Home » Philosophy of Mind » Is Shame An Emotion?

Is Shame An Emotion?

Dr Kate Kirkpatrick
University of Hertfordshire


One of the most famous passages in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness (1943) is his phenomenological account of shame. But before writing the 650-page piece for which he is best known, he wrote a much briefer—and clearer—work, The Sketch for a Theory of the Emotions (1939). In this earlier book, Sartre describes emotions as a means of escaping the world when it becomes too difficult. Here he calls emotions ‘degradations of consciousness’ (E loc. 688, 700) and ‘magical transformations of the world’ (E loc. 757). In Being and Nothingness, by contrast, shame is presented as a means of ‘realization’, ‘recognition’, and even ‘discovery of an aspect of my being’ (BN, pp.245-6). This paper therefore asks whether Sartre’s phenomenology of shame presents it as an emotion, by his own definition of the term. The answer, it is argued, is no. This is important for the Sartre scholar—because many readers of Being and Nothingness assume that shame is an emotion. And it is important for philosophers of religion and students of atheism—because this conclusion opens up the possibility of reading the early Sartre as a phenomenologist of sin from a graceless position.

This paper is structured thus:

  • What are emotions?
  • What is shame?
  • Is shame an emotion?
  • If not an emotion, then what?

What Are Emotions?

What are emotions? If classical poets are to be believed, they are the effects of psychosis, powerful but fleeting follies: Sappho described love as ‘a kind of madness’ and Horace likened anger to riding a wild horse. Such characterizations of emotion are not contained to ancient sources: contemporary language frequently implies that emotions are passively endured: one falls in love, is heartbroken, paralyzed by fear, or haunted by remorse (cf. Solomon, 2006, p.2).

Sartre wrote on emotions in most of his philosophical works [1]; and for those who are not familiar with his historical context, it is worth noting that when he studied ‘philosophy’ in France in the 1920s and 30s, a different disciplinary paradigm was the norm. Philosophy was then understood to be comprised of four areas: logic, ethics, metaphysics, and psychology (Elkaim Sartre, 2004, vii). In the Sketch Sartre describes his project as ‘an experiment in phenomenological psychology’ in which he will ‘study emotion as a pure transcendental phenomenon’. He does not wish to consider particular emotions bur rather seeks ‘to attain and elucidate the transcendental essence of emotion as an organized type of consciousness (E loc. 104). He criticizes psychological accounts of emotion for failing to recognize the proximity of the investigator to the thing investigated, and for seeing emotions as ‘facts’ that are insignificant (in the sense of not conveying meaning). On Sartre’s view, ‘facts’ will never add up to a satisfying picture of human nature. Phenomenology, he explains, ‘is the study of phenomena—not facts’, and this method is more likely to offer a satisfactory account of emotion (E loc. 122).

But before giving his account Sartre first explains why the psychologists are wrong; his targets are the theories of William James, Pierre Janet, and Sigmund Freud [2]. Sartre took issue with the notion of emotions as things which afflict or, as Freud would put it, ‘invade’ us. The metaphors of passivity described above were ratified in the early twentieth century in a process of what Robert Solomon calls ‘scientific canonization’ (Solomon, 2006, p.2) in theory of William James [3]. On James’s view, emotions are epiphenomenal: ‘they are the products of bodily changes, but they do not themselves cause action’ (Deigh, 2009, p.20). Deigh gives the following example of fear to illustrate James’s account. According to common sense, if I see a bear charging, this perception will cause me to feel fear and then run. But on his account the perception of the charging bear causes the effect of running, and the feeling of this bodily movement is the fear. As Sartre puts it, James thinks states of consciousness (i.e. the emotion fear, in this example) are consciousness of physiological states (i.e. the body running, elevated heart rate, etc.) (ibid.).

In a move that anticipates some of Damasio’s objections in Descartes’ Error [4], Sartre objects to this ‘periphic’ view of emotions because it treats consciousness as a ‘secondary phenomenon’, and emotion as a disorder or disruption of normal physiological functioning. On the contrary, he suggests, ‘Emotional behaviour is not a disorder at all. It is an organized system of meaning aiming at an end. And this system is called upon to mask, substitute for, and reject behaviour that one cannot or does not want to maintain’ (E loc. 287 ff.).

