52. And it Got to Come Out


“Let that boy boogie-woogie because it’s in him
and it got to come out.”1
John Lee Hooker

This will be the last post in this series…

About thirty years ago I heard a rumour that John Lee Hooker played along to the amplified sound of his own heartbeat. At the time and still to this day this rumour captures my imagination. To be so in tune with one’s music that your heart beats in perfect time, whilst you play the guitar and sing, wow! Maybe, just maybe, it’s true, although I haven’t ever found any kind of mention, let alone proof, of this legendary event taking place. Whether it’s true or not, is in some ways beside the point because the fact of the matter is that one could believe such a thing of John Lee Hooker due to his immense musical integrity and depth of feeling. There are many thousands of other musicians where such an improbable rumour would never even stand a chance of sticking. When he played, people listened. The hypnotic groove that he was able to conjure out of thin air held everyone spellbound as if it welled up and was released from his very core. There is something very physical and yet entrancing about blues he played.

John Lee Hooker 1.fw

The ideas that Nietzsche stirred regarding becoming and exemplars, in the last post, could find their cultural incarnation in many individuals. In music one could easily look to Frederick Hibbert, better known as Toots (and the Maytals), Bob Marley, Nina Simone, Leadbelly or Woody Guthrie to name a few, if the criteria were musical achievement and genre defining hero/heroine status. There is a difference between them and John Lee Hooker, however. Yes, he achieved the same level of musical impact as the others and was undoubtedly in their league, but he did something more. John Lee Hooker, at all times, was his own person with a distinct style that remained instantly recognisable as he explored the full spectrum of darkly distilled acoustic country blues right through to the rocked up boogies with Canned Heat. And, it’s in this constancy, with its unique style of vocal delivery and guitar playing, that we find Hooker the artist. He had honed his craft to the point of mastery. In any given situation he was always John Lee Hooker the musician, but also John Lee Hooker the person. The two were inseparable. Unlike so many who find their voice and have to stay within the bounds of a limited number of songs, always performed identically, Hooker’s style was not two-dimensional, he could adapt, evolve, go with the flow and create the flow. This meant that at every required time, John Lee Hooker the musician would perform, but also John Lee Hooker the person was present to enjoy and push the uniqueness of that occasion. And, by being present as a real person, rather than just a musical personae acting out the role of performer, he was always, in Nietzsche’s phrase, becoming. And, that my friends, means that John Lee Hooker is also an excellent exemplar. To keep moving, to keep playing, to keep developing, to keep challenging and attempting new ideas whilst retaining one’s inner core is why John Lee Hooker is an exemplary figure because by doing all of that he was always in a state of becoming.

John Lee Hooker becoming.fw

Now, completely ashamedly, I’m going to refer throughout the rest of this post to Charles Shaar Murray’s epic biography of John Lee Hooker, Boogie Man: The Adventures of John Lee Hooker in the American Twentieth Century, because it gives the best insights available outside of listening directly to the music, which is obviously the ideal thing that one could possibly do. Early on, Murray sets forth a cornerstone of his thinking:

“The story of John Lee Hooker’s life is, essentially, the story of his resistance to any and all attempts to change him, to dilute an intrinsic sense of self which has successfully withstood all pressures, including those of institutionalized racism, family, church and the music business.”2

As Murray swiftly points out, the resistance was essentially passive due to Hooker’s character being “polite, deferential, quiet-spoken and accommodating.”3 Confrontation, aggression or manipulation, were never attitudes adopted by Hooker. He was internally strong enough and sure of himself to leave aside such tactics of engagement. Instead, a policy of self-determination that focused upon his abilities and conduct, rather than casting a steely eye at the behaviour of others, was always his approach. The company of others was always something to be enjoyed and was never regarded as grist to a mill of misanthropy and bitterness. Hooker was life affirming. Negativity, fear, suspicion, anger and regrets were left to others to occupy themselves with. While there was breath in his lungs and movement in his hands, Hooker was going to sing, play and live life to the full.

John Lee Hooker 2

As Murray writes:

“His gift to us is not so much his music – monumental though that music is – but the sensibility that created that music, a sensibility which gives us the ultimate gift: a new way to see ourselves, and to experience ourselves. A new way to understand and, finally, to live with ourselves.”4

Born in 1917, near Clarksdale, Mississippi, one of ten children to Minnie Hooker and the Reverend William Hooker, John Lee grow up on the family farm, around one hundred acres large. Electricity and the telephone hadn’t arrived and life revolved around, farm, church and school. At church, as the son of a part-time preacher, John Lee had to sing from the age of nine or ten. A guitar entered his life around that time, due to the kindness of Tony Hollins who gave the young John Lee the instrument whilst courting took place of Alice, Hooker’s older sister. The Reverend Hooker took an instant dislike to his son’s guitar and only allowed him to keep it if it were never brought into the family home: “You can’t bring the Devil in this house.”5

Devil Guitar.fw

From that moment, the young John Lee would practise and play his guitar in the woods, even when he was meant to be at school. For him, as Murray records, a choice had to be made between gaining a good education and staying in Mississippi with the prospect of being a farmer or becoming a musician. Illiteracy was chosen and the rest is history. The journey to that history, however, would be a constant affirmation of the choice to be a musician and continual hard work:

“I know I had the music. I know I had the talent. I know I was good. I knew it, but I knew I had to work up to find someone to open that door for me to come in.”6

A few years after getting his guitar, John Lee’s mother left her husband for Will Moore, a local share-cropper and guitar player. Whereas all his siblings chose to stay with their father, John Lee went with his mother, to be with the guitar playing Will Moore. This decision, at fourteen, meant that John Lee was living with a fellow musician who played alongside the blues greats, such as Charlie Patton and Blind Lemon Jefferson, whenever they visited Mississippi. Will Moore gave John Lee two very important gifts, a new guitar and he taught his stepson the boogie. Both were vital, but the latter was defining, as Hooker recounts:

New Guitar.fw

“He is my roots because he is the man that caused me who I am today. I understudied under him, Will Moore. He made me what I am with his style. He give it to me, like you got a piece of bread and I ain’t got none, and he said, “Here’s a piece of my bread.” He gave me a piece of his music. What I’m doin’ today, that’s him.”7

Will Moore was John Lee Hooker’s musical exemplar, he showed him his way of playing the blues, and some fifteen or so years later, in 1948, he gave John Lee his first hit. Boogie Chillen was a colossal statement of intent that defied the traditional arrangement of most blues songs at the time. The eight or twelve bar blues chord progression was shunned for a pared down dedication to pure rhythm, which drives, like my legendary heartbeat rumour, from the start right through until the end. As Murray writes, “Its galvanic, hypnotic boogie groove was pure unreconstructed Will Moore.”8

john-lee-hooker-7 alt.fw

Hooker acknowledged this debt completely:

“I got that from my stepdad… That was his tune, that was his beat. I never thought I would make nothin’ out of it, and he didn’t either. But I come out with it and it just happened.”9

Coming out with that tune after practising and honing his craft for over half his life, by the age of thirty-one, meant that John Lee Hooker knew exactly who he was, what he would sing about and how he would play right at the start of his public career. And, having studied and perfected his sound and style, for longer than most PhDs, before getting their first foot on the career ladder, meant he knew exactly what worked for him. Trials and errors, dead-ends and dry patches would have all been worked through in the preceding fifteen years. Confidence, stability and a solid foundation were all set by the time of that first break-through hit, Boogie Chillen. The next fifty years, in some ways could be said to be a footnote to where Hooker had got to musically by 1948.

Boogie Chillen' Modern 627.fw

Before moving on to discuss the merit or not in my footnote theory, there is a lyrical component to Boogie Chillen, which must be highlighted. The words, as with nearly all Hooker’s songs, are sparse, evocative, non-rhyming and biographical:

“One night I was layin’ down,
I heard mama, papa talkin’.
I heard papa tell mama
‘Let that boy boogie-woogie
Because it’s in him
And it got to come out’.
And I felt so good.
Went on boogyin’ just the same…
Boogie, chillen!”10

Unlike his actual father, who thought about guitar music as the Devil’s music, Hooker’s stepfather is forever inscribed into John Lee Hooker’s canon as being understanding of John Lee’s compulsion to play the boogie: “… it’s in him and it got to come out.” With its beguiling honesty, simplicity and accuracy this little statement, contained within Boogie Chiilen, is obviously how Hooker felt about himself and it is also the immortalised bearer of a debt back to Will Moore, but it is something else, too. It is the announcement, by one who knows, that we all have possibilities inside of us. Possibilities, which if fed, nourished and worked at can ‘come out’ and produce something unique, beautiful and exemplary.

Boogie Chillen.fw

The innocence of John Lee Hooker’s illiteracy and lyrical content is cast into a sharp relief of wisdom that few literate musicians, poets, and writers ever achieve. Maybe, it’s this self-understanding that drove Hooker and gave him the inner strength and confidence to perpetually allow himself the freedom to create anew every time he played any of his songs?

If everything beyond 1948 could be said to be a footnote, as far as John Lee Hooker’s music is concerned, what can never be reduced to such a status is the way he approached making that music. Aside from learning from Will Moore, Hooker cultivated his individual approach to the blues in an irrepressible fashion. Always shunning uniformity or copying others, Hooker walked his own road.

In 1959, Bill Grauer, of the Riverside label in New York, wanted to record Hooker playing an acoustic set of Leadbelly numbers. Hooker, it quickly transpired, had barely heard of Leadbelly, which to some might speak of a lack of respect for musical ‘forefather’, however, it speaks volumes in another direction. Rather than devote himself to studying the life and music of others forerunners, Hooker understood that his strength was not in the musical mimicry and recreation of past heroes, but rather in emulating their attitudes. As we saw in the last post from Nietzsche: “‘One repays a teacher badly if one remains only a pupil.”11 Consequently, the Riverside album is John Lee playing acoustic versions of his own songs, not Leadbelly’s.

Riverside Album.fw

Back in 1947 or 1948, depending on which archive or oral history is adhered to, although it really doesn’t matter, John Lee Hooker began recording his first sessions. Bernard Besman had just established his label, Sensation, after the Second World War and was endeavouring to gain commercial success by recording artists and selling records. Before World War II, Besman had been in the music industry, making records, booking bands and was also from a musical family with a decent piano playing ability that paid his college fees. Jazz was Besman’s comfort zone, but keen to reap financial rewards where he could, he started to diversify with urbane blues musicians who rigidly followed the chord progressions of traditional blues arrangements. Hooker’s approach was not like this at all, as Murray notes:

“Hooker’s music, by contrast, played by rules so utterly different from the rhythm-and-blues norm that Besman didn’t recognize them as rules at all.”12

Sometimes ten, sometimes eleven, or even thirteen bar blues were delivered by Hooker depending on how he felt at the moment of playing: an issue, of course, for anyone accompanying him. For Besman this was a problem. Here was a talented musician, but one who refused to play by the rules, in this case the twelve bar blues rules. Hooker didn’t stop there, though, with his particular kind of anarchy.

John Lee's Anarchy alt.fw

Murray continues:

“For Hooker, no ‘song’ was ever actually completed, finished, engraved into marble, rendered definitive. Rather, it was different each time it was performed. Each piece was a platform for improvisation, a loose framework of lyrical and instrumental motifs into which he poured the emotions of the moment. Ask him to perform the same song a year later, a month later, a week later, a night later, an hour later, or even five minutes later, and the piece would have changed sometimes beyond recognition.”13

For Besman this was another problem, but fortunately he trusted the prospect of success and put out Hooker’s songs to the public. For us, though, there is a fantastic lesson. Hooker obviously prioritised the feelings of the song and tapped into the spirit of the tune each time he performed it rather than trotting it out ‘just one more time’. The lesson being, can we ever get ourselves to a pitch of ability and confidence, on any subject that we would like to excel at, to just let go and improvise right there and then? The risks are high, but the rewards equally so. When discussing this further and describing what he sees as Hooker’s shamanic-like qualities, Murray perceptively states:


“Such music creates joy and transcendence for some and unparalleled fear and loathing in others because it’s an utter affront to the basic tenets of Western rationalism: in others, it disengages the body from the mind and the intelligence from the intellect. It stops you thinking, and starts you feeling. It creates an irrational ecstasy.”14

Much can be said in this vein, however, I’m conscious that we need to finish our thoughts and more tightly bind to becoming.

In May 1970, at the age of fifty-three, Hooker teamed up with Canned Heat to deliver “the best”15 album of his early career, Hooker ‘n’ Heat. (The Healer, recorded in 1989 when well into his seventies, was actually the beginning of his financial success). A double album resulted of seventeen songs: six were solos of Hooker’s, a further six were ‘duets’ with Alan Wilson accompanying on a different instrument for each song, and the remaining five brought out the other members of Canned Heat to join with John Lee and Alan.

Hooker and Heat.fw

The album sees Hooker at the pinnacle of his ability and strength, with the Canned Heat crew accompanying to perfection, under the genius hand of Alan Wilson. The songs flow from depth and intensity to unrestrained energetic vitality, that thankfully everyone understood should not be contained within the standard three minute format. The resulting Peavine and Boogie Chillen No. 2 are five and eleven and a half minutes long respectively. In each, the groove is struck and mined with vigor, imagination and dedication. Hooker, with those half his age, delivered something completely unique in his career, but absolutely authentic. Musically, a pinnacle, but personally a testament to an attitude carved out across the whole fifty years of performing and recording that never shirked from giving absolutely everything to the moment and to the music being created in that moment.

