Being and Nothingness

Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Slime is the agony of water.

I first heard of this book from my dad. “I had to read this in college,” he told me. “We looked at every type of being. Being-in-myself, being-for-myself, being-of-myself, being-across-myself, being-by-myself. I went crazy trying to read that thing.” Ever since that memorable description, this book has held a special allure for me. It has everything to attract a self-styled intellectual: a reputation for difficulty, a hefty bulk, a pompous title, and the imprimatur of a famous name. Clearly I had to read it.

Jean-Paul Sartre was the defining intellectual of his time, at least on the European continent. He did everything: writing novels and plays, founding and editing a journal, engaging in political activism, and pioneering a philosophical school: existentialism. This book is the defining monument of that school. An eight-hundred-page treatise on ontology which, somehow, became widely read—or at least widely talked about. Nearly eighty years later, we are still talking about this book. In 2016 Sarah Bakewell released a best-selling book about Sartre’s movement; and a new translation of Being and Nothingness will be released next year. Interest in existentialism has not abated.

Yet what is existentialism? And how has it weathered the passing years? This is what I set out to determine, and this review will show whether my attempt bore fruit.

One should begin by examining the subtitle of this book: “A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology.” Already we have a contradiction. Phenomenology is a philosophical school founded by Edmund Husserl, which attempted to direct philosophers’ attention back “to the things themselves”—that is, to their own experience of the world. One of Husserl’s most insistent commandments was that the philosopher should “bracket,” or set aside, the old Cartesian question of the reality of these experiences (is the world truly as I perceive it?); rather, the philosopher should simply examine the qualities of the experience itself. Thus, Sartre’s promise of a phenomenological ontology (ontology being the investigation of the fundamental nature of reality) is a flagrant violation of Husserl’s principles.

Still, it does have a lot to tell us about Sartre’s method. This book is an attempt to deduce the fundamental categories of being from everyday experience. And this attempt leads Sartre to the two most basic categories of all: being and nothingness. Being is all around us; it is manifest in every object we experience. Sartre defines existing objects as those which are self-identical—that is, objects which simply are what they are—and he dubs this type of being the “in-itself.” Humans, by contrast, cannot be so defined; they are constantly shifting, projecting themselves into an uncertain future. Rather than simply existing, they observe their own existence. Sartre calls this type of human existence the “for-itself.”

Already we see the old Cartesian dualism reappearing in these categories. Are we not confronted, once again, with the paradoxes of matter and mind? Not exactly. For Sartre does not consider the in-itself and the for-itself to be two different types of substances. In fact, the for-itself has no existence at all: it is a nothingness. To use Sartre’s expressions, human consciousness can be compared to “little pools of non-being that we encounter in the heart of being,” or elsewhere he says that the for-itself “is like a hole in being at the heart of Being.” The for-itself (a consciousness) is a particular privation of a specific in-itself (a human body), which functions as a nihilation that makes the world appear: for there would not be a “world” as we know it without perception, and perception is, for Sartre, a type of nihilation.

Putting aside all of the difficulties with this view, we can examine the consequences which Sartre draws from these two sorts of being. If the for-itself is a nothingness, then it is forever removed from the world around it. That is, it cannot be determined, either by its past or by its environment. In short, it is free—inescapably free. Human behavior can thus never be adequately explained or even excused, since all explanations or excuses presuppose that humans are not fundamentally self-determining. But of course we explain and excuse all the time. We point to economic class, occupation, culture, gender, race, sexuality, upbringing, genetic background, mood—to a thousand different factors in order to understand why people act the way they do.

This attempt to treat humans as things rather than free beings Sartre calls “bad faith.” This constitutes the fundamental sin of existentialism. He gives the example of a waiter who so embraces his role as a waiter that his motions become calculated and mechanical; the waiter tries to embody himself in his role to the extent that he gives up his individual freedom and becomes a kind of automaton whose every movement is predictable. But of course life is full of examples of bad faith. I excuse my mistake by saying I hadn’t had my coffee yet; my friend cheats on his girlfriend, but it was because his father cheated on his mother; and so on.

This is the basic situation of the for-itself. Yet there is another type of being which Sartre later introduces us to: the for-others. Sartre introduces this category with a characteristically vivid example: Imagine a peeping Tom is looking through a keyhole into a room. His attention is completely fixed on what he sees. Then, suddenly, he hears footsteps coming down the hall; and he immediately becomes aware of himself as a body, as a thing. Sartre considers experiences like this to prove that we cannot doubt the existence of others, since being perceived by others totally changes how we experience ourselves.

This allows Sartre to launch into an analysis of human interaction, and particularly into love and sexuality. This analysis bears the obvious influence of Hegel’s famous Master-Slave dialectic, and it centers on the same sorts of paradoxes: the contradictory urges to subjugate and be subjugated, to be embodied and desired, to be free and to be freely chosen, and so on. However, Sartre’s best writing in this vein is not to be found here, but in his great play No Exit, where each character exhibits a particular type of bad faith. All three of the characters wish to be looked at in a particular way, yet each of them is stuck with others whose own particular sort of bad faith renders them unable to look in the “right” way.

