In the early phase of his career, Sartre focused mainly on his belief in the sanctity of every individual consciousness, a consciousness that results from each person’s subjective and individual experience of the world. He was particularly attuned to the ways that people are objectified by the gaze of others. As Sartre became more intimately involved in the concrete political questions of his day, he came to focus more on the various larger social structures that systematically objectify people and fail to recognize or affirm their individual consciousness and innate freedom. These structures include capitalist exploitation, colonialism, racism, and sexism.
Sartre’s focus on individual freedom shaped his view of Marxism. Politically, Sartre was for many years closely allied to the French Communist Party. However, he never actually joined the party, largely because of his ever-present suspicion of authoritarian states and institutions of all kinds, especially after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. Sartre always harbored a healthy libertarian or anarchist streak. He wanted the working class to collectively overthrow the capitalist system and believed that any political struggle should affirm and allow for the individual freedom of all human beings. In accordance with this view, Sartre never accepted Marx’s view that economic and social realities define consciousness. Rather, Sartre affirmed that people are always essentially free. No matter how objectified they may be, the gifts of freedom and consciousness mean that they always have the possibility of making something out of their circumstance of objectification. In Sartre’s view, individual freedom of consciousness is humanity’s gift—as well as its curse, since with it comes the responsibility to shape our own lives.
Sartre believed in the essential freedom of individuals, and he also believed that as free beings, people are responsible for all elements of themselves, their consciousness, and their actions. That is, with total freedom comes total responsibility. He believed that even those people who wish not to be responsible, who declare themselves not responsible for themselves or their actions, are still making a conscious choice and are thus responsible for anything that happens as a consequence of their inaction. Sartre’s moral philosophy maintains that ethics are essentially a matter of individual conscience. Sartre reveals much about his own ethics in his writings about oppressive societal structures and the ways in which individuals might ideally interact with each other to affirm their respective humanities, but he is dismissive of any version of universal ethics. He is clear in his belief that morals are always first and foremost a matter of subjective, individual conscience.
For Sartre, for any individual to claim “that’s just the way I am” would be a statement of self-deception. Likewise, whenever people internalize the objectified identity granted to them by other people or by society, such as servile woman or dutiful worker, they are guilty of self-deception. Every individual person is a “being-for-itself” possessed of self-consciousness, but he or she does not possess an essential nature and has only a consciousness and a self-consciousness, which are eternally changeable. Whenever people tell themselves that their nature or views are unchangeable, or that their social position entirely determines their sense of self, they are deceiving themselves. Sartre believed it is always possible to make something out of what one has been made into. This task of self-actualization, however, involves a complex process of recognizing the factual realities outside of one’s self that are acting on the self (what Sartre calls facticity) and exactly how those realities are working, as well as knowing fully that one possesses a consciousness independent of those factors.
For Sartre, the only truly authentic outlook recognizes one’s true state as a being possessed of self-consciousness whose future conscious state of being is always a matter of choice, even as that conscious state will itself always be in flux. That is, even though we are ultimately responsible for our own consciousness, consciousness of self is never quite identical to consciousness itself. This difficult paradox—that one is responsible for one’s own consciousness, even though that consciousness is never quite graspable, since it is based on nothingness—goes to the heart of Sartre’s existentialism and is crucial to his conceptions of human freedom and moral responsibility.
Sartre defines two types, or ways, of being: en-soi, or being-in-itself, and pour-soi, or being-for-itself. He uses the first of these, en-soi, to describe things that have a definable and complete essence yet are not conscious of themselves or their essential completeness. Trees, rocks, and birds, for example, fall into this category. Sartre uses pour-soi to describe human beings, who are defined by their possession of consciousness and, more specifically, by their consciousness of their own existence—and, as Sartre writes, by their consciousness of lacking the complete, definable essence of the en-soi. This state of being-for-itself is not just defined by self-consciousness—it would not exist without that consciousness. In Sartre’s philosophical system, the interplay and difference between these two manners of being is a constant and indispensable point of discussion.
Following Hegel, Sartre writes that an individual person, or being-for-itself, can become cognizant of his own existence only when he sees himself being perceived by another being-for-itself. That is, we can formulate a conscious state of being and an identity only when we are confronted by others who are also possessed of that consciousness and we apprehend ourselves in relation to them. As Sartre explains, however, the encounter with the Other is tricky, at least initially, because we may first believe that in being perceived by another conscious being we are being objectified or essentialized by that being, who may appear to be regarding us only as type, appearance, or imagined essence. In turn, we may seek to regard others as definable, simple objects not possessed of individual consciousness.
The notion of the Other plays a central role in Sartre’s thinking and writing about large-scale systems of social objectification, such as colonialism, racism, and sexism. Such systems enable the Other to be falsely seen as an object, a definable being-in-itself, and not as a free individual, a being-for-itself, possessed of his or her own undefinable, conscious state of being.