Existential Non-Being

Tillich, The Courage to Be excerpt

Sartre on Nothingness

Sartre, of course, is the most obvious theorist to consider when thinking of existential non-being. He starts Being and Nothingness with a discussion of nothingness. I have highlighted some sections of the following commentary on Being and Nothingness.

The Origin of Negation

After these lengthy preliminaries, we are now ready to get into the main text of Being and Nothingness.

After discussing the notions of being-in-itself and being-for-itself in a preliminary way in the “Introduction,” Sartre now wants to talk about the relation between them. And this is what he starts with in Part I, Ch. 1: “The Origin of Negation.”

Now, in a sense we already know what the origin of negation has to be — it’s the for-itself. But I’ve told you that; Sartre hasn’t told us that yet. He is now going to tell us, in this chapter. We don’t have to spend a lot of time on this chapter, but I don’t want to just skip over it entirely. There are several very interesting things in it.

Sartre begins by giving some introductory remarks (pp. 33–34) to the effect that we shouldn’t try to treat the two sides of the relation between being-in-itself and being-for-itself in isolation. This is a theme Sartre got from Heidegger. The idea is that, if we start off by considering being-in-itself, matter, the world, all by itself, and then — only afterwards — worry about how we are going to bring consciousness into the picture, we are going to end up with a one-sided and hopelessly inadequate account. So too, if we start off, as Descartes did, with consciousness all by itself, and only then go on to consider how consciousness is related to the world, we will once again end up with a one-sided and inadequate account.

On the contrary, Sartre says, if we are ever going to get an adequate picture of the relation between being-in-itself and being-for-itself, we must start from the outset by considering both poles of the relation together. In a sense, this is related to (although it is not the same as) the point I made earlier, about how for Sartre you don’t build up the individual as a product of the intersection of general principles. So too here, you don’t built up a complex, concrete relation between two things by simply starting with the two things in isolation, and then trying to stick them together.

Now, one way in which consciousness is related to the world (the for-itself to the in-itself) is by questioning it — wondering about it, inquiring into it, just as we are now doing. Sartre takes this concrete case as his starting point, his “case in point” — as he puts it, his “guiding thread” (p. 34).

So let’s examine the peculiar relation by which consciousness stands in an interrogative attitude toward the world. WHAT IS REQUIRED FOR THIS RELATION TO BE POSSIBLE? (Note that what we have here is a kind of Kantian “transcendental argument.”)

Well, the first thing Sartre notices about the “interrogative attitude” is that
every question requires three kinds of non-being, three kinds of NOTHINGNESS (pp. 34–36).

(1) First, there is the non-being of knowledge in the questioner. In other words, in order genuinely to take an interrogative attitude, I can’t already know the answer. If I do, my question is just a formality and not a real question. So the very fact of asking a question in the first place implies something negative — a lack, in this case — on the part of the one who asks the question.

Second, Sartre says, in every question there is always what he calls “the possibility of non-being of being in transcendent being” (p. 36). Basically, all this means is that, for every question, there is always at least the possibility that a negative reply is the correct one. In other words, there is always the possibility that there is something about objective reality (“transcendent being”) that makes a negative reply appropriate — something lacking in objective being.

For example, “What’s wrong with the computer?” Perhaps the answer is: “It’s not plugged in.” Perhaps one of the memory chips has failed (that is, it’s not working any more). Perhaps there’s nothing wrong with the computer — it’s supposed to do that! All of these are negative replies that presuppose something negative about the computer itself.

Sartre goes to some length to try to make the case that every question can be construed in a way that leaves open the possibility of negative answers. I’m not sure he completely succeeds, and I’m not sure it really matters. If there are questions that cannot be cast in this form, let’s just set them aside and focus our attention on those that can. We are only taking this as an illustration, after all.

Third, Sartre says that each question presupposes a definite answer. That is, it presupposes that the correct answer is such and such, and (therefore) not something else. What time is it? It’s 12 noon (say), and not 12 midnight or 3:00 p.m.

Questions, therefore, implicitly presuppose that objective reality (the world) is differentiated, demarcated. The world comes divided up into parts such that one part is not another one. This differentiation, this distinction of one part from another, is yet another form of non-being. (Recall how for Parmenides, reality was not differentiated into parts, for exactly this reason.)