A true exemplary figure. Thank you, Mr John Lee Hooker and thank you, dear readers.



  1. John Lee Hooker, Boogie Chillen, Hooker J. L., United Sound Systems, 1948.
  2. Murray, C. S. Boogie Man: The Adventures of John Lee Hooker in the American Twentieth Century, Canongate, 2011, 21.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., 24-25.
  5. Ibid., 37.
  6. Ibid., 40.
  7. Ibid., 45.
  8. Ibid., 46.
  9. Ibid.
  10. John Lee Hooker, Boogie Chillen, Hooker J. L., United Sound Systems, 1948.
  11. Nietzsche, F. ‘Schopenhauer as Educator’, included in Untimely Meditations. Translated by R. J. Hollingdale, Cambridge University Press, 1997, 136, and reproduced in James Conant, ‘Nietzsche’s Perfectionism: A Reading of  “Schopenhauer as Educator”‘, included in Nietzsche’s Postmoralism: Essays on Nietzsche’s Prelude to Philosophy’s Future edited by Richard Schacht, 208.
  12. Murray, C. S., Boogie Man: The Adventures of John Lee Hooker in the American Twentieth Century, Canongate, 2011, 153.
  13. Ibid., 153-154.
  14. Ibid., 473.
  15. Ibid., 488.

51. Becoming


“Becoming who you are
is not something one is ever finished doing.”1

James Conant

It is not with sadness that we should begin this penultimate post, but with unbridled joy because, as we say a fond Adieu to Sartre, we can enthusiastically declare Guten Morgen, with a smile on our faces, to an old friend with whom we shall now converse. Friedrich Nietzsche will provide not just blazing insights and face-slapping provocation, but the perfect flag for us to merrily thrust into the mountain we have climbed since we began our journey, oh, so many moons ago. He will also ensure that we will continue mountaineering because, as we he will soon demonstrate, our travels should never end.


So, let us begin.

All the way through our posts the idea has been to elucidate thinking that can help us to be more ethical and to that task I think, arguably, we can also align Nietzsche, if we begin by looking at his work through the lens of moral perfectionism, as suggested by Thomas Hurka. Although, let me just state that Hurka, in my opinion misunderstands Nietzsche, but we’ll get to that in a bit. For now, let’s see what Thomas has to say. In Perfectionism, Hurka examines the possibility of such a concept and in doing so defines two categories needed to comprehend this theory:

“I use ‘perfectionism’ (or ‘narrow perfectionism’) to refer to a moral theory based on human nature, and ‘broad perfectionism’ for the more inclusive view that values some development of capacities or some achievement of excellence.”2

Hurka then goes on to state more explicitly that “to develop the best or most defensible perfectionism, we need, most fundamentally, the best concept of human nature.”3 Straight away, then, we can see that in order for a theory to be perfectionist it must give an account of human nature and this, I propose, is one of Nietzsche’s aims within On the Genealogy of Morality. In the first chapter of the preface he introduced and closed it’s lament with “We are unknown to ourselves… we are not ‘knowers’ when it comes to ourselves.”4

Unknown to ourselves.fw

This, I take to be the point of departure for Nietzsche, to try and address the issue of ‘self-knowledge, or ‘human nature’, to place it within Hurka’s ‘narrow perfectionist’ framework.

However, in order to verify my claim for a pursuit of human nature within On the Genealogy of Morality, we must examine its methodology. Nietzsche quite clearly was not trying to trace human nature back to a starting point in a Hobbes, Locke, or Rousseau. Michel Foucault confirms this in his examination of On the Genealogy of Morality, with reference to history: “only a metaphysician would seek its soul in the distant ideality of the origin.”5 Thus we have to ask ourselves ‘how is Nietzsche utilising human nature?’ A pointer is given by Foucault, because he reveals that Nietzsche focuses on how human nature has ‘descended’ to it’s current position through a genealogical analysis, which, as he puts it,

“Identifies the accidents, the minute derivations – or conversely, the complete reversals – the errors, the false appraisals, and the faulty calculations that gave birth to those things that continue to exist and have value for us.”6


My claim as regards Nietzsche’s project, then, is that his study of human nature is directly related to his study of the genealogy of morality in as much as the latter becomes the former, because tracing the twists and turns of morality also traces the ‘progress’, or decline, of our nature. However, I believe that it would be quite wrong to view Nietzsche as just a ‘narrow perfectionist’ and just a genealogist. Instead, the task should shift to Hurka’s other prong and the examination of Nietzsche in terms of ‘broad perfectionism’: a “development of capacities or some achievement of excellence”.

Sticking with On the Genealogy of Morality, David Owen can help as he rather neatly unpacks Nietzsche’s text into three key questions:

  1. What are we?
  2. How have we become what we are?
  3. Given what we are, what can we become?

Owen’s third question is where the standard, or simplistic, interpretation of Nietzsche arises, in that he is seen to  value “some development of capacities or some achievement of excellence.” However, this ‘standard interpretation’ is not always one that shows Nietzsche in a positive light. John Rawls in A Theory of Justice, as pointed out by James Conant, has fears concerning that type of perfectionism because “it will ask the claims of justice to take a back seat to the claims of excellence.”7

Back Seat.fw

Conant, after reading Stanley Cavell’s Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome, comes to Nietzsche’s aid and retaliates against Rawls by introducing a new analysis of a passage from Nietzsche’s Schopenhauer as Educator. Rawls, Conant claims, significantly misinterprets the meaning of the passage due to a mistake in the translation. From this mistake, Rawls and his followers, such as Hurka, understand Nietzsche’s ‘model’ to have a teleological structure – “one which seeks to maximise those states of affairs which it deems desirable and evaluates moral principles primarily according to the degree to which they maximise optimally.”8 Or, to put it another way, let’s value those who demonstrate excellence more than those who don’t. This teleological and pernicious structure which, as we shall see, later Conant refutes leads Hurka into the position of accusing Nietzsche of “an excessively anti-egalitarian nature: ‘Nietzsche equates the aggregate excellence in a society with the excellence of its few best members, and wants social policy to maximise that’.”9

This misinterpretation, of course, symptomatically resonates with the manufactured misuse by Nietzsche’s anti-Semitic sister who caused severe problems after his death. However, the current misinterpretation stems from a passage in in the sixth section of Schopenhauer as Educator, where Nietzsche wrote:

“Mitunter ist es schwerer, eine Sache zuzugeben als sie einzusehen; und so gerade mag es den meisten ergehen, wenn sie den Satz uberlegen: ‘die Menschheit soll fortwahrend daran arbeiten, eizelne grosse Menschen zu erzeugen – und dies und nichts andre is ihre Aufgabe.’ … Denn die Frage lautet doch so: wie erhalt dein, des eilzenen Leben den hochsten Wert, die tiefste Bedeutung? … Gewiss nur dadurch, dass du zum Vorteile der seltensten und wertvollsten Exemplare lebst.”10 (Italics mine)

Schopenhauer as Educator alt.fw

Which R. J. Hollingdale, in 1983, translated as the following:

“Sometimes it is harder to accede to a thing than it is to see its truth; and that is how most people may feel when they reflect on the proposition: ‘Mankind must work continually to produce individual great human beings – this and nothing else is the task.’ … For the question is this: how can your life, the individual life, retain the highest value, the deepest significance? …. Only by your living for the good of the rarest and most valuable specimens.11 (Italics mine)

Conant makes clear that this “is the only textual support adduced by [Rawls] for the claim that Nietzsche adheres to ‘the strong version of perfectionism.’”12 The ‘strong version of perfectionism’ is the teleological, or pernicious one. So, if Conant were to provide a close analysis of this passage and find a way to refute the claim of a teleological structure to Nietzsche’s moral perfectionism then Rawl’s objection and Hurka’s subsequent accusation of anti-egalitarianism could be dismissed as invalid. Conant does just this by analysing the word ‘Exemplare,’ which was translated by R. J. Hollingdale as ‘specimen’. By employing Kant’s ‘theory of genius’ from the Critique of Judgement (to find out how you’ll have to read Nietzsche’s Perfectionism: A Reading of “Schopenhauer as Educator”), Conant lends weight to his preferred translation of ‘Exemplare’ to ‘exemplar’ and by so doing brings the focus of the passage to a purely individual basis:

“It becomes clear, that you, the reader, are asked to ask yourself a question. The question you should ask yourself is: how can your life, the individual life, attain the highest value and the deepest significance? That’s a question Nietzsche says you must ask yourself in solitude; and if you pursue it, you will find that your answer to that question will force upon you the notion of an exemplar.”13

Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer by Werner Horvath, 2000.fw
Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer by Werner Horvath, 2000.

So if we are to follow Conant, Nietzsche’s moral perfectionism now takes a new turn, in that it is not teleological, and consequentially pernicious, but rather it is individual, courtesy of a focus upon exemplarity. Conant next answers the obvious question of what, for Nietzsche, was an exemplar, by referring to Schopenhauer as Educator:

“I sensed that in him, Schopenhauer, I had discovered that educator and philosopher I had sought for so long… I strove… to see through the book and to imagine the living man…who promised to make his heirs only those who would and could be more than merely his readers.”14

By examining this quote we can see that Nietzsche was not interested hero-worship, instead there is a requirement to be more than merely a reader. This point is given as a personal example, but in Thus Spoke Zarathustra it is made universal: “One repays a teacher badly if one remains only a pupil.”15 So, it seems that an exemplar requires emulation, but not copying.

Socrates, Plato and Aristotle
Socrates taught Plato who then taught Aristotle

In Zarathustra/Zarathustra as Educator, Richard Schacht suggests “that in and by means of Zarathustra and Zarathustra, Nietzsche sought to provide posterity with something capable of performing the kind of ‘educating’ function he had discussed in [Schopenhauer as Educator], and considered Schopenhauer to have performed for him.”16 Such an ‘educating’ function is what Conant determined as ‘exemplariness’, or a way of showing how to attain our higher selves, which links Thus Spoke Zarathustra to On the Genealogy of Morality. Plus, If we take him at his word in Ecce Homo, Beyond Good and Evil and On the Genealogy of Morality are the ‘reasons why’ or denying parts of his work, whereas Thus Spoke Zarathustra was ‘how to’ or affirmative part.

Let’s regroup a little.

Courtesy of Hurka and Foucault we have seen that On the Genealogy of Morality tracks the descent of humans in terms of what they value. Conant then pulls Nietzsche from the brink of mistranslation and appropriation by revealing the concept of the exemplar and its individual application, as opposed to any socially teleological formation. Finally, Schacht helps position Thus Spoke Zarathustra as the literary manifestation of an exemplar. The point of all the proceeding, though, to be clear, is that we as individuals could, and therefore should, do better.

Doing better.fw

Conant, in referring back to Schopenhauer as Educator, however, doesn’t rest on his laurels because he recognises that there is more work to be done around such statements as the following:

“Let him follow his conscience, which calls to him: Be yourself! All you are now doing, thinking, desiring is not you yourself.”17

Conant realises that Nietzsche was not trying to distinguish between two selves: one that you are at the moment, and your ‘true’ self. Instead, what Nietzsche was hammering towards was something more along the lines of personal evolution:

“Becoming who you are is not something one is ever finished doing.”18

Thinking in this manner and drawing threads together leads Conant to the realisation that one can outgrow a particular exemplar and move on to another. This he suggests is what Nietzsche did in practice:

“Schopenhauer is a teacher of whom [Nietzsche] may boast because he is a teacher the author has outgrown… Emerson is an example that as the texture of [Schopenhauer as Educator] serves to reveal, continues to function as one of the author’s current exemplars.”19

Schopenhauer and Emerson.fw
Arthur Schopenhauer and Ralph Waldo Emerson

Accepting that this is brilliant work by Conant, and also Nietzsche(!), there is, however, an unruly sticky patch to overcome. Whilst fully appreciating the point that one is a ‘work in progress’ as such and never becomes one’s self in a finite or teleological sense, and that we are in a constant state of becoming: outgrowing exemplars, and moving on to new ones; I believe that if we adopt this position of exemplarity there is a problem. The problem starts as we begin to search in order to attach our “heart to some great man,”20 as Nietzsche suggests.

As Conant explains, “your ‘higher self’, according to Nietzsche, comes into view only through your confrontation with what you trust and admire in an exemplary other.”21 Thus, we achieve our ‘higher self’ by attaching our heart, and placing our trust and admiration in the exemplar. Boiling down further, all three of these conditions for action come from our seeing particular qualities in the exemplar, and this is where I see the problem. Our seeing governs our trust, admiration, and potential for attaching our heart, and this can only be based on knowledge gained by ourselves, either directly or indirectly (for example, from others). Can this knowledge ever be sufficient for us to act and attach our hearts without regret that we might have missed a ‘truer’ potential exemplar? Or, stuck between a choice of two or more potential exemplars, assuming that we have done everything possible to ‘trade off’ differences and attributes and still not been able to come to a decision, how do we choose?


David Owen sees the potential for a moral dilemma in the latter situation but then advocates ‘moral luck’ as having to come into play, and suggests that as long as we do, indeed, act then we are on Nietzsche’s path to the higher self.22

However, does the fundamental problem not remain? That our basis for following Nietzsche’s moral perfectionist model is flawed because we have an uncertain foundation upon which to act: our knowledge alone. If we accept my reasoning that, ultimately, this is what attaching our hearts to reduces down to, then surely this is not sufficient? The door is left open to doubt and constant questioning of the chosen or potential exemplar.

