Being and Nothingness by Jean Paul Sartre

In this book talk, we look at Being and Nothingness by Jean Paul Sartre. In 1943, Sartre published this masterpiece and laid the foundation of his legacy as one of the greatest twentieth century philosophers. A brilliant and radical account of the human condition, Being and Nothingness explores what gives our lives significance.

Being and Nothingness by Jean Paul Sartre

This is a philosophy to be reckoned with, both for its own intrinsic power and as a profound symptom of our time.

The New York Times

In a new, more accessible translation, this foundational text argues that we alone create our values and our existence is characterized by freedom and the inescapability of choice. Far from being an internal, passive container for our thoughts and experiences, human consciousness is constantly projecting itself to the outside world and imbuing it with meaning.

Nothingness is also a revolution of Being

Being and Nothingness poses and considers answers to the questions possibility. of value, of temporality, and the most unifying motif: the position that consciousness is Nothingness. Paradoxically, Nothingness is also a revelation of Being.

Important in Sartre’s idealism is that Being in no way creates consciousness. And without consciousness, there would not be a world, mountains, rivers, tables, chairs,… there would be only Being. Consciousness causes there to be thing because it is itself, nothing. The power to effect a Nothingness (a realization of consciousness) and to make use of it appears to be a positivity.

We may note that the mystics use of the concept of Nothingness differs greatly from the Nothingness Sartre talks about. The former seeks nothingness while the later sees the Self from evolving from Nothingness. Sartre effectively excludes mysticism from his brand of existentialism and Nothingness/consciousness.

For the mystic as in Buddhism, consciousness/Nothingness is the ultimate reality. Further, the loss of the notion of a Self or personality, which is a species of Nothingness, is an ideal goal. Sartre, on the other hand, begins with the non-personal consciousness. The anguish in this is the realization of one’s isolation in the making of the Self with which one can not be united. The mystic looks inward and learns to put away the Self and finds herself united with the One. The desire and choice and futile pursuit of Being is a vain attempt to escape the nothingness which it is.

Are we desiring to have been caused (hence absolute and justified) or desiring being the cause? Sartre sides with the fundamental position of each of us as a Being/For-itself with total freedom.

Yet, with this For-itself Being comes one’s psychological guilt, as a Self that exists in the form of alienation and ‘nakedness’ as a fall from grace which I must assume. Sartre faces this as a conflict with the notion that one is born with a predetermined self. Existential guilt is the lack of authenticity, which comes from a refusal to face the anguish that accompanies the recognition of our absolute freedom. Can we live in a synthesis of In-itself (an object for consciousness) and For-itself (subjective choice born from consciousness)?

The how, what and why of existence from the perspective of Sartre’s psychology and philosophy is not easy to digest. Yet, it brings consciousness, existence, and human, subjective observation into the contemplation of what it means to be. I am only just beginning my journey into understanding the complexity of the discussion and plan to return to it for another go-around in the near future.

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