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Jean-Paul Sartre: 'Hell is other people'


To: Paul M.
From Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Jean-Paul Sartre: 'Hell is other people'
Date: 20th May 2011 12:16

Dear Paul,

I am sorry to have kept you waiting so long for my response to your latest essay towards the Associate Award, ''Hell is other people' - Sartre and being-for-others' which you emailed on 5 May.

This is a really good piece of work, which lays out with reasonable clarity Sartre's complex and difficult views about the relation between self and other. There are a number of directions in which one could explore and develop these ideas, but you have sensibly concentrated on expounding the central issue concerning the idea of the self as both for-itself and in-itself, and the tensions and contradictions which this creates when the self enters into relations with other selves -- as it must do in order to be truly a 'self'.

There is very little that I would want you to change. The quote 'Hell is other people,' is from Sartre's play 'Huis Clos' ('No Exit'). I think you do need to reference this. I also found a useful quote from Sartre from a talk which Sartre gave around the time when the play was first published:

''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.'

Unfortunately, I don't have the original reference for this: I found the quote (unreferenced) on this blog:

As you note, there is an important connection to Hegel's master-slave dialectic. You give a rather long quote from Solomon (which needs to be formatted as a block quote), which isn't the most accurate exposition of the section on master and slave that I have seen. I do advise you to look at this section in Hegel's 'Phenomenology of Spirit' ('Phenomenology of Mind' in Miller's translation) and try to form a view of your own. The essential point is about the need for 'recognition' which can only come, ultimately, from a relation of equality between self and other. Where Sartre sees a contradiction or conflict which cannot be overcome, Hegel more optimistically views the dialectic of self and other as one which has a satisfactory conclusion. That's a point that could be made.

The point that causes all the problems for Sartre is his very radical view of human freedom. To realize that I have a 'nature', that I have qualities of character and motivation which others may observe, conflicts with the principle that every free decision has no basis or precedent other than my own appreciation of the situation at this moment in time -- all that I have decided or done in the past, all the things that others know about me from observing my behaviour -- all that is just water under the bridge.

I see the point of this. I don't think any philosopher has come up with a really satisfactory response to Sartre. The Hegelian view -- which you can also find in a certain reading of Wittgenstein -- is that the very language which I use to deliberate and decide what I am to do now, is a language which I share with other people, a language which I inherited from my culture, where reasons for action are capable of being communicated, discussed, criticized. The alternative would be truly solipsistic, and indeed incoherent (I would have to speak a 'private language').

The problem with this response is that it only goes so far: language isn't a machine which does our deliberating and deciding for us. The concepts we share with others may be a common coin in which the rights or wrongs of actions can be debated, but there is no 'concept' for the particular situation which I find myself in, at this moment in time, for which there is no precedent. There is no such thing as being 'consistent' or 'inconsistent' in one's decisions because no two situations are identical.

To be truly human, truly free, is to recognize that living is an exercise in creativity, where new solutions, new directions must forever be sought. Sartre, as a writer was very keenly aware as all artists are of the dangers of repeating oneself, self-imitation, conforming to the expectations of others -- which becomes more and more difficult to resist when you rise to prominence and become 'public property'. This is the most anguished sense in which 'life imitates art'.

All the best,