In his 1944 play Huis Clos (No Exit), Jean-Paul Sartre wrote one of the most infamous and misunderstood lines of his career: “Hell is — other people!” Perhaps the phrase could be better apprehended as “the gaze of the Other is Hell.” That is to say, in order to comprehend the meaning of this ambiguous — and insidious sounding — quote, an understanding of the gaze and the Other (on Sartre’s view) is necessary.
The problem of the external world has plagued metaphysics, and thus ontology, since the pre-Socratics. The question of how we comprehend the world of phenomena led philosophers such as Descartes to employ a methodology of radical doubt — to strip away the shoddy layers of empirical data and perceptive reports in order to apprehend the raw lode of experience. Yet the Cartesian subject, on this view, is a solipsistic creature. Thus, no room for intersubjective relations is left inside that cramped dome of God. Moreover, to not account for how our symbolic, imaginary, and social orders are inherently staked in the experience of the Other is to discount a fundamental support beam of the subjective experience. As Sartre writes, the former (Cartesian) method of understanding reality is understanding “it-for-itself.” And as to reality for-others, Sartre employs a radically different approach.
Moreover, because reality — qua consciousness — for Sartre is constituted by our phenomenological experience of the external world, and because the external world contains in it the Other(s), we must account for the problem of Other minds. What seems like a relatively elementary proposition, suddenly turns into a radical view when Sartre writes, “by the mere appearance of the Other, I am put in the position of passing judgment on myself as on an object, for it is as an object that I appear to the Other.” It is in “the look” of the Other that the I am is apprehended as an object, and likewise — the Other appears as an object to me — thereby rendering intersubjective relations inescapably, endemically antagonistic. The Other walks into my world, and they steal a portion of my world from me — including a portion of myself from me. The Other, moreover, constitutes me as something and I have no control over, and yet I have to take ownership for it.
By virtue of these mechanics of the gaze, we begin to understand how “Hell is other people.” Furthermore, “Hell is other people” implies my relationship with the Other, even when amicable, is fraught with the permanent possibility of adversariality. Sartre makes this point clear in his play, No Exit, where the characters are literally in a space of permanence — life after death, Hell. At one point, one of the three characters says to another:
“You’re a coward, Garcin, because I wish it! I wish it — do you hear? — I wish it! And yet, just look at me, see how weak I am, a mere breath on the air, a gaze observing you, a formless thought that thinks you.”
Here, Sartre demonstrates the seemingly inane nature of the Other — “a formless thought” — and contrasts that with the intersubjective and phenomenological reality of the Other as a harrowing object that “devours me,” as another character says. Hell is other people, Sartre writes, because it is not only against the Other with whom I am in constant battle with, it is also because “the Other teaches me who I am.”