Footnotes to Plato October 24, 2017
Jean Paul Sartre c.1955. © Rene Saint Paul/Rue des Archives/Writer Pictures
Jean Paul Sartre c.1955. © Rene Saint Paul/Rue des Archives/Writer Pictures

Jean-Paul Sartre and the demands of freedom


A new series from the TLS, appraising the works and legacies of the great thinkers and philosophers

In Existentialism and Humanism, Sartre wrote, “There is no genius other than that which is expressed in works of art”. True to a central maxim of his existentialist philosophy – “to be is to do” – Sartre built his colossal reputation as a philosopher, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, biographer, diarist, literary theorist, essayist and journalist out of sustained hard work. He was gifted but preferred to attribute his achievements to perspiration rather than inspiration. As he wrote in his autobiography, Words: “Where would be the anguish, the ordeal, the temptation resisted, even the merit, if I had gifts?” From childhood his ambition was to be the great, dead French writer he became. He wrote for at least six hours a day for most of his life. “If I go a day without writing, the scar burns me.”

Sartre’s prolific and often drug-fuelled output is now a part of the legend, along with his numerous love affairs (despite his self-proclaimed ugliness), his wartime adventures and the post-war, hard-left political activism that led him and his lifelong companion, Simone de Beauvoir, to fraternize with many dictators.

By the standards of most philosophers, Sartre led an exciting life. His adventures, his singular appearance, his relentless radicalism, his eccentricity, make him an easy figure to caricature, and he was canny when it came to crafting his image, but for all that there is a serious, systematic and inspiring philosophy behind the melodrama, a grand theory rooted in the best traditions of Western thought.

Born in Paris in 1905, Sartre was fifteen months old when his father died, leaving him to develop free from the oppressions of a paternal will. He was raised by his doting mother and her father, whose sizeable library was the precocious child’s playground. Following a difficult period of exile in La Rochelle when his mother remarried, Sartre progressed to the prestigious École Normale Supérieure where he met de Beauvoir and (on his second attempt) graduated with top marks in 1929. The easy fame he had expected as an undergraduate eluded him and in 1931 he became a provincial school teacher in Le Havre. He continued studying and writing, however, and by 1938 finally made his name with the publication of his cult existentialist novel, Nausea.

Conscripted at the start of the Second World War, Sartre was taken prisoner by the German advance of 1940. He may have been released on medical grounds, he may have escaped, but by spring 1941 he was back in Paris where he founded the resistance movement Socialism and Freedom. All this time, invigorated by the war, he had been writing his major work, Being and Nothingness: An essay on phenomenological ontology, published in 1943.

Often called “the bible of existentialism”, this dense 650-page book was the extraordinary distillation of everything his monumental intellect had read, written, considered, experienced and discussed for more than twenty years. Today it is part of the canon of Western philosophy.

Most philosophical analysis of Sartre’s existentialism has centred and continues to centre around Being and Nothingness. At the heart of Sartre’s philosophy are four closely related phenomena: consciousness, freedom, bad faith and authenticity. Being and Nothingness deals with the first three and promises a future work “on the ethical plane”. Authenticity is central to Sartre’s ethics. Sartre never completed a book on ethics but he says enough on authenticity elsewhere for his position to be clear. Importantly, Sartre’s view of authenticity makes sense only in light of his view of bad faith, his view of bad faith only in light of his view of freedom and his view of freedom only in light of his view of consciousness.

Sartre’s question in Being and Nothingness is the same as that of his major influences, Hegel, Husserl and Heidegger: what is consciousness? What is the nature of a being that has and is a relationship to the world, that is an awareness or consciousness of the world and which acts upon the world? Sartre’s answer is that the only kind of being that can exist in this way is one that is, in itself, nothing; a being that is a negation, non-being or nothingness.

Following Husserl, Sartre argues that consciousness is always consciousness of something. Consciousness is not a thing in its own right but entirely a relationship to the world it is conscious of. This is the theory of intentionality. Consciousness always intends its object and is never merely a set of brain states. Expectation is expectation of something, desire is desire for something and so on. Sartre refers to consciousness as being-for-itself in order to highlight the fact that it does not exist in its own right, as the world (or “being-in-itself”) does, but must constantly achieve its borrowed being for itself by being consciousness of being-in-itself.

