being and nothingness

First, Sartre says:

being-in-itself: not conscious, not aware of itself, and has no ability to make conscious decisions. A being-in-itself can’t be a person, but rather an inanimate object or an animal. Therefore, your beta fish, Gerry, is a being-in-itself.

Gerry may seem to chart a course in his .5L home, but Gerry is not making any conscious decisions. He is always going to be a being-in-itself. Therefore, as much as Gerry means to you, Gerry will never mean anything to himself. This is because Gerry doesn’t have to create meaning for himself. Gerry is a fish.

But you – you are not a fish.

 being-for-itself: you are irreversibly conscious.

That being said, conscious is all you are; you are not nice, you are not pretty, and you are not a cat owner. You may act nice, you may feel pretty, and you may own cats, but you can’t define your entire existence as being a cat owner because you, as a being-for-itself, are forever undefined. You are nothing* without your cats. You are always going to be nothing.

 *Hence, the title of Sartre’s book, “Being and Nothingness

Therefore, Sartre says, you are forced to “create yourself” from this nothingness. And when Sartre says “create yourself,” this can be interpreted as “create something from yourself,” since you can never really be a finished product. You can never really be “something.”

Now, what the hell? Why even try, then?

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I mean, go for it – but this, too:

 It’s liberating to be nothing.

Understandably, being a “nobody” has a negative connotation. Sartre isn’t suggesting that you shouldn’t do anything with your life – instead, he simply argues that you shouldn’t be trapped by what you think you are. For example, if you’ve been seriously running for years but want to try tai chi instead, then that’s cool. Don’t keep running because you think you have a contract with being a runner. Because you’re nothing, you don’t have to make choices that are tailored to being “the runner” or “the nice guy,” “the cat collector,” etc… you just exist. You’re a nobody and this is your freedom.

This doesn’t necessarily mean to quit your job, drop out of college, or stop flossing – it’s simply asserting that you must actively make a choice to partake in these daily activities. In doing so, you should constantly evaluate your reasoning to make these choices. For example, when training for a marathon, it is likely you don’t want to run every day, yet you choose discipline. You choose this daily activity because you’ve actively chosen this specific project. After that, maybe you will choose another running-related project, but still, maybe you won’t. This is your free choice.

Sartre wrote that we need to think of our lives as a series of choices and projects in order to take full advantage of our freedom. Even better, Sartre says we need to actively create projects for ourselves. If we make our lives a series of our own chosen projects, then we will be constantly exercising our freedom to make choices and engage in life. It is essential for our self-fulfillment and self-esteem. A famous example is of former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, who took up knitting and started a handbag business in order to cope with the most unendurable time in her life. If anything, having a self determined project helped her gain a sense of control.

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Sartre believes you are nothing but a result of these cumulative choices and chosen projects. If anything’s for certain in life, it is that you will always have to choose and make some sort of decision. Because of this, Sartre says you are responsible for everything you do and everything you are.

Verbatim:

“Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”

Jean-Paul Sartre

In fact, according to Sartre, you are still making a choice even when your choice is to not make a choice. Getting out of bed every day and going to work is still a choice and you should know it’s purpose. Maybe your self-determined project is supporting your family, and your work is a daily contribution to this project. Maybe your job finances your other self-determined projects, whether that be travel, fitness goals, etc. Again, maybe your project is your career itself. Still, this should all be a continuous evaluation – if you’re making daily choices only because you think it’s the only choice you have, then this is what Sartre calls, “Bad Faith.” Here’s the example he uses in Being and Nothingness:

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A woman is having dinner with a man, but isn’t sure how she feels about him. He takes her hand and she suddenly has to respond: she could hold his hand or pull her hand away. It’s a simple choice, right? Either she wants to hold his hand or she doesn’t. In reality, though, she is caught off guard. So, instead of taking on the responsibility of making a choice, she finds it easier to convince herself that she is trapped. She leaves her hand in his, throws her free will out the window, and thinks, “well, he took my hand. There’s nothing I can do!”