Note: Once again, we might ask whether this is really so for all questions? What about “yes/no” questions? For instance, is this class P535? But, in a sense, there is a kind of differentiation implied even here, insofar as the answer is, for instance, “Yes, it’s P535 and not P505.”

Now what has happened in all of this? In examining questions, we have encountered three kinds of non-being or “nothingness.” How can we account for that? Well, as we know, in the end Sartre is going to have to say that consciousness is responsible for these three “nothingnesses” we have just encountered. But we still have to see just how he makes the point.

OK, we are now at the end of Section I of the Chapter.

At the beginning of Section II, entitled “Negations,” he observes that BEING-IN-ITSELF CANNOT ACCOUNT FOR THIS. We already know why not; being-in-itself is completely positive, completely affirmative.

In this Section II, he presents us with a theory that is close to what he regards as the correct one. But it is not quite right, and it will be instructive to see where he thinks it goes wrong. He sets out the alternative theory on pp. 37–38. On pp. 38–42, he discusses certain general issues raised by the theory, and only comes back to give his verdict on the original theory at the end of the section, on pp. 42–44.

The theory Sartre has in mind is the theory held by Henri Bergson, a very important French philosopher in the early part of the century. ...

In any case, the theory Sartre is appealing to here is found in Bergson’s
Creative Evolution, his most well known work. I have given you a passage illustrating the theory in the course packet. (It comes from Ch. 4 of the book.)

Here is what the theory says. (I’m following Sartre’s presentation here. You can verify for yourself whether it is a fair representation of what Bergson had in mind.) Non-being, nothingnesses — the various lacks, absences, etc., that we encounter in the world — have no objective status out there in reality at all. They couldn’t. Being-in-itself, after all, (this isn’t Bergson’s term for it) is purely positive and affirmative. On the contrary, what we have is simply negative judgments about purely positive and affirmative being-in-itself.

The theory maintains that it is the negative judgment on our part that is responsible for the fact that we encounter negative features in our experience of the world. It is easy to get confused in this chapter by Sartre’s terminology. In particular, there are at least three terms you may wonder about: non-being, nothingness (or the plural nothingnesses) and negation.

As I understand it, the
terms ‘non-being’ and ‘nothingness’ are used more or less interchangeably. They both refer to things like absences, lacks — something missing, something incomplete or defective in some way. Later on in the Chapter (p. 55, in section IV), Sartre introduces the term ‘négatités’ for such things — as he describes them, these little “pools” of nothingness in the otherwise featureless desert of being. (The term ‘négatité’ is a neologism on Sartre’s part, and Hazel Barnes, our translator, just keeps the word intact in her English translation.)

By contrast, the term ‘negation’ in this chapter refers to the act of forming a negative judgment. Roughly speaking, ‘negation’ here means ‘negating’. Using this terminology, then, Bergson’s theory amounts to saying that negation is what is responsible for non-being or nothingness. Furthermore, according to the theory, these negative judgments do nothing but record my comparison between what is actually the case and what I expected or imagined or wondered or feared might be the case.

Sartre gives the example of expecting 1500 francs in his pocket, but when he looks, he finds he has only 1300 francs. The ‘only’ is crucial here. He finds that he has only 1300 francs — and not 1500 francs after all.

Now what’s going on here? Well, basically, what we have are two facts that can be described in pretty much purely affirmative terms. (Actually, Sartre’s more considered theory would have it that there is negativity involved even in these two putatively affirmative facts. But that deeper point only complicates the story unnecessarily here.)

The two facts are:

  • There are 1300 francs in Sartre’s pocket.
  • He expected 1500 francs.

So far, there’s nothing negative about any of this. It is only when Sartre compares these two affirmative facts that he says “Oh, I have only 1300 francs — not 1500 francs after all.” And that process of comparison is a matter of forming a negative judgment.

Now of course, it doesn’t always have to be a matter of expecting something other than what you find. Maybe I wonder whether there’s any coffee left in the pot. Or perhaps I fear the bogeyman, and discover it’s only the trees rustling. (I’m not actually expecting it to be the bogeyman.) Or perhaps I merely imagine the bogeyman (I’m not really afraid at all).

