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American Pragmatism

Peirce and Sartre on Consciousness and the Ego

David Boersema describes how two very different thinkers were on the trail of similar ideas about the nature of consciousness.

Charles Peirce (1839-1914) and Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) were two towering figures in philosophy who wrestled with issues of consciousness and the ego, or self. These are matters that have long concerned philosophers and cross the lines of different philosophical traditions. What is it to be conscious? What is the nature of the self? Both Peirce, as a pragmatist, and Sartre, as a phenomenologist, addressed these questions early in their philosophical careers, suggesting that they were fundamental for their subsequent concerns. Moreover, these issues were and are at the core of both pragmatism and phenomenology. Further exploration of them can shed light on these two schools of thought and serve as a means of bridge-building between them. It can be a focal point for fruitful dialogue between the traditions.

Peirce on the self

In ‘Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed for Man,’ Peirce considered intuition. He challenged the view that we have a faculty of mind – intuition – that operates from and with a priori knowledge, independent of any previous experience or of reasoning from signs (see box below).

Peirce was thus reacting against the rationalism of Descartes and the transcendentalism of Kant, both of which in their different ways do imply such a faculty. In the course of challenging the notion of intuition, Peirce asked seven questions. Question One was this: Can we judge by the simple contemplation of a cognition, independently of any previous knowledge and reasoning from signs, whether that cognition has been caused by a previous cognition or whether it refers immediately to its object? In other words, can we reflectively, intuitively know whether a particular thought refers in and of itself to something?

Peirce’s answer was that the burden of proof on this question lies with those who claim that an intuitive faculty exists. He thought they lack such proof. He remarked, “There is no evidence that we have this faculty, except that we seem to think that we have it.” This feeling, however, “depends entirely on our being supposed to have the power of distinguishing in this feeling whether the feeling be the result of education, old associates, etc., or whether it is an intuitive cognition.” (Collected Papers, 5.214) In other words, to offer our feeling of intuition as the basis for the conclusion that there is a faculty of intuition begs the question because the feeling of intuition is itself intuitive.

Peirce, of course, did not prove that there is not and cannot be a faculty of intuition, but he argued that the basic argument for intuition is faulty. He then discussed several examples of cognitions, such as dreams, perceptions and sensations, which he attempted to demonstrate are not known intuitively and concluded that there are “very strong reasons for disbelieving the existence of [an intuitive] faculty.” (5.224) Having dismissed the notion of intuition, Peirce asked a second question: Whether we have an intuitive selfconsciousness. His answer was: no. Peirce defined ‘selfconsciousness’ as:

“...a knowledge of ourselves. Not a mere feeling of subjective conditions of consciousness, but of our personal selves. Pure apperception is the self-assertion of the ego; the self-consciousness here meant is the recognition of my private self. I know that I (not merely the I) exist.” (5.225)

Do we have intuitive self-consciousness? How are we to answer this? For Peirce, it was not self-evident that we do, since there is no intuitive way of distinguishing an intuition from a cognition determined by other cognitions.

Consequently, we must provide some sort of evidence to settle the question of whether self-consciousness is known intuitively or not. The evidence that Peirce offered was empirical. He claimed that there is no known selfconsciousness to be accounted for in extremely young children. In addition, while children manifest powers of thought immediately, they are always oriented outward, toward objects and events in the world. As Peirce said:

“No one questions that, when a sound is heard by a child, he thinks, not of himself as hearing, but of the bell or other object as sounding. How when he wills to move a table? Does he think of himself as desiring, or only of the table as fit to be moved? That he has the latter thought is beyond question; that he has the former must, until the existence of an intuitive self-consciousness is proved, remain an arbitrary and baseless supposition.” (5.230)