For Sartre, emotion is a way of being conscious of the world. But he takes issue with the psychologists’ assumption that the consciousness of an emotion is a reflective consciousness (E loc. 457) [5]. For Sartre, emotions are ‘set-back’ behaviours, pre-reflective attempts to diffuse otherwise unmanageable situations [6].

The world is difficult. This notion of difficulty is not a reflective notion which would imply a relationship to me. It is there, on the world; it is a quality of the world which is given in the perception […]

He concludes therefore that emotion is:

A transformation on the world. When the paths traced out become too difficult, or when we see no path, we can no longer live in so urgent and difficult a world. All the ways are barred. However, we must act. So we try to change the world, that is, to live as if the connection between things and their potentialities were not ruled by deterministic realities, but by magic (ends E loc. 537).

To make this clearer, let us reconsider the bear attack scenario. On Sartre’s view, if someone were being chased by a bear and fainted from fear, the fainting would constitute an annihilation of that fear. Emotion is thus an ‘escape’ in which ‘the body, directed by consciousness, changes its relations with the world in order that the world may change its qualities’ (E loc. 552). He calls emotion a magical behaviour which ‘tends by incantation to realize the possession of the desired object as instantaneous totality’ (E loc. 625) [7]. In the bear attack, the pursued person desires to remove themselves from that situation, and fainting enables him to fulfil their desire (though perhaps not in the most reasonable of ways).

Emotion thus constitutes the ‘degradation’ of consciousness (E loc. 681, 754). Sartre writes that emotion is ‘an abrupt drop [chute] of consciousness into the magical’ (E loc. 817). Space prohibits saying much more about Sartre’s theory, but for the purposes of this paper it may be useful to close this section with an example of an emotion affecting interpersonal relations. Among Sartre’s examples are cases reported by Janet, in which psychasthenic patients want to confess something but – before being able to – break out into uncontrollable sobbing or hysteria (E loc. 245). For Sartre, the magical effect of this behaviour is that it conveniently transforms a potential judge into a potential comforter.

What is Shame?

The passage on shame occurs in Part III of Being and Nothingness, in the first subsection of the first chapter on the existence of Others – entitled simply ‘The Problem’. Sartre employs the French word honte here, not pudeur. Sartre says that shame is a ‘mode of consciousness’ which has an identical structure to others he describes, i.e. that it is a ‘non-positional self-consciousness, conscious (of) itself as shame, […] accessible to reflection’ (BN, p.245). Shame’s structure is intentional:

It is a shameful apprehension of something and this something is me. I am ashamed of what I am. Shame therefore realizes an intimate relation of myself to myself. Through shame I have discovered an aspect of my being. Yet although certain complex forms derived from shame can appear on the reflective plane, shame is not originally a phenomenon of reflection. In fact, no matter what results one can obtain in solitude by the religious practice of shame, it is in its primary structure shame before somebody (BN, p.245, italics original).

Shame is, on his definition, ‘shame of oneself before the Other’ (BN, p.246); it concerns how I appear to Others rather than how I ‘exist’ myself. To understand this distinction we must briefly consider Sartre’s tripartite phenomenology of the body. Sartre described ‘the knowledge of the nature of the body’ as being ‘indispensable to any study of the particular relations of my being with that of the Other’ (BN, p.383), and it is therefore indispensable to any account of the experience of shame.

The ontology of the body is comprised of three levels (which are not necessarily separable in experience, though they can be isolated phenomenologically):

  1. The body as being-for-itself (for which he also uses the term ‘facticity’) (BN, pp.330–62).
  2. The body-for-Others (BN, pp.362–75).
  3. (And what he calls) the ‘third ontological dimension of the body’ (BN, pp.375-82).


On the first level, the body is the manner in which I exist pre-reflectively: ‘the body is lived and not known’ (BN, p.348). Sartre writes that ‘my body as it is for me does not appear to me in the midst of the world’ (BN, p.327). It is not a thing but rather ‘a transparent medium for my experience of the world, but also as somehow surpassed toward the world’ (Moran, 2009, p.43). It is a conscious structure of consciousness, but a point of view from which I cannot have a point of view – for though I can see my eye reflected in a mirror I cannot, as Sartre puts it, ‘see the seeing’. The body at this level is not something one can intuit as an object: following Marcel Sartre is emphatic that I am my body (BN, p.342) [8].

