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Identity and Freedom in Being and Nothingness

Stephen Wang continues our debate on these essential aspects of being human by considering what Jean-Paul Sartre had to say about them.

Why does someone do one thing rather than another? What explains the action? Our answers to these questions will point to a great range of causes, reasons, motives, or motivations. In ordinary conversation we do not distinguish between these words very carefully. But a satisfying answer will often tell us something about who the person is and what they are like: “She treats the patient because she is a doctor”; “He runs away because he is a coward”; “They care for their children because they are devoted parents.” These explanations refer in some way to the identity of the person acting. So we can understand why human beings act by looking to some aspect of their personal identity.

Jean-Paul Sartre, however, is unsatisfied with this kind of explanation, because he thinks it is back-to-front. In his view it is not true that we act in a certain way because of our identity. Rather, it is by acting in a certain way that we establish an identity. Instead of saying “He runs away because he is a coward,” we should say “He is a coward because he runs away”; instead of saying “They care for their children because they are devoted parents,” we should say “They are devoted parents because they care for their children.” This kind of description can be counter-intuitive, and may even seem forced. Surely, to take my first example, she is a qualified doctor, whether she treats the patient or not.

In this article we will see what Sartre does and doesn’t mean by this awkward inversion of everyday language. In his reflections on action Sartre goes to the very heart of what it is to be human. He argues that our free actions are not the consequence of our identity, they are its foundation – and it is our nature as human beings always to go beyond who we are towards a freely chosen self. Our commitments allow us to become people we might not have become and illuminate a set of priorities that might have remained obscure. Yet we are not slaves to but creators of our existence, and our freedom allows us constantly to redesign and rebuild our identity.

Sartre began his notes for his great early work Being and Nothingness (sometimes referred to here as BN) on the floor of his prisoner-of-war camp in the summer of 1940. He begun writing in earnest on his release in the summer of 1941, and continued over the next few months in Paris and on cycling holidays around France. BN was probably completed in October 1942, which meant that this massive work was written in a remarkably short time. It is worth noting that although BN was published in the summer of 1943, when the tide of the war in Europe and North Africa was clearly turning against Nazi Germany, it was written in a time of occupation when victory seemed far from likely and the future for France seemed extremely bleak. This makes Sartre’s discussions of freedom, of the future, and of the possibilities of extricating ourselves from the confinement of the present all the more striking.

Freedom Anxiety

In a section of Being and Nothingness concerning angoisse (‘anguish’), Sartre gives two examples of individuals who discover that their identity is insecure. First, the cliff walker. Someone is walking along the side of a dangerous cliff, on a narrow path, without a guard-rail. He is anxious. It is not a straightforward fear that the path will give way (it looks firm enough) or that a gust of wind knock him over (the air is calm): it is a fear that he might willingly throw himself off and jump to his death. He doesn’t trust himself.

Many people have had an experience of vertigo akin to this. On the one hand, looking into the abyss, we want to live; on the other hand, we become aware of our total freedom. We notice that the ‘will to live’ is not an unchangeable part of our psychological make-up. The more we reflect on it, the more we realise that we are not bound by it, and we become dizzy with the possibilities that open up before us. We could be reckless and jump, for no reason at all – and this is what really terrifies us.

This is a very particular example, but it illustrates how our confidence in our identity can suddenly be undermined. We can be struck with ‘vertigo’ in the most ordinary situations: we may suddenly appreciate that we can do something in a different way, that we can rethink our priorities, that we can change, that we don’t have to be the person we have been. Human identity is unstable. Normally we enjoy the security of moving forward steadily on the basis of who we are, but now and then we’re struck by a parallel awareness that we could be someone else.

The experience of vertigo is one form of anguish: we realise that we cannot guarantee the perpetuation of the motives which have influenced us up to this point: identity is not a straightjacket, it does not predetermine the future. At this moment, halfway along the dangerous path, we may feel confident; but in a few steps, who knows what we might do? “If nothing compels me to save my life, nothing prevents me from precipitating myself into the abyss. The decisive conduct will emanate from a me which I am not yet.” Normally, of course, most people finish their walk safely. But Sartre wants us to realise that the decision to walk carefully is not determined by our identity. Instead, it is the decision itself which determines our identity and ensures we continue to be people who want to live. This is a subtle distinction, the importance of which will become apparent.

The second example of anguish is the reformed gambler. This person has sincerely decided never to gamble again. He has taken a firm resolution to quit. He considers himself to be a reformed gambler, and he relies on this identity to get him through the temptations that come. Yet as he nears the gaming table, his resolution melts away:

“What he apprehends then in anguish is precisely the total inefficacy of the past resolution. It is there, doubtless, but fixed, ineffectual, surpassed by the very fact that I am conscious of it. The resolution is still me to the extent that I realize constantly my identity with myself across the temporal flux, but it is no longer me – due to the fact that it has become an object for my consciousness. I am not subject to it, it fails in the mission which I have given to it.”

