Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Review of Sartre's "Being And Nothingness"


Reading this book was the single greatest reading feat of my life (although that statement sounds pathetic), and may prove to be the most rewarding. I’ve taken time on ideologically heavy books before, spending sometimes an hour on a single page to make sure I really understood. But I took 5 months on this 800 page beaut. I read Being And Nothingness (B&N throughout) in conjunction with an incredibly enlightening and comprehensible book of course notes by Paul Vincent Spade from Indiana University on the subject of Sartre and B&N. See It was VERY difficult. Sartre uses ideas and language that have long been used and specialized by many other philosophers in history—philosophers who Sartre often just assumes his readers are read-up on—and if these obscure allusions and nomenclature weren’t a big enough hurdle, Sartre also speaks with neologisms and turned-on-head phrases to introduce original ideas that he was trying to break out of conventional modes of understanding. If you’ve ever heard someone say they have read B&N through with no problems, they are, as Sartre put it, in “bad faith”—fooling themselves. Someone recently asked me about what I was reading, and after I told them, they took out a piece of paper to write it down, and asked me if I thought the library carries it. I warned them not to even look in its direction until they read a few smaller works by Sartre that convinced them they can’t NOT read it. It’s a monumental task.

So, why did I read it, assuming I’m not a total a-hole and wanted just to brag that I read it? Well, I wanted to read this book because I had started to read more and more by Sartre that I liked; works such as Existentialism Is a Humanism, 2 plays—No Exit and The Flies, and excerpts from B&N in Existentialism edited by Robert Solomon.  I was immediately attracted to how Sartre places a large emphasis on freedom and responsibility—no regrets and no excuses—and seems to recognize much unrealized potential in people. I know many consider him to be an intellectual tour de force, and I agree, but I find his bravery to be most inspiring. He starts from the beginning, poring over the nature of being (ontology) and thought, and attempts to set forth a new theory of consciousness and reality that seriously challenges in imagination and utility the best systems I have ever heard of; and he may have come as close as anyone yet to understanding the nape of the infinitely-regressive cogito. More to the point, after reading it, I feel I better understand my world to a degree that I feel much more optimistic, appreciative of my life with its good or bad, and better able to see that I am capable to meet its challenges, identify opportunities, and make progress.

There were many moments in the book in which I truly felt I was understanding for the first time what’s going on. In life. In general. Imagine that. That’s my honest-to-God reaction.  We (I) often attempt to forfeit our understanding of the world and our responsibility in it to a religious resignation, or we distract ourselves with busy-ness, blithe indifference, or destructive rage; but a better framework for understanding the world and myself in it—not to be confused with a complete, or perfect understanding—is often uplifting and advantageous. Some may say Sartre’s philosophy is superfluous and ineffective. I’ll be the judge of that for my own life anyway, and I say that Sartre’s views have positively impacted my life.

Sartre’s ‘nothingness’ is not nihilism

Let it be noted at the outset that the real Sartre, or who I understand to be the more authentic Sartre as I have come to know him through reading some of his writings, cannot be tainted by the grossly exaggerated and largely misunderstood appellation—and what has become a hackneyed epithet towards postmodern thinkers— nihilism. I used to think 'nothingness' in Sartre’s philosophy, and especially in the title of this book, was a reflection on a sort of metaphysical ‘dead-space’, crushing meaninglessness, the impossibility of certainty, and a kind of moral about how the world, our hopes, and our dreams all come to naught.  Complete misunderstanding. The opposite seems to be true actually. Nothingness and non-being exist only on the surface of being, as Sartre pointed out, “Being secretes nothingness.” In other words, what is not can only be supported and defined by what IS; so the emphasis and foundation of nothingness is ‘something-ness’.

