MODES OF BEING IN JEAN PAUL SARTRE
1.1 MEANING OF BEING.
Being in all its fullness, and as the ground of all beings remains a
great mystery. All the philosophical epochs have tried in diverse ways without
success, to expound a wholesome review of this question. According to L. Okika,
he stated that,
initial difficulty about being or reality is that, it is so very obvious, so
that it is preternaturally easy to overlook; and yet at the same time, we find
that if we try to construct a strictly logical argument to demonstrate what
being is, we cannot do so.
It is never a doubt that, history of philosophy is a history of problem;
hence the question of being is never a new question. Though the problem of
being is as old as time, it has continued to arouse the curiosity of many
philosophers. The question of being remained unsolved because, it has no
logical status or possesses a logical status so reduced that it cannot be what
it appears to be, consequently, it has no logical status.
Some philosophers of
different epochs came up with the aim of providing a permanent solution to this
problem. Prominent among are Parmenides, Heraclitus, Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas
et cetara. Parmenides declared that 'what is, is' and 'what is not, is not’ in
relation to being, so also other philosophers continued to explore and expose
this question of being.
Etymologically, being has
a Latin and Greek derivative ‘Ens and ‘ons’ meaning; ‘which is’ and ‘that which
exists’ respectively. Due to the fact that being lacks univocal definition, it
could only be described, hence different philosophers have their views about
being. For instance, Thomas Aquinas and Martin Heidegger gave their own
definition of being. Thomas Aquinas defined it as, “that whose act is to be” But for Heidegger, “Being is the most universal and the emptiest of all
concepts. As such, it resists every attempt at definition”
We are here concerned
primarily with the question of being in the existentialist philosophy of Jean
Paul Sartre. The question of being proved problematic for Sartre like every
other philosopher. In his utmost desire to locate and situate being, he came in
contact with existence hence he writes:
existence hides himself. It is there around us, it is in us, you cannot say a couple
of words without speaking of it but finally you cannot touch it.
Sartre after locating the question of existence began fully to treat the
problem of being. He categorizes existence into two major kinds of being
namely; Being-in- itself (L’etre-en-soi) and Being-for-itself
(L’etre-pour-soi). In his major philosophical text, Being and Nothingness,
being-in-itself is one of the key concepts. However, it may not be surprising
that most of this work is devoted to being-in-itself, for according to Sartre,
being-in-itself is opaque, massive, self identical and of this existence, there
is little that can be said about it. Moreover, Sartre being an existentialist
is primarily concerned with the beingness of man or as he prefers to put it,
“the human reality”.
1.1.1 BEING-IN-ITSELF (L’ETRE EN
non-conscious things, which can be said to have essence, which exist
independent of any observer and which constitutes all the things in the world.
Being-in-itself is dense, massive and full. It harbours no nothingness and
signifies all the objects around man. It is impermeable and dense, silent and
dead. From it and in it comes no meaning.
Sartre tells us, is simply there. “It is without reason, without cause and without
necessity”. All hopes that are behind their appearance must be an essence, a “Ding
un sich” (thing-in-itself) or any other vehicle of meaning is futile.
Being-in-itself has no “Within’ which is opposed to a “without” and which is
analogous to a judgement, a law, a consciousness of itself. Hence, this mode of
being in all its entirely is absurd. Regarding this Copleston writes:
If we think away all that is
due to the activity of consciousness in making the world appear, we are left
with being-in-itself, (L’en-soi, the in-itself), opaque, massive,
undifferentiated, the Nebulous background as it were, out of which the world is
made to appear.
Sartre maintains that, this
being-in-itself is only illuminated in the light of non-being. Being-in-itself
is therefore, without consciousness and to this extent, is obviously not free,
since, freedom is an attribute of only conscious being. All objects in this
state of being have exhausted all their potentialities and are left only in the
state of actualities. They have nothing secret and are solid. The in-itself is
immovable, dead and cannot move in itself unless a conscious being moves it. It
is ultimately there and is an isolated being which is not conscious of its
existence. Sartre in describing the origin of this mode of being writes:
…questions on the origin of being
or on the origin of the world are either devoid of meaning or receive a reply
within the actual province of ontology.
Some good example of being-in-itself includes:
stones, blocks, cloths, desk etc. In itself, it exist, it simply is and is
thus, in no need of any compliment. It is uncreated and is without any relation
to another being. This mode of being is opaque to itself precisely because, it
is filled with itself.
in-itself is full of itself, and no more total plenitude can be imagined, no
more perfect equivalence of content to container. There is not the slightest
emptiness in being, not the tiniest crack through which nothingness might slip
Being-in-itself is completely different from being-for- itself; it is
simply put, a world of objects that are simply what they are. Being-in-itself
is solid and at the same time, permanence. It is these qualities that make it
the extreme opposite of the for-itself. The qualities of the in-itself are
mute, shapeless but all the same, they possess such a great density, which even
threaten to overtake and overpower the for-itself. They exist in themselves
independent of any conscious spontaneity. Using a white sheet of paper, Sartre
illustrates that which presents itself to consciousness.