To close the door, we need to take a step back and consider what I believe was Nietzsche’s original underlying master plan for On the Genealogy of Morality: to make us question those we feel drawn to, and not to accept as given the current or standard modes of practice for moral thinking. In this way, the actual fulfilment of having an exemplar is no longer necessary. It is not in the fulfilment of attaining an exemplar, but rather in the process of entertaining the idea of potential exemplars, and their inherent flaws, that leads us to a position of real ethical thinking.


Weighing up whether someone else could be our exemplar is quite possibly the best way of getting ourselves to think about ethics and working out just what is important in our lives and how we should lead them.

In writing this post, I am deeply indebted to one of my exemplars, Professor John Lippitt.


  1. Conant, J. ‘Nietzsche’s Perfectionism: A Reading of  “Schopenhauer as Educator”‘, included in Nietzsche’s Postmoralism: Essays on Nietzsche’s Prelude to Philosophy’s Future. Edited by Richard Schacht, Cambridge University Press, 2011, 234.
  2. Hurka, T. Perfectionism, Oxford, 1993, 4.
  3. Ibid., 9.
  4. Nietzsche, F. On the Genealogy of Morality. Translated by Carol Diethe, Cambridge University Press, 1996,  3-4.
  5. Foucault, M. ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’ included in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews by Michel Foucault. Edited by Donald F. Bouchard, Cornell University Press, 1980, 145.
  6. Ibid., 146.
  7. Conant, J. ‘Nietzsche’s Perfectionism: A Reading of  “Schopenhauer as Educator”‘, included in Nietzsche’s Postmoralism: Essays on Nietzsche’s Prelude to Philosophy’s Future. Edited by Richard Schacht, Cambridge University Press, 2011,  186.
  8. Ibid., 189.
  9. Ibid, 189-190, including a quote from Thomas Hurka, ‘Perfectionism’, included in Encyclopaedia of Ethics. Edited by Lawrence C. Becker and Charlotte. B. Becker, Routledge, 2001, 948.
  10. Ibid., 191.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid., 188.
  13. Ibid., 195.
  14. Nietzsche, F. ‘Schopenhauer as Educator’, included in Untimely Meditations. Translated by R. J. Hollingdale, Cambridge University Press, 1997, 136, and reproduced in James Conant, ‘Nietzsche’s Perfectionism: A Reading of  “Schopenhauer as Educator”‘, included in Nietzsche’s Postmoralism: Essays on Nietzsche’s Prelude to Philosophy’s Future edited by Richard Schacht, 208.
  15. Nietzsche, F. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Translated by R. J. Hollingdale, Penguin, 1961103.
  16. Schacht, R. ‘Zarathustra/Zarathustra as Educator’ included in Nietzsche: A Critical Reader. Edited by Peter R. Sedgwick, Blackwell, 1995, 223-224.
  17. Nietzsche, F. ‘Schopenhauer as Educator’, included in Untimely Meditations. Translated by R. J. Hollingdale, Cambridge University Press, 1997, 127 and reproduced in James Conant, ‘Nietzsche’s Perfectionism: A Reading of  “Schopenhauer as Educator”‘, included in Nietzsche’s Postmoralism: Essays on Nietzsche’s Prelude to Philosophy’s Future edited by Richard Schacht, 197.
  18. Conant, J. ‘Nietzsche’s Perfectionism: A Reading of  “Schopenhauer as Educator”‘, included in Nietzsche’s Postmoralism: Essays on Nietzsche’s Prelude to Philosophy’s Future. Edited by Richard Schacht, Cambridge University Press, 2011, 234.
  19. Ibid., 233.
  20. Nietzsche, F. ‘Schopenhauer as Educator’, included in Untimely Meditations. Translated by R. J. Hollingdale, Cambridge University Press, 1997, 163.
  21. Conant, J. ‘Nietzsche’s Perfectionism: A Reading of  “Schopenhauer as Educator”‘, included in Nietzsche’s Postmoralism: Essays on Nietzsche’s Prelude to Philosophy’s Future. Edited by Richard Schacht, Cambridge University Press, 2011, 202-203.
  22. David Owen’s remarks are paraphrased and based upon questions raised after his paper on ‘Genealogy and Ethical Confidence’ given at Wall Hall, University of Hertfordshire on the 5th of November 1998.

50. O’Keeffe the Artist


“I had been taught to work like others and after careful thinking I decided that I wasn’t going to spend my life doing what had already been done.”1
Georgia O’Keeffe

Sartre’s invention of himself as a philosopher who based his thoughts and actions upon a belief in freedom rather than his philosophical training, in phenomenology and ontology, is a perfect example of his own idea that we are free to invent ourselves. To see ourselves as projects, to be able to sow, shape and steer according to our own ambitions, rather than dutifully following someone else’s indoctrination, is daunting, but also liberating and empowering. The endeavour of self is one that should be as unique as each and every one of us. To conform to a mould of prescribed behaviour and pattern for living betrays the infinite capacity that each of us has within our genetic code, abilities and potential interests. Why shouldn’t you enter a marathon, start a dog-grooming business, become an expert in survival techniques, or research particle physics? The beauty of being part of the human race is the infinite capacity for achievement, creativity and determination. All of which can give example to others, to contra the many regimes throughout history, and the present, that prevent such example by their desire for power and their insistence upon uniform thinking, dress, and activity from their comrades, civilians or congregation. To blast through, and embrace freedom, as put forth by Sartre, is liberating, but also essential if we as fully functioning members of society are not to contribute to the stagnation of that society.

Let us not forget that the ability to question, think freely and think for oneself as opposed to thinking what one is told is also ensconced in Article 19 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”2

Human Rights.fw

More than this, though, should be the case.

Normally, one would argue that where there is a right, there, de facto, needs to be a duty held by someone or some organisation to uphold that that right. However, my thought on this, if we follow Sartre, is that then rather than seeing that we have a right to the freedom of opinion and expression and that someone else has the duty to protect it, we should see that we have the duty to achieve our freedom of opinion and expression and not to allow ourselves to become sheep in the hands of ‘shepherds’ who would dictate the acceptable opinions and forms expression. To think for ourselves, so the argument goes, is ethically essential. But, maybe I’m digressing too much into the area of the general and should be more specific?


In Some Memories of Drawings, first published in 1974, Doris Bry, a friend, dealer and curator of Georgia O’Keeffe’s, set the artist the task of recalling her break-through moment some fifty years previously:

“The first seven drawings are from a group that I made in 1915-16 when I had the idea that what I had been taught was of little value to me except for the use of my materials as a language – charcoal, pencil, pen and ink, watercolour, pastel and oil. The use of my materials wasn’t a problem for me. But what to say with them? I had been taught to work like others and after careful thinking I decided that I wasn’t going to spend my life doing what had already been done.”3

As a statement of artistic integrity, it doesn’t get much clearer than that. For us, though, there is an added bonus because O’Keeffe saw herself as a project, a project that had to be developed outside of the received and prescribed practice for how one should be an artist.

Violette de Mazia and Georgia O'Keeffe looking at Cezanne's The Card Players.fw
Violette de Mazia and Georgia O’Keeffe looking at Cezanne’s The Card Players

Born in 1887, from Irish, Dutch and Hungarian stock that had found its way Midwest to farm in Sun Prairie, near Madison, Wisconsin, Georgia O’Keeffe was the second of seven children. Being the first daughter of five girls, she was the classic Victorian trailblazer for her female siblings. Led by a strong and determined mother who wanted all her children to be educated, piano, violin and drawing instruction was given to all the girls from a relatively early age; Georgia was eleven when the drawing classes were introduced. Ida Totto O’Keeffe also encouraged all her children to know their own minds and, as Roxana Robinson’s definitive biography, Georgia O’Keeffe, records, at the age of fourteen Ida’s eldest daughter announced: “I’m going to be an artist.”4 From then onwards, O’Keeffe continued education in art, first at the Sacred Heart convent school in Madison, where her parents paid the additional annual fee of twenty dollars for her “instruction in art,”5 then at the “big public high school”6 in Milwaukee, where at the age of fifteen she was “decidedly disparaging about the art teacher: a gaunt maiden lady, with an over-eager manner, who wore an anxious spray of violets on her hat.”7


In 1903, when Georgia was sixteen, the whole family moved one thousand miles back east to Williamsburg, Virginia, to try and escape the family curse of early death by tuberculosis. Georgia and the three elder sisters were enrolled at the Chatham Episcopal Institute and, although accustomed to rules set by her mother and the convent, Georgia found herself rebelling against Chatham’s charter for appropriate behaviour. She spoke differently, “I knew door was door. I knew it wasn’t doe,”8 and she dressed differently as noted by classmate, Christine McRae Cocke:

“She wore a tan coat suit, short, severe, and loose, into this room filled with girls with small waists and tight-fitting dresses bedecked with ruffles and bows.”9

Ruffles and Bows.fw

McRae Cocke offers another interesting insight that highlights O’Keeffe’s sense of self and confidence:

“Nearly every girl in that study hall planned just how she was going to dress Georgia up, but her plans came to naught, for this strong-minded girl knew what suited her, and would not be changed.”10

At Chatham, despite the potential for otherwise, O’Keeffe flourished. As Robinson writes, she divided her time between studying the piano, violin and art, and even became the art editor of the yearbook in 1904. Her sense of purpose, articulated a few years earlier, was still fierce and present, as another friend, Anita Pollitzer records in an unpublished biography of O’Keeffe:

“I’m going to live a different life from the rest of you girls… I am going to give up everything for my art.”11


Her sense of purpose, enrolled her into the Art Institute of Chicago, where, even though finding herself “a very junior member of a large, illustrious group, in a formal, intimidating atmosphere… she was fifth in her class in December, seventh in January, and in February she was first.”12 In 1907, at the age of 20, O’Keeffe next went to study at the Art Students League in New York City, under William Merritt Chase, where Robinson notes individuality was encouraged as well as that the students “must make the world take them seriously.”13 Robinson draws out a particularly important realisation for O’Keeffe at this time, when she acquiesced and posed for an older student. The realisation being that by posing, and effectively being someone else’s “pet,”14 she wasn’t painting. Another point of self-understanding also occurred; when she went dancing she couldn’t paint for three days afterwards. Combined together, these discoveries concerning the effective use of time crystallised within her: “she could, dance, pose and be petted, or she could paint.”15 And, as Robinson continues, “the choice was not a difficult one. From then on, the essential question was always about painting.”16

The next few years did provide challenges, however, and after a period of being a commercial artist, to try and help her family financially, and even becoming despondent and ‘giving-up’ art altogether for a few months, O’Keeffe found resolve and entered Columbia’s Teachers College in 1914. This was the year after the all important Armory Show that had sent shockwaves across New York City with the highly visible new works of European modernism; works from artists that O’Keeffe had already admired at Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery ‘291’.

291 Gallery.fw
291 Gallery

Immersing herself in the world of art O’Keeffe read Wassily Kandinsky’s 1912 work, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, and honed her abilities to a “virtuoso”17 pitch in terms of technique, although, as Robinson remarks, content “had not yet declared itself in her work.”18 At the end of 1915, this was to change as she cut herself off from distractions and stayed in her room at Columbia over the Christmas holiday to begin “the laborious task of attempting to work purely from her own consciousness, seeking to eliminate everything from her work except herself.”19 These sessions produced the “Special”20 series recalled by O’Keeffe in the Doris Bry publication.

These works were wrapped in a bundle and sent to Chatham chum Anita Pollitzer who, at the time, was O’Keeffe’s artistic confidante. Pollitzer then did something unexpected. She showed O’Keeffe’s new works to Stieglitz at his ‘291’ gallery. His response, Pollitzer writes to O’Keeffe was as follows:

“They’re the purest, finest sincerest things that have entered 291 in a long while… I wouldn’t mind showing them in one of these rooms one bit.”21

Georgia O'Keeffe, Special, Moma.fw
Special No.12 by Georgia O’Keeffe, 1916.

