I was reading "Existentialism is a humanism" here. Though most of it is clear, I have trouble understanding how he makes the below claim which comes near the end of the lecture. How do you go from "I think" to discovering others?

...Contrary to the philosophy of Descartes, contrary to that of Kant, when we say “I think” we are attaining to ourselves in the presence of the other, and we are just as certain of the other as we are of ourselves. Thus the man who discovers himself directly in the cogito also discovers all the others, and discovers them as the condition of his own existence. He recognises that he cannot be anything (in the sense in which one says one is spiritual, or that one is wicked or jealous) unless others recognise him as such.


The quote in question is a reference to dialectical philosophy as opposed to the rationalist project. Hegel is alluding to the Hegelian notion of recognition where in "we are attaining to ourselves in the presence of the other".

This is a relatively well-known passage in Hegel called "Masters and Slaves." While Marx takes this in a somewhat different direction from Hegel's original intent, Sartre's interpretation of the first stage is moderately orthodox.

The basic feature in Hegel's account of self-consciousness is that self-conscious happens through the meditation of the other.

It has the following basic structure:

  1. The master wants to be recognized as a master
  2. But to be recognized as a master someone must recognize him as master
  3. And this turns out to be his slave
  4. Thus, the master turns out to need the slave

I.e., the master and the slave are dependent on each other for recognition.

This is about where Sartre's copying of this part stops. But for Hegel it turns out not merely to be a source of conflict but a recognition of mutuality.

In other words, to have "an I" we need to have the recognition from a "We" for that "I" to be capable.

Sartre gives a lot more consideration to the idea in Being and Nothingness and specifically in the section entitled "Being for Others" and the sub-section the Look which operates using the motif of a peeping Tom who tries to reject recognition from the other.

When recognition goes right it is called "mutual recognition"


Per my understanding, he means that we only come to know our own existence in contact with others, when others send back to us our own image (how we appear to them). It follows that "I" is an inherently social concept and that the cogito "I think" (recognizing one's own existence) is only attainable for social beings.

  • Can agree with your first sentence. But I don't see the connection between "I think" and recognizing others in that. – nakiya Nov 14 '14 at 14:59
  • The idea is the "I" in "I think" presupposes others, "I" only makes sense in a social context. – Quentin Ruyant Nov 14 '14 at 16:46
  • @nakiya: To add to quen_tin's point, if there are no others, then 'I' has no content, and "I think" is indistinguishable from "thoughts exist". Similarly, if all of reality were red, we would not know it. Only because there is some not-red, do we see red and know we see red. – labreuer Nov 15 '14 at 1:37

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.