Each of us is a being-for-itself in relation to being-in-itself. Human reality encompasses both the facts of our situation and the not-yet-realized potential of the things we are not, but which we could be. It incorporates both the facts of our lives and our past – our “facticity” – and the negating, nihilating force of consciousness by virtue of which we have “transcendence”. We do not exist simply in our own right as chairs do, but always in relation to – and as the negation of – our situation. A chair is, but we must constantly create ourselves over time through our actions. We have to choose who we are each moment by what we choose to do, without ever being able to become a fixed entity. This is what existentialists call the indeterminacy of the self. The self is not a thing, it is a being unavoidably caught up in a constant temporal process of becoming.

Time or temporality is important for Sartre’s theory of consciousness. The dimensions of temporality so familiar to us, past, present, future, are the same as the dimensions of consciousness, to the extent that past and future only arise as features of the world through and for consciousness. We are never entirely what we were – the past – and not yet what we will be: the future. As for the present, it is nothing but our presence to the world as a being constantly moving forward in time. To reach the future is for it already to be past. Hence, tomorrow never comes. Sartre calls the past past-future and the future future-past.

Closely related to being-for-itself is being-for-others. Certain features of a person’s consciousness are only made real because of the consciousness of another person – the Other: shame, embarrassment and pride, for example. A person is his being-for-others whenever there is an Other conscious of him, one who is free to evaluate his actions as he chooses. The Other is free to look at me, judge me, form opinions of me that I cannot ultimately control. And since each of us is Other to the Other, interpersonal relations are marked by conflict; each one of us casts everyone else as a being-for-others in our eyes; we are free to judge and objectify them and they in turn constantly and inexorably judge and objectify us.

Existentialism is best known as a philosophy of freedom. Sartre argues that freedom is limitless. This is often misunderstood. He does not mean we are free to jump to the moon, or that we can radically re-invent ourselves from scratch at any moment – but rather that there is no limit to our obligation to choose who we are through what we do or not do. This is what he means when he says we are “Condemned to be free”.

Each person, then, is a futurising intention, a temporal flight from his present nothingness towards a future coincidence with himself that is never achieved. It is in that open future – which defines him and at which he aims – that a person is free. As essentially free, people must be free; any attempt to evade this responsibility by choosing not to choose constitutes bad faith.

Bad faith is basically using freedom to deny freedom. It is choosing to say “I have no choice” – to reject the being-for-itself of human reality, and identify falsely with the in-itself – then treating that choice as though it is not a choice. Bad faith is sometimes described as self-deception but this is strictly inaccurate; I cannot lie to myself, as I can lie to someone else, without catching myself in the act. Bad faith is rather self-evasion or self-distraction, the practice of ignoring the meaning of my actions by desperately focusing on other matters as I move forward in time.

Bad faith is irresponsibility. It is often overlooked that responsibility is integral to Sartre’s theory of freedom, largely because the claim that we are always free is far more appealing than the claim that we are always responsible. For Sartre, authenticity is the overcoming of bad faith. Authenticity is taking responsibility for freedom; taking responsibility for what we do in every situation. Authenticity is affirming all our choices and therefore all our past without regret.

During the Second World War, Sartre formulated the concept of authentic-being-in-situation after encountering a comrade who declared he was not a soldier but a civilian in disguise. It is true that his comrade was not a mere soldier-thing, but he was nonetheless a soldier because he was acting as a soldier. His comrade was in bad faith, refusing to confront the reality of his situation and the meaning of his choices and actions in that situation. Sartre chose the war, decided that his situation was not merely happening to him. He chose his past, he claimed – even his birth. By his own lights, he adopted the authentic attitude that his entire life had been leading to that time and place. He took full possession of his situation without regret.

Post-war, Sartre developed his existentialism in an increasingly political direction. He placed his existentialist theory of the individual at the heart of the Marxist theory of the historically defined collective. He also became increasingly interested in biography, and his last major work, before his eyesight failed in 1973, was an exhaustive existentialist psychoanalytic biography of Flaubert, The Family Idiot. He died in Paris in 1980 and over 50,000 people lined the streets at his funeral. His remains lie in Montparnasse Cemetery alongside those of de Beauvoir.

Gary Cox is the author of a number of books on Sartre, existentialism and general philosophy, including How to Be an Existentialist and Existentialism and Excess: The life and times of Jean-Paul Sartre