(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

The subtitle of Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology, clearly states the central intention of the author. Jean-Paul Sartre is at one with Greek philosophers Parmenides and Plato in his contention that the chief problem of philosophy is the problem of being. Significant differences, however, emerge in a comparison of the ontological investigations of the ancient Greeks with those of Sartre. The adjective “phenomenological” in the subtitle indicates one of these significant differences.

Sartre’s ontology is an ontology that follows in the wake of German Immanuel Kant’s critical philosophy, Edmund Husserl’s phenomenological reduction, and Martin Heidegger’s ontology of Dasein. Being and Nothingness has all of the Kantian reservations about any philosophy that seeks to proceed beyond the limits of possible experience, draws heavily from the phenomenological investigations of Husserl, and exhibits basically the same form of analysis and description as was used in Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit (1927; Being and Time, 1962). Nevertheless, Kant, Husserl, and Heidegger intermittently throughout the work fall under some rather trenchant Sartrian criticism. Kant’s chief mistake was his appeal to a “thing-in-itself” that somehow stands behind the phenomena. In Sartre’s phenomenological ontology, nothing is 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 noumena, appearance and reality, is abolished, and being is made coextensive with phenomena. Husserl comes in for a similar criticism. His hypothesis of a transcendental ego is pronounced useless and disastrous. The fate of such a view, according to Sartre, is shipwreck on the “reef of solipsism.” The faults of Heidegger are not as grievous as those of Kant and Husserl. As becomes apparent on every page of Being and Nothingness, Sartre’s analysis is markedly informed by Heideggerian concepts. Yet Heidegger, argues the author, neglects the phenomenon of the lived body, has no explanation for the concrete relatedness of selves, and misinterprets the existential significance of death.


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Being, in Sartre’s analysis, evinces a transphenomenal character. Although there is no noumena and no thing-in-itself that lies concealed behind the phenomenal appearances of being, being is never exhausted in any of its particular phenomenal aspects. Being, in the totality of its aspects and manifestations, never becomes wholly translucent to consciousness. Everything that has being “overflows” whatever particular categories, designations, and descriptions human knowledge may attach to it. Being evinces relationships and qualities that escape any specific determination. Although being is reduced to the whole of its phenomenal manifestations, it is in no way exhausted by any particular perspective that humanity has of the phenomena. 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 massive, fixed, complete in itself, totally and wholly given. It is devoid of potency and becoming, roughly equivalent to the inert world of objects and things. It has no inside and no outside. It expresses neither a relationship with itself nor a relationship to anything outside itself. It is further characterized by an absolute...

(The entire section is 406 words.)


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

One of the fateful consequences 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 human consciousness that nothingness comes into the world. In his discussion on nothingness, Sartre is intent on rejecting the Hegelian dialectical approach and substituting for it a phenomenological account. For Hegel, being and nothingness are dialectical concepts that 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 being; it must be given at the heart of being. Nothingness demands a host, possessing the plenitude and full positivity of being, from which it borrows its power of nihilation. Thus, nothingness has only a borrowed or marginal being. Although Sartre never acknowledges his debt to early Christian philosopher Saint Augustine on this point, his analysis seems to draw heavily 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. It would indeed seem that in its basic outlines, Sartre’s analysis of nothingness is little more than a secularized Augustinianism. The introduction of nothingness...

(The entire section is 563 words.)

Bad Faith

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Nothingness, freedom, and anxiety provide the conditions that make possible the movement of “bad faith” (mauvaise foi). Bad faith is a form of self-deception that in making use of freedom denies it. Bad faith is akin to lying, yet not identical to 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. She is fully aware of his intentions and knows that sooner or later she will have to make a decision. An immediate decision is demanded when he caresses her hand. If she leaves her hand there, she encourages his advances; if she withdraws it, she may well preclude any further relationship with the suitor. She must decide, but she seeks means for postponing the decision. It is at this point that bad faith comes into play. She leaves her hand in his but does not notice that she is doing so. She becomes all intellect, divorces her soul from her body, and transforms her body into an object or thing—into the mode of “being-in-itself.” Her hand becomes “a thing,” neither consenting nor resisting. She objectivizes her body, and ultimately herself, as in-itself, and thus stages a flight or an escape from herself as for-itself. She loses her subjectivity, her freedom, and her responsibility for decision. She exists in bad faith.