Later on Stieglitz wrote in his own hand to O’Keeffe:

“What am I to say? It is impossible to put into words what I saw and felt in your drawings… I do want to tell you that they gave me much joy. They were a real surprise and above all I felt that they were a genuine expression of yourself.”22

The start of their relationship and life together (which only ended with his death) and her career as an artist began at this time. She also went to a small town called Canyon, near Amarillo, Texas to teach, but became enraptured by the wide open spaces: “Anita you have never seen SKY – it is wonderful.”23 Despite being buoyed up by her environment, and the feedback from Stieglitz and others, however, she managed to keep her feet firmly on the ground:

“I’ve never thought of myself as having a great gift… It isn’t just talent. You have to have someone else. You have to have a kind of nerve. It’s mostly a lot of nerve, and a lot of very, very hard work.”24

O'Keefe at work.fw

On 3rd April, 1917, Stieglitz presented Gallery 291’s last exhibition before it closed due to the building on Fifth Avenue being scheduled for demolition, but it was the first solo exhibition by a woman: Recent work by Georgia O’Keeffe. The following year, as put forward by Robinson, “Happily and deliberately, Georgia cast in her lot with an impecunious and impetuous older man.”25 She had fallen in love with Stieglitz and moved in with him, when she was thirty and he was fifty-three. She was an emerging artist and he was the man who had legitimised photography as an art-form, promoted the careers of several household names across all forms of visual art, was published, a patron, a collector and well-respected champion of modern art. Consequently, it would have been all so easy to succumb to Stieglitz’s artistic authority and will. However, to her testament, O’Keeffe very much held own in their relationship and in her professional aspirations. She was her own person and her own artist. She and cared about her work and she, not anyone else, directed how it should be carried out and developed. How other people thought about her work was always secondary and to a great extent to be avoided wherever and whenever possible, no matter who they were:

“By now O’Keeffe was beyond intimidation or advice, even from so eminent a personage as Alfred Stieglitz. In a spirit of peaceful coexistence, she painted what she needed to paint and let people say about it what they needed to say. ‘If I stop to think of what others – authorities – would say… I’d not be able to do anything’.”26

Georgia confident.fw

Robinson continues:

“Distancing herself from critics and the public was a process that would become crucial for O’Keeffe, one increasingly integral to her character.”27

To become a project for oneself means not being the project/s that others, individually or collectively want us to be. This is Sartrean because it recognises the freedom we have to make ourselves ourselves and not to succumb meekly to what others try and make us. O’Keeffe wanted to be an artist and she knew that meant that only she could, and should, determine how to shape herself as an artist. The lessons learned throughout her formative years and the art-school training in Chicago and New Year had equipped her with the tools of her craft, but it was up to her to find her art and the artist within her. Being someone else’s project, puppet or pet was by now a dead-end and anathema to her. To be an artist meant that she alone could control the choices that needed to be made. Robinson, throughout her biography, explicitly understands this vital aspect to O’Keeffe:

“The artist must pursue a solitary and revisionist vision, maintaining her own interior silence. Once she listens to the voice of the public, the artist has lost her own.”28

Georgia by Steiglitz.fw

For O’Keeffe, this sense of self-preservation and focus, so as not to become subsumed into the whims of others meant taking choices outside of societies norms, such as deciding to keep her surname when she and Stieglitz finally married in 1924, when she was thirty-seven. Her name was synonymous, of course, with her art, but to become Mrs Stiglitz, with everything that entailed from a feminist perspective, as to being placed immediately in a secondary role, was not at all how O’Keeffe regarded herself. Let alone the professional sleight and damage that could be wrought by changing her name just as she was becoming established in the art-world and to also be forever ‘Alfred Stieglitz’s wife’ rather than ‘Georgia O’Keeffe, artist’. Being one’s own project sometimes means making difficult choices and O’Keeffe knew this all to well. It also means that one has to be self-reliant in finding one’s own way. O’Keeffe displayed an almost intuitive awareness to this and demonstrated great integrity and understanding by actively shying away from bestowing advice to her sisters Catherine and Ida when they came to her with their own ambitions of following her footsteps and becoming artists; encouragement, yes, but direction, no. As far as O’Keeffe was concerned each artist, whether her, one of her sisters, or anyone else, has to find their own path and not be led astray by the ‘advice’ of others, no matter how well-intentioned. Perhaps the greatest way that O’Keeffe demonstrated her adherence to seriously taking such responsibility for herself in order to become the artist she wanted to be was in allowing herself to follow her desire and passion for the landscapes she discovered in Texas and then New Mexico.


From the 1920s onwards she periodically left the ‘city’ to immerse and nourish herself in the spaces that spoke to her. Not once in their time together did Alfred ever join her in these ever increasing sojourns that would keep them apart for months on end. Her love and need for the horizon, red earth and vast skies of the desert fed her artistic creativity and allowed her to fulfil her vision in a manner that never could have happened in New York City or by being part of a wider movement:

“She never became a member of other groups that formed around her: Precisionists, Regionalists, or Surrealists. Stieglitz always worked with groups and liked the idea of communal effort, but O’Keeffe felt that her work was a private endeavour. ‘Stieglitz liked the idea of a group,’ she said ‘I didn’t’.”29

O’Keeffe, the artist, was the project and quite obviously history has recorded the success that followed. As Robinson recognises, to become that artist though meant O’Keeffe had to be incredibly single-minded at times and walk a lonely path:

“In the subtle and continual conflict between work and the world, again and again Georgia chose work… Georgia took pleasure in her friends, enjoyed their company, and acknowledged some of the demands of society. Work, however, was an imperative. Solitude was the constant, society the deviation.”30

O'Keeffe by Steiglitz.fw


  1. O’Keeffe, G. Some Memories of Drawings, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, 19881.
  2. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, United Nations, [viewed on 26th January 2018]. Available from: http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/index.html
  3. O’Keeffe, G. Some Memories of Drawings, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, 19881.
  4. Robinson, R. Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life, Bloomsbury, 1997, 30.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., 32.
  7. Ibid., 32-33.
  8. Ibid., 42.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid., 46.
  12. Ibid., 51-52.
  13. Ibid., 59.
  14. Ibid., 61.
  15. Ibid., 62.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid., 108.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid., 127.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid., 129.
  22. Ibid., 131-132.
  23. Ibid., 161.
  24. Ibid., 166.
  25. Ibid., 220.
  26. Ibid., 223-224.
  27. Ibid., 242.
  28. Ibid., 256.
  29. Ibid., 369.
  30. Ibid., 447.

49. Project ‘I’


“We make ourselves and define our way of life by projecting ourselves toward the future, and by constantly going beyond the given situation in which we find ourselves.”1
David A. Jopling

This is going to be our last outing with Sartre, plus we are approaching the end of our journey altogether. There will be just one final philosopher to briefly, all too briefly, consider before our ethical thirst has possibly been quenched.

At the start of our foray into Sartre’s thinking we learned how consciousness is based upon ontological precepts, and also that there is a difficulty in trying to get to ethics from ontology. We then grappled, in post 41, with the veil of nothingness and got directed, by the Parisian, to freedom, which, if we recall, was his special chosen term to describe the “buffer of nothingness”2 that appears when an object is held in question. He could have chosen contemplation, consideration or inspection, however freedom, evidently, was his goal and our first real clue regarding his ethical agenda. The clue being that the pathway from nothingness doesn’t solely, logically or even necessarily lead to freedom. Rather, Sartre seemed to pre-empt freedom and we, taking him on faith, followed him in the hope of being rewarded. The temporary reward in post 43 was to see, fleetingly, Sartre gesture towards freedom as an attitude of mind that one needs to adopt. However, maybe so as not to allow any questions as to quite why that is the case, he immediately plunged into a description of anguish, swiftly followed by bad faith and responsibility.


Anguish is an appropriate response when trying to accept that one’s freedom is based upon existence preceding essence, because there is a leap into the unknown and one has every right to feel scared. To be in bad faith, on the other hand, and believe that one has a pre-given essence or destiny is to be a coward or worse. There is a beautiful simplicity to Sartre’s internal logic within these thoughts as long as we allow him this space and don’t caught up in the lack of foundation. It’s true that ultimately, Sartre’s thinking rests thinly upon the rocks of his conviction regarding freedom as opposed to sound philosophical reasoning as performed in the good ol’ days of yore (which, as we all know, yielded to their own fallacies upon close inspection). However, if we allow him his head, from the moment of bringing forth freedom as an attitude of mind, Sartre starts to wind a very convincing and coherent set of lines around ethics. To place responsibility for our actions squarely upon our own shoulders is a bold and innovative stance, just as stating that the opposite positions of quietism, excuse making or fulfilling destiny are despicable. There is great power in his persuasion and it is hard to argue against without looking weak and coward-like.

Sartre’s next play is to revisit consciousness and give it another dimension within his thinking. This time, it becomes the plateau from where the decision to be responsible arrives. Consciousness precedes responsibility in Sartre’s world and, indeed, it governs so as to make us responsible. Of course, logic gets damned once more by Sartre because, consciousness doesn’t necessarily bring forth responsibility although, in an ideal world, it should. Casting logic aside, then, Sartre continues shaping the more positive side of his thinking and, when addressing the problem of existential identity, realises something quite wonderful. If we regard ourselves as possessing freedom then we are free to invent ourselves.

Free to invent ourselves

It seems that by forsaking his once cherished ontological and foundational precepts, Sartre cuts himself free to float loftily upwards where a greater perspective can be gained. Nothingness to freedom, and consciousness to responsibility, might not be necessarily so: it seems one can never go easily from ontology to ethics. However, there is a clearer view up here in Sartre’s balloon, than arguably can be seen from scrabbling around in ontology’s debris and dust.


So, let us continue onwards to our final Sartrean destination.

It seems that we are condemned to invent ourselves: there is nothing else we can do. However, as we have mentioned previously, we have to take moral responsibility for this ‘invention’ because there no blame can be apportioned elsewhere, if we are completely free to choose our invention.

Taking this further, by choosing a role, or inventing ourselves, we actually choose a project to undertake, and it’s this last piece of Sartre’s thinking that we now need to explore. David A. Jopling has the following to say about undertaking a project of our self:

“We make ourselves and define our way of life by projecting ourselves toward the future, and by constantly going beyond the given situation in which we find ourselves. The multifarious actions, desires, beliefs, and experiences our lives comprise must, in Sartre’s words, ‘derive their meaning from an original projection’ that we make of ourselves.”3

Project forward

Digging deeper into the process and mechanics of how such a projection occurs, Jopling continues:

“The project is actively constructed, and not given or fixed. The numerous antecedent conditions that are ordinarily constructed as having a causal influence in the formation of our identity (such as genetic, environmental, and social factors) affect us not for what they are in themselves, but for what we make of them insofar as we project ourselves beyond them, confer meaning upon them, and construct from them a signifying situation.”4

That said, though by Jopling, these acts of invention, or projection, must be understood as ones that can at any time be rejected, or surpassed, by the ‘freely choosing’ being-for-itself. Such rejection or surpassing might well lead, of course, to anguish as we can not say whether our future self will at a later date reject or comply with such a decision. However, the point stands that just as once we had a project to direct all our energy towards being a palaeontologist when aged nine, the day might come when that project is set aside in favour of being, let’s say, a Lego designer.

Lego designer.fw
Image courtesy of lego.tomleech.com

Each of us, then, can be considered in some ways as an ongoing project, not fixed or determined but ever evolving and extending into the future.

At the risk of repeating what we have already seen in post 39, but for a different purpose, I want to look again at the limits of Sartre’s philosophical starting place, which he himself set out:

“Ontology itself can not formulate ethical precepts. It is concerned solely with what is, and we can not possibly derive imperatives from ontology’s indicatives.”5

En route, we can acknowledge that Sartre’s ontological bind shows why Levinas started from scratch and not ontology or phenomenology, however let’s remember that Sartre also stated, in Being and Nothingness, that ontology “allows us to catch a glimpse of what sort of ethics will assume its responsibilities when confronted with a human reality in situation.”6 Now, the reason for this re-fresh is the addition that Christina Howells brings to the table. Howells thinks that by peeking at ethics through ontology’s door Sartre is leading himself, and us, to a place where freedom acts like a value7. This is because Sartre’s whole philosophy, one could argue, steers towards the announcement of freedom as being the critical component of our lives. The game is given away, though, not by Howells in the first instance, but by Jean-Paul himself. In Existentialism and Humanism he actually declares, “We will freedom for freedom’s sake,”8 and by doing so declares that freedom is a value.

Freedom as a value.fw

Now, hold on to your hats, because there is a deeper impact than one might at first suspect. From this honesty in Being and Nothingness, regarding his belief that ontology itself cannot form ethical precepts, I believe that the declaration in Existentialism and Humanism, of freedom being willed for freedom’s sake, represents a significant shift. The shift is that ontology has been abandoned to something more important and that something is what Sartre has developed from his thinking around freedom. In some ways the statement in Existentialism and Humanism casts off the shackles of his previous thinking and plonks freedom before his audience with defiance in his heart. He knows the move he is making is philosophically unjustified, but takes the spirited leap from ontology to morality anyway. And this is, ultimately, where we see Sartre taking his own medicine, as I will now explain.

Throughout Being and Nothingness, Sartre was trying to demonstrate his adherence to the current vogue of philosophical protocol as executed ‘on the continent’ as opposed to in America or Britain. Phenomenology and ontology were assiduously studied, advanced and pushed to their limits. The difficulty for Sartre was that he wanted to get beyond their limits, to ethics, but was shackled by the very discipline he sought to uphold. In his eyes his project was to be a philosopher in the grand continental tradition. However, this project he came to realise could not get him where he wanted. So, presumably cogitating upon his thoughts regarding freedom and bad faith, he stared, anguish ridden, at his life’s work and chose, with his ideas of freedom foremost in his mind, to begin afresh and start a new project for himself. The new Sartre project turned away from ‘Sartre – The Grand Philosopher’ and towards ‘Sartre – The Existential Freedom Fighter’, where freedom was to be at the heart of all his thinking and his actions. To authentically believe in freedom and that ‘man’ should invent ‘himself’ was for Sartre absolutely something he couldn’t just theorize, he had to embody it. So, that is what he did. He leapt from ontology with all its comfort, security and both feet planted firmly on the ground, to the giddy swirling currents of airborne existential freedom, with no parachute attached.

Existential Freedom.fw

The leap of faith to freedom, with all its multi-faceted dimensions and internal coherence, is nonetheless still a leap. However, it is also a testament to Sartre’s belief in himself that he had discovered something valuable and intrinsically more worthwhile than following traditional agendas. To write and conceptualise is one thing, but to take your own medicine and in this case tear up the rulebook because you have discovered something you believe is better, is the stuff of great anguish. Sartre could easily have knuckled under and kept on plodding and poking around ontology and phenomenology and given himself a very easy life studying and tutoring the continental philosophical canon as it had come to be. To reject the ease and comfort and embark upon an untested new project with only one’s self-belief to keep one warm at night shows great courage and integrity. Now, hats off to Jean-Paul!

