Sartre: Being and Nothingness (Analysis)

Being and Nothingness is the major work by Jean-Paul Sartre and can be considered as the most complete work of existentialist philosophy.

Published in 1943 (during the german Occupation in France), Sartre presents it as an essay on phenomenological consciousness. But it is actually much more than a simple treaty phenomenological Sartre reinvents ontology and metaphysics, from the achievements of Husserl’s phenomenology.

Indigestible, the work of over 700 pages should be studied more than read, as the complexity of Sartre’s thought and the novelty of his ideas is striking.

 Phenomena in Being and Nothingness

In the introduction, Sartre describes the reasons for its rejection of the Kantian concept of noumenon. Kant distinguishes the phenomena, objects of sense experience, noumena, things in themselves whose knowledge escapes us. Against Kant, Sartre argues that the emergence of a phenomenon is pure and absolute. The noumenon is inaccessible, it just is not there. The appearance is the only reality. From this starting point, Sartre argues that the world can be seen as an infinite series of finite appearances. Such a perspective helps eliminate dualisms of classical philosophy, especially the dual indoor / outdoor.

Consciousness is what allows the world to exist. Without it, there would be no objects, no trees, no rivers, no rocks, just be. Consciousness is always intentional, it is consciousness of something. Consciousness is the world and made it happen as a world conscience.

The for-itself and the in-itself in Being and Nothingness

Sartre goes on to describe the distinction that Hegel’s ontology structure: that between being unconscious (in itself) and be aware (for-itself). The in-itself is frozen, full and does not have the ability to change, and is unaware of himself. The For-itself is conscious of his own conscience, but it is also incomplete, open, under construction. For Sartre, this lack of definition, this incompleteness is what defines the man. Since the for-itself has no predetermined essence, he is forced to create from nothing. For Sartre, nothingness is the defining characteristic of the for-itself. A tree is a tree and do not have the ability to modify or create his being. The man, however, is himself acting in the world. Instead of being just like the tree, the man exists. Means not being there. Sartre goes even further by asserting that “man is what he is not and is not what it is.” Indeed, the man has a conscience that allows it to look, there is a consciousness of consciousness: thus, the shy becomes aware of his shyness no longer a shy, naive, shy but a conscious, therefore different .

If man chooses, is to give meaning to his actions: the individual projects himself by attributing meaning to his action, based on its specific characteristics (such as its physical nature) to better deny .

The paradox here is great. The for-itself desires to become a being-in-itself, be an object of his subjectivity. The for-itself is consciousness, but the instance of this consciousness of his own being is an issue, an irreconcilable fissure between the in-itself and for-itself.

Through awareness of what it is, the for-itself becomes what it is: a nothingness, completely free in the world, a blank canvas on which everything is created. He concluded that the for-itself is the being through whom nothingness comes into the world, and, therefore, that the for-itself is something missing, torn between unity and duality.

The For-itself as lack, and therefore the task, reveals itself in temporality. Indeed, the for-itself is not identical to its past or its future. It is no longer what it was, and it is not yet what he will: through time, man never coincides with itself. Sartre described the ecstasies temporal (past / present / future): the past is the facticity of human life that can not choose what is already spent. The future, it opens up opportunities for freedom of the for-itself. But freedom and facticity form an inconsistency within the For-itself, generating instability.

Bad faith in Being and Nothingness

This inconsistency between freedom and facticity is manifested in bad faith. The For-itself is a task, he formed projects. Among the different types of projects, bad faith is important to understand the human being. Sartre’s analysis of the project of bad faith is based on striking examples: the Machinist gesture of the waiter. By behaving well, the server identifies itself completely with its role as a waiter, in the mode of beings in themselves. In other words, the waiter rejects nature of For-itself free to slide to the facticity. It seeks to offload its freedom, ie the obligation to decide for himself. However, consciousness is transparent to itself, it can not ignore this ruse: bad faith is a self-delusion. The concept Sartre provides an alternative to psychoanalytic theories of consciousness that are an offshoot of the unconscious. Sartre also describes in Being and Nothingness his theory of existential psychoanalysis.

The fundamental project in Being and Nothingness

Sartre describes the fundamental project of For-itself as desire to be. This desire is universal, and can be one of three forms:

– Direct conversion of the for-itself in an in-itself

– The for-itself seeks to become its own foundation (become God).

– The for-itself is another mode of being, the for-itself.

None of the objectives described are achievable. All human lives are dominated by such a desire. Evidenced by his descriptions of the projects love, sadistic and masochistic. The metaphysical nature of man is to become an in-itself-for-itself, God somehow.

Desire in Being and Nothingness

Desire is not only desire but also to have been. And of love: the lover seeks to possess the loved one and then integrate it into his being: it is the satisfaction of desire. But he wishes the same time as the beloved remains beyond his being the other as he desires, ie he wants to stay in the state of desire. The desire is contradictory because the being of desire is incompatible with his satisfaction. 5. Relationships with others in Being and Nothingness

Others in Being and Nothingness

The subject is not solipsistic, it faces other issues: we become aware of ourselves when we face with the eyes of others (the experience of shame). The look of the other objective, we fix such a photograph in a specific function: others gives us an outside, in nature. Thus, the gaze of others deprives us of our freedom for us to fall into the in-itself.

Authenticity in Being and Nothingness

If Sartre asserts human relations as impossible, doomed to failure, the fact remains that assigns a task to be the man to assume fully as for-itself. Authenticity is to choose the world, choose without taking refuge in the comfort of being, without succumbing to the lure of bad faith. Man is indeed “a useless passion”, but his task is to make himself worthy of his condition.

Cite this article as: Tim, "Sartre: Being and Nothingness (Analysis), May 5, 2012, " in Philosophy & Philosophers, May 5, 2012,

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