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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 that provides the condition for its possibility. People 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 nonpositional consciousness. This consciousness characterizes the level of primitive awareness and is prior to the positional consciousness that is the reflective consciousness of the intentional action. Nonpositional consciousness is prereflective; therefore, Sartre describes it as a prereflective cogito (cogito pre-reflexif). This prereflective cogito quite clearly precedes the Cartesian cogito, which is a movement of reflection, and becomes the foundation for it.

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 the positional consciousness. Positional consciousness is always consciousness of something. It is directed outward into a world. However, 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.

The For-Itself

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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 situationality of the being of the for-itself. Without facticity, consciousness could choose its attachments to the world—it would be absolute and unfettered freedom. However, the freedom that the for-itself experiences is always restricted by the situation in which it is abandoned. Nevertheless, 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. One does not become a bourgeois or a French person until one chooses 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. However,...

(The entire section is 416 words.)


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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, or collected “givens,” in which some are no longer and others are not yet. If time is understood as an infinite series of discrete nows, then the whole series is annihilated. The past nows are no longer real, the future nows are not yet real, and the present now is always slipping away, functioning only as a limit of an infinite division. In such a view, time evaporates and is dissolved into an...

(The entire section is 636 words.)

Self and Other

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

The temporalized world of the for-itself is not an insulated world experienced in isolation. In the world of the for-itself, the “others” (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. Sartre begins with an examination and criticism of the views of Hegel, Husserl, and Heidegger, and then proceeds to a positive formulation of his own. The “other” is already disclosed in the movements of the prereflective, nonpositional consciousness. Shame affords an example of a prereflective, disclosure of the...

(The entire section is 632 words.)

The Body

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

In the relation of the for-itself with the other, the body appears as a central phenomenon. The body is discussed in the context of three ontological dimensions: first, the body as I exist it, second, the body as utilized and known by the other, and third, the body as I exist it in reference to its being known by the other. The body as I exist it is not the objectivized body constituted by nerves, glands, muscles, and organs. Such an objectivized body is present for the physician when he gives me a medical examination, but I do not apprehend my body in this way. I apprehend my body in its lived concreteness as that phenomenon that indicates my possibilities in the world. The body as concretely lived signifies a level of...

(The entire section is 848 words.)

Additional Reading

(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

Beauvoir, Simone de. Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre. Translated by Patrick O’Brian. New York: Pantheon 1984. A discerning look at Jean-Paul Sartre by his long-time companion.

Caws, Peter. Sartre. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979. Presents an overview of Sartre’s philosophical writings. Chapters 4-6 discuss ideas from Being and Nothingness and examine the concepts of being, negation, subjectivity, and “bad faith.” Points out the roots of Being and Nothingness in Sartre’s earlier writings, and especially highlights his ideas regarding interpersonal emotional relationships.

Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy: Maine de Biran to Sartre. New...

(The entire section is 605 words.)


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Additional Reading

Beauvoir, Simone de. Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre. Translated by Patrick O’Brian. New York: Pantheon 1984. A discerning look at Jean-Paul Sartre by his long-time companion.

Caws, Peter. Sartre. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979. Presents an overview of Sartre’s philosophical writings. Chapters 4-6 discuss ideas from Being and Nothingness and examine the concepts of being, negation, subjectivity, and “bad faith.” Points out the roots of Being and Nothingness in Sartre’s earlier writings, and especially highlights his ideas regarding interpersonal emotional...

(The entire section is 601 words.)