Children are immediately conscious, but there is no evidence that they are immediately self-conscious. Indeed, for Peirce, self-consciousness presupposes the notion of a self and that, he said, comes only with language. As a child begins to learn language, a connection between certain sounds and facts becomes established in his mind. Connections between what he called the ‘central body’ or ‘central one’ (meaning that particular child) and others come in large part through the child’s learning of language. Especially important here is that the child’s very postulation (albeit an implicit one) of a self results from this linguistic interaction with others. Peirce gave the following example:

“A child hears it said that the stove is hot. But it is not, he says; and, indeed, that central body is not touching it, and only what that touches is hot or cold. But he touches it and finds the testimony confirmed in a striking way. Thus, he becomes aware of ignorance, and it is necessary to suppose a self in which this ignorance can inhere. So testimony gives the first dawning of self-consciousness.” (5.233)

Besides ignorance, error also points to the postulation of a self, since error requires a self that is fallible. Error implies some existence independent from the ‘central one’ and so points outward, toward a world known through experiences and, in large part, through language.

What Peirce offered, then, was an argument about how we come to have self-consciousness, or, in a sense, how there comes to be a self. The self is postulated because of our interaction with the world; self-consciousness follows consciousness. What Peirce also offered was an argument for how we are to come to know about self-consciousness; it is known from experience, not intuition, and this experiential knowledge comes from ‘bumping into the world.’

The remaining five questions that Peirce asked about mental faculties continued to focus on intuition and were less directly related to the issue of the self. However, one of the questions was related. His fifth question was whether we can think without signs. His answer was: no. He believed that thinking always involves thinking something. There are no empty thoughts, i.e., thoughts without object or reference. Every thought is a sign, because every thought must have some content or other; it must represent.

In his essay, ‘Some Consequences of Four Incapacities,’ Peirce made explicit connections between this view of thought in signs and the nature of the self. Fundamental to this connection is his view that human life is a train of thought. This follows from what Peirce took as an empirical fact about the nature of thought. At any given moment we attend to only a small fraction of the many things in our mind. The occurrence of any new experience or cognition is never in isolation. Rather it is an event occupying time and coming to pass by a continual process. There is always a multitude and sequence, or train, of thoughts. Furthermore, this train of thought is not simply a temporal conjunction of individual thoughts occurring in the mind; it is a relation of states of mind (thoughts or inferences) that constitutes the sequence and that gives the actual individual thoughts value. Meaning, then, is related intimately with action and action with identity. Who I am is what I do, and what I do is what I mean.

In summary, Peirce saw the self as something we come to discover through experience – through our interactions with the world and particularly our interations with other people through language. An analysis of thought shows it to imply content and an interconnectedness among various particular thoughts. Sartre came to strikingly similar conclusions.

Sartre on the Self

Sartre’s most famous book, Being and Nothingness, is subtitled ‘A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology’. To understand not only this particular work but also Sartre’s philosophy as a whole and his views on the self, one must look at Sartre’s intellectual background, especially the phenomenological theories of Edmund Husserl (1859-1938).

In an attempt to find necessary truths and a radical foundation for those truths, Husserl developed his study of phenomenology. Whereas philosophers from Descartes to Kant had focused, he thought, on the objects of knowledge (e.g., chairs, sensations), the subject of knowledge (e.g., the transcendental ego), and even the conditions for the possibility of knowledge, Husserl insisted that truths are grounded in the living acts of human consciousness. It is the act of consciousness, not the subject or object, that must be the starting point for investigation. If an essential description of anything can be given, it must be based on what is truly essential to that thing. The method for finding that essence was what he called the phenomenological method. The world is an experience we live before it is a collection of objects that we know. The fact that we experience the world and that we experience it through consciousness is fundamental. Our basic philosophical task is to study phenomena as they are experienced.

Husserl claimed that consciousness is active and intentional, meaning that consciousness is always consciousness of something and the something is not simply perceived, but is constituted by the act of consciousness. When there is consciousness, there is always a subject and object of consciousness, but those come to be known because of the act of consciousness. By focusing on the act of consciousness, on what it is for us to experience the world through consciousness, Husserl attempted to establish a fundamental (epistemological) philosophical starting point.

