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Paul Meakin

'Hell is other people': Sartre and being-for-others

Arguably, the human condition cannot be viewed in isolation as a single entity; essentially we are social beings embedded in a social context. Sartre acknowledges this factor and in addition to the primary modes of being-for-itself and being-in-itself employs the term being-for-others to describe the interpersonal dimension of being, which acknowledges the existence of 'Others' and how we encounter them within the world at large. In reality, an individual is rarely if ever alone in the world and is constantly confronted by the existence of 'the Other' in body or mind. Although Sartre considers that 'other people are basically the most important means we have in ourselves for our own knowledge of ourselves.'[1] Equally, by figuring in a world of others, the basis of human relations is responsible for losing control and understanding of my own being.[2] 'The Other' cannot be viewed simply as another object (being-in-itself) in the world as in actuality they are a subject (being-for-itself) which possesses the ability via 'the look' to judge and ultimately reduce us into an object in their own world. Therefore, the concept of being-for-others involves a complex interplay of objectivity and subjectivity; as a result, Sartre's pessimistic conclusion is that our primary relationships with others are based on conflict: resulting in the maxim 'Hell is other people.'[3]

Reminding ourselves of Sartre's philosophy, specifically the ontology of human beings, he posits two different modes of being in the world; being-in-itself (en soi) and being-for-itself (pour soi). Being-in-itself is exactly that, the being of things or objects for consciousness, being-in-itself is full of itself and without lack; it is changeless. Being-for-itself is essentially the mode of being conscious in effect human being; it is aware of itself, thinks about itself and ultimately has a relation with itself. Although I exist in the world as a conscious being in a world filled with other conscious beings, for Sartre, I am fundamentally my body therefore an embodied consciousness: ultimately, the body is the structure of the for-itself. It is this physical presence which is perceived by others; my encounter with the Other is that of my body with his and although to myself I am a being-for-itself, to others I am first a being-in-itself; an object in his world for his consciousness to act upon. The body acts as a physical barrier and limitation regarding my ability to attain the Other consciousness. Although I am an object to him and he an object to me we are both aware that we are not objects in the usual sense but a special kind of object. It is from this premise that I become aware that my body which I experience as a wholly subjective entity has in effect an objective side situated in a world which is not purely mine alone.[4][5]

Whilst consciousness is conscious of being it can never actually attain being-in-itself; consciousness therefore creates its own world out of this mode with the world being full of phenomena for consciousness to act upon and create its own meaning. With regard to being-for-itself Sartre proposes a duality of consciousness; pre-reflective and reflective. The pre-reflective mode of consciousness which Sartre contests to be the primary mode describes consciousness in its raw state which is intentional and actively directed outwards towards objects in the world whereas the reflective mode represents consciousness taking for its object its own actions; in essence self-reflection.[6]

Hypothetically, at any moment in time before the introduction of another I am a free subject and the sole creator of meaning in my world. However, once another is present this is disrupted and decentralised. As a result I lose overall control, with my being-for-others to a large degree being determined by them, they now possess the power and control to supply any meaning to my actions that they wish; as an object for the Other I cease to exist as a free subject for myself and exist instead as an un-free object for the Other. Sartre conceives the Other as a drain hole in which an individual's egocentric world flows towards.[7] This process is at the heart of the complex object-subject interplay involved in Sartre's being-for-others and is depicted by the expression 'the look' or 'gaze' which describes an individual's awareness of being the object of 'the look' of another.

'Everything is in place; everything still exists for me; but everything is traversed by an invisible flight and fixed in one direction of a new object. The appearance of the Other in the world corresponds therefore to a fixed sliding of the whole universe, to a decentralization which I am simultaneously effecting.'[8]

Whereas, I live life from the inside looking out and away from myself (pre-reflective), in contrast when the Other looks at me I become an object of evaluation for them in their world just like any other object they encounter; as a consequence I now become aware of myself as an object (self-reflective). In effect, consciousness which had been acting in a pre-reflective manner now via 'the look' of the Other, views itself as an object fixed in space and time with definable qualities and characteristics. For Sartre, this is a fundamental point in that the Other becomes a mediator between me and myself; without the Other I cannot escape my own subjective experience and perspective. Hence, for Sartre the Other's look allows me to achieve a sense of objectivity regarding myself. Sartre contests that the self can only be conceived via the existence of others; prior to the existence of others the concept of the self is meaningless. Through being aware of the Other we in turn become aware of our self.[9]

Consequently, for Sartre, it is when we allow ourselves to be subject to 'the look' of the Other that emotions such as pride and shame manifest themselves. Sartre's analogy of a peeping tom or voyeur can be employed to illustrate this assertion: if motivated by curiosity, jealousy or vice I opt to listen or look through a keyhole I am initially in a pre-reflexive mode where my entire consciousness is directed at what is happening on the Other side of the door. However, if suddenly on hearing footsteps or a creaking floorboard behind me I become aware of somebody looking at me, this presence of the Other disrupts my world, I now become an object for the Other in their world; ultimately, I see myself because somebody sees me.[10] From being in pre-reflective mode there is a sudden shift to reflective consciousness inhabited by a self. I now view and characterise my actions through the eyes of the Other; my body bent over looking through a keyhole, I judge myself through the eyes of the Other as a voyeur and as a consequence experience the emotion of shame at appearing such; if I was alone in the world there would be no reason to be ashamed of any of my behaviour.