The general idea is that, in one way or another, I am put in mind of one state of affairs, and then contrast that with what I actually find. This contrast, the result of a comparative judgment, is what is responsible for my experiencing what I find as only what it is and not what I was put in mind of.

Now, Sartre asks, is this theory correct? Is this kind of negative judgment the only basis for our talking, by a kind of fiction, about non-being? Or is it the other way around? Must I encounter some kind of non-being out there before I can even formulate a negative judgment?

(1) First, he points out (p. 38), there are other attitudes besides judgment that are characterized by negation. There are what he calls pre-judgmental attitudes” — that is, pre-verbal attitudes that already involve negativity. For example, he says (p. 38), we question the carburetor. The car isn’t working, and so we get out, open the hood, and look in there quizzically. I adopt the interrogative attitude we talked about a little while ago. Thus, the three negative features that characterize all questions are present here as well. But I am not formulating a judgment. I am not yet at the level of putting anything into words (even silently).

On p. 39, Sartre gives a very interesting account of the notion of destruction. A hurricane comes along and utterly destroys a lot of property along the coastline. We don’t have to form judgments. All we have to do is open our eyes and watch it happen. To experience this event as destruction, rather than simply a rearrangement of matter, requires us to adopt a certain attitude toward it — an attitude that doesn’t presuppose any kind of judgment on our part.

In fact, as Sartre points out, the notion of destruction presupposes three kinds of nonbeing that parallel very closely what we found in our analysis of the question. (It is an interesting exercise to compare what Sartre says about destruction with what he says about the question, and to match up the various kinds of non-being presupposed. This actually works.)

Thus, as a result of this first line of criticism, we see that it couldn’t be just judgment that is responsible for our experiencing absences, lacks, and other forms of non-being in the world. So even at best, Bergson’s theory is not general enough to account for all the facts of our experience of negativity.

(2) But suppose we confine ourselves to the case of judgment, by way of example. Nevertheless, Sartre says, the theory is still wrong for a second reason. If we examine a case of negative judgment closely, we’ll find that non-being or nothingness must precede my act of negating in a negative judgment.

On pp. 40–42, Sartre gives the example of the judgment ‘Pierre is not here’. Sartre has an appointment to meet Pierre in a café at such and such a time. But Sartre is delayed, and when he finally arrives, he wonders whether Pierre will still be there. As he enters the café and looks around, he comes to the conclusion “Pierre is not here.” Here there is a real judgment involved. But what does it presuppose?

According to Sartre, this judgment presupposes a twofold “nihilation.”

Digression on the word ‘nihilation’: This word can easily cause confusion. It is obviously reminiscent of the term ‘an-nihilation’, which means destruction, removing something. But that’s not what Sartre means here. In effect, what he means by ‘nihilation’ is “turning into nothing,” “turning into non-being.”

Now of course, if what we’re talking about is a form of non-being to begin with, then “turning it into non-being” amounts to “making it,” “producing it.” So, when Sartre talks about “nihilating a nothingness,” what he means is simply “making it into something negative” — that is, producing it.

In the case of Pierre’s not being in the café, Sartre says there are two “nihilations” that must precede any judgment on my part that “Pierre is not here.”

(1) First of all, the whole scene when Sartre arrives in the café organizes itself in terms of “foreground” and “background,” just as the Gestalt figure did that we discussed a long time ago. That is, Sartre goes into the café all set to see Pierre. The whole café then serves as a kind of background, against which Pierre is supposed to appear. That is, the whole café is downplayed, reduced to the role of a mere setting for Pierre. The café, in other words, is “nihilated” — it’s “made negative.” Here is part of what he says (p. 41):

When I enter this café to search for Pierre, there is formed a synthetic organization of all the objects in the café, on the ground of which Pierre is given as about to appear¼. Each element of the setting, a person, a table, a chair, attempts to isolate itself, to lift itself upon the ground constituted by the totality of the other objects, only to fall back once more into the undifferentiation of this ground; it melts into the ground. For the ground is that which is seen only in addition, that which is the object of a purely marginal attention. Thus the original nihilation of all the figures which appear and are swallowed up in the total neutrality of a ground is the necessary condition for the appearance of the principal figure, which is here the person of Pierre. This nihilation is given to my intuition; I am witness to the successive disappearances of all the objects which I look at — in particular of the faces, which detain me for an instant (Could this be Pierre?) and which as quickly decompose precisely because they “are not” the face of Pierre.

