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Jean-Paul Sartre at 100

Sartre’s Being & Nothingness: The Bible of Existentialism?

Christine Daigle discusses some of the key concepts and ideas in Sartre’s most important philosophical book.

June 1943, occupied France. A writer named Jean-Paul Sartre sees his latest philosophical manuscript, Being and Nothingness, a “phenomenological essay on ontology”, 722 pages of fine print (in the original French edition), published in the midst of World War II. The presentation wrapper on the early reprint of 1945: “What counts in a vase is the void in the middle”!

This wasn’t the first of Sartre’s writings to make some waves. His article on Husserl’s phenomenology from 1936-1937, ‘The Transcendence of the Ego’, had made quite an impression in philosophical circles. Its author cleverly re-appropriated Husserl’s goal of going back to the things themselves by kicking the ego out of consciousness and carefully delineating the various modes of consciousness and its encounter with the world. No longer personal, consciousness was presented as something that would only form an ‘I’ through its encounter with the world. The ‘I’ thus becomes an object, just like any other, only slightly more personal. After all, we care more for our ‘ego’ than for a rock!

A few years later, after publishing an (in)famous novel (Nausea), short stories (The Wall) and two philosophical essays, one on the emotions and one on imagination, and after some further meditations on Husserl’s philosophy and a serious study of Heidegger, Sartre unveils his major treatise. Being and Nothingness hits the shelves with a loud thud (rumour has it that it weighs exactly a kilo and can be used on the market place to measure quantities of food!) and shocks the philosophical world. The historical context, combined with the density and opaqueness of some passages, has it that the impact of the work is not immediately felt. However, as more and more readers delve into the complexities of the treatise, it becomes impossible to ignore its importance. As Michel Tournier later recalled of his, and others, encounter with the work, the book was certainly unusual, due to both its style and its content, but there was no doubt about its significance and about the fact that a system was born.

How does Being and Nothingness stand out in terms of style? Sartre biographer Annie Cohen-Solal calls it an “enormous bastard”. Indeed, calling it a ‘treatise’ may be inappropriate in that it certainly does not follow the typical format of philosophical treatises that emanate from academic circles. Sartre mixes theoretical reflections with examples that explore trivial daily situations. We meet with the waiter in the café; we await Pierre in that same café; we witness how a woman on a date abandons her hand in that of her suitor; our heart beats in unison with that of the peeping Tom who hears footsteps in the hall and finds out that someone sees him; we read about the masochist and the sadist, and about female genitalia as a hole to be filled, as a lack of being, as an appeal… Of the latter passages Sartre says in a letter to Simone de Beauvoir that they are titillating (croustillants) and that they ought to compensate for the more boring ones (emmerdants)! Many a reader of Sartre will be drawn by the power of the examples he gives. Sartre’s literary talent is probably to be blamed here. His prose is at its best when he describes a situation. What better way to be introduced to existentialism than to feel in one’s own being the philosophy described?

What about this system, then? Setting his feet in the phenomenological tradition, presenting himself as an heir of Heidegger and as critical of the master phenomenologist Husserl and of the whole idealistic and rationalistic tradition, Sartre investigates the lived experience of the individual. True enough, he subtitles his book “a phenomenological essay on ontology.” However, while Heidegger had been interested primarily in the metaphysical nature of Being and only studied Da-sein (the being of the human individual) as an instance of it, Sartre wanted to focus mainly on this human reality. What of Being? The introduction of Being and Nothingness takes care of it rather quickly and concludes: “Being is. Being is in-itself. Being is what it is.” (p.29) Now what? Let us get down to serious business and talk about what really matters: the for-itself, human reality, and its relationship with the in-itself and with others.

I will not enter into the details of Sartre’s ontological theory, as this would entail an over-technical discussion that would not enlighten the reader as to the real import of the book. Rather, I will concentrate on the concepts that he presents and that have shaped Sartre’s existentialism and contributed to the impact of his work. Thus, what follows will focus on freedom, responsibility, bad faith, and relationships with others. But first, a word on Being.