Hats off.fw

Another way of looking at this shift is suggested by Alasdair MacIntyre in his After Virtue. MacIntyre reasons that a morality based on ‘what man is like,’ or an ontology as we understand it, needs a metaphysical bridge to get from that ontology to the morality. The metaphysical element needs to be a form of teleology according to MacIntyre. Interestingly, Sartre also recognised this from the get-go at the very start of his Notebooks for an Ethics:

“So long as one believes in God [as a form of teleology] one has the right to do the good in order to be moral. Morality becomes a certain mode of ontological being, even something metaphysical in that we have to attain it.”9

So, the problem for Sartre, it could be argued, was to find a replacement metaphysical teleology for that of God, or another way to base morality other than upon ‘what man is like.’ Personally, I think he did this in his conceptualization of what freedom meant because as he said in Existentialism and Humanism, “We will freedom for freedom’s sake”. This is not a replacement metaphysical teleology but it is another way to base morality. Plus, as is suggested by the title of the lecture, it is not reliant upon metaphysics and therefore becomes a form of Humanism. Sartre did waver, though. Anthony Manser spots the wavering in Sartre’s monumental study Saint Genet where he wrote: “I am… deeply convinced that morality as such [non­ Christian/religious] is both impossible and necessary.”10 If we can forego his wavering in Saint Genet, what we find in Existentialism and Humanism is a handcrafted piece of thinking that starts philosophy afresh and builds a whole approach for how to live that one doesn’t find anywhere else in the traditional canon. Of course, there are resonances and slight borrowings from previous thinkers. However, the system that Sartre builds with all its varying components is unique, just like a Louise Nevelson work. Plus, it is a form of Humanist thinking.

Sky Cathedral by Louise Nevelson, 1982.fw
Sky Cathedral by Louise Nevelson, 1982

Where traditional philosophies crack under the burden of bridging from ontology to morality via the required invocation of a metaphysical element and as a consequence bring forth a conception of God, Sartre resists. Better yet, Sartre invents. And what he invents is that we are each the controllers of our own selves, because we are free. Sartre rejects metaphysical notions of God, religion and the afterlife and he brings his ideas squarely into our day-to-day lives. There is no need for metaphysics in any of its forms because he gives freedom its own space and stature by stating, “We will freedom for freedom’s sake”. So, freedom does becomes a value to uphold in its own right, in Sartre’s hands.

By the introduction of freedom in this manner, Sartre cleared the decks and swept out the turgid thinking of centuries, of not only philosophy, but also religion. In turn, this clearing brought forth the idea that each of us should become our own project. And, as Jopling states: “We make ourselves and define our way of life by projecting ourselves toward the future, and by constantly going beyond the given situation in which we find ourselves.” Out of all the activities, pursuits, service and projects we can concoct and submit ourselves to, Sartre stands proud and declares that one project above all others should be prioritised and that I call “Project ‘I’”. It’s yours, it’s mine, it’s everybody’s. We each have our own Project ‘I’ and we are each free to cast ourselves into the future.

All together Project I.fw

Hence we near the completion of our Sartrean sojourn. He has given us a thorough, and incredibly complex, explanation of what he means by ‘man is free’. However, should we believe we have freedom, responsibility, ourselves as projects and take arms against bad faith? Or, should we argue that Sartre’s ethics is commits some sort of fallacy and is thereby unfounded and ultimately redundant? Personally, as I hope to have made clear, I feel there is much to learn from Sartre. However, maybe, if my argument has not been strong enough to convince you and you still hold that he was misguided in trying to derive ethics from ontological principles, the following can be said. One mustn’t forget that myths, sci-fi and fantasy provide examples of how to live if we suspend disbelief as to their originating premises. And, whilst they might not be held in high esteem when compared to the exalted heights of traditional philosophical thinking, they do emit, sometimes incredibly powerfully, tangible examples of how we should live and how we can be ethical. Not all learning about ethics comes solely from the font of the preserved tradition. I think Sartre’s didn’t and I certainly think yours shouldn’t.


  1. Jopling, D. A. ‘Sartre’s Moral Psychology’ included in The Cambridge Companion to Sartre. Edited by Christina Howells, Cambridge University Press, 1992. 111.
  2. Caws, P. Sartre, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979, 70.
  3. Jopling, D. A. ‘Sartre’s Moral Psychology’ reproduced in The Cambridge Companion to Sartre, Cambridge University Press, 1992. 111.
  4. Ibid., 113.
  5. Sartre, J-P. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes, Routledge, 1995, 625.
  6. Ibid. 625-626.
  7. See Howells, C. Sartre: The Necessity of Freedom, Cambridge University Press, 1988, 25.
  8. Sartre, J-P. Existentialism and Humanism. Translated by Philip Mairet, Methuen, 2007, 51.
  9. Sartre, J-P. Notebooks For An Ethics. Translated by David Pellauer, The University of Chicago Press, London, 1992, 3.
  10. Manser, A. Sartre: A Philosophic Study, The Althone Press, 1966, 138.

48. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists


Taking responsibility to heart and then acting on it is, more often than not, the hardest choice to make. Just as being authentic sometimes means having to redouble one’s efforts in order to persuade others of the worth of your conviction when they would rather shout you down.

We left the last post with freedom, responsibility and authenticity in our minds. We also had Sartre walking around the edge of ethics rather than leading step-by-step from a secure foundation through to a logical conclusion. So, in keeping with this spirit, and also the one that guides this series of posts, it makes sense to look for our cultural mirror in a work that has always been at the furthest edge of the canon but, by being there, has helped give shape and definition to that canon. The edge position occupied by The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is most readily understood due to the overtly political nature of its text. However, underneath there is also philosophical nature given form by one of the main protagonists, Frank Owen, who exemplifies in his words and deeds much of what Sartre shows us concerning responsibility and authenticity.

Robert Tressell.fw

Robert Tressell’s novel begins with twenty-five “carpenters, plumbers, plasterers, bricklayers and painters, besides several unskilled labourers”1 working to renovate the new home of a local dignity in the fictional southern town of Mugsborough. The story is set at the turn of the twentieth century and is based very much upon Tressell’s own experiences. Frank Owen is quickly picked out amongst the throng when a discussion emerges concerning “fissical policy”2 and politics. Owen immediately confronts, and seemingly sets himself above, his colleagues:

“Does the fact that you never ‘trouble your heads about politics’ prevent you from voting at election times?”3

We learn, as the text progresses, that Owen in contradistinction has taken the time and is very well apprised of politics. Tressell sides with Owen and writes a damning account of the other workers’ ignorance and how their minds are brainwashed by the media. Sociologically, Tressell’s account is remarkable in his concise assessment as it is also, apparently, timeless:

“None of them really understood the subject: not one of them had ever devoted fifteen consecutive minutes to the earnest investigation of it. The papers they read were filled with vague and alarming accounts of the quantities of foreign merchandise imported into this country, the enormous numbers of aliens constantly arriving, and their destitute conditions, how they lived, the crimes they committed, and the injury they did to British trade. These were the seeds which, cunningly sown in their minds, caused to grow up within them a bitter undiscriminating hatred of foreigners… The country was in a hell of a state, poverty, hunger and misery in a hundred forms had already invaded thousands of homes and stood upon the thresholds of thousands more. How came these things to be? It was the bloody foreigner!”4


This is Owen’s base layer, to which he decides to tackle and find some way to correct. Discussions ensue throughout the work on the house in the break-times, no talking being allowed during work except when relevant to the job in hand. The first topic of conversation is the cause of poverty, to which the others ascribe all manner of red herrings. Over-population, drink, laziness, machinery, women, education, and early marriages were all trotted out causing Owen to reflect “Were they all hopelessly stupid? Had their intelligence never developed beyond the childhood stage? Or was he himself mad?”5 Taking a different route, Owen decides to define his understanding of poverty:

“What I call poverty is when people are not able to secure for themselves all the benefits of civilisation; the necessaries, comforts, pleasures and refinements of life, leisure, books, theatres, pictures, music, holidays, travel, good and beautiful homes, good clothes, good and pleasant food.”6

The response to this list of outrageous requirements reveals one of Tressell’s fundamental tenets: the blind acceptance of a social hierarchy by those near or at the bottom:

“Everybody laughed. It was ridiculous. The idea of the likes of them wanting or having such things.”7

Workers laughing 3.fw

Owen’s response is to try and show his fellow workers that they should see themselves as equal to their ‘betters’: “We do our full share of the work, therefore we should have a full share of the things that are made by work.”8 Silence ensues as the others try to grapple with this novel idea and Owen takes the opportunity to push their minds further:

“As things are now, instead of enjoying the advantages of civilisation we are really worse off than slaves, for if we were slaves our owners in their own interest would see to it that we always had food…”9

At which point, he gets cut short. However, maybe there’s advantage in that for us to also interject and remind ourselves that Owen was right. Before the advent of the Welfare State, unions that had to be listened to and various pieces of legislation designed to protect individuals, life was incredibly perilous for most employees. The threat of being laid off and without an income to provide for food, clothing, warmth and shelter loomed around every corner, especially when work was of a piecemeal nature. And, it was to this status quo, which his peers all seemed to sign up to without question, that Owen applies himself throughout the book as he tries to teach them that life could be otherwise if only they could allow themselves to think differently. In his quest, though, Owen finds his views are shot down and thwarted by all those around and he expresses frustration to Nora, his wife:

“And yet, all their lives they have supported and defended the system that robbed them, and have resisted and ridiculed every proposal to alter it. It’s wrong to feel sorry for such people; they deserve to suffer.”10

Employment line.fw

Worse than this, though, Owen thinks about putting his small family, including his young son, Frankie, out of their own particular misery when he reads in the newspaper of a “Terrible Domestic Tragedy”11 committed by a man, whose home was devoid of furniture, food or any sign of hope, who took the lives of each member of his family before taking his own.

Owen, however, holds the dark thoughts about his fellow sufferers and his own personal condition at bay and at times seems to keep going just to spite and argue with his colleagues. When Bob Crass states, “Machinery is the real cause of poverty,”12 Owen, one feels, is almost compelled to point out his wrongheadedness:

“Machinery is undoubtedly the cause of unemployment, but it’s not the cause of poverty: that’s another matter altogether… Poverty consists in a shortage of the necessaries of life. When those things are so scarce or so dear that people are unable to obtain sufficient of them to satisfy all their needs, those people are in a condition of poverty. If you think that the machinery, which makes it possible to produce all the necessaries of life in abundance, is the cause of the shortage, it seems to me that there must be something the matter with your minds.”13

Machinery 2.fw

As the day-to-day drudgery of their work continues, Owen stance shifts and he takes less of a confrontational position that begins to show in his choice of pronouns. ‘We’ and ‘us’ replace ‘they’ and ‘your’ as he aligns himself with his peers rather than distancing himself from them. Talking to Will Easton, whilst they are both in the same room painting, an ‘illegal’ undertaking in their foreman’s eyes, Owen asks:

“Do you think it’s right for us to tamely make up our minds to live for the rest of our lives under such conditions…?”14

Easton’s reply misses the point as he believes that “trade hasn’t always been as bad as it is now.”15 Going further off-track, Easton recalls when they could work fourteen and sixteen hours a day, as if that would solve their problems. Owen, rather than adopting his previous ‘take no prisoners’ approach, tries to open Easton’s mind:

“But don’t you think it’s worth while trying to find out whether it’s possible to so arrange things that we be able to live like civilised human beings without being alternately worked to death or starved?”16

Death 2.fw

At this moment Owen, as well as moving beyond confrontation, starts to see his fellow workers as people who could conceivably change their thinking if encouraged and shown how. And with this new vision from Owen, perhaps we can start to see a glimmer of responsibility for those he worked with coming to the fore?

Steadily, Owen begins a process of attempting to talk to his colleagues during their breaks, in a way that they can understand. He is heckled and argued with along the way, but continues the next day if shouted down on the previous. Progress is made apparent by Tressell, when we witness Easton talking with Joe Philpot and Fred Harlow:

“’There’s no doubt Owen knows ‘is work,’ remarked Easton, although ‘e is a bit orf is onion about Socialism.’
‘I don’t know so much about that, mate,’ returned Philpot. ‘I agree with a lot that ‘e ses. I’ve often thought the same things meself, but I can’t talk like ‘im, cause I ain’t got no ‘ead for it.’
‘I agree with some of it too,’ said Harlow with a laugh, ‘but all the same ‘e does say some bloody silly things, you must admit.’”17


Two steps forward, one step back? A little while later, after Owen shows them what he he’s named the ‘Great Money Trick’, Harlow starts to show signs of understanding:

“I begin to think that a great deal of what Owen says is true. But for my part I can’t see ‘ow it’s ever goin’ to be altered.”18

Owen’s views and opinions are slowly showing signs of taking root in some of his peers, whilst others still cast aspersions. He is even nicknamed the ‘Professor’, by a few and rises to the occasion by jocularly taking to the ‘pulpit’, a small pair of steps arranged by Philpot:

“Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking, it is with some degree of hesitation that I venture to address myself to such a large, distinguished, fashionable and intelligent looking audience as that which I have the honour of seeing before me on the present occasion.”19

His good humour is rewarded by the laughter of those gathered in the room sitting on upturned pails, planks stretched across step-ladders lying on their sides, and other jerry-rigged temporary seating. Crass, who has been biding his time over the past few days, however unleashes the contents of a cutting from the Obscurer newspaper which he believes delivers a hammer blow to Owen’s ideas about Socialism. Owen doesn’t flinch and declares: “That isn’t an argument against Socialism – it’s an argument against the hypocrites who pretend to be Christians”20 and flings it back to Crass and some of the others whom he knows practice just such hypocrisy. As an open atheist, in a time when such free-thinking pretty made you an outcast, this was potentially a danger play to make. However, Owen doesn’t fall foul and is allowed to hold forth further due to the inability of Crass to pit his wits much further than reading out the newspaper cutting.

