Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1735
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.
On the other hand, Being-for-itself is not causally predetermined by anything. Being-for-itself may be defined as the realm of human consciousness, the realm of subjectivity and choice, and the realm of freedom within alternatives. It is the mode of being that cannot simply be, but must always be becoming; it can never be “complete in itself.”
Being-in-itself is prior to Being-for-itself; that is, Being-for-itself depends on the existence of Being-in-itself for its own existence. As one of Sartre’s more famous slogans has it, “Existence precedes essence.” The existential choices a human makes every moment of life (“existence”) determine that human’s “essence,” which Sartre defines simply as the past or what has already occurred in a person’s life. These past occurrences or choices, taken together, make up the essential self, the Being-for-itself. Sartrean existentialism thus eliminates any idea of a human self or “human nature” imposed by God or by genetics; in Sartre’s view, the essence of an individual human is only what he or she has chosen that essence to be.
Human consciousness itself exists only by the act of “nihilation” (néantisation), a word coined by Sartre: The consciousness causes a “nothingness” to arise between itself and the objects of consciousness, that Being-in-itself of which Being-for-itself is the consciousness. A wall of alienation or separation must always and necessarily exist between consciousness and its objects; since this separation distances individuals from Being itself, Sartre calls consciousness “a hole of being at the heart of Being,” that is, a nothingness. Since Being-for-itself is indeterminate, unfixed, and always in the state of “becoming” rather than in the state of “being” possessed by Being-in-itself, human consciousness exists only by virtue of its incompleteness, its separation from Being-in-itself. Alienated from Being, consciousness must then be considered a “privation,” or a form of nothing.
This condition irresistibly produces a deep and profound anxiety (another key Sartrean term) in the person aware of this alienated status, an anxiety that may be defined as “a continual awareness of one’s own freedom.” Humans are free to become, to choose; humans are “condemned to be free,” in Sartre’s famous phrase. Humanity finds itself in an existence filled with alternatives and must face these alternatives at every moment; humans must choose, commit, and move on, without complete knowledge of the consequences of these choices. Humans themselves, then—not God, genetics, “human nature,” or any other such predetermining factor—are responsible for their own being.
Although humanity knows this terrifying freedom to be its nature, its deepest desire lies in the realm of solidity and certainty, the realm of Being-in-itself. Being-for-itself seeks the impossible: to be united with Being-in-itself to form “Being-in-itself-for-itself,” a state of being that is self-contained and self-existent, such as the state of Being-in-itself, but also self-conscious and free to choose, such as the state of Being-for-itself. Sartre calls this, humanity’s deepest desire, the “Desire to Be God”; since this deepest desire of humanity is logically contradictory and so is inevitably frustrated, humanity is condemned to a tragic existence: “Man is a useless passion.”
Because of this, human existence is revealed as “absurd” and meaningless. Life contains no external purpose or justification; humans’ pitiful attempts to become God are directed toward an unattainable goal, the goal to exist simultaneously as free in choice (Being-for-itself) and absolute in nature (Being-in-itself).
In part 3, it is shown that Being-for-itself involves Being-for-others (pour-autrui) as well. This is the state of interpersonal relations, in which the Being-for-itself exists as an object for others. Conflict arises as the Being-for-itself seeks to recover its own being by making an object out of the others; however, the two (self and others) are inseparable, as the Being-for-itself can only know itself fully by means of Being-for-others.
What sort of life could be made out of such a seemingly gloomy philosophy? According to Sartre, humans are yet capable of “authentic existence”; this type of existence comes about by the willingness to stand by one’s choices and face their consequences unflinchingly. This is the closest Sartre comes to an affirmation of human existence, thereby avoiding a complete abandonment to pessimism and despair: Humans may redeem themselves, at least from self-deception, by recognizing and acknowledging their position as “a quite unjustifiable creature in a groundless universe,” to quote the critic Margaret Walker. By accepting complete responsibility for their own existence, people may “climb out of the abyss of despairing awareness to achieve some form of self-affirmation.” This “authentic existence” is the goal of existential psychoanalysis, which is discussed in part 4 of the book.
Those who busy themselves with the day-to-day flurry of life merely to avoid facing the terrifying responsibility of choice exhibit what Sartre calls “bad faith” (mauvaise foi). Bad faith is a self-deception, in that the Being-for-itself seeks to objectify its own body as Being-in-itself; responsibility for actions or choices is thus evaded or postponed. Sartre gives the example of a woman who is being courted by a suitor. Her own desires are contradictory: She does not want to give in to his advances, nor does she want to reject him and possibly end the relationship. Therefore, she objectifies herself into a “thing,” merely being acted upon rather than acting; if the suitor, for instance, holds her hand (and by doing so implicitly asks for a rational decision), she deceives herself into not noticing that he is holding her hand. Her hand, her body, become “objects”; she seeks to postpone her own existence as Being-for-itself by wrongfully seeing herself as Being-in-itself. This is a display of bad faith.
In the realm of Being-for-itself, bad faith is always a possibility. Sartre describes a waiter in a cafeteria to illustrate this point: By his overly precise and meticulous actions, the waiter seems robotlike; those who watch him realize that he is “playing at being” a waiter. The human consciousness, then, becomes an affectation of consciousness; bad faith becomes an ever-present possibility when it becomes clear that humans cannot simply “be who they are” apart from choice (Sartre’s “principle of identity”), as this is possible only for Being-in-itself. The activity of consciousness is itself a choice, so any attempt to evade responsibility for one’s existence is illusory.
No brief summary can do full justice to the complexity of Sartre’s thorough and systematic treatise. Being and Nothingness must stand as one of the most ambitious and influential philosophical works of the twentieth century and certainly as Sartre’s philosophical magnum opus. In his work, Sartre’s existentialist concepts capture, probably to a greater degree than any other modern philosophy, the angst of the twentieth century mind.