The likely evolutionary path of the human race:

The future of Man


Sartre's View of Consciousness and Freedom

by David M. Petersen - Existentialism - M 4:00 PM


Jean-Paul Sartre, the Existentialist, believed strongly that human beings are completely responsible for their own existence. He believed that human beings' existence precedes their essence, and that their essence is only made up of their actions in the past. Consequently, he believed that we all get out of bed in the morning with the absolute freedom to completely change our lives if we wish to do so. He had a unique conception of the idea of consciousness that supported this view, which he describes in detail in Being and Nothingness. Basically, his conception of consciousness is that it is essentially nothing, and he presents an argument for this. Also, as will be shown, his view of the absolute personal freedom of humans is based on this unique view of consciousness.


They've all got it wrong concerning how consciousness works; read this...

Statement on Consciousness


Sartre believed that 'nothingness' is introduced into being by consciousness. First of all, Sartre believed that being is a sort of undifferentiated mass of matter, and that the only differentiations or distinctions in this featureless mass are the ones caused by consciousness. In other words, we make any distinctions that we see; we don't find them out there in the Universe. He argued that for there to be distinctions, there first has to be negations. This is true because, in order to distinguish something from something else, one first must be able to distinguish what it is not. "The gunner who has been assigned an objective carefully points his gun in a certain direction excluding all others," he writes (Guignon, 292). This gunner Sartre refers to must first distinguish what his target is not before he can target it. And so for Sartre, it follows from this that negation, or not, or nothing, is introduced into the undifferentiated mass of being by consciousness.

Because Sartre believed that nothingness is introduced into being by consciousness, he believed that consciousness itself had to be a nothingness in order to do this. Specifically, Sartre did not believe in the existence of a self or ' I ' because of the idea of Intentionality, or the idea that all consciousness is consciousness of something and there is not really a entity or self that is involved. Or, in other words, he believed that only the thought and the object exist. Consequently, in order for nothingness to exist, consciousness has to be a nothingness itself to open up a sort of hole in the undifferentiated mass of everything inside being. In Sartre's own words, "The being by which nothingness comes into the world must be its own Nothingness" ( 297). Sartre also believed that human beings have two qualities, Facticity and Transcendence, and that consciousness (or nothingness) embodies a gap between them. The first of these, Facticity, refers to what Sartre called "being in-itself." This is what the human being is as far as everything they have done in the past, and what objectively makes them up as individuals. This concept is in direct contrast with Sartre's concept of Transcendence, or what he calls "being for-itself". Transcendence refers to the quality that humans possess to constantly reinterpret who they are and what they have done as far as its meaning and importance to their lives. "I am not subject to all that I am, what I really am is my Transcendence" (312). In other words, human beings are constantly reinterpreting their Facticity using Transcendence. Sartre sees these as two extremes that are separated by consciousness, or in other words, separated by nothing.

Now, because Sartre believed that human beings are transcendent beyond the core of the nothingness of their consciousness, he believed that they possess absolute freedom to create their lives. Sartre writes, "Each person is an absolute choice of self from the standpoint of a world of knowledges and of techniques which this choice both assumes and illumines" (332 ). By "absolute choice of self" he means that humans have complete power to decide how they live their lives at every moment. According to Sartre, because a human's Facticity, or past, is separated from their Transcendence, or present, by nothing, it follows for him that there is no causal connection between their past and the present. Therefore, because of this lack of a causal connection, humans are completely free to recreate themselves as they wish at every instant.

Anguish, as distinguished from mere fear, proves this concept of absolute freedom for Sartre. He distinguished fear as different from anguish by designating fear as caused by outside forces that are threatening an individual, whereas anguish is the same sort of feeling caused by an internal source. Sartre believed that this internal source came about when humans face their absolute freedom. "The one who realizes in anguish his condition as being thrown into a responsibility is no longer anything but a freedom which perfectly reveals itself," he writes ( 333). It is clear Sartre believed that when humans confront this lonely abyss of endless possibility and the responsibility for every decision regarding their lives that it entails because of this freedom, they feel anguish because it is very frightening and they have to deal with it all alone.

Also, because of this absolute freedom of choice, Sartre believed that everything we do, big or small, is a completely a choice we make. Consequently, he believed that we are always capable of transforming our situation no matter what the circumstances. This ties in with his thinking that the only way we can approach living in reality is to make things meaningful or not meaningful to us, and that the meaning that we assign to events is always a choice. "If I am mobilized in a war, this war is my war; it is in my image and I deserve it. I deserve it first because I could always get out of it by suicide or desertion" (331). Using this example Sartre shows that we cannot avoid making a choice as far as the meaning of this war relative to our lives. Also, it illustrates Sartre's ultimate proof of absolute choice, that we always have the option of killing ourselves to escape having to engage the world and make choices, such as whether or not to fight in a war.

As shown, Sartre's conception of consciousness is that it is essentially nothing, and his view of the absolute personal freedom of humans is based on this idea. I hope I have clearly presented his arguments. Unfortunately, it is not clear how Sartre thought that there could be an entity that is "transcendent" if the entity is essentially nothing. For the record, I believe that Sartre is correct that consciousness is related to nothing, but I believe that consciousness really exists around nothing, and is essentially something, not nothing. I believe that consciousness is energy in the same way that an atom is energy (it is exactly as positive as it is negative), the definition of energy being simply 'existence around nothing.' (updated 10/18/2010, actually, the definition of energy is really existence on one side of nothing, so existence requires balanced positive and negative energies around nothing). Because of this, I believe that Sartre's notion of the absolute freedom of humans because their consciousness is really nothing is incorrect, because I believe that their consciousness is definitely something, or in other words, there really is an ' I ', and it is directly connected to the rest of the energy of the Universe from which it sprang. Therefore, it cannot be said to be completely free inside the Universe (which itself ultimately exists around nothing), because as shown from the science of physics, the Universe is a completely interconnected entity. I do believe in freewill, however, and my position on this can be read here: Freewill. Also, for a more in-depth discussion on how consciousness can exist around nothing, please go Here.



Work Cited

Existentialism - Basic Writings. Charles Guignon & Derk Pereboom eds. Indiana. Hackett. 1995.



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