That’s the first “nihilation.” (It’s “first” in the sense that it is presupposed by the other one; there’s not necessarily any temporal priority here.)

(2) The second “nihilation,” the second negative feature of this situation, is of course the fact that Pierre fails to emerge against that backdrop; he is not there. Of course, if Pierre were there, this second nihilation would not occur. But the first one would continue to hold.)

Now, the discussion on these pages is sensitive and very nicely done, but what exactly is the point of it all?

Well, the point is that the judgment ‘Pierre is not here’ that I make amounts to a discovery of a prior “nothingness” or lack in the café, not a producing of that “nothingness” or absence, as Bergson’s theory would have it. In other words, these little “nothingnesses” in the world — lacks, absences, failures, destructions, etc. — all come on to me (that is, they appear to me phenomenologically) as being something I discover or learn. They appear as objective things, things I can be wrong about, and so about which there is a certain risk. (Perhaps Pierre is there in disguise.)

All of these features — the being able to learn, the risk, the objectivity — are features that characterize perception, as opposed to imagination or conception, as we saw in our earlier passage from The Psychology of Imagination.

But note that none of this means that Pierre’s absence from the café is a fact that is in any way independent of consciousness. It isn’t; Sartre agrees with Bergson on that. Consciousness constitutes Pierre’s absence from the café just as it constitutes all the other features of phenomena. All that follows from what we are now saying is that Pierre’s absence from the café is not something subjective, like imagination. It’s objective, like perception. And this is where Sartre disagrees with Bergson.

You may well wonder how that can be, since Sartre himself holds that consciousness constitutes Pierre’s absence from the café just as much as it constitutes any other phenomenon. If I’m the one who’s doing it all along, then how can I learn that Pierre is not in the café? If I’m the one who’s setting things up that way, then how can I be mistaken about it? How can I be surprised?

(We raised the same question in effect a long time ago, when we were talking about the “objectivity” of perception back in
The Psychology of Imagination. We are now ready to start on an answer to it.)

But of course, once we think about it, there are lots of ways in which we are surprised by what we have done, are mistaken about it or learn from it.

Think of a novelist, for instance, who is writing a complicated novel with lots of richly developed characters in the story. (The model of writing a novel is, like the movie-theater metaphor, an excellent model for Sartre’s theory of consciousness.) Novelists frequently report that they are surprised to find that their characters seem to take on a life of their own. They develop a kind of inertia, they come to take on personalities, characters of their own. So true is this that if the novelist tries to make a certain character behave in a certain way in his story, he finds that the character resists. It’s just not right!

Of course, in a perfectly obvious sense, the novelist is in complete control all along. If he wants to make the character behave in a certain way, all he has to do is write the words down, and it’s done! And there’s also a perfectly obvious sense in which nothing happens in the novel, nothing is true about the characters in the novel, except what the novelist makes true by his words.

Thus, the novelist (so to speak) constitutes his characters. He’s the one who made them what they are. And yet he can be surprised by what he has written. He can be mistaken about the kinds of characters he has produced; he may think they have certain kinds of personalities, but come to discover that they are quite different. None of this is to suggest that there is anything in the novel that was not put there by the novelist. And it does not mean the novelist put it there unconsciously, although some people would like to express it that way. The novelist wasn’t unconsciously writing all those words down; he was awake the whole time and chose each word with the greatest care!

On the contrary, for Sartre all it means is that some of what the novelist put into his novel he put there unintentionally. And so he can be surprised by it, mistaken about it. But to say it was unintentional is not to say he didn’t do it, and it isn’t to say he did do it unconsciously. It’s just to say that what he consciously did had an unexpected outcome. What’s so difficult about that?

In the end, this is the main point of Sartre’s discussion of Bergson’s theory. He is rejecting a theory that would equate what is done consciously with what is done intentionally (= “on purpose,” not “intentionally” in the sense of the theory of intentionality) or deliberately. Bergson’s theory that non-being, nothingnesses, are the result of a negative judgment would have this effect: I can never be surprised by such judgments, or be wrong about them.

