“Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism” – Jean-Paul Sartre “If God did not exist, everything would be permitted” -Dostoevsky It is nearly impossible to remove individual ideas from Sartre’s magnum opus; they do not function as distinct, discrete concepts that are bricked together like the foundation of a house. Rather, the concepts Sartre addresses in Being are all part of a continuum, a single thread woven together to for the whole of the work.
Picking at one idea in an effort to remove and examine it reveals that one idea leads to the next until the entire work is unwound. In fact, in some ways, Being and Nothingness is an examination of a single idea –the nature of our existence- examined through various lenses. Sartre considers the nature of human existence in various ways; primary among these are considerations of human consciousness, largely as defined by how we perceive ourselves and how we perceive others. Ontological questions are as old as humanity itself.
They form the core of the earliest philosophical considerations, and remain at the core of the work of Sartre in the 20th Century. How we perceive ourselves, and how we perceive the world, are the most fundamental precepts of nearly all philosophical inquiries. Sartre considers these ideas in all of his works; Being and Nothingness is perhaps the most significant, if not always the most accessible, of his works that address such concerns. The nature of being is fundamental to Sartre’s philosophy; defining the nature of being is, ultimately, the goal of Being and Nothingness.
Sartre was greatly influenced by Kant, another philosopher who considered the nature of being as fundamental to understanding the world and ourselves. While Kant’s views color much of Sartre’s works, Sartre would ultimately diverge from Kant in some fundamental ways. Consider the nature of objects as things-in-themselves. How we perceive objects, in the Kantian view, is based on a combination of factors. Clearly, we bring much of ourselves, our knowledge, our experiences, to bear when we seek to understand an object.
That is why different people can examine the same object and yet draw entirely different conclusions about the nature, purpose, or function of the object. In the Kantian view, things existed in themselves entirely apart from our perception of them. Thus, our understanding or perception of an object was formed both from the inherent nature of the object and from our own consciousness. Whether we existed or not, the object would still exist, and would carry with it certain immutable attributes.
Then, stipulating the existence of the observer, the observed object would have attributable to it not just its inherent characteristics, but also the characteristics to which the observer ascribed. Though there were some overlapping ideas between Sartre and Kant, Sartre’s philosophy about the nature of understanding the outside world was ultimately a rejection of the Kantian view. Simply put, Sartre saw the notion that objects had attributes unto themselves, apart from human perception or definition, as being entirely improvable, and thus, impossible.
In the Sartreian view, objects had no existence outside of the realm of perception. This, loosely defined, is known as Solipsism; solipsism has been rejected by many philosophical schools of thought, but remains a core precept in Sartre’s view of existence. In the book “Using Sartre,” author Gregory McCulloch delineates five themes he finds present in Sartre’s work. These themes are quite simply stated (if not necessarily easily understood), and thus they make a convenient set of points on which to rest discussions of Sartre’s views on consciousness.
These themes are: 1. All conscious acts have intentionality. 2. Consciousness is empty. 3. Consciousness is characterised by, and is the source of, nothingness. 4. Consciousness is subject to extreme freedom. 5. There are two fundamentally different modes of self-consciousness or self-awareness. On the matter of Intentionality, Sartre asserted that all consciousness is “of something;” i. e. – that consciousness exists in relationship to something external. McCulloch notes examples such as the act of recognizing that it is raining, or that one sees a dog, or that one imagines the possible actions of ones’ best friend.
All of these –and indeed, all of consciousness- are “of something. ” In the Sartreian view, consciousness is empty. That is to say that consciousness is literally empty, that there is nothing there without intentionality. IF we have an image of an object in mind, for example, that image is the thing-in-itself. If there is no quantifiable externality, then the only measurement of existence for the thing is that which resides in the consciousness. This is perhaps the most difficult part of Sartreian philosophy to understand, but it is a crucial component of his philosophy.
As noted, all activities of consciousness are related to Intentionality; as such, even self-awareness and human egos are “outside” of consciousness. Though Sartre asserts that things exist only in consciousness, that does not mean they are literally in the consciousness, of course, just that they are perceptions that exist in the consciousness. So of the two primary concerns found in the title of Being and Nothingness, being exists entirely in the mind of the observer. Again, this solipsistic point of view diverges from the views of many noted philosophers, from Descartes to Kant, but is fundamental to Sartre’s philosophy.
As Sartre sees it, the way things seem to be is, by definition, the way things are. As important as the nature of being is to Sartre’s philosophy, so too is the nature of nothingness. This nothingness defines consciousness, but it also defines the external. There is no substance to the external except that which we ascribe to it. In the absence of everything, anything is possible. Sartre believed that we are “condemned” to freedom, though the implication that such freedom is a torment is only partially borne out in his work. Certainly there can be a tragic component to the notion of freedom.
If everything we do, if everything we are, is a choice, and we then make choices that are negative, then suffering is an obvious consequence. If we see ourselves as being trapped in a certain social or economic strata, then we are, by definition, trapped in that strata. Conversely, if we view ourselves as capable of breaking out of certain constrictions, then we have the capacity to do so (with a successful outcome being another matter entirely). It is in this area of “freedom” that Sartre’s ideas about consciousness may best be examined.
