Jean-Paul Sartre

Jean-Paul Sartre
Jean-Paul Sartre
Image source: multiple sources  
Jean-Paul Sartre & Simone de Beauvoir
Jean-Paul Sartre & Simone de Beauvoir
Image source: Multiple sources  

Jean-Paul Sartre (June 21, 1905 – April 15, 1980) was a French philosopher, playwright, novelist, and literary critic. His most famous writings include the novel La nausée (Nausea), (1938), his major philosophical work L'être et le néant (Being and Nothingness) (1943), and the play Huis-clos (No Exit) (1944). Throughout these writings Sartre describes and analyzes our most basic existential experiences, which reveal the fundamental human condition in our relation to the world and others. Although he is often associated with other existential thinkers of the twentieth century (Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, Gabriel Marcel) Sartre, unlike these other philosophers, strongly embraced the term “existentialism” and so today his name, more than these others, is equated with the school of existentialism.

As with other philosophers of existence, Sartre held that ‘existence precedes essence’. For Sartre this meant that all existing things in the material universe are in themselves meaningless. Only through our consciousness of them do things take on value, which means that it is we who create meaning. Sartre links consciousness and our experience of anguish to freedom. It is through accepting responsibility for our freedom, and the anguish that accompanies it, that we can become authentic human beings. Throughout his life Sartre was very politically active, and although he never officially joined the Communist Party, he espoused Marxist ideas. In 1964 Sartre won the Nobel Prize in Literature, but he declined the award stating that he did not align himself with institutions.

Although many philosophers and writers throughout the 19th and 20th centuries have been called “existentialist” the philosophical school of “existentialism” has been mostly associated with the thought of Jean-Paul Sartre. There are two main reasons for this. First, unlike other existential thinkers of his generation (Heidegger, Camus, Gabriel Marcel), Sartre did not distance himself from the term ‘existentialism’ but rather embraced it. Or, to put it another way, these others thinkers distanced themselves from this term precisely because Sartre embraced it; so, in philosophical circles existentialism had become almost synonymous with Sartrian ideas. Secondly, the term existential became so widespread in popular culture in the middle part of the 20th century that it came to signify, as Sartre himself said, “almost everything.” Nevertheless, Sartre held to the term and so today existentialism as a specific philosophical school continues to be aligned primarily with Sartre.

Sartre's most well-known introduction to his philosophy is his work Existentialism is a Humanism (1946). In this work, he defends existentialism against its critics, which ultimately results in a somewhat cursory description of his ideas. Nonetheless, the work remains a popular and accessible introduction to Sartre's main ideas. It is within his major and most influential philosophical work Being and Nothingness, however, that these themes are most closely analyzed and so brought to their full philosophical import.
(New World Encyclopedia)

Sartre: "At first [Man] is nothing. Only afterward will he be something, and he himself will have made what he will be".
We are the beings who choose what we are.

There were two main periods in his career. The first period was defined by his work Being and Nothingness. He believed in the fundamental freedom of human beings and reflected on what he saw as the unbearable nature of that freedom.
In the second major period in his career, Sartre was known as a politically engaged intellectual. He embraced Communism, though he never officially joined the Communist party. Sartre spent much of his life attempting to reconcile his existentialist ideas, which claimed that one must self-determine one's existence, with Communist principles, which taught that socioeconomic forces beyond one's control play a critical role in determining the course of one's life.   (Kids.Net.Au": Jean-Paul Sartre)

In the 1970s, the French journalist Michel Rybalka delivered a lecture on Sartre which divided his intellectual development into three stages: liberty, equality and fraternity. The three concepts of the slogan of the French revolutionaries of 1789 were used to denote three kinds of philosophy which Sartre endorsed: existentialism, from the mid-1930s, Marxism, increasingly from the Second World War, and anarchism, in the last few years before he died in 1980.

