Sartre: “Hell is other people” EXPLAINED | Philosophy and Psychoanalysis

All those eyes intent on me. Devouring me. What? Only two of you? I thought there were more; many more. So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the “burning marl.” Old wives’ tales! There’s no need for red-hot pokers. HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE!

Probably one of Sartre’s most misinterpreted quotes, this is especially the case when it is taken out of the context from his most famous, well known play: No Exit.

No Exit is a play about a group people who find themselves waiting in a mysterious room. Unknown to them, this strange mysterious room is a depiction of their soon to be realised dreaded afterlife and personal hell, that for eternity as their punishment all of them will be locked within this room for eternity, no escape. What is most confusing for these three characters is that they did not expect this to be what hell was to be like, They all expected torture devices and wicked devilish methods to punish them for eternity, but instead find to be plotted in a plain, well furnished room where each individual in the room is their own torture device for eachother. 

This simple plot and concept is the primary source for Sartre’s phenomenological and ontological concepts called: the “look” and the “Other” which is the perpetual ontological struggle of being caused to see oneself as an object from the view of another consciousness

The Look according to sartre is an idea about consciousness, it is when when consciousness itself is forced to pay attention to it’s own personal existence from of a external perspective which is detached from itself, from this view not only is consciousness viewed and seen as a subjective personal entity but also as an object that lives along many others in the world, this is the Look, to view oneself in such a perspective makes consciousness self reflective, this grants one with the ability to see consciousness with both eyes open, in a sense, to be like God, to overview consciousness from a heightened position.

To fully grasp this idea Sartre gives the following example in his book, Being & Nothingness, i quote:

“Let us imagine that moved by jealousy, curiosity, or vice I have just glued my ear to the door and looked through a keyhole. I am alone and on the level of a non-thetic self-consciousness. This means first of all that there is no self to inhabit my consciousness, nothing therefore to which I can refer my acts in order to qualify them. They are in no way known; I am my acts and hence they carry in themselves their whole justification. I am a pure consciousness of things, and things, caught up in the circuit of my selfness, offer to me their potentialities as the proof of my non-thetic consciousness (of) my own possibilities. This means that behind that door a spectacle is presented as “to be seen,” a conversation as “to be heard…

But all of a sudden I hear footsteps in the hall. Someone is looking at me. What does this mean? It means that I am suddenly affected in my being and that essential modifications appear in my structure – modifications which I can apprehend and fix conceptually by means of the reflective cogito.

First of all, I now exist as myself for my unreflective consciousness. It is this irruption of the self which has been most often described: I see myself because somebody sees me – as it is usually expressed….

Only the reflective consciousness has the self directly for an object. The unreflective consciousness does not apprehend the person directly or as its object; the person is presented to consciousness in so far as the person is an object for the Other. This means that all of a sudden I am conscious of myself as escaping myself, not in that I am the foundation of my own nothingness but in that I have my foundation outside myself. I am for myself only as I am a pure reference to the Other.”

So we can see a few terms being thrown about here, such as:

  • The Other
  • Unreflective consciousness
  • Reflective consciousness
  • &, the self

But what he is fundamentally saying here is that the Other which could be the crowd, another person ect… causes my unreflective consciousness to suddenly be reflective of the self, to view myself from the position of the other, in a way you can see how The Other in Sartre’s definition is very comparative to the freudian concept of the superego or even to lacan’s concept of the big other, the other in this sense kind of acts as a catalyst to being self reflective of your own self, of that which the other has looked at or viewed but how it also acts in a demanding fashion, because of this, the reflective consciousness that you have now attained by becoming in contact with the other causes the self to become object, something non relatable, that there is now a desire to escape from the self, it is simply something we want to move ourselves away from, that is why he writes the following: “I am conscious of myself as escaping myself” the other causes the so called: “LOOK” which sartre is referring to, the look upon ourselves from the view of the other, how that look from the other causes and becomes self reflective consciousness viewing the self as object and that which we want to escape from.

This feeling in relation of peeking through a keyhole does not only surface itself when someone commits a guilty action. But that it is ever existing, in social conventions, wide open spaces and of course, in our own home. It is only when one knows to be completely alone that this discomforting feeling of the others gaze is diminished.

Soon as this wilters a complete fulfilling sensation of being in complete control over one’s own actions emerge.

Sartre was a person who claimed to be an: Existential Humanist a liberal who advocating for excessive freedom, subjectively and had extreme distaste in societal methods of state constriction over the sovereign individual, therefore, it is no surprise that Sartre advocates strongly for a return to the self and for that to occur one must in sartre’s eyes be impermeable to the powers of the look and the other, that one does not diffuse into its collective space, so, the reason for the famous quote: “hell is other people” is because hell in the social sense is the domination of the other or others for that matter over the self, over the sovereign individual, where the individual self disappears.

Conclusively, Sartre see’s that many individuals don’t want to be judged negatively by others, because of this natural tendency it causes many people to fundamentally not act through the self when there are continuous others around them that might not accept approval, therefore autonomy is never completely fulfilled, if one alternatively subscribes continuously through out their lives to be lacking in any autonomy then this individual will be in a state of what Sartre called: Bad Faith, which is bad faith to oneself. 

Either way we continuously live under the veil of the other, the other is continuously present in the sense that when physical others are not around we still feel that there is a collective social discipline of what is acceptable and what is not in the ether, it is simply the case that we cannot escape being influenced by what we presume others are thinking of us in relation to our personal selves.

And this is exactly what occurs in The Exit, one of the characters Joseph Garcin continuously tries to convince that he is not the man he was in his existing life, that he is not a coward but one of the other characters continuously says he is and promises to make him miserable forever.

All those eyes intent on me. Devouring me. What? Only two of you? I thought there were more; many more. So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the “burning marl.” Old wives’ tales! There’s no need for red-hot pokers. HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE!

Overall. Just to add my view I don’t understand why Sartre dislikes the other and the look so much, he writes as if it is always a negativity but doesn’t see the positivism in it, especially if we are to relate it to actions of guilt then the other can very well be a method which can positively realign one’s own moral landscape, so I really don’t agree with the quote in that sense which is strange why he brings up the example of looking through a keyhole as if he is saying it is good to do such things when curious? which then reminds of the petition he signed in France which was for the decriminalisation of all consensual relations between adults and minors below the age of fifteen, so I really don’t know what to think of Sartre especially when you start assimilating his personal life with his philosophy but in regards to being oneself people can be heaven and hell at the same time, a mixture of both opposites, the other in that case is not always a bad circumstance because it can reinstall important elements of what is in a society’s collective conscience but it can most definitely be detrimental when societies are easily guided by poor collective judgements, attitudes and biases which succeed into powerful demands.


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