Socialism Hooey.fw

Where Owen takes his ‘congregation’ or lecture next, I believe, shines a Sartrean light. Whether the theme of hypocrisy was playing on Tressell’s mind or whether he just wanted to go where his narrative was flowing, we shall never know. He died from pulmonary tuberculosis as soon as the manuscript was completed in 1911, at the tragically early age of forty. Owen’s words, in the text, however, give insight into the undercurrent of his thinking, if we substitute ‘I’, or ‘Owen’, when he uses “The Socialist” or “he”:

“The Socialist… pleads for the changing of the system. He advocates Co-operation instead of Competition: but how can he co-operate with people who insist on competing with him? No individual can practise co-operation by himself! Socialism can only be practised by the Community – that is the meaning of the word.”21

Hastings 1911, image courtesy of Glyn Hughes’ The Hundred Books

Owen, if I read Tressell’s work correctly, has discovered that if he truly believes in Socialism then he must find a way to co-operate with others, even if, frustratingly, their first instinct is to reject his ideas. This is the demoralising path that he must tread if he is sincere in his belief in Socialism. And, such sincerity, of course, is only a theoretical stand-in for Sartre’s reworking of authenticity. To be a Socialist on one’s own is not to practice Socialism. So, with the arrival of this self-evident truth comes Owen’s entry into authenticity. Maybe because of this realisation that he needs others to understand in order for Socialism to attempt any kind of potential, he applies himself with more vigour to the task of explaining the cause of poverty to his audience and creates what Tressell, quite blandly, called The Oblong. Essentially, a chart to show pictorially how the products of labour get shared out amongst different sectors of society, The Oblong gives an anchor for the others to grapple intellectually with as Owen tries to educate them as to how the nation’s wealth is created and into whose pockets most of that wealth gets distributed:

“They were compelled to do a little thinking on their own account, and it was a process to which they were unaccustomed… Several men had risen from their seats and were attentively studying the diagrams Owen had drawn on the wall; and nearly all the others were making the same mental effort.”22

The Oblong.fw

Owen hadn’t quite achieved a eureka moment, though, because as Tressell makes clear, “they were trying to think of something to say in defence of those who robbed them of the fruits of their toil.”23 Resistance brought forth no tenable opposition, however.

What happens next in the novel, for Owen, is a series of more personal involvements with his colleagues. He lends pamphlets and books on Socialism to those who ask, he buys and distributes pamphlets, and even got attacked by an angry mob during the election season. Throughout, he is dogged by doubt and depressive thoughts, but his actions continue to display the authenticity he has found. Two of his actions stand out, right at the last in the novel, which demonstrate how Sartrean responsibility had also come to pass within Owen’s outlook and life.


Since the separation of Easton from his wife, Ruth, Owen and Nora have had Ruth and her child living with them. This state of affairs has unsettled Easton and he wants her back. However, at the start he thinks it should be on his terms. Owen “unable to control his resentment of the other’s manner”24 steps up and seizes responsibility for his fellow worker and tells him what’s what:

“As far as I understand it, you had a good wife and you ill-treated her… The responsibility for what has happened is mainly yours, but apparently you wish to pose now as being very generous and to ‘forgive her’ – you’re ‘willing’ to take her back; but it seems to me that it would be more fitting that you should ask her to forgive you.”25

Finger pointing.fw

To give Easton his due, he listened to Owen and acted accordingly. Owen’s next conquest and display of responsibility occurs when he finds the undernourished and poorly developed fifteen year-old apprentice, Bert White, hard at work without any fire to warm him in an out-building at Rushton’s firm. Owen countering Bert’s protests, that he has been told not to burn any of the waste wood because it is needed elsewhere, throws some timber into the fireplace and lights it. Owen then seeks out Rushton to reprimand him regarding his ill treatment of the young lad. Telling Rushton that he’ll have him prosecuted if he ever makes Bert work without a fire in winter again, Owen stands up to be counted and allows his words and actions to take another stance of responsibility. Rushton, just as Easton before him, knuckles under and acquiesces, but only after giving Owen a sleepless night of terror as he dreads the prospect of being laid off for insolence.

Taking responsibility to heart and then acting on it is, more often than not, the hardest choice to make. Just as being authentic sometimes means having to redouble one’s efforts in order to persuade others of the worth of your conviction when they would rather shout you down.



  1. Tressell, R. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Oxford University Press, 2008, 9.
  2. Ibid., 14.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., 15.
  5. Ibid., 19.
  6. Ibid., 22.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid., 23.
  9. Ibid., 23-24.
  10. Ibid., 81.
  11. Ibid., 84.
  12. Ibid., 97.
  13. Ibid., 97-98.
  14. Ibid., 127.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid., 178.
  18. Ibid., 220.
  19. Ibid., 267.
  20. Ibid., 270.
  21. Ibid., 270-271.
  22. Ibid., 287.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid., 582.
  25. Ibid., 583.

47. Responsibility


Am I here and engaged, or am I wishing that I was somewhere else?

To live as humans within our world and accept responsibility for our actions, I believe, was the implicit and deep ethical driving force of Being and Nothingness. And, perhaps controversially, I think it was delivered by Sartre’s insistence that we should accept our given ‘ontological freedom’. The controversy arises because, as we have seen previously, Sartre makes a very good case for an ontological foundation for freedom, however, as we have also seen, this doesn’t mean we can proceed directly to formulate any real kind of ethics. Or, does it?

As far as Sartre was concerned, the decisions taken by those who avoid accepting their freedom and act in bad faith are conscious decisions. The decision making process is one that is a conscious one. One either acts in good faith by understanding and accepting one’s freedom or one chooses to override one’s freedom and say ‘I have no choice’ which then results in an act of bad faith. The important part being that a decision is made and that a consciousness takes that decision. Now, if a consciousness is involved one can therefore attribute a moral compass, because those possessed of consciousness are also possessed of the ability to understand that their actions can be moral or immoral. Therefore, as far as Sartre was concerned, bad faith must ultimately be viewed as immoral. When people understand themselves as compelled to act in certain ways by forces outside of their control, they act in bad faith and, as such, it can be said that they act immorally.

Compelled to act immorally.fw

Now, this is interesting because it adds a second dimension to bad faith. The first we have seen already. To recapitulate, when one acts in bad faith one attempts to deny one’s freedom and become some sort of quasi being-in-itself that does not have control over its own destiny. One’s humanity is stripped away. The second dimension attempts to strip away one’s responsibility. When someone believes themselves to be compelled to act in a certain way, they both renounce their freedom and their responsibility for their actions. This is because responsibility is present whether we like it or not due to the very fact that we have consciousness. The game is given away because we choose to act in bad faith. Believing and choosing belie consciousness, which entails responsibility. You simply can’t believe and choose without understanding responsibility. There is no escape. Someone acting in bad faith would always be brought to account by Sartre.

So, even when, following Heidegger, I see myself as ‘thrown’ into the world without consultation, I cannot but accept freedom as my birth-rite and have its ethical twin, responsibility, to attend to and escort me through life. I am not, after all, a mere rock or leaf at the mercy of causation. I am a being-for-itself, I am conscious, I am free, and finally I am accountable and without excuse. Consequently, for Sartre then, the conviction with which he put forward freedom is one at the same time that brings forth ethics, because freedom is, in his eyes, entwined completely with responsibility. To accept that one is free is to accept that one is responsible and, for Sartre, this is also to accept that one is human.

Freedom ad responsibility.fw

Before moving on, I want us to pause and reflect once more upon the positioning of freedom that Sartre presented. By stating that freedom is an ontological given for being-for-itself he could have, in some ways, concluded his argument, packed up his type-writer, and delivered the manuscript of Being and Nothingness to his publisher in the knowledge that he had given the world of philosophy an interesting phenomenological text to read alongside Heidegger’s Being and Time, and then reclined in the nearest armchair to smoke a congratulatory cigar. Sartre, though, I believe didn’t want to stop at the world of philosophy. Instead, Sartre wanted to pursue the impossible and find ethics from ontology and give something to the whole world. Now, as we have seen there have been many problems of logical consistency that have, if we are to be fair, hampered the presentation of his ideas. Probably, as a consequence, it must also be acknowledged that Sartre’s thoughts within philosophical circles have not been universally accepted; indeed it might be more correct to state that they have been more thoroughly ignored than diligently read. That said though, it is Sartre’s wider ambition that I have always been fascinated by and it is that ambition to search for ethics that has guided our current investigation and brought us to the brink of understanding Sartre’s ethical relevance.

So, reflective pause over, let’s get back to consciousness because it seems that Sartre is backing this horse as a front runner. The reason for such favouring, by Sartre, is that even though freedom is an ontological given it is also, he has decided, something affected by consciousness. However, the introduction of consciousness into the flow of how one gets from freedom to ethics is not without its problems.

Concsciousness introduced.fw

As we have seen previously in the examples of bad faith, from both psychological determinism and albeit a mis-representation of psychoanalysis, of which we can construe these are but two, Sartre obviously realised that consciousness plays a major role in the acceptance or not of one’s freedom. In both examples it was the decision of consciousness to reject freedom and act in bad faith; even in the psychoanalytic example because the individual’s consciousness chooses to believe that they have a motivating unconscious force guiding their actions which they can not necessarily control. Conversely then, the opposite must surely apply and I can consciously decide to accept my freedom and act in ‘good faith.’ And, as we are starting to understand, the role of consciousness within Sartre’s thinking must not be overlooked. Acting in ‘good faith’ is a decision, taken by consciousness that actively chooses to embrace the freedom contained within each of us. The importance of my applying such a direct spotlight is that, according to Sartre, our actions come after consciousness: the decision to be responsible comes after our consciousness. This is no small footnote regarding Sartrean thinking but rather a somewhat overlooked major cornerstone to his thought that has massive implications when placed in contrast to his contemporary Levinas who believed the opposite and stated that responsibility comes before consciousness. So, this could be a problem. Who is right? Sartre or Levinas?

Well, let’s not start nailing our trousers to one or the other’s masts just yet. Sartre has another problem. One also has to make a ‘leap of faith’ to overcome a different inherent philosophical chestnut when starting out towards ethics from ontological precepts: The question of identity.


The question of identity becomes an issue because just who is it that accepts responsibility for my actions when I am free to change my identity if, according to Sartre, I have no pre-determined essence? The consciousness which I possess as a being-for-itself gives me freedom, but at the same time prevents me from having an essence from which I could gain an identity. Christina Howells highlights this dilemma:

“Consciousness is entirely spontaneous, caused neither by the world nor by its own past. It is defined in radical opposition to the being of things which is solid, self-identical, subject to the laws of causality.”1

The difficulty that Sartre set himself, then, is that one can’t get to, or possess, an identity if one has consciousness. If I were to have identity then I would lose my freedom and consciousness and I would be, in effect, dead. The only way for me to have both freedom and identity would be for me to be God: an impossibility for Sartre and, let’s be honest, rightly so.


There is a solution that Sartre provides to this problem, however, and it goes something like this: The free person has to choose how to act and decide what they should do and what they should not do. Whatever they decide, though, they have to take responsibility for their actions and face up to the moral implications of those actions. But how can they if they have no identity? For Sartre, and here comes the solution, it is precisely because ‘man’ has no identity and has nothing at his heart that he is free to choose how he acts, and in doing so he will invent himself.

Now, let’s go carefully here, because it seems that Sartre might be philosophically lifting himself up by his bootstraps or he might just have resolved that which at first glance appeared unresolvable. ‘Man’, and we have to recognise that Sartre was unfortunately bereft of certain fundamental feminist principles, by having no fixed identity can be free to act as ‘he’ wishes. Or, to put it another way, the fact that I don’t have an identity actually acts to reinforce my freedom. So, I have freedom, but no identity. Plus, as we know, I also have consciousness. In order to be a Sartrean citizen I have to relinquish any ideas I might have regarding my identity, remember existence precedes essence. And, if one thinks about it, this is actually congruent with Sartrean logic because freedom means no fixed identity. Today I’m a primary school teacher in Bristol, tomorrow I might be a train driver in Aviemore, Scotland. Who knows what will happen? Freedom is limitless. Perhaps, though, I can think further than Aviemore and trains?

Aviemore train driver.fw

The encapsulation Sartre gave to this overcoming of the problem of identity was “You are free to choose, that is to say, invent.”2 So, it seems that as well as being condemned to be free, we are also condemned to invent ourselves; there is nothing else we can do.

However, and this takes us back to our first discussion point, we have to take moral responsibility for any ‘invention’ we apply to ourselves, and we cannot apportion blame to anyone else for our actions, because we are completely free to choose our invention. The invention of ourselves comes from our freedom not from what someone else dictates we should be.