The in-itself (in other words, Being), is the first of the pair ‘Being and Nothingness’ to be investigated by Sartre. It is not to be equated with the world. The world is a later product of the encounter between the for-itself (consciousness, human reality) and the in-itself. What comes out of this encounter is the world which is truly a human creation. Sartre has adopted the phenomenological concept of intentionality whereby consciousness is always conscious (of) something. If there is nothing besides consciousness, nothing of which it can be conscious, it ceases to exist. Thus, the in-itself is needed as the basis upon which a consciousness and a world will emerge. We cannot say more than the ‘in-itself is’ because the in-itself lies beyond our experience of it, our being conscious of it. What is unveiled through our conscious grasp of being is a world supported by being of which we can say nothing but that it is. Hence the remainder of the treatise is devoted to explain the for-itself and its various modes of existence as a for-itself, i.e. a conscious being and all that this implies, as a being-for-others and as an acting being in the world.

We thus learn that the for-itself is none other than the nothingness that encounters Being. The for-itself, consciousness, is conceived of as a nothingness of Being, as a lack of Being. Indeed, intentional consciousness is initially empty, a void that is filled through its being conscious (of) the world. Only following this initial encounter can consciousness move on to self-consciousness and, eventually, ego formation. The for-itself is a being in situation that has a certain grasp on the world and shapes itself through it. Sartre will say that the for-itself is a ‘project’. It is constantly making itself. Since the for-itself is a nothingness, i.e. a being that distinguishes itself by not being the world or that of which it is conscious, the for-itself is thus not determined. This entails, for Sartre, that the for-itself is entirely free to become through its actions. It can freely break from its past or even from social or historical conditioning and affirm itself through its actions.

Freedom and Responsibility

Although this freedom could be seen as a great gift, Sartre tones this down quite a bit by insisting on the responsibility that it entails. In fact, the for-itself will discover its own freedom in anguish. If freedom is absolute, responsibility is also absolute and hence I am really what I have made myself. If I collaborate with the Nazi occupiers my collaboration is all my doing. I may want to blame my actions or attitudes on my upbringing, my social or economic situation, my past history and behavior patterns but, the fact is, I made that choice and even if everything points me towards being a passive citizen, I may freely break with this and decide to be involved politically. Because I can break with my past, I am entirely responsible for it. Whatever I have done before I have freely chosen and I must be held responsible for it. Freedom is thus the core of our being and, one might say, a poisoned gift, as it plunges the for-itself deep into anguish because of the responsibility it entails. Sartre claims that we are without excuses, we are entirely responsible for everything with just one exception: we are not responsible for our own responsibility. This is an absolutely contingent fact about humans. I have to assume this responsibility just like I must assume my own free being. Only I decide what to do with my situation. Sartre says: “Thus there are no accidents in a life; a community event which suddenly bursts forth and involves me in it does not come from the outside. If I am mobilized in a war, this war is my war; it is in my image and I deserve it.” (p.708) Indeed, I could refuse it, commit suicide, desert… The choice is mine.

Bad Faith

Sartre acknowledges that, most of the time, individuals will have recourse to bad faith to hide their own freedom from themselves. Bad faith is different from lying in that in bad faith, the dualism ‘liar/lied to’ vanishes: I am the one lying to myself and yet I believe in the lie. To me, the lie is the truth. Sartre calls this state a precarious one. Indeed, for in bad faith, I am also conscious of the lie: fundamentally, I know that the truth I believe in is a lie I made up for myself.

In his analysis of bad faith, Sartre discusses two famous examples. First he presents us with a romantic rendezvous. A woman has agreed to go out with a man for the first time. Certainly the man has something in mind and the woman knows this. Yet, the woman wants to remain oblivious to the man’s intentions, as she wants to postpone the moment when she will have to make a decision. She wants to be admired in her free being and does not want to acknowledge that she is the object of some sexual desire. The man grabs her hand. What does she do? Withdrawing her hand means saying no to the man; leaving it there means a yes. Both involve a decision she is not ready to make. “The young woman leaves her hand there, but she does not notice that she is leaving it.” (p.97) She makes of herself a disembodied mind, thus denying her own facticity, her embodied being. She is in bad faith. To postpone the moment of decision it serves her well not to acknowledge her being of flesh in this moment. On some other occasion, or maybe later as they are ready to part, she may freely decide to give in to the man’s solicitations, thus fully acknowledging herself and her situation, letting herself experience the pleasures of being desired both as a free and sexed individual.