Sartre’s existentialism was never a pure existentialism. One of his outstanding philosophical syntheses is the fusing of existentialism with phenomenology.
Sartre was not alone or wholly original in marrying phenomenology and existentialism into a single philosophy. Phenomenology had already undergone the profound transformation into ‘fundamental ontology’ at the hands of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger in his large, if incomplete, 1927 masterwork, Being and Time (Sein und Zeit). The book is an examination of what it means to be, especially as this is disclosed through one’s own existence (Dasein).
The 1945 synthesis of phenomenology and existentialism in Phenomenology of Perception (Phénoménologie de laPerception) by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Sartre’s philosophical friend and political antagonist, follows hard on the heels of Sartre’s own 1943 synthesis, Being and Nothingness (l’Etre et le Néant), with which it is partly inconsistent. Sartre’s existentialism, like that of Merleau-Ponty, is ‘existential phenomenology’. Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908–61) offers a phenomenology of the body which eschews mind–body dualism, reductivist materialism and idealism. He influenced Sartre politically and collaborated in editing Les Temps Modernes but broke with Sartre over what he saw as the latter’s ‘ultrabolshevism’.
(Jean-Paul Sartre: Basic Writings, Edited by Stephen Priest 2001)



Like most twentieth century existential thinkers Sartre was greatly influenced by the phenomenological movements of Edmund Husserl. This teaching held that all human knowledge can be traced back (reduced) to an original ‘lived experience’. This gave concrete descriptive analyses of our basic experiences priority over purely logical, abstract reasoning. Like Heidegger, Sartre appropriated the phenomenological method and applied it to the subject of ‘existence’ (although Sartre and Heidegger interpreted ‘existence’ in different ways). For Sartre this meant dividing all reality into two basic modes of being: (1) the in-itself (en-soi), which is the state of all material beings as they exist apart from our consciousness of them; and (2) the for-itself (pour-soi), which is all things as they are experienced by or for human consciousness. For Sartre consciousness has no separate existence of its own, but always needs some object to be conscious of. In other words, whenever I think, feel, believe, or will, I must always think, feel, believe, or will some thing. This means that my consciousness is dependent upon that thing or object about which I am thinking, feeling, believing, etc. Consciousness by itself, therefore, is not merely an empty receptacle but literally no-thing, that is, nothingness.
(New World Encyclopedia)

Existence precedes Essence

One of Sartre’s primary existential ideas is the notion that existence precedes essence. This means that the being of brute existence comes first and our understanding of it comes after. In classical philosophy the “essence” of things that exist are considered to be their ‘natures’. It is from these objective natures, which really exist “out there,” that we come to know what things are essentially. For Sartre there are no real essences or natures in the strict sense. Whatever meanings we ascribe to things are always subjective; that is, we create them out of our own nothingness or freedom. Sartre’s existentialism is presupposed by his acceptance of Nietzsche’s pronouncement that ‘God is dead.’ Like Nietzsche, Sartre believed that Enlightenment thinkers had rid themselves of God by turning solely to reason and science, and yet they refused to accept the full implications of this departure. Only if there is a God, can we be said to have an essence or human nature that determines what we as human beings are. Sartre uses an example of a paper-cutter to make his point. Only if someone first had an idea (essence) of a paper-cutter and then actually made it, could we say that the paper-cutter has a nature (essence). Likewise, only if there is a God or Creator who first had an idea of human beings, can we say there is a human essence or nature. But there is no God, so there is no human nature. Thus, the meanings we ascribe to ourselves are our own creations, either individually or socially/culturally. One might note that Sartre nowhere attempts to prove God’s inexistence but simply accepts it as a given.
(New World Encyclopedia)


Freedom and anguishss

Given this state of affairs, then, for Sartre we must accept the hard truths of reality. But although Sartre held to the meaninglessness of the universe or material being in itself, he believed strongly in human freedom. This freedom, however, appears as a double-edged sword. Although we are free to create ourselves, which gives us a degree of nobility as well as some flexibility in choosing our actions for ourselves, the full realization and acceptance of our freedom comes at a great price. Sartre describes this great price in terms of anguish, forlornness, and despair.

Once we realize there is no God we must also accept that there is no objective set of ethical values upon which to justify the ‘goodness’ or ‘rightness’ of our actions. In doing this, we then become aware of a kind of anguish. Anguish for Sartre marks the recognition of our own freedom. While we always fear some thing, some danger or object ‘out there’, anguish is the dread awareness of our own subjective freedom. Forlornness, in turn, is the recognition that we are alone. No one can help us in the solitary journey of making our own choices and so creating our own values. Sartre tells of the inefficacity of seeking advice from someone else. Since we have to choose the person to whom we seek advice, we in a certain sense already know what that person will tell us. Seek advice from a priest and he will tell you to seek God; ask a Communist and she will say join the Party. Sartre, of course, is not talking about trivial decisions but those crossroad choices through which we determine the overall course of our lives and the way we will live; or, in other words, the ultimate meaning which structures and defines our lives.

