Absurd Being

A place to take a moment to reflect on what it all means

Jean-Paul Sartre 1905-1980

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Recommended Reading

The Transcendence of the Ego   Being and Nothingness   Nausea   Existentialism is a Humanism   No Exit  


->  The Transcendence of the Ego

->  Being and Nothingness

->  Nausea

->  Existentialism is a Humanism

->  No Exit

The Man

Jean-Paul-Charles-Aymard Sartre was born on June 21, 1905 in Paris. His father, Jean-Baptiste, died when Sartre was only a year old and his mother, Anne-Marie Schweitzer, moved back to her parents’ house to raise him.

Sartre received a traditional philosophy education in prestigious schools in Paris, with a strong focus on the ideas of Henry Bergson (whom he would later say first drew him to philosophy), and went on to earn his doctorate from the École Normale Supérieure, finishing first in his class, in 1929. This same year, Sartre would meet Simone de Beauvoir, with whom he would maintain a lifelong companionship, although one that was openly non-monogamous (they refused to partake of what they considered the bourgeoisie institution of marriage). After graduating Sartre would teach at the lycées of Le Havre, Laon and Paris from 1931 to 1945.

In 1932, Sartre received a stipend from the French Institute in Berlin and for the following two years would read and study with the leading phenomenologists of his day, Husserl and Heidegger. He benefitted considerably from Husserl’s insight that consciousness is intentional and much of his philosophy follows from this fact.

Sartre published his first novel, Nausea, in 1938, which promptly brought him recognition. In 1939, he served as a meteorologist in the French army but the next year was caught by German troops. He would spend nine months as a prisoner of war. After his release, he became involved with the French Resistance and with Maurice Merlau-Ponty founded a small resistance group of intellectuals called Socialisme et Liberté.

Before the end of World War II, Sartre would publish two plays, The Flies (1943), No Exit (1944), and his major philosophical work, Being and Nothingness (1943). In 1945, Sartre quit teaching and founded a literary and political magazine, Les Temps Modernes, with Simone de Beauvoir.

After the war, Sartre published his widely-read essay, Existentialism is a Humanism. He also became more engaged as a political activist. He lent his voice to Communism and even visited Cuba, meeting both Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Sartre’s major work in the latter part of his life was the Critique of Dialectical Reason which was published in 1960 which saw him shift philosophical focus to a form of Marxism arguing that modern society was producing a loss of self for the individual.

He was offered the Nobel Prize in Literature for his autobiography, Words, but politely rejected it, stating that for a writer to accept such an award amounted to associating his personal commitments with the awarding institution and, in particular, a writer should not allow himself to be turned into an institution.

Sartre’s health deteriorated in the 1970s and he was almost completely blind by 1973. He managed to remain intellectually active through this period with a friend reading books aloud to him and recording some of their discussions on tape.

On April 15, 1980 Sartre died in hospital from pulmonary edema. Around fifty thousand Parisians turned out for the funeral procession for the well-known philosopher.

The Timeline

1905: Born in Paris on June 21

1906: Father dies

1929: Graduates from the École Normale Supérieure

           Meets Simone de Beauvoir

1933-4: Studies with Husserl and Heidegger at the French Institute in Berlin

1938: Publishes Nausea

1939: Drafted into the French army

1940: Captured by the Germans and spent nine months as a prisoner of war

1943: Publishes The Flies

           Publishes Being and Nothingness

1944: Publishes No Exit

1945: Founded Les Temps Modernes with Simone de Beauvoir

1946: Publishes Existentialism is a Humanism

1960: Publishes Critique of Dialectical Reason

1964: Was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature which he subsequently turned down

1980: Dies on April 15 from pulmonary edema

The Philosophy

This summary will focus entirely on Sartre’s magnum opus, Being and Nothingness. The reader may be familiar with Sartre’s much shorter and much, much more accessible Existentialism is a Humanism and while this can certainly serve as an adequate introduction to Sartre’s thought, taken on its own as an encapsulation of it, it really only ends up giving a distorted version of the philosophical approach that Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, but especially, Heidegger and Sartre developed.

Before getting into the meat of things let me start out with a comment on Being and Nothingness itself. The book is 800 pages long and it is dense. It is not a book one can just pick up and lightly browse through before bed. Heidegger is a true nightmare to read but Sartre is only slightly better. As with Heidegger, I suspect this is at least partially because existentialism is a quite definitive break from the way we normally understand the world and our relation to it. As a result of this, the terminology is all new, or at least familiar terms are given new definitions, and the way these new terms relate to each other and come together to form a coherent picture is foreign and often obscure.

Oh, and on top of this, it’s just freakin’ hard. The ideas are complex and subtle and require a lot of thought to come to grips with. I don’t recommend approaching Sartre with the attitude that you’ll power through Being and Nothingness in a week or two and then roll on to your next project. Your time with Being and Nothingness will be measured in months not weeks and you ought to be prepared to grapple with the book if you want a solid understanding of Sartre’s existentialism.

After having possibly scared you off ever even daring to pick the book up, I should also add that, although difficult, it is well worth the effort and if you do manage to engage with it, you will never think about consciousness and reality in the same way again. While you almost certainly won’t agree with everything Sartre says (which is fine, although I do think his core message is pretty sound), his insights into human reality are profound and both warrant and reward sustained, reflective thought.