Significantly, Sartre stresses that the Other does not need to be physically present for 'the look' to encroach into our thinking and being; the mere thought of them can still influence our perceptions of self via the imaginary look and judgement of the Other. For Sartre, it is 'the look' of the Other which starts the inevitable conflict associated with all social relations; via 'the look' of the Other I experience a sense of alienation from myself as 'the look' is objectifying reducing me to a being-in-itself rather than a for-itself containing a fixed nature and ascribing character traits which are out of my control, in turn threatening my own freedom.[11] In an attempt to avoid this sense of alienation I defend myself by endeavouring to objectify the Other in return, hence retaining my own freedom and denying his ability to characterise me. However, in doing so this behaviour alienates the Other further leading him to categorise me again in one way or another and so the subject-object cycle begins again.

'Everything which may be said of me in my relations with the Other applies to him as well. While I attempt to free myself from the hold of the Other, the Other is trying to free himself from mine; while I seek to enslave the Other, the Other seeks to enslave me.'[12]

Sartre's foundation for this is borrowed from Hegel's parable of the 'Master and Slave' which conveys the tale regarding two self-consciousnesses (in effect human beings) who each seek recognition and status in the world. Thus, when on meeting the two immediately enter into a fight to the death with each trying to overcome the Other in order to assert their own existence; one consciousness threatens the Other's view of himself as free and independent. However, the paradox is that death of the other would ultimately eradicate the only witness of that proof therefore the victor allows the loser to live adopting the role of the master and the loser becoming the slave; one consciousness exists mediated through another consciousness. Via this dialectic process both learn that selfhood is a complex of independence and dependency which mere individual existence cannot account for; there can be no master without a slave and no slave without a master.[13] Therefore, it is apparent that all relationships are in effect paradoxical as one cannot live with others but at the same time cannot live without them either, however, relationships are extremely important as they hold the key to fully understanding our being-in-the-world.

Ultimately, as a for-itself my desire is to achieve a fixed essence (being-in-itself) seeking solidity and stability and yet at the same time I resist such attempts so as to not lose my freedom (being-for-itself). I pursue the structure of an in-itself, however, the for-itself by its nature is both a flight and a pursuit never arriving and always on the move. Therefore, the ideal is to exist as an in-itself-for-itself; an object without losing its existence as a free consciousness. However, it is only through the aid of the Other that I can ever dream of achieving this complete state of being as it is the Other who holds the key to my objectivity hence the secret and foundation of my being, and yet ultimately for Sartre, this project is doomed to failure from the start.[14]

Sartre posits two fundamental attitudes which I can adopt when encountering the Other; the first is an attempt to reduce myself to nothing but an object in the hands of the Other, in order to harness the Other's freedom so as to access and view my objectivity; this is termed as masochism. The second stance involves attempting to transcend the Other's transcendence, denying the Other's freedom to objectify me; this is dubbed sadism. However, Sartre insists that neither of these attitudes will succeed in achieving the desired state of in-itself-for-itself as the Other will also be adopting similar strategies when encountering me, therefore, leading to inevitable master-slave cyclic conflict.[15] In reality, masochism is destined to fail as I cannot due to my make up as a 'for-itself' lose sight of my subjectivity and become an object for the Other indefinitely, and with regard to sadism this will also fail, as, if I make the Other an object for me, it follows that they therefore cannot provide me with my foundation for being as it is only a subject which can ultimately supply me with this. In addition to these two attitudes there is a third attitude available to me; that of indifference, should I opt for this I aim to refuse or acknowledge the Other's subjectivity viewing them merely as obstacles to be avoided or as functional objects in the world to be utilised as and when required e.g. the role of a waiter. Sartre presents this attitude as a form of blindness which, although it eradicates my sense of alienation through the rejection of objectification, as a consequence this also cuts me off completely from accessing my objectivity; in actuality it results in aloneness as it necessitates the abandonment of the attempt to ground my being in relations with others.[16]

In an attempt to define concrete relations Sartre discusses the concept of love, which is built upon the foundation of human existence (for-itself) lacking an identity and nature (being-in-itself). In the project of love my goal is to achieve a totality of being (for-itself-in-itself) through the use of another, which may as a result offer some temporary relief from existential nausea associated with this lack and hence, justify my existence. As explained, without the Other I am a pure transcendence, therefore, it is via recruiting 'the look' of the Other as mediator, the source of self or personal identity is available to me; the Other is the foundation of my being, I seek the Other to define me by assimilating the Other's perspective with my own. And yet for Sartre this is a futile project destined for failure. Love must fail due to the nature of consciousness and yet it will forever seek it; freedom (being-for-itself) will always thwart self-knowledge and identity as consciousness desires to know itself but never will.[17]

