Sartre’s Existentialism: A Brief Summary

Some terms are used in so many ways they cease to have any real meaning. Existentialism being one of them. It typically refers to the writing of a few later 19th and early 20th century philosophers. Namely, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Sartre. However in the most concrete sense it refers to the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre. Here I’d to clarify the central argument of his most famous work, Being and Nothingness.

The conclusion of his work is that we are radically free beings. We don’t have any sort of concrete nature that determines what sort of being we are or how we are going to act. He contrasts what we are to something like a pair of scissors. The nature of a pair of scissors was thought out and determined before any pair was actually constructed. That is, it’s essence, a device used for cutting paper in a particular fashion, came before any pair was there to be used for cutting the first place. Triangles are another sort of object that fit this category. The essence of a triangle, to be a polygon with exactly three sides, precedes the existence of any triangle in the world. He thinks humans are the complete opposite; first they come about, then they form themselves by making choices. For humans, existence precedes essence.

Sartre’s conclusion as described above is going to be included in almost any summary of the man and his work. Yet why he thought this is almost always left out. His argument seems to amount to little more than raw assertion if this is far as you dig into his thinking. There’s good reason for this lack explanation. His writing is unnecessarily complex and insufferably vague. Although I believe Sartre can be fixed up in a way that makes his argument at least comprehensible.

The point of Sartre’s work is to give a description of what a human person is, and to draw out some of the philosophical implications of his analysis. Accordingly, he’ll be talking a lot about us as minded beings and the nature of consciousness itself. Let’s start by looking at his definition of consciousness and unpacking it into something a little more manageable.

Sartre asserts,“Consciousness is a being such that it’s being, it’s being is in question in so far as this being implies a being other than itself”.

We can do some work by chopping it up and rewording it’s parts, “Consciousness is a being such that in it’s being” could be rephrased merely as “consciousness”, and “it’s being is in question” as “is indeterminate”, and finally “in so far as this being implies a being other than itself” as “in virtue of it’s intentional nature”

So according to Sartre, consciousness is indeterminate in virtue of its intentional nature. Here Sartre is implying full blown ontological indeterminacy, not mere epistemic. Although he does think it’s also epistemically indeterminate. This means it’s not just that we don’t know what the nature of consciousness is; it’s that a constitutive dimension of consciousness is to lack a complete nature. He thinks that this is an implication of consciousness being intentional. Intentionality is the “aboutness” of consciousness. When we experience something, the thing experienced is the intentional content. So for example, when I see a pair of shoes, a sunset, a color, a table, or another person, these things are what my experience is about. But these things aren’t actually a part of my consciousness, they are represented by it. When I see the sun, the sun itself isn’t actually in my mind, it’s merely referred to by it.

Now, after we exhaust a description of the intentional content of any particular experience, we are left with the question, what is consciousness itself? This is a very difficult question, and Sartre didn’t seem to think that any sort of substantial answer was possible. Consciousness doesn’t seem to be anything at all. It’s just some sort of relational type entity that can’t be grasped as it is in itself because it is the very thing that does the grasping. This is where the idea of consciousness as a form of nothingness comes in. Some think that Sartre is fallaciously treating nothing as something, which nothingness can’t be because it isn’t anything at all. He refers to consciousness as a form of nothingness because of it’s lack of substantiality. A useful way of thinking about the Sartrean use of nothingness is “no-thing-ness:”. It exists but with a particularly weak form of concreteness. It appears categorically different than anything else we know of. This leaves Sartre with a sort of mind/body dualism, but certainly not substance dualism.

We have to be careful when referring to consciousness as ontologically indeterminate because that seems to mean that there is absolutely no fact of the matter about what it is, but this isn’t case. It obviously has properties like being intentional and being qualitative. Also consciousness doesn’t just occur in any old way. It’s exemplified by embodied beings. When consciousness does occur it happens in a way that is shaped by beliefs, desires, and volition which are constitutive of agency. Persons also have individual histories and cultural sensibilities. This is what Sartre refers to as the facticity of persons. We don’t have have any choice over these matters, but they remain part of who we are. These features constitute the boundary conditions of consciousness.

Now because of this lack of a determinate nature in consciousness, when we go about making decisions there is nothing about ourselves that necessitates that we perform any particular action. This contrasts with the typical picture that beings act according to their nature. With human persons it’s different. Persons lack a wholly determinate nature, and when we as agents make decisions, we are freely constructing our nature. We contribute to our already situated facticity. This makes sense of Sartre’s claim that existence precedes essence. Our essence is basically a history of our behavior and thinking. For Sartre, a person doesn’t run from battle because he is a coward, he is a coward because he ran from battle. 

We can now put Sartre’s argument in a premise/conclusion format.

1. Consciousness is intentional
2. If consciousness is intentional, then consciousness lacks a wholly determinate nature.
3. If consciousness lacks a wholly determinate nature, then conscious persons are metaphysically free beings.
4. Persons are metaphysically free.

There’s a lot more to Sartre’s theory than I have described here, and I’m probably wrong about some of it. The entire work is about eight hundred pages, which is too much to cover in a blog post. If you’d like to learn more about Sartre’s Existentialism, I’d recommend checking out Robert Solomon, Jonathon Webber, and The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.