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Being (i.e.

be+-ing, by synecdoche), is an English word used for conceptualizing subjective aspects

fundamental to the self —related to and somewhat interchangeable with terms like "existence" and
"living". In its objective usage —as in "a being," or "[a] human being" —it refers to a discrete life form that
has properties of mind (i.e. experience and character, cf. sentience) such that transcend that of
mere organisms (ie. that have only "life functions"). Wiki

Sartre thinks there are fundamentally two manners of being: being-foritself (l’être-pour-soi) and
being-in-itself (l’être-en-soi). Other modes of being, such as being-for-others, are parasitic on
these. Roughly, being-for-itself is subjective being and being-in-itself is objective being. Being-
for-itself is the kind of being that pertains to one’s own existence. Being-in-itself is the manner in
which the world external to one’s own reality exists. More precisely, being-for-itself entails the
existence of consciousness, and consciousness of itself. It is that present centre of conscious
awareness that each of us finds him or herself to be. Being-in-itself is opaque, objective, inert and
entails a massive fullness or plentitude of being. Being-in-itself is uncreated, meaning that
although it is, it never began to be and there is no cause and no reason for it to be. Being-in-itself
is not subject to temporality because past, present and future pertain uniquely to being-for-itself.
In being-in- here is no difference bet itself tween its being and its being what it is. Existence and
essence coincide (Sartre,2000:106—109).

the distinction between unconscious being (en-soi, being-in-itself) and conscious being (pour-
soi, being-for-itself). Being-in-itself is concrete, lacks the ability to change, and is unaware of
itself. Being-for-itself is conscious of its own consciousness but is also incomplete. For Sartre,
this undefined, nondetermined nature is what defines man. Since the for-itself (like man) lacks a
predetermined essence, it is forced to create itself from nothingness. For Sartre, nothingness is
the defining characteristic of the for-itself. A tree is a tree and lacks the ability to change or
create its being. Man, on the other hand, makes himself by acting in the world. Instead of simply
being, as the object-in-itself does, man, as an object-for-itself, must actuate his own being.

Sartre next introduces the related truth that the being-for-itself possesses meaning only through
its perpetual foray into the unknown future. In other words, a man is not essentially what one
might describe him as now. For example, if he is a teacher, he is not a teacher in the way that a
rock, as a being-in-itself, is a rock. In truth, the man is never an essence, no matter how much he
strives at self-essentialism. The way he interprets his past and foresees his future is itself a series
of choices. As Sartre explains, even if an individual can be said to have a certain physical nature,
as a chair does (e.g., “he is six feet tall, and the chair two”), the individual nonetheless projects
himself by ascribing meaning to, or taking meaning from, his concrete characteristics and thus
negating them. The paradox here is great. The for-itself, desiring to become one within the in-
itself, imposes its subjectivity on the other’s objectivity. The for-itself is consciousness, yet the
instance this consciousness makes its own being a question, the irreconcilable fissure between
the in-itself and the for-itself is affirmed.

Sartre explains that as a conscious being, the for-itself recognizes what it is not: it is not a being-
in-itself. Through the awareness of what it is not, the for-itself becomes what it is: a nothingness,
wholly free in the world, with a blank canvas on which to create its being. He concludes that the
for-itself is the being through which nothingness and lack enter the world, and consequently, the
for-itself is itself a lack. The absence it signifies is the absence of the unattainable synthesis of
the for-itself and the in-itself. The being-for-itself is defined by its knowledge of being not in-
itself. Knowing is its own form of being, even if this knowledge is only of what one is not and
cannot be, rather than what one is. The human can never know being as it truly is, for to do that,
one would have to be the thing itself. To know a rock, we have to be the rock (and of course, the
rock, as a being-in-itself, lacks consciousness). Yet the being-for-itself sees and intuits the world
through what is not present. In this way, the being-for-itself, already wholly free, also possesses
the power of imagination. Even if absolute beauty (to Sartre, the absolute union of being and
consciousness) cannot be apprehended, knowing it through its absence, as in the way one feels
the emptiness left by a departed loved one, is its own truth.

Delving into the ways individual beings-for-itself relate to one another, Sartre argues that we, as
human beings, can become aware of ourselves only when confronted with the gaze of another.
Not until we are aware of being watched do we become aware of our own presence. The gaze of
the other is objectifying in the sense that when one views another person building a house, he or
she sees that person as simply a house builder. Sartre writes that we perceive ourselves being
perceived and come to objectify ourselves in the same way we are being objectified. Thus, the
gaze of the other robs us of our inherent freedom and causes us to deprive ourselves of our
existence as a being-for-itself and instead learn to falsely self-identify as a being-in-itself.

