Svenaeus, F. 2009. The Phenomenology of Falling Ill: An Explication, Critique and Improvement of Sartre’s Theory of Embodiment and Alienation. Human Studies. 32 (1) 53 – 66.
In this journal article, Svenaeus interprets and develops the basic model of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness (1943), arguing that to fall ill is a “gradual process of alienation, and with each step this alienating process is taken to a new qualitative level” (Svenaeus 2009, p. 53). Svenaeus adopts Sartre’s focus on embodiment as intrinsic to this alienating process, but suggests that “the alienation of the body in illness is not only the experience of a psychic object, but an experience of the independent life of one’s own body” (Svenaeus 2009, p. 53). What it interesting about the article is that Svenaeus explores t’consciousness’ and ‘thingness’, in context of Sartre’s concept of being for-itself (consciousness), in-itself (thing-ness), and and being-for-others (alienation). Svenaeus’ critique relates and applies Sartre’s thought to contemporary health care, but for the purpose of this blog post, Svenaeus’ focus on Sartre’s concept of being will be the discussion point.
First, Svenaeus discusses the phenomenological theme of ‘facticity’; that is, that which Svenaeus describes as “the attempt to spell out the meaning of everyday life in the everyday world without falling prey to either scientific reductionism or transcendental idealism”, mentioning Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenolgy of Perception (1962), which claims that “philosophy is the study of essences” and that it “does not expect to arrive at an understanding of man and the world from any starting point other than that of their ‘facticity’” (Svenaeus 2009, p. 54). Additionally, Svenaeus explains that Sartre had the aim of developing a more fundamental ontology using the example of falling ill in Being and Nothingness, but argues that this example can be critiqued and it can also call into question new ways of thinking. Like Welsh (2002; mentioned in previous blog entry), Svenaeus references Zahavi, who discusses the body as being a part of a collection of things that are both in the world and independent of our experiences:
“The experience of the world (and our bodies belong to this world) is an experience of something that is independent of our experiences. We do not make up the cellular processes of our bodies by way of our experiences any more than we make up the everyday things that surround us in daily life” (Svenaeus 2009, p. 55).
This idea that the body is part of a world “in-itself”, or a world of ‘things’, can be discussed in relation to Sartre’s theory of embodiment and alienation that encompasses the body, when gazed at by another, as ‘other’ as a product of the paradoxical and simultaneous “for-itself” and “in-itself”.
Svenaeus explains that in the second chapter of Being and Nothingness, ‘The Body’, and in the third part ‘Being-for-others’, an outline of the phenomenology of falling ill elaborates Sartre’s concepts of ‘being-for-itself’ and ‘being-in-itself’, and that “these two forms of being are not only opposed to each other, but also necessarily conjoined” (Svenaeus 2009, p. 55). For Sartre, Svenaeus explains, the act of embodiment between the interaction of humans is characterised by feelings of shame in that the person, “for-itself”, momentarily becomes a ‘thing’:
“The main idea is that the gaze of the other person has the power to objectify me; I turn into a thing for another consciousness by being looked upon and thereby discover my body as an in-itself, which is yet me… To become oneself by way of the direct or indirect gaze of the other appears to be a fundamentally alienating experience: the self is separated from its true essence – freedom as consciousness – in becoming an in-itself (a thing). The lived body thus appears to be the place where the being-for-itself finally confronts the being-in-itself, although these two forms of being are necessarily opposed for Sartre” (Svenaeus 2009, p. 55).
The body as a ‘thing’ is a being for consciousness, and therefore it is different from consciousness. This, Svenaeus explains, for Sartre, means that consciousness is a way of its “being nihilation”; it is always different from things, but it lacks essence. Consciousness is “pure existence devoid of any essence” (Svenaeus 2009, p. 55). This paradox, Svenaeus explains, is fundamentally alienating for Sartre.
In an attempt to uncover the structure of a lived body, Svenaeus explains, Sartre uses physical examples of pain and illness: the lived pain experienced in the body is not presented as belonging to the body, but rather, belonging to the activity by which the body experiences it. For example, Sartre describes a scenario whereby a reader experiences pain through reading, but does not necessarily concentrate on this pain outside of reading: “The pain is not known – not focused on as an in-itself – but is still there in my pre-reflective way of consciousness until I used a finger to turn the page” (Svenaeus 2009, p. 56). Here, with reference to Heidegger, Svenaeus explains, pain is presented as a part of the bodies “being-in-the-world”; it is not reflective or referred to others, it is in the body as “vision-as-pain”, that comes to the surface when apprehending pain. This apprehending of pain is, according to Sartre, a directed reflective consciousness on “present consciousness-as-vision”, a pain that is “posited” by this reflective consciousness (Svenaeus 2009, p. 56). Sartre’s pain, Svenaeus explains, is a “psychic object” that has its own time: “it is distinct from consciousness and appears through it”. For Sartre, “the brief respites are a part of the illness just as silences are a part of the melody. This ensemble constitutes the rhythm and behaviour of the illness” (Svenaeus 2009, p. 57).
In summary, Svenaeus argues that illness or pain is lived as a for-itself of the person’s own body, “that is: a for-itself which is mine, yet still alien, since it resists and disturbs, rather than supports, consciousness. This is an aporia for Sartre, of course: in his system only consciousness can display the form of the for-itself’s being”. With this in mind, Svenaeus states that to view pain as “an object constituted by the self-being of consciousness, would be to miss the point that the body is actually at the very heart of my self-being as a constituting being, rather than being constituted by me”. According to Svenaeus, it is the otherness of the body that “lends facticity” to its existence (Svenaeus 2009, p. 57-58).