Although Sartre’s focus was on people and what it is for them to be in the world, he began his approach to understanding being-in-the-world in very Husserlian fashion. Before analysing being-in-the-world in Being and Nothingness, Sartre wrote several works on consciousness, including Imagination, The Transcendence of the Ego and The Psychology of Imagination. In them, Sartre contrasted two acts of consciousness: perception and imagination. Perception involves our encountering the facts of the world (‘facticity’). While perception presents an object ‘in its presence,’ these facts place limits on our being-in-the-world. Quite simply, we can’t perceive what isn’t there. Imagination, on the other hand, presents an object ‘in its absence.’ The act of imagination precludes the act of perception; we imagine where we cannot perceive. A difference between imagination and perception is that, although both are intentional acts of consciousness, perception is limited by the facticity of our being-in-the-world, while imagination is free to be-beyondthe- world. (We can imagine a gold mountain though we cannot perceive one.) Imagination points to two important facts. First, there is basic freedom. If we start with the phenomenological approach of what it is to be-in-the-world, to be conscious, we are led to the conclusion that we are, through imagination, radically free. Second, if we take the act of imagination as given, we see that the act is not itself a thing out there in the world (it is not a part of our facticity); we are led to the conclusion that it is no thing (i.e., nothing). This is analogous to noting that our eyes are not part of our visual field, but are what make our visual field possible for us. That is, we see things out in the world as part of our visual field, but our eyes are not among those things that we see ‘out there.’ This second result leads to and is made clearer by an analysis of the subject of consciousness, the ego. Sartre offered the following example of why there is no ‘I’ within conscious acts of being-in-the-world:

“When I run after a streetcar, when I look at the time, when I am absorbed in contemplating a portrait, there is no I. There is consciousness of the streetcar-having-to-be-overtaken, etc., and nonpositional consciousness of consciousness. In fact, I am then plunged into the world of objects; it is they which constitute the unity of my consciousness; it is they which present themselves with values, with attractive and repellant qualities – but I have disappeared; I have annihilated myself. There is no place for me on this level. And this is not a matter of chance, due to a momentary lapse of attention, but happens because of the very structure of consciousness.”
(Jean-Paul Sartre, The Transcendence of the Ego 1957, pp.48-49)

Much as with Peirce’s example of a child engaging with the world and only later, upon reflection, postulating an ego, so Sartre’s example illustrates his point that the ego is an object of consciousness while also being not an object ‘out there’ in the world. The ego is an object of consciousness, because in our being-in-the-world, we come to postulate a subject of consciousness and of actions. Like my eyes being outside my visual field, yet being what makes my visual field possible, the ego is transcendent in the sense that it is outside the internal structure of consciousness; it does not pre-exist in consciousness. Sartre saw human existence as a matter of both being in the world, as physical, historical, social persons, and being beyond the world, that is as subjects of awareness and experience. As Being-for-itself, that is, as the subject and locus of consciousness and experience, we engage with the world in the form of projects and these projects are futureoriented. For example, we think about what we are going to do tomorrow or next week. But who ‘I’ am, that is, I as subject of consciousness and experience, is not simply another thing in the world. The subject is real, but is not Being, or thing. Instead, it is no thing, or Nothing.

Conceptually distinct from, and prior to, Being-for-itself, there is a facticity about us; we are also Being-in-itself. We come to realize this through our interaction in the world, in particular through our interaction with others and the realization that we are also Being-for-others. As we encounter others, we come to realize that, for others, we are among the objects in the world just as they are, in one sense, objects (but not merely objects) in our world. Through interaction with others, through Being-for-others, Being-foritself comes to discover that it is Being-in-itself. As Sartre put it:

“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. Yet this object which has appeared to the Other is not an empty image in the mind of another...Thus the Other has not only revealed to me what I was; he has established me in a new type of being which can support new qualifications. This being was not in me potentially before the appearance of the Other, for it could not have found any place in the For-Itself... I need the Other in order to realize fully all the structures of my being.”
(Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness 1966, pp.302-303)

