The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre has become widely identified with twentieth century existentialism as its most popular and well-known proponent and as a lucid and gifted writer of both philosophy and literature. Although existentialist tenets had been expressed in the thought of such previous philosophers as Søren Kierkegaard and Martin Heidegger, the mood of alienation and despair evoked by existentialism found its greatest response in the post-World War II circumstances in which Sartre lived and worked. As the leading French intellectual movement of the era, Sartrean existentialism infiltrated virtually every form of thought and artistic achievement, including literature, the theater, the visual arts, and theology. Being and Nothingness, Sartre’s major philosophical work, is considered to be one of the most influential texts of this movement, as well as being an important work in the history of philosophy as a whole.
Born in Paris in 1905, Sartre was educated at the École Normale Supérieure, where he graduated at the age of twenty-two with a degree in philosophy. “Philosophy is absolutely terrific,” he said later of his early educational experience. “You can learn the truth through it.” In 1929, having completed his studies, Sartre began teaching in French secondary schools. Throughout this period (1929-1934), Sartre also traveled extensively in Greece, Italy, Egypt, and especially Germany, where he studied under the German philosophers Edmund Husserl and Heidegger, both of whom greatly influenced his work. In 1935, Sartre began teaching at the Lycée Condorcet, where a following of young intellectuals soon gathered around him.
Although Sartre wrote throughout this time, his breakthrough to the larger world came in 1938 with the publication of La Nausée (Nausea, 1949), his first novel. A year later, he published a collection of short stories entitled Le Mur (The Wall, and Other Stories, 1939). Both books emphasized the themes of loneliness, despair, and the anxiety of personal freedom, themes that recurred throughout Sartre’s later work. In 1943, these themes were given large-scale, systematic philosophical expression with the publication of Being and Nothingness.
The book is divided into an introduction and four main parts. Sartre opens with a challenging discussion of pure Being, one of the central preoccupations of the metaphysical tradition of philosophy. Although he rejects the Kantian “thing-in-itself” (das Ding an sich), that aspect of pure Being that lies behind the phenomenal appearances of being, Sartre maintains that pure Being, when considered as a whole, always lies outside the realm of human perceptibility. The abundance of Being, in all its manifestations, cannot be specifically described or categorized by our consciousness of it. According to Sartre, Being is simply the condition of all revelation. It is being-for-revealing [être-pour-dévoiler] and not revealed being [être dévoilé]. . . . Certainly I can pass beyond this table or this chair toward its being and raise the question of the being-of-the-table or the being-of-the-chair. But at that moment I turn my eyes away from the phenomenon of the table in order to concentrate on the phenomenon of being. [Being becomes] an appearance which, as such, needs in turn a being on the basis of which it can reveal itself.
This pure Being of which Sartre writes is manifested primarily as a split between “Being-in-itself” [en-soi] and “Being-for-itself” [pour-soi]. The examination of these two concepts forms the bulk of the first half of the book.
Being-in-itself may be described as that mode of being that is complete in itself, which does not choose what it may become. It corresponds to the realm of physical objects and phenomena, the universe of “things.” Being-in-itself is causally predetermined by the nature of its own being; as Sartre writes, “Being-in-itself is never either possible or impossible. It is.” Being-in-itself contains the realm of absolutes, the realm of “facticity” in which choice is impossible and Being simply exists without alternative.