Sartre concludes from all this that our most fervent desire, and the reason we so often slip into bad faith, is that we wish to be an impossible combination of the in-itself and the for-itself. We want to be the foundation of our own being, a perfect self-identical creature, and yet absolutely free. We want to become gods. But, for Sartre, this is self-contradictory: the in-itself and the for-itself can never coexist. Thus, the idea of God arises as a sort of wish-fulfillment; but God is impossible by definition. As a result, human life “is a useless passion”—a relentless striving to be something which cannot exist.

All this may be clearer if we avoid Sartre’s terminology and, instead, compare his philosophy to that of Buddhism (at least, the type of Western Buddhism I’m acquainted with). The mind is constantly searching for a sense of permanent identity. Though the mind is, by nature, groundless, we are uncomfortable with this; we want put ground under our feet. So we seek to identify ourselves with our jobs, our families, our marriages, our hobbies, our success, our money—with any external good that lets us forget that our consciousness is constantly shifting and flowing, and that our identities can never be absolutely determined. So far, Buddhism and Sartrean existentialism have similar diagnoses of our problems. But Buddhism prescribes detachment, while Sartre prescribes the embrace of absolute freedom and the adoption of complete responsibility of our actions.

No summary of the book would be complete without Sartre’s critique of Freud. Sartre was clearly intrigued by Freud’s theories and wanted to use them in some way. However, Freud’s unconscious motivations and superconscious censorship is clearly incompatible with Sartre’s philosophy of freedom. In particular, Sartre found it self-contradictory to say that there could be a part of the mind which “wants” without us knowing it, or a part that is able to hide information from our awareness. For Sartre, all consciousness is self-consciousness, and it therefore does not make sense to “want” or “know” something unconsciously.

In place of Freud’s psychoanalysis, then, Sartre proposes an existential psychoanalysis. For Sartre, every person is defined by a sort of fundamental choice that determines their stance towards the world (though, strangely, it seems that most people are not aware of having made this choice). It is the task of the existential psychoanalyst is to uncover this fundamental choice by a close examination of everyday actions. Indeed, Sartre believes that everything from one’s preference for onions to one’s aversion to cold water is a consequence of this fundamental choice. Sartre even goes so far as to insist that some things, by virtue of being so clearly suggestive of metaphor, have a universal meaning for the for-itself. As an example of this, he gives “slime”—viscous liquid which Sartre thinks inspires a universal horror of the weight of existence.

This fairly well rounds out a summary of the book. So what are we to make of this?

The comparison with Heidegger is unavoidable. Sartre himself seems to have encouraged the comparison by giving his metaphysical tome a title redolent of the German professor’s magnum opus. The influence is clear: Sartre wrote Being and Nothingness after reading Being and Time during his brief imprisonment in a prisoner-of-war camp; and Heidegger is referenced throughout the book. Nevertheless, I think it would be inaccurate to describe Sartre as a follower of Heidegger, or his philosophy merely as an interpretation of Heidegger’s. Indeed, I think that the superficial similarities between the two thinkers (stylistic obscurity, disregard of religion and ethics, a focus on human experience, a concern with “being”) mask far more important differences.

Heidegger’s project, insofar as I understand it, is radically anti-Cartesian. He sought to replace the thinking and observing ego with the Dasein, a being thrown into the world, a being fundamentally ensconced in a community and surrounded by tools ready-to-hand. For Heidegger, the Cartesian perspective—of withdrawing from the world and deliberately reflecting and reasoning—is derivative of, and inferior to, this far more fundamental relationship to being. Sartre could not be further from this. Sartre’s perspective, to the contrary, is insistently Cartesian and subjectivist; it is the philosophy of a single mind urgently investigating its experience. Further, the concept of “freedom” plays almost no role in Heidegger’s philosophy; indeed, I believe he would criticize the very idea of free choice as enmeshed in the Cartesian framework he hoped to destroy.

In method, then, Sartre is far closer to Husserl—another professed Cartesian—than to Heidegger. However, as we observed above, Sartre breaks Husserl’s most fundamental tenet by using subjective experiences to investigate being; and this was done clearly under the influence of Heidegger. These two, along with Freud, and Hegel, constitute the major intellectual influences on Sartre.

It should be no surprise, then, that Sartre’s style often verges on the obscure. Many passages in this book are comparable in ugliness and density to those German masters of opacity (Freud excluded). Heidegger is the most obvious influence here: for Sartre, like Heidegger, enjoys using clunky hyphenated terms and repurposing quotidian words in order to give them a special meaning. There is an important difference, however. When I did decipher Sartre’s more difficult passages, I usually found that the inky murkiness was rather unnecessary.

Believe me when I say that I am no lover of Heidegger’s writing. Nevertheless, I think Heidegger’s tortured locutions are more justifiable than Sartre’s, for Heidegger was attempting to express something that is truly counter-intuitive, at least in the Western philosophical tradition; whereas Sartre’s philosophy, whatever novelties it possesses, is far more clearly in the mainline of Cartesian thinking. As a result, Sartre’s adventures in jargon come across as mere displays of pomp—a bejewelled robe he dons in order to appear more weighty—and, occasionally, as mere abuses of language, concealing simple points in false paradoxes.