Yes, Being and Nothingness is remarkably long, but what is truly remarkable is just how little redundancy there is in its pages. Sartre took 800 pages to say what he wanted but he needed every single one of them. Just when you think he must surely have exhausted all of the meaningful dialogue possible on a subject, he opens up a brand new can of worms, reveals that it wasn’t, in fact, filled with worms at all, and proceeds to dissect from every possible direction what it actually did contain.

All in all, in my opinion, Being and Nothingness is one of the most important books you can read and it is especially relevant in our scientific age, obsessed as it is with reducing everything, including human reality, to the mechanistic vibrations of colourless, (maybe) mass-less, (certainly, at least in the human sense) non-conscious, subatomic strings.


In order to understand anything about Sartre’s thought, there are two words you need to be familiar with. These are phenomenology and ontology. Phenomenology is a discipline founded by Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) which essentially aims to overturn the typical belief that consciousness (a subjective agent) creates ‘representations’ of externally existing things in the mind. This approach to human perception was emphasised by Descartes but undergirds all of Western philosophy right from its beginnings in Ancient Greece and effectively creates an unbridgeable divide between the subject and the object that finds its final expression in the Kantian unknowable “thing-in-itself”.

Phenomenology replaces this subject/object dualism by considering the existent (existing object) a “phenomenon” which reveals itself to consciousness through a series of appearances. The bottle of water on my desk is a phenomenon which I am currently viewing from the front (I can see the label displaying the brand name). This is one “appearance” but I can just as easily move around and view the bottle from the rear in which case the phenomenon would be revealed in a different way (I would see the back of the label, perhaps containing details about where the water was bottled, etc.). I can also move further away in which case the bottle will look smaller.

The important thing for phenomenology is that each of these “appearances” (Husserl called them abschattung) is valid, that is, each abschattung truly and accurately reveals the bottle (the phenomenon). No one abschattung is more “accurate” or better captures what the bottle is “really” like. From far away if I hold my thumb out in front of me it really can obscure the bottle from my vision. This is not an illusion or a falsehood. It does not represent a deficiency in my senses. It is just one way, among an infinite number of ways, the bottle can be revealed to me.

Since no single abschattung represents a privileged aspect from which an existent can be “really” grasped, all abschattung are equal, and this means that the old picture whereby an internal “representation” of an external object can be closer to or further from the “truth” or “reality” of the object is no longer valid. All representations are “true” and “real” since they all reveal different aspects of the existent. This lets us dispose of the internal/external distinction that had previously handicapped philosophy and forever divorced the thing from our perception of it. Instead, we directly perceive the ‘truth’ of the existent in every abschattung revealed to us. This is captured in the phenomenological notion that consciousness is never free and independent of external objects. Consciousness is always consciousness of something. It is a direct link with the phenomenon. (This metaphor is slightly misleading but should be clarified in the section on the For-itself below)

The other word that is central to Sartre’s philosophy is ontology. Ontology is basically the study of being or existence. The entire of Being and Nothingness can be simply described as an investigation into ‘being’ and what the findings mean for us as human beings. And that’s where we’ll start…


Warning: this section is a little technical, Hazel Barnes (the translator of my copy of Being and Nothingness) refers to it as the most difficult part of the book, and you can probably skip it without too much harm. It gives a foundation to Sartre’s whole investigation which is why I have included it.

Being is the condition of all revelation; that by which a thing exists. It’s the “is” in the sentence, “the cat is orange”. Orange is a particular quality of the cat but what does it mean to say that the cat is, or the cat exists?

Everything is revealed to us as phenomenon. Everything we see, hear and smell, every emotion, memory, every thought, all appear to us as phenomena. So what about being? The cat is revealed to us as a phenomenon with an infinite number of abschattung. Is ‘being’, that is to say, ‘existence’, revealed to us in the same way? Sartre puts it like this: Is the phenomenon of being of the same nature as the being of the phenomenon? Let’s break this down. The “phenomenon of being” is the appearance (remember that everything is revealed to us as phenomenon or appearance) of the condition of all revelation (the “is”, or ‘being’ itself) and the “being of the phenomenon” is simply ‘being’ itself (the condition of all revelation). So, the question once more; is the phenomenon of being the same as ‘being’ itself?

The answer: No. When we try to apprehend ‘being’ itself, we find ourselves contemplating instead the phenomenon (appearance) of being and this cannot be ‘being’ itself, i.e. the condition of all revelation, because it (as phenomenon) requires a separate being on which it can found itself.

So, what we’re looking for here is the transphenomenal foundation of being, i.e. something beyond the phenomenonal (the way we perceive existents).

It turns out that there are two strands to this transphenomenal foundation of being, which Sartre derives from the concepts of perception and the perceived.

Perception ultimately cashes out as knowledge of something. But being cannot be reduced to knowledge because all knowledge refers back to a knower (in her capacity as being, not as being known), i.e. consciousness. Hence, the (transphenomenal) being of the act of perception is consciousness.

We have already seen that consciousness is content-free, that is, it is always consciousness of something. This “something” implied by the nature and existence of consciousness is the being of the thing perceived which Sartre calls the in-itself (he also somewhat confusingly refers to it as the phenomenon).

So, ‘being’ itself (as the condition of all revelation), or ‘existence’, must be divided into two realms, consciousness and the in-itself. We will see what these terms entail a little later on.

