Being and Nothingness  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology (sometimes subtitled A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology) is a 1943 philosophical treatise by Jean-Paul Sartre that is regarded as the beginning of the growth of existentialism in the 20th century. The French title is L'Être et le néant : Essai d'ontologie phénoménologique. Its main purpose was to define consciousness as transcendent.


"Being and Nothingness" analysis

Being and Nothingness is clearly influenced by Martin Heidegger's Being and Time, though Sartre was profoundly skeptical of any measure by which humanity could achieve a kind of personal state of fulfillment comparable to the hypothetical Heideggerian re-encounter with Being. In his much gloomier account in Being and Nothingness, man is a creature haunted by a vision of "completion," what Sartre calls the ens causa sui that religions identify as God. Born into the material reality of one's body, in an all-too-material universe, one finds oneself inserted in being (with a lower case "b"). But consciousness is in a state of cohabitation with its material body; it is no thing. Consciousness can imagine that which is not (imagine the future, etc.).

Sartre on the gaze

In Being and Nothingness Sartre explains that "The look", is the basis for sexual desire; Sartre declares that there isn't a biological motivation for sex. Instead, "double reciprocal incarnation," is a form of mutual awareness which Sartre takes to be at the heart of the sexual experience. This involves the mutural recognition of subjectivity of some sort, as Sartre describes: "I make myself flesh in order to impel the Other to realize for herself and for me her own flesh. My caress causes my flesh to be born for me insofar as it is for the Other flesh causing her to be born as flesh."

Even in sex (perhaps especially in sex), men and women are haunted by a state in which consciousness and bodily being would be in perfect harmony, with desire satisfied. Such a state, however, can never be. We try to bring the beloved's consciousness to the surface of her/his body by use of magical acts performed, gestures (kisses, desires). But at the moment of orgasm the illusion is ended and we return to ourselves, just as it is ended when the skier comes to the bottom of the mountain or when the commodity that once we desired loses its glow upon our purchase of it. There will be, for Sartre, no such moment of completion because "man is a useless passion" to be the ens causa sui, the God of the ontological proof.


L'être et le néant (Being and Nothingness)

  • Generosity is nothing else than a craze to possess. All which I abandon, all which I give, I enjoy in a higher manner through the fact that I give it away.... To give is to enjoy possessively the object which one gives.
    • Part 2
  • I am responsible for everything ... except for my very responsibility, for I am not the foundation of my being. Therefore everything takes place as if I were compelled to be responsible. I am abandoned in the world ... in the sense that I find myself suddenly alone and without help, engaged in a world for which I bear the whole responsibility without being able, whatever I do, to tear myself away from this responsibility for an instant.
    • Part 4, Chapter 1, III
  • To eat is to appropriate by destruction.
    • Part 3 : Being-For-Others
  • In order to make myself recognized by the Other, I must risk my own life. To risk one's life, in fact, is to reveal oneself as not-bound to the objective form or to any determined existense--as not-bound to life (p.237, 1998)
  • L'existence précède et commande l'essence.
    • Translation: Existence precedes and rules essence.
    • Part 4, chapter 1
  • Je suis condamné à être libre.
    • Translation: I am condemned to be free.
    • Part 4, chapter 1
  • Nothingness haunts being.
  • Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.
  • Life has no meaning a priori … It is up to you to give it a meaning, and value is nothing but the meaning that you choose.
  • It is certain that we cannot escape anguish, for we are anguish.
  • The For-itself, in fact, is nothing but the pure nihilation of the In-itself; it is like a hole of being at the heart of Being.
  • Man is always separated from what he is by all the breadth of the being which he is not. He makes himself known to himself from the other side of the world and he looks from the horizon toward himself to recover his inner being.
  • All human activities are equivalent ... and ... all are on principle doomed to failure.
    • Conclusion, II

See also

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