And this is where Sartre attacks that first problem head on (as to whether responsibility comes after consciousness, as opposed to Levinas who believes the ordering of the two is reversed). Towards the end of Being and Nothingness, all right let’s state it, on page 553, Sartre writes:

“We are taking the word ‘responsibility’ in its ordinary sense as ‘consciousness (of) being the incontestable author of an event or of an object’.”3

Our consciousness, then, gives us no wriggle whatsoever in terms of it being ‘me’ who has performed the action of eating all the chocolate mousse in the fridge. Even if I try to blame it on Peter for egging me on, really it was my choice to actually eat all the mousse. I am the incontestable author of the great chocolate mousse theft and, importantly, I am conscious as to my responsibility. I alone must take the rap for this heinous crime.


All of which means, as a freely choosing being-for-itself however I invent myself, I have to take responsibility for my actions, even the ones in the past when I was a primary school teacher in Bristol (as I said at the time, I’m really sorry that Kevin the gerbil jumped out of my hands during show and tell and was never to be seen again). There can be no running away from moral responsibility as far as Sartre was concerned, even if we have no logically provable identity.

Maybe that’s the key here to the Levinas – Sartre debate as to which comes first: responsibility or consciousness. Both Levinas and Sartre would fall foul of any logically provable test applied to their thinking on responsibility and consciousness (see post 25 for Levinas). For Sartre, the foul occurs due to there being no actual, logical provable, guarantee that having consciousness means one will bear the burden of their responsibility. Someone might just shrug and state I don’t care, which would make them ammoral, according to Sartre. And, for a different person to shy away and ooze out of the door to evade being caught with their spoon in the chocolate mousse would make that person ethically immoral, as far as Sartre was concerned. This is because they know they are doing something wrong but, yet, still they go ahead and do it. And, if they proceed to blame Peter, upon capture or declare that they had to eat the chocolate mousse to save the planet from evils of chocolate and that really their actions are entirely necessary to save the rest of the human race, then they are going to be called ‘coward’ or ‘scum’ by Sartre because they are acting in bad faith. However, whatever Sartrean name calling might be applied, the logical point still stands that having consciousness doesn’t necessarily mean that one has responsibility.

Ignoring responsibility.fw

Sartre’s logical side-step at this point, however, is to state that freedom implies a kind of moral imperative, which of course is predicated upon a desire in the individual to actually be good in the first place. Those who shrug, shy away and evade in their acts of bad faith aren’t really his audience. Instead, Sartre is trying to appeal to those who want to be good. So the penultimate play that Sartre makes before setting out his thoughts on how each one of us are our own ongoing project, is to rework a favourite Kierkegaardian theme: authenticity. Reliance on any kind of religious faith and also being true to oneself are dismissed, of course, in favour of always acting in good faith.

The much discussed bad faith has it’s mirror in good faith or being authentic. In his Sartre: A Philosophic Study, Anthony Manser discusses Sartre’s notion of authenticity by referring to Sartre’s own work, Anti-Semite and Jew, from which Manser quotes:

“Authenticity, it is obvious, consists in having a lucid and truthful awareness of the situation, in bearing the responsibilities and risks which the situation demands, in taking it upon oneself with pride or humility, sometimes with horror and hatred.”4


Manser continues to examine criticisms of Sartre’s notion of authenticity. However, instead of parroting Manser I want to try and get a little further under the skin and look at authenticity afresh. “Bearing the responsibilities and risks which the situation demands” surely means sticking with the situation or problem and not running away from it or trying to shove someone else in to act as scapegoat or protagonist when actually it is ‘I’ who must see the thing through. But it is also realising that my own freedom has brought me to this position. I have chosen to be in the situation that I now find myself and therefore I should act in good faith by being fully present and engaged and accepting of whatever comes, whether it is “pride or humility” or the more terrifying “horror and hatred.” If one stops to pause or reflect on the number of occasions one has been in a meeting, at a party, chatting to one’s partner, or walking one’s child to school and asks the simple question ‘Am I here and engaged or am I wishing that I was somewhere else?’ then the difference between being authentic and being in bad faith should be brought into relief and easy to understand. For Sartre, at every instance, he would state that we have chosen to be where we are and that we should accept and affirm that choice by being authentic in that situation.

Possibly, there is a confrontation with Heidegger’s notion that we are thrown into the world, with Sartre taking a more affirmative stance in stating that we choose to be here. However, the Sartrean point that I want to stay with, though, is that all the way through he is fighting to get to this sense of responsibility. Sometimes, even he knows the precise logic of his argument is flawed and sometimes others have applied criticisms which if taken on there on act to disable Sartre’s particular argument at that moment. However, even agreeing that there are flaws, I’m still left with the insights, thoughts and ideas, we have seen, which even if they talk on the edges of ethics as opposed to neatly leading step by step to ethics are still sharp, meaningful and powerful. The thoughts, the glimpses, that Sartre shows, I think, do start to add up to something unique and important for everyone, not just philosophers, to understand. Plus, the yearning he has to demonstrate ethics and responsibility are palpable and present, and this can only add to his body of work. So, foundational, step-by-step, logically precise pathways be damned. I know there is wisdom to be found in Sartre’s walking and talking that circles around the edges of ethics, even with its name calling. So, as wait for our last Sartrean episode, I would like you to raise your glasses and cheer: For freedom, for responsibility and for authenticity!

Raise your glasses.fw


  1. Howells, C. Sartre: The Necessity of Freedom, Cambridge University Press, 1988, 16.
  2. Sartre, J-P. Existentialism and Humanism. Translated by Philip Mairet, Methuen, 2007, 38.
  3. Sartre, J-P. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes, Routledge, 1995, 553.
  4. Manser, A. Sartre: A Philosophic Study, The Althone Press, 1966, 155.


46. The Name of the Rose


“I have been the hand of God.”1
Jorge of Burgos in The Name of the Rose

As we saw in the last post, ‘bad faith’ amounts to an excuse for a person’s actions. It is also a pathway actively chosen by the person themselves; they are ultimately responsible for the adoption of their pathway. The freedom that each of us has means that we are free to choose how to act or not act, thus we bear the full responsibility of our actions or inactions. To pretend that we aren’t free or to hide from our freedom is also an act of bad faith. Even if we claim to have been directed in our course by someone else, for example, an authority we have yielded under, then we are still in bad faith. This is because we have chosen to attach ourselves to that authority’s yoke. Indeed, anyone who hides behind authorities or deterministic excuses Sartre calls ‘cowards’ and those who believe that their existence is necessary he calls ‘scum’. It seems the Sartrean principles of “existence precedes essence”2 and ‘freedom’ are not to be easily challenged and name-calling might well ensue.

In 1980, Umberto Eco published his debut novel, The Name of the Rose. An extra-ordinary achievement of scholarship, narration and plot that pushed the literary bar several notches skywards. The tale of William of Baskerville’s seven days at a Benedictine monastery in Northern Italy with his novice, Adso of Melk, transcends and refuses easy classification. ‘Historical Novel’, clips the wings rather of Eco’s work. However, we must place appreciation to one side. Ours is a different approach. The variety of medieval religious sects, the theological disputes, the visual time-capsule Eco reveals, alongside the gruesome deaths and the detective work of William of Baskerville must all go unacknowledged, as well as the sub-plots of Adso’s sexual awakening, the complexity of the Library as Labyrinth and even the science and philosophy of Roger Bacon.

Roger Bacon and Science.fw

Instead, our focus must be on Sartrean bad faith, because it is present in spades within The Name of the Rose. The book is set in a monastery and therefore, according to Sartrean logic every monk – which the novel mainly features as opposed to lay people such as peasants and militia – would automatically fulfil Sartre’s criteria for bad faith of the ‘coward’ type. There could be great scope for disagreement here due to certain monks in the story not conforming to type at all. Remigio of Varagine and Salvatore of Montferrat don’t really appear as religiously orthodox in their thinking and let’s be honest neither does William of Baskerville. In the main though, even if some of them are only giving cursory lip service, the cast is replete with monks who all worship their Benedictine or Franciscan model of Christianity with all the usual trappings, and more. So, Sartrean bad faith is par for the course amongst the characters of Eco’s monastery. Individual freedom has long been forsaken and the authority of the word, or Holy Father, or the Abbott of the monastery has replaced the slot in their minds where a sense of Sartrean freedom should be resplendent. As a specific example of bad faith, throughout the text the several references are made to “the people of God” being divided “into shepherds (namely, the clerics), dogs (that is, warriors), and sheep (the populace)”3 and this understanding acts almost like a framework for the monks to bolster their own sense of importance in society. Although, one rarely sees any shepherding of the people take place in Eco’s text, which one assumes is historically accurate and the case!

Good Shepherd Fresco.fw

In the knowledge that the accusation of anachronistic thinking could be levied at my door, I concur and do not want to charge the general run of the monks any further with Sartrean name-calling. I do want to hurl a little verbiage in one direction, however, because it is rather interesting and also coincidentally it is the one upon which the axis of the plot develops, which can act as a frisson of spice to our exploration.

Arriving in November, with “three fingers”4 of snow on the ground, Adso and his master, William of Baskerville, are greeted at a mountainous Italian abbey, home to sixty monks. The year is 1327 and the abbott and William exchange religious flattery and pleasantries: “It is a great joy for me to set foot in Your Magnificence’s monastery, whose fame has travelled beyond these mountains.”5 Very quickly, though, pleasantries are somewhat abandoned and the rift between respective theologies is exposed; such as when the abbot asks of William, really stating that he disagrees: “Why do you insist on speaking of criminal acts without referring to their diabolical cause?”6 William is cast by Eco as an outsider who submits only to his own way of thinking rather than blindly following doctrine in the manner the Benedictine abbot has been taught and preaches. However, mutual respect overcomes differences and the abbot shares with William the story of the very recent mysterious death of Adelmo of Otranto at the abbey and even asks for William’s help in investigating what he suspects is a crime.

The Abbe and William.fw

On the first day William and Adso do the rounds and meet with the various key players in Eco’s tightly bound plot that matures its detective narrative slowly. The key figure of Jorge of Burgos is encountered and described as the second eldest of the monks in the abbey, blind and also the receiver of many confessions from the other monks. Jorge also makes an impact on William due to his passionate aversion to laughter, which he savagely defends when he and William converse:

“’But when Saint Lawrence was placed on the gridiron,’ William whispered with a saintly air, ‘at a certain point he invited his executioners to turn him over, saying that that side was already cooked…’
‘Which proves that laughter is something very close to death and to the corruption of the body,’ Jorge replied with a snarl.”7

With the advent of the second day, there is a second death. Venantius of Salvemec is found upturned in a great jar containing pigs blood.

Venantius death.fw

Unlike Adelmo’s fall from a great height, Venantius’ death very clearly indicates foul play by a third party. The abbot wastes no time and pleads with William:

“Brother William, as you see, something is afoot in this abbey, something that demands all your wisdom. But I beseech you: act quickly!”8

So, in true Sherlock Holmes fashion the game has been declared ‘afoot’ and William can begin his investigations in earnest. Benno of Uppsala, a student of rhetoric, is ‘interviewed’ and acts for Eco to present vital clues:

“Venantius, who knows … who knew Greek very well, said that Aristotle had dedicated the second book of Poetics specifically to laughter, and that if a philosopher of such greatness had devoted a whole book to laughter, then laughter must be important… Jorge asked him contemptuously whether by any chance he had read this book of Aristotle; and Venantius said that no one could have read it, because it has never been found and is perhaps lost forever…. Then Jorge said that if it had not been found, this was because it had never been written.”9


William and Jorge continue their discussion/argument about laughter and its place within a religious world view, with a stalemate outcome that provides context for Jorge’s thoughts: “Jesting about laughter, you draw me into idle debate. But you know that Christ did not laugh”.10 We also learn that Adelmo confessed his sins to Jorge. He apparently submitted to Berengar’s carnal desire for him, which led to feelings of shame, his confession and then ultimately his death as he hurled himself from the highest point in the abbey. William begins to suspect Jorge’s hand behind the deaths of the two monks, but questions how a blind old man “can kill another man in the fullness of his strength”.11

Eco systematically pours complication and context into William’s path as we learn about various breeds of heretics and start to understand the labyrinth that is the abbey’s library and Adso has his first, and possibly last (if we believe him as narrator), sexual encounter. The coming of the Anti-Christ/Apocalypse is also causing great concern among the ranks as the eldest, Alinardo recounts “the book of the apostle.”12 Later we discover this is John and the book of Revelations, where seven trumpets will sound across seven days to act as the heralds of doom:

Seven Trumpets.fw

“With the first trumpet came hail, with the second a third part of the sea became blood; and you found one body in hail [Adelmo died in a storm], the other in blood… The third trumpet warns that a burning star will fall in the third part of rivers and fountains of waters.”13

We also learn that Berengar has gone missing. And, sufficiently taken with this trumpet ‘guidance’, William has his own revelation and reasons that a “diabolical or sick mind could have been inspired by Adelmo’s death to arrange the other two in a symbolic way.”14 From this supposition, he realises that the only place in the abbey where a monk could drown is in the baths. And so he dully finds the body of the no longer missing Berengar, drowned at bottom of one of the bathtubs.

Berengar drowned.fw

With Severinus, the herbalist, William examined the bodies of the dead and noted that Venantius and Berengar both had black fingers tips on their right hands and a blackened tongue. Poison is swiftly considered as the cause of death and that, William states, “would suggest a malignant mind brooding for a long time in darkness over a murderous plan.”15

As well as being intellectually entranced by possibility of “a diabolical or sick mind” following Alinardo’s seven trumpets prophecy, William is also certain that one of the books in the Library is playing a part in the whole sinister affair. First seen on Venantius’ desk, a book written in Greek has vanished along with William’s glasses when he was examining the Greek translators desk for clues but got disturbed by the spying presence of another in the dead of night. Getting drawn away from the desk to unsuccessfully chase and discover whom the other person was, William returned only to find the book and glasses gone. Doubly dashed, he concludes that the book has a significant role to play in the recent deaths.