Bad faith is when you deceive yourself into thinking you can’t make a choice, when really, you can – and you should. This applies to all choices – for example, in relationships, thinking you can’t decide what you want from a relationship until someone else decides first. Making choices is hard work and purposeful choices involve personal responsibility and vulnerability – if it turns out to be a bad choice or a rejection then you can’t blame something or someone else. Because of this, we find it easier to deflect real choices, yet, in doing this, we are choosing to live passively, or in bad faith.

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Now, this is the part I love. Sartre wrote that we cause ourselves anguish by not taking full advantage of our freedom. He explains that we either deflect choices or self-restrict our choices to accommodate our self-assigned “labels.” For example, we feel anguish if we call ourselves competitive runners but decide not to sign up for another race. We feel we are losing part of our identity if we make choices against it, therefore we limit our own freedom of choice in order to cater to our “labels.”

In addition, we also cause ourselves anguish by seeking validation through other people. We use people as mirrors. We hope their reactions to us reflect and confirm our self-assigned labels or identities. And then we feel anguish when this doesn’t happen, because other people have free choices, and we just can’t get them to validate us in the way we want. Our confidence in our identity will never be stable because external validation will never be stable. Because of this, Sartre’s big solution is to drop the concept of “identity” altogether. Don’t figure out “who you are.” Don’t “find yourself.” You already are nothing and you will always be nothing. This is your freedom to actively choose your life.

Louisa May Alcott writes, “I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship.” These “storms” can be any uncertain environment or situations that present challenges and discomfort. Storms are caused by your purposefully selected projects because this kind of self-determination brings struggle and failure. Yet, you become at-home with failure and storms as you are actively learning to sail your ship. Back to Lewinsky’s knitting example: it may seem comical and rudimentary, but I don’t doubt how a simple, self-started project can help someone regain a sense of internal control and confidence in their life.

So, get out there and choose to start something today: heck, paint a picture.

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tis’ a skunk!

Sartre might offer you a round of applause and I will be knitting.

4 thoughts on “being and nothingness

  1. I like your skunk. And your article. Thanks. Did Sartre say what stood as agent (what invoked and exercised agency and its apparent volition) in the process of choosing? Is it possible to make a choice other than one we do in fact actuality make?

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    1. My best understanding is that he believed the conscious self to be it’s own agent – as though unconscious drives cannot control choices without passing through the conscious self first. Going back to his quote on man: “he is responsible for everything he does,” it doesn’t look like Sartre allowed for much nuance on what controls our choices. Though if I think about those, for example, with personality-changing brain injuries… there has to be another agent in our choices, right? or, in that case, does the “conscious self” still envelop whatever exists in the newly injured brain? Maybe the concept of “conscious self” doesn’t care if you’re a “completely different person” and making atypical choices – you are still choosing and that’s what makes you still a being-for-itself. In a practical sense, that doesn’t sound so rosy. So many dark holes of possibilities to consider…. thanks for the question 🙂

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      1. Thanks KT. I don’t know what is meant by the ‘conscious self’. That seems to me to be no more than an idea we assume about ourselves — i.e. a belief that somehow derives or issues from an instantiated self which is other than the belief/idea and which itself exists outside of consciousness, sort of spewing up ideas to the conscious level like a hidden homunculus, or something.

        As I understand it, Benjamin Libet was (one of?) the first to demonstrate (in the 70s) that many choices (more specifically, short-term motor actions) issue from the unconscious (if you’ll permit the term), or at least, are initiated prior to the conscious awareness of a decision (i.e. a choice) having been made.

        My own take would be that there is no agency behind the choosing, that the seeming choice is conditioned by felt predispositions and memories, nothing else. That’s why I asked whether you thought it was possible to make a choice other than one we do in fact actuality make. I’m inclined to think that answer is no. Just musing. Thanks again! 🙂

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