On a thread at the Internet Infidels about Jean-Paul Sartre, I thought it was best to explain his philosophy before attempting a criticism. Moreover, I will not assume my audience is naïve enough to require spoon feeding from the popular work, so I will start with several summaries from the actual work of philosophy, Being and Nothingness. (BN hereafter)
In many ways, BN is similar to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (PS) in its imposing size, forbidding difficulty and density, analyses of human consciousness and insights into human life. However, the PS is superior in employing rational concepts that entail a dynamic truth for metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and supplies a philosophy of nature, history and society. Since Sartre rejected Hegelian philosophy as a failed byproduct of abstract rationalism and essentialism, he undertook a much more modest project that begins with phenomenology, instituted by Edmund Husserl. Phenomenology is not metaphysics, for it doesn’t analyze the nature of reality, or attempt at a Hegelian ideal of a unified view of reality based on a conglomerate of epistemology, physical and human sciences, history, politics, religion and art. Instead, phenomenology is merely the study of phenomena or appearances with relation to the structure of human consciousness. Therefore, Sartre’s project is a study of being as it appears to the consciousness.
In the introduction, Sartre echoed Descartes by making “consciousness” the foundation of philosophy, but at the same time he revised the Cartesian project. For Descartes, consciousness is the consciousness of a thinking substance examining its own ideas, while for Sartre, after Husserl, one’s being conscious of thinking does not prove that one exist as a substance whose essence is to think. Rather, consciousness, pace Husserl, is intentional, or intending to an object. Consciousness is always of something, of an object, always a pointing towards something other than itself. Consciousness in itself is empty, a nothing, a transparency, and exists only as consciousness of some other object. Yet Sartre was careful enough to agree with Descartes to the extent that consciousness is always conscious of itself, given that to be aware of something is to be aware of being aware. Otherwise one would be unconscious of being aware, and that path leads directly to Freudian determinism.
Regions of Being: Being-in-itself and Being-for-itself
After establishing the foundation, Sartre moved on to the phenomenological study of being and identified two distinct kinds of being, as “regions of being” that appear to the consciousness. One of them is the being of oneself as consciousness and the being of that which is the other than oneself, separate from oneself, the objects of which one is conscious.
These objects of consciousness that are regarded as independent of consciousness, independently real or ‘things-in-themselves’ are subject to causal laws and are determined to be what they are. Since there is no consciousness, no awareness of anything other than themselves, they simply exist solidly, “massively,” like the root of chestnut from the book, Nausea. Sartre called this the en-soi.
1. Being-for-itself (conscious being)
What Sartre called the pour-soi is to be a conscious being, a being which is conscious of objects and of itself as conscious of them. However, the for-itself is not a pure consciousness, because it is always consciousness of an object, a transparency through which objects are known. At the same time, the for-itself is always self-conscious, for it is always aware of being conscious of the object. Sartre limited self-consciousness to this description, given that there is no inner realm of thoughts/beliefs/feelings within consciousness, because it is empty.
To be conscious is to be aware of a gap between one’s consciousness and its objects; to be in the world and yet to be aware of not being a causally determined object of the world; to be aware of a distance an emptiness.
2. Consciousness brings nothingness (or negation) into the world.
There is such a thing as nothingness in the world and it emerges only within the relation to conscious being. Only through conscious being does nothingness enters the world. To be a conscious being is to consistently and perpetually bring nothingness into the world. Nothingness highlights the distinction between the pour-soi and the en-soi. In the realm of being-in-itself, objects are what they are causally determined to be, they exist as they are, without consciousness or awareness of gaps or lack of possibilities or possibility of question or doubts, whereas in the realm of being for itself, conscious being has the ability to separate itself from its objects and distinguish itself from the realm of things by questioning, doubting, thinking, entertaining possibilities, being aware of lack. This separation introduces a negative element in the world, a nothingness. Nothingness is the basis of all questioning and of all “philosophical or scientific inquiry.” “Man secretes his own nothingness.” In order to ask questions about the world the questioner is detaching, disassociating him/herself from the causal world.
The understanding of BN requires the ability to explain the fundamental concept of nothingness.
3. Conscious being has freedom from objects and from causally determined world, has the power of negation.
This nothingness, this negation the conscious being introduces to the world is also human freedom. To be a conscious being is to be free. Free from the causally determined world, free to negate (to say no, to doubt, to imagine something that is not present, to reduce to nothingness/negate/nihilate the region of things). A conscious being has the power of negation, which is similar to the principle of negation in Hegel, the power to break up, negate, nihilate and annihilate. With one’s freedom, the power to negate, the conscious being thinks what is absent or what is not the case, and what one’s future possibility is.
4. Conscious being has total freedom in its own existence.
One’s freedom as a conscious being enters one’s own existence. Since consciousness is free and undetermined, one’s past does not determine what one is now. Between the self right now and one’s past, there is a gap, a nothingness. One is free from the past as well.
A chronic gambler decides he will no longer gamble. However, once he is at a casino, his past decisions will not determine what he does, for he is totally free and unpredictable. He is confronted with his temptation, and despite his resolution, he must choose again. To gamble or not to gamble?
Sartre calls this experience of freedom anguish, because the discovery that one’s freedom destroys or nihilates the determining force of one’s past decisions and promises for the future results in anguish.
5. Conscious being has total responsibility for own world
As a free conscious being, one is also responsible for the meaning of the situation one lives in because he/she alone gives meaning to his/her world. However, the question of the meaning of one’s world arises only when reflecting on one’s activities, not during engagement with daily activities. Upon reflection, one discovers there is no source of truth. Conscious beings lack immutable Platonic essence to establish a scheme for their lives. Ergo, conscious being determine their own essence by their temporary and transient choices of what they would like to become. (therefore, existence precedes essence) God is no help, for he is dead. Since there is no God, no source of truth and virtue, no substitute in philosophy or science, one is the source of meaning. Henceforth, one is responsible for the meaning of one’s own life.
6. conscious being experiences anguish
The shattering awareness of being free, being totally responsible of one’s choices, responsible for what one is and what one is to do – induces dizziness, vertigo, anguish. Anguish is the understanding that one’s total freedom is also total responsibility to define one’s life. “In anguish I apprehend myself at once as totally free and as not being able to derive the meaning of the world except as coming from myself.”
Since to be free is to be in anguish, the attempt to escape and avoid the anxiety of facing one’s freedom is permanent. Total responsibility, condemnation of being free is difficult to endure, so the desire to be simply a thing or a being-in-itself arises.
7. conscious being escapes into bad faith (BF)
The desire to escape from freedom or responsibility is self-deception or what Sartre calls bad faith. This attempt at escape is simply the pretense that human actions are necessary and causal. “We flee from dread by pretending to look at ourselves as a thing.” BF is a lie one tells oneself with the delusion that one is not free or conscious or responsible.
I will attempt to analyze the possibility of good faith in my next blog.