Being and Nothingness

Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology’ is a 1943 book by philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Its main purpose is to assert the individual’s existence as prior to the individual’s essence. Sartre’s overriding concern was to demonstrate that free will exists.

While a prisoner of war in 1940 and 1941, Sartre read Martin Heidegger’s ‘Being and Time,’ an ontological investigation through the lens and method of Husserlian phenomenology (Husserl was Heidegger’s teacher). Reading ‘Being and Time’ initiated Sartre’s own inquiry leading to the publication in 1943 of ‘Being and Nothingnes’s whose subtitle is ‘A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology.’

The essay is clearly influenced by Heidegger though Sartre was profoundly skeptical of any measure by which humanity could achieve a kind of personal state of fulfillment comparable to the hypothetical Heideggerian re-encounter with Being. In his much gloomier account, man is a creature haunted by a vision of ‘completion,’ what Sartre calls the ‘ens causa sui,’ which religions identify as God. Born into the material reality of one’s body, in a material universe, one finds oneself inserted into being. Consciousness has the ability to conceptualize possibilities, and to make them appear, or to annihilate them.

In the introduction, Sartre sketches his own theory of consciousness, being, and phenomena through criticism of both earlier phenomenologists (most notably Husserl and Heidegger) as well as idealists, rationalists, and empiricists. According to him, one of the major achievements of modern philosophy is phenomenology (focusing on phenomena) because it disproved the kinds of dualism that set the existent up as having a ‘hidden’ nature (such as Kant’s ‘noumenon,’ a purely mental entity); phenomenology has removed ‘the illusion of worlds behind the scene.’ Based on an examination of the nature of phenomena, Sartre describes the nature of two types of being, ‘being-in-itself’ (an object in the external world) and ‘being-for-itself’ (a consciousness).

When we go about the world, we have expectations which are often not fulfilled. For example, Pierre is not at the café where we thought we would meet him, so there is a negation, a void, a nothingness, in the place of Pierre. When looking for Pierre his lack of being there becomes a negation; everything he sees as he searches the people and objects about him are ‘not Pierre.’ So Sartre claims ‘It is evident that non-being always appears within the limits of a human expectation.’

‘Bad faith’ (self-deception) can be understood as the guise of existing as a character, individual, or person who defines himself through the social categorization of his formal identity. This essentially means that in being a waiter, grocer, etc., one must believe that their social role is equivalent to their human existence. Living a life defined by one’s occupation, social, racial, or economic class, is the very essence of ‘bad faith,’ the condition in which people cannot transcend their situations in order to realize what they must be (human) and what they are not (waiter, grocer, etc.). It is also essential for an existent to understand that negation allows the self to enter what Sartre calls the ‘great human stream,’ which arises from a singular realization that nothingness is a state of mind in which we can become anything, in reference to our situation, that we desire.

The difference between existence and identity projection remains at the heart of human subjects who are swept up by their own condition, their ‘bad faith.’ An example of projection that Sartre uses is the café waiter who performs the duties, traditions, functions, and expectations of a café waiter: ‘[W]hat are we then if we have the constant obligation to make ourselves what we are if our mode of being is having the obligation to be what we are? Let us consider this waiter in the café. His movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid. He bends forward a little too eagerly; his voice, his eyes express an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the customer. Finally there he returns, trying to imitate in his walk the inflexible stiffness of some kind of automaton while carrying his tray with the recklessness of a tight-rope-walker by putting it in a perpetually unstable, perpetually broken equilibrium which he perpetually re-establishes by a light movement of the arm and hand. All his behavior seems to us a game. He applies himself to changing his movements as if they were mechanisms, the one regulating the other; his gestures and even his voice seems to be mechanisms; he gives himself the quickness and pitiless rapidity of things. He is playing, he is amusing himself. But what is he playing? We need not watch long before we can explain it: he is playing at being a waiter in a café. There is nothing there to surprise us.’

Sartre consistently mentions that in order to get out of bad faith, one must realize that their existence and their formal projection of a self are distinctly separate and within the means of human control. This separation is a form of nothingness. Nothingness, in terms of bad faith, is characterized by Sartre as the internal negation which separates pure existence and identity, and thus we are subject to playing our lives out in a similar manner. An example is something that is what it is (existence) and something that is what it is not (a waiter defined by his occupation).

However, Sartre takes a stance against characterizing bad faith in terms of ‘mere social positions.’ Says Sartre, ‘I am never any one of my attitudes, any one of my actions.’ The good speaker is the one who plays at speaking because he cannot be speaking. This literally means that, like the café waiter, the speaker is not his condition or social categorization, but is a speaker consumed by bad faith. Thus, we must realize what we are (beings who exist) and what we are not (a social/historical preoccupation) in order to step out of bad faith. Yet, existents (human beings) must maintain a balance between existence, their roles, and nothingness to become authentic beings.

Additionally, an important tenet of bad faith is that we must enact a bit of ‘good faith’ in order to take advantage of our role to reach an authentic existence. The authentic domain of bad faith is realizing that the role we are playing is the lie. To live and project into the future as a project of a self, while keeping out of bad faith and living by the will of the self is living life authentically.

One of the most important implications of bad faith is the abolition of traditional ethics. Being a ‘moral person’ requires one to deny authentic impulses (everything that makes us human) and allow the will of another person to change one’s actions. Being ‘a moral person’ is one of the most severe forms of bad faith. Sartre essentially characterizes this as ‘the faith of bad faith’ which is and should not be, in Sartre’s opinion, at the heart of one’s existence. Sartre has a very low opinion of conventional ethics, condemning it as a tool of the bourgeoisie to control the masses. Bad faith also results when individuals begin to view their life as made up of distinct past events. By viewing one’s ego as it once was rather than as it currently is, one ends up negating the current self and replacing it with a past self that no longer exists.