Sartre conceives love as a merging of two free consciousnesses, a fusion forming one consciousness. However, this notion creates a contradiction in that this single union would erase otherness which is ultimately the foundation of my being. I must not deprive the Other of the quality of being something other than me as to do so would result in the eradication of my being-for-others and hence, any concrete conception of my identity that is achieved. I need to absorb the Other but not as an object as other-as-object is not capable of looking at me and providing me with my essence. The Other's freedom is required to supply the ground for my being and yet it is precisely this which introduces conflict into the relationship and project of love as a freedom can never be possessed; in love I require the freedom to surrender itself so as to provide security and yet I desire to be loved by a freedom which chooses me.[18][19] In essence, I wish to cast a spell on the Other so as to ensnare but not enslave them. I wish to present myself as a good enough reason for the Other to limit their freedom and be freely chosen on this basis. However, for Sartre this process is extremely fragile and will inevitably end up developing into the subject-object conflict in which one tries to out-transcend the Other, accordingly there is no respite: 'Hell is other people'.

Ultimately, there is no denying that within the world at large, the self and other are inextricably bound together in an inescapable relationship. Furthermore, we as individuals spend a significant amount of time and effort pursuing and cultivating relationships with others. However, if the reality of this fact is inevitable inter-relational conflict, how do we as individuals manage this challenge? For Sartre, the most typical resolution is the adoption of bad faith.[20]


Cox, G. (2009) How to be an Existentialist. London: Continuum.

Daigle, C. (2010) Routledge Critical Thinkers: Jean-Paul Sartre. Oxon: Routledge.

Detmer, D. (2009) Sartre Explained; from bad faith to authenticity. USA: Open Court.

Lavine, T.Z. (1984) From Socrates to Sartre: the philosophic quest. USA: Bantam Books.

Macann, C. (1993) Four Phenomenological Philosophers. London: Routledge.

Sartre, JP. (2001) Being and Nothingness. London: Routledge.

Sartre, JP. (1976) Sartre on Theatre. Eds. Contat, M. & Rybalka, M. (1976) New York: Patheon. In Detmer, D. (2009) Sartre Explained; from bad faith to authenticity. USA: Open Court.

Solomon, R. (1988) Continental Philosophy since 1750. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sprigge, T. (1984) Theories of Existence. Middlesex: Penguin.

Stevens, C. (2008) A Critical Discussion of Sartre on Love. Stance, Vol 1, April 2008. (Accessed 10th July 2010)

Van Deurzen, E., & Kenward, R. (2011) Dictionary of Existential Psychotherapy and Counselling. London: Sage


1. Sartre, JP. (1976) Sartre on Theater.Eds. Contat, M. & Rybalka, M. (1976) New York: Patheon. In Detmer, D. (2009) Sartre Explained; From Bad faith to Authencity, p149. USA: Open Court.

2. Sprigge, T. (1984) Theories of Existence. Middlesex: Penguin.

3. 'Hell is other people' is the culminating climatic line of Sartre's famous play 'Huis Clos' or 'No Exit' (1944) in which the concept of the Other is examined. Although the play demonstrates the point more aptly, I will still endeavour through the written word to communicate just why 'Hell is other people'.

4. Daigle, C. (2010) Routledge Critical Thinkers: Jean Paul Sartre. Oxon: Routledge.

5. Detmer, D. (2009) Sartre Explained: From Bad Faith to Authenticity. USA: Open Court.

6. Daigle, C. (2010) Op Cit.

7. Cox , G. (2009) How to be an Existentialist. Continuum: London.

8. Sartre, JP. (2001) Being and Nothingness,p255. London: Routledge.

9. Detmer, D. (2009) Op Cit

10. Lavine, T. (1984) From Socrates to Sartre: The Philosophic Quest. USA: Bantam Books.

11. Daigle, C. (2010) Op Cit.

12. Sartre, J. (2001) Op Cit,p364.

13. Solomom, R. (1988) Continental Philosophy since 1750. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

14. Detmer, D. (2009) Op Cit

15. Daigle, C. (2010) Op Cit.

16. Detmer, D. (2009) Op Cit.

17. Stevens, C. (2008) A Critical Discussion of Sartre on Love. Stance, Vol 1, April 2008.

18. Ibid

19. Detmer, D. (2009) Op Cit.

20. A form of self deception considered to be the deliberate and motivated aversion of certain facts by an individual due to the experience of angst and anxiety associated with acknowledging the reality of a particular situation or experience encountered.