It is worth pointing out here that Sartre is particularly concerned with eliminating both realism and idealism as explanations of reality. Realism is the notion that some part of reality is ontologically distinct or independent, from consciousness. Idealism holds that reality, either as it is or insofar as we can know it, is fundamentally mental.

Rather, Sartre wants to assert that both realism and idealism are insufficient as explanations of reality. These two separate realms of being (consciousness and the in-itself) are actually united in a concrete totality “man with the world” and are interdependent; consciousness has its ontological source in the phenomenon and the phenomenon can only appear to consciousness.


The concept of negation is central to Sartre’s philosophy. We usually think of nothingness as having no concrete reality in the world, only positive being is “real”. For Sartre, this is not the case. Nothingness is not just a mental event. It is a concrete existent, that is to say, it has real existence in the world. The classic example Sartre gives here is waiting for his friend Pierre in the café. Pierre is absent from the café and we apprehend this absence as a real event concerning the café. Sartre, in fact, distinguishes two negations that arise in this example. The first occurs anytime we perceive something and refers to the way the background (in this case the café) recedes into nothingness as we, through intention, raise the object of interest (the absence of Pierre) to the foreground. The second negation is the actual absence, i.e. the non-presence, of Pierre which pervades and organises the café, that is, which the background of the café is built around.

So, if negation is real, where does it come from?

Nothingness (non-being) 1) can’t be outside of being (nothingness must be subsequent to being since it is being first posited then denied, i.e. it is not), 2) can’t come from being (because being-in-itself can only produce being), and 3) can’t “nihilate itself” (because it is non-being and in order to nihilate itself it must first be).

This leads Sartre to the conclusion that nothingness must come from a kind of being that can create nothingness (Sartre calls this “nihilating nothingness”) and which does so, not in the sense of creating a negative ‘phenomenon’ or performing a negative ‘act’, but in the sense that it is nothingness in its very being. We have already encountered such a being in consciousness, which we have seen is content-free, that is, purely intentional.

So the answer to the question of where nothingness (as a concrete existent) comes from turns out to be consciousness. Sartre says this is first revealed in the ability of humans to question being. To ‘question’ something[1] is to give reality the possibility of yielding a negative answer, in other words, it introduces negation into the world. In doing so, the questioner ‘nihilates’ (creates) nothingness in two ways, the so-called double nihilation; 1) a nihilation of the thing questioned, inasmuch as it is placed into a “neutral state” between being and non-being and, 2) a nihilation of the questioner himself in wrenching himself from being in order to be able to bring out of himself the possibility of a non-being.


Being-for-itself is the first realm of being, the (transphenomenal) being of consciousness. It is crucial to understand this in order to understand anything else in Sartre’s philosophy. Below is a summary of the important points to know regarding the for-itself.

1. Consciousness is intentional, that is, it is content-free. Consciousness is always consciousness of something. It is not a thing that exists and can have qualities or properties (that would make it being-in-itself). Nor is it a container (for thoughts, images, memories, etc.). Consciousness cannot have a thought, because it is intentional. Rather, it is consciousness of the thought. This means it is impossible for consciousness to exist independently of anything for it to be consciousness of. Consciousness is dependent on being (in-itself).

2. For consciousness, existence precedes essence. What this means is that the how or what (‘essentia’) of a thing cannot precede its being (‘existentia’), i.e. in order for a thing to be something, it must first be. Consciousness is not merely a particular instance of a general concept or possibility because without human consciousness there is no possibility in the first place.

3. For consciousness to be intentional, it must be true also that consciousness is consciousness of itself, i.e. self-consciousness. If this condition is not met then I can’t know that I am consciousness of the table, in which case I am an unconscious consciousness, which is absurd. So, Sartre divides consciousness into two modes: the pre-reflective (or “unreflective”) and the reflective.

Pre-reflective consciousness is our immediate consciousness of ourselves engaged in the world, consciousness in-action, as it were. We are not reflecting on what we are doing, we are doing it. Nevertheless, if someone were to ask us shortly afterwards what we were just doing, we would be able to answer, “I was reading.” So the action was not carried out unconsciously, it was accompanied with a pre-reflective self-consciousness. Sartre also calls this consciousness non-positional or non-thetic. It is something like a background self-awareness. This non-thetic consciousness is prior to and necessary for the secondary, reflective mode of consciousness.

Reflective consciousness describes the situation where we are not ‘lost in the act’ but are explicitly consciousness of something. Sartre also calls this positional (since consciousness is positing an object) or thetic consciousness. For example, if I am thinking about the book (how long it is, whether it is good or not, etc.) then I am consciousness of the book and am a pre-reflective consciousness of being consciousness of the book.

[Note: I will represent non-thetic consciousness by placing the “of” in brackets, as in “consciousness (of) the book I am writing”, which means not that I am reflecting on the book I am writing, making it an object for my contemplation, but that I am aware of myself engaged in writing a book]

4. Consciousness is presence to self. This captures the idea that consciousness is never purely itself; there is always a nothingness present in the core of its being separating it from itself. This seeming paradox only arises because of the fact that consciousness is always pre-reflective, that is, consciousness is always self-consciousness. Consider belief. My belief is actually consciousness of belief, not pure belief. Because consciousness is intentional, consciousness is belief and nothing more, but at the same time, because it is a pre-reflective consciousness (of) itself (as belief) it also can’t simply be that belief (or else it wouldn’t be consciousness but unconsciousness).

