Sartre's Facticity of Existence
and the Cartesian Deformation

Well, existence is not a fact. If anything, existence is the nonfact of a disturbing movement in the In-Between of ignorance and knowledge, of time and timelessness, of imperfection and perfection, of hope and fulfillment, and ultimately of life and death. From the experience of this movement, from the anxiety of losing the right direction in this In-Between of darkness and light, arises the inquiry concerning the meaning of life. But it does arise only because life is experienced as man’s participation in a movement with a direction to be found or missed; if man’s existence were not a movement but a fact, it not only would have no meaning but the question of meaning could not even arise.

The connection between movement and inquiry can best be seen in the case of its deformation by certain existentialist thinkers. An intellectual like Sartre, for instance, finds himself involved in the conflict without issue between his assumption of a meaningless facticity of existence and his desperate craving for endowing it with a meaning from the resources of his moi. He can cut himself off from the philosopher’s inquiry by assuming existence to be a fact, but he cannot escape from his existential unrest. If the search is prohibited from moving in the In-Between, if as a consequence it cannot be directed toward the divine ground of being, it must be directed toward a meaning imagined by Sartre. The search, thus, imposes its form even when its substance is lost; the imagined fact of existence cannot remain as meaningless as it is but must become the launching pad for the intellectual’s Ego.

This imaginative destruction of reason and reality is not Sartre’s idiosyncrasy; it has representative character in history, because it is recognizably a phase in a process of thought whose mode has been set by Descartes. The Meditations, it is true, belongs still to the culture of the search, but Descartes has deformed the movement by reifying its partners into objects for an Archimedean observer outside the search. In the conception of the new, doctrinaire metaphysics, the man who experiences himself as the questioner is turned into a res cogitans whose esse must be inferred from its cogitare; and the God for whose answer we are hoping and waiting is turned into the object for an ontological proof of his existence.

The movement of the search, furthermore, the eroticism of existence in the In-Between of divine and human, has become a cogitare demonstrating its objects; the luminosity of the life of reason has changed into the clarity of the raisonnement. From the reality of the search, thus, as it disintegrates in the Meditations, there are set free the three specters which haunt the Western scene to this day.

There is first, the God who has been thrown out of the search and is no longer permitted to answer questions: living in retirement from the life of reason he has shriveled into an object of unreasoned faith; and at appropriate intervals he is declared to be dead. There is, second, the cogitare of the Archimedean observer outside the movement: it has swollen into the monster of Hegel’s Consciousness which has brought forth a God, man, and history of its own; this monster is still engaged in the desperate fight to have its dialectical movement accepted as real in place of the real movement of the search in the In-Between.

And, finally, there is the man of the Cartesian cogito ergo sum: he has sadly come down in the world, being reduced as he is to the fact and figure of the Sartrean sum ergo cogito; the man who once could demonstrate not only himself but even the existence of God, has become the man who is condemned to be free and urgently wants to be arrested for editing a Maoist journal.

CW VOL 12,
The Gospel and Culture,
pp 176-177.