Sounds absurd at first, but the moment you use the word ‘nothing’ in everyday language, you’ve tacitly endorsed the validity of further exploring why such a concept is useful in our thought and language, and Sartre leverages this notion quite well for his purposes; but any brand of nihilism that he espouses still affirms a consciousness (being-for-itself) which has been occasioned by the absolute, affirmative positivity of reality—what he called being-in-itself. Absences and holes do not consume consciousness, but rather are created by consciousness. Nothingness and mental negation, as far as Sartre is concerned here, is the distinction between this and that, here and there, me and you. “This not-being­ its objects is the deepest stuff of consciousness; it is what consciousness fundamentally is. In the end, the most profound way to say what an act of consciousness is, is to say that it is not-being its object” (Paul Vincent Spade, Indiana University course notes).  Our consciousness receives its very definition of essence from the way in which it distinguishes itself—“nihilates itself”—from the world of objects and its possibilities.  This distancing of self from the world is the relief, or topography, of what we recognize as reality. Any differentiation, and, therefore, definition, that is created by consciousness is partly a property of consciousness, and this differentiation does not exist as such on the plain of the world “in-itself” apart from our consciousness. Nothingness can also be understood as the boundaries of what is consciousness and being. This book is an exploration of how we know our world through “IS” and “NOT”, being and non-being, affirmation and negation. It’s the binary of ontology. Of course, it lends itself to a great joke, for, as the translator of my book Hazel Barnes, points out, “There is no thing without consciousness, but there is not nothing.” For an excellent, fuller treatment of the idea of ‘nothingness’ as it developed historically, check out


Throughout the book one must also keep in mind, and Sartre insists on this again and again, that the author is not setting forth a theory of why being is or how it came to be, which Sartre reserves the term metaphysics for; but rather he is offering an explanation of what is and how it appears to work—what he delineates as ontology. I’m not sure he is entirely successful in teasing out the differences between the two terms, and there appears to be quite a bit of overlap. However, this doesn’t bother me a bit, because we’re all out in deeper water here, and the ultimate test for an idea is not how cleanly it squeezes into a dictionary definition, but how helpful it is in thought experiments and, of course, real living.

A New Duality

He starts the book by establishing a simple duality of the finite and the infinite, which he argues offers more illumination than the antiquated dualities of matter and idea, flesh and spirit. This ‘finite and infinite’ duality slowly morphs into a ‘mind and world’ sort of pairing, and he eventually dubs them Being-In-Itself, and Being-For-Itself. These terms are throwbacks to other philosophers, viz. Heideggar and Kant, but of course Sartre is doing something new here which takes quite a bit of back-story and poetic intuition to keep up with.


All we know, or rather what we can gather from the best of what we understand about the world, is that there IS a reality external to our own minds, some source material that our thought is constantly handling, shaping, and interpreting in order to benefit itself. But other than that absolute reality—being-in-itself—IS, we know nothing, nor can we know anything, about it. It is absolutely undifferentiated, affirmative, and untouched by our mental constructs of space and time, and hence immovable and unchangeable. It is amazing to me that Parmenides, in the early 5th century BCE developed his philosophy around this idea of the “IS-ness” of ultimate reality transcending our mental digestion of it. He believed there is no change or coming-to-be in absolute being or reality. There is no destruction or annihilation—and has atomic or quantum theories, at least, been able to deny this? There is no time. There is no differentiation. You could tune a metronome to Einstein’s nodding.

Now, this is all metaphysics—oops, I mean “Ontology”—par excellence. This argot and way of thinking about reality at first appears entirely useless on the streets where men and women bust their bums for bread and love; but the idea is there, in other forms. For instance, what educated person can deny that space and time has come to be understood as categories holy-birthed by the brain, and that all of our mental ideas of the world are in the end just that—ideas of the world—and may or may not have an accurate relation to what IS apart from our perspectives. Our mind butchers the world and our experiences, and feeds a dead objectivity to a ravenous subjectivity. So what is real? Well, what you live, for one answer. But what is real beyond our individual perspectives and passions? We can’t know apart from our perspectives and passions, but dang it, something IS real. Something IS!!

And just like that we’re back in bed with Parmenides.

Sartre wants us to swallow three points about his idea of reality: 1) Being “is” [unexplained], 2) Being is “in itself” [self-contained, uncaused], and 3) Being “is what it is” [pure actuality…no process or potentiality]. The nasty existentialist term ‘absurd’ comes into play here, but not in the way we might first take it to mean. The fact that reality is ‘absurd’ actually refers to the utter supra-rationality of all the givens that we must first start with as a foundation. Apparently philosophers on every level have to concede, like the rest of us, that they don’t know everything. We all have to start somewhere, call that ‘somewhere’ faith, or instinct, or intuition, or experience.


