The Nothingness of Jean-Paul Sartre

Ce n’est pas Jean-Paul Sartre

Bigot, misogynist, and antisocial cynic, Jean-Paul Sartre is an unlikely hero. Yet, Sartre is a hero to some, and not just to bigot, misogynists, and antisocial cynics. He was brave in speaking openly about what few have the courage to even contemplate. For what he contributed to philosophy, he deserves praise. And yet, Sartre was so woefully, tragically mistaken.

It is difficult to tweeze out the elements of Sartre’s philosophy, especially any positive elements. The saying “life’s a bitch and then you die” is a flippant but not entirely inaccurate summary of Sartre’s philosophy. He was also influenced by Søren Kierkegaard but with even more fear and trembling.

Martin Heidegger’s principal book was Being and Time (1927), but Sartre’s principal book was Being and Nothingness (1943, written after he read Heidegger’s book), and this gives a hint as to what separates their philosophies. Sartre agreed with Heidegger that we are finite beings thrown into the world without absolute values on which to base our actions. However, whereas Heidegger writes about our involvements and our concerns, Sartre writes that we simply exist and are full of anxiety. Sartre does not agree with Heidegger’s notion of Dasein, or that we are Being-in-the-world.

Sartre’s Declaration of Nothingness

Sartre thought that knowledge of facts has no meaning in an objective sense, but he also oddly decided that subjective consciousness has no meaning in a subjective sense. Consciousness is nothingness, Sartre claimed.

The root of this concept comes from Edmund Husserl’s realization that consciousness is not a thing like a tree is a thing. Sartre takes that concept to the extreme conclusion that consciousness is separate from the world of things and is not a thing. Our consciousness is nothingness. It cannot and can never be an object in the world. At first that may sound like the dualism of René Descartes, but Sartre means something very different.

Sartre labels objects “in-itself,” signifying that they are self-contained, static entities. He labels human consciousness “for-itself,” signifying that it is a self-aware and self-projecting entity. Objects in-itself have static identities determined by external sources. Consciousness, as for-itself, is spontaneously free and lives in terms of possibilities.

But consciousness, Sartre claims. being nothingness, is not a substance as Descartes had deduced. We can only perceive objects, so can’t perceive our consciousness objectively; we have only fleeting subjective experiences of the world. We are conscious, we exist, but we are nothing, empty awareness and desire without ground, purpose, or meaning. We are absurd.

Sartre’s Waiter

If Sartre had left it there, at the nihilism of life is incapable of meaning, his philosophy would be less confusing. To Sartre’s credit, he dared to venture into the question of what being authentic means. To his detriment, he got it very wrong.

Sartre’s most famous discussion of authenticity, or rather the lack thereof, is his example of the waiter in a café. Sartre’s waiter is an example of Sartre’s idea of bad faith. The waiter, Sartre says, thinks of himself not as the individual he is but as a waiter. He is therefore abandoning his freedom to act and is instead letting the role of being a waiter determine his every action.

He applies himself to chaining his movements as if they were mechanisms, the one regulating the other; his gestures and even his voice seem to be mechanisms; he gives himself the quickness and pitiless rapidity of things (Sartre 1943, 59)

Sartre claims that the waiter is practicing self-deception, acting in bad faith in pretending that his thoughts and movements are determined by what it means to be a waiter. Deep down, he is aware that he is radically free. He could at any moment throw down his tray and towel and storm out of the café. But the waiter hides this truth from himself; his faith in being a waiter is inauthentic.

Inauthentic?

There are obvious problem’s with Sartre’s waiter example, each stemming from Sartre’s binary all-or-nothing thinking. It seems that Sartre assumed that a person performing the functions of a job means that person is denying the entirety of their essential being as a person. Instead, it should be obvious that any person is capable of shifting in and out of modes of being. We are capable of thinking “this is just a job” rather than losing ourselves in it. Each of us can and do perform a job as if we were mechanisms and then leave it and shift into other modes of thinking and acting. We aren’t all-or-nothing.

But we must grant Sartre a point about inauthenticity. Yes, if one allows oneself to be reduced to a social role, then one is denying one’s own individuality. If all one is is a job function, and one never allows oneself self-consciousness or beingness beyond that, then that is being tragically inauthentic.