Finally, this process of self-realization can lead to despair. For our successes and failures, our virtues and our vices, are ultimately our own. We have no one else to praise or blame for our victories and defeats. Many critics have found Sartre’s emphasis on self-determination to be both harsh and naïve. As mentioned above, in later years Sartre tried to reconcile his existential volunteerism with a more Marxist view that stresses social, political, and economic forces; few critics, however, have been convinced by his attempt.
(New World Encyclopedia)

Authenticity and 'bad faith'

Despite this negative and apparently harsh outlook, Sartre tried to put a positive spin on his philosophy in his analysis of authenticity. It is through our freedom that we accept responsibility for our actions, which in turn determines who we are. If we avoid this responsibility we fall into what Sartre calls mauvaise foi or “bad faith.” In bad faith we deceive ourselves, either by denying our freedom in claiming that we “have no choice” or else by giving into daydreams and so imagining ourselves to be what we are not. Instead we are to accept responsibility for what we are (past) as well as our freedom to choose what to become (future). In this way, then, we become authentic human beings. Moreover, when we choose ourselves, we choose all humanity. This means that to commit ourselves to a certain cause or worldview (for example, Christianity or Communism) we do not say “this is right merely for me” but rather this is right for everyone (all humanity). One could not authentically commit to something unless this notion of ‘choosing all humanity’ was implicit in the choice. Nothing justifies or grounds the ‘truth’ or value of this choice, however, except our own whole-hearted commitment to it.
(New World Encyclopedia)


Sartre and literature

Like other existential-phenomenologists Sartre held that our ideas are the products of our lived experiences or real-life situations. For this reason, novels and plays, which describe our fundamental experiences of the world and others, have as much value as philosophical or theoretical essays. In his most famous novel Nausea, Sartre describes and analyzes in narrative form many of these basic existential encounters. The novel centers on a dejected researcher (Roquentin) who is living in a town similar to Le Havre. Throughout the story Roquentin becomes starkly conscious of the fact that inanimate objects and situations remain absolutely indifferent to his existence. Rather than reveal themselves as being intrinsically meaningful, they show themselves to be resistant to whatever significance human consciousness might perceive in them. This indifference of "things in themselves" (or the "being-in-itself" of Being and Nothingness) reveals to Roquentin his own fundamental freedom or ‘nothingness.” Everywhere he looks, in fact, he finds situations imbued with meanings (‘nihilations’), which bear the stamp of his own existence. Hence the “nausea” that arises from this experience of his own nothingness. All that he encounters in everyday life is suffused with this all-pervasive and horrible taste, namely, his own freedom. No matter how much he longs for something other (nostalgia), he cannot escape from the harrowing evidence of his nihilating engagement with the world.

Along with Nausea, Sartre offered other major contributions to the world of literature. The stories in The Wall, for example, contributed to the absurdist literature of the post-war period, by emphasizing the arbitrary aspects of situations in which people find themselves and the absurdity of their attempts to deal rationally with them. Also, there was the Roads to Freedom trilogy, which charts the progression of how World War II affected and developed many of Sartre's main ideas. In these novels Sartre presents a less theoretical and more practical approach to existentialism, which illustrate his notion of literature as ‘engaged’. Sartre’s plays, as well, are richly symbolic in conveying his philosophical ideas. The best-known, Huis-clos (No Exit), contains the famous line: "L'enfer, c'est les autres," usually translated as "Hell is other people." Although this line neatly captures Sartre’s skepticism of others in terms of their attempts at domination (which is also conveyed in his philosophical analysis of shame in Being and Nothingness); it nevertheless is pronounced ironically in the play, and so one should be careful about attributing that statement to Sartre’s overall position of social interaction.
(New World Encyclopedia)

Sartre and communism

While the first period of Sartre's intellectual career is better defined by the philosophical ideas presented in Being and Nothingness, the second period can be viewed more in light of his political engagement. His 1948 work Les Mains Sales (Dirty Hands) explores the problem of being both an intellectual and a political activist. Although Sartre never officially joined the French Communist party, he was committed to communist ideas and took a prominent role in the struggle against French colonialism in Algeria. Aware of the abuses of communist Stalinism, however, Sartre spent much of the remainder of his life trying to reconcile his existentialist ideas about self-determination with communist principles, which held that socio-economic forces beyond our immediate, individual control play an instrumental role in shaping our lives. His major defining work of the later period, the Critique de la raison dialectique (Critique of Dialectical Reason) appeared in 1960.

