Being and Nothingness - A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology

Being and Nothingness: A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology (1943) is a philosophical treatise by Jean-Paul Sartre that is regarded as the beginning of the growth of existentialism in the 20th century. The French title is L'Être et le Néant. Its main purpose was to define the consciousness as transcendent. The work also sought to disprove George Berkeley's famous contention that "Esse Est Percipi", or "to be is to be perceived".

Sartre’s overriding concern in writing Being and Nothingness was to vindicate the fundamental freedom of the human being, against determinists of all stripes. It was for the sake of this freedom that he asserted the impotence of physical causality over human beings, that he analysed the place of nothingness within consciousness and showed how it intervened between the forces that act upon us and our actions.[1]

"Being and Nothingness" analysis Edit

Although clearly influenced by Martin Heidegger's Being and Time, Being and Nothingness represents a significant departure to the extent that Sartre was more or less indifferent to Heidegger's central concern with Being. Additionally, Sartre was profoundly skeptical of any measure by which humanity could achieve a kind of personal state of fulfilment comparable to the hypothetical Heideggerian re-encounter with Being. In his much gloomier account in Being and Nothingness, man is a creature haunted by a vision of "completion," what Sartre calls the ens causa sui that religions identify as God. Born into the material reality of one's body, in an all-too-material universe, one finds oneself inserted in being (with a lower case "b"). But consciousness is in a state of cohabitation with its material body; it is no thing. Consciousness can imagine that which is not (imagine the future, etc.).

The lookEdit

The mere appearance of another person causes one to look at him/herself as an object, and see his/her world as it appears to the other. This is not done from a specific location outside oneself, it is non-positional. This is a recognition of the subjectivity in others. Sartre describes being alone in a park, at this time, all relations in the park (eg. the bench is between two trees) are available, accessible and occurring-for him. When another person arrives in the park, there is now a relation between that person and the bench, and this is not entirely available to him. The relation is presented as an object (eg. man glances at watch), but is really not an object, it cannot be known. It flees from him. The other person is a "drainhole" in the world, they disintegrate the relations of which Sartre was earlier the absolute centre.

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This transformation is most clear when one sees a mannequin that they confuse for a real person for a moment.

  • While they are believing it is a person, their world is transformed, and everything exists as an object that partially escapes them. During this time the world comes on to you differently, and you can no longer have a total subjectivity. The world is now his world, a foreign world that no longer comes from you, but from him. The other person is a "threat to the order and arrangement of your whole world...Your world is suddenly haunted by the Other's values, over which you have no control." [2]
  • When they realise it is a mannequin , and is not subjective, the world seems to transfer back, and they are again in the center.
This is back to the pre-reflective mode of being, it is "the eye of the camera that is always present but is never seen".[2] The person is occupied, and too busy for self-reflection. [1]

This process is continual and unavoidable. Subjectivity is competitive. This explains why it is so difficult to look someone in the eye [2]. Sartre does mention another man in the park who is reading a newspaper. This man is different because he is so engaged in a project, that he allows himself to be completely the object- "a man reading".


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"The look", Sartre explains, is the basis for sexual desire; Sartre declares that there isn't a biological motivation for sex. Instead, even in sex (perhaps especially in sex,) men and women are haunted by a state in which consciousness and bodily being would be in perfect harmony, with desire satisfied. Such a state, however, can never be. We try to bring the beloved's consciousness to the surface of her/his body by use of magical acts performed, gestures (kisses, desires). But at the moment of orgasm the illusion is ended and we return to ourselves, just as it is ended when the skier comes to the bottom of the mountain or when the commodity that once we desired loses its glow upon our purchase of it. There will be, for Sartre, no such moment of completion because "man is a useless passion" to be the ens causa sui, the God of the ontological proof.


Instead man will remain, as long as he lives, within the circuit of nothingness (no-thing-ness) -- i.e. consciousness, but in also being, man is compelled to choose and therefore will always feel anguish, as a shadow cast by his own freedom. And he will flee this anguish through action-oriented constructs -- dreams -- of necessity, destiny, determinism, etc. He will be, because he must. He is an actor : Bourgeois, Feminist, Worker, Party Member, Frenchman, Canadian, or American -- who must do what he must do. All such roles represent flights from the anguish of his own freedom into a conditioned world in which action is prescribed. But these flights are no more successful than the other dreams of completion for the self and represent what Sartre called "bad faith" (see false consciousness) and the "spirit (or consciousness or mind) of seriousness." Thus Sartre's conclusion is that being ultimately fails before nothingness because consciousness is more a vertiginous spontaneity than a stable seriousness, so the man of seriousness must continuously struggle between a.) his desire for a kind of peaceful self-enclosure -- i.e. a kind of portrait he paints of himself -- see the gallery of Bouville's notables in Nausea -- and b.) the raging spontaneity of his (no-thing) consciousness which is instantaneously free to overturn its roles, pull up stakes, and strike out new paths.

Connection to No Exit Edit

Men and women will always be in a world of other people, who can capture him within their gaze, reducing him to his external materiality. They will take his measure, call him hero, coward, nonentity, fool, etc. And then, at last, they will tote up the balance sheet of his life after his death.

Thus, for Sartre's Garcin, in No Exit, hell is other people.

There is a second, comical reference. When explaining the difference between existence and essence, Sartre uses a paper-knife (un couper-papier). A paper-knife also appears as a crucial prop in "No Exit".

Sartre's solution Edit

Against all this Sartre can offer only the ruthless probing and dissolution of one’s illusions. In this he is entirely in line with Sigmund Freud whom he otherwise critiques in Being and Nothingness. Indeed, in many respects Sartre is far more ruthless towards the self’s illusions than Freud ever was. This is why the early Sartre, of the “existentialist” period (1943-50) was so often anathema to political parties, with their programs, plans, and dogmas. There could be no radical utopian experiments for early Sartre. Nor could there be the platitudes of liberal or conservative world-views. The fellow-travelling Sartre of the 1950s and after seems almost to forget the Sartre of the 1940s, and it would not be until “'The Family Idiot”, his “existential psychoanalysis” of Gustave Flaubert that Sartre would attempt to bring together the existentialist and Marxist Sartres.


The first English translation of Sartre’s work was written by University of Colorado professor Hazel Barnes, in 1956.

See alsoEdit


  1. (p.111) Neil Levy - Sartre (One World Publications 2002)
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