Hubert Dreyfus among others have risen to prominence in philosophy of AI by emphasising (among other things) the directive primacy of unconscious or automatic, habit-driven processes. Dreyfus came to recognise this as a problem for AI developers working with formal symbol manipulation matrices through his readings in the phenomenology tradition, namely Husserl and his insights on the directed nature of consciousness.

Influenced heavily by the same tradition, Sartre famously characterised consciousness as a 'nothingness', an 'absence' or a 'Pierre-who-is-never-there', an entity which identity simply does not hold to in the same way as with objects in the world. A waiter cannot be a waiter in the same way a tree is a tree, to think so is to fall into bad faith, to 'be not what one is and to be what one is not' .. Derrida describes this beautifully in saying Sartre's formulation is a 're-apropriation of negativity'.

Does Sartre's conception of consciousness imply the impossibility of a conscious computer?

1 Answer 1


I don't see why it should.

It is important that Sartre is not a substance dualist. Nothingness is not a substance distinct from being. It is the absence of being.

Consciousness is a nothingness, according to Sartre, but it arises in particular regions of being (human bodies, not trees). This is presumably due to the particular configuration of those regions of being.

This does not rule out other possible configurations (such as computers -- or, better, robots) also grounding consciousness in the same way.

Sartre effectively declines to address this question when he distinguishes ontology (what there is) from metaphysics (how it got to be there). That humans are conscious is ontology. Why human bodies ground consciousness is metaphysics. Sartre doesn't do metaphysics.

  • A nice answer, indeed Sartre was not a substance dualist. When you say 'This is presumably due to the particular configuration of those regions of being' this seems dangerously close to saying Sartre is characterising consciousness as an emergent property, that the being of matter somehow slips out of existence once a certain configuration is achieved .. The key question is exactly this, how does a configuration of entities possessing being produce a phenomena characterised by non-being? i agree this is a question outside the scope of Sartre's aims, and i mean only to ask of the implications.
    – Dr Sister
    Oct 3, 2012 at 1:18
  • -1,(1) You have misinterpreted the "regions of being" passage from Being and Nothingness. It is important to understand that "regions of being" are not the same as "regions of existence". (2) It is naive to summarize Sartre's conception of Nothingness as the "absence of being". Nihilation of being, or non-being would be more appropriate. I suspect these two misconceptions are interwoven. (3) Your explanation of the relationship between metaphysics and ontology is fundamentally wrong. Ontology is a subset of metaphysics. Also, the statement that "human beings are consciousness" is ontical Oct 10, 2012 at 6:00
  • Answer accepted for smartcaveman's comment. thanks for the response Jonathan Webber :)
    – Dr Sister
    Oct 19, 2012 at 1:31

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