Being and Nothingness by Sartre


Jean Paul Sartre (1905–1980) held atheistic views and believed that humanity had no purpose in life. Existence was not guided by a divine plan, but randomly. Life is absurd.

His stance on morality was that there did not exist an objective guide in ethics. This meant that each person must choose their own values and in this way create their own essence:

“It is very troubling that God does not exist…for with him disappears every possibility of finding values…there can no longer be any good a priori.”

Sartre's philosophical influences were Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Nietsche, Husserl and Heidegger: French and German idealism.

In contrast to the disembodied subjectivity of Descartes, Sartre's conscious 'I' is embodied. Awareness enters the world at our birth and ends in our death. In life consciousness is awareness of something, but in itself is nothing. If you subtract the things you are conscious of you are left with nothing. You can be conscious of something but not exclusively conscious of consciousness. Cartesian awareness is a delusion, according to Sartre, since we learn to understand our subjectivity over time. It is not an innate consciousness, but empirical.

Kant's moral grounding was his 'categorical imperative', based on reason, which stipulated that you must behave as if the ethical principle of your actions could be a universal law. This would determine right from wrong a priori.

Sartre diagrees with Kant maintaining that no moral law exists a priori and that the 'categorical imperative' is not adequate as a guide for everyday behaviour. He proposes that it is how people act that determines their morality. Authenticity, meaning to live responsibly by intentionally deciding about your life and future, is the important ethical characteristic for the existentialist.

Both Hegel and Sartre used the categories of being-for-itself and being-in-itself. However, their uses differ. Hegel applies them to the dialectic process which means that they are dynamic not stable. Sartre explains that the for-itself and the in-itself are fixed and unchanging. 

For Hegel being-in-itself is an abstraction. He prefers to thinks of it in the more concrete terms of relationships. It draws its existence, not from separation but connection. Sartre views others as hell. The gaze of others deprives us of our freedom. It has the power to freeze us into the cliché of vulgar, proud, shy... that we are not. We are thus locked into a persona which denies our freedom.

Sartre also considers the for-itself and the in-itself fundamental categories in his philosophy, which is not Hegel's view. On the other hand, Sartre's concepts of consciousness adopt, in part, Hegel's discussion of self-consciousness. 

Nietzsche and Sartre agree that traditional morality's foundation on a rational and universal code of conduct is to be discarded. They criticise blind acceptance of social values and encourage personal, ethical options, responsiblity and subjectivity. Their philosophies also have authenticity as their basis and agree that humans avoid responsibility. Sartre argues that this is the avoidance of absolute freedom, a state necessary for being as opposed to existing on bad faith; Nietzsche claims that we hide our will to live and to power by following traditional 'slave' morality.

For Nietzsche humans should engage in artistic self-creation, rejecting values such as equality sin, guilt, and evil, like the Ubermensch. Sartre proposes living an authentic life by accepting our responsibility and acting in full freedom, discarding the bad faith of inauthenticity and recognising that we are free to change. Nietsche's Ubermensch is someone who actively chooses his values and coincides with Sartre's concept of authenticity.

However, Nietzsche's Overman, like Kant's categorical imperative are universal concepts; Sartre's ethical rules are individualistic and only by rejecting authenticity as a universal norm can we be authentic.

Husserl argued that the important characteristic of a thing is not its existence but what it is. He proceeded to discard ("bracket") the empirical data related to the existence of the object since it was of no import. He then focused on its universal essences (eidictic reduction) to achieve a phenomenological description of it.

Sartre accepts Husserl's eidictic abstractions but, on the other hand, claims that the individual is primary and that general principles will not shed light on anything of significance. The author goes further contending that as knowledge is couched in general terms we must reject the primacy of knowledge. The real individual cannot be understood through thinking about it in a cartesian manner, and he suggests other methods such as 'privileged emotions', exemplified in his novel La Nausée. 

Nietzsche's influence led Sartre to emphasise individuality against universality and also the absence of any general moral principles affecting human freedom. Husserl's later thought conceived the subjective idealism doctrine of Transcendental Ego: reality is constituted by the trancendental ego's intentional acts. Nothing can exist independently of the transcendental self which brings the world into existence. 