Sartre's emphasis on the humanist values in the early work of Marx led to a famous dispute with the leading Communist intellectual in France during the 1960s, Louis Althusser. Althusser redefined Marx's work by dividing it into an early pre-Marxist period, which espoused essentialist generalizations about “Mankind,” and a more mature, scientific and authentically Marxist period, which emphasized the dialectical materialism over essentialist humanism. Sartre took issue with this interpretation, and it spurred the debate between the two thinkers. Although some say this was the only public debate Sartre ever lost, it remains a disputed issue within various philosophical circles in France. n.
(New World Encyclopedia)


Being and Nothingness

Jean-Paul Sartre

Freedom is the nature of man; in anxiety man becomes aware of his freedom, knows himself responsible for his own being by commitment, seeks the impossible reunion with being-in-itself, and in despair knows himself forever at odds with the “other” who by their glances can threaten a man, turning him into a mere object.

In Sartre’s phenomenological ontology there is nothing concealed behind the phenomena or the appearances. The appearances embody full reality. They are indicative of themselves and refer to nothing but themselves. The Kantian dualism of phenomena and naumena, appearance and reality, is abolished, and being is made coextensive with phenonena. Husserl’s hypothesis of a transcendal ego is pronounced useless and disastrous – such view is shipwreck on the “reef of solipsism”.

Sartre’s analysis is markedly informed by Heideggerian concepts. Yet Heidegger, he argues, neglects the phenomenon of the lived body, has no explanation for the concrete relatedness of selves, and misinterprets the existential significance of death.

Being, in Sartre’s analysis, evinces a transphenomenal character.
There is no noumena and no thing-in-itself which lies concealed behind the phenomenal appearances of being. ……….
Although being is reduced to the whole of its phenomenal manifestations, it is never exhausted by any of its phenomenal aspects; no particular perspective reveals the entire character of being. All phenomena overflow themselves, suggesting other phenomena yet to be disclosed.
This primordial being, transphenomenal in character, expresses a fundamental rupture into “being-in-itself (en-soi) and “being-for-itself” (pour-soi).

Being-in-itself designates being in the mode of fullness or plenitude. It is fixed, complete, wholly given, devoid of potency and becoming, absolutely contingent, with no reason for its being; it is roughly equivalent to the inert world of objects and things. ….. It is superfluous (de trop),… and without connection with any other being.

Being-for-itself is fluid and vacuous rather than fixed and full. It is characterized by incompleteness, indeterminate, and potency; it corresponds to the being of human consciousness.

Being-in-itself is both logically and ontologically prior to being-for-itself; the latter is dependent upon the former for its origin.
Being-for-itself is derived from being-id-itself by an act of nihilation (néantisation). Being-for-itself thus constitutes a nihilation of being-in-itself. Being-for itself makes its appearance as a nothingness which “lies coiled in the heart of being – like a worm”. …. The for-itself simply finds itself there, separated and at a distance from the absolute fullness of the in-itself.

One of the fateful consequence of the primordial rupture of the for-itself from the in-itself is the introduction of nothingness.
Sartre makes it clear that it is through man or human conscious that nothingness comes into the world. In his discussion on nothingness Sartre is intent upon rejecting the Hegelian dialectical approach and substituting for it a phenomenological account. For Hegel, being and nothingness are dialectical concepts which take their rise from the same ontological level of mediated reality. Sartre maintains in his phenomenological approach that nothingness is dependent upon being in a way that being is not dependent upon nothingness.
Nothingness is not an abstract idea complementary to being, nor can it be conceived outside of being; it must be given at the heart of being. Nothingness demands a host, possessing the plentitude and full positivity of being, from which it borrows it power of nihilation.. Thus, nothingness has only a borrowed or marginal being…. Sartre’s analysis seems to draw from Augustinian sources. Augustine had already described evil as a tendency toward nothingness, the movement presupposing perfect being as a host in which evil exists as a privation of the good.

As Heidegger had done before him, Sartre insists that nothingness is the origin and foundation of negative judgments, rather than vice versa. This foundation finds its clarification in the context of human expectations and projects.
As an example, Sartre tells of expecting to find a person (Pierre) in a café when in fact he is not present: …… ……….
....... ........... ………. ……….
To make the negative judgment that Pierre is not in the café has purely abstract meaning. It is without real or efficacious foundation.