That’s Being-In-Itself. Being-For-Itself is…us. We are a part of reality turned in upon itself, trying to realize itself, setting goals and working on ‘projects’ to confirm, recognize, and expand its being. We are the universe become self-aware, craning its neck to study its belly, unable only to see its nape and own beginnings. Being-For-Itself is a “negation in the heart of being” which “secretes nothingness” in its attempt to understand. Consciousness is described as ‘not being what it is’ in that it is not fully summed up by any instant, since it is in a process of becoming; and it ‘is what it is not’ in that it is already a manifestation of what it has not fully become yet. Consciousness in this language looks much more like a process, not an entity, and Sartre even said that what we objectify as ‘self’ is not actually the part of us that objectifies, so it is only a proxy for a subjective process that is happening which itself can’t be reached to be objectified. And yet, it is somehow trying to define itself, without losing itself, which Sartre ultimately says is a ‘useless passion’. To study oneself, can one be oneself? This truth is heavy: I am more than me. For instance, when I think of me, I am still “me to the extent that I realize constantly my identity with myself across the temporal flux, but it is no longer me—due to the fact that it has become an object for my consciousness.” Being must be at a distance from itself to realize itself, but being strives to be itself in all of its complete and undifferentiated reality. So there is a division, a distancing that being strives to open and close simultaneously, and this is the tension that is humanity and Being-For-Itself.

So, there arise questions like, “where did the mind come from if there is no change in being?” and “what sense does it make for a mindless universe to form a mind to understand itself only to create a tension of wanting-to-be and simultaneously not-wanting-to-be its isolated self?” Answer: I don’t know. Sartre doesn’t know. Nor does he care. The task of the phenomenologist—which Sartre is, at least in part, as he has borrowed a lot of phenomenologist ideas and methods—is not to defend a theory, but to describe what he sees and best understands. There’s a handy little muffler phenomenologists use called “epoche”, which is an ancient Greek word meaning ‘suspension’, and it is used to suspend ultimate judgment to allow a thinker to start with describing the world as he grows to understand it without needing an immediate ‘theory of everything’ on hand.

Reality is beyond us, and so are the roots of our own cogito and being; which is as much to say: who we are can’t be measured by us, for who will then measure the measurer? This is what Sartre refers to as a reflection-reflecting regression. Our consciousness is beyond our reach, and thus beyond our explanation. The In-Itself and the For-Itself are ‘transphenomenal’, which means that they are partly constituted by, but ultimately beyond, any one appearance. Of course Sartre does not mean to say that being is different than appearance, but that the totality is greater than any one part.


Freedom is the crux of Sartre’s philosophy. It is not something we have, rather it is our nature. We are able to ‘secrete a nothingness’, or separate ourselves from the tidal flow of the world or reality in such a way that our isolation protects us from determinism in the material world. Our separateness, our ability to look from a distance onto the world, is our ability to keep our shoestrings out of its gears. We reflect on it, and our objectified self in it, without being ground up in it. In this sense, we are free from the world. And we are this freedom, we are this separation. Freedom is not a thing or quality in the world, it is the transphenomenal being of the For-Itself.

The beauty of this (and the anguish, as I will mention momentarily) is that I—the ‘I’ transcending the objectified ‘self’—choose without being coerced or programmed. My choices are beyond any known source. This may not be appealing for some, but what this ultimately means for Sartre, is that I can live knowing that nobody is making me do anything. My life is my choice. Choosing oneself is a HUGE theme in B&N, and this means that we, at the core of who we are, want to be who we are, or we would not be who we are. Sartre builds the case that the For-Itself is essentially the universe become conscious of itself (though he never says it in those words), and now nothing determines it but itself. Now, that does not mean that we chose to be—that is our “facticity”, the only thing we haven’t chosen—but now that we are, we choose to be every second we live.

This is a powerful point, which bends into the next ramification: we choose our lives as they are. Our situation—the world that we find ourselves in, our bodies, our minds and constitutions, our relationships…everything—we choose it all. Sartre even goes so far as to say that we are ‘co-authors’ of our situation. In choosing ourselves, we choose our trappings, which often we cannot even conceive of ourselves detangled from. In choosing our situation, we choose ourselves; in choosing ourselves, we choose our situation. What’s more, we can no longer blame others. Blame and regret are gone. “What happens to me, happens through me…what happens to me is mine.” How can this be true?

