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The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy Second Edition

Sartre, Jean-Paul (1905–80), French philosopher and writer, the leading advocate of existentialism during the years
following World War II. The heart of his philosophy was the precious notion of freedom and its concomitant sense of
personal responsibility. He insisted, in an interview a few years before his death, that he never ceased to believe that
“in the end one is always responsable for what is made of one,” only a slight revisión of his earlier, bolder slogan, “man
makes himself.” To be sure, as a student of Hegel, Marx, Husserl, and Heidegger – and because of his own physical
frailty and the tragedies of the war – Sartre had to be well aware of the many constraints and obstacles to human
freedom, but as a Cartesian, he never deviated from Descartes’s classical portrait of human consciousness as free and
distinct from the physical universe it inhabits. One is never free of one’s “situation,” Sartre tells us, though one is
always free to deny (“negate”) that situation and to try to change it. To be human, to be conscious, is to be free to
imagine, free to choose, and responsible for one’s lot in life.
As a student, Sartre was fascinated by Husserl’s new philosophical method, phenomenology. His first essays were
direct responses to Husserl and applications of the phenomenological method. His essay on The Imagination in 1936
established the groundwork for much of what was to follow: the celebration of our remarkable freedom to imagine
the world other than it is and (following Kant) the way that this ability informs all of our experience. In The
Transcendence of the Ego (1937) he reconsidered Husserl’s central idea of a “phenomenological reduction” (the idea
of examining the essential structures of consciousness as such) and argued (following Heidegger) that one cannot
examine consciousness without at the same time recognizing the reality of actual objects in the world. In other words,
there can be no such “reduction.” In his novel Nausea (1938), Sartre made this point in a protracted example: his bored
and often nauseated narrator confronts a gnarled chestnut tree in the park and recognizes with a visceral shock that
its presence is simply given and utterly irreducible. In The Transcendence of the Ego Sartre also reconsiders the notion
of the self, which Husserl (and so many earlier philosophers) had identified with consciousness. But the self, Sartre
argues, is not “in” consciousness, much less identical to it. The self is out there “in the world, like the self of another.”
In other words, the self is an ongoing project in the world with other people; it is not simply self-awareness or self-
consciousness as such (“I think, therefore I am”).
This separation of self and consciousness and the rejection of the self as simply self-consciousness provide the
framework for Sartre’s greatest philosophical treatise, L’être et le néant (Being and Nothingness, 1943). Its structure
is unabashedly Cartesian, consciousness (“being-for-itself” or pour soi) on the one side, the existence of mere things
(“being-in-itself” or en soi) on the other. (The phraseology comes from Hegel.) But Sartre does not fall into the
Cartesian trap of designating these two types of being as separate “substances.” Instead, Sartre describes
consciousness as “nothing’ – “not a thing” but an activity, “a wind blowing from nowhere toward the world.” Sartre
often resorts to visceral metaphors when developing this theme (e.g., “a worm coiled in the heart of being”), but much
of what he is arguing is familiar to philosophical readers in the more metaphor-free work of Kant, who also warned
against the follies (“paralogisms”) of understanding consciousness as itself a (possible) object of consciousness rather
than as the activity of constituting the objects of consciousness. (As the lens of a camera can never see itself – and in
a mirror only sees a reflection of itself – con sciousness can never view itself as consciousness and is only aware of
itself – “for itself” – through its experience of objects.) Ontologically, one might think of “nothingness” as “no-thing-
ness,” a much less outrageous suggestion than those that would make it an odd sort of a thing. It is through the
nothingness of consciousness and its activities that negation comes into the world, our ability to imagine the world
other than it is and the inescapable necessity of imagining ourselves other than we seem to be. And because
consciousness is nothingness, it is not subject to the rules of causality. Central to the argument of L’être et le néant
and Sartre’s insistence on the primacy of human freedom is his insistence that consciousness cannot be understood
in causal terms. It is always self-determining and, as such, “it always is what it is not, and is not what it is” – a playful
paradox that refers to the fact that we are always in the process of choosing.
Consciousness is “nothing,” but the self is always on its way to being something. Throughout our lives we accumulate
a body of facts that are true of us – our “facticity” – but during our lives we remain free to envision new possibilities,
to reform ourselves and to reinterpret our facticity in the light of new projects and ambitions – our “transcendence.”
This indeterminacy means that we can never be anything, and when we try to establish ourselves as something
particular – whether a social role (policeman, waiter) or a certain character (shy, intellectual, cowardly) – we are in
“bad faith.” Bad faith is erroneously viewing ourselves as something fixed and settled (Sartre utterly rejects Freud and
his theory of the unconscious determination of our personalities and behavior), but it is also bad faith to view oneself
as a being of infinite possibilities and ignore the always restrictive facts and circumstances within which all choices
must be made. On the one hand, we are always trying to define ourselves; on the other hand we are always free to
break away from what we are, and always responsible for what we have made of ourselves. But there is no easy
resolution or “balance” between facticity and freedom, rather a kind of dialectic or tension. The result is our frustrated
desire to be God, to be both in-itself and for-itself. But this is not so much blasphemy as an expression of despair, a
form of ontological original sin, the impossibility of being both free and what we want to be.
Life for Sartre is yet more complicated. There is a third basic ontological category, on a par with the being-in-itself and
being-for-itself and not derivative of them. He calls it “being-for-others.” To say that it is not derivative is to insist that
our knowledge of others is not inferred, e.g. by some argument by analogy, from the behavior of others, and we
ourselves are not wholly constituted by our self-determinations and the facts about us. Sartre gives us a brutal but
familiar everyday example of our experience of being-for-others in what he calls “the look” (le regard). Someone
catches us “in the act” of doing something humiliating, and we find ourselves defining ourselves (probably also
resisting that definition) in their terms. In his Saint Genet (1953), Sartre describes such a conversion of the ten-year-
old Jean Genet into a thief. So, too, we tend to “catch” one another in the judgments we make and define one another
in terms that are often unflattering. But these judgments become an essential and ineluctible ingredient in our sense
of ourselves, and they too lead to conflicts indeed, conflicts so basic and so frustrating that in his play Huis Clos (No
Exit, 1943) Sartre has one of his characters utter the famous line, “Hell is other people.”
In his later works, notably his Critique of Dialectical Reason (1958–59), Sartre turned increasingly to politics and, in
particular, toward a defense of Marxism on existentialist principles. This entailed rejecting materialist determinism,
but it also required a new sense of solidarity (or what Sartre had wistfully called, following Heidegger, Mitsein or “being
with others”). Thus in his later work he struggled to find a way of overcoming the conflict and insularity or the rather
“bourgeois” consciousness he had described in Being and Nothingness. Not surprisingly (given his constant political
activities) he found it in revolutionary engagement. Consonant with his rejection of bourgeois selfhood, Sartre turned
down the 1964 Nobel prize for literature.