The mere possible presence of another person causes one to look at themselves as an object and see their world as it appears to the other. This is not done from a specific location outside oneself, but is non-positional. This is a recognition of the subjectivity in others. This transformation is most clear when one sees a mannequin that one confuses for a real person for a moment. While they are believing it is a person, their world is transformed, and everything exists as an object that partially escapes them. During this time the world comes on to you differently, and you can no longer have a total subjectivity.

The world is now his world, a foreign world that no longer comes from you, but from him. The other person is a ‘threat to the order and arrangement of your whole world…Your world is suddenly haunted by the Other’s values, over which you have no control.’ When they realize it is a mannequin, and is not subjective, the world seems to transfer back, and they are again in the center of a universe. This is back to the pre-reflective mode of being, it is ‘the eye of the camera that is always present but is never seen.’ The person is occupied and too busy for self-reflection. This process is continual, unavoidable, and ineluctable.

Sartre states that many relationships are created by people’s attraction not to another person, but rather how that person makes them feel about themselves by how they look at them. This is a state of emotional alienation whereby a person avoids experiencing their subjectivity by identifying themselves with ‘the look’ of the other. The consequence is conflict. In order to maintain the person’s own being, the person must control the other, but must also control the freedom of the other ‘as freedom.’ These relationships are a profound manifestation of ‘bad faith’ as the for-itself is replaced with the other’s freedom. The purpose of either participant is not to exist, but to maintain the other participant’s looking at them.

This system is often mistakenly called love, but is in fact nothing more than emotional alienation and a denial of freedom through conflict with the other. Sartre believes that it is often created as a means of making the unbearable anguish of a person’s relationship to their ‘Facticity’ (all of the concrete details against the background of which human freedom exists and is limited, such as birthplace and time) bearable. At its extreme, the alienation can become so intense that due to the guilt of being so radically enslaved by ‘the look’ and therefore missing their own freedoms, the participants can experience masochistic and sadistic attitudes. This happens when the participants cause pain to each other, in attempting to prove their control over the other’s look, which they cannot escape because they believe themselves to be so enslaved to the look that experiencing their own subjectivity would be equally unbearable.

‘The look,’ Sartre explains, is the basis for sexual desire; Sartre declares that there is not a biological motivation for sex. Instead, ‘double reciprocal incarnation,’ is a form of mutual awareness which Sartre takes to be at the heart of the sexual experience. This involves the mutual recognition of subjectivity of some sort, as Sartre describes: ‘I make myself flesh in order to impel the Other to realize for herself and for me her own flesh. My caress causes my flesh to be born for me insofar as it is for the Other flesh causing her to be born as flesh.’

Even in sex (perhaps especially in sex), men and women are haunted by a state in which consciousness and bodily being would be in perfect harmony, with desire satisfied. Such a state, however, can never be. We try to bring the beloved’s consciousness to the surface of their body by use of magical acts performed, gestures (kisses, desires, etc.). But at the moment of orgasm the illusion is ended and we return to ourselves, just as it is ended when the skier comes to the foot of the mountain or when the commodity that once we desired loses its glow upon our purchase of it. There will be, for Sartre, no such moment of completion because ‘man is a useless passion’ to be the ‘ens causa sui,’ the God of the ontological proof.

Sartre contends that human existence is a conundrum whereby each of us exists, for as long as we live, within an overall condition of nothingness (‘no thing-ness’)—that ultimately allows for free consciousness. But simultaneously, within our being (in the physical world), we are constrained to make continuous, conscious choices. It is this dichotomy that causes anguish, because choice (subjectivity) represents a limit on freedom within an otherwise unbridled range of thoughts. Subsequently, humans seek to flee our anguish through action-oriented constructs such as escapes, visualizations, or visions (such as dreams) designed to lead us toward some meaningful end, such as necessity, destiny, determinism (God), etc.

Thus, in living our lives, we often become unconscious actors—Bourgeois, Feminist, Worker, Party Member, Frenchman, Canadian or American—each doing as we must to fulfill our chosen characters’ destinies. However, Sartre contends our conscious choices (leading to often unconscious actions) run counter to our intellectual freedom. Yet we are bound to the conditioned and physical world—in which some form of action is always required. This leads to failed dreams of completion, as Sartre described them, because inevitably we are unable to bridge the void between the purity and spontaneity of thought and all-too constraining action; between the being and the nothingness that inherently coincide in our self.

Sartre’s recipe for fulfillment is to escape all quests by completing them. This is accomplished by rigorously forcing order onto nothingness, employing the ‘spirit (or consciousness of mind) of seriousness’ and describing the failure to do so in terms such as ‘bad faith’ and ‘false consciousness.’ Though Sartre’s conclusion seems to be that being diminishes before nothingness since consciousness is probably based more on spontaneity than on stable seriousness, he contends that any person of a serious nature is obligated to continuous struggle between: a) the conscious desire for peaceful self-fulfillment through physical actions and social roles—as if living within a portrait that one actively paints of oneself; and b) the more pure and raging spontaneity of ‘no thing’ consciousness, of being instantaneously free to overturn one’s roles, pull up stakes, and strike out new paths.

In Sartre’s opinion, consciousness does not make sense by itself: It arises by the awareness of objects. So ‘consciousness of’ is the proper way to qualify consciousness. One is always aware of an object. The latter being something or someone, it accounts to the same. This non-positional quality of consciousness is what makes it an ontology. And the fact that third parties are the tangible foundation for the intangible self is what truly makes it a phenomenological ontology. These concepts can be re-stated in terms of ‘essence’ and ‘existence.’ The waiter ‘exists’ and when he realizes his ‘bad faith’ he is his essence. In other words, existence comes before essence.


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