The Look is a central concept in Sartre’s phenomenology. It is the exploration of the experience of being seen. You are a subject, but if someone gazes into you for a long time, you start becoming hyper aware of yourself as an object in other people’s views.
What we think of self-consciousness is actually our consciousness of the world, for Sartre, there is no such thing as a self, an essential being that we truly are. This is merely a security blanket of an idea which he tries to get people to abandon. His whole argument is that there is no predetermined character which makes you be who you are, who you are is a function of what you do.
Sartre gives the example of a person looking through a keyhole into a bedroom. He is behaving as a subject, but the experience of being caught seeing through the keyhole immediately makes this person aware that they are a person looking at a bedroom behind a closed door, whereas before they were just looking at the scene.
This person has been transformed into something that was just trying to see and listen to the conversation, to a person with a nauseating feel of shame, proving that we are always under the eyes of other people. Thus, we are all objects in the eyes of others.
There is no way that people can feel entirely comfortable with each other, it is always going to be impossible to think of yourself simultaneously as someone who is going around the world acting in it and being an agent, and also to think of yourself as being an object that other people are observing.
Hell is Other People
The entire social realm is based on adversarial aspects. In his book No Exit, Sartre illustrates the difficult coexistence of people, because we are unable to escape the watchful gaze of everyone around us, which alienates us and locks us in a particular kind of being, which in turn deprives us of our freedom.
“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!”
Why Sartre is worth reading
Sartre’s physical condition deteriorated, in part because of his workaholism, but also because he was a notorious chain smoker. He died in 1980 from swelling of the lung. Over 50,000 people took to the streets of Paris to follow his coffin and millions watched on television. No philosopher had ever had a bigger following.
He was a philosopher who thought against himself, against everything given to him by society and education, he spent his life testing the limits of traditional thinking. The fact that life is meaningless gives us the opportunity to give it a meaning. It is precisely because it doesn’t have a meaning in advance that we are justified in creating one.
In a world with increasing anguish and despair, Sartre teaches us that we are in control of our lives, that we are allowed to build it the way we want with our own values. Life is your own work of art.