Being and Nothingness Summary

Jean-Paul Sartre

Being and Nothingness

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Being and Nothingness Summary

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Jean-Paul Sartre’s phenomenological work Being and Nothingness (1943) argues that an individual’s existence is distinct from his or her essence, the latter proceeding from the ontological bedrock of the former. It was written shortly after Sartre languished as a prisoner of war between 1940 and 1941, where he read Being and Time by Martin Heidegger. Influenced by, but skeptical of Heidegger’s arguments that one could encounter one’s being, Sartre holds that humans construct themselves through aspiring to emulate their illusory models of being. The book is considered to be Sartre’s seminal work on existentialism and his magnum opus.

In the introduction, Sartre outlines his thesis about how consciousness comes to be, as well as how phenomena manifest in the mind. He critiques phenomenologists, especially Heidegger and Husserl, as well as thinkers whom he finds too strongly aligned with empiricism and rationalism. In his view, the greatest achievement of recent philosophy is the rejection of dualistic views of consciousness in which ontological entities necessarily have a hidden background or nature. Though we can aspire to have backgrounds or natures, we only ever manage to approximate them.

Sartre’s first argument is on the “origin of negation.” Here, he argues that nothingness is necessarily an experienced being, having been thought into existence as a distinct concept. Nothingness is not merely a way of representing an absolute logical negation, because it can also take the form of a qualitative statement. For example, a blind man might have “no sight,” but his blindness is essential, and contributes to, the whole of his being. For Sartre, the only way nothingness can be conceived is as a part of some extant wholeness. The process of constructing such wholeness is predicated on the mind’s ability to distance itself from the world.

Next, Sartre explicates his notion that human beings survive by deceiving themselves about the realities they live in. He addresses two forms in which self-deception manifest. One is the decision to believe in a concept of self that differs from the whole of empirical information one has about one’s self. The other is the decision to conceive of the self as an object that is made up of a mere list of attributes. For example, one might commit self-objectification if one believes one is identical to one’s career. Sartre rejects deceiving the self by thinking of the self as an object since it prevents one from transcending situations and conditions which are essentially momentary and contingent.

Sartre also emphasizes the importance of using negation to admit oneself in what he calls the “great human stream”: the revelation that nothingness is a state of mind one must access in order to conceive of being anything new. To further illustrate the difference between deceptive and accepting living, he gives the example of a waiter who is too caught up in trying to emulate the being-ness of a waiter that he denies his real existence. He qualifies his attitude towards deception, noting that a balance of real existence and self-deception are necessary to function socially and perform functional duties. Nevertheless, he condemns the modern field of ethics, which threatens to throw us out of existence by setting clear terms for how we should think and behave.

In the final section, Sartre addresses the phenomena of the gaze; that is, the sensory processes through which one defines oneself as an object. Calling this phenomenon “non-positional,” he argues that it is vital for recognizing that others are subjects and not objects, since their own sensory processes define one as an object, in turn. He uses the example of a mannequin, arguing that when one momentarily mistakes a mannequin for human, he briefly reconceives of himself as an object whose world is “haunted” by people’s values. Once the realization sets in that the person is just a mannequin, one returns from objectivity to subjectivity. He applies this concept to several human behaviors, including sex. In sex, one is haunted by the possibility of total mutual awareness and agreement, postulating that one might unite with the other in a reciprocal contingency of being. However, that kind of state can never truly be; rather, it is momentarily aroused, only to fade at the moment of orgasm.

Sartre concludes with comments on phenomenological ontology. He posits that consciousness, in and of itself, cannot survive as existent. Rather, it is maintained only through its being aware of objects, a state called intentionality. From this position, it logically follows that to be conscious of anything is predicated on being conscious of oneself. He makes clear that by “consciousness of the self,” he does not mean having an ego, but rather sustaining a relationship between the constant tendency to objectify the self and the total existence of the self. Sartre’s existentialist project can, therefore, be summed up in this very thesis: that being in itself is distinct from, and contingent on, being for oneself.