Sartre describes this in terms of reflecting and reflection. Pre-reflective self-consciousness is both the reflecting subject (intentional consciousness (of) –) and the reflection (itself as consciousness of belief). The problem is that consciousness as reflection can only be apprehended by a pre-reflective consciousness as reflecting and as soon as we try to apprehend this pre-reflective consciousness it immediately degenerates into reflection. We can never grasp ourselves as reflecting subject. This is why Sartre says the for-itself can only be itself in the form of presence to itself.

5. Consciousness is transcendent. This means that it stands outside or distances itself from both being-in-itself and itself. It is transcendent because it isn’t some thing, rather it is always reflective consciousness of something (this table, this chair, etc.) or pre-reflective consciousness (of) being consciousness of something. As consciousness, it is always intentional, hence it can never be anything because then it wouldn’t be consciousness of it. Another way to put it is that consciousness can always take a position on something, even itself, but it couldn’t do this if it was that thing. It is therefore always separated from, or transcendent to, everything.

The mechanism by which consciousness achieves this separation is negation. I am not that chair but I am also not this consciousness of that chair (because I am always a pre-reflective consciousness (of) myself). Sartre describes this as consciousness ‘secreting’ a nothingness in between itself and everything else… including itself. It is because of this that the for-itself cannot be what it is; rather, it has to be what it is.

6. Although consciousness is transcendence, in some sense it still is, i.e. it exists. This aspect of the for-itself Sartre calls facticity. Facticity makes up the brute facts of our lives; our bodies, place of birth, height, etc. They are the things about our lives we cannot change. Facticity is revealed to us in the feeling we have that we are completely contingent, what Sartre calls de trop or gratuitous. There is no reason or meaning to our existence. Inasmuch as we exist this way, we could just as easily have existed another way. My height, hair colour, country of birth, etc., none of these things had to be the way they are. This is what it means for existence to be absurd, or without reason.

7. It is through consciousness that the world comes to be. This is one aspect of Sartre’s philosophy that flies in the face of conventional science and you might want to object to it immediately. Just because I’m not looking at it doesn’t mean the table disappears! Such a response would be to miss Sartre’s point though. There are two ways to meet this objection.

First, before science can even begin its work of measuring and clarifying the properties of the table, it must first appear. The way it appears is via an internal negation as not-being me and an external negation as not-being the chair. Clearly this means that something can only appear to a being which is capable of ‘secreting’ nothingness, that is, a being which has nothingness in the heart of its being. Such a being is the for-itself. The in-itself, on the other hand, as pure being, or that which is what it is (see the next section), exists in full positivity without even a trace of negation. It is therefore incapable of supporting a world.

Second, the ‘world’ which human reality inhabits is not the abstract, measured reality of physics. For science, the table is defined by a number of fixed, clearly delineated properties but that is not how consciousness apprehends the table. We apprehend it as “over there”, “too big”, “a good place to put my cup of coffee”, “dangerous for that toddler about to run into its sharp edge”, etc. This is the world Sartre is talking about; the world the for-itself is actively engaged with.

Sartre also has a number of alternative expressions for the for-itself. It is worth briefly covering a few of these. The for-itself:

1. Is a being such that in its being, its being is in question. This captures the idea that consciousness is never what it is, but rather, is always outside itself. Consciousness is not pure being because it can, does and indeed, must, take a position on its being. If I am aware of myself, I can’t be myself through and through. I am always able to question (that is, interrogate or take a position on) what or who I am. If I was that being in the sense of perfect identity, this would be impossible.

2. Is what it is not and is not what it is. This is probably Sartre’s most intriguing description of the for-itself. It refers to the double nihilation that the for-itself brings to the world. First, it “is what it is not”. This reflects the negation the for-itself effects regarding the external world, i.e. the in-itself it is not. For example, I am a being that is not that chair over there. Secondly, the fact that it “is not what it is” refers to the negation the for-itself effects regarding itself, i.e. the facticity (in-itself) in its own heart. Facticity is like a little piece of the in-itself that lies covered up in the for-itself’s being (as its body, place of birth, etc.). Without facticity, i.e. the brute, contingent facts that make up your life, you would not exist. So, in a sense you are these things. However, as we have seen, facticity is not enough to ensure human reality. It also requires consciousness, that is, a perspective on (consciousness of) that facticity. And this consciousness achieves what it does by announcing it is not that facticity. An example of this might be the intuition that I am not this 6-foot-tall New Zealander which nevertheless exists as part of me.

3. Is a duality which is a unity. Sartre also refers to this as the reflection/reflecting and a detotalised totality. These expressions highlight the distance consciousness brings to its being. The for-itself is a duality in the sense that it is always an intentional consciousness of itself but this duality is always presented as a totality. Whenever we try to capture only one half of this duality, we always find ourselves thrust back on the other.


Being-in-itself is the second realm of being, the (transphenomenal) being of the phenomenon, and refers to all things which are not consciousness. Sartre gives three characteristics that make up being-in-itself.

1. It is in-itself. This means that it is completely independent, absolutely whole and entirely self-contained. Nothing can be said of it, as it is in itself (without reference to human reality), it just is.