It is through man that nothingness comes into the world. The question is: what is it about the being of man that occasions nothingness? The answer is: freedom.
Freedom is the “nature” of man. There is no difference between the being of man and his being-free. Sartre’s ontology of man is a philosophy of radical and total freedom.
This consciousness of freedom is disclosed in anxiety. “It is in anxiety that man gets the consciousness of his freedom. It is in anxiety that freedom is, in its being, in question of itself”.
There is thus an internal connection among nothingness, freedom, and anxiety. These are inter-related structural determinants of the being of man.

Nothingness, freedom, and anxiety provide the conditions which make possible the movement of “bad faith” (mauvaise foi). Bad faith is a form of self-deception which in making use of freedom denies it. Bad faith is akin to lying, yet not identical with it. In lying one hides the truth from others. In bad faith one hides the truth from oneself. In the former there is a duality of deceiver and deceived; in the latter there is a unity of a single consciousness. Bad faith does not come from the outside. Consciousness affects itself with it.
In describing the pattern of bad faith Sartre develops the example of a woman who consents to go out with an amorous suitor. …… ……..
........ .......... .......... .........
The pursuit of being leads to an awareness of nothingness, nothingness to an awareness of freedom, freedom to bad faith, and bad faith to the being of consciousness which provides the condition for its possibility. We are thus led to an interrogation of the immediate structures of the for-itself as consciousness. The immediate consciousness in which the self experiences presence is what Sartre calls the nonpositional conscious. This consciousness characterizes the level of primitive awareness, and is prior to the positional consciousness which is the reflective consciousness of the intentional action. Nonpositional consciousness is pre-reflective; therefore, Sartre describes it as a pre-reflective cogito (cogito pre-reflexif). This pre-reflective cogito precedes and becomes the foundation for the Cartesian cogito. Positional consciousness, on the other hand, is reflective in character, directed toward some intentional object. Sartre has taken over Husserl’s doctrine of intentionality and has made it central to his description of of the positional consciousness. Positional consciousness is always consciousness of something. It is directed outward into a world. But the positional consciousness can also be directed reflexively upon itself. Consciousness can become conscious of itself as being conscious. It is in this way that the ego or the self is posited or derived. Both the world and the ego or self are posited by the projecting activity of the for-itself in its nonpositional freedom, and they become correlative phenomena inextricably bound up at their very source. Without the world there is no ego, and without the ego there is no world. Both the world and the ego are hypostatized through reflection as unifying, ideal limits.

One of the central structural elements of the for-itself is facticity. The for-itself apprehends itself as a lack or decompression of being. It is not its own foundation. It is a “hole” in the heart of being, infected with nothingness, abandoned to a world without justification. It discovers itself thrown into a situation, buffeted by brute contingencies, for the most part superfluous and “in the way”.
Facticity indicates the utter contingency and irrevocable situitionality of the being of the for-itself. Without facticity consciousness could choose its attachments to the world – it would be absolute and unfettered freedom.
But the freedom which the for-itself experiences is always restricted by the situation in which it is abandoned.
Nonetheless, the freedom of the for-itself is a real freedom and even in its facticity the for-itself perpetually relates itself to itself in freedom.
I do not become a bourgeois or a Frenchman until I choose to become such.
Freedom is always present, translating facticity into possibility. In the final analysis the for-itself is totally responsible for its being.

Value and possibility provide two additional structures of the for-itself.
Value is an expression of an impossible striving toward a coincidence of being.
The for-itself perpetually strives to surpass itself toward reunion with the in-itself, thus achieving totality by healing the fundamental rupture in being. But this totality is an impossible synthesis. As soon as the for-itself would become coincident with the in-itself it would lose itself as for-itself. A final totality remains forever unattainable because it would combine the incompati8ble characteristics of the in-itself (positivity and plenitude) and the for-itself (negativity and lack). The impossible striving for reunion gives rise to the unhappy or alienated consciousness. ………
“The being of human reality is suffering because it emerges in being as perpetually haunted by a totality which it is without being able to be it, since it would not be able to attain the in-itself without losing itself as for-itself. Human reality therefore is by nature an unhappy consciousness, without the possibility of surpassing its unhappy state”.

Now possibility, as an immediate structure of the for-itself, provides further clarification of the meaning of the for-itself as lack. The possible is what the for-itself lacks in its drive for completeness and totality. It indicates the not yet of human reality, the openness of its constant striving.

The structures of the for-itself are ontologically rooted in temporality, which provides their unifying ground. This temporality is understood in Sartre’s phenomenological analysis as a synthesis of structured moments. The “elements” or directions of time (past, present, and future) do not constitute an infinite series of nows, in which some are longer and others are not yet. …….. The past nows are no longer real, the future nows are not yet real, and the present now is always slipping away. …….

