I am reading the Routledge Critical Thinkers series on Jacques Lacan, and I have come across this passage about Jean-Paul Sartre:

In an early work entitled Transcendence of the Ego (1934) Sartre distinguished between self-consciousness and the ego. As we saw above, Freud defined the ego as the reasoning faculty of the mind, mediating between unconscious passions and external reality. By extending Heidegger’s notion of the project Sartre suggested that self-consciousness was essentially ‘nothing’, while the ego was an object in the world perceived by the subject. In the 1930s and 1940s Lacan was strongly influenced by these ideas. Sartre’s distinction between subject and ego paved the way for Lacan’s own formulation of the relationship between subject and ego in the mirror stage, while the notions of ‘ex-sistence’ and ‘nothingness’ recur throughout his work.

I have a few questions about this:

The author says that Sartre distinguished between two terms: "self-consciousness" and the "ego". However, a few sentences later he says that Sartre distinguished between "subject" and "ego". What is, in Sartre's understanding, the differences between "self-consciousness", "subject", and "ego"?

Why did Sartre suggest that "self-consciousness was essentially 'nothing'"?

Anything else that you feel would be helpful in wrapping my head around this passage would be appreciated!

  • There was a very knowledgeable Philosophy Stack Exchange member here from Russia. I considered him a Sartre scholar. He left mainly comments. I can’t remember his name. His English was not great. Maybe someone will remember to see if there are more questions/answers here.
    – Gordon
    Commented Oct 21, 2022 at 19:07
  • It is good to remember that Sartre himself at a later stage rejected some of his earlier essays like "Existentialism is a Humanism"
    – Nikos M.
    Commented Oct 21, 2022 at 20:08

1 Answer 1


Sorry I have forgotten more of Sartre’s philosophy than I know now, but “nothing”, that is, specifically no “essence” is exactly the freedom that Man “enjoys”. And it’s rather terrifying, really.

I commend this course by Prof. Spade and other materials on Sartre online by Spade. https://www.pvspade.com/Sartre/pdf/sartre2.pdf. The whole movement here by Sartre is away from Man as essence. Authentic man makes himself; truly he has no choice if he is really authentic. I hope I have remembered this correctly. (Man is not thing-like, object-like, a thing with permanent frozen essence). Rather, with Sartre, think: Freedom-Existence. Man, if he is authentic, is condemned to be free, and exactly not an object.

Of course, a person could always fall back into inauthenticity. Fall back into treating himself as if he was an object.

Also, Thomas Flynn was an important Sartre scholar at Emory (now retired). His Philosophical Biography of Sartre is free here. Internet Archive community texts. https://archive.org/details/thomas-r.-flynn-sartre-a-philosophical-biography-cambridge-university-press-2014

Sartre’s early work Transcendence of the Ego (1934) was written after his study of Husserl. Sartre was told that Husserl would permit him to do philosophy even about an apricot cocktail (he was in a bar with friends). Since it was Husserl it would be the essence of the cocktail. Anyway Sartre took it from there, and got a lot of mileage out of that remark, in different ways.

Sartre was an anti-Freudian because Sartre would deny any content (essence) to Ego and Super-Ego, and unconscious (Id) etc

There is some question whether Sartre ever read Heidegger’s Being and Time. It was the most checked out book at ENS while Sartre attended, so question as to whether Sartre was ever able to check it out and read it before he wrote his “Being and Nothingness”.

I do not think Sartre understood Heidegger’s work at all, at least early on. Heidegger was no fan of Sartre. They met one time I think later on, and did not see eye to eye.

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