2. It is what it is. This means that it doesn’t refer to itself (like self-consciousness). It just is what it is.

3. It is. Being-in-itself is not possible (this only applies to consciousness) nor is it necessary (my table didn’t have to exist). Rather, it is contingent, i.e. it is the way it is but it didn’t have to be this way. Sartre also calls this being superfluous, or de trop.

All of the above means that being-in-itself is pure being. It doesn’t contain even a hint of negation, and this is the principle difference between it and consciousness.


Human reality is radically free. The “radical” here means that we cannot not be free. The only thing we have no freedom over is whether we are free or not. This obviously flies in the face of most modern inclinations so let’s examine why Sartre feels he can make this claim.

Sartre sees freedom as an unavoidable product of the being of human reality. What is that being? We are what we are not and we are not what we are. We are not simply what we are; rather we have to be what we are. In the very structure of our being, we are nothingness. This is what consciousness is.

Determinism holds that every act is preceded by a cause and since it stops its investigation here, concludes that every act is causally determined. Sartre doesn’t doubt that every act needs a cause but he does look a little deeper at this cause. The first thing I’m going to do is substitute the word “motivation” for “cause” because the latter already predisposes us towards thinking of the in-itself, such as one billiard ball hitting another, when it is certainly not apparent that human actions follow “causes” like this.

Human motivation is not determined by past events; rather it refers to future ones. We are motivated to action not because such and such happened but because we want such and such to happen. In short, we are motivated by ends. So, what is an end? Well, whatever else we can say about it, one thing we know for certain is that it is non-being. An imagined end result, by definition, refers to something lacking in the present situation, that is, something that is not.

You can probably see where this is going. If something is lacking, that is, some part of it is not, then it cannot possibly be in-itself, that is, pure being. If ends do not have the being of the in-itself, then they cannot constitute causes acting with deterministic inevitability on the human actions which follow. Being is only capable of producing being, it cannot produce non-being. Because of this, non-being must stand outside the causal chain of being.

The for-itself separates itself from being (in-itself) by “secreting” a nothingness not just between itself and being, but also in the heart of its own being (for-itself) hence we have called it a detotalised totality, a reflection-reflecting and a being which is what it isn’t and isn’t what it is. But even this expression is misleading because the consciousness isn’t separate from the nothingness it “secretes”, it is this nothingness.

This nothingness, which allows the world to be in the first place, is precisely what Sartre calls freedom and this is the reason it is radical; because it is a part of the structure of our being. There is no core ‘I-thing’ that has freedom as one of its qualities, rather, I am freedom.

Another way to say this is that I am free precisely because I am not myself. I am free because I am presence to myself. I am not myself like the table is a table, I am consciousness of myself. This separation, which is a fundamental fact of human consciousness, means that I am also not my causes or motivations (or a bundle of desires, for that matter), I am consciousness of them. To be consciousness of my motivations means that I transcend them. They are transcendent objects for me which I can take a position on and adopt a stance towards. There is no way something I can reflect on can determine my behaviour with the inevitability of a billiard ball hitting another billiard ball.

The mode of consciousness associated with our consciousness of our radical freedom is anguish. Sartre distinguishes this from fear in the sense that fear is a reaction to something in-the-world whereas anguish is a reaction to the structure of our being. Anguish is therefore always lurking in the background, whereas fear only arises in the face of something (or the thought of that thing).

The example Sartre gives is walking along a precipice. I might feel fear that the walkway will crumble and collapse under my weight. I can take steps to minimise my fear by, say, stepping carefully or erecting a guardrail. On the other hand, the anguish I experience comes from the realisation that I might jump off the walkway. Now, you might think this is unlikely, and you’d be right, but because we are completely and totally free, it is not, and cannot be, certain that I won’t. Absolutely nothing prevents me from jumping off. There is no causal, law-governed certainty to my future actions. In addition, nothing can allay this anguish. A guardrail can’t safeguard my future actions.

The precipice example is anguish over the future but we also experience anguish over the past. Sartre’s example here is that of a gambler who has resolved to stop gambling. He lists reasons why he shouldn’t, promises himself he is done with gambling and puts it out of his mind. However, the very next day he feels the urge to gamble once more. But this isn’t anguish yet. Anguish sets in when he realises that his prior resolution and all of the reasons he marshalled for the purpose are completely and utterly non-binding. In other words; when he is confronted with his radical freedom. He now realises that his past decision completely failed to carry over into the future. Because he is radically free, if he wants to stop gambling, he must make the decision not to gamble every day. He can never be a non-gambling-thing. He is forever condemned to be free to gamble.

Bad Faith

Bad faith is probably the single most misunderstood concept in all of Sartre’s philosophy. Anybody who knows anything at all about Sartre will know of bad faith and will almost certainly think of it in terms of authenticity, contrasting it with something like sincerity or good faith. This is completely the wrong way to think about it. Sartre never mentions authenticity in Being and Nothingness and although he does mention sincerity and good faith, it is only to say that they are both impossible ideals and pursued to the extreme are actually in bad faith themselves!

So what is bad faith?

Human reality, as consciousness, is, as we have seen, transcendent and radically free. We have also seen that this causes us anguish, not in the sense in which I feel an emotion, but in the sense in which anguish is a core structure of my being. Nevertheless, we attempt to flee this feeling of anguish. This flight is bad faith and it manifests when an individual takes advantage of the fact that she is both transcendence and facticity. In short, bad faith affirms facticity as being transcendence and transcendence as being facticity, in such a way that at the instant when a person apprehends the one, she can find herself abruptly faced with the other.