The identity the gambler has established for himself as reformed is fragile. He wishes it constrained him and guaranteed his new way of life, but this very wish betrays his knowledge that both gambling and not gambling are equally possible for him. His present identity as resolved and reformed is illusory – it is really a memory of a previous identity (who he was at the time of his resolution): it is already surpassed, and the resolution will not be effective unless it is remade once more.

The cliff walker is anguished because he can’t ensure that his present resolution to live will last all the way along the path; the gambler is anguished because his past resolution not to gamble isn’t sustaining him in the present. For both characters their very consciousness of an identity comes with a corresponding detachment as they realise that they are not bound by it. By searching for reasons, they objectify them and make these reasons ineffective. This realisation is what paralyzes Matthieu in Sartre’s novel The Age of Reason (1945). Matthieu wants to justify his actions and base them on good reasons, or at least on some overwhelming desire; but by interrogating his motives, by trying to establish whether they are compelling, he distances himself from them. The process of examining his motives shows they have no binding power over his future: the search for obligations leads him to freedom because it uncovers the fact that alternative courses of action are also viable. However costly it seems, the price of being conscious of an identity is a corresponding liberation from that identity, with an ever-present responsibility for continuing or denying that identity. We experience this responsibility through anguish.

This is not just a point about the fact that our identities change, since anguish does not come about when a past identity is forgotten and a new one adopted. Rather, anguish is a sign that human beings are ‘separated from themselves’, from the identities that constitute who they are now. We can review the present and not just the past, and we have a continual responsibility to recreate our identities through our choices.

Through anguish the reformed gambler apprehends “the permanent rupture of determinism.” Anguish is thus one manifestation of freedom, and is characterised “by a constantly renewed obligation to remake the Me which designates the free being.” Sartre uses the terms ‘me’ and ‘essence’ to refer to that aspect of human identity which at each moment is inherited from the past. The ‘me’ has a historical content which has to be reaffirmed, adjusted, or rejected as soon as it is recognised. Essence is what we have been and what we are – it is the past as it impinges on the present and forms it: “Due to this fact it is the totality of characteristics which explain the act.” But we must keep in mind Sartre’s two examples of anguish: the characteristics which constitute the person’s identity at each moment depend on which act he freely chooses, and not the other way round. The gambler’s resolution is important only if he keeps it; the walker’s desire to live protects him only if he preserves it at each step. For this reason Sartre writes:

“The act is always beyond the essence; it is a human act only in so far as it surpasses every explanation which we can give of it, precisely because anything that one can describe in the human being by the formula "that is", by that very fact has been.”

Sartre summarises this idea later in BN, concluding with one of his most misunderstood phrases:

“By the sole fact that I am conscious of the motives which inspire my action, these motives are already transcendent objects for my consciousness; they are outside. In vain shall I seek to catch hold of them; I escape them by my very existence. I am condemned to exist forever beyond my essence, beyond the motivations and motives of my act. I am condemned to be free.”

The language may sound overblown (compare saying “I am free” or “I am always free” with “I am condemned to be free”) but the truth conveyed is clear: as we become conscious of any aspect of our identity it loses its hold over us and we have to choose how to respond to it.

Sincerity is Self-Deception

There are many ways of trying to avoid the responsibility for ourselves that comes with anguish. In Sartre’s scheme they all come under the heading of ‘bad faith’ (self-deception). One instructive type of bad faith is ‘sincerity’. This is a technical term in Sartre’s vocabulary: it is the attempt ‘to be who we are’; to make our life match our identity; to conform our actions with our supposed inner reality. But as soon as we spot whatever ‘essential’ aspect of our being it is that we want to display, we realise that we are neither identified with this ‘essence’ nor bound by it. To explain or excuse our behaviour with reference to ‘who we are’ is already to put some distance between our present actions and the past ‘identity’ which supposedly caused them, by our reflection upon this identity. We stake a claim to a ‘self’ and immediately betray our distance from it:

“Total, constant sincerity as a constant effort to adhere to oneself is by nature a constant effort to dissociate oneself from oneself. One frees oneself from oneself by the very act by which one makes oneself an object for oneself.”

The list of characteristics we can be sincere about is wide-ranging. We try to identify not only with our public roles, but also with our attitudes, our emotions, our moral character, our sexual preferences. By referring to these features we can give ourselves a reason to act, but we should acknowledge that we freely choose to refer to them and that they do not constrain us.

It should be made clear that Sartre is very aware of the many factors that constitute an identity for each person. His aim is not to deny the reality of human identity but to question whether this is enough to account for one’s actions.

It is worth considering some of the factors that make up our identity in Being and Nothingness. ‘Facticity’ is the word Sartre uses to stand for the innumerable facts about our life which we have not chosen. These make up the sense in which our life is given, discovered, inherited and dependent on circumstances outside our control. We are bodily creatures, in a specific time and place, with a personal history, living in specific conditions. There are many undeniable facts about our individual psychologies. Sartre lists various characteristics, habits, states, etc., which make up the psychic unity of our egos. These include not only latent qualities which inform our behaviour, such as industriousness, jealousy, ambition; and actual states which embody a certain behaviour, such as loving or hating; but also a whole pattern of acts. Our acts manifest the unified purposes of the psyche. Human acts take on a kind of objectivity and our purposes unfold with some continuity: boxers train, scientists research, artists create, politicians campaign.