The second level on which Sartre expounds is the body as seen rather than lived (le corps-vu rather than le corps-existé). This is the domain of the body as utilized and known by Others, studied and idealized by the ‘objective sciences’. I do not know from my own experience that I have a brain or endocrine glands, for example, but I learn that I have them from others. On the first order, the body is the centre of reference, the point of view from which I cannot have a point of view. On the second, however, my body appears as the ‘tool of tools’ in my instrumental engagement with the world. It appears as ‘a thing’ which I am.

The distinction arises because the body of another is not given to me in the same manner as my own: ‘it is presented to me originally with a certain objective coefficient of utility and of adversity’ (BN, p.364). I assess the Other in terms of what help or hindrance he constitutes to my own pursuits. The Other, therefore, is given in a thing-like manner, as an object (BN, p.371, 374). The recognition that bodies are viewed as objects in this manner reveals the third and final ontological level.

Here, embodiment entails that ‘I exist for myself as a body known by the other’. We experience our bodies not only as our own, but as reflected in others’ experience: ‘the Other is revealed to me as the subject for whom I am an object’ (BN, p.375). This is the level on which we experience things like shame and embarrassment; Sartre writes that ‘I cannot be embarrassed by my own body as I exist it. It is my body as it may exist for the other which may embarrass me’ (BN, p.377) [9].

It is this dimension of the body which exposes us to what Sartre describes as the omnipresent ‘look’ or ‘gaze’ of the Other. Though clearly Sartre does not use the term ‘omnipresent’ in an empirical sense, in the experience of being seen, Sartre says, we are ‘imprisoned’ by the other’s gaze, because the other deprives us of control over how we see our world and – more importantly – ourselves. Just as my own gaze reduces Others to their instrumentality, the gaze of the Other reduces me to the status of mere object. We experience shame, Sartre writes, not because we are this or that object in particular, but because we are an object:

[It is a feeling] of recognizing myself in this degraded, fixed, and dependent being which I am for the Other. Shame is the feeling of an original fall, not because of the fact that I may have committed this or that particular fault but simply that I have ‘fallen’ into the world in the midst of things and that I need the mediation of the Other in order to be what I am (BN, p.312, italics original).

It is in the context of this discussion Sartre explicitly refers to the Genesis account and introduces theological language into his phenomenology [10]. He writes that the modesty or fear felt at being discovered in a state of nakedness are only:

A symbolic specification of original shame; the body symbolizes here our defenceless state as objects. To put on clothes is to hide one’s object-state; it is to claim the right of seeing without being seen; that is, to be pure subject. This is why the Biblical symbol of the fall after the original sin is the fact that Adam and Eve ‘know they are naked’ (BN, p.312).

Here as elsewhere Sartre seems to prioritize ‘being seen’ by Others over our own ‘seeing’ in the project to define ourselves (Moran, 2009, p.53). This is important because for Sartre the body as Others encounter it – that is, the body in its social, intersubjective context – is a domain of contestation and conflict: ‘Conflict is the original meaning of being-for-others,’ he writes (BN, p.386). Human relationships perpetually oscillate between mastery and slavery. But despite the struggle that existence with Others entails, for Sartre, the Other performs a necessary role: the Other reveals something I cannot learn on my own, which is how I really am. It appears to us that the Other can achieve something ‘of which we are incapable and yet which is incumbent upon us: to see ourselves as we are’ (BN, p.377). As Joseph Catalano (2010) puts it, ‘We are born into the world twice, once from the womb of our mothers and then again from our relation to others’ (p.77).

Shame, for Sartre, plays a revelatory role: it ‘reveals to me the Other’s look and myself at the end of that look. It is the shame or pride which makes me live, not know the situation of being looked at’ (BN, pp.284–5, italics original). He carries on to say that shame involves ‘recognition of the fact that I am indeed that object which the other is looking at and judging’ (BN, p.285) [11].

Is Shame an Emotion?