It’s simple really. Sartre says there are two ways to end a situation and our ownership of it: desertion or suicide. I know. As long as I live through something, I support it by my very existence. Now, we may be working to change it, using it to transcend it, but if we stick around corporeally or mentally to solve a problem, we are, in effect, sustaining the problem by our very presence. It is a beautiful philosophical redemption of the good and bad in life, really; one of the finest I have ever considered. No more regrets. No more blame. My life is my own, can be blamed on no one but me, and ultimately can be enjoyed/suffered by no one on my behalf. This can help to illuminate the most tragic of circumstances as meaningful and part of my choice, and can empower one to make the best of life in whatever situation they find themselves in. Sartre illustrates that even if bound in chains, we determine if those chains represent our courageous resignation and a desire to find peace with the world and our enemies, or if they represent our fight and indefatigability in attempting without rest to break out of them. Chains could even represent love, if I as a father accepted imprisonment to provide for his family, or they could represent one’s creative aesthetics if one took to polishing them. My acts, and not my materials, define me. This is the deeper meaning of being free over and above my facticity. My birth and death are unchangeable, unbending, and impersonal facts; but the way I live my life is my freedom. And it’s is no use demurring that we have certain desires that we did not elect, like desires for hunger, sex, ease, or beauty that drive our actions; the fact still remains that those are things we want, and no one wants them on our behalf. Our efforts to escape are multifarious, but are fools’ errands each; for in the end, it is ourselves and our responsibility we are trying to escape, and not merely our circumstances.

As all good art is not judged solely by the type or quantity of materials that are available as tools and medium, but rather how the materials are utilized, so is one’s essence ultimately revealed and expanded through the medium of one’s existential placement, with the ceiling of each one’s possibilities being as infinite in potential as there are an infinite number of choices available in one’s freedom. What’s more, we cannot completely distinguish ourselves from our situation, as we can’t conceive of our personhood without the formative settings and experiences from which we establish our identity. The philosophy behind the adage ‘make the best of your situation’ is exactly what Sartre is aiming at for humanity. Goethe may have put it in words we can better understand, “Man’s highest merit always is, as much as possible, to rule external circumstances, and as little as possible to let himself be ruled by them. Life lies before us, as a huge quarry lies before the architect…All things without us, nay I may add, all things on us, are mere elements: but deep within us lies the creative force, which out of these can produce what they were meant to be.” What happens to you, what you have, and where you’re at are all the same—they are yours to do with what you can, and they are only there because of your choice and your goals. The potential use or disuse of the world lies with you, so your situation and its potential is as much you as you are.


Now, this power of freedom lies deep, and all this talk of ownership and responsibility for the best and worst in life, as many will chafe at hearing, lends to our feelings of anxiety (“anguish”) because it scares us that some part of us is this much in control, and we are, as Sartre puts it, “afraid of our own spontaneity.” Again, from the translator, Barnes, in his introduction, “We feel vertigo or anguish before our recognition that nothing in our own acts or discernible personality ensures our following of any of our usual patterns of conduct. There is nothing to prevent consciousness from making a wholly new choice of its way of being.” Sartre’s famous expression, we are “condemned to be free” has a certain ring of despair. “All the barriers, all the guard rails collapse…I do not have, nor can I have, recourse to any value against the fact that it is I who sustains values in being. Nothing can ensure [protect] me against myself.” It’s not as if the For-Itself is sabotaging itself, but the point here is that one’s life is ultimately lived beyond the ability to pinpoint concrete, objectified motives, which could only succeed the creating subject.  

Well, folks, dems the breaks. Professor Spade of IU put the nail in the coffin when he commented in his course notes to the text, “I am not free NOT to choose.” Frightening indeed. Those who attempt to avoid the anxiety and anguish such a realization may cause are accused by Sartre of being in ‘bad faith’, or trying to exist as a conscious being without assuming the responsibility of living with full freedom.  Bad faith is a “lie to oneself”, denying the full power and responsibility of freedom which each one of us understands most deeply. We must admit to ourselves our situation if we’re ever to make the best of it. His book Nausea is about coming to the realization of our absolute freedom, and learning to live with it. However, the anguish, as we have seen, is offset by the real jewel of getting it in our cranial organ that we are not programmed by external forces. We, in some sense, are truly masters of ourselves and our situations, and only sustain those situations that we choose to sustain. My life, within the limits of its facticity, is exactly what I want it to be.


