Jean Paul Sartre: Being and Nothingness

Jean Paul Sartre was among the most famous of the modern existentialists and phenomenologists, perhaps second only to Martin Heidegger.  Sartre’s great text of fame was his “essay on ontology,” Being and Nothingness.  In typical French fashion, the text is weighty, dense, and draws heavily from the history of philosophy, especially Christianity, Bacon, Descartes, Hegel, Husserl, Nietzsche, and Heidegger.

The opening paragraph of Sartre’s great work begins, “Modern thought has realized considerable progress by reducing the existent to the series of appearances which manifest it.  Its aim was to overcome a certain number of dualisms which have embarrassed philosophy and to replace them by the monism of the phenomenon. Has the attempt been successful” (p. 3)?  Sartre’s famous opening addresses the problem of the dualisms that “monism” have attempted to resolve.  However, Sartre’s opening statement is somewhat misleading since many prominent phenomenologists before him, especially St. Augustine, Georg Hegel, and Martin Heidegger, aren’t really “monists” as he said – they were rather unitive thinkers in which pluralism was tied together in unity giving the impression of monism.  Likewise, many figures associated with the monist movement operated from a practical dualism: Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke (who was actually a dualist but functional monist).

What was Sartre’s concern?  First was the implied dualism and “bad faith” of Christianity.  The separation of man into Elect and damned, heaven and hell, soul and body, etc., was a problem that modern philosophy had to overcome.  Although Christianity properly rejects dualism as a heresy, and its teachings are unitive, Sartre nevertheless sees a certain dualism within Christianity as “embarrassing” to modern philosophy.  Second is the functional dualism of the materialist monists of the new science.  Francis Bacon was a monistic materialist; man was but a mass of matter in the world which Thomas Hobbes, one of Bacon’s great disciples, explained more thoroughly in Leviathan.  Bacon’s new science, however, created a functional dualism in separating man from nature: man vs. nature.  Third was the mind-body (or subject-matter) dualism of Descartes.  Man, as subject-consciousness, was primarily immaterial and not material.  But man is “enclosed in a body.”  This leads to the subject-object crisis that preoccupies much of modern ontology.  Sartre sees the history of modern philosophy as the attempt to resolve dualism but thinks, ultimately, that the project has been unsuccessful.  That is where his work steps in.

Ontology is the study of being.  A further derivation of ontology is anthropology (specifically the study of the being of man).  Properly, it should be tied to metaphysics when being logically coherent.  For instance, a materialist metaphysic should necessitate a materialist ontology.  An idealist metaphysic should necessitate an idealist ontology.  A monistic metaphysic should necessitate a monistic ontology.  A pluralist metaphysic should necessitate a pluralistic ontology, etc.  For Sartre, the problem with modern philosophy is that it holds to a monist, and materialist, metaphysic, but is trapped in a dualistic ontology: subject and object.  To hold to a materialistic monistic metaphysic would mean to render the human person to a body of matter without subjectivity (or consciousness).  But where, and why, do humans have such subjectivity?  If it emanates from matter, then we still have the problem of Descartes’ mind-body dualism and the contradiction of the new science which separated man from nature (if consciousness came from matter, e.g. nature, then man should be seen as part of nature rather than opposed to it).

Sartre’s attempt to resolve the problem of dualisms is based on his metaphysics of nothingness.  What does he mean and where does he draw from?

Many observers have noted that Sartre’s work falls into two major traditions in philosophy.  First is that of post-Hegelian phenomenology; though scholars remain divided as to whether Sartre misinterpreted Hegel, Husserl, and Heidegger or whether he was rejecting their efforts while substantially drawing from their works.  Second is that of post-Christian theological anthropology.  St. Augustine and Catholicism factor prominently in between the lines of the text.  But Sartre’s work is not one of Christian apologia, but rather the atrophied inheritance of the Christian system.

