Sartre – Being and Nothingness; notes and getting started

September 18, 2013 — 1 Comment

The overall structure of Being and Nothingness:

Introduction [discussion of Being in-itself (brute matter) and Being for-itself (consciousness)]

1. The Problem of Nothingness
2. Being-for-itself
3. Being-for-others (infamous discussion of ‘the look’ – how different consciousness’ relate to each other)
4. Having, Doing and Being

Conclusion [recognises an ethical dimension of his discussion – the discussion of ‘freedom’. Sartre promises a sequel that will deal with ethics]

First off, the title: Being and Nothingness. These are apparently a duality, or a binary. Sartre uses the term “being” predominantly in the distinctive sense of “what grounds” something (for instance, “the being of consciousness”). So Being means more than ‘what is’ or existence. It is related to the ontology of Heidegger: that is, ontology as the world as we understand it only once we start observing it. He sets this up in his own terms as: Being in-itself (brute matter) and Being for-itself (consciousness).

The spectrum Sartre is steering himself through (the two extremes):

Realism: we can look at objects and determine what’s going on in the phenomena – objective viewing
Idealism: to assimilate all experiences to the consciousness – to ask what is it for something to appear, what is the phenomena of appearing – when something appears it appears to an agent.

We are avoiding the Cartesian duality of subject and object; a continuation of the phenomenological project. Key influences and context:


Bad Faith (Chpt 2 Being and Nothingness) – The Problem of Nothingness

A formula for consciousness: “Consciousness is a being, the nature of which is to be conscious of the nothingness of its being.” At first this is a tongue and mind twister but the implication emerges that we are aware of the things that we are not. We imagine possibilities and through choices veto future transcendences. We view other subjects (or things) as negations, as a prisoner views a jailor, or a slave the master. Other subjects are in the way of future transcendences.

Sartre is contradicting/disagreeing with Husserl here who asserted that to study consciousness and phenomena one has to bracket the presumed existence of the world. Sartre is arguing that consciousness itself implies the existence of the world. To be conscious is to be conscious of something… The task is to make explicit the phenomena of this being-for-itself.

The negatites: approx translation would be negative entities. Whenever anything has a particular determination, lots of other determinations are being denied.

Sartre talks about irony:

“In irony a man annihilates what he posits within one and the same act; he leads us to believe in order not to be believed…” (p47)

So what of negation towards the self? Is it possible to deny oneself? Bad Faith is the attitude in which we find an example of this self-negation and which is essential to human reality. Bad Faith here means to lie to oneself, as distinguished from lying in general.

“But consciousness affects itself with bad faith. There must be an original intention and a project of bad faith; this project implies a comprehension of bad faith as such and a pre-reflective apprehension of consciousness as affecting itself with bad faith. It follows first that the one to whom the lie is told and the one who lies are one and the same person, which means that I must know in my capacity as deceiver the truth which is hidden from me in my capacity as the one deceived. Better yet I must know the truth very exactly in order to conceal it more carefully.” (p49)

The tendency might be to reestablish dualism; to use psychoanalysis and suggest part of our conscious conceals truth from the other part, that there is a line of demarcation. There is a deceiver and deceived. Sartre wants to avoid this. In psychoanalysis Freud marks out the id and the ego. Sartre provides a complex deconstruction of this account of ones relation to oneself. Ultimately Sartre is pressing the implication of the unity of one and the same psychic mechanism and the double activity at its core. Each side of the double activity is complementary; it implies the other in its being.

Patterns of Bad Faith

Bad faith is best described by Sartre as a ‘game of mirrors’. Essentially the subject ( I ) is constituted by what it is not and Bad Faith is the mechanism by which this relationship to what is not is in a constantly active state.

“To cause me to be what I am, in the mode of “not being what one is,” or not to be what I am in the mode of “being what one is.” ” (p66)

This is related to the idea that a subject can transcend what they are Being at any given time i.e. you are never fully yourself, and there are potential/possible other ‘you’s’ which are similarly constituted by what they are not. If you were yourself in the way an ink-well is an ink-well (to use Sartre’s example) you could only ever be ‘yourself’ as inanimate and unchanging. Sartre is inferring that we are always rising to an ideal and always in a state of change. Sartre uses two key examples to extrapolate this: the woman who consents to go on a date with a man, and the waiter in a cafe.

The woman who consents to go on a date with a man for the first time is fully aware of his sexual intensions. She also knows that sooner or later she will confirm or deny his intensions. However, social relations deem that she does not need to nor want to realise an urgency to this situation; she need only concern herself with what is respectful and discreet and un-pressured. She disarms the man’s subtext or comments by taking him as restricted to what his behaviour reflects at the present moment. The temporal development of his conduct is kept out of focus. Being aware of the desire which she inspires and at the same time being embroiled in ‘Bad Faith’ creates a dualism:

“In order to satisfy her, there must be a feeling which is addressed wholly to her personality – i.e., to her full freedom – and which would be a recognition of her freedom. But at the same time this feeling must be wholly desire; that is, it must address itself to her body as object.” (p55)

Though it is being argued that she is in bad faith, the point is that she is employing certain procedures to maintain that bad faith. Bad Faith is in constant play and not a singularity to be presently reflected upon by the subject. In the case of the waiter, the waiter performs his duties as if acting out a rehearsed play. He is investigating what it is to move around the cafe and wait on tables. His condition is wholly one of ceremony. The waiter limits himself to the performative actions of waiting tables in the cafe and so denies all other possible states of consciousness at that particular moment; thereby acting out bad faith. The idea here is not that he cannot reflect on this particular act of bad faith but that he allows his condition oand knows the rights which it allows him. Being the waiter is a representation for others and for the waiter himself.

“I am a waiter in the mode of being what I am not.” (p60)


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  1. Tu ne nous a pas compris, Petit Frère! « PROJECTIONS AFRICAINES - October 29, 2013

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