This is a shame, for when Sartre wished he could be quite a powerful writer. And, indeed, the best sections of this book are when Sartre switches from his psuedo-Heideggerian tone to that of the French novelist. The most memorable passages in this book are Sartre’s illustrations of his theories: the aforementioned waiter, or the Peeping Tom, or the passage on skiing. Whatever merit Sartre had as a philosopher, he was undoubtedly a genius in capturing the intricacies of subjective experience—the turns of thought and twinges of emotion that rush through the mind in everyday situations.

But what are we to make of his system? To my mind, the most immediately objectionable aspect is his idea of nothingness. Nothing is just that—nothing: a complete lack of qualities, attributes, or activity of any kind. Indeed, if a nothingness can be defined at all, it must be via elimination: by excluding every existing thing. It seems incoherent, then, to say that the human mind is a nothingness, and is therefore condemned to be free. Consciousness has many definite qualities and, besides that, is constantly active and (in Sartre’s opinion at least) able to choose itself and change the world. How can a nothingness do that? And this is putting to the side the striking question of how the human brain can produce a complete absence of being. Maybe I am taking Sartre’s point too literally; but it is fair to say that he provides no account of how this nothingness came into being.

Once this idea of nothingness is called into question, the rest of Sartre’s conclusions are on extremely shaky ground. Sartre’s idea of freedom is especially suspect. If human consciousness is not separated from the world and from its past by a nothingness, then Sartre’s grand pronouncements of total freedom and total responsibility become dubious. To me it seems unlikely to the highest degree that, of all the known objects in the universe, including all of the animals (some of which are closely related to us), humans are the only things that are exempt from the chain of causality that binds everything together.

Besides finding it implausible, I also cannot help finding Sartre’s idea of total freedom and responsibility to be morally dubious. He himself, so far as I know, never managed to make his system compatible with a system of ethics. In any case, an emphasis on total responsibility can easily lead to a punitive mentality. According to Sartre, everyone deserves their fate.

Admittedly I do think his conception of “bad faith” is useful. Whether or not we are metaphysically “free,” we often have more power over a situation than we admit. Denying our responsibility can lead to inauthenticity and immorality. And Sartre’s embrace of freedom can be a healthy antidote to an apathetic despair. Still, I do not think an elaborate ontological system is necessary in order to make this point.

Reading Sartre nowadays, I admit that it is difficult to take his conclusions seriously. For one, the next generation of French intellectuals set to work demonstrating that our freedom is constrained by society (Bourdeiu), psychology (Lacan), language (Derrida), and history (Foucault), among other factors. (Of course, these intellectual projects were not necessarily any more solid than Sartre’s.) More importantly, Sartre’s system seems to be so completely bound up in both his times and his own psychology—two things which he denied could determine human behavior—that it ironically belies his conclusions. (As an example of the latter influence, Sartre’s revulsion and even horror of sex is apparent throughout the book, especially in the strange section on “slime.”)

In the end I was somewhat disappointed by this work. And I think my disappointment is ultimately a consequence of Sartre’s method: phenomenological ontology. It is simply incorrect to believe that we can closely interrogate our own experiences to determine the fundamental categories of being. Admittedly, Sartre is not entirely averse to making logical argument; but too many of his conclusions rest on the shaky ground of these narrations of subjective experience. Sartre is, indeed, a brilliant observer of this experience, and his descriptions are worth reading for their psychological insight alone. Nevertheless, as a system of ontology, I do not think it can stand on its own two feet.



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6 thoughts on “Review: Being and Nothingness

  1. I wish you had been my philosophy professor, Roy. You have a most clear and engaging way to cut through difficult authors and to give us context and content in a review where there’s not even a wasted word or punctuation sign, hahaha.

    Without reading the book, as you expounded on the freedom and total responsibility, I thought, where’s morality then?

    I agree with you, his method seems lacking, the clothing for his theories too pompous and unnecessary. Maybe this is such an author best enjoyed and understood in his plays and fiction, as you suggest.

    I like what you say about Heidegger being difficult for justified reasons. Even in literature we can see who’s torturing the reader with unnecessary obscurity, and who appears obscure in his attempt to formulate something new in style and or purpose.

    Existencialism is a bit outdated? (or maybe this is my ignorant perception), I believe it is always more pursued at an afterwar period. I’m not sure what the world is pointing to anymore in this era of fragmentation, but there’s still a strong new age and Buddhist school of thought and practice.

    I’m a very old school christian, and I recall a very interesting post you had where you talked about “light Christianity”. I too don’t understand any who has beliefs and doesn’t carry them all the way into his whole existence, (mind, body and soul), but that’s most people, hahaha. I guess only a few stop and think about what they base their lives on.

    Sorry for rambling this long. I’m just very glad to read your posts, and always excited to listen to you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks very much for your comment! Maybe existentialism isn’t outdated as a “philosophy of life” (though personally I find it inferior to secular Buddhism and Stoicism). I mainly criticized Sartre’s arguments about the nature of reality itself, which I found very unconvincing. But Sartre is very good on certain themes, such as commitment, as you mention.

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