The problem of the Other — other people, other subjects — has troubled thinkers as far back as Plato. In our more contemporary discourse, Jean-Paul Sartre characterizes our relations with the Other in his phenomenological analysis of ontology, Being and Nothingness, as an attempt to constitute me as something impossible: an in-itself-for-itself, God, or rather, “a being beyond consciousness.” While several theories of intersubjectivity abound, it is especially cogent to claim — as Sartre does — that our relationships with the Other is an attempt to achieve the status of in-itself-for-itself, as such a diagnosis furnishes a sound apprehension of the Other, our own subjectivity, and the cacophonies that exist throughout our many intersubjective relations.
But in order to properly understand what the Other is and how we interact with them, an understanding of the relationship between what Sartre terms beings- in-itself and for-itself is necessary. First, being-for-itself arises from “the effort of an in-itself to found itself.” For example, the Kantian notion of the noumena — a thing-in-itself — can be thought of as a being-in-itself. In other words, an in-itself is an object whose qualities are not augmented by the presence of consciousness. On the other hand, a for-itself can be best understood as an impression of the object by the introduction of a conscious subject, whether that be the Other or the subject themself. In this sense, a being-in-itself is the ontological foundation of the opposing being-for-itself. As Sartre writes:
“…the appearance of the for-itself … corresponds to an attempt on the part of being to remove contingency from its being. But this attempt results in the nihilation of the in-itself, because the in-itself can not found itself without introducing the self or a reflective, nihilating reference into the absolute identity of its being and consequently degenerating for-itself. The for-itself corresponds then to an expanding de-structuring of the in itself, and the in-itself is nihilated and absorbed in its attempt to found itself.”
Here, Sartre is describing the dialectical relationship between an in-itself — which has no negation alone, such as the Kantian noumena — and the for-itself which is the introduction of consciousness, and thus, negation into the relation of this binary. Moreover, Sartre is setting the stage for a synthesis that occurs in the relationship between the for-itself and the for-others. But whereas the latter line of inquiry leads to a discussion about bad faith, the former — the distinction between an in-itself, a for-itself, and what that means with the introduction of the for-others — lends itself to the issue of the Other. “Without going outside our attitude of reflective description, we can encounter modes of consciousness which seem, even while themselves remaining strictly in for-itself, to point to a radically different type of ontological structure,” Sartre writes. “This ontological structure is mine.” That is to say, because we (qua subject) frame our consciousness on a foundation of mixed cement of in-itself, for-itself, and for-others, the problem of the Other takes shape at this juncture and is inescapable from here on out.
For now, however, an exposition of what the Other is can illustrate precisely where our attempt to become an in-itself-for-itself lies. In short and in keeping with the tradition of philosophy stemming from the metaphysicians of the past, Sartre characterizes the Other as a substance, but a substance of a particular type. “The Other is a thinking substance of the same essence as I am, a substance which will not disappear into primary and secondary qualities, and whose essential structure I find in myself,” Sartre writes. Thus, the Other is a subject of the same material and ontological structure I am constructed of. However, when examined phenomenologically, the Other is a creature as harrowing as they are opaque and crucial for my subjectivity.
In order to illustrate this point, Sartre uses the concept of shame. He asks us to imagine ourselves in a state of shame, and to analyze the qualities and structure of how we feel when in such a state. Sartre writes:
“It is certain that my shame is not reflective, for the presence of another in my consciousness, even as a catalyst, is incompatible with the reflective attitude; in the field of my reflection I can never meet with anything but the consciousness which is mine. But the Other is the indispensable mediator between myself and me. I am ashamed of myself as I appear to the Other.”
In short, Sartre says shame, like so many affective and emotional states, originates before someone — making an obscene gesture and realizing what you have done in the face of social norms or in the eyes of the Other. “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,” Sartre writes. It is this object-ness that is the “fundamental relation between the Other and myself,” and moreover, what creates a dissonance in my relationship with the Other. For although we apprehend the Other as an object, they are “not an empty image in the mind of another,” they are too a probable conscious subject.
In Wim Wenner’s oneiric neo-Western, Paris, Texas, an example of the latter point can be found in the most memorable scene of the film. The protagonist, Travis Henderson, finds his ex-wife working at a strip club in Houston, Texas. In the basement, there are several booths that look like changing rooms. He enters one, and inside there is a small lamp, a desk, a phone, a list of names, and what appears to be some sort of window — he cannot see through this window yet, as it is dark on the other side. He sits down, picks up the phone, and asks for his ex-wife, Jane, by name. Lights flicker on on the other side of the window, and a woman wearing a neon pink dress enters a room made up to look like the inside of a cheap motel suite — it turns out the window is a panel of one-way glass. Travis can see Jane, but she cannot see him. Jane begins her normal routine of seduction and infantile placation, not knowing that her ex-husband — whom she had feared dead and had not seen or heard from in over four years — is on the other side of the pane. Travis is visibly unnerved, dumbstruck, and shattered as he begins speaking to her through the phone.