Now Sartre gets to the meaning of our relationship in the world with other people. To begin with, the Other exists. Or rather, we act as though he does. In life, “we encounter the other; we do not constitute him [mentally]”. Something in us accepts the Other’s existence, not only as an external, objective reality; but we encounter him with an internal, subjective necessity for his existence.  We only doubt his existence to the same extent as we may doubt our own existence, which we can’t really seriously. Psychologists have shown for quite some time that self-awareness develops in the presence of others as one learns to distinguish one’s self from other selves, and Sartre would go a step further in adducing that “the cogito of the Other’s existence is merged with my cogito” and therefore “the Other penetrates me to the heart. I can not doubt him without doubting myself since [as Hegel put it,] ‘self-consciousness is real only in so far as it recognizes its echo (and its reflection) in another.’” Ultimately our self-awareness cannot be dissociated from our awareness of others, and this is what Sartre elsewhere (most notably in Existentialism Is A Humanism) expands in his idea of ‘intersubjectivity’ (and I’m actually surprised I didn’t meet up with this term in this book, as it would have been helpful.)

I cannot know the other as they exist absolutely, because to do so, I would have to be that person. Intersubjectivity allows me to intuit their existence, but it does not allow me to assimilate them. So I am reduced to being able to encounter a person existentially, but I can only know a person by making them an object in my system, or becoming an object in their system by which they affirm my existence, which is also what I want. I want to affirm the Other, so that the other can affirm me. That’s messed up. But apparently accurate. But still messed up.

Sartre says that we perceive objects in the world as instrument-complexes. An infinite chain of instruments stretches from my being, the center of my acting freedom, to the ends of the world in order to manifest my being. Every object that registers in my mind is a tool by which I order my world, including my own body and mind, as they are exterior to my primal consciousness. This may be summed up in a small phrase: I know, to do. The moon only registers in our systems or science because it has, or may have, an impact on what we do next. Look around you: the tack on the wall, the guy riding his bike down the street, the penny under the carpet, the furthest star in the sky…every object of thought has some bearing on your goals and thus your present action. Even the murky ‘unknown’, abstract concepts, and dreams may become a potential factor in my system of instrument complexes, a potential coefficient for how things might transpire should I do this or that. This is the meaning of much of fiction and non-fiction. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said near the close of his book The Phenomenon Of Man, that many would wonder “whether I have been leading them through facts, through metaphysics, or through dreams.” Maybe he was, in truth, leading through all three as if they were one, for, as he said, “I do not pretend to describe [history or prehistoric stages of life] as they really were, but rather as we must picture them to ourselves so that the world may be true for us at this moment.” Everything impinges on our present course of action. We must see that each of us are the center of a million, magnificent chain of events, like a detective’s corkboard stringing apparently unrelated events, pictures, clues in a vast web of possible solutions and complicated algorithms to help me wend my way through my world. We may like to believe we think and live simply, but every single thing from the past, present, future, or in our imagination, is another tick on a long list of tools and tweaks that one day might change everything.

This is where the Other, according to Sartre, might pose a problem. What happens when my infinite web of instrument complexes exposes another web with another center—an Other who is organizing the world according to his goals and projects and not mine?! When another person comes into the picture they become a part of, an object in, your ‘system’; but the problem is, they also have a system of interpreting the world, and one risks becoming integrated into their system!  Our system begins to “hemorrhage” when the Other ‘sees’ us, when the Other begins to calculate with us as a factor. My world starts falling apart because a cog is suddenly bucking my clockwork universe. “Thus, suddenly, an object has appeared which has stolen the world from me…The appearance of the other in the world corresponds therefore to a fixed sliding of the whole universe, to a decentralization of the world which undermines the centralization which I am simultaneously effecting.”

Then comes the endless tug of war. Will it be my system in which you are a cog, or your system in which I am a cog? Here’s the problem with me winning: I need that other person to not be merely a cog, because I’m looking to them for validation and vindication of myself. I want the other system-builders to validate me as the master ‘system-builder’; yet I must continue to receive their validation and ultimate subservience by an act of their own free will. If their free will is overridden, then they aren’t fully assimilated into my system in as a ‘system-builder’ but a slave, and a slave can only reflect my own validation back to me.


