Book Review: Being and nothingness – Sartre

Many scholars have argued that Being and Nothingness provides the best articulation of existentialist philosophy, and it was the great reputation that this book enjoys which compelled me to read, and finish, this dense work. At the outset let me say that despite my love for reading, the book did test my patience and many a times I did feel like quitting. I did quit, but got back to reading again after some gap. I guess, I managed to finish the book only because I took the mandatory breaks. 😊 I am also not sure if I understood the book totally, but here is the summary of what I understood;

  1. Sartre starts by rejecting the Kantian concept of ‘noumenon’. Now what is ‘noumenon’? Kant being an idealist distinguished between ‘phenomena’ and ‘noumenon’; the former being how things appear to us and the latter being what things are in themselves, which according to him are beyond our full comprehension. Rejecting this ‘duality’ Sartre argues that appearance of a phenomena is absolute. What we see is what we get (so the existentialist philosophy)! Sartre seems to be in agreement with Nietzsche, who rejected the notion of any transcendent reality or the notion, that humans can comprehend things that might lay beneath those appearances, that make reality. Inherent in Sartre’s philosophy is the notion of atheism. Any idea of the supreme being, manifest destiny of human beings is thus incompatible with Sartre’s philosophy.
  2. After rejecting the concept of ‘noumenon’ Sartre distinguishes between unconscious being (‘en-soi’, being in itself) and conscious being (‘pour-soi’, being for itself). The ‘en-soi’ is unaware of itself, is concrete, and lacks the ability to change (for example a tree) while the ‘pour-soi’ is conscious of its own consciousness, but at the same time is incomplete (like a human being). Since this ‘pour-soi’ lacks a predetermined essence, it has to create one out of ‘nothingness’. According to Sartre, this ‘nothingness’ is a defining character of the ‘being for itself’. Therefore, the title, ‘Being and Nothingness’. In his view a human being ‘makes’ himself in this world by actions, it is through his actions that he ‘actuates’ himself! Sartre next argues that ‘being for itself’ acquires meaning only through men seeking perpetual forays into the unknown. According to Sartre man can never have an essence, no matter how much he struggles for self-realization. He gives the example of a teacher and a rock. The teacher is not a teacher in the same way as a rock, fixed and unchanging. As a conscious being, the ‘being for itself’ recognises what it is not; this realization according to Sartre is ‘nothingness’ and his understanding of ‘lack’.
  3. He argues that people have a ‘choice’ and they do not make this ‘choice’ because of what he calls, ‘mauvaise foi’ (bad faith) fearing the consequences of the choice. This makes them to stick to easy choices thereby placing oneself at the mercy of circumstances. The person thus leads a life more akin to ‘being in itself’ than ‘being for itself’.
  4. So, while I kept reading the text, I kept on thinking about his view of human choices that he espouses, but since human conditions keep changing, what is the final choice that a human can make which would lead to his self-actualization? Sartre (in my understanding) fails to answer this question convincingly. In his view, while human beings in their quest to ‘be for itself’ can understand what they are not, but cannot understand what ‘is’ (the ‘ideal’ that I should be or aspire to be)? Human for their full actualization need to be ‘one with’ or ‘understand’ their ‘consciousness’, but then how can human being ‘be’ consciousness or understand their consciousness fully? Since he fails to answer this question directly, Sartre seeks to define this synthesis of ‘being’ and ‘consciousness’ through ‘negation’ or its ‘absence’. The example that he gives is that truth of love can also be understood by the emptiness that a departed loved one leaves behind for us.
  5. On how the ‘being for itself’ human beings relate to another, Sartre introduces an important concept of ‘gaze’. We become aware of ourselves only through the ‘gaze’ of another. We become conscious of our existence when we are being watched, and a similar thing happens to the other person, when we watch them. This gaze objectifies us as a person, dehumanizes us and also robs us of our inherent freedom thus making our identity ‘being in itself’ than ‘being for itself’.

In the final analysis, the book filled me with despair and hopelessness. According to Sartre while the ‘being in itself’ gives you the agency, argues that through your action you can achieve self-actualization, but fails me in providing me the answer to this question i.e. what is my self-actualization? Sartre says it is nothingness, a blank canvas given to me to paint anything but what should I keep painting, how long and towards what end? If I believe in Sartre, I am an empty nothingness, dehumanised by others gaze and perhaps even mine. While he talks of self- actualization, he also argues that this is difficult to achieve, for humans can’t comprehend ‘consciousness’. So, despite all the rhetoric that I am ‘condemned to be free’, what does that freedom ultimately lead to? For me, this ruthless stress on ‘self’ at the cost of all humanity, relationships, rejection of all compromises as ‘bad faith’ is a sure recipe for nihilism, and self-destruction. Not a philosophy for me boss! Anyway, since I am not an atheist, believe that there is something called destiny (my experience triumphs all philosophy), we differ on the fundamental premise on which Sartre’s philosophy is premised.


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