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Being and Nothingness

Phil30079 Sartrean Existentialism

BEING AND NOTHINGNESS In Being and Nothingness, Sartre offers a general ontology of the structure of the familiar world of experience. He argues that the world is formed out of stuff that exists independently of any awareness of it or thought about it. In his terminology, this stuff has being in-itself (tre en-soi). He often uses this phrase more loosely to refer to the stuff itself, which he also sometimes calls the in-itself (len-soi) but strictly it means the kind of being that stuff has. But he thinks that there is more to the world than its just being made of this. On Sartres account, the world of everyday experience is formed by the ways in which we are aware of this stuff that surrounds us, it is formed by the interplay of being in-itself and consciousness.

BEING IN-ITSELF Sartre argues for the existence of being in-itself in the tortuous Introduction to Being and Nothingness. Here he seems to conflate a number of different arguments, which is one reason why it is so difficult to read. One of his arguments exploits the idea of resistance: the world doesnt always do what I want it to do: things sometimes resist my efforts to change them; therefore, things have a principle of being that is independent of me. This argument does not get Sartre the conclusion he wants, as he is aware. The world could be made up of experiences (or ideas) contained in my mind, but regulated by the relation between these experiences and an independent reality beyond them. This idea is common to usual readings of Descartes, Berkeley, Hume, and Kant among others, though they differ over the nature of the reality beyond.

BEING IN-ITSELF This where another strand of Sartres argument becomes important. Like many other philosophers, Sartre finds the tradition of agreement that reality lies beyond or outside of our experience, and is somehow hidden by the contents of our minds, an embarrassment to philosophy. He thinks it generates the debate over the true nature of reality is it made of extended substance, atoms in a void, the mind of God, or something entirely indescribable? and at the same time renders this debate unresolvable. So Sartre wants us to agree that we have direct awareness of the stuff that accounts for the resistance of objects which has being in-itself. But he also seems to want to argue for this conclusion on the basis of his understanding of the nature of consciousness

THE ONTOLOGICAL PROOF Consciousness is consciousness of something. This means that transcendence is the constitutive structure of consciousness; that is, that consciousness arises oriented towards a being which is not itself. This is what we call the ontological proof. (B&N: 17). In the earlier translation, consciousness is born supported by a being which is not itself (B&N: xxxvii). Sartre wants to say that the very nature of consciousness is to reach beyond or outside of itself towards something else, and it thereby requires that other thing to exist. He calls this structure of consciousness intentionality, following Husserl. He sometimes also refers to it as the transcendence of consciousness, to emphasise that consciousness goes beyond itself towards an independent object (to transcend means to go beyond).

THE ONTOLOGICAL PROOF But why should intentionality require the being in-itself of the object of consciousness? Why cant consciousness create the intentional object? Sartre claims that this alternative account destroys itself (B&N: 16). Here is one way of understanding this argument: in perception, my experience has the sense of presenting to me an entire object, which has aspects that are not themselves present (e.g. the far side, the under side, the past, the future); my experience therefore refers to things that are not present in it; if those things really exist as aspects of the object, then the object exists independently of my awareness (as it has aspects not present in my awareness); if they do not, then it is difficult to see why the object should have a principle of being that governs how my experiences of it unfold.

THE ONTOLOGICAL PROOF This is what Sartre means by describing objects as transphenomenal: the being of objects is manifested across a range of appearances of that same object (phenomena); This is essentially his ontological proof: the transphenomenality of objects requires being in-itself. Sartre concludes this discussion by giving a preliminary characterisation of the nature of this kind of being. He writes: * BEING IS: it is not necessary, but superfluous (de trop). * BEING IS IN-ITSELF: it is not the effect of anything, it just is. * BEING IS WHAT IT IS: it is not involved in any process of becoming and is not in contrast with anything else that is.


02. Being and Nothingness

Phil30079 Sartrean Existentialism

NOTHINGNESS In the very next section of Being and Nothingness, Sartre is concerned to show that there is more to the world than just what exists independently of our awareness of it that it also contains nothingness (nant). Nothingness is not a kind of being: it is not a different kind of stuff that exists alongside being in-itself; it is literally nothing at all. It is a mistake, therefore, to think that Sartre is a substance dualist: there is only one kind of substance for Sartre, being in-itself. This part of the book is much clearer, much less dense and tangled, than the Introduction. It also includes some of his famous novelistic examples. The first of these is his description of looking into your wallet expecting to find a certain amount of money, and finding that you have much less than expected here, he claims, you experience the absence of some cash.

NOTHINGNESS He is well aware that this is a contentious description of the experience. Finding only 1300 francs when you expect 1500 might be described as seeing only 1300 francs so why does Sartre insist that it is also correctly described as seeing the absence of the expected 1500 (or 200)? It is in order to support this that he introduces the most famous of these examples, the absence of Pierre from the caf: I have an appointment with Pierre at four oclock. I arrive at the caf a quarter of an hour late. Pierre is always punctual. Will he have waited for me? I look at the room, the patrons, and I say, He is not here It is certain that the caf by itself with its patrons, its tables, its booths, its mirrors, its light, its smoky atmosphere, and the sounds of voices, rattling saucers, and footsteps which fill it the caf is a fullness of being

NOTHINGNESS Pierre is absent from the whole cafWhat serves as a foundation for the judgement Pierre is not here is in fact the intuitive apprehension of a double nihilation. (B&N: 33-4) Sartre insists that we cannot just understand this experience as finding a caf full of people, furniture, etc and concluding that Pierre is not among these things. For I can make that kind of judgement about anyone the Pope isnt here, Charles Dickens isnt here, the Queen of Sheba isnt here, and so on but these experiences are very different from finding the absence of Pierre. The absence of Pierre is not just something I judge to be the case, but something that colours my experience of the whole caf: Pierre absent haunts this caf (B&N: 34). So it is correct to say that I experience the absence of Pierre in the caf.

NOTHINGNESS AND EXPECTATION It is true, of course, that I only experience the absence of Pierre because of my expectation of finding Pierre there: I myself expected to see Pierre, and my expectation has caused the absence of Pierre to happen as a real event concerning this caf. (B&N: 34). This is why Sartre claims nothingness to be the opposite of being in-itself: the nothingness we experience is dependent on our awareness. But it is nonetheless a part of the world we experience. The absence of Pierre represents one kind of nothingness in the world, which Sartre sometimes calls a nonbeing the absence of a specific thing. Nothingness is also involved in the world in two other ways, for Sartre

THE NOTHINGNESS OF SOME PROPERTIES Some properties of things that are nothingnesses, in Sartres world. Examples he gives include fragility and having been destroyed. His thought here is that being in-itself can be rearranged in various ways, but what counts as breaking or destroying something depends on the ways in which we perceive being in-itself: it requires that the new arrangement of stuff is no longer useful to us for whatever purpose we would prefer it to be useful for. We will see later in the course that nothingness as properties of things in the world is crucial to understanding Sartrean moral psychology because we experience things as not being how we want them, as in need of changing, and so on, which explains our behaviour but we experience things this way because of our projects as much as because of the way they actually are.


Sartre also thinks that negation is involved in singling an object out from its background, an individuation he calls differentiation. He writes: in order for the totality of being to order itself around us as instruments, in order for it to parcel itself into differentiated complexes which refer one to another and which can be used, it is necessary that negation rise up not as a thing among other things but as the rubric of a category which presides over the arrangement and the redistribution of great masses of being in things. (B&N: 48) This passage runs together the idea of negation being involved in the properties things have in relation to our projects and the idea that a thing must appear to us as not being the things around it (differentiation). We will investigate further next week exactly how this should be taken.