The classic example is the waiter. The waiter works very hard at being a good waiter. He listens carefully, brings out the orders promptly, moves quickly and curtly, etc., but his effort reveals something. I notice that he is trying a little too hard. Something isn’t quite right. He is in bad faith. Let me be clear – he is not in bad faith because he is trying to be something he isn’t, for example, trying to be a waiter when his ‘real’ dream is to be a writer. This is a completely empty understanding of Sartre that finds a foothold in our modern, uber-optimistic, “be all you can be” world.

He is in bad faith to the extent that he is trying to be a waiter-thing, that is, to deny his transcendence and give himself the pure being of the in-itself (facticity). He is trying to be a waiter in the same way that this table is a table, fixed in being and anguish-free.

Another example is the flirt. She is out with a man who has been giving subtle indications of his interest in her. So far, she has been able to let the evening proceed without committing herself one way or the other. She has been able to enjoy his attentions while denying the sexual overtones, until finally he places his hand on hers and she is forced to either leave it there, acceding to his advance, or pull it away. She decides to leave it there.

In this example, the woman is in bad faith both towards her date and herself. She wants to accept his overtones because she is attracted to him but would be ashamed if she just admitted this outright (70 odd years ago women were apparently a little more circumspect about their sexuality than they are today). So, she defuses his (transcendent) actions by treating them as nothing more than brute facts (facticity) with no meaning behind them. She reduces his suggestive glance to a glance in-itself, nothing more than what it is, a thing-in-itself without transcendent meaning. But at other times, she permits herself to enjoy his advances, his actions as not being what they are, that is to say, transcendent.

Regarding her hand, although she leaves her hand there under his, she leaves it there as a mere physical limb, a hand in-itself, not the real her. At that moment she is all transcendence, pure consciousness, while her body is a mere thing, a passive object.

You might still be inclined to think that sincerity, as in being what one really is, is the opposite of bad faith. Consider the example of the homosexual and the champion of sincerity. The homosexual, who is experiencing guilt over his previous sexual indiscretions, denies they are manifestations of a deep-rooted tendency, playing them off as mistakes or the results of a restless search. His friend, tired of this denial, demands that he accept what he is, namely, a homosexual.

Who is in bad faith? They both are.

The homosexual is right to say that he is not a homosexual-thing because he is separated from (transcends) his past by a nothingness. As a free transcendence, his past actions (facticity) can never completely define him. He always stands in relation to them, meaning that he cannot be them. But in the sense that his past actions were the result of a free, transcendent choice and he consistently chooses these actions, he is a homosexual, not in the mode of being one (which would make him a homosexual thing-in-itself), but in the mode of not-being one (the only mode in which consciousness can exist). In effect, he is correctly claiming to not be a homosexual-thing but then transferring that non-being to his transcendence and claiming that here also he is not a homosexual (in the mode of not-being one).

However, the champion of sincerity is also in bad faith because he wants the homosexual to admit to being a homosexual-thing. The problem here is that as soon as the homosexual admits his homosexuality, he transcends it (because he is consciousness (of) consciousness of being a homosexual, separated from it by a nothingness) and is no longer a homosexual in the mode of the in-itself (which is what the champion of sincerity demanded from him).

So, how is bad faith effected? It sounds a lot like deception but Sartre is very clear that it isn’t. Deception requires that one party know the truth with certainty in order to deceive another party who doesn’t know the truth. Since bad faith arises within one and the same individual, this explanation clearly won’t work. Instead, bad faith trades on the inherently uncertain nature of human reality. Few things can be known with apodictic certainty and this makes it relatively easy for us to deliberately obfuscate the distinctions between facticity and transcendence. In this sense bad faith is itself in bad faith.

Good faith is the opposite of this. It is believing something to be true, even though I can never be certain of it, simply because it genuinely seems to be that way. However, the ideal of good faith is to believe what one believes (like that of sincerity which is to be what one is) and as such is fundamentally impossible (because as soon as I believe something, I stand in relation to it and therefore cannot be it).

The only consolation here for good faith is that it attempts to flee the inherent instability in consciousness by taking refuge in being (believing what I believe) whereas bad faith seeks to flee being by taking refuge in the inherent instability of transcendence and facticity in consciousness.


Sartre is not going to treat time as a succession of “nows”; a conception that yields a past which no longer exists, a future which doesn’t exist yet and a present which, as the border between the two, doesn’t exist either. Rather, he is going to say that we must treat temporality as a totality upon which each dimension appears.


The past only ever arises for a human consciousness and is in the sense that it is the past of a certain person or current situation. If we fail to maintain this link with the present, the past becomes lost to, or dissociated from, us. This means that human beings have pasts. However they don’t possess them in the same way that I possess this chair or that table, that is, via an external relationship. I don’t have my past, rather, I am it. But this relationship cannot be one of the in-itself (I am not my past in the same way that a pen is a pen). Instead, because I am always separated from my past by a nothingness, my past is something I have to be.

The fact that I am my past (in the mode of having to be it) means that I am responsible for it (I sustain it in my being) but since it is without any possibilities, the past is fixed, it has become in-itself.