It is important to see the point here, because otherwise it is easy to get confused about the overall purpose of Sartre’s Chapter 1. You might think that in Section 2 of the chapter, where he is discussing Bergson, he is arguing that non-being, nothingnesses, are not the products of consciousness, as Bergson thought. But then, in the last section of the Chapter, Sartre goes on to argue that the for-itself is the origin of nothingness — a conclusion I’ve already given you. And in that case, you might well wonder: Which is it? But that is not what Sartre is doing at all. In Section 2, he is not arguing that non-being is not a product of consciousness. He is arguing only that it is not subjective in the way Bergson would have it.

The Origin of Nothingness

We are now ready to look at § V of Chapter 1, “The Origin of Nothingness.”

We already know roughly how this is going to go:

(1) Nothingness cannot come from being-in-itself, as we’ve seen. (Being-in-itself is purely affirmative, and doesn’t do anything.) He goes on:
(2) Neither can nothingness — lacks, absences, etc. — produce itself, or as Sartre says, “nihilate itself.”

The second claim is part of what Sartre develops in the preceding section. Basically, it is a criticism of Heidegger. Heidegger had said, “Das Nichts selbst nichtet.” That is (roughly), “Nothing itself noths.” (Rudolf Carnap had a lot of cheap fun at the expense of this phrase.)

Of course, ‘to noth’ is not a normal verb in English any more than ‘nichten’ is in German. But the basic idea is that “noth-ing” is what Nothing does. (“What’s it doing? It’s nothing.”) Apart from the verbal cuteness here, the basic idea for Heidegger is that nothingness is somehow self-producing, or as Sartre says, it “nihilates itself.” But Sartre will have none of that.

Basically, this much is just an elaboration of what Parmenides had already said a long time ago, and for pretty much the same reasons. But instead of just rejecting non-being or nothingness as a dangerous and paradoxical illusion, as Parmenides did, Sartre wants to push further. Paradoxical or not, we encounter non-being, négatités — absences, lacks, etc. — and have to account for it. Even if these négatités were pure illusions, as Parmenides had said, we should still have to account for them somehow.

So, Sartre says — and now I’m going to try to give you a kind of explication of the almost unreadable passage on p. 57,

It follows therefore that there must exist a Being (this can not be the Initself [for the Parmenidean reasons we’ve already seen], of which the property is to nihilate Nothingness [that is, to produce it, to turn it into nothingness], to support it in its being, to sustain it perpetually in its very existence, a being by which nothingness comes to things.

Furthermore — continuing our explication — he says that this special being must be one that is itself shot all through with nothingness — with absences, lacks, etc. If it weren’t, if it were purely positive, it would be just being-in-itself all over again. Hence it must be both. It cannot be mere nothingness; it has to be both a being and yet soaked all through with nothingness!

(This much is contrary to Bergson’s theory, which — as we saw — tried to get nothingness somehow out the juxtaposition of two purely positive facts.) Thus, Sartre says (pp. 57–58):

The being by which Nothingness comes to the world must be its own Nothingness.

All this means two things for us:

Consciousness is going to have to be very paradoxical. In our phenomenological description of it, we are going to have to say things that seem incoherent and contradictory — and they are incoherent and contradictory. This much we have already seen (although here is where we see Sartre saying it for the first time).

Consciousness cannot be explained in the sense of giving a coherent account of it.

If we are going to be able to grasp adequately what is going on when we encounter négatités in our experience of the world, we are eventually going to have to turn to examine consciousness. That is, we are going to have to adopt a reflective attitude, to make consciousness our object and examine it. We see here a motivation for the predominately reflective tone of the rest of the book. The examples we have considered so far all started off at least as non-reflective. When we talked about distance, about Pierre’s absence from the café, etc., we were proceeding non-reflectively. We were not especially thinking about consciousness then (although we said some things incidentally about that too), but rather about distance, about Pierre’s absence, etc.