Part of Christianity’s doctrine of creation is creatio ex nihilo (creation from nothing).  God, all powerful as God is, created the Cosmos at a beginning moment which is also the beginning of time (we shall pass over the philosophy of time for the sake of time, pardon the pun).  But Christianity’s triune doctrine of creation also includes the idea that the Cosmos is rationally order (rationally created) and is created in love for love (creatio ex amore Dei: creation from the love of God).  Because the world is rationally ordered and made in love, there is Truth to it that we can come to know and we can relate, affectionately with others and the world according to Christianity.  (You should see how this all follows within Christianity’s system of thought.)  Being a post-Christian work, however, Sartre rejects that the world is rationally ordered and that it was made in love for love.  The Cosmos is not ordered to anything and certainly was not made in love for love, thus we cannot know the Truth of the universe because there is no order to it, and we cannot come to love because love is not integral to the stitches of the Cosmos so to speak.  Instead of returning to the pagan cosmologies of an eternal universe, Sartre accepts one-third of the Christian creation narrative: creation from nothing, and takes this as his starting point.  This will have radical consequences when he begins to discuss ethics in the section “Concrete Relations with Others.”

But this should serve as enough sufficient background to now proceed into one of his most famous sections within his text: Part I, Chapter I, Section V: The Origin of Nothingness.

The Origin of Nothingness: Or Man as the Center of the Universe

Sartre’s section entitled the “Origin of Nothingness” lays out his foundations, his metaphysic, for the rest of the work.  Sartre argues that the being-in-itself is the unconscious being that lay at the center of life itself.  Here Sartre is specifically rejecting Kant and Hegel, and Hegel especially.  Sartre does not accept the Hegelian position that a subject being can negate itself.  Negation is at the beginning.  “[W]e must recognize that only Being can nihilate itself; however it comes about, in order to nihilate itself, it must be.  But Nothingness is not…Nothingess does not nihilate itself; Nothingness ‘is nihilated’” (p. 57).

Typical of French philosophy this is word soup and a bunch of fantastical terminological talk with seemingly little ability for a reader to comprehend.  So I will hopefully help, taking into consideration the brief background that I provided at the beginning of this post.

If we return to Christianity’s tripartite creation metaphysic, we should remember the idea of creation from nothing.  Sartre identifies the in-itself, human consciousness, as the pin that links being with nothingness.  If we also remember the dualism of Descrates, I am a subject-consciousness enclosed in a body.  Thus, the being-in-itself is an object of consciousness that only comes to know itself through its encounters with other objects.  Those familiar with Hegel and Augustine should see the dialectic within Sartre’s ontology of consciousness: I, as an object with consciousness, only come to realize my consciousness through encountering other objects (without consciousness).  “In order to nihiliate, it must be.”  This is a play on the Cartesian cogito ergo sum: I think, therefore I am.  Because I can negate myself, I must be.  My consciousness rises in awareness as I perceive missing objects, encountering objects, or overcoming objects (or, perhaps, objects overcoming me).  To this end this is what Sartre means by using the term “consciousness,” that which transcends myself (for itself) to allow greater reflective power and awareness of being-in-the-world.  In other words, no consciousness, no awareness; and without awareness we cannot come to know ourselves in the world.

Thus, because I am the being-in-itself (object with consciousness) through raising consciousness I negate my thesis of being: being-in-itself and become aware of my freedom!  I thus become a being-for-itself no longer defined by fixity but aware of the consciousness which is also the seat of my freedom.

