Sartre’s Look

Let’s talk about Sartre’s concept of the Look. He brings it up in Being and Nothingness as part of a discussion on solipsism (the idea that I am the only conscious being in the world and everyone else is just a group of robots). His discussion of the Look has been called a “phenomenological proof” or an “ontological proof” of the existence of other people. Here’s the basic structure:

1) We experience shame.2) The experience of shame is such that it requires another conscious being to be observing us.
3) Therefore other conscious beings exist.

The conclusion (3) follows from the premises (1) and (2). Obviously premise (2) is the most controversial – does shame really mean other consciousnesses have to exist? – and it’s the one he spends the most time on.

Sartre’s Look echoes Hegel’s master-slave dialectic in a bunch of important ways. Like Hegel, Sartre tells a little story to set it up. We’re looking through a keyhole, he says, lost in observation, when we notice somebody behind us. Immediately we jerk back in shame, embarrassed to have been observed. Have you ever been relaxing in a park by yourself and been annoyed at joggers or dogwalkers intruding into your moment? It’s the same thing.

What happens when I am looked at, for Sartre, is that the world drains away from me towards the newcomer. The objects that only existed in relation to me before now exist in relation to this other person; she is judging them and observing them, just as I did, and worse still – she is observing me as well, as if I were part of the landscape. Our negative reaction to this experience is the feeling of shame.

Unlike Hegel, Sartre does not think two people can Look at each other in comfort and mutual recognition. For Sartre, it’s always a contest – I Look at you, you try to turn it around and Look at me (turning me into an object), and I fight back – with a winner and a loser. According to him, human relations are defined by this conflict. It’s why he famously wrote that hell is other people.

Does Sartre’s argument make a convincing proof for the existence of other people? It’s certainly not an airtight deductive proof. Still, I think it’s good reason to believe in the existence of others.

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