Sartre: Being and NothingnessJune 27, 2021
Sartre begins Being and Nothingness by making a distinction between “being-for-itself” (être-pour-soi) and “being-in-itself” (être-en-soi). What is meant by the term “being-for-itself” is “consciousness”. By being-in-itself is meant the ground of reality outside of consciousness.
At this moment, Sartre began to explore the ontological foundations of the understanding of intentionality. Sartre argued in the article “Intentionality” and in the Transcendence of the Ego that intentionality is transcendence. Intentionality is the access of consciousness to the world. In Being and Nothingness, as in Sartre’s early works, it is claimed that consciousness emerges from the world through intentionality. Here, too, consciousness is a relation to a transcendent being. In other words, the subject does not have the power to completely construct the world of things. Consciousness does not create the world, the world already appears in consciousness because it is a transcendent being that exists independently of consciousness. However, it should be noted that this appearance is not independent of consciousness. If consciousness were not intentional, it would not be able to experience the world. In short, a being that is not consciousness itself is revealed in consciousness. Or, consciousness reveals it to itself thanks to its intentionality feature. When consciousness reveals it, this entity is already given to consciousness as an entity that exists independently of consciousness.
According to Sartre, being-in-itself, which is the ground for the emergence of the world into consciousness, is opaque, solid, massive, uncreated, contingent, and there is no reason for it to exist. Sartre gave an ontological argument by saying that the intentionality of consciousness, the giving of things to consciousness implies such a being-in-itself.
The ontological argument, first used by St. Alselmus in the Middle Ages, proves the existence of God based on his essence. In its classical form, the ontological argument deduces that since God is a perfect being, he must exist. When Sartre tries to prove the being-in-itself (being independent of consciousness) starting from the essence of intentionality, that is, consciousness, he makes a point about this.
It can be thought that this proof means a return to Kant’s “thing-in-itself” and goes against the spirit of phenomenology. Just like the thing-in-itself, being-in-itself is inaccessible, and it appears in relation to consciousness as the world we experience. Sartre’s difference from Kant is that the emergence of the world into consciousness is not the manifestation of a phenomenal world, but the emergence of a human world, the opening of “human reality”.
The world as “human reality” is very different from the world of physics, which includes natural sequences of events linked by cause and effect relationships. Sartre describes “human reality” (la realité humaine), which is established based on the intentional relationship of “being-for-itself” and “being-in-itself”, by equating it with Heidegger’s concept of “being in the world” (In-der-Welt-Sein). Although being-in-itself is separate from consciousness, it is possible to say that man establishes his own reality, his “being in the world” way, by turning to the world in a certain way. Consciousness does not create reality in the world, but chooses what kind of world it will live in. In a way, we construct our own human reality with the opportunities we aim for, the plans we make, the goals we choose. It means that the person who aims to climb Mount Everest has taken the obstacles in front of him and chose it. However, in the world of a person who is content to watch the snowy peaks of Everest, such obstacles do not really exist. When I turn to the world with a project or a project, I prefer some possibilities among the many possibilities I find in the world, I choose, work on them, and follow them. On the other hand, I do not deal with some other possibilities, I do not force them, I leave them to their own devices. The world appears to me according to the plan I am after, my projects determine my situation in the world and how things appear to me. Then, in the process of determining or choosing the design, I also choose my world. In summary, the essence of Sartre’s thought lies in this ambiguity between transcendence and reality. Persistent self-transcendence is a feature of consciousness, freedom, and reality cannot be separated from it, since it is this transcendence that gives reality its meaning. In that case, it is not easy to say where one ends and the other begins in the relationship between transcendence and reality.
This emphasis on transcendence, on project, on freedom may seem like a disregard for the imperatives of human reality. Thrown into the world, I find myself in certain facts: I have not chosen my class, family, gender, race, nationality, for example. I may suffer natural disasters, be harassed, raped, persecuted, suffer from poverty, hunger, and live under occupation. Can I be responsible for all this? According to Sartre, if I do not commit suicide or escape, I have chosen the situation I am in. There is always a chance to die or escape. But if I’m not dying, if I’m not going, if I’m still living, then I’ve chosen to be in the situation I’m in. I chose both myself over that situation and that situation itself.