Intro - I believe this was my final essay in my Existentialism course. We were given a certain section from Sartre's Being and Nothingness. I think I then had to weave Sartre's meaning in with the existentialists we had studied previously, Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Nietzsche. For the record, I got 19/20 on this essay.
The Origin of Nothingness
Sartre himself asks two important questions in this section: “Where does Nothingess come from?” (318) to which the answer is man, and “What must man be in his being in order that through him nothingess may come into being?” (320). In his answers, Sartre reveals the core ideas of existentialism: that existence precedes essence and thus the world is essentially meaningless apart from the meanings we as humans give it. We will examine Sartre’s answers to the two previously noted questions in light of what the other existentialists have said.
1) Where does nothingness come from?
Sartre points out that Nothingness cannot come from being (-in-itself) since being can only produce being. Everything that is already existent it subject to causal determination: “A real cause, in fact, produces a real effect and the caused being is wholly engaged by the cause in positivity; to the extent that its being depends on the cause, it cannot have within itself the tiniest germ of nothingness” (319). Thus, whatever means by which nothingness comes to the world must be able to withdraw itself from being in such a way as to allow for nothingness to arise. This is done by human consciousness when it poses a question: it creates the possibility of non-being (a negative answer) in the heart of being.
2) What must man be in his being in order that through him nothingness may come to being?
In the act of disengaging from being to ask a question, consciousness is showing that it is “not subject to the causal order of the world” (319). That is, Sartre says, if the question was already determined by the causation of being, it would no longer make any sense. Since we have already seen that everything that is a part of the totality of Being is trapped in the cycle of cause and effect, human consciousness must then be non-being or nothingness. This is why Sartre says that consciousness is “its own Nothingness” (319). In addition, because man is not subject to the causal order, he is free.
This freedom is not a property of consciousness, but is the condition of the being of consciousness – “there is no difference between the being of man and his being-free” (321). Therefore, freedom is not part of the essence of consciousness but the form of its very existence. “Human freedom precedes essence in man and makes it possible” (321). Thus Sartre has shown one of the core ideas of existentialism: existence precedes essence. He goes on to describe freedom as the condition of spontaneous acts of consciousness which can lead to anguish. In his vertigo example, he shows that because I am in every moment free, nothing I do at this particular moment can determine what I will do in the next. My conscious acts, being outside of the causal order, are not subject to determination – “what separates prior from subsequent is exactly nothing” (324). Thus, I cannot control my future acts from where I am standing in the present, and there is always the possibility that I will make the “ultimate choice” and throw myself over the cliff. This anguish is distinguished from fear in that it is anguish over oneself, rather than fear of something in the world.
Consciousness as freedom creates meaning by the ways in which it brings nothingness to the world. In fact, Sartre says, we are always involved in meaning-giving activity – doing so is the only thing we do not have a choice about: man is “condemned to be free” (352). Sartre demonstrates how we give meaning by showing that objects do not in-themselves have the meaning that we imbue them with: “the book with the well-read pages is not by itself a book of which Pierre has turned the pages” (322). Consciousness must posit Pierre (as absent or non-being) for this meaning to occur – without consciousness, the world is meaningless.
The meaning-giving activity by which consciousness brings nothingness to the world is much like Heidegger’s description of Dasein as a “clearing” or “lighting”. Sartre describes man’s intentionality or expectations (i.e. the questions he asks) as decisive in causing what he comes across in the world (320). Similarly, for Heidegger, Dasein’s projects determine the meaning of what shows up for it in the context of significance that is the world. Nietzsche also felt that we shape reality ourselves: “creating new names and assessments and apparent truths is eventually enough to create new ‘things’” (133); and that there are an infinite number of perspectives available for us to do so.
For Heidegger and Sartre, human beings are being for which their own being is in question. Kierkegaard says as much when he states that “the self is a relation which relates itself to its own self” (78). It is this self-awareness of freedom that causes anxiety, anguish and despair (respectively). According to Kierkegaard, despair is elicited by a freedom that means one is unable, by one’s own power, to be the self that is determined by another (God), even though one already is this other-determined self. In Sartre, this amounts to “consciousness of being my own future, in the mode of not-being” (328). Freedom is that which interrupts the temporal contiguity of the self by introducing a nothing between the present and the future. In addition, Heidegger’s anxiety results from being faced with one’s own death, which distinguishes for Dasein its separation from the “they” (249). Only in anxiety can Dasein realize itself as a self-creating agent whose identity has been overwhelmingly influenced by society. Paradoxically, then despair, anguish and anxiety, while experienced in alienation, result from the apprehension of dependence – the self’s dependence on God (Kierkegaard), on the self it will be (Sartre), or on the “they” (Heidegger) – as a condition of freedom.
The ability to despair, be in anguish or have anxiety about oneself shows that, as Sartre demonstrates, existence precedes essence. Heidegger states, “the ‘essence’ of Dasein lies in its existence” (220). For Nietzsche, this freedom to create oneself is an invitation to craft one’s life as a meaningful unity by “ ‘[g]iving style’ to one’s character” (144). Heidegger sees Dasein’s ‘historicality” as making this possible. For Sartre, it endows us with a grave responsibility to own everything that we do, since we are what we do.
A third major idea of existentialism, which Sartre does not treat directly in the assigned chapter, is that of authenticity. What Sartre has to say about it elsewhere is consistent with the views of Nietzsche, Heidegger and Kierkegaard. To be authentic is to avoid fleeing into Sartre’s bad faith, Heidegger’s fallenness, or Kierkegaard’s improper form of despair. Authenticity entails being aware of our freedom to transcend our facticity or thrownness. It is understanding ourselves as more than the roles we play, instead of becoming them, as Nietzsche points out (162). Authenticity means recognizing ourselves as being both the transcendent and the in-itself; having, like the Knight of Faith, one foot in the infinite and the other in the particular.
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