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.