Being and Nothingness Summary
by Jean-Paul Sartre

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Being and Nothingness Summary

(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

For Sartre, human existence is conscious being, “being-for-itself” (pour-soi). Human existence as “being-for-itself” is temporal—always in some present, always on the way from some past toward some future. Another characteristic of human existence is its dependence on things. Things have a fundamentally different mode of existence: “being-in-itself” (en-soi). They have no consciousness, no possibilities, no freedom. Their being is complete as it is.

One danger for human existence is that it may be falsely reduced from free “being-for-itself” to unfree “being-in-itself.” This threat may come from others or from oneself. One may intentionally avoid freedom and the anxiety of conscious decision making by convincing oneself that one has no options, but this is to reduce oneself to an object, to use freedom to deny freedom, to live in “bad faith” (mauvaise foi).

The existence of “the others” (autrui) is a fundamental fact of human existence. In Sartre’s view, however, the constant factor in interpersonal relationships is not potential harmony, but inevitable alienation. Lovers, in his analysis, cannot avoid the objectifying will to possess, which denies freedom and reduces the loved one from “being-for-itself” to “being-in-itself.”


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 1,922 words.)