Questions and Lecture # 2 on Jean-Paul Sartre

William O'Meara (c) copyright 1997

1. What does Sartre mean that "we were never more free than during the German occupation"? Explain by distinguishing two kinds of freedom.

2. Why is there no obstacle in an absolute sense? Explain by analyzing the example of two men in a prisoner-of-war camp.

3. In what sense would Sartre agree with the determinist? Explain.

4. What does Sartre hold in his existential psychoanalysis? Explain.

5. Transactional analysis offers examples and explanations that can fit in Sartre's ideas on freedom. With what ideas? In general, how does the explanation offered by transactional analysis for human behavior fit in with Sartre's ideas on freedom?

6. What are the four basic possible life positions which an individual can choose in terms of ok, not ok? Restate those positions in terms of winner and loser.

Lecture on Sartre

Sartre describes his experience and that of many other Frenchmen in the French Resistance in the following words:

It is obvious that the freedom of the French people was greatly restricted. They had to go around in subserviant ways, never offending the Nazi soldiers. They had to be careful in speech, action, and associates. But we must distinguish between freedom of action and freedom of attitude (consciousness, intentionality). Their freedom of action was greatly restricted. However, the attitude in consciousness which the French took towards the Nazis was free. The French could not escape their own responsibility for their conscious attitude toward their conquerors. Some chose to acquiesce, to collaborate; others chose to resist, to fight. As Sartre explains:

For example, if two men are in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp, the prison wall is a situation that both are forced to be conscious of, to take an attitude towards. But the consciousness or attitude which each shall take of that wall, whether or not it will be an insuperable obstacle or an obstacle that can be overcome, depends upon their own choice. Most people would analyze the free choice in this case in terms of the prisoners' reflective considerations. For example, if one prisoner places a high value on returning to his family or to the Resistance, then he will choose to escape. On the other hand, if the other prisoner places no value on returning to his family or to the futile struggle of the Resistance, then he will not choose to escape. But these analyses make it appear that the two prisoners' choices are determined by the respective values that each one holds. And even further, the determinist might argue that their respective values are determined by their social conditioning and that hence their voluntary deliberation is only an apparent choice, for the determinist would hold that they are not free in regard to their basic values. Sartre would agree with the determinist in one sense in that voluntary deliberation is often only a facade. When the individual is considering, deliberating, over choices to make, for example, as to escape or not, the primary choice is not in this voluntary deliberation but in what one's basic values are.

Sartre's existential psychoanalysis holds that a human breing's thought and behavior are determined by one's original choice, which is similar to a Freudian determinism on that it is neither rational nor deliberate, and yet the person is free." (Greene, page 205) Sartre holds that each person makes in consciousness of self, others, and the world an attitude towards these factors of life that constitutes one's basic identity or valuation. The openness of consciousness to a world of experiences is for Sartre not a neutral awareness of these experienced realities, but rather a selective awareness, a valuational awareness of the experienced realityin that there is a tendency towards acting in some specified way towards the reality. Sartre is saying that each person makes a pre-reflective choice or valuation of self, others, and the world and that as a conscious act, this choice is necessarily a free act, and therefore able to be changed by the self. However, most people will not uproot their personalities and their worlds in order to change themselves. For example, the man who has been a defeatist all his life will probably not choose to escape from the prisoner of war camp, whereas the man who has chosen himself as a rebel will probably choose to escape.

Transactional analysis, founded by Eric Berne, offers interesting examples and explanations that can fit in with Sartre's concept of primary choice as determining one's actions until that primary choice itself is changed. Thomas Harris in his book on transactional analysis, I'm OK, you're OK. The basic principle of this approach is that human behavior should be analyzed in terms of the transactions that occur between people. For example:

The first person's words are spoken by someone playing the role of an adult who has a problem to solve and who asks for help, perhaps in this case for a special tool. His words are a stimulus to the service station attendant. Instad of replying as an adult, he replies very much like a parent would to two children, "Who is the dummy who did this?"

All transactions are analyzed in terms of whether the people are playing child roles (such as whinning or giggling), parent roles (such as blaming or praising), or adult roles (such as problem-solving). Further, all transactions are analyzed in terms of whether the people relate to themselves and others as OK or Not-OK:

"For the first nine months of life, the individual experiences between the moment of conception and birth perfect environment in which all needs are satisfied. at biological birth, the little individual, within the span of a few hours, is pushed out into a state of catastrophic contrast in which he is exposed to foreign and doubtless terrifying extremes of cold, roughness, pressure, noise, nonsupport, brightness, separateness, and abandonment." (Harris, p. 40) But then an adult picks the infant up and cuddles it, thereby rescuing it from the cold, from hunger, from the lack of touch. Conclusive experiments by Harlow with chimpanzees have established that the sense of being loved is communicated to the infant through the sense of being touched, stroked, cuddled. When the child is stroked, he feels OK; but when that stroking is absent, the infant feels helpless, abandoned, dependent upon others. Harris writes:

Harris infers on the basis of Piaget's work on the developing awareness of the child that the child reaches a practical sense of the child's identity by the end of the second or third year. Harris writes that once this practical sense of the self and others in the world is established, the young child is intelligent in the sense of being able to predict transactions in experience between the self and others, and between the self and the world. The young child is taking a basic emotional attitude towards self and others. The four possible life positions with respect to oneself and others are:

Harris hypothesizes that the first position is selected first by most infants, although any of the first three can be. By the end of the second year, the first position is either confirmed by the child's experience or it gives ways to the second or third identity. Once this identity is confirmed, the individual will stay with that identity and one'sactions will in general be determined by that identity unless he consciously changes one's identity.

Eric Berne suggests one way in which the phrases OK, NOT OK can be interpreted:

Berne proposes "script analysis" as a way of attempting to uncover the early decisions Of the child about his role in life. In his book, What Do You Say After You Say Hello? Berne analyzes peoples' lives in terms of roles such as Sleeping Beauty and Prince Charming and Little Red Riding Hood. An individual might get a glimpse of one's basic choice of self by figuring out one's favorite character in a childhood fairy tale.


  • William O'Meara (c) copyright 1997