Our individual facticity is dependent on a particular language, a concrete community, a political structure, and on being part of the human species. In other words we are natural and cultural beings who do not determine the conditions and facts of our lives. If we need this complex environment to give us an identity, we also need relationships with other people to comprehend our identity. It is through the mediation of others that we can apprehend ourselves. For example, we appreciate ourselves in a new way when we are known or desired or loved: “I recognise I am as the other sees me”; “I see myself because somebody sees me,” as Sartre writes.

In these different ways Sartre reveals an immensely rich understanding of all that makes up a human life. He concerns himself deeply with questions of sociology, culture, language, psychology, and human relations. All of this creates the facticity of our being, the givenness of our unique identity. We should remember that Sartre never denies that human beings have an essence: “Essence is everything about the human being which we can indicate by the words: that is.” For each human being, “certain original structures are invariable.”

So rather than being anti-essentialist, Sartre’s philosophy could be termed a ‘qualified essentialism’, his sole qualification being that essence is never enough. Sartre emphasises that the totality of essences which constitutes our identity cannot adequately define a human being, because our consciousness of this totality is itself an essential aspect of our being. We have a relationship with the totality, an attitude to it, a responsibility for it. This is the reason human identity is ambiguous, insecure, and insufficient to account for our actions.


We should clear up some possible misunderstandings.

First, as we have already seen, there is no suggestion that our identity is cut off from a world of causes and influences. However we respond to the facticity of our dispositions, for example, this remains present to us as a factual necessity, even if we reconstruct it through our decisions about how to act.

Second, Sartre never imagines that anguish is present in all our activities. He acknowledges that in most everyday situations we are acting without anguish: we are usually caught up in things without much reflection, taking for granted a certain identity and certain goals. Even in the midst of the most spontaneous or habitual act, however, “there remains the possibility of putting this act into question.”

Third, Sartre does not think that everything human beings do is within their control. He would accept that many ‘actions’ that human beings ‘do’ are involuntary (we hiccup, sleepwalk, blush), many are instinctive (we eat when we are hungry, we smash things in anger, we run from danger), many unfold almost unconsciously (we drive with astounding skill while on a kind of autopilot, we sing a song without paying it much attention), and that many actions have unforeseen consequences. He notes, for example, that “the careless smoker who has through negligence caused the explosion of a powder magazine has not acted.” Sartre simply says that sometimes we are conscious that an action is ours, and conscious that there are alternative courses of action. The fact that we can take a view on certain actions, that we can deliberate and decide between alternative possibilities, shows that in these cases we are free to determine the course of our action. Only a deliberated act like this can be an acte humain, a ‘human act’.

Fourth, Sartre’s argument is not undermined by someone insisting that this experience of detachment and freedom is just an illusion: “You think you are free, but really everything is determined – even your belief in freedom is psychologically determined.” Sartre’s method is phenomenological. He starts with human experience and tries to clarify what is found in that experience. In this case, we do not experience a psychological belief that we are detached and free; some stubborn conviction which forms the basis of our philosophy. Rather, we experience the detachment itself. It is not a conclusion or an implication. Anguish is the experience of having to choose without adequate grounds for choosing – of having to be free. This is the starting point of Sartre’s phenomenology, the original data on which his philosophy is built. It does not reveal a prejudice in favour of freedom. On the contrary, to insist that all human actions are determined would be to impose a prejudice on the data of experience and contradict it. This prejudice would be a form of bad faith.


Sartre’s vision of the relationship between identity and freedom can be summarised in the following way: Human beings have an identity but go beyond it. We identify with our thoughts and feelings and values, with our circumstances, with the totality of our experience. Yet at the same time we are conscious of this experience and therefore distant from it. We have questions, dilemmas, and moments of existential and moral anguish which make us aware of our own incompleteness and insufficiency. There is a fundamental lack within the present which paralyses our thoughts and actions. Nothing can completely determine for us the meaning of the world or the direction of our life. Yet we are able to go beyond all that we are and conceive of a future which will make sense of the present. It is by freely acting for an end which does not yet exist that we orientate ourselves to this goal and make it real for us. In this way we make sense of the world and give meaning to our life by our active commitments.

A human being is neither the present static identity nor the intangible future goal. We are constituted rather by our freely chosen relationship between present identity and end. Personhood therefore necessarily involves both the facts that determine us and the movement beyond these facts to what we seek to become. It involves essence and existence, self-possession and self-dispossession, introspection and ecstasy, present and future, the real and the ideal, the indicative and the conditional. It involves what is true, and what could be. In Sartre’s understanding we constitute our personal identity by accepting who we are and freely moving beyond this.

© Dr Stephen Wang 2007

Stephen Wang is Lecturer in Philosophy and Systematic Theology at Allen Hall in London.

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