The most famous example that Sartre provides to illustrate the attitude of bad faith is that of the waiter in the café. It shows us a man who “is playing, he is amusing himself.” What game is that? “He is playing at being a waiter in a café.” (p.102) Indeed, since he is not a waiter in essence (in fact as a for-itself he has no essence) he has to make himself such. However, he never is a waiter in-itself. That is impossible. As a human being who is fundamentally free, who is not what he is and is what he is not, he could decide all of a sudden to quit the café and become something else than a waiter. But no, our man conscientiously makes himself into a waiter. All of his gestures are carefully executed so that he can be a café waiter. But no matter how hard he tries, he will never be such in the mode of the in-itself. He can never be, he can become. He can make it his project to be a waiter, a very good one at that, but he cannot say that he is one. He is not his behaviour nor is he his conduct. For, as Sartre says, “if I am one [café waiter], this can not be in the mode of being in-itself. I am a waiter in the mode of being what I am not.” (p.103) The waiter is playing at being a café waiter. Concentrating on the gestures and attitudes, he is dwelling in bad faith. His focus is misplaced. Sartre tells us that the same happens to the student who wants to be attentive. He so “exhausts himself in playing the attentive role that he ends up by no longer hearing anything.”(ibid.) The play has taken over.

What Sartre wants to get at here is that when I say that I am, I am missing my own being as a being that constantly makes itself. To put it differently, by claiming to have a static being (“I am”) I am denying that I am a dynamic being (“I become”) who makes oneself via its actions. Sartre says that, for consciousness, making sustains being. Hence, consciousness is as making itself, “consciousness is not what it is.” (p.105)

Is bad faith inevitable? Sartre questions the possibility of sincerity and presents it as yet another instance of bad faith: One plays at being sincere! In both instances, bad faith and sincerity, one is aiming at being in-itself, hence one is fleeing from one’s own being. He concludes this section on a rather gloomy note that already casts a bad spell on his later attempts at delineating an ethics: he says that the being of the human being is bad faith. However, in a footnote, Sartre does say that authenticity is a human possibility. Only, he does not explain here how one can achieve it.

Relationships with Others

The last important part of Being and Nothingness that I wish to address is that which deals with the being-for-others. What Sartre has to say about inter-personal relationships in this section of the book has had a tremendous impact; it is thus fitting to turn our ‘gaze’ towards this part.

As a human being, I am both a being for-itself (conscious of myself) and a being-for-Others (who are conscious of me in a way that I have no access to). I encounter the Other in the world. What happens in fact is the encounter of two bodies. Sartre will say that there is an unbridgeable distance between the for-itself and the Other. My consciousness encounters the Other’s body via my own body. Thus, I do not have access to the Other’s consciousness, nor does he to mine. There is an ontological split between consciousnesses. Our body is an integral part of the unity, which we are as human beings. However, this system, which I encounter, the Other, is not my system. It is radically other. This, along with what he further says about the look of the Other, is what forms the ground for the conflictual relationships between individuals in Sartre’s philosophy. I am, first and foremost, an object for the Other. The Other is also, for me, an object. I do not encounter his subjectivity but rather, a body that seems to be ‘inhabited’ by a subjectivity. In Sartre’s terms: I encounter an object that refers to the Other as subject.

It is this objectification process that makes the Other’s presence an alienating one. The Other’s gaze denies my subjectivity. By objectifying me, the Other reduces me to my bodily presence in the world, possibly to a tool, an instrument to be used in his world. Interestingly, this alienating process is reciprocal: I do the exact same thing to the Other. Hence, we are bound not to understand and not to acknowledge each other as free consciousnesses. Is that so really? Let us ‘look’ at this a little closer.

Through my encounter with the Other, I discover that the Other can see me just as I can see him. Thus the Other has to be more than a mere object. The Other is a peculiar object that can make himself into a subject who sees me. I am always ‘looked at’. Hence, a subject sees me and because of the ontological split, of which I spoke earlier, can never see me as I am (can I anyways?). The Other sees me as the author of this article. By saying: “Christine is the author of the article on Being and Nothingness”, the Other objectifies me, essentializes my being. However, because I am free and because I never fully correspond to my actual being which is in the making, this statement does not correspond to who I am and yet someone believes it to be the truth about me. Thus my existence is one thing for me and another for the Other: “Beyond any knowledge which I can have, I am this self whom another knows. And this self which I am – this I am in a world which the Other has made alien to me, for the Other’s look embraces my being and correlatively the walls, the door, the keyhole.” (p.350) Thus, it is more than just my being, which is alienated through the gaze of the Other, it is also the world.