The self as Being-for-itself is an imaginative consciousness, which defines itself through its actions, decisions and projects. By one’s actions and decisions and projects, one transcends one’s facticity, that is, past facts about oneself, and goes beyond-the-world in the sense of creating one’s own possibilities and one’s future facticity. It is in this sense that Sartre spoke of the self as “what is what it is not and is not what it is.” What he meant was that who we are is formed by our decisions and our future-oriented projects. Who we ‘are’ is a matter of what we do and will do (what we are not) and what we ‘are not’ – our possibilities – is who we ‘are.’ Again, part of our nature as persons, our being-foritself, is that we are fundamentally free. But we are also Being-in-itself, that is, physical, historical, social beings. This mode of our being-in-the-world is revealed to us upon our interaction with others. Part of who we are is our facticity and this is shaped by who we are taken to be, by our Being-for-others. As we are taken by others, as we are treated, as we are interacted with, we become who we are.


The language is quite different, the immediate philosophical contexts are quite different, but the similarities between Peirce and Sartre on the self are striking. Both were led to the issue of the nature of the self by an examination of consciousness. Both started off by asking what it is to be in the world, what it is to be first and foremost an agent, engaged with others and being defined as an agent. Both took the self to be relational, something defined by its interactions. Both took the self to be diachronic, something that becomes what it is, that is defined by a process over time.

This is not, of course, to deny the differences between Peirce and Sartre on the self. Peirce, as we saw, placed a much more explicit significance on the role of language in the acquisition of self-consciousness than did Sartre. On the other hand, Sartre’s analysis led him to identify and illuminate the fundamental nature of human freedom.

This brief exposition of the philosophical approaches of Peirce and Sartre reveals similarities in their thinking, but also shows the need for further work. Peirce’s thought and work predates not only Sartre, but Husserl as well. Though neither Husserl nor Sartre acknowledge any debt to Peirce, both cite the work of William James and so the debt might be there nonetheless. Further, closer examination of the role of pragmatism might well reveal points of contact between Anglo-American and Continental thought. Some of pragmatism’s basic themes, namely philosophical method, the nature and role of sociality, the nature and role of language, also loom large in the concerns of the phenomenologists as well as of other schools and movements in contemporary philosophy. Finally, the approach to understanding the self taken by both Peirce and Sartre is much more fruitful than the traditional approaches of looking at the self as fundamentally mind (e.g., Locke) or fundamentally body (e.g., A.J.Ayer), not only in terms of matching lived, experiential aspects of the self, but in terms of making sense of the connection between the self and issues related to the self, such as responsibility and punishment.


David Boersema teaches philosophy at Pacific University in Oregon.

[The Peirce quotations in this article come from the Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, Harvard University Press, 1931-1935.]

Let’s Learn Peirce Talk

Lesson 1: Signs and Semiotics

One of Peirce’s favourite pieces of jargon was ‘sign’. A sign is anything that represents something to something else. For example, smoke is a sign of fire, words are signs of things (or events or some metaphysical ‘thing’). The field of study called semiotics is the study of signs (‘semiotics’ is based on the Greek root for ‘sign’). Peirce especially made two distinctions. One, that every sign involved the sign itself (e.g., smoke or a word, such as ‘cat’), an object (e.g., fire or cats) and an interpretant (e.g., you or me). Two, signs are either (1) an icon, in which something is a sign by having a one-to-one relation with the object (e.g., a model car is a sign of a real car), (2) an index, in which something is a sign by having a causal relation to an object (e.g., a scar is a sign of an injury), or (3) a symbol, in which something is a sign via convention (e.g., ‘cat’ is a sign of cats). Peirce and Ferdinand de Saussure are usually credited as the (independent) initiators of semiotics as a field of study, though obviously many people spoke of signs long before they did.

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