Now — near the end of Ch. 1 — we are about to change that approach, and to adopt an explicitly reflective approach. We have got to the point of realizing that if we are ever are going to get a grip on distance, on Pierre’s absence, we are eventually going to have to adopt a reflective approach.

This is the main conclusion of § V of the chapter. But before we go on to look at some other things that go on there, let’s pause to consider an obvious question: What we’ve just looked at looks a lot like an argument: Consciousness has to have negativity running through it, because otherwise there would be no way for the appearances of negativity in the world to get there. But what is Sartre the phenomenologist doing arguing? I thought he was supposed to confine himself to pure description.

Well, I’m afraid we are going to see a lot of this in Sartre. And we can say one of two things about it. On the one hand, we can say that Sartre is just being pretty sloppy about his phenomenological method, and that he really is trying to be far more systematic and theoretical than strict phenomenology would allow.

On the other hand, we might also say that these apparent arguments are not meant to be the real bases on which Sartre’s theory rests. Perhaps they are just meant as heuristic devices, as ways of getting you to see the point he is making. The point he is making — in this case, that consciousness is riddled with nothingness — is something that can be seen and described on its own, in the strictest phenomenological way. But first you have to see the point. And of course, it doesn’t make any difference how he gets you to see the point, as long as you do see it. End of point.

There are several other things that go on in this last section of Ch. 1, and I want to look at some of them briefly.

There is, for instance, the very nice discussion of the notion of Anguish, which is something we will see a lot of later on. In this discussion, Sartre is concerned to contrast anguish from simple fear.
Anguish is fear of ourselves, fear of our own freedom.

In the discussion of this, Sartre gives us two important analyses that both illustrate the theme of anguish and also serve to lead us into Ch. 2. These are the discussions of vertigo and the case of the gambler.

In Ch. 2 (“Bad Faith”), Sartre is going to give us an absolutely brilliant discussion to try to show us something I told you a long time ago: that consciousness is not what it is, and is what it is not. The discussion there will attempt to show that this is so in a completely literal sense, with no trick whatever.

But here, at the end of Ch. 1, he gives us the two examples of vertigo and the gambler, which lead us right up to the same point. But here they do look like tricks, like merely verbal points that rely on playing fast and loose with the tenses of verbs. They’re not, but that’s the way they look at first. Sartre is in effect setting us up.

The Gambler

Let’s start with the discussion of the gambler (pp. 69–70). (Sartre in fact treats this one second in order.)

A certain man is a compulsive gambler. He spends all he has at the casino or at the racetrack. His habit is ruining his marriage, his children are starving, and things have really come to a crisis. The man is no fool, and realizes the seriousness of his habit. And so he resolves to stop gambling, and his resolve is quite sincere. But the following day, he approaches “the gaming table,” and what happens? He is tempted. He looks back into the past and sees himself yesterday. (Note: He is reflecting here.) Here’s what goes on in his mind:

That man back there in the past is me. It’s not someone else, after all; I recognize myself in that past man. And yet, in the sense that matters right now, that man is not me. That man has good resolutions that speak to him and are persuasive. But those resolutions do not affect me one bit, unless I make those resolutions anew — now. I do not find his resolutions affecting me. So, here is a case in which I am that man, and yet am not that man. Thus, consciousness is what it is not.

Granted, the paradox looks merely verbal at this point. All that’s really going on is that I’m not what I WAS, and that is hardly surprising. All it means is that I’ve changed. It’s only by overlooking the obvious role of the passage of time here that we can make this situation look like a paradox.

Well, maybe. But let’s look at what Sartre says about this here.

Consciousness in this instance is separated from itself (from its past self, to be sure). What is it that separates consciousness from itself here? Well, you say, it’s time. Yes, but let’s look at the question slightly differently.

What separates me from myself here? That is, what prevents me from being that man I see back there in the past — from being that man in such a strong sense that his resolutions are also my resolutions right now? What prevents me from adopting his resolutions as my own? Answer: NOTHING. Nothing whatever. I am perfectly free to make those resolutions anew if I choose to do so. Nothing is holding me back. Of course, by the same token, nothing is forcing me to renew those resolutions. All of which is just another way of saying I am free with respect to these resolutions. We begin to see here the profound link between freedom and nothingness, a link that will be developed throughout the rest of the book.)

