Looking at Sartre

Looking at Sartre

The late French philosopher is squatting in the corridor. He is gazing, with his one good eye, through a keyhole out at the world. Perched forward, squinting, he is aware solely of the aperture and what he sees through it; he is simply his own acts. Suddenly, footsteps. Many footsteps. They are looking at him. His biographers. His commentators. Reviewers of his biographers and commentators. Shall Jean-Paul Sartre’s specter be shamed?

In the “keyhole” passage of Being and Nothingness, perhaps the most renowned in this existential tome, Sartre sought to describe how we are “constituted” by the consciousness of an “Other.” A voyeur, suddenly aware that he may be observed peering through his peephole in a hallway, becomes, in Sartre’s example, an object in the world for someone else. As a consequence of “the Look of the Other,” he finds his self-grounding and freedom escaping him, for he is no longer simply his own acts. And in this situation he feels shame “in the recognition of the fact that I am indeed the object which the Other is looking at and judging.”

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