"Consciousness is a being whose existence posits its essence, and inversely it is consciousness of a being, whose essence implies its existence; that is, in which appearance lays claim to being. Being is everywhere...We must understand that this being is no other than the transphenomenal being of phenomena and not a noumenal being which is hidden behind them...It requires simply that the being of that which appears does not exist only in so far as it appears. The transphenomenal being of what exists for consciousness is itself in itself.... Consciousness is the revealed-revelation of existents, and existents appear before consciousness on the foundation of their being...Consciousness can always pass beyond the existent, not toward its being, but toward the meaning of this being. A fundamental characteristic of its transcendence is to transcend the ontic toward the ontological. The meaning of the being of the existent in so far as it reveals itself to consciousness is the phenomenon of being...This elucidation of the meaning of being is valid only for the being of the phenomenon....For being is the being of becoming and due to this fact it is beyond becoming. It is what it is. This means that by itself it can not even be what it is not...It is full positivity. It knows no otherness; it never posits itself as other-than-another-being. It can support no connection with the other. It is itself indefinitely and it exhausts itself in being...Consciousness absolutely can not derive from anything, either from another being, or from a possibility, or from a necessary law. Uncreated, without reason for being, without any connection with another being, being-in-itself is de trop for eternity." (Being and Nothingness, 1943)
About Jean-Paul Sartre

Sartre was a French philosopher and writer, the leading advocate of existentialism during the years following World World 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 responsible for what is made of one," only a slight revision 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 obstances to human freedom, but as a Cartesian, he never deviated from Descartes' 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 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 Edmund 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 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, Being and Nothingness (1943). Its structure is unabashedly Cartesian, consciousness ("being-for-itself") on the one side, the existence of mere things ('being-in-itself") 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 the camera can never see itself--and in a mirror only sees a reflection of itself--consciousness can never view itself as a 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 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 ourself 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 Being and Nothingness 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 the 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 ourself and to reinterpret our facticity in the light of new projects and ambitions--our "transcendence." This indeterminancy 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 ourself 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 being of infinite possibilities and ingore the always restrictive facts and circumstances within which all choice must be made. On the one hand, we are always trying to define ourself; 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 complicateed. There is a third basic ontological category, on a part 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 ourself 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." Someone catches us "in the act" of doing somethig humiliating, and we find ourself defining ourself (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 terms that are often unflattering. But these judgments become an essential and ineluctable ingredient in our sense of ourselves, and they too lead to conflicts--indeed, conflicts so basic and so frustrating that in his play 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 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.

--Excerpt from The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosopy, edited by Robert Audi


Jean-Paul Sartre: Philosophy and Existentialism
Sartre Page
Sartre at Epistemelinks
Sartre biography
Brief Sartre biography
Another Sartre bio
Sartre by Peter Landry
Sartre at The Window
Existentialism and Jean-Paul Sartre by Katherena
Sartre at Bjorn's Guide to Philosophy
Outline of major themes in Sartre's philosophy
Excerpts from The Transcendence of the Ego by Jean-Paul Sartre
Excerpt from Sketch for a Theory of the Emotions by Jean-Paul Sartre
"No Exit" by Jean-Paul Sartre
"Existentialism is a Humanism" by Jean-Paul Sartre
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"The Problem of Mediations" by Jean-Paul Sartre
"The Dogmatic Dialectic and the Critical Dialectic" by Jean-Paul Sartre
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"Consciousness as a metaphysical category in Sartre" by Jeffrey Scott Sykes
"The Self and the Other in Roeg's Eureka and Sartre's Being and Nothingness" by Cynthia Baron

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