This freedom produces Anguish, a kind of profound panic at the thought that these matters really are up to us. Here is what Sartre says (pp. 69–70):

In reality — the letters of Dostoevsky bear witness to this — there is nothing in us which resembles an inner debate as if we had to weigh motives and incentives before deciding. The earlier resolution of “not playing anymore” is always there, and in the majority of cases the gambler when in the presence of the gaming table, turns toward it as if to ask it for help; for he does not wish to play, or rather having taken his resolution the day before, he thinks of himself still as not wishing to play anymore; he believes in the effectiveness of this resolution. But what he apprehends then in anguish is precisely the total inefficacy of the past resolution. It is there doubtless but fixed, ineffectual, surpassed by the very fact that I am conscious of it. The resolution is still me to the extent that I realize constantly my identify with myself across the temporal flux, but it is no longer me — due to the fact that it has become an object for my consciousness. I am not subject to it, it fails in the mission which I have given it. What the gambler apprehends at this instant is again the permanent rupture in determinism; it is nothingness which separates him from himself; I should have liked so much not to gamble anymore; yesterday I even had a synthetic apprehension of the situation (threatening ruin, disappointment of my relatives) as forbidding me to play. It seemed to me that I had established a real barrier between gambling and myself, and now I suddenly perceive that my former understanding of the situation is no more than a memory of an idea, a memory of a feeling. In order for it to come to my aid once more, I must remake it ex nihilo [= out of nothing] and freely. The not-gambling is only one of my possibilities, as the fact of gambling is another of them, neither more nor less. I must rediscover the fear of financial ruin or of disappointing my family, etc., I must re-create it as experienced fear. It stands behind me like a boneless phantom. It depends on me alone to lend it flesh.\

So my own freedom SEPARATES me from myself, so to speak puts me at a distance from myself. (We have already seen how the notion of distance involves negativity.) And that separation, that nothingness, that distance is somehow a product of consciousness itself as part and parcel of its own freedom.

Of course, in this case we are talking about being separated from my past self, which I am reflecting on while I am being tempted to gamble again. That is, consciousness is separated from its object, which in this case happens to be its past self.

Now Sartre thinks this feature by which consciousness separates itself and isolates itself from its objects is pervasive of consciousness. It is a characteristic feature. (Recall that, for Sartre, an important feature of intentionality is that it is irreflexive.) This is why I said a long time ago that, for Sartre, the best model for consciousness is the stepping back and separating oneself from an object, the taking a point of view on an object, the putting oneself at a distance from an object. (Recall the discussion of “distance” earlier; it’s no coincidence.)

Please keep all these threads in mind as we go on. Right now, they look like a hopeless — and unconvincing — tangle, but things will get better.


The example of the gambler involved the past. Sartre also gives a similar example that involves the future. This is the example of vertigo (beginning on p. 66.)

I stand at the edge of a precipice and look down. I begin to feel a little dizzy. What’s going on here?

It can hardly be that I am, in any objective sense, afraid of falling over the edge (at least not in most cases). Let’s suppose the ground is reasonably firm, the wind is not blowing so hard it’s going to puff me over the rim, there’s no real likelihood of an earthquake. None of that is what is really causing my dizziness. No.
For Sartre, what is bothering me is not the possibility that I might fall; it’s the possibility that I might jump.

There is no other way to accommodate the facts. I look, as it were, down there into the future and see myself tumbling head over heels over the edge to my death. Now, of course, in an obvious sense, I am not that man I see in the future. I’m up here on the top, reasonably intact; he’s down there on the bottom, all smashed. But in another obvious sense, I am that man I see down there in the future. That is, I recognize myself in that moment. If I didn’t somehow recognize myself in that future man, why would he bother me so much? The kind of vertigo I feel at the prospect of my tumbling over the side is quite different from whatever I might feel at the prospect that someone else might fall or leap over the ledge.

No, that’s me. And yet, it’s not me. I am what I am not, and I am not what I am. And, just as in the case of the gambler looking into the past, so too here in the case of the future, there is a way of putting this in terms of freedom:

What is it that prevents me from being that man in the future in so strong a sense that I too propel myself over the side? Answer: Nothing. What is it that compels me to do it? Nothing. In short, nothing SEPARATES me that prospect. And that nothingness is just another way of talking about freedom.

