This section, entitled "The Look" is one of the most famous sections of the book; probably second only to the
chapter on "Bad Faith."
In this section, Sartre gives a justly famous description of a man peeping through a keyhole into a room. To begin with,
the man is totally "absorbed" by what he sees in the room. He is on the non-reflective level. And he's all alone;
he's not especially aware of the presence of other people. (If he's watching other people in the room, he is in any event
not really regarding them as other consciousnesses.)
But now, all of a sudden, the man hears a footstep behind him, and he suddenly realizes he's being watched. He's been
caught! Suddenly the whole situation changes radically for him. He's suddenly aware of himself as being seen!
The change, of course, is that now he's aware of the presence of someone else - another consciousness, who is watching
him. In short, the difference between the two situations, before and after, is exactly the difference between an isolated
consciousness, all by itself, and a consciousness in the presence of others - what Sartre calls being-for-others.
(Note: This is not some third kind of being, in addition to being-in-itself and being-for-itself.)
Now it's crucial to understand that when the man suddenly realizes he is being watched, he does not necessarily shift
to the reflective level. No doubt he soon will move to the reflective level, but what Sartre wants to focus on is that delicate
moment after he realizes he is being watched but before he begins to reflect.
Now, you might say, how can this be? We said the man realizes he's being watched.
Doesn't that realization involve a consciousness of a situation in which he himself is a component? Doesn't he suddenly
become both subject and object??
This one is Sartre's example of the man in the park.
This example is perhaps a little easier to see the point of, and moreover has as a kind of fringe benefit the fact that
it explains why it is so difficult to look someone in the eye - the staredown.
Suppose you are in a park, minding your own business. Everything is fine; there are no special problems at the moment.
A few paces off there is another person, sitting on a bench reading a paper and minding his own business too.
Everything is normal. The whole world constituted by your consciousness, including that other human body, is arranged
to refer to a particular point of view - your point of view. Everything refers to you; everything is organized around you
- the eye of the camera that is always present but is never seen as a phenomenon on the screen.
In short, the whole situation is a matter of your phenomena (something perceived or experienced, especially an object
as it is apprehended by the human senses as opposed to an object as it intrinsically is in itself), along with the promises
of further phenomena that would also be yours if you did such and such. We are talking about your phenomena throughout.
But now, suddenly, that other man puts down the paper firmly, looks up and stares directly into your eye. You are startled;
you become unnerved. Why?
It's because all of a sudden the world comes on to you differently. There is something threatening about this man's ominous
It's not as though you're afraid he's going to attack you, or anything like that. Let's suppose the man is old and feeble,
so that there's no question of any physical danger in the situation. Still, you continue to be unnerved by his stare. Why?
Well, Sartre says, it is not that he is threatening you with bodily harm. Rather, it's more serious than that. He's a
threat to the order and arrangement of your whole world. In the very fact of recognizing that there is another consciousness
behind those alien eyes, you recognize that there is another point of view on things, a point of view that ON PRINCIPLE you
can never occupy. All of a sudden, the world comes on to you as referring not just to your point of view, but to another one
too - to another camera. The world is no longer just nicely ordered and arranged around you. It's now arranged around him.
Everything stays the same, of course. The trees are still the same color; the bench is still there. And yet it's profoundly
different. And notice, there's nothing here that's reflective yet.
Everything is still the same, and yet something has dissolved. The world is now his world,
a foreign world that no longer comes from you but from him. For example, the value that appear in the world are suddenly
his values - values that you can never get in a position to see.
Furthermore, you suddenly recognize that he can see that peculiar vantage point that you are. In other world, he can see
you. That peculiar, private point of view that is you - which you yourself always are but can never accurately see (the invisible
camera) - can now be seen by that other man.
Once again, this still doesn't have to be reflective. It's as if, in your movie, another movie camera suddenly came up
and stared into the lens of your movie camera. You're still not reflecting - that is, you still don't see your movie camera
on the screen. But you are very definitely aware of being seen.
Does that other man approve of what you are doing in the park? Is he secretly condemning you? Does he find you ugly, awkward,
out of place?
You can't tell! Your world is suddenly haunted by the Other's values, over which you have no control. There is another
freedom loose in the world, a freedom that does violence to your own.
You suddenly realize that the other person can see you as an object. That peculiar vantage point that you occupy but can
never see, that point of view that you try in bad faith to turn into an inert object, an in-itself for you - the Other succeeds
in seeing all that as an object. You can never see yourself as others see you. The attempt to do so, the attempt to see yourself
as an object, is bad faith.
But the Other sees you as an object. Thus you are for-others what you never succeed in being for-yourself. And so you
are exposed; you are vulnerable. You try to be noble, let us say, you try to be good. But you never make yourself noble or
good, just like that. You can never define yourself in that way.
But the Other can do it to you. He decides whether you are noble or good. He passes judgment, projects his values on things
- including you. He sees you as you really are.
Am I funny? Only if he thinks I am. Am I ugly? Only if he thinks I am.
Now you might well ask: Who is he to define who I am? Why should his evaluation of me affect me like that? Why should
I accept his point of view?
Well, there's no good answer to that, I suppose. But the point is, I DO accept his point of view! I feel ashamed, for
instance, or proud. And of course, those feelings by their very nature refer to others' values.
At one point, Sartre says is it impossible to be ashamed alone. And he's right! Of course, it's possible to do something
secretly that you're ashamed of. But that's not what he is denying. That feeling of shame already puts you in touch with other
people and their values, even if they don't happen to be right there on the spot.
Thus I recognize myself in the Other's judgments of me - even though I may not know what they are. His judgments cut me
to the core. Why should his judgments be able to hurt me unless I recognized myself in them? And yet they are completely beyond
But all that is bad faith. I cannot succeed in it. I am forever separated from myself as I am, the real me. It is a goal
I cannot reach.
And yet the Other does it for me, whether I like it or not, at one stroke, by a single glance.
He makes me what I am. He defines me.
Yet, while that is surely me he defines (I recognize myself in his judgments, or else why would they bother me), I am
still separated from myself. That is, I have no control over what he makes of me. I am still separated from myself as I am.
I can try to win the Other's approval by being friendly, smiling a lot, behaving in ways I think will win his approval.
In other words, I can try to manipulate his freedom to get him to judge me in the way I would like. But it's still his freedom.
He may approve of my efforts, or he may regard them all as sycophantic, sneaky ways of trying to win his approval. I can't
control which of these alternatives he will choose.
This is still a very difficult theory to come to terms with. Let's try to get a better handle on it by returning to a
problem we discussed a short while ago: Why should the Other succeed where I fail? Why should the Other's "Look"
define me any more than my own estimation of myself can succeed in defining me?
-- Paul Vincent Spade