A summary of Being and Nothingness in ‘s Jean-Paul Sartre (–). Learn exactly what happened in this chapter, scene, or section of Jean-Paul Sartre. Stephen Wang continues our debate on these essential aspects of being human by considering what Jean-Paul Sartre had to say about them. Being and Nothingness is the major work by Jean-Paul Sartre and can be considered as the most complete work of existentialist philosophy. Published in
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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: 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. Surely, to take my first example, she is a qualified doctor, whether she treats the patient or not. In his reflections on action Sartre goes to the very heart of what it is to be human.
Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre
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 He begun writing in earnest on his release in the summer ofand continued over the next few months in Paris and on cycling holidays around France.
BN was probably completed in Octoberwhich meant that this massive work was written in a remarkably short time. It is worth noting that although BN was published in the summer ofwhen 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.
First, the cliff walker. Someone is walking along the side of a dangerous cliff, on a narrow path, without a guard-rail. 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: 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.
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. Human identity is unstable. The experience of vertigo is one form of anguish: At this moment, halfway along the dangerous path, we may feel confident; but in a few steps, who knows what we might do?
The decisive conduct will emanate from a me which I am not yet. 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:. It is there, doubtless, but fixed, ineffectual, surpassed by the very fact that I am conscious of it.
Anr 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 nothungness object for my consciousness. I am not nothingnrss 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 beinfness 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: For both characters their very consciousness of an identity comes with a corresponding detachment as they realise that they are not beingnesx by it.
By searching for reasons, they objectify them and make these reasons ineffective. 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 beingenss over his future: However costly it seems, the price of being conscious of an identity is a corresponding liberation nothingnes 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. We can review the present and not just the nothingnese, and we have a continual responsibility to recreate our identities through our choices. Essence is what we have been and what we are — it is the past as it impinges on the present and forms it: For this reason Sartre writes:.
Sartre summarises beinvness idea later in BNconcluding with one of his nothingnees misunderstood phrases:. 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. There are many ways of trying to anc the responsibility for ourselves that comes with anguish. 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. It is worth considering some of the factors that make up our identity in Being and Nothingness. 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.
Snd are many undeniable facts about our individual psychologies.
Sartre lists various characteristics, habits, states, etc. 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: 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: In these different ways Sartre reveals an immensely rich understanding of all that makes up a human life.
He concerns himself deeply beignness questions of sociology, culture, language, psychology, and human relations.
Being and Nothingness – Wikipedia
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: 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 nothungness for it. This is the reason human identity is ambiguous, insecure, and insufficient to account for our actions. First, as we have already seen, there is no suggestion that our identity is cut off from a world of causes and influences.
Being and Nothingness
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 bsingness that anguish is present in all our activities. He acknowledges that in anx everyday situations we are acting without anguish: Beinvness, Sartre does not think that everything human beings do is within their control.
The fact that we can take a view on certain actions, that we can deliberate and decide between alternative possibilities, shows that in nothigness cases we are free to determine the course of our action. 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. 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.