Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980)

Being and Nothingness

In the last segment of his argument, Sartre expands on the for-itself as a being of agency, action, and creation and a being devoid of concrete foundation. To escape its own nothingness, the for-itself strives to absorb the in-itself, or even, in more profane terms, to consume it. Ultimately, however, the in-itself can never be possessed. Just as the for-itself will never realize the union of for-itself and in-itself, neither will it succeed in apprehending or devouring the alien object. Thus, at the summation of Sartre’s polemic, an incredible sense of hopelessness dominates the discussion: I am a nothingness, a lack, dehumanized by the other and deceived even by myself. Yet, as Sartre continually emphasizes, I am free, I am transcendent, I am consciousness, and I make the world. How to reconcile these two ostensibly unreconcilable descriptions of human ontology is a question Sartre does not attempt to definitively answer. This avoidance of reaching a definitive point of philosophic conclusion is in many ways intentional, however, in keeping with both Sartre’s personal style and the existentialist maxim that there are no theories that can make a claim to universality.

As Sartre outlines in the conclusion to his work, perhaps the most essential characteristic of being is its intrinsic absence of differentiation and diversity. Being is complete fullness of existence, a meaningless mass of matter devoid of meaning, consciousness, and knowledge. Consciousness enters the world through the for-itself and with it brings nothingness, negation, and difference to what was once a complete whole of being. Consciousness is what allows the world to exist. Without it, there would be no objects, no trees, no rivers, and no rocks: only being. Consciousness always has intentionality—that is, consciousness is always conscious of something. It thus imposes itself on being-in-itself, making consciousness the burden of the for-itself and of all being. On a similar note, the for-itself at all times depends on the in-itself for its existence. In Sartre’s ontology, consciousness knows what it is only through the knowledge of what it is not. Consciousness knows it is not a being-in-itself and thus knows what it is, a nothingness, a nihilation of being. Yet, to Sartre, despite the fact that the for-itself is nothing, it exists only in its relation to being and thus is its own type of is.

Analysis

From the beginning of Being and Nothingness, Sartre displays his debt to Nietzsche through his rejection of the notion of any transcendent reality or being that humans can know which might lie behind or beneath the appearances that make up reality. That is, the experience of appearances is reality. Although this does imply an emptiness, Sartre does not see it as a negative truth. Freed of the search for some essential form being, we, as conscious beings (all beings-for-itself), are empowered in knowing that our personal, subjective experience of the world is all the truth there is. We are the ultimate judge of being and nonbeing, truth and falsity.

The key concepts of Sartre’s vision of the world are the being-in-itself and the being-for-itself. One way of understanding how they relate to each other is to think of being-in-itself as another word for object and the being-for-itself as another word for subject. The being-in-itself is something that is defined by its physical characteristics, whereas the subject is defined by consciousness, or nonphysical and nonessentializable attributes. These concepts overlap to a certain degree, since the being-for-itself, or subject, is also possessed of some of the physical self, or some of the attributes of an object or being-in-itself. It thus follows that sometimes a being-for-itself can be harmfully and mistakenly regarded as a being-in-itself.

The interaction of beings possessed of consciousness is a major focus for Sartre, and as he describes a being-for-itself to interact with another being-for-itself, the key concepts are “the gaze” and “the other.” Without question, in Sartre’s view the gaze of the other is alienating. Our awareness of being perceived not only causes us to deny the consciousness and freedom inherent to us but also causes us to recognize those very qualities in our counterpart. Consequently, we are compelled to see the other who looks at us as superior, even if we recognize his gaze as ultimately dehumanizing and objectifying. In response to the gaze of the other, we will assert ourselves as free and conscious and attempt to objectify the individual who objectifies us, thus reversing the relationship. The pattern of relations Sartre describes appears frequently in society. The assertion of freedom and transcendence by one party often results in the repression of those conditions in another. Race-based slavery and the treatment of women by men in patriarchal societies are two obvious examples.

Sartre brings up the ethical implications of the ontological vision set forth in Being in Nothingness only at the end of the work. In later works, notably the famous lecture “The Humanism of Existentialism,” Sartre attempts to outline a philosophy of ethics based on an existentialist study of the nature of being. In short, he argues that values are never objective, as they are created by the choices and actions of free individuals. Herein lies the room for hope that Sartre inserts into a work so full of nothingness and lack: freedom is humanity’s curse as well as its blessing, and what we make of that freedom is our own. In it lies great and indeterminate possibility.