Now that we have laid this rudimentary groundwork we can return to the question this paper intends to answer: is shame an emotion? We have seen that emotions, for Sartre, are a means of escaping the world’s difficulty. They constitute a ‘degradation’ of consciousness, a ‘fall’ into magical thinking. It is the contention of this paper that ‘shame’ cannot be said to function in this manner. Let us first consider the alternative view: how might shame be said to constitute an escape? It is useful in this respect to recall the example given earlier, Janet’s psychasthenic. On Sartre’s view the psychasthenic’s emotional display transforms a difficult interpersonal situation – between confider and potentially condemning judge – into a more comfortable one of victim and consoler.

If shame similarly constitutes an emotional escape route, it would have to be a kind of attempt at atonement, a recognition or acceptance of and apology for being what the Other sees me to be. Any physiological element – blushing or covering my nakedness, for example – would have to be directed towards some magical recasting of the world. But Sartre’s account of shame is not directed towards restoring my relationship with the Other – which, on his view, is impossible by any means. He writes:

[In shame] in the first place there is a relation of being. I am this being. I do not for an instant think of denying it; my shame is a confession. I shall be able later to use bad faith so as to hide it from myself, but bad faith is also a confession since it is an effort to flee the being which I am. But I am this being […] (BN, p.285).

In Sartre’s account in Being and Nothingness shame has an ontological dimension: it seems to be revelatory of the real rather than a descent into magical thinking. It is not the flight of bad faith; it is the dawning of recognition, unpleasant though that recognition may be.

Given this description, shame cannot be rightly called an emotion on Sartre’s own definition of the term. Before going on to say what it can rightly be called, however, we must briefly consider a potential objection, namely whether Sartre’s definition of the term might have changed between 1939, when the Sketch was published, and 1943, when Being and Nothingness appeared. This objection is easily dismissed. In the three places where Sartre refers explicitly to the Sketch in Being in Nothingness, he introduces his comments with an ‘as we have shown elsewhere’. He does not suggest his earlier view was wanting, but rather reaffirms that:

Emotion is not a physiological tempest; it is a reply adapted to the situation; it is a type of conduct, the meaning and form of which are the object of an intention of consciousness which aims at attaining a particular end by a particular means. […] There is an intention of losing consciousness in order to do away with the formidable world in which consciousness is engaged and which comes into being through consciousness’ (BN, p.467) [12].

But his phenomenology of shame does not fit this category. It does not result in a loss of consciousness, or an escape from discomfort, but rather plunges me deeper into the uneasy awareness that I am not always what I desire to be in the eyes of the Other.

Conclusion: If Not Emotion, Then What?

If shame is not an emotion, then what is it? Brevity prevents me from offering a fully developed argument for an alternative here, but I will adumbrate the argument I have made elsewhere. In Sartre’s phenomenology of the third ontological level of the body he moves from phenomenology as a descriptive – and therefore purportedly neutral – practice to a phenomenology which Ricoeur (1974) might call hermeneutic. Sartre describes emotion as a ‘fall’ of consciousness. But in his depiction of shame he brings in an imaginary (in a La Doeuffian sense) which is no longer restricted to discrete lapses [13]: he describes shame as ‘the feeling of an original fall’ (BN, p.312, italics original), invoking the Genesis account to describe the vulnerability of nakedness as ‘a symbolic specification of original shame’.

It is illuminating to note here that Sartre departs not only from descriptive phenomenology but from Damasio’s account; for the latter, shame is a ‘secondary’ emotion which develops through social experience (Damasio, 1994, pp.134-9). Unlike emotion, which is a means of escape, Sartre’s shame is inescapable; it requires no empirical observer to be revelatory of the real, and the reality it reveals is a ‘fall’ from which we cannot extricate ourselves. This is philosophically significant for the methodological reasons already given: it raises the question of whether Sartre’s phenomenology is purely descriptive. But it is also theologically significant because Sartre – whose self-proclaimed project was to ‘draw all the consequences of a consistent atheist position’ – has given an account of shame (and indeed, human consciousness and relations with Others) which bears a striking resemblance to a certain formulation of the doctrine of original sin. On Sartre’s view, we are separated by nothingness from ourselves and Others. There is no God from whom to be separated; but neither is there grace through which to be reconciled to Others or ourselves.

Author’s Notes

[1] Cf. Hatzimovsis (2009, pp.223-4) for a partial catalogue.

