Sartre and the Rationalization of Human Sexuality
ABSTRACT: Sartre rationalizes sexuality much like Plato. Rationalization here refers to the way Sartre tries to facilitate explanation by changing the terms of the discussion from sexual to nonsexual concepts. As a philosophy which, above all, highlights those features of human existence which seem most resistant to explanation, one would expect existentialism to highlight sexuality as a category that is crucial for considering human existence. Descartes comes immediately to mind when one focuses on Sartre's major categories. In Sartre's case however, it is not mind and matter but consciousness and its opposite: "nothingness" and "being." This irreducible dualism is the key to the trouble human beings have with existence. Humans try to deal with the tensions implied by this dualism by trying to pretend people are not subjects but objects. Sartre calls this "bad faith." He begins by attempting to take human sexuality seriously as a fundamental category, but ends by abandoning the effort in favor of other substitutes.
Akin to Plato in his rationalization of sexuality is Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre is probably the end of existentialist philosophy in two senses: in the first place in the sense of extending existentialist premises as far as they can be taken, and in the second place in the sense of serving as the canonical example of existentialist thought.
Since existentialism is the philosophy above all other philosophies which takes seriously the concrete existence of a human in all of its facticity, anxiety, temporality, and fleshliness, and will place this existence before all decisions about essence, it would seem that above all others we can expect from Sartre a philosophy of sexuality. The fate of this expectation is the problem before us.
Sartre not only is the existentialist heir of Kierkegaard and more immediately, Heidegger, but is a French philosopher, and therefore in some sense a disciple of Descartes. All reality is either consciousness or non-conscious being. However, this Cartesianism is qualified by a dialectic derived from Hegel and by Hegelian concepts and explicated through a phenomenological method influenced by Husserl. Yet the net effect of Sartre's picture of sexuality is surprisingly platonic; it is what Plato might be expected to say if he had published his position after World War II.
Sartre's philosophy is presented in his major work, Being and Nothingness, subtitled, An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. (1) Hazel Barnes notes in her introduction that Sartre is one of the few philosophers in the twentieth century to produce a complete philosophical system. This system is presented in Being and Nothingness.
The terms in the title refer to the two primary constituents of reality: being, which is non-conscious, and the negation of being, which is the way Sartre conceives of consciousness. This consciousness of being is examined by a method called...