However, we must not forget that I am also not my past, not because as soon as it happens I have changed, but because of the very nature of the for-itself, which is to be related to itself by a bond of non-being. I cannot be my past because my being is for-itself, rather, I have to be it.


The present is distinguished from the other dimensions because it is “presence to—”. Specifically, the present is presence to this table or this chair, in short, presence to being- in-itself. And what is present is the for-itself. The reason only the for-itself can be “presence to—” is because presence is a relation of negation, in the sense of not being this or that thing, between the present being and the being to which it is present. The in-itself, as pure being, cannot sustain such a relationship and therefore cannot be “presence to—”.

Since the present is the presence of the for-itself to being-in-itself and this presence is first and foremost a negation, the fundamental meaning of the present is that it is not. Sartre therefore calls the present a perpetual flight in the face of being, a flight from the being it was (past) toward the being it will be (future).


As with the past and the present, the future can only come to the for-itself, i.e. to a being that is its own future and which has to be its being, as opposed to a being which is its being (the in-itself). Clearly, the future is not simply a mental representation for then it would cease to be my future, i.e. it would lack any ontological relation with me. It would also then be present.

In the future, the future I (as for-itself) will be present to a future state of the world, a future being-in-itself, just as I am present to being now. Naturally, this future is currently not yet, that is, it is a nothingness. Sartre calls this nothingness “beyond being”. Sartre summarises this idea by saying the future is a presence to being beyond being.

But what is my relation to this future? All we have done thus far is describe the future for-itself as if it was merely a mental representation ‘in’ the current for-itself. Clearly, the future for-itself is not different from the current for-itself. In fact, it is myself, as possibility. So, the future which I have to be is simply my possibility of presence to being beyond being. In this, it is the meaning of my present for-itself as my project.

The future is not in-itself (like the past), nor is it for-itself (like the present) since it is the meaning of the for-itself. It is not, rather, it is possibilised.

The Ontology of Temporality

So, we have analysed the three “ekstases” (dimensions) of temporality but as I said, Sartre wants to account for temporality as a totality, not a triad of fragmented parts. Sartre will look at two aspects to understand temporality as a whole; the static and the dynamic.

The static nature of temporality applies when we imagine past, present and future on a timeline and is reflected in the relation before-after. Time B is before time C and after time A. Considered in this way, temporality can be seen as a series of instants (a multiplicity) or duration (unity). The problem is that in actual fact, it is both, and any explanation that accounts for only one will necessarily fail to properly account for temporality as a whole.

Since nothing can impose temporality on the atemporal via any kind of external relation, temporality must be a unity which multiplies itself (an internal relation). This means that the before is in the after and the after is in the before, in other words, temporality is not. It is neither before nor after, it is both; a multiplicity in a totality.

But we have seen this structure before. This is precisely how we have described the for-itself. In fact, if we look closely, we can see the past, present and future within the structure of the for-itself. The for-itself is the being which (1) is not what it is, (2) is what it is not, and (3) is what it is not and is not what it is. (1) refers to the past, (2) refers to the future and (3) is the present in that perpetual game of reflection/reflecting.

And that is the conclusion Sartre draws; temporality is nothing more than the mode of being of the for-itself. Temporality is not, rather, the for-itself temporalises itself by existing. Sartre calls this mode of being diasporatic, that is, spread out over the three ekstases (by way of nihilation in each of them) of past, present and future.

The dynamic nature of temporality refers to the actual change that takes place when a particular after becomes a before. This change affects all of the ekstases; past, present and future. The past recedes further into the past, a near future becomes a former future, as does a distant future which has now lost its being as a possible for this present (if, say, my goals change), the present slips into the past and a new present arises.

It is worth taking a moment to look at this in more detail. All of those changes (except for the upsurge of the ‘new’ present) reflect movement into the in-itself. We have seen that the past is in-itself and the former future, which has now lost its character as a possibility the for-itself has to be in the mode of not being it (presence to being beyond being), also becomes in-itself. What this means is that the constant ‘movement’ which continually results in a ‘new’ present can actually be considered a flight from an in-itself which threatens from all sides.

As with the static aspect, this model of temporality is perfectly reflected in the structure of the for-itself. The dynamic aspect of temporality (change) we have been trying to understand is actually the same as the upsurge of the for-itself which is a flight from a past it has to be towards a future it is not, all as presence to –. In fact, the for-itself must change because if it didn’t, its being would become fixed as in-itself. Hence, once more, temporality is revealed as a structure of the for-itself.


Sartre draws our attention to the existence of others through the emotion of shame. Up until now, we have looked at human reality exclusively as being-for-itself. Shame, which is principally shame before someone else, however, quite uniquely among other emotions, forces me to confront the existence of a perspective on myself that is not my own, that is outside me, and reveals me as existing, not for-myself but for-another.

If the Other remains just another object, we can never overcome solipsism. Fortunately, shame is one way in which the Other is revealed, not as an object in my world, but as a subject in her own right. The objects around me no longer refer to me as the force by which they come into being, that is, arise as a ‘world’, instead they refer to this other focus. But that’s not all. I also find myself referred to the Other, as an object in her world. This is occasioned by what Sartre calls the Look, and occurs when we find ourselves caught in the gaze of the Other-as-subject. Being looked-at by another human is arresting in a way that being looked at by an animal, for instance, isn’t. The look holds us accountable and strips away our defences. It is this unique nature of the look that reveals to us the Other-as-subject.

