Jean Paul Sartre: Nothingness and Human Freedom

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn order to understand the relation between Sartre’s understanding of Nothingness (the nihilation of being) and his understanding of human freedom, one must analyze the duality of the Being-for-itself and the Being-in-itself that is at the core of Sartre’s analogy. Sartre notes that human consciousness is always conscious of something else. However human consciousness itself is really nothingness. So without something to be conscious of, our consciousness cannot exist as it defines itself with respect to the things which it is conscious of. So he essentially asserts that consciousness itself is                               Jean Paul Sartre (1905 – 1980)                  nothingness and that the things which the                                                                                    consciousness is conscious of has some form                                                                                of being.

He explores the paradoxical notion of consciousness being self-aware as one might wonder how one can one be aware of a consciousness that is nothing. Sartre introduces the notion of a pre-reflective cogito (built from the cogito of Rene Descartes) to explain this paradox.

He essentially asserts that the very fact that a consciousness is conscious of something is an implication that there is a consciousness which is able to be conscious of the relevant thing. One can always distinguish oneself from an object and by making that distinction one tacitly defines oneself as NOT being that object. For instance when one see’s a tree, one has an implicit awareness that one is not a tree. So one is conscious of the self through an implicit self-reflective consciousness. So consciousness of objects presupposes the possibility of self-awareness. Therefore Sartre is able to note that a consciousness which is essentially nothing is always self-aware through the pre-reflective cogito. One can draw a distinction between being-in-itself and being-for-itself at this point. Gary Gutting, the endowed chair in philosophy of the University of Notre Dame noted in his book French Philosophy in the Twentieth Century that, “because consciousness is always self-aware, Sartre says that it has being-for-itself: its very existence involves an internal relation to itself .” Therefore a consciousness is a being-for-itself as it is not a concrete tangible explicit object that can be perceived, but whose being is conceptualized implicitly through the pre-reflective cogito. All concrete objects that one can be conscious of are being-in-itself as a consciousness can be explicitly conscious of them.  It should be evident that since the for-itself is essentially a negation of the in-itself, they are always going to be linked.

One should note that there is a double negation in self-consciousness. The first negation is the nihilating withdrawal of consciousness from itself in order to think about itself. The second negation is the transcendence of the self in relation to the past acts of its consciousness.

As elaborately explained above, a being-for-itself is inherently linked to nothingness. This is why nothingness haunts being. In Sartre’s words, “The For-itself, in fact, is nothing but the pure nihilation of the In-itself, it is like a hole in being at the heart of Being.” Consciousness has to thereby define itself based on the objects that it is conscious of. As the very root of being is nothingness, a being has the task of defining itself constantly by choosing the references by which it projects itself.  This is why Sartre refutes determinism. Determinism is roughly the idea that a combination of one’s past psychic states and various natural laws determine future psychic states. In Sartre’s words,  “But from the very fact that we presume that an Existent can always be revealed as nothing, every question supposes that we realize a nihilating withdrawal in relation to the given, which becomes a simple presentation, fluctuating between being and Nothingness. It is essential therefore that the questioner have the permanent possibility of dissociating himself from the causal series which constitutes being and which can produce only being. ”

Therefore the fact that for-itself is essentially nothingness has tremendous implications for one’s freedom. As the for-itself (or the consciousness itself) is nothing, it has the potential to redefine itself whenever it chooses to. This is the root of one of Sartre’s fundamental assertions that one can always reinvent themselves. This allows one to discard any trends of the past and adopt any vision for the future. Sartre observes, “Descartes following the Stoics has given a name to this possibility which human reality has to secrete a nothingness which isolates it- it is freedom.”

One can use this understanding of nothingness in the being for-self to understand Sartre discussion of the “facticity of freedom.” As evident from the structure of the being-for-itself, it is basically the understanding that human freedom isn’t a choice. It is simply an inherent reality.  In Sartre’s words, “We are condemned to freedom, as we said earlier, (we are) thrown into freedom.” So he asserts that we are free whether or not we want to be. Sartre notes, “Human freedom precedes essence in man and makes it possible; the essence of the human being is suspended in his freedom. What we call freedom is impossible to distinguish from the being of “human reality.” Man does not exist first in order to be free subsequently; there is no difference from the being of man and his being free.”

It should be evident that this understanding of the “facticity of freedom” is what leads his discussion on bad faith. Bad faith is essential a denial of this inherent reality that is human freedom. We look to see ourselves as being-in-itself in bad faith by trying to delude ourselves into believing that our past exclusively and causally determines something or by believing that our future cannot be changed. However this is the basis of inauthenticity as “we are condemned” to be constantly and permanently free.  As explained in this essay the nothingness of being and the duality of the being-for-itself and being-in-itself serve as the foundation stones of Sartre’s understanding of freedom.

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