Following Heidegger, Sartre speaks of time as an ecstatic unity in which the past is still existentially real, the future already existentially real, and in which past and future coalesce in the present. However, Sartre differs from Heidegger in refusing to ascribe ontological priority to the future. No ecstasis of time has any priority over any of the others; none can exist without the other two. ……… ……….
The past provides the ontological foundation for facticity. In a very real sense the past and facticity indicate one and the same thing. ……… ……..
In contrast to the past which has become an in-itself, the present remains a full-embodied for-itself. ….. Strictly speaking, the for itself as present has its being outside of itself – behind it and before it. It was its past and will be its future. The for-itself as present is not what is (past) and is what it is not (future).
The future is a mode of being which the for-itself must stride to be. …….
As the past provides the foundation for facticity, so the future provides the foundation for possibility. The future constitutes the meaning of my present for-itself as a project of possibilities. … It defines me as a for-itself who is always on the way.

The temporalized world of the for-itself is not an insulated world experienced in isolation. In the world of the for-itself the “other” (autrui) have already made their appearance. Hence, the being of the for-itself is always a being-for-others as well. The discussion of the problem of the interrelation of personal selves occupies a lengthy and important part of Being and Nothingness. ……
The “other” is already disclosed in the movements of the pre-reflective, non-positional consciousness.
Shame affords an example of a pre-reflective, disclosure of the “other”, as well as a disclosure of myself as standing before the other. Through shame I discover simultaneously the “other” and an aspect of my being. I am ashamed of myself before the “other”. The “other” reveals myself to me. I need the “other” in order to realize fully all the structures of my being. It is thus that the structures of being-for-itself and being-for-others are inseparable.

In the phenomenon of “the look” (le regard) we find another example of the pre-reflective disclosure of the self and the other. ……
……… ……. ……… ………
In the relation of the for-itself with the “other” the body appears as a central phenomenon. ……
……… ……. ……… ………

Sartre concludes his phenomenological essay with a restatement and further elucidation of the nature and quality of human freedom, and a delineation of his program of existential psychoanalysis. Freedom is discussed in relation to the will, in relation to facticity, and finally in relation to responsibility. ……
……… ……. ……… ………



The question What is being? is not the question What exists? or What is there?. It cannot be answered by producing a list of things that exist. The question is: What exactly have we said about anything when we have said that it is rather than is not?.

In Being and Time (Sein und Zeit, 1927) Heidegger calls What is being? 'the question of being' (Seinsfrage) and the attempt to answer it 'fundamental ontology'. Traditional ontology is the attempt to establish what exists and what does not exist. Fundamental ontology seeks to establish what it is for what is to be. Heidegger thinks that because Western philosophy, since at least Plato and Aristotle, has forgotten and surpressed the question of being in favour of epistemology and traditional ontology, What is it to be? has slipped all too readily into What exists?. The meaning of the Seinsfrage has to be recovered and rethought with pre-socratic purity because our technocratic and means-to-end modes of thinking make us largely oblivious to the puzzlement of just being.

We know that Sartre read and re-read Heidegger, partly in the original and partly in the translation I'Etre et le Temps. In Being and Nothingness Sartre does not answer the Seinsfrage but produces phenomenological descriptions of being. The subtitle of Being and Nothingness is An Essay in Phenomenological Ontology, a concatenation of words which would have made no sense to Husserl because he insists it is necessary to suspend or bracket ontology to engage in phenomenology. For Husserl it is necessary to ignore what is in order to reveal what appears to be - the phenomenon. Sartre eschews Husserl's methodological solipsism and uses Heidegger's fundamental existential category being-in-the-world to characterise our human existence and thus puts phenomenology back into the world. For this reason the philosophy of Being and Nothingness is existential phenomenology.

Sartre thinks there are fundamentally two manners of being: being-for- itself (I'etre-pour-soi) and being-in-itself (I'etre-en-soi). Other modes of being, such as being-for-others, are parasitic on these. Roughly, being-for-itself is subjective being and being-in-itself is objective being. Being-for-itself is the kind of being that pertains to one's own existence. Being-in-itself is the manner in which the world external to one's own reality exists.

More precisely, being-for-itself entails the existence of consciousness, and consciousness of itself. It is that present centre of conscious awareness that each of us finds him or herself to be. It is being in the sense of being someone, the kind of being of which it makes sense to say 'I am it'. Because being-for-itself entails consciousness, it entails that directedness towards the world called 'intentionality' which consciousness entails. Being-for-itself is partly constituted by presence to being-in-itself. It is what it is over and against the world.

