Sartre, Jean-Paul (1905–80)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DD062-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 24, 2024, from

3. Being and Nothingness

Being and Nothingness sets out the main philosophical tenets of the ‘classical’ Sartre. Being is subdivided, as it were, into two major regions – being for-itself (l’être pour-soi) or consciousness, and being-in-itself (l’être en-soi) which is everything other than consciousness, including the material world, the past, the body as organism and so on. To being-in-itself Sartre devotes no more than six of his 660 pages; there is little to be said about it other than it is, it is what it is, and it is ‘in itself’. Only through the ‘for-itself’ of consciousness does the ‘in-itself’ become a world to speak of. Indeed, Sartre argues, we cannot know anything about being as it is, only about being as it appears to us. It is through consciousness that the world is endowed with temporality, spatiality and other qualities such as usefulness. This is where the imagination in its broadest sense may be seen as primary: ‘imagination is the whole of consciousness as it realizes its freedom’ (1940: 236). Imagination makes a world of the ‘in-itself’, it totalizes and ‘nihilates’ it. Nihilation (néantir) is a term that is specific to Sartre, and means not annihilation but rather the special type of negation that consciousness operates when it ‘intends’ an object: it differentiates the object from its surroundings and knows itself not to be that object. But consciousness is not alone in the world it has created from the brute ‘in-itself’, indeed it has not created the world individually, but rather as part of an intersubjective community. And other people, or their consciousnesses, are not an afterthought for Sartre. Like Heidegger he sees man as always already engaged in relationships with others; unlike Heidegger he sees these not in terms of Mitsein (Being-with), but in terms of conflict in a manner reminiscent of the account given by Hegel of the relationship between masters and slaves. The other is in permanent competition with me. I wish to be a subject and make of the other an object, while he or she attempts to make me an object in my turn. In Sartre’s account, this battle is the key to all human relationships, and not merely those which might appear conflictual, but also those of sexual desire and even love. Consciousness is engaged in a permanent struggle to maintain its freedom in the face of onslaughts from all sides.

These aspects of Sartre’s early philosophy are probably the best known. Less familiar but no less significant are his accounts of the limits within which human freedom operates. The battle of consciousnesses is not disembodied, and my own body constitutes not only the condition of possibility but also one of the major constraints on my freedom. Consciousness and imagination are free, but they are free against a background of facticity and situation. Facticity in particular is rarely given due weight by exegetes of Sartre’s philosophy. My facticity is all the facts about myself which cannot be changed – my age, sex, height, class of origin, race, nationality, for example. (Later Sartre comes to include in facticity more psychological elements of genetic or environmental origin.) One’s situation may be modified, but it still constitutes the starting point for any change, and roots consciousness firmly in the world about it. All this means that the Sartrean philosophy of freedom is less idealized than it might at first appear. I am not free to change a whole multiplicity of aspects of my condition, and those I am free to change may not prove easy. As I live I create a self which does not bind me but which certainly makes some courses of action easier and more attractive than others. My own self-image and the image others hold of me also condition the range of possibilities open to me. I make a character for myself over the years, and though it is always open to me to act ‘out of character’ – after all it is a self I have constituted, not an essence I was born with – such a decision is not usually easy. Sartre describes this self-constitution in terms not so much of character as of ‘project’, each person having a fundamental project of being, which is not necessarily the result of a conscious decision, and possibly elaborated gradually over time. This project forms the core of a whole nexus of choices and behavioural decisions which form the totality that constitutes my self. My actions form a meaningful whole, each act relates to others before and since, and so the decision to make significant changes always comes up against resistance from already existent patterns and structures. Discussing, for example, an episode when a man gives up on a long hike declaring he is ‘too tired’ to continue, Sartre discusses the abandonment of the walk in terms of a project which does not put persistence in the face of setbacks at much of a premium. He ‘could have acted differently, of course,’ Sartre comments, ‘but at what cost?’ (1943a: 531). Our personal history does not eradicate our freedom, but in practice it is often easier to deny our freedom than to employ it. We hide behind the selves we have constructed, fearing change and convincing ourselves that our choices are limited. Freedom is threatening to us, it opens up a range of possibilities which we find daunting, and we flee from it in what Sartre calls ‘bad faith’. Ideally we would like the positive aspect of liberty – free choice, a lack of constraints – together with the security and comfort of a fixed character or nature. The two are incompatible, and our desire to combine them is termed by Sartre a ‘useless passion’ (see Self-deception, ethics of §2).

In 1943, then, Sartre already sets freedom firmly against a background of constraint – constraints which arise from the features of the material world, from other people whose projects may not coincide with mine, from bodily existence, from facticity and from fear of freedom itself. Freedom is always within and starting from situation, and it is on the determinants and conditioning power of situation that Sartre increasingly focuses in his later writings.

Citing this article:
Howells, Christina. Being and Nothingness. Sartre, Jean-Paul (1905–80), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DD062-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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