However, Sartre believes that this Ego would be deterministic and impede spontaneous human freedom. He wrote an essay in 1937 criticising Husserl's concept on the grounds that, in the logic of subjective idealism, it leads to solipsism. At this point Sartre broke with phenomenology and turned to existentialism 

In Being and Time Heidegger says that “the essence of Dasein lies in its existence”. This appears to be an existentialist belief, but Heidegger and Sartre do not mean the same when they write about existence and existing. In Existentialism is a Humanism Sartre includes Heidegger in his existentialist tradition. However, Heidegger replied some months later in his Letter on Humanism that Sartre´s cartesian cogito, existence precedes essence, leads back to metaphysics, precisely the opposite of what Heidegger wanted. Heidegger´s criticism of metaphysics is that it is ideological, basing itself on presuppositions, a "technical interpretation of thinking". More specifically, Heidegger rejects the cartesian centering of the subject "I" in "I think" since it puts thinking before existence. For the German author the cogito has to be inverted since existence precedes thinking, whereas Sartre bases his thinking in the subject, not in Being.

The authors disagree on the affirmation and nihilation of Being. For the German they are aspects of Being which is rooted in existence and nihilation accompanies existence; for the Frenchman they are features of subjectivity as nihilation is the rise of consciousness. 

Sartre emphasises action and it is through engagement that you become who you are. Heidegger claims that thinking precedes experience in action, which needs a subject, whereas the primacy of the subject results in confusion since individuals will only find meaning through detachment. For Sartre you discover your being in a transcendence of self; for Heidegger you discover your project by returning to Being.

Heidegger also wants to distance himself from Sartre's terminology by extracting the term 'existence' from the rationalist opposition of existence and essence. In Sartre's saying, existence precedes essence, the German claims that 'precedence' is rationalistic, formulaic and metaphysical. He suggests replacing existence with ek-sistence to underline that existence is a coming out of thinking from Being. The essence of humankind is ek-sistence, being or not being.

Both authors lived in a similar historical context, post-war Europe. Within this context of La Liberation Sartre calls for a freedom from aprioris such as Marxism or Christianity and an invitation to live in the new world. Heidegger's new context is that of allied denazification procedures. He was a party member until 1945. He calls for a return to essence, leaving behind the "technical interpretation of beings".


Being and Nothingness, A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology (1943) is a study of the consciousness of being.

In his introduction Sartre goes into detail about why he rejects Kant's concept of noumenon. Epistemologically Kant was an idealist, arguing that humans have no way of perceiving the world (noumena) directly. He also claims that our perception of external reality is limited to our ideas (phenomena), including sensory input. Sartre's argument is that the noumenon is simply not there and that the phenomenon is pure and absolute. The only reality is appearance. 

The author then distinguishes between unconscious being-in-itself which is concrete, unchanging, unaware of itself, and conscious being-for-itself, aware of itself but incomplete. The being-for-itself has no predetermined essence but must create itself from nothingness. Humans make themselves through their actions (engagement).

The being-for-itself creates meaning through projection into the unsure future. Humans are never an essence but self-define through choices. The conscious being-for-itself recognises what it is not, a being-in-itself. As the conscious being realises what it is, a nothingness, it is freed to create its own being.

He then analyses the relationships between being-for-itself individuals. For Sartre we become aware of ourselves when someone else looks at us. The gaze of the other objectifies the persons regarded and so they come to objectify themselves. This stare robs our inner freedom, disposses us of our existence a being-for-itself and causes us to learn to falsify our identity as being-in-itself:

"L'enfer, c'est les autres" Huis Clos

The author then develops the being-for-itself as one of agency, action and creation, with no concrete foundation. As an escape from its own nothingness it attempts to absorb the being-in-itself. However, the being-in-itself cannot be possessed and the being-for-itself cannot unite with the being-in-itself. 

In his conclusion the French philosopher underlines the essential feature of being: its existence as a meaningless mass of matter without meaning, consciousness or knowledge. Awareness comes through the being-for-itself and allows the world to exist since, without it, there would only be being. But the being-for-itself depends on the being-in-itself for its existence and only knows what it is through the knowledge of what it is not. Consciouness knows it is not a being-in-itself and so knows that it is a nothingness, a nihilation of being. 


Existence Precedes Essence

“Existence precedes essence. This means that man first exists, occurs, arises in the world, and he then defines himself.”

Sartre's slogan counters the main movement in Western thought from Plato to Descartes. The claim is that there is no 'a priori' conception in humans. This reverses Plato's ideal realm, the Judeo-Christian divine creator and Hegel's concept of the Absolute Idea. Agreeing with Nietzsche, Sartre conceived the universe as godless, so that no Spirit exists outside of human lives. The existentialist saying also runs against Descartes' Cogito ergo sum and its mind/body duality. In fact Sartre inverts this concept as 'Sum ergo cogito', placing existence before conception of ideas.

Contrary to useful objects which are designed for a function and so whose essence precedes existence, humans are defined negatively for what they are not. Their existence precedes essence which makes them free and responsible for their actions.