In the last segment of his argument, Sartre expands on the for-itself as a being of agency, action,
and creation and a being devoid of concrete foundation. To escape its own nothingness, the for-
itself strives to absorb the in-itself, or even, in more profane terms, to consume it. Ultimately,
however, the in-itself can never be possessed. Just as the for-itself will never realize the union of
for-itself and in-itself, neither will it succeed in apprehending or devouring the alien object.
Thus, at the summation of Sartre’s polemic, an incredible sense of hopelessness dominates the
discussion: I am a nothingness, a lack, dehumanized by the other and deceived even by myself.
Yet, as Sartre continually emphasizes, I am free, I am transcendent, I am consciousness, and I
make the world. How to reconcile these two ostensibly unreconcilable descriptions of human
ontology is a question Sartre does not attempt to definitively answer. This avoidance of reaching
a definitive point of philosophic conclusion is in many ways intentional, however, in keeping
with both Sartre’s personal style and the existentialist maxim that there are no theories that can
make a claim to universality.

As Sartre outlines in the conclusion to his work, perhaps the most essential characteristic of
being is its intrinsic absence of differentiation and diversity. Being is complete fullness of
existence, a meaningless mass of matter devoid of meaning, consciousness, and knowledge.
Consciousness enters the world through the for-itself and with it brings nothingness, negation,
and difference to what was once a complete whole of being. Consciousness is what allows the
world to exist. Without it, there would be no objects, no trees, no rivers, and no rocks: only
being. Consciousness always has intentionality—that is, consciousness is always conscious of
something. It thus imposes itself on being-in-itself, making consciousness the burden of the for-
itself and of all being. On a similar note, the for-itself at all times depends on the in-itself for its
existence. In Sartre’s ontology, consciousness knows what it is only through the knowledge of
what it is not. Consciousness knows it is not a being-in-itself and thus knows what it is, a
nothingness, a nihilation of being. Yet, to Sartre, despite the fact that the for-itself is nothing, it
exists only in its relation to being and thus is its own type of is.


From the beginning of Being and Nothingness, Sartre displays his debt to Nietzsche through his
rejection of the notion of any transcendent reality or being that humans can know which might
lie behind or beneath the appearances that make up reality. That is, the experience of
appearances is reality. Although this does imply an emptiness, Sartre does not see it as a negative
truth. Freed of the search for some essential form being, we, as conscious beings (all beings-for-
itself), are empowered in knowing that our personal, subjective experience of the world is all the
truth there is. We are the ultimate judge of being and nonbeing, truth and falsity.
The key concepts of Sartre’s vision of the world are the being-in-itself and the being-for-itself.
One way of understanding how they relate to each other is to think of being-in-itself as another
word for object and the being-for-itself as another word for subject. The being-in-itself is
something that is defined by its physical characteristics, whereas the subject is defined by
consciousness, or nonphysical and nonessentializable attributes. These concepts overlap to a
certain degree, since the being-for-itself, or subject, is also possessed of some of the physical
self, or some of the attributes of an object or being-in-itself. It thus follows that sometimes a
being-for-itself can be harmfully and mistakenly regarded as a being-in-itself.

The interaction of beings possessed of consciousness is a major focus for Sartre, and as he
describes a being-for-itself to interact with another being-for-itself, the key concepts are “the
gaze” and “the other.” Without question, in Sartre’s view the gaze of the other is alienating. Our
awareness of being perceived not only causes us to deny the consciousness and freedom inherent
to us but also causes us to recognize those very qualities in our counterpart. Consequently, we
are compelled to see the other who looks at us as superior, even if we recognize his gaze as
ultimately dehumanizing and objectifying. In response to the gaze of the other, we will assert
ourselves as free and conscious and attempt to objectify the individual who objectifies us, thus
reversing the relationship. The pattern of relations Sartre describes appears frequently in society.
The assertion of freedom and transcendence by one party often results in the repression of those
conditions in another. Race-based slavery and the treatment of women by men in patriarchal
societies are two obvious examples.

Sartre brings up the ethical implications of the ontological vision set forth inBeing in
Nothingness only at the end of the work. In later works, notably the famous lecture “The
Humanism of Existentialism,” Sartre attempts to outline a philosophy of ethics based on an
existentialist study of the nature of being. In short, he argues that values are never objective, as
they are created by the choices and actions of free individuals. Here in lies the room for hope that
Sartre inserts into a work so full of nothingness and lack: freedom is humanity’s curse as well as
its blessing, and what we make of that freedom is our own. In it lies great and indeterminate