Sartre returns us to Protagoras, man is at the center of the universe and is the center of the universe.  Man is, for all intents and purposes, God, for Sartre.  Man, and man alone, has the power to create, destroy, think, determine, accept, reject, judge, encounter, decide, etc.  And contrary to Hegel, where man is becoming free, Sartre takes the position that man, in his being, is freedom itself.  Sartre takes the modern understanding of freedom as the free ability to exert oneself and choose for oneself without external impediments or barriers.  If there was truth and order to the Cosmos, which we are to come into union with, then we cannot be free in Sartre’s mind.  For we would be submitting ourselves to a higher power or force or law; Sartre’s liberty doesn’t entail any degree of ontological flourishing for our freedom is the freedom to choose and create and do as we will.  Our essence, for Sartre, is freedom itself.  Humanity is trapped in freedom to create and do as it will in a cold and dark Cosmos without any direction or guidance.  This is unsettling for most people, which is why we create systems to give guidance or meaning in life (but this would be “bad faith” which we shall explore later).  As Sartre says, “Man does not exist first in order to be free subsequently;  there is no difference between the being of man and his being-free” (p. 60).

What is the origin of the Cosmos?  Nothingness.  What does this mean?  Man is the “creator of the Cosmos” insofar that man attempts, in his freedom, to proscribe meaning to the Cosmos.  Sartre is a metaphysical libertarian: man has free will and the Cosmos has no end (telos) to it.

Once man comes to know his nothingness, he feels great anguish over him (p. 65).  Man has expectations.  But to fall short of such expectations is to create anguish.  We once again see the Sartrean dialectic at work.  My expectations and my possibility of falling short of expectations, which creates anguish, is a reflection of my consciousness.  To realize this is to realize freedom.  Here we see Sartre’s existentialism as defined by the anxiety of freedom.  It is the realization that I am the center of the Cosmos.  And since the Cosmos has no end to which it is moving toward, or defined by, the conclusion I reach is that I am the mover of the Cosmos.

Sartre claims that this moment of realization of nothingness (freedom) is at the “Vertigo.”  The Vertigo, for Sartre, is the moment that we experience anguish when we sit at the precipice of a cliff, coming to the realization that I can hurl myself off the cliff to my death and thus, my self negation (or nihilation).  I literally do control everything.  It is on the precipice we see the crisis of freedom of possibility; nothingness is guaranteed.  Anticipation of falling to death produces fear, one becomes a mere thing as a result.  In this I recognize the inherent dilemma of existence: I am an object with subjectivity.

It is in this moment of Vertigo that we truly come to understand what freedom entails.  Choice is completely yours, but choice has consequences.  For those who wish to choose without consequences live in bad faith for Sartre.  True freedom entails taking responsibility for every and all actions that one takes in life.  You cannot be free while wanting to reject consequences.  This is why freedom is unsettling for so many.  We would rather “choose” without the fear of consequences.  But consequences is essential to freedom for without, freedom would be moot without the possibility of failure, death, or negation.  Choice is based, ultimately, on nothing.  It is based entirely on the nothingness of consciousness.  There is no influence over my choice but consciousness itself (hence nothing because consciousness is nothing).  The attainment of consciousness which comes from freedom moves the being-in-itself to the being-for-itself, I realize my freedom and realize my choice in everything that I do – I do everything for myself (hence being-for-itself).

This leads to Sartre’s tripartite ontology and dialectic: being-in-itself (object with consciousness without realization of freedom); being-for-itself (object with consciousness realizing its freedom); being-for-others (object with consciousness that rejects its freedom to be subservient to others).  The thesis of existence is the being-in-itself.  The antithesis of existence is the being-for-itself.  The synthesis would be being-for-others.  But Sartre rejects the temptation to move into the being-for-others because this would be a sign of bad faith and suppression of our esse (freedom).  Sartre’s dialectic situates itself permanently in the antithesis.  We must always choose to be the being-for-itself!  This is the highest expression of my acceptance of my consciousness.  That I make a conscious choice to always be for myself.  We can never go back to the being-in-itself either after the process of negation because negation is the origo of the consciousness of freedom: the realization of my freedom of choice over all matters.


In this section of Being and Nothingness Sartre gives the formulation that existence precedes essence.  I am not defined by anything (essence).  My existence (freedom) allows me to control what I am and what I can be.  There is no essentialism to Sartre’s view of the human being.

