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Homage to Franz Brentano (1838-1917) and Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986)

Posting 123, Word count: 999.

In her delightful history, At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails, Sarah Bakewell reviews the origins of phenomenology and existentialism in Edmund Husserl’s encounter with Franz Brentano’s idea of ‘intentionality’ (1874).

“In a fleeting paragraph of his book Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint, Brentano proposed that we approach the mind in terms of its ‘intentions’ – a misleading word, which sounds like it means deliberate purposes. Instead it meant a general reaching or stretching, from the Latin root in-tend, meaning to stretch toward or into something. For Brentano, this reaching toward objects is what our minds do all the time. Our thoughts are invariably of or about something, …” (At the Existentialist Cafe, p. 44.)

Edmund Husserl (1858-1938) was so inspired by Brentano’s conception of ‘intentionality’ that he used it as the foundation of his ambitious project of phenomenology, describing in strict detail the objects of perception and experience. Husserl’s work in turn inspired many other people, including Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir. It is safe to say that the idea of intentionality was foundational in the existentialist philosophies created by those authors. In that light, consider the following passage from Simone de Beauvoir.

“Every subject posits itself as a transcendence concretely, through projects; it accomplishes its freedom only by perpetual surpassing toward other freedoms; there is no other justification for present existence than its expansion toward an indefinitely open future. Every time transcendence lapses into imminence, there is degradation of existence into “in-itself”, of freedom into facticity; this fall is a moral fault if the subject consents to it; if this fall is inflicted on the subject, it takes the form of frustration and oppression; in both cases it is an absolute evil. Every individual concerned with justifying his existence experiences his existence as an indefinite need to transcend himself.” (The Second Sex, pp. 16-17).

The word “concretely” is right, but open to misunderstanding. There is always more than concreteness. The reaching in Beauvoir’s text is not toward perceived objective actualities but instead toward possibilities in an open future: non-actualities, ideas. It is an affirmation of subjective ideality not defined by phenomena alone. A reaching is still at the centre of this new conception, but Simone de Beauvoir is no longer focused on a reach toward objects, but on the subjective reaching toward a non-actuality that exists only in the orientation, the spirituality, of the subject, namely, the subjects bearing toward a semi-specific future situation. The spiritual reaching is now a clear transcendence of brute actuality by operating in time. Recognition of the reaching-beyond-itself of spirituality is crucial, but conceiving it as a reach toward sensed objects results in an obsession with studying objects (“To the things themselves!”, At the Existentialist Cafe, p. 2.) as constituting the whole of experience, leaving the spiritual person or intelligence, the reaching itself, a mere nothingness, as declared by Sartre after his study of Husserl. A focus on objects fails to capture the crucial transcendence of the reaching, since objects are definitive of imminence. When your reach is toward ‘things’ then what confronts you, your destination, is something determinate and definite, compared with which personal spirituality disappears into “nothingness”, since the experience is formed entirely by the objects encountered. Although it is important that the reaching is nothing like an object, it is not otherwise nothing: it is an active caring, often desperate, a curiosity, a (gusher of) specific personal questioning, an investigation, an impulse to intervene to make a change, to make a specific personal mark in brute actuality’s time to come. Those peculiarly spiritual forces are all temporal. Putting the emphasis on sensed objects evades recognition of the spiritual transcendence of time, and so endorses from the outset a metaphysics of eternal necessities: Being. Reaching mentally toward an object is not an intervention, but the reach toward an aspirational future is most emphatically a creation and an intervention into nature from an ideality outside nature, from a subjective interiority. To recognize the real transcendence of spiritual reaching it must be temporal, toward not-yet. When your reach is toward a non-actual but merely possible future situation with a crucial openness for personal intervention then your destination is to be determined by the projection of spiritual creations, a personal teleology, into brute actuality, and suddenly this reaching is the creation of freedom.

Recognizing this spiritual reaching as a personal curiosity or questioning more accurately brings into focus the interpretation of no-longer as a specific context of relevance being applied to the reading of the most immediate sensations. It isn’t just that an existential being transcends itself by acting into a future, but the teleological reach of such beings transcends nature itself.

Metaphysical Upgrade

To think is to occupy, to dwell in, the transcendent moment: the personal tilt or bearing beyond now and beyond no-longer, toward the open not-yet that waits to be created. It is crucial to recognize the discordance between this conception of consciousness and the historically dominant conservative metaphysics of human nature: that individuals without a strict superego supplied by religion and civic authority are nothing but bundles of hard-wired drives for egoistic gratification (update on ‘original sin’); which conception purports to justify patriarchal top-down sovereignty within a hyper-masculine ethos glorifying the use of force, violent conflict, and trophies.

In the conservative concept of human nature, time itself is taken as an unproblematic given of nature, and an individual’s orientation within time is taken as entirely pre-determined by impersonal biological and socio-cultural forces and structures. The specific personal sense and meaning of time passing at a moment in a life is not interrogated, and so the ideality of orientation is hidden in a blind spot. The transcendence of freedom disappears. There is no acknowledgement of the personally created ideality of that orientation, and so no recognition of the transcendent freedom inherent in the basic ideality of time.


At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails, written by Sarah Bakewell, published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada (2016), ISBN 978-0-345-81095-3.

The Second Sex, Written by Simone de Beauvoir [Le deuxieme sexe © 1949, by Editions Gallimand, Paris], translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier, Introduction by Judith Thurman, published by Vintage Books (May, 2011), a division of Random House, Inc., ISBN 978-0-307-27778-7.

Copyright © 2018 Sandy MacDonald.