Being-for-itself possesses three existential structures: facticity, temporality and transcendence. Facticity is the unchosen condition or situation of the for-itself in which freedom is exercised. Temporality is the totality past, present, future, and transcendence is the controversial fact about being-for-itself: that it is what it is not and is not what it is. Sartre means that I am, in a sense, constantly projected towards the future in my free self-definition.

Being for itself is free and entails a kind of lack or nothingness. Being-for- itself does not so much have choice as is choice. An essential part of my ownmost ontology is my constant capacity to choose, no matter how unpleasant and constrained the choices available. I am a kind of nothingness because there is nothing that I am independently of my self constitution through those choices. My consciousness is a kind of interior phenomenological space of non-being, surrounded by the plentitude of the world.

Being-in-itself is opaque, objective, inert and entails a massive fullness or plentitude of being. Being-in-itself is uncreated, meaning that although it is, it never began to be and there is no cause and no reason for it to be. Being-in-itself is not subject to temporality because past, present and future pertain uniquely to being-for-itself. (However, the human past is in-itself, not for-itself, because it is fixed and unalterable.) Being-in-itself is undifferentiated, solid and opaque to itself and filled with itself. Sartre sums up these ascriptions in the quasi-tautological thought: it is what it is. In being-in-itself there is no difference between its being and its being what it is. Existence and essence coincide.

Sartre thinks all being is contingent. Whatever is might not have been. Whatever is might not have been what it is. As Roquentin realises in Nausea, there might not have been any conscious beings including oneself. There might not have been anything. That there is something rather than nothing is a fact that could have been otherwise. That there is what there is rather than something else is a fact that could have been otherwise. Humanity seeks to evade its contingency in the inauthentic denial of freedom called 'bad faith' described in Chapter 11 below. Sartre thinks that the fundamental human aspiration is to be a synthesis of being-for-itself and being-in-itself, the perpetually frustrated aspiration, in fact, to be God.

In order to appreciate Sartre's distinctions between manners of being, in the passages from Being and Nothingness which follow, it is necessary to pay close and direct attention to one's own existence and the surrounding world. It is not possible to understand them by thinking in any abstract, objective, or quasi-scientific way. They are entailed by phenomenological descriptions, not theories.


The title of Sartre's Being and Nothingness is taken from the opening paragraphs of Hegel's dialectic. In Science of Logic (Wissenschaft der Logik 1812-16) Hegel argues that Being (Sein) and Nothing (Nichts) are the fundamental concepts because without them there are no concepts. Being and nothing are dialectically antithetical because semantically, psychologically and ontologically opposed yet mutually dependent. They are indeterminate because being is pure being and nothing pure nothing. Being and nothing are aufgehoben (synthesised, relieved, abolished, retained, taken up) in becoming (Werden). Becoming is the transition between being and nothingness.

Sartre subjects this clean Hegelian dialectical reasoning to Heideggerian criticism in Being and Nothingness. The phenomenological concept of nothingness is not the dialectical concept of nothingness. Nevertheless, in reading the ways in which nothingness is introduced into the world by being- in-itself it is useful to see Sartre distancing himself from the Hegelian picture.

Sartre takes from Heidegger's Being and Time the idea of the question. In raising the question of being, Heidegger had said that there is no inquiry without an inquirer, no search without a seeker and, in at least a minimal hermeneutic sense, the questioner already knows the answer to the question in order to seek for it. Sartre argues in the passages below from Being and Nothingness that it is questioning that fundamentally discloses nothingness. Nothingness is presupposed by questioning in three ways: The answer to the question may be negative, the questioner is (paradigmatically) in a state of ignorance or non-knowledge, truth is limited by non-truth, or the false. It is Sartre's view that negative existential propositions depend upon non-being or nothingness rather than the reverse. The phenomenological is prior to the linguistic.