Sartre was insistent that life should (or at least could) be lived “authentically,” that is to say, that we exercise our freedom to live the life we chose to live. In Sartre’s view, we are quite literally nothing at birth; thus, existence precedes essence. In addition to discussing these ideas in Being and Nothingness, Sartre addresses them quite succinctly in an essay entitled “Existentialism is Humanism,” in which he posits a pair of analogies to delineate the difference between essence preceding existence and existence preceding essence.
First, he discusses the creation of a “paper-knife” (a knife for cutting paper, rather than a knife made of paper); in so doing, it is clear that the essence of the knife precedes its existence. The artisan who creates the knife knows before he creates it what the purpose of the knife will be, what the knife will be made of, what its dimensions will be; all the characteristics of what will comprise the essence of the knife once it exists are determined before the knife actually exists. Sartre (an atheist) then proceeds to discuss the idea of God as a “supernatural artisan. In creating man, God would have acted in much the same manner as the artisan who created the paper-knife. God would have had in mind the essence of man before the act of creating him; thus, man’s essence would have preceded his existence. Of course, this notion lies in direct opposition to Sartre’s views. As he makes clear in Being and Nothingness, man is a literal empty vessel at birth; he has no “essence” outside of that which he creates for himself. This is a complicated concept, as compelling arguments could clearly be made that man does indeed have an intrinsic essence.
Still, argues Sartre, this appearance of intrinsic essence is a function solely of an individual’s choice to model himself after that which he sees in the Other. It is not inherent that the individual reflect the essence he perceives in others, though it is, seemingly, quite common. In Being and Nothingness, Sartre uses several examples to bring this idea to life. He describes the actions of an overly-solicitous waiter who, in the act of serving a meal, exhibits all of the common characteristics one might associate with someone engaged in such a profession.
In the example of the waiter (and in other examples offered by Sartre), we see an individual defined not by who he is, but rather, by what he does. Though we almost always define ourselves and others in terms of professions –that is, by what an individual does for a living- Sartre insists that this is an entirely misleading and incorrect assessment of the essence of an individual. Sartre’s idea of “bad faith” is inherent to his notions of “freedom” and “authenticity. ” There are those philosophers who posit that man is simply an unwitting victim of external forces, and as such, has no real freedom of choice.
Sartre rejects such suppositions entirely. While he recognizes that there are external forces that we can not control, we can control how we react to those forces. As Sartre differentiates between objects –things that do not change- and consciousness- which is always changing- he asserts that to assent to the notion that one can not control one’s actions or choices is to relegate oneself to the role of an object. As this is simply impossible (according to Sartre), if one chooses this belief (that one is, for all intents and purposes, an object) then one is acting in bad faith.
This avoidance of bad faith, this striving for authenticity, is at the core of Sartre’s ides about consciousness. He believed that man was entirely responsible for his own actions. In Being and Nothingness, he asserted the following: “(man) is responsible for the world and for himself as a way of being. We are taking ‘responsibility’ in its ordinary sense as ‘consciousness being the incontestable author of an event or object’. ” In this sense the responsibility of the ‘for-itself’ is overwhelming since he is the one by whom it happens that there is a world. This statement clearly restates Sartre’s belief that there is nothing beyond that which we perceive, that we actually create the world in our consciousness. Within this consciousness, Sartre sees different types or levels of consciousness, the pre-reflective consciousness and the reflective consciousness. The pre-reflective consciousness pertains to our awareness and consideration of the external. Sartre uses an example of a man who has missed his bus and is chasing it down the street. The pre-reflective consciousness is at work as he is chasing the bus, he is not reflecting on chasing the bus; he is simply focused on the bus itself.
After he catches up to the bus and boards it, he may then reflect on the chase itself; this is the reflective consciousness. Though clearly different, the two states of consciousness share a singular characteristic: the external (in this case, the bus). Again, without the external, there is, simply, nothing. As there are two types of consciousness, so too are there two types of being. There is “being-in-itself,” and “being-for-itself. ” Being-in-itself is the term he uses to describe the non-conscious world outside oneself, while being-for-itself describes the state of one’s consciousness.
Being-in-itself is that which does not change, such as a rock or a tree. Being-for-itself is that which is always changing, that is, human consciousness. Sartre sees consciousness as nothing more than a series of choices, choices that are made in response Again, both states of being rely on intentionality, on consideration of the external; without intentionality, there is nothing. Given the immense scope of Sartre’s works, it is impossible to adequately discuss them within the confines of a brief essay. Still, there are certain precepts of that overarch his work, especially in a discussion of Being and Nothingness.
As evidenced by the title, Sartre concerns himself largely with the nature of existence, thus earning the title of “existentialist. ” According to Sartre, consciousness without intention is, simply, nothing. There is no consciousness except that which exists in relation to other things; the consideration of these external things, and the consideration of the consideration of these external things, are the sum total of existence. This solipsistic view may be difficult for some to accept, and there are equally compelling philosophical arguments in favor of the notion that external objects do indeed have an essence that exists apart from a elationship to human consciousness. Still, given the serious considerations Sartre gave to these matters, there is no doubt that he makes a significant argument in favor of his beliefs. Whether or not one agrees with the entirety of his conclusions, it remains clear why Sartre continues to cast such a long shadow over the philosophical world, and why any serious discussion of the nature of existence must account, in one way or another, for the work Sartre has done to advance this area of philosophical inquiry.
McCulloch, Gregory. Using Sartre : An Analytical Introduction to Early Sartrean Themes. London, , GBR: Routledge, 1994. p 5.
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