Sartre views on love and affection branch out from here. He states, “To love is to demand to be loved”, and thence love becomes an infinite frustration.  I want the Other to love me, but when I am loved, I become the subject and center of the world, and my lover the object. But how can my subjectivity and freedom be profoundly supported by my puppet in my world? Again we see that this would be self-affirmation merely, and as Sartre says, “if the beloved is transformed into an automaton, the lover finds himself alone.” So I want the other to maintain her freedom and subjectivity so that she can “found my being as a ‘privileged object’” as Sartre phrases it, and so transfer power again to me as the organizing principle of the world. But as soon as I become the center again, she becomes a mere object, and loses the power to validate me. Thus it is a vicious cycle to love, to be loved; to love, to be loved; ad nauseum. In one instant a person feels like the pivot of the cosmos, but feels utterly abandoned; like a god, but friendless. Love is a constant thirst that is never completely satisfied, but like real thirst, may be satisfied in part in a kinesis of giving and taking. This balancing act might explain why love may be experienced as always fresh to some, but futile to others to gravitate to one of the extremes. Sartre himself probably had a tough time with it, for he drops a perhaps overstated hint in a phrase tucked away in one of his most famous plays No Exit, “Hell is—other people.”

Meaning Matters

I developed a formula in grad school to determine whether or not I throw out an idea, or hold on to it. I decided that an idea only holds meaning if you can find where it matters. So, how does Sartre’s views matter? Well, for me, I can say a few ways I benefit from his philosophy. I have a more coherent view of the meaning of myself, others, the world, and my place in it. I am not merely, as Robert Frost put it, “nothing, or a God’s regret”, but I am more closely united to others and God (though Sartre might object) than I could ever have dreamed. We are not another ‘thing’ in the cosmos, but the cause and condition of all things. We are not alone, but inextricably tied to each other. We don’t have to fear death and non-being, since non-being has no meaning outside of being. We don’t have to regret anything, because the sealing of the past is nothing but the opening of the future, and both are direct acts of consciousness in setting new goals (future) with a stable foundation (past). Nobody really gets away with anything, because the past only stops hunting you when you’re dead. Suffering can be seen in a whole new light, the light of our goals and desires…without which our sufferings would cease to exist. We can feel empowered in knowing that our lives are our choice—all of it, no exception. I don’t have to worry about what happens after death, because my life has meaning without knowing my origins, and it will still hold meaning without knowing what happens after death (also, “death is the only part of my life I don’t have to live”).


One of the most important contributions of Sartre’s philosophy is his proclamation that we choose our lives. Every moment we live is a chosen moment. To live is to realize oneself in situation, inseparable from a physical/social environment that is as real and necessary as our original inheritance of our own bodies. “To live this [situation] is to choose myself through it and to choose it through my choice of myself.” It is ours, and no one else’s. No one but us can be blamed. We may want to change things in our lives, but everything that is in our life is material (our ‘situation’ or ‘facticity’) which may be used by us to create something better.  We are the architects, and to work with what has been given to us is to, in some sense, accept what has been given to us, which is to accept our self that has been revealed through this situation. 

Now, if I may be so bold so as to rephrase another major premise of what I think Sartre is getting at in his writings, it’s this: we all live 'in story'. At no point are we ‘out of story’. There is always a beginning and an ending (which posts are constantly being adjusted by ourselves), obstacles in between, joy of progress, and awareness (even if it is indirect awareness, or, what Sartre terms ‘non-positional awareness’) that all this is happening. It’s not possible to live outside of story. Sartre’s 'projects', or what you and I call stories, determine the meaning of everything we do and say and think, and if we suppose we are able to think or live outside of story, we are simply looking for a way into the next chapter. Sartre thinks that being honest with ourselves about our projects (and our ‘original project’ as he calls the primary thrust of manifesting our self in the universe) can help us to better adjust to different settings, or situations. Furthermore, we will know how to respond when someone else attempts to foist their stories or religion on us as if we have no right to be creators of our own story; for though we are caught up in ‘story’ together (intersubjectivity), we can’t coerce each other’s stories to conform to our own without objectifying the Other.

Efficacy And Ethics

Sartre put much effort into refuting portions of Freud’s theories of psychoanalysis—he was extremely turned off by a separation of conscious/unconscious—he actually admired and adapted many of Freud’s practices, and even dubbed his version of psycho-therapy, “Existential Psychoanalysis.” Through this therapy one would be able to recognize their own ‘bad faith’—their denial of their freedom, choices, and responsibility—and trace their choices and ‘projects’ back the roots of an original project, or one’s deepest desire. This original desire is the choice to “BE”, or to manifest oneself as a distinct consciousness in the world which is attempting to balance one’s self as a solitary entity, yet recognize one’s self as a being ‘in-situation’ and intersubjective with other beings. This is a paradox, but it is who we are, and the sooner we admit it, the sooner we can adjust our practices and advance in our pursuits.

