goes for the ego considered as a body, a brain, an extensionless point, or an immaterial soul: none of this shows up in consciousness (unless it is explicitly about such things). But the ego can’t have no nature—it can’t be a nothing. The usual objects of consciousness do color the conscious act, constituting it as the act that it is, and that fits with the deliverances of phenomenology; but nothing analogous happens with the alleged transcendental ego—it makes no phenomenological difference. Fourthly, what are we to say of animal consciousness—does it too harbor a transcendental ego? That seems far too intellectualist: isn’t the animal simply aware of objects outside its consciousness, not of any supposed ego lurking within it? Why would its consciousness be directed at something on the inside as well as the outside? What would be the biological point of that? It seems superfluous, a kind of pointless luxury. Fifthly, what guarantees that the putative reference to an ego actually picks out anything real? Suppose we agree that such a directedness occurs: it doesn’t follow that it points to anything that really exists. So why should we believe in such a thing? It might an illusion; and wouldn’t an illusion do just as well as the real thing, phenomenologically speaking? As Sartre argues, we do better to regard consciousness in its basic form as unipolar—pointed solely at its objects, not as containing in addition some kind of reference to a self. Visual perception, say, represents objects in the environment without any accompaniment by a representation of some kind of ego (whose nature remains obscure). There is no positing of a self, analogous to the positing of physical objects in the environment. No doubt there has to be some kind of entity underlying the acts of consciousness—a person, an organism, a brain—but this entity doesn’t show up in the phenomenology of the act. Why should it? The being of consciousness qua consciousness is intentionality not constitution by a supposed inner ego. That idea is really the abandonment of the original insight (derived from Brentano) of the phenomenological movement. The phenomenological field should be kept ego-free.
 Of course, thoughts about the self, one’s own or other people’s, contain reference to such things; but this is not a feature of all thoughts. Most of consciousness is quite innocent of self-directedness. Thus, there is no ego-as- subject in consciousness but only ego-as-object (in the special case of reflexive consciousness). There is no mention of the self in a typical conscious act; there is no “I think” accompanying every exercise of consciousness (pace Kant). Consciousnesses thus don’t differ with respect to the individual possessing them; they are “impersonal”, as Sartre puts it.