Consciousness in Satisfaction as the Prereflective Cogito

by Stefan Schindler

Stefan Schindler, 88 Wenham St., No. 1, Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts 02130, received the Ph.D. from Boston College in 1975.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 187-190, Vol. 5, Number 3, Fall, 1975. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


There are elements in Sartre’s philosophy which are applicable to the Whiteheadian cosmos.

In his article "A Suggestion on ‘Consciousness’ in Process and Reality" (PS 3:41), John Bennett argues that there can be consciousness in the satisfaction of an actual entity, even though there cannot be consciousness of that satisfaction. In support of this claim, I suggest we may look to Jean-Paul Sartre for a partial answer to the question: What is this strange consciousness, and how shall we define it?

Bennett begins his article by quoting Whitehead and follows by stating the problem:

No actual entity can be conscious of its own satisfaction; for such knowledge would be a component in the process, and would thereby alter the satisfaction." (PR 130) Yet this is puzzling, for consciousness is a feature of the subjective forms of at least some phases of some concrescences, and the subjective forms of earlier phases of concrescence cannot be simply eliminated in later phases, of which the satisfaction of course is last. How then are we to understand this passage? (PS 3:41)

Bennett’s answer takes the form of distinguishing between two types of consciousness: "datal" and "adverbial." The first is an "awareness of," which is inappropriate to the satisfaction of an actual occasion, and the second is an "awareness with," which is appropriate to that satisfaction as part of the subjective form belonging to it. In Being and Nothingness, Sartre makes a similar distinction when he differentiates between the cogito as such (pour-soi as thetic consciousness of the world) and the prereflective cogito (pour-soi as nonthetic self-consciousness).1

The cogito as such is datal: it posits (or intends) its object as a datum for positional (or intentional) awareness. In the datal mode, consciousness stands in a thetic, intentional relation to that of which it is conscious; and that of which it is conscious is transcendent to it as an object of awareness. On the other hand, the prereflective cogito is adverbial: it stands in a nonthetic, nonintentional relation to that of which it is conscious. That of which it is conscious is the cogito itself, not as a transcendent object of awareness, not as something separate and distinct, but as itself in the moment of its living experience.

The prereflective cogito is not something different from the cogito; it is the very heart of it. A consciousness which could reveal and intuit an object without being conscious of itself as doing so would be an unconscious consciousness, which (as Sartre points out) is absurd. Consciousness, to a be a consciousness of something, must be conscious (of) itself as such. (We put the second "of" in parentheses in order to signify its nonthetic character.2) For Sartre, every consciousness is also self-consciousness. "Every positional consciousness of an object is at the same time a non-positional consciousness of itself" (BN lxiii).

What Bennett accomplishes with his distinction between "awareness with" and "awareness of" is precisely what Sartre accomplished when he distinguished between nonthetic and thetic awareness. The attention to language arises out of the need to distinguish between thetic consciousness of objects and nonthetic consciousness (of) that consciousness. Utilizing Sartre’s epistemological idiosyncrasies, we may agree with Whitehead’s statement that "no actual entity can be conscious of its own satisfaction," if the "of" here is taken as thetic, indicating phenomenological intentionality. What we want to argue, however, is that we may still assert that an actual entity can be conscious (of) its own satisfaction, where the "of" is taken as nonthetic, indicating an absence of the intentional structure of awareness. We are allowed this latter statement because, as Bennett says, "the consciousness in question is not the objectifying ‘awareness of’ by means of which we attend to data, but the ‘awareness with’ by which much of our experience is lived" (PS 3:42).

Now, whereas Whitehead would restrict consciousness to an awareness of what "has been," our interpretation allows us to have an awareness (of) what "is" in the present; that is to say, nonthetic self-awareness is immanent in the present moment of experience. But a distinction has to be made, not only between thetic and nonthetic modes of consciousness. but also between mere consciousness and knowledge. In the present moment of experience, there is no knowledge of the cogito, because awareness of the cogito is strictly prereflective and nonthetic. There is self-consciousness, but no self-knowledge. Knowledge is a later development of consciousness and occurs only when consciousness reflects on itself by turning back upon itself and positing a former moment of experience as an object of awareness. It is a consciousness of consciousness, a taking by the subject of its own past, now become objectified for present intuition. For Sartre knowledge arises only out of reflection.

According to the Sartrean scheme, therefore, Whitehead is correct in asserting that no actual entity can have a knowledge of its own satisfaction. But if we look closely at Whitehead’s own statement, we see that his denial of knowledge is also a denial of consciousness: "No actual entity can be conscious of its own satisfaction; for such knowledge would be a component in the process, and would thereby alter the satisfaction" (PR 130; italics mine). Whitehead here identifies knowledge with consciousness. But consciousness is as distinct from knowledge as causal efficacy is from presentational immediacy; in each case, it is the former which is the ground of tie latter. And while we agree that no actual entity can know its own satisfaction, we do not agree that this lack of self-knowledge is equivalent to a lack of self-consciousness. As Sartre says: "We must abandon the primacy of knowledge if we wish to establish that knowledge. Of course consciousness can know and know itself. But it is in itself something other than a knowledge turned back upon itself" (BN II). That is to say, consciousness is, first of all, a nonpositional consciousness of itself as positional consciousness of the world, in which there is no reference to reflection, i.e., to a turning back upon itself.