And yes, I have to be honest, Sartre’s ideas become very messy, convoluted, and a bit contradictory at points. He is forever forming new ideas, whirling with established conceptions only to slingshot beyond them, repurposing words and creating neologisms on the fly. As a matter of fact, his progressive style is very much expressive of his view that every person is living, speaking, and acting in ways which no one has before, and in the end we are each ‘doomed’ to spontaneously think, speak, and act in ways that are utterly novel and unprecedented, and even evolving in new ways all the time with regard to the existent’s own experience. Dr. Spade comments in his course notes, “No matter how we look at it, it is clear that something funny is happening here with [Sartre’s] notion(s)…We can either regard this as a hopeless muddle on Sartre’s part, a weakness in the theory, and perhaps a symptom that everything has fallen apart. Or we can regard it as a renegotiating of the doctrine and the notions involved.”  And unfortunately Sartre sentenced himself to his critics’ blunt and often agitated dismissals when he summarized his findings with the abortive phrase, “Man is a useless passion.” However, he was not merely articulating disgust with the human experience as a whole, but was characterizing humanity as a ‘lack’ that desires completeness with the rest of reality, a yearning for harmony between mind and matter which are doomed to remain fundamentally distanced. Self and the world have been parted, never more to be one by the nature of their contrast. Will mankind ever find fulfillment of one kind or another? Sartre doesn’t venture a guess, but leaves this to the metaphysician to see if he can uncover missing links. I’m guessing there’s more to the story.

Sartre knew his ideas were on the top shelf for many. It is true of his works, as was said of St. Paul’s writings in the New Testament, that they contain, “some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” In Existentialism Is a Humanism, Sartre expresses grief in trying to simplify to bare bones some of his more complex ideas for the layman without bleeding his philosophy to death. “Many of the people who interview me are not qualified to do so. This leaves me with two alternatives: refuse to answer their questions, or agree to allow discussion to take place on a simplified level.” I suppose this was one of the things that I found so alluring about his writing: they promised something deeper. They did not disappoint, although, to be fair, I probably only understand half of what I read, even with a lot of help. But the half I did understand...!


Oddly enough, though to some it may seem that Sartre is attempting to divest the world of meaning and magic, the opposite is actually true. He is helping us see that meaning is not so far removed from us that we must wait with saintly patience to one day see the veneer of this world peeled back to reveal the ‘truest truth’—the real meaning of the universe. This is the essential meaning of his duality of finite/infinite: everything we see is a REAL manifestation of the infinite. As a matter of fact, all we do, or say, or see IS the infinite, at least in part. Meaning is HERE, everywhere. And the universe is not one big, impersonal machine that plows blindly ahead without rhyme or reason.  He blows mechanamorphism—an attempt to explain the meaning of the universe in purely mechanistic terms—out of the water. “The world is human” he states, and nothing is so completely inhuman so as not to be penetrated through and through with our meanings and…personality. Measurement can’t even begin in science without human scale and location. “The real is realization [by a person].” The real is here. Not a bad place to start.

Well, I loved it all. I loved my ideological gleanings, as well as the challenge of trying to ‘break my eye open’ with complex logic and innovative thought and language. I’m actually interested in reading more from Sartre, if that says anything. I think he cares about others, I think his ideas are courageous, and I think he helped to topple pedantic and petrified academic philosophy that looked down loftily from the height of detached, anemic ideals onto the world of living, bleeding, thinking folk every bit as ‘real’ and valid as the pale-faced intelligentsia. Sartre affirmed that each of our stories are existential centers of the universe, and we affect each other no matter how seemingly insignificant one feels themselves to be.  I hope I never forget what I read. I truly think Sartre’s ideas are a contribution and advancement to philosophy, and help to iron out some of the wrinkles in the way we think about ourselves and the world. I have a notebook full of 11 pages of quotations and notes from B&N, Barnes introduction to B&N, and Spade’s course notes available for anyone who may be interested in receiving a copy of them. Chew before swallowing.

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