[2] Some argue that Janet is the founder of psychoanalysis rather than Freud (in autobiographical writings Freud felt the need to state that he had not plagiarized Janet [Freud, 1989, p.11]).

[3] Though it is now called the James-Lange theory, on account of having been simultaneously developed by James in America and C.G. Lange in Denmark.

[4] Damasio (1994, pp.129-31, 189-90).

[5] He argues that ‘unreflective behaviour is not unconscious behaviour; it is conscious of itself non-thetically and its way of being thetically conscious of itself is to transcend itself and to seize upon the world as a quality of things (E loc. 520).

[6] Though clearly one can be reflectively conscious of feeling an emotion, this implies a step back from it.

[7] In calling emotion ‘magic’ he appropriates a familiar label in the anthropology of religion, found in the works of Frazer, Levy-Bruhl and others (cf. Anders [1950, p.554]).

[8] See Marcel’s Metaphysical Journal (1927) for discussions of incarnation and Mui (2009) for a discussion of Sartre’s indebtedness to Marcel.

[9] It is important to distinguish between shame and embarrassment. As Galen Strawson points out, though past embarrassments can supply one with funny stories to tell, past shames and humiliations are not usually a source of amusement (Strawson, 1994).

[10] Ricoeur (1974) might suggest that this is a move into the level of hermeneutic phenomenology or interpretation.

[11] On hearing footsteps see BN p.284.

[12] For the other explicit ‘as we have seen’ references to the Sketch, cf. BN p.413, 467, 596 cf. also BN p.370 on anger.

Works Cited

Primary Text Abbreviations

BN | Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel Barnes, London: Routledge, 2003.

E | Emotions: The Outline of a Theory, trans. Bernard Frechtman, New York: Open, 2012. Kindle Edition. References given in brackets indicate the relevant Kindle location.

Secondary Texts Cited

Anders, Günther Stern (1950) ‘Emotion and Reality’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 10/4 (June), 553–62.

Catalano, Joseph (2010) Reading Sartre, Cambridge : CUP.

Damasio, Antonio (1994) Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, London: Vintage.

Deigh, John (2009) ‘Concepts of Emotions in Modern Philosophy and Psychology’, in P. Goldie (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Emotion, Oxford: OUP.

Elkaïm Sartre, Arlette (2004) ‘Historical Introduction’ to Jean-Paul Sartre, The Imaginary, trans. Jonathan Webber. London: Routledge.

Freud, Sigmund (1989) An Autobiographical Study, New York: W.W. Norton.

Hatzimoysis, Anthony (2009) ‘Emotions in Heidegger and Sartre’, in P. Goldie (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Emotion, Oxford: OUP.

Moran, Dermot (2009) ‘Husserl, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty on Embodiment, Touch and the “Double Sensation”,’ in Katherine J. Morris (ed.), Sartre on the Body, London: Palgrave MacMillan.

——(2011) ‘Sartre’s Treatment of the Body in Being and Nothingness: The “Double-Sensation”’ in Jean-Pierre Boulé and Benedict O’Donohoe (eds), Jean-Paul Sartre: Mind and Body, Word and Deed, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Mui, Constance (2009) ‘Sartre and Marcel on Embodiment: Re-evaluating Traditional and Gynocentric Feminisms,’ in Katherine J. Morris (ed.), Sartre on the Body, London: Palgrave MacMillan.

Solomon, Robert C. (2006) Dark Feelings, Grim Thoughts, Oxford: OUP.

Strawson, Galen (1994) ‘Don’t tread on me,’ London Review of Books 16/19, 11–12.

Zahavi, Dan (2010) ‘Shame and the exposed self’, in J. Webber (ed.), Reading Sartre: On Phenomenology and Existentialism, London: Routledge.


Kate Kirkpatrick is Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Hertfordshire and Lecturer in Theology at St Peter’s College, University of Oxford. She is the author of Sartre and Theology (Bloomsbury, 2017) and Sartre on Sin (Oxford University Press, 2017).


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  4. […] It is easy enough to mock the hypocrisy of a movement which condemns shame whilst shaming its enemies into submission.  A wiser approach might be to explore what this fetish says about the Left.  According to French Existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre shame is: […]

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