And in fact, the closer I get to the edge of the cliff, the more obvious it is that nothing prevents me from actually doing it. It’s as if the literal distance between me and the edge is a kind of symbol of my own freedom. And that is what’s so scary, what produces the dizziness or vertigo. This fear of my own freedom is what Sartre calls “anguish.”

This notion of the fear of freedom is something we’ll see much more of very soon. But, for the present, notice that, just as, in the case of the gambler, consciousness is separated from the past self it is reflecting on, so too here: consciousness is separated from the future self it is reflecting on.

Once again, then, we have the nothingness that separates consciousness from its objects. In these cases, of course, we are talking about reflection, and the object is my past or future self.

But the same point holds for pre-reflective consciousness. We “question” the carburetor, to use Sartre’s own example. This requires us to draw back from the carburetor (perhaps even literally to draw back), to separate ourselves from it in order to consider it objectively, to put ourselves at a distance from it.

All this amounts to saying that consciousness, as it were, secretes a kind of nothingness (again, a kind of “distance”) that isolates it from its objects.

Now — and this is why I have dwelt on this for so long — Sartre thinks the fact that consciousness can withdraw in this way, out of reach of its object — whether that object is something in the world, or whether it’s me in reflection — IS PROOF OF ITS FREEDOM. Or perhaps, since a phenomenologist shouldn’t be talking about proving things, I should say: THIS IS WHAT SARTRE MEANS BY FREEDOM.

Here is what he says on p. 60:

For man to put a particular existent out of circuit [that is, to put it out of reach, to separate himself from it] is to put himself out of circuit in relation to that existent. In this case he is not subject to it; he is out of reach; it can not act on him, for he has retiredfollowing the Stoics has given a name to this possibility which human reality has to secrete a nothingness which isolates it — it is freedom.

Of course, at this point that is just a bald claim. We still have work out all the details. In particular he have to ask whether freedom is simply freedom from being determined by my objects. But keep this passage in mind. It is one of the most explicit statements I know of in all of Sartre about how the notions of freedom and non-being are linked.

Now we have already seen that the awareness of our own freedom produces anguish. Moreover, since every act of consciousness is free for Sartre, and since there is nothing unconscious about consciousness, we ought to be constantly aware in whatever we do that we are acting freely, with nothing to compel us and nothing to prevent us from doing whatever we choose. It would seem to follow, therefore, that we are constantly in a stateof ANGUISH.

And yet, there is a very interesting fact: We spontaneously and almost automatically act as though we were not free, as though we were compelled. We try to find excuses, pass the blame, avoid our responsibility — or, as Sartre says, to “flee our anguish.” This is going to be a very interesting phenomenon. We are trying to fool ourselves, to distract ourselves from the fact that we are aware of our own freedom and responsibility. We are pretending to ourselves that we are not free, in the hope of convincing ourselves.

This is the behavior Sartre calls Bad Faith, and it is what is otherwise known as “self-deception.” And it is going to be Sartre’s main proof that consciousness is contradictory and paradoxical. It is going to be what finally shows us that the for-itself is what it is not and is not what it is — and that this is literally true, without any funny business.

The examples we have seen of this up to now — the examples of the gambler, and of vertigo — have all looked frankly like tricks involving some fast and loose playing with tenses. They have all involved the separation of consciousness from its intentional objects (and recall that intentionality is irreflexive for Sartre) — and in particular from its own past or future reflected on self.

But now, in the discussion of bad faith, we get a new kind of separation of consciousness. And this time it is not just a separation of consciousness from its object — whatever that object is. This time we are going to find that consciousness is separated from itself — not from its past or future self, but its own present self, and not as an object of reflection.

In short, we will find that negativity characterizes not just the relation between consciousness and its object, but is there in the very act of consciousness itself (the “being” of consciousness). So we are pushing our investigation deeper and deeper.

[Copyright ©1996 by Paul Vincent Spade. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted to copy this document in whole or in part for any purpose whatever, provided only that acknowledgment of copyright is given.] http://pvspade.com/Sartre/pdf/sartre1.pdf