Although it is sometimes said about Sartre that he reifies nothingness, writes as though nothing were a thing, or something called 'nothing' exists, it is not his overt or professed view. Indeed, he is conscious of it as a possible misunderstanding and tries to rule it out by saying 'Nothingness is not'. He tries to improve on Heidegger's famous, or infamous, dictum in What is Metaphysics? (Was ist Metaphysik? , 1929) that 'nothingness nihilates' (Das Nichts selbst nichtet ) by saying 'Nothing does not nihilate itself; Nothingness "is nihilated'". Heidegger too is trying to avoid the charge of holding that nothing in some sense exists but Sartre thinks Heidegger makes a mistake in his formulation. By saying 'nothing nihilates' Heidegger imparts an agency to nothing; the power to nihilate, but this agency could hardly be efficacious unless it or that which exercises it existed. Sartre's 'Nothingness is nihilated' does not carry the logical or grammatical connotation of accomplishment. It is a putative affirmation of nothing's non- being logically consistent with that of the Eleatic presocratic philosopher Parmenides (c. 480 BC). Sartre fails to observe that his passive rendering of Heidegger's active voice may have equally incoherently construed nothing as a subject of anihilation, and hence, something that exists.

Nonetheless, it is true according to Sartre that there are absences. There are refusals and denials, acts of imagining that things could be otherwise. For example, in the celebrated passage from Being and Nothingness reproduced below Sartre is expecting his friend Pierre to be in a cafe but Pierre is not there. Sartre encounters nothingness. Sartre wonders whether this is a judgement or thought that Pierre is absent or whether there is an experience of Pierre's absence, an intuition of nothingness. Sartre knows there is a prima facie absurdity in speaking of the experience of nothing. Nothing is not anything, so an experience of nothing would not be an experience of anything. Nevertheless, Sartre decides that it is by sight that the absence of Pierre was detected. There was at least the phenomenon of seeing that Pierre is absent, even if not a seeing of Pierre's absence.

It is as if nothingness existed. Non-being is a component of the real. Nothingness is real even though nothingness is not. We may speak of absent friends, holes in the ground, negative and false propositions, purely imaginary states of affairs, fictional characters as though they existed because nothingness possesses an appearance of being, a being it borrows from being. The appearance of nothingness depends upon the appearance of being. For example, a hole in a wall exists in a borrowed sense because it is nothing over and above the arrangement of the remaining parts of the wall. An earthquake destroys a city and ontologically this is a distribution of beings that to human beings is disastrous. Sartre says after a storm there is no less than before, there is something else. It is the presence of human reality in the world, being-for-itself, that makes the redistributions of beings called 'storms' and 'earthquakes' into cases of destruction.

Nothingness depends upon consciousness. Consciousness depends upon being-for-itself so nothingness is ultimately introduced into the world by being-for-itself. In the cafe, we are aware of the absence of Pierre because we expect to see him there; as a figure against a background. Sartre distinguishes clearly between non-existence that depends on consciousness and non-existence that does not. After all, many people are absent from the cafe. The Duke of Wellington and Paul Valery are absent. But they are only thought to be absent, in the abstract, or not even thought. Pierre's absence is experienced. In these ways, according to Sartre, consciousness is prior to nothingness.

Consciousness is defined by negation. This is partly the modal point that its being and its being what it is depend upon its not being what it is not. It is partly the psychological claim that its imaginative power to negate is one of its essential properties. Unless we could think or imagine what is absent we could not intuit that which is present.

There is a more profound connection between consciousness and nothingness. I am my consciousness and my consciousness is a kind of nothingness; a nothingness at the heart of being. The being of consciousness contrasts with the kind of being of Sartre calls 'en-soi' or 'in-itself. Being-in-itself is massive, opaque, full, dense and inert. It confronts me and it surrounds me. If I try to locate myself as consciousness, in contrast, I am strangely absent. Phenomenologically, I seem to be a subjective region of non-being within the plenitude of being. Consciousness is a kind of emptiness or non-being. Consciousness is certainly not one object amongst others that I could encounter in the course of my experience. Sartre thinks nothingness distances me from being-in-itself and I am nothing but consciousness of being.

Sartre often speaks as though consciousness is a kind of nothingness or emptiness. Sometimes he says consciousness is a prerequisite for nothingness. Sometimes he says nothingness confronts consciousness. For example, when in Being and Nothingness he says consciousness is total emptiness because the whole world is outside it, he implies that consciousness is a kind of non-being, an absence of being-in-itself. All these views may be exhibited as mutually consistent. Sartre is establishing a hierarchy of dependencies between kinds of absence. Consciousness is a kind of absence that depends on being: being-in-itself. Consciousness essentially involves the power of negation: the possibility of denial through imagination. This in turn makes possible the experience of absence as a kind of quasi-being.

It is through its power of negation that consciousness distinguishes itself from its own objects. This distinction makes possible consciousness' intentionality which, as we saw in the last two chapters, is essential to what consciousness is.