One thing is certain, and that
is, that white sheet, I observe cannot be the product of my spontaneity. The
inert form, which is beyond all conscious spontaneities and which must be
observed and gradually learned is what is called a ‘thing’.
To this extent then, it is no overstatement to conclude that,
Being-in-itself is a world of existing things, which actually has no reason to
exist, since Sartre denied the existence of God. In the absence of God, everything
just exist without even any rational foundation, origin and meaning. According
to Sartre in his Nausea, “Every existing thing is born without reason,
prolongs itself but of weakness and dies
These words contain the basic
themes of Sartre: existing is absurd, in that it can neither be explained nor
justified; that existing itself is problematic, and bad faith, and that death
too is absurd and wholly beyond anticipation and preparation. Regis Jolivet, in
Sartre ,The theology of the Absurd, paints a striking picture of the term
in-itself. He writes:
The in itself, the specific
revelation of nausea, is being itself: massive, opaque, gloomy and glutinous.
We can say nothing about it except that it is, for it is devoid of any
relationship either interior or exterior. It is so helpless that it cannot stop
itself from being. Where does the in-itself or being come about? From no place,
from nothing. It is without reason, unjustifiable absurd, too much for all
eternity. It is and it proliferates itself horribly obscenely. Any attempt to
explain it is fruitless. First of all, God does not exist being is
self-contradictory. Moreover, the very idea of creation is meaningless.”
This is the being of consciousness, capable of thinking for itself.
Making decisions and accordingly, choosing between alternatives. This
consciousness differentiates it from other thing, the in-itself. We shall
consider being-for-itself under two categories: first as consciousness of an
object and secondly, being-for-itself as nothingness. Considering the
being-for-itself as consciousness, we have to acknowledge the fact that, it is
forever incomplete (openness), fluid, vacuous and lacking in determinate
structure; what he is now is neither what he was in the past nor what he will
be in future. It is at this level that it corresponds to the being of human
consciousness. Thus, being-for-itself is equivalent to consciousness. Here, it
should not be forgotten that Sartre was very much influenced by Husserl’s
concept of intentionality, according to which consciousness is always
consciousness of something.
This means that, “there
is no consciousness which is not the position of a transcendental object or if
one prefers, that consciousness has no content”12. Suppose for instance, I am aware of this table, the table is not in my
window, or near a window, or near the door or wherever it may be. And when I
intent it, I posit it as transcending and not as immanent in conscience. One is
not wrong them to say that, there is no consciousness without affirming the
existence of an object, which exists beyond and transcends it. Commenting on
this, Stumpf has this to say:
Without consciousness, the world simply is, it
is being-in-itself (L’etre-en-soi) and as such, it is without meaning of things
in the world, though it does not constitute their being13
It must be recalled that in Heidegger’s search for fusion with being,
consciousness lost its central position, but in Sartre, this central position,
consciousness was regained. Thus, Sartre realizes very clearly that
consciousness is possessed only by the pour-soi (man). For him, man is
not-something. He is not an already made being and his course is not
is condemned to be free by his choices, man makes himself not that he creates
himself out of nothing but rather, by a series of choices and decisions. He
converts his existence into the essence of his final self14.
The for-itself is an extreme opposite of the in-itself. This was
illustrated in philosophical work of Mary Warnock where she stated that,
being-for-itself brings nothing into the world both in the sense of emptiness
and in the sense of negation; Being-for-itself is aware that, it does not have
pure concrete existence. The pour-soi (man) is like an empty shell but, through
his choices in his life, he fills this shell. Sartre quite agrees that, all
consciousness is always consciousness of something but unlike all other beings
this consciousness is embodied and concretized in man. To this extent then, he
is related to the world of things and people in variety of ways. At one level,
man is consciousness of the world, which is everything that is beyond or other
than himself and which therefore, transcends him. At this level, the world is
experienced simply as solid, massive and undifferentiated, single something
that is not yet separated into individual things. Here, consciousness shifts a
person from simply being there, being-in-itself to being-for-itself where
consciousness dramatically differentiates the object of the world from the
conscious self as subject. This brings us to the question of consciousness and
its twofold activities. Stumpf has this to say about the twofold activity of
consciousness defines the specific things in the world and invest them with
meaning. Second, consciousness transcends, that is, puts a distance between
itself and objects and in that way, possesses a freedom from those objects.15
Because the conscious self has this freedom from the things in the
world, it is within the power of consciousness to confer different or
alternative meaning on things. The activity of consciousness is what is usually
Being-for-itself in its
aspect of nothingness can be perfectly defined as, “being what it is not and
not being what it is”.16
Sartre explains that man is not what he is in as much as he is not now what his
past has been. At the same time man is what he is not since he is not as yet
the undetermined future which he will become in terms of the choice he makes.