Thus, for Sartre, his metaphysics of nothingness follows as such:

  • We exist.
  • We become consciously aware of our existence which destroys the being-in-itself (this is the origin of nihilation).
  • We are free and creative (or destructive) beings, we create our meaning or essence through constant choices and we must constantly be in a state of creativity (note the Nietzschean influence here).
  • The reality of freedom is burdensome and we arrive at anguish when we realize the totality of our freedom and all the consequences that come with choices. Freedom becomes a burden because we realize that we are nothing, we are exist for nothing, and we are going nowhere.  We have an uncertain and unfixed future.  We control the future!
  • When we attempt to run from our freedom we act in bad faith which is the negation of our freedom to outside forces (becoming a being-for-others which is bad).
  • Paradoxically, we affirm our freedom in running from our freedom because the abandonment of our freedom is a free choice made a free subjectivity, the ability to reject this freedom presupposes consciousness which affirms our freedom in order to run away from our freedom.
  • We are in a constant state of flux, and this flux is the flux of choice which constitutes our freedom. Freedom is not something rationally ordered but something that is chaotic or comes from the void.

For Sartre, humans are condemned to be free but this freedom is without any guidance because if we had guidance we wouldn’t be free.  Creation comes after existence, whereby our existence creates and provides meaning but we must engage in this activity constantly.  “To not choose” is, itself, a choice.  We must never fall into acceptance of our past choices but must constantly be in a state of perpetual choosing and creation.  What is the origin of nothingness?  We are.

All of Satre’s fancy language can be boiled down to this.  First, the universe has no meaning or order to it.  Second, we exist in this meaningless universe but have this wonderful gift called consciousness which allows us to experience and live in the world as more than mere objects.  Third, in our experiences in the world we come to grow in awareness of our own consciousness which is the seat of our freedom.  Fourth, our freedom, which is tied to consciousness, is the ability to choose how to live, how to create, and, even, when to destroy (others or ourselves).  Fifth, this realization of freedom is our own doing (self-negating or self-nihilating) and is deeply unsettling.  Sixth, in this anguish of freedom we choose to either accept this freedom and all the consequences which can emanate from it (good) or we can choose to reject this freedom and live for others or external things and forces (bad faith).  Seventh, we must never embrace contentment in life.  Life is not about happiness or relationships with others; life is fundamentally about the radical freedom to choose and create (or destroy) until our own lives expire.  The final and ultimate conclusion we reach from this experience in the world is that man is god, man controls and creates as he wills.

Just as God created from nothing in the Christian account of creation, man creates from nothing.  Just as God created man free in the Christian account of creation and endowed him with a conscious soul, man truly is a free conscious animal unique in the order of creation.  The difference, of course, is that man’s freedom is rooted in his rebellion and not union with the good, true, or beautiful.  The “bad faith” of Christianity was to create a greater subjectivity beyond that of man, God, and claiming that we should be in union with that being.  The freedom of uncertainty has led to established orders and systems which inhibit man’s freedom and creativity.  But the 20th century is showing, for Sartre, the true genius of man: his genius to deceive (in bad faith) and his genius to (re)realize his (original) freedom.

Moving forward we should also see dilemmas that Sartre is going to address in the rest of the text.  If I subject myself (in free choice) to outside forces I live in bad faith; Sartre is to explain why this is something to be avoided.  There comes a moment when I realize that I am not the only center of the universe: there are other people who are subject-beings in a body.  How do I relate to them?  Because the Cosmos is not created in love for love, I am not going to be able to actually love them.  How does human ethics and relationships proceed with this inability to love? Ultimately, as Sartre says, “We are our choices.”

3 thoughts on “Jean Paul Sartre: Being and Nothingness

  1. Pingback: Jean Paul Sartre: Being and Nothingness – The Philosophical Hack

  2. That is such a great synopsis. I had forgetter how much there is in Sartre. Over time I truncate ideas into what is useful for what I’m involved with. And I forget the full field.

    Thanks. You’re so good at that!

    Liked by 1 person

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