In my experience of the world, I meet with a web of objects that I make into instruments, which are given meaning through my project, i.e. my actions in the world. Thus the world is really a world for me. However, once the Other sheds his look upon it, the world is alienated from me: this same collection of objects is given a different meaning, is part of an Other’s experience. My world is taken away from me just as my being is, thanks to the onlooking presence of the Other.

Sartre uses another famous example to illustrate how things collapse for the for-itself when the Other is present. “Let us imagine that moved by jealousy, curiosity, or vice I have just glued my ear to the door and looked through a keyhole.” (p.347) While our peeping Tom is alone, he is controlling the situation: he is looking through the keyhole and objectifying whoever is present in that room. He is his action and he is “a pure consciousness of things”. However, as soon as he hears footsteps in the hall, the situation is radically changed. The looker is looked at. Being looked at, he solidifies in the role of a peeping Tom. Alienation and disintegration of one’s world occur as the Other arrives and transforms the situation through his presence.

This whole discussion forms the basis for what will follow in the sections on the body and on concrete relations with others (where we find the sections on love, language, masochism, indifference, desire, hatred and sadism). Overall, one can conclude that, for Sartre, living with others is no easy thing. Loaded with conflicts, interpersonal relationships are not happy yet they are unavoidable. “Hell is other people!” exclaims a character in No Exit, a play first staged in May 1944. It has been argued that since Sartre made such a good case for this conflictual relationship, he had made it impossible for him to elaborate a workable ethics. The attempt made in the Notebooks for an Ethics that follows Being and Nothingness is abandoned, as Sartre is struggling to establish an ethics that rests on reciprocity and authenticity.

The Legacy

What then of Being and Nothingness’ legacy? I would argue that its impact has been tremendous. Existentialism, as Sartre formulates it in this treatise, empowers the human being in a period when power seems to rest in the hands of only a few individuals. The philosophy of freedom puts the individual back in the centre, allows him to engage in his own projects no matter what oppression or situation he is facing. Further, in a period struck by nihilism and atheism, existentialism gives individuals the possibility to make something of themselves, to flourish in their project without suffering from any alienation caused by a transcendent world of values or by a magnified-Other like God.

The individual is thus left alone in a world where no values are to be found already made. He must make values himself and shape himself as he acts. No easy business. The task is crushing and the responsibility immense. However, the human being is up to it; he has everything one needs to take the roads to freedom (to quote the title of the series of novels by Sartre published after Being and Nothingness). In those years of uncertainty, in the midst of the war in occupied France, Sartre’s philosophy may have been just what the doctor ordered! But its impact was more prolonged than that. Sartre’s philosophy has been ever present since then. We ought to take a new look at it at the start of the 21st century as we keep struggling with the nihilistic age. We could thus use it as a bible. Understanding the book well might allow us to find our way out of the sticky situation we have found ourselves in for too long now. However, we would be well advised to keep in mind that the man himself eventually concluded that another route had to be taken. But that, my friends, is another story.

© Dr Christine Daigle 2005

Christine Daigle lectures in Philosophy at Brock University in Ontario. She is also Vice-President of the Society for Existential and Phenomenological Theory and Culture.

• All references to Being and Nothingness are to the translation by Hazel B. Barnes, published by Washington Square Press, 1984.

Sartre Glossary

being in-itself: non conscious being, the being of things and phenomena.

being for-itself: conscious being, i.e. the human being as a situated embodied consciousness

being for-others: the dimension of my being that is due to the other’s perception or conceptualization of me. I have no control over it.

nothingness: mind-dependent aspects of reality, such as values.

freedom: ability to make choices for the future.

facticity: those aspects of my being that are fixed about me, e.g. who my parents are or what i did yesterday.

bad faith: ignoring what is true of myself – either that I am free or facts about me.

Christine Daigle & Anja Steinbauer

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