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How Sartre’s theory of ‘self’ can explain all of humanity - even Elon Musk

Unthinkable: The French philosopher believed it is possible to know everything there is to know about another person

“Know thyself” goes the ancient Greek maxim. But where exactly is your “self” and have you just the one?

Some psychologists speak of us having multiple selves. There is the public self, namely the image you project; the actual self, how people see you warts and all; and then the ideal or authentic self, your true nature.

And that is just three selves. The American philosopher and psychologist William James said: “Properly speaking, a man has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognise him and carry an image of him in their mind.”

Good luck trying to get to know them all.


Ah, but help is at hand from Jean-Paul Sartre who argues that knowing yourself – the self that really matters – is achievable with sufficient effort. Not just that, he says, but it is possible to know everything there is to know about another person. Even a person as enigmatic as, for example, Elon Musk.

Sartre’s solution is to redefine the self according to human choice. In simple terms, you are defined by the person you implicitly choose to be – be that a Gauloises-smoking, coffee-house intellectual or a turbo-capitalist “chief twit”.

In an engaging new book, Irish philosopher Mary Edwards brings this “revolutionary” theory of self to life, highlighting its applicability to modern psychotherapy. Sartre argued that people who believe they have no choice but to follow a particular path in life are living in “bad faith”. And he believed “if each of us is equipped with some basic existential-psychoanalytic concepts and tools, then we can call out bad faith when we see it in others and, thereby, help one another to live authentically”, says Edwards, who did her PhD and lectured at University College Cork before moving to Cardiff University.

The author of Sartre’s Existential Psychoanalysis (Bloomsbury) explains further as this week’s Unthinkable guest.

You say Sartre revolutionises the way we think about selves. How so?

Mary Edwards: “We tend to think of selves as things that reside inside each of us and express themselves through our actions. For example, we often hear people say things like ‘I surprised myself today by how assertive I was with my boss’ ... But how can I possibly surprise myself if ‘I’ and ‘myself’ refer to the same person?

“On the surface at least, Freud’s concept of the unconscious resolves this paradox. It allows us to posit the existence of something inside each of us that drives our behaviour in ways that are unknown to us – namely, the unconscious.

“Rather than follow Freud, though, Sartre rejects the basic assumptions we make about our relation to ourselves that give rise to the paradox. He turns the traditional idea of the self on its head by construing it as an object, outside the subject, that the subject creates through their actions.

“The Sartrean self is a work-in-progress, something that we are each continually adding to, and altering.”

Is he saying that it is possible to know the self but that consciousness is ultimately unknowable?

“In a word, yes. Initially, this might seem preposterous because the self is typically thought to refer to the whole of a person’s psychological being, including unconscious and unknowable parts, while consciousness is thought to be the only part of the self that we have direct and certain knowledge of.

“In Sartre’s view, however, consciousness is not the type of being that can be the object of knowledge, precisely because it is not an object. Consciousness is fundamentally agential; it is always acting upon an object that is distinct from it.”

Can you explain how he understands anguish under this scheme?

“Sure. For Sartre, anguish is the realisation that you are not identical with your self because you are, most fundamentally, a consciousness, without any fixed aspects.

“Another term he uses to describe anguish is ‘vertigo of possibility’ since he believes it involves an awareness that you do not have any inbuilt qualities or traits that determine your actions, which means that you could act upon any option that’s available to you in your situation. This is quite frightful when you think about it because if there is nothing inside you that constrains your behaviour, then you can do the most horrendous things that your circumstances allow you to do.”

Is Sartre a bit naive to think we can entirely comprehend the mind of another person, like, say, Elon Musk?

“In a late interview, he states that everything about another person is communicable and, hence, knowable, so he does appear to be at first blush [to be so naive]. Surely, we can never know what Elon Musk was thinking when he was brushing his teeth last night, for example.

“However, Sartre has a clever philosopher’s response to this accusation. He can say, ‘Ah! But it’s not other people’s minds that I believe we can know, it’s their selves!’ And, indeed, there is an important difference here.

“Unlike a mind, a [Sartrean] self is the imprint that person has made on the world, not what’s inside their head.

“It’s not enough to have a comprehensive list of all a person’s actions, you need a key that enables you to make sense of them, and this key is the person’s ‘original choice’ of who they want to be in Sartre’s view. He argues that existential psychoanalysis can facilitate the discovery of this choice because it enables us to test different hypotheses about a person’s motivations against their actions until we find the most basic choice that enables us to comprehend them all, collectively.

“Crucially, Sartre stresses the importance of this comprehension over factual accuracy in relation to a person’s actions. If we find the choice that allows us make sense of both Musk’s purchase of Twitter and act of naming his son X Æ A-Xii, then it’s not so important that we don’t know what time or even whether he brushed his teeth last night, as we can regard all his actions as ultimately being geared towards the realisation of his original choice.

“There is a clear issue for Sartre here, though. Anguish is such a central concept in his philosophy because it acknowledges that we can always act out of character, even if the pursuit of our original choice means that we rarely do so.

“Musk could well do something today that contradicts what an existential analysis of his actions hitherto reveals to be his original choice. If this happens, Musk’s existential analyst would have to integrate this action into their picture of Musk’s self and, perhaps, revise their conception of his original choice.

“It is vital for existential psychoanalysis to be responsive in this way, as psychoanalysis – and psychotherapy more broadly – is premised on the idea that people can change and, therefore, break free of harmful patterns of behaviour. This means that the self of a living subject can never be completely known, or their future actions predicted, as they are still engaged in their free process of self-formation, which is why Sartre chose a dead author [Gustave Flaubert] for his subject in his attempt to show that everything about another person can be communicated in [Sartre’s book] The Family Idiot.

“Although the unfinished status of this work illustrates how this project was too ambitious – even for Sartre! – I believe it shows us that we can know much more about ourselves and others than we may have previously supposed, so long as we are willing to put the effort in.”