In this scene, Jane does not recognize a subject through the glass, she only hears Travis’s voice speaking to her. Moreover, Jane assumes the role of pure object, and for the sake of this analogy, Travis assumes the role of the subject. This is, in essence, how Sartre fundamentally views most — if not all — interactions and relations with the Other; there is a battle being waged behind each pane of the glass to assert their respective beings- in-itself-for-itself. As Sartre writes:
“[M]y fundamental project toward the Other…is twofold: first there is the problem of protecting myself against the danger which is incurred by my being-outside-in-the-Other’s freedom, and second there is the problem of utilizing the Other in order finally to totalize the detotalized totality which I am, so as to close the open circle, and finally to be my own foundation. But on the one hand the Other’s disappearance as look throws me back into my unjustifiable subjectivity and reduces my being to this perpetual pursued-pursuit toward an inapprehensible In-itself-for-itself.”
This look Sartre mentions in the latter quotation is most notably understood as the gaze. In Being and Nothingness Sartre tells a story — similar to the scene from Wenner’s — where he illustrates the basic structure of the gaze. There is a man walking down the hallway of a hotel. He strolls past a door and hears the sound of people making love on the other side. This man hunches down and peers through the keyhole. He sees a couple having sex. Sartre then asks the reader to imagine the sound of footsteps — merely the phenomena of sound — coming from behind this man. At that moment, Sartre says this man becomes self-conscious of himself as both subject and object in the world:
“But all of a sudden I hear footsteps in the hall. Someone is looking at me! What does this mean? It means that I am suddenly affected in my being and that essential modifications appear in my structure — modifications which I can apprehend and fix conceptually by means of the reflective cogito.”
For Sartre, there is hardly a need for another subject to appear behind this person peering through the keyhole. “But the look will be given just as well on occasion when there is a rustling of branches, or the sound of footsteps followed by silence, or the slight opening of a shutter, or a light movement of a curtain,” he writes. In this sense, the gaze of the Other is like the eyes of no one in particular. The gaze is merely a mechanism by which one is conscious of their being an object in the world to the look of others. Moreover, it is why in Paris, Texas there is no need for Jane to see Travis for her to be subject to his gaze — likewise, there is no need for Travis to be seen by Jane. “The Other’s look hides his eyes,” Sartre writes, “he seems to go in front of them.”
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. That is, the Other walks into my world, and they steal a portion of my world from me — including a portion of myself from me. Moreover, the Other constitutes me as something and I have no control over, and yet I have to take ownership for it. “Without the Other I apprehend fully and nakedly this terrible necessity of being free which is my lot,” Sartre writes, “that is, the fact that I can not put the responsibility for making-myself be off onto anyone but myself even though I have not chosen to be and although I have been born.” That is to say, if the Other comes into my world and steals a portion of it away from me, then they also steal God from me as well — therefore, the potential to be God. Sartre writes:
“God at the same time is and is not both myself and the Other since he creates us. He must of necessity be myself in order to apprehend my reality without intermediary and with apodictic evidence, and yet it is necessary that he not be me in order that he may preserve his impartiality as witness and be able over there both to be and not be the Other.”
I am not seen or constituted as subject in the gaze of the Other. That is to say, if “I am as the Other sees me,” and it is “as an object that I appear to the Other,” and the Other is “the indispensable mediator between myself and me,” this ultimately means the Other is the arbiter of God, and therefore, of my own being. It is in the hands of the Other that I place my desires, wishes, fulfillments, etc.; and it is ultimately in their hands where my desires go to die. In other words, this is ultimately why Sartre characterizes an in-itself-for-itself as “inapprehensible.”
In all, Sartre accomplishes his goal of classifying the Other in three steps — as outlined above. That is, the existential structure of the Other is comprehended through my own objectivity; in other words, it is before the Other that I appear as an object-in-the-world. His concept of the gaze most notably illustrates this. Secondly, Sartre writes that “my reaction to my own alienation for the Other was expressed in my grasping the Other as an object,” which is to say the Other appears as an object when they enter my experience of the world. In turn, this renders intersubjective relations intrinsically antagonistic, as there is always a battle for subjectivity, the world, and for God in every encounter with the Other. And finally, there can be no synthesis between what Sartre terms experiencing the Other “with evidence” — for the subject fails in this regard to know the Other — and knowing and acting upon the Other because the subject reaches them only as “being-as-object and his probable existence in the midst of the world.” From this vantage point, it is hoped that a clear image is furnished of the attempt to achieve the status of in-itself-for-itself via relations with the Other. Moreover, Sartre’s method of illustrating our relations with the Other is an effective manner of understanding the Other, our own subjectivity, and the dissonance that exists throughout our many intersubjective relations.
We are not God to the Other, we are simply objects in the world of their experience. And just as we are to them, so are they to us. To be God, a pure in-itself-for-itself, we would need to occupy a different dimension of experience and phenomenon — one where we cannot be seen in the gaze. To sum up the gist of our encounters with the Other, Sartre writes about the gaze as a kind of wraith-like apparition that haunts our day-to-day subjectivity. “What I apprehend immediately when I hear the branches crackling behind me is not that there is someone there,” he begins. “It is that I am vulnerable, that I have a body which can be hurt, that I occupy a place and that I can not in any case escape from the space in which I am without defense — in short, that I am seen.”
Sartre, J.P. Being and Nothingness: A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology. New York, NY. Washington Square Press. 1984.