Sartre admits that consciousness is always a consciousness of something,
something that is extremely different from the conscious object, hence
consciousness is always used to denote a separation from, a distance from, and
above all, a negation of its object
attempts to demonstrate… that consci-ousness is non-substantial or nothingness.
Nothingness not in the sense of not being anything but a nihilating activity.
As nothingness, it is separated from the object by not being the object and
preserves a distance from it17
1.1.3 BEING-FOR-OTHERS (L’ETRE-POUR-AUTRUI)
Generally, being-for-others refers to the inter-human or
inter-subjective relationship, the relationship that exists between the
for-itself and another for itself. The question is, how do I know that there
are other beings in existence except myself? Sartre refashioned the question
thus: what is the fundamental relationship that exists between one person and
another that led him to posit the question of this being for others?
The certainty of the
existence of the other cannot be doubted as Jolivet R. stated that, once one is
in the world, he does not only find out that he is conscious of himself but
also that there are other people imposing themselves on him which implies
relationship. Consequently, this relationship brings about conflict because
looking at other, I reduce him to an object. It is this being-for-other that
Sartre generally calls inter-subjectivity. For Sartre, the other is ‘‘The one
who excludes me by himself, is the one who I exclude by being myself”18, The other is that “self which is not
myself, the one which is not me and the other one whom I am not”.19
My apprehension of my own being is so structured that, it presupposes
the existence of other conscious beings which is manifested in the feeling of
shame. In this, I discover simultaneously the other and the aspect of my being
as standing in front of the other, thus I am uncomfortable. The other is
obstacle to the fulfilment of my own existence and his arrival brings about the
alienation of my existence. The whole look of the other is to expose me in my
nakedness and them, empty my whole being into his, that is, terminate my being
as subject into an object. I experience my freedom being threatened by another
who is about to absorb me into the orbit of his concerns. But for Sartre, I can
defend and affirm my freedom in retaliation by rendering the other into an
“it”. The other as well can stage a similar counter attack and the cycle simply
repeats itself. I can defend, affirm and regain, my consciousness in
retaliation by rendering the other an object. For Sartre, conflict is the
original meaning and essence of being-for-others. Each seeks to dominate the
other as a free being, to possess him both as an object and as a free being.
According to Sartre,
there can never be cordial relationship between the other and I. He contends
that the impossibility of achieving true love inevitably begets one or other of
two extreme attitudes. Either I try to make myself a kind of object in the eyes
of the other (masochism) or I try through violence and pain to make the other
an instrument and to pulverize his subjectivity for my own pleasure (desire,
From Sartre’s view then,
he calls for a reconsideration of Heidegger’s general account of being together
(mit-sein). For Sartre, there can be consciousness of community togetherness, a
sense of we, as in the case of pre-reflexive outburst of applause at a concert
or at a festival or theatrical performance. But on the love of reflexive
consciousness, it is conflict and “to this extent, them, a conflict is the
original meaning of being-for-others”20.
 L. Okika, unpublished work
2005, p. 2.
 F.C. Benjamin, Nature, Knowledge Of God: An Introduction To
Philosophy Of St Thomas Aquinas, (New York: 1974), p. 386.
 M. Heidegger, Being And
Time, translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, (London: 1962), p.
 J.P. Sartre, Nausea, (New York: 1978), p. 182.
 J.P. Sartre, Being and
Nothingness, p.619 quoted by F. Copleston, History of philosophy
Vol. IX, (New York : 1985), p. 350.
 F. Copleston, History of Philosophy, Vol. IX, (New York:
1985), p. 350.
 J.P. Sartre, Op. cit., p. 619.
 J.P. Sartre, Imagination, ( Ann Arbor: 1962), p. 1.
 J.P. Sartre, Op. cit.., p. 180.
 Regis Jolivet, Les Doctrines Existentialism de Kierkegaard and
Sartre, ( Paris: 1948), p. 24. quoted by Lessoe F. J, Existentialism : with
or without God, ( New York: 1974), p. 292.
12 J.P. Sartre, Op. cit., p. 11.
13Stumpf, Philosophy; History and problems, (New york:1977), p. 473.
16 J.F. Lescoe, Existentialism: with or without God, (New
york:1947), p. 269.
17 N. Greene, J.P. Sartre, The existentialist Ethics, (university of
Michigan press: 1963), p .17.
18 J.P. Sartre, Op. cit., p. 130.