This approach very much sets the tone for the conflict that lies at the heart of Sartre’s philosophy regarding the Other. We are locked in a constant struggle. I try to look at her (reduce her to an object in my world) and she tries to look at me (reduce me to an object in her world).

Sartre carries this notion forward into love, which he sees as an attempt to possess the Other’s freedom. But to phrase it like this throws the door wide open to misunderstanding. This isn’t about power or control. The lover doesn’t want to enslave the Other. Of what value is a forced love? Rather, he wants his beloved to freely desire him, thereby allowing him to possess this freedom, not as a thing surrendered, but as freedom. But even this doesn’t satisfy. This is love given as loyalty to a sworn oath. The lover wants to be loved by a freedom that is freedom but demands that this freedom should no longer be free. The idea here is that the beloved freely limit herself and the limit is none other than the lover. In other words, he wants to be the limit which the beloved must accept in order to be free.

This ultimately gives the lover the status of object for the beloved (he doesn’t want to be a subject for her because then her love means nothing, it is the love of an object, love in-the-world) but a unique object, one which is a central reference point around which the “world” is ordered and organised for the beloved and also an object which – as the absolute limit of her freedom, the absolute source of her values – is protected against devaluation. In other words, he becomes an object-transcendence, an in-itself-for-itself. (For more on this, refer to the “Existential Psychoanalysis” section below)

Existential Psychoanalysis

So, what is the point of all this? What is the for-itself trying to do? Sartre holds that the ultimate goal of human life is to become an in-itself-for-itself.

As for-itself, we have seen that I am continually and perpetually wrenched away from being. I am never what I am because as soon as I think I am ‘this-thing’, this very realisation forces me into the realisation that I am not ‘this-thing’. Rather, I am being ‘this-thing’ at the moment and if I want to keep being ‘this-thing’ I have to do certain things, which it is in my power not to do. In other words, I am forever separated from being by… you guessed it, a nothingness, a negation that precisely denies I am ‘this-thing’. Rather than being ‘this-thing’ I have to be ‘this-thing’. This state of affairs is profoundly dissatisfying because I am forever divided in the heart of my being, spread out over the three temporal ekstases and condemned to never find rest in myself as myself.

So, the for-itself desires to become in-itself. It seeks that plenitude of being that would make it whole and complete, that would erase all traces of nothingness from its being. The problem is that if it did in fact, become in-itself, it would no longer be conscious of the fact because consciousness is fundamentally negation. If I no longer know that I am not ‘this-thing’, then I, as consciousness, am no longer.

So it can’t desire to become in-itself because that would be to desire its demise. Rather, it desires to become in-itself-for-itself, that is, a consciousness that is at the same time pure being. Unfortunately, this is impossible. And yet, precisely because of the divided nature of the being of the for-itself, it is the deepest desire and ultimate goal we are all directed towards. It is in this context that Sartre quips, “Man is a useless passion”.

Existential psychoanalysis is what Sartre wishes to replace Freudian psychoanalysis with. It is essentially a method for uncovering the specific ways we each go about attempting to realise this fundamental desire (to become an in-itself-for-itself).

One of the most striking differences between existential and traditional psychoanalysis is Sartre’s rejection of the unconscious, which he cannot make any sense of. Somehow, there is a hidden part of our psyche deliberately being repressed by a “censor”. How can the censor supress these memories without consciously knowing what it is suppressing? Freud claimed that the repressed content “disguises itself” to manifest as symbolic images in dreams but how could this happen unless the repressed content was conscious of itself as being repressed?

In addition, Sartre feels that traditional psychoanalysis fails to actually explain anything. It refers a ‘desire to—’ or a ‘preference for—’ to external givens and stops there. Sartre wants to actually decipher these desires and preferences. If a person likes rowing, traditional psychology might ‘explain’ this by noting she has a preference for violent sports or the fact that her childhood environment meant she needed an outlet for her frustrations, etc. But these explanations don’t actually explain anything. Why did she choose rowing? Why not another sport? Or why not a completely different activity? Why did she feel she needed an outlet in the first place? Sartre is not content to refer a person’s behaviours, feelings and tastes back to ‘properties’ we analyse like chemical processes. A person’s background, childhood, education, etc., (in other words, their facticity) cannot determine their actions because they are not meaningful. We stand in relation to these things and therefore we transcend them. We give them their meaning, not the other way around. Existential psychoanalysis aims to uncover precisely what these meanings are and, in doing so, explain our actions. Interestingly enough, Sartre even thinks existential psychoanalysis can explain my preferences and tastes, i.e. why I like oranges more than kiwifruit. This confidence comes from Sartre’s belief that all of our choices are free and conscious, which doesn’t necessarily mean we have knowledge of them all. Remember that consciousness is first non-thetic, ‘consciousness (of)—’. Reflective consciousness, the requirement for knowledge, is a derivative of this non-reflective engagement with the world.

[1] This doesn’t necessarily mean to physically ask a person a question. Questioning is a fundamental way of interacting with the world, e.g. if my car breaks down, I lift the bonnet and ‘question’ the engine. In doing so, I create the possibility that the engine lacks something it requires. This lacking is a negation and is created by consciousness.