Metaphysics argues that essence precedes existence since the creator of an object must imagine it in mind before it can exist. Sartre uses the opposite thesis to argue that God does not exist. If God were the creator of the universe then humans would not be subjects but objects. It would mean that man has an essence and so is not free or responsible for his actions. This is similar to Nietzsche's thinking when he argued that God was dead since real human freedom implied freedom from religion and belief in God.

"Life has no meaning the moment you lose the illusion of being eternal."

Given that we live in an uncaring universe Sartre thinks that it is absurd to try to live a purposeful life. As there is no God there is no absolute criterion for rational choice, yet we must make choices. For Sartre they will be based on personal freedom.

Sartre's slogan affects ethics. Since we are free to make our own choices, that implies personal responsibility. Behaviours cannot be justified through references to nature or essence. As you sow, so shall you reap.

Sartre's concept of placing human existence before self-definition and development coincides with Maslow's hierarchy of needs: physiological, safety, belonging, esteem and self-actualization. Maslow is also claiming that human existence implies a life of evolution through growth, food, shelter, friends and self-development.

En-Soi (being-in-itself) and Pour-Soi (being-for-itself)

The author describes two ways of being: being-in-itself alludes to things which are not aware of their essential completeness; being-for-itself refers to being conscious of your own existence but lacking the essential wholeness of being-in-itself.

It was Hegel who first introduce the opposition between the en-soi and the pour-soi, the being which relates to itself and at the same time stands opposed to the influence of the en-soi. For Sartre the being-for-itself is what differentiates humans from things:

"Le pour-soi seul est transcendant au monde." 

The en-soi is fixed, incapable of change and is not conscious of itself. The pour-soi is aware of itself but is incomplete and under constant construction. It is this incompleteness and creation from nothingness that defines the human being. 

The outcome of this division is a paradox: the pour-soi is aware that it is not the en-soi and wants to become an en-soi by making its subjectivity into an object. Its consciousness turns it into a nothingness, completely free in the world. It is torn between its unity and duality.

The pour-soi is always remaking itself and this becomes clear in its temporality. It is neither identical to its past or future. It is not what it was nor what it will be. Neither does the present really exist because it is a flight into the future, what it will become.

 Authenticity and Bad faith

Sartre tells a story to exemplify his distinction between being authentic and not. He imagines a woman on a date. She is attractive and knows it. She knows that her date may have less than noble intentions, yet she chooses to live in the gallant narrative of Prince Charming. She reinterprets suggestive comments as 'admiration and respect'. She is living a story, not the reality she suspects exists. Sartre asserts that she is living in her head observing her body as a passive object to which things may happen. She is watching her physical self play as if it were onstage.

It is when we do not live by our own choices but by prefabricated narratives that Sartre claims we are in bad faith. The woman hid from herself the fact that she had control over the situation, preferring to surrender to a fiction.

Authenticity, the opposite of bad faith, means choosing deliberately your behaviour in order to be a moral subject. It is establishing an honest correspondance between who you are, your personal life project, and your public projection of yourself.

Freedom and Responsibility

“We are condemned to be free”. 

For Sartre freedom is absolute and infinite and so it is a condemnation. The being-for-itself is tied to freedom since that is what defines it. However, absolute freedom implies absolute responsibility. The being-for-itself is responsible for its own situation, and its own choices. Nothing is imposed from the outside

“Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself”.

The being-for-itself cannot be determined by God, society or any story. No eternal truths exist and no true origin or predetermined path. The only meaning possible is that which the being-for-itself gives itself.

Since humans have no preset purpose, then they are free to take the direction they please, without limitations. However, the absoluteness of this freedom triggers anxiety: what is the point of existence? Mortality is certain, but not its meaning. This is where religion offers, in Sartre's view, an escapist narrative.


When people accept the identity society gives them, or even justify their own self-identities, Sartre claims they are self-deceiving. Consciousness changes constantly and he believes that identity is dynamic and depends on continually updating. However, this is a complex process requiring recognition of the external realities affecting the self and slso that consciousness is independent of those factors. 

For Sartre the conscious state is one of flux and of choice. We are responsible for our behaviours but our consciousness of self is not identical to consciousness, whose base is nothingness. This is a sartrian paradox: responsibility without complete control.

Binary polemic

The final note of Sartre's polemic, binary philosophy is hopelessness versus freedom. My consciousness rests on nothingness, others alienate me from myself and I practise self-deception. At the same time I am free, transcendent, aware and I create the world. This is a paradox which he does not attempt to solve. Is it a reflection of a truth or the result of how Sartre poses the problem?

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