Russell asked:

I am trying to do an analysis on the dualist essay of Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre. I was wondering if there are any tips to better understanding the large work? Depending on who sees this, Thank you.

Answer by Martin Jenkins

Russell, Being and Nothingness is a difficult but rewarding read. The central issue for Sartre, is human Freedom. To explore this, he undertakes a phenomenological analyses of human ontology — what it is actually like to be a human being, being in the world. It is examining how the phenomena of the world (including ourselves) disclose themselves to us and how we interact, respond to them.

Unlike Descartes, who stands apart from the world to dispassionately ponders the existence of the world of objects to ask ‘What can I know? Or unlike a scientist who limits being to the quantitative measurements of things; for Existentialists, we are already in the world, living and practising many modes or ways of being in the world, of interacting with ourselves, others, objects and things. These are not limited to the reductive view that there are just objects in space and time but account for actual, lived human existence. It is these modes of being or structures that Sartre examines with a reference to human Freedom.

Unlike unconscious, inert things (a condition which Sartre terms Being-In-Itself), humans exist in a condition of Being-for-Itself. In other words, we possess Consciousness. This makes us distinct from ourselves, others and from objects. We can think about thinking, we can think about our actions, we are distinct from ourselves. In the jargon, we can ‘transcend facticity’. We are, an issue for ourself. My Being can be an issue for me — hence we are a Being-for-Itself.

Here arises an important point. If my Being can become an issue for me, I am not identical with it. I’m not in a condition of Being in Itself. I can transcend and thereby reflect upon my being. What is it that transcends? It is consciousness. But consciousness is not a thing, it is a Nothing. By so breaking with Being, Nothingness emerges.

Nothingness is at the heart of Being, there is an interplay between the two — hence the book title. Nothingness can arise in the world in many ways. It can arise from disappointment, from failure, from negations, from emotions and so on. Sartre gives the famous example of waiting in a café for his friend Pierre to arrive. Pierre fails to arrive and the café melts into disappointment, melts into Nothingness. We do experience Nothingness, it is a lived experience and phenomena. It is, as mentioned above, an existential structure of human being in the world.

With respect to ourselves, the existence of Nothingness in relation to consciousness guarantees Freedom. In so reflecting upon or transcending myself, objects etc, I am not identical with them. If not identical with them, I am distinct and free from them. Hence my Freedom emerges and this, is central to Sartre’s Existentialism. Existentialism is the philosophy of Human Freedom.

Yet, people can deny their Freedom by living in what Sartre terms ‘Bad Faith’. Here, the existence of Freedom, of Transcendence is denied or ignored. People conclude that they are their job, their occupation, their ‘nature’, their wealth and nothing else. (see the example of the Café Waiter). People in Bad Faith declare ‘I am what I am’ and cannot change. This, according to Sartre, is to ignore or wilfully deceive oneself to the phenomenological structures of human being — that there is Being and Nothingness.

Hope this is useful Russell.