Fair enough. So then, if reducing oneself to being determined by social roles is bad faith — being inauthentic — then are we authentic by embracing our freedom and individuality? One would think so, but Sartre adds another requirement.

To be authentic, Sartre says, we must accept the absurdity of our existence. We exist. We exist as a consciousness that is nothingness. We have no purpose, there is no template or guide for us on how to be or live. That’s because existence itself has no meaning. Sartre said to believe that there is any meaning of any kind to the universe or our existence, we are practicing bad faith and are being inauthentic.

How Not to Embrace Freedom

Heidegger had observed that we are thrown into the world. We don’t decide where or when we are born or any of the circumstances of our initial life. These are factors we must deal with as we embrace our existence and freedom and navigate through our world.


Heidegger was pessimistic as to our possibilities for building a happy, meaningful life. If Heidegger is cold, Sartre is frozen solid. Sartre said we are not so much thrown into a world as we are thrown into freedom. That we have complete and total freedom is a logical consequence of Sartre’s belief that there are no values, no structure, and no meaning to life. We can do whatever we want.

Sartre said that because there are no objective values or structure, our existence precedes our essence, meaning that we are not defined by the essence of humanness as so many previous philosophers had believed. We are, Sartre wrote, nothing but what we make of ourselves. Similar to the pragmatists, Sartre believed that bare facts have no meaning until we assign a meaning to them.

We might ask, “well, that’s all good, yes?” Sartre said, no, freedom is a horrible thing. It’s a horrible feeling of discomfort to know that you are free and that the type of entity you are is incompatible with the type of entities that are the objects all around you. You exist, and Sartre says that you have nothing behind you or before you. You have no objective values, no means to justify or excuse your actions. We are left alone, he says, with the overwhelming reality of our radical freedom. Humans are condemned to be free, and our existence is absurd and meaningless, so our freedom is nothing but a burden.

Even worse (yes, even worse) according to Sartre, he knows that other people are free, totally free to think about him whatever they want. His most famous play, “No Exit” (1944), ends with the line “hell is other people,” an appropriate conclusion to a play that explores how helpless we are in the company of others.

His semi-autobiographical novel, Nausea (1938), details the rest of his ideas about the absurdity of existence. He describes objects in the world as grotesque, bloated existence. Other people he describes as empty beings practicing “bad faith” in that they live in the everyday, denying their freedom. However, when the central character of Nausea acknowledges his freedom, all this acceptance does is make him nauseated, hence the title. The realization of freedom and taking responsibility for one’s actions are the only authentic acts of which we are capable, but Sartre asks, if our very existence is absurd, and there are no values, what good is freedom? We are condemned to be free, condemned to absurdity.

We Are Thrown, Yes, but We Are Not So Helpless

Our thoughts make us who we are. No, you can’t imagine yourself capable of flight and  from that belief change the laws of physics. But if we think we are absurd and meaningless, we are. Sartre is proof of that.

The reality is that we have free will, and that includes deciding what we will do with our free will. Sartre chose to believe his consciousness was a meaningless nothing, so it became meaningless, producing nothing of meaning.

There is much in the world that is outside of our direct control. Sartre was thrown into the world, as we all were, but he chose a mental path of angst and despair. Sartre’s paranoia that he couldn’t directly control other people’s thoughts about him made him feel far more helpless than he was.


Sartre’s binary all-or-nothing thinking led him to an extreme conclusion as to human helplessness in the world. Because he dismissed the power of human free will consciousness, he left himself powerless in the face of the world beyond his desires, leaving only angst as his companion. He compensated with hatred for everything in the world. as he displayed in his writings and actions— just ask Simone de Beauvoir.

We exist, and we exist in a world that we don’t control. But a lack of complete control doesn’t mean the absence of all power and influence. We are not condemned to be free as an empty consciousness detached from the world, as Sartre imagined. We are free within a world of possibilities. To chose, as Sartre and other nihilists do, to reject the world and our place in it is folly. Existence and freedom are positives when we allow them to be.

 

 

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