We must note, however, that the distinction between reflective and prereflective awareness is not equivalent to the distinction between thetic and nonthetic awareness. The prereflective cogito (nonthetic self-awareness) is involved as a necessary structure in both consciousness as mere revealing intuition (prereflective positional consciousness of the world) and consciousness as knowledge (reflective positional consciousness of the past self). In each case consciousness must be aware of itself as being what it is. Each case is, therefore, a positional consciousness with a non-positional consciousness of itself.

Hence we cannot distinguish between consciousness and knowledge simply in terms of the positional and nonpositional modalities. The difference lies in reflection. When consciousness becomes its own intentional object, that which is reflected upon and that which is doing the reflecting are not one and the same; the consciousness which is reflected upon is always in the past -- often the very immediate past, yet always a consciousness which has been. Knowledge is always of "what was," and here Sartre sounds very much like Whitehead. But nonthetic prereflective self-consciousness is the very condition for the possibility of that knowledge. In Sartre’s own words:

In the act of reflecting I pass judgment on the consciousness reflected-on; I am ashamed of it, I am proud of it, I will it, I deny it, etc. The immediate consciousness which I have of perceiving does not permit me either to judge or to will or to be ashamed. It does not know my perception, does not posit it; all that there is of intention in my actual consciousness is directed toward the outside, toward the world. In turn, this spontaneous consciousness of my perception is constitutive of my perceptive consciousness. In other words, every positional consciousness of an object is at the same time a non-positional consciousness of itself. . . . Thus reflection has no kind of primacy over the consciousness reflected-on. It is not reflection which reveals the consciousness reflected-on to itself. Quite the contrary, it is the non-reflective consciousness which renders the reflection possible; there is a pre-reflective cogito which is the condition of the Cartesian cogito. (BN liii)

Sartre’s distinction between consciousness and knowledge, along with the distinction between nonthetic and thetic awareness, helps us to understand Bennett’s argument. What is agreed upon is that the self-consciousness involved in the satisfaction of an actual entity cannot have the status of knowledge (for knowledge refers us to reflection, and hence to an additional process), nor can it have the structure of intentionality (for intentional self-awareness fractures unity and leads to an infinite regress). And yet there is still room for a self-awareness which has the status of consciousness and a nonthetic structure.

There are, of course, problems. Sartre is talking about human poursoi, whereas Whitehead is talking about actual occasions. Moreover, from the Whiteheadian point of view, Sartre’s ontological mistake is in thinking that there is such a thing as en-soi. He is subject to the criticism which Whitehead levels at Cartesian dualism, of which Sartre is the twentieth century paradigm.

Yet Sartre is, in his own way, a process philosopher. To use his own language: consciousness is an event which happens to Being. And the world has intelligibility, purpose, meaning, and value only in virtue of that event, i.e., only in virtue of purposive process. We should not be surprised, therefore, if there are elements in Sartre’s philosophy which are applicable to the Whiteheadian cosmos. Certainly if Bennett is correct, as I think he is, then to talk about consciousness at all is to talk about self-consciousness, and any actual entity which has consciousness as a feature of the subjective form of some phase of its concrescence will have nonthetic self-awareness both in that phase and in the final satisfaction.

On the other hand, we must raise the question: Can we borrow the prereflective cogito without bringing the cogito as such along with it? For Sartre, nonthetic self-awareness is a function of intentional consciousness, and you cannot have one without the other. My description of the prereflective cogito as the sole form of consciousness in satisfaction is, consequently, at odds with the Sartrean scheme. Of course, Sartre’s model is thoroughly temporal, and part of the problem here involves envisaging just how the intentional consciousness in an earlier phase of concrescence might act as a sufficient ground for the nonthetic consciousness of self isolated in satisfaction; it is the temporal isolation of these different moments which seems untrue to the Whiteheadian model. Thus there are problems in both Sartre and Whitehead as I use them. The viability of Bennett’s argument -- and my supportive elaboration of that argument -- rests on the possibility of further solving these epistemological mysteries.



BN -- Jean-Paul Sartre. Being and Nothingness. Translated by Hazel Barnes. New York: Philosophical Library, 1956.



1 See especially Sartre’s "Introduction" ("The Pursuit of Being"); also, part one, chapter two, sections one and thee ("Bad Faith and Falsehood" and "The ‘Faith’ of Bad Faith"). and part two, chapter one, section one ("Presence to Self’).

2 In French. there is no word for self-consciousness. There is only conscience de soi, consciousness of self. But there are two modes of consciousness of self: nonthetic prereflective self-awareness and the thetic reflective self-awareness, only the latter of which has the structure of intentionality. which occurs when consciousness reflects upon itself by turning back upon itself and positing a former moment of experience as an object of awareness. To distinguish between the two. Sate refers to the nonthetic (prereflective) mode as conscience (de) soi, and the thetic (reflective) mode as conscience de soi. Parentheses around the "of" however, are not normally used for nonthetic awareness if that awareness is already designated as such, for example, by use of the words "nonthetic" or "nonpositional," or if its meaning is contextually obvious.