The book and glasses.fw

On the fifth day, Severinus tells William that he has found “a strange book”16 in his infirmary, which he believes was left or placed there by Berengar on the night he died. Just as Adso and William receive this information they “realized that, silent as was custom, Jorge had appeared as if by magic”17 at their side. Unfortunately, before they can get to the infirmary to look at the “strange book”, Severinus was murdered, smashed on the head by a large metal “armillary sphere,”18 used in astronomical science. Suspicions as to Jorge’s role flair in William and Adso’s minds, “but Jorge couldn’t have killed a strong man like Severinus, and with such violence.”19 Jorge’s age and blindness rule him out of the deed itself. However, William realises that the fourth trumpet of John the apostle refers to stars and he and Adso start to speculate regarding the fifth trumpet. The location of the book, though, which William starts to realise is forbidden, also needs to be unearthed.

In the meantime, the abbot entrusts a sermon to Jorge regarding the four deaths at the abbey. Jorge, however, takes to the pulpit with his own stance and delivers a verbal thrashing of his junior monks whilst setting out his views on the deaths and upon the purpose of the abbey:

“Madmen and presumptuous fools that you are! He who has killed will bear before God the burden of his guilt, but only because he agreed to become the vehicle of the decrees of God. Just as it was necessary for someone to betray Jesus in order for the mystery of redemption to be accomplished… Thus someone has sinned in these days, bringing death and ruination, but I say to you that this ruination was, if he not desired, at least permitted by God for the humbling of our pride.”20

Jorge peaching.fw

The murderer in Jorge’s mind serves a divine purpose and because of this we can easily start to see Jorge’s bad faith bubbling up to the surface. Jorge, however, doesn’t let his bad faith stop there:

“The work of our order and in particular the work of this monastery, a part – indeed, the substance – is study, and the preservation of knowledge. Preservation of, I say, not search for, because the property of knowledge, as a divine thing, is that it is complete and has been defined since the beginning, in the perfection of the Word which expresses itself to itself. Preservation, I say, and not search… There is no progress, no revolution of ages, in the history of knowledge, but at most a continuous and sublime recapitulation.”21

As well as being the thesis of the Dark Ages, with William’s character symbolising a proto-Renaissance antithesis, Jorge’s statements set down his core beliefs for the purpose of the monastery and his religious brethren as far as he sees it. And, let’s not forgot that Eco has layered symbolism in making Jorge blind. Nothing new shall be seen by Jorge and nothing new is desired by him or is within the scope of his earthly purpose as given from on high by the Word of God and set down by the apostles.

The word of God.fw

The monks in the abbey have their place and their purpose. Almost nothing could be better as an example of bad faith.

The sixth day brings the fifth death. Malachi collapses, gasps his last and dies at Matins in front of the whole monastery. On examination, William notices, “the pads of the first three fingers of the right hand were darkened.”22 The seventh day brings the inevitable showdown between William and Jorge. In the middle of the library’s labyrinth, the Finis Africae is the final secret room, whose entrance Adso and William must crack. Inside they discover Jorge: “Happy night, venerable Jorge. Were you waiting for us?”23 William asks. In their ensuing dialogue, William and Jorge, realising that they are both at the end of the chase, share the final explanations of what occurred at the abbey in true detective story fashion. Jorge has the book that William has been seeking and even agrees to let the Franciscan look at it: “‘Read it, leaf through it, William,’ Jorge said. ‘You have won.’”24 The text is the second book of the Poetics of Aristotle, “the book everyone has believed lost or never written.”25 Wisely William wears gloves as he reads it because he correctly surmises that years ago, before he was blind, Jorge poisoned the pages of the book so when anyone licks their fingers to turn the page they ingest the poison and die.


As the tense discussion ensues William coaxes Jorge onwards to state his motivation by asking, “Why did you want to shield this book more than so many others?”26 Jorge’s answers:

“Because it was by the Philosopher [Aristotle]. Every book by that man has destroyed a part of learning that Christianity had accumulated over the centuries… Every word of the Philosopher, by whom now even saints and prophets swear, has overturned the image of the world. But he had not succeeded in overturning the image of God. If this book were to become an object for open interpretation, we would have crossed the last boundary… here [Jorge points to the book] the function of laughter is reversed, it is elevated to art, the doors of the world of the learned are opened to it, it becomes the object of philosophy and of perfidious theology.”27

Jorge further explained the extent of the power he believed resided in the words of the second book of the Poetics: “This book could strike the Luciferine spark that would set a new fire to the whole world, and laughter would be defined as the new art, unknown even to Prometheus, for cancelling fear.”28 Essentially, the text would act as an antidote to the power that the church held over the masses and this was something that Jorge felt he could never allow to be released into the world at any cost. To further clear his own conscious, though, as to those who died, Jorge stated: “I have killed no one. Each died according to his destiny because of his sins.”29 However, more than that and in absolute bad faith he stated “I was only an instrument”30 and later “I have been the hand of God.”31 And with such statements, Jorge shows that he moves further than his fellow monks who display bad faith of the nature that hides behind the will of authorities, because his type of bad faith is the version Sartre allocated specifically to those who believe their existence necessary and we all know what he called them!



  1. Eco, U. The Name of The Rose. Translated by William Weaver, Vintage Books, London, 2014, 512.
  2. Sartre, J-P. Existentialism and Humanism. Translated by Philip Mairet, Methuen, 2007, 28.
  3. Eco, U. The Name of The Rose. Translated by William Weaver, Vintage Books, London, 2014, 156.
  4. Ibid., 23.
  5. Ibid., 27.
  6. Ibid., 33.
  7. Ibid., 103-104.
  8. Ibid., 112.
  9. Ibid., 120.
  10. Ibid., 143.
  11. Ibid., 151.
  12. Ibid., 273.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid., 273-274.
  15. Ibid., 284.
  16. Ibid., 372.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid., 382.
  19. Ibid., 386.
  20. Ibid., 425.
  21. Ibid., 426.
  22. Ibid., 443.
  23. Ibid., 495.
  24. Ibid., 499.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Ibid., 506.
  27. Ibid., 506-507.
  28. Ibid., 508.
  29. Ibid., 504.
  30. Ibid.
  31. Ibid., 512.

45. Bad Faith


“Those who hide from this total freedom, in a guise of solemnity or with deterministic excuses, I shall call cowards. Others, who try to show that their existence is necessary, when it is merely an accident of the appearance of the human race on earth, – I shall call scum.”1
Jean-Paul Sartre

One of the critical issues for Sartre in his philosophy is whether each of us can actually stay with the anguish that appears in the face of freedom or, instead, we find ourselves fleeing and ducking behind the sofa trying to pretend it isn’t there.

Flights from anguish, for Sartre, amount to what he called acts of ‘bad faith’. So, if a student, using Gregory McCulloch’s favoured example of a typical British university scholar, decides to view their life as being psychologically determined because their parents have instilled in them certain values that prioritise education, then according to Sartre they are acting in bad faith. This is because they do not accept their freedom and they try to hide from it in the manner of one who is guilty. By endeavouring to flee from the anguish induced by their freedom, the student, according to Sartre, attempts to fill the void of nothingness, which is present within each of us. Following the logic through, any such attempt to fill the void of nothingness in such a manner denies our very capacity for being human and effectively renders the individual in question as mere being-in-itself. The student following their parents’ directive consequently becomes a puppet or, to be more precise, hides from freedom by adopting the role of puppet.


Essentially Sartre, in structuring his philosophical system in the way that he had, was shoring it up and protecting freedom from attack. By presenting those who wished to ignore his findings as somehow deficient, by categorising them as being-in-itself, he armed himself with a quite offensive and antagonistic form of philosophy. A by-product, or perhaps strategically designed outcome, was that he ensured his philosophy had to be listened to and engaged with. So, it could be argued, a theme of quite aggressive manoeuvring began to be developed as Sartre built-up his confidence at the same time as effectively identifying his enemies.

One, of course, has to remember the situation in which Sartre was writing and developing his ideas for Being and Nothingness, in that France was under fascist occupation with World War II providing the very visceral backdrop to Sartre’s daily life and thoughts. Great things regarding humanity and its choices were at stake. Sartre himself served in the French army as a meteorologist and was captured by German troops and imprisoned for nine months in 1940-41. Upon his release in April 1941, due to poor health (his eye-sight, he argued, affected his balance), Sartre co-founded Socialisme et Liberté, an underground group with Simone de Beauvoir and other like-minded and active philosophers who want to resist the German occupation of France and the Vichy regime. The group disbanded shortly after emerging due to Sartre becoming disillusioned with those such as André Malraux and André Gide who, for whatever reason, couldn’t commit to joining Socialisme et Liberté. It was at this juncture that Sartre turned from direct action to focus ardently upon writing – possibly a much better use of his talents.


Maybe the disappointment of the two Andrés indecisiveness spurred Sartre’s mind regarding the philosophy contained within Being and Nothingness, because one cannot help thinking that his argumentation concerning freedom and anguish seems to relate to direct personal experience on his part, so strong is his insistence. Whether this is the case though is beyond our scope. What isn’t is Sartre’s very clear upholding of freedom which comes through in spades when one takes even of a cursory look at his more journalistic output towards the end of World War II. The belief in freedom in the midst of oppression positively shouts and declares its intent. Writing in The Atlantic Monthly, in December 1944, Sartre asserts the following:

“Never were we freer than under German occupation… The more the Nazi venom crept into our thoughts the more each precise thought became a conquest… Indeed the cruelty of the enemy pushed us to the extremes… all those of us (and what Frenchman was not at one time or another in this position?) who, knowing something important to the Resistance, have asked ourselves in anguish, ‘If they torture me, can I hold on?’ Thus indeed was the question of liberty brought to the very edge of the profoundest comprehension that man can have of himself.”2

Nazi Torture.fw

Clearly, the role that Sartre saw played out in the heart of every “Frenchman” during the occupation was one that was guided by the power of personal freedom for each to play their part in the Resistance. And, not as a puppet but as an active citizen knowing full well the possible perils of such action. The psychological determinism of fascist occupation in its brainwashing and very real physical threats were intended to crush the spirit and create obedience. When the threat of torture is present, against a backdrop of brainwashing, psychological determinism should be in full swing. So thought the Nazis. But as Sartre and history tells, this ‘ain’t necessarily so’. The choice to withhold information from the German occupiers goes against their deterministic setup but occurred time and time again, as Frenchmen and Frenchwomen asserted their freedom and resisted.

French Resistance-1944

This is Sartre’s point and also why he felt so strongly in regard to freedom and why he continually made the case for us to be aware of its presence. For him, freedom was the ultimate means of knowing and distinguishing that we are human: we always have freedom. To deny freedom, of course, is to set against Sartre and he will place all deniers in the realm of non-human as Beings-in-themselves as opposed to Beings-for-themselves. To, perhaps, make such a distinction easier for those who might not have drunk at the fountain of knowledge that is Being and Nothingness, Sartre made things a littler simpler by announcing that those who tried to deny freedom were acting with ‘bad faith’.

Quite early on in Being and Nothingness, when his thoughts revolved around notions of consciousness, Sartre outlined bad faith as follows: “one who practices bad faith is hiding a displeasing truth or presenting as truth a pleasing untruth.”3 The issue being that such “hiding” or “presenting” is done to oneself, within one’s own consciousness: “Bad faith… implies in essence the unity of a single consciousness.”4 This was a point of clarification that Sartre wanted to make within a discussion regarding the presence of others. Because from this point he could then get to a summary position, with the correct groundwork in place, to effectively make the claim that it is within one’s consciousness that ownership lies and the responsibility for choosing to act in bad faith. Or, as Sartre stated, “one does not undergo his bad faith; one is not infected with it; it is not a state. But consciousness affects itself with bad faith.”5

Bad faith.fw

Such an issue of ownership becomes particularly important within our thinking over the next few pages, because Sartre, almost from this point on, makes his ethical play and starts to frame his thinking around responsibility and decisions as a matter of personal choices within a framework of seeing oneself as a project. Consequently, regarding the decision to act in bad faith, Sartre states “there must be an original intention and project of bad faith,”6 which for him, as well as taking place within the closed and isolated environment of one’s consciousness and not being predicated upon any external influence or condition, leads to the conclusion that “a person can live in bad faith,.. which implies a constant and particular style of life.”7 Such a decision to act in bad faith becomes, therefore, both an internal conscious event, with no primary external cause, and also a behaviour pattern that one accepts and conditions one’s life by. To give an example of leading one’s life in bad faith, Sartre probed what happens, from his point of view, when someone undergoes psychoanalysis.

Immersed within his thoughts concerning the internal conscious process of bad faith, Sartre provided an illustration of what takes place when a lie is told. A lie requires a liar and also a victim of the lie in order to take place. Such positioning, as we can infer from the proceeding section, maps for Sartre quite neatly within the unity of one consciousness when that person acts in bad faith: The lie is both initiated by and concealed from the same person. Within the context of psychoanalysis though, a disruption to this neatness takes places. This disruption occurs because the unity of the individual’s consciousness is broken and split into two making it unclear that the person acting in bad faith is both instigator and victim. In fact for Sartre, psychoanalysis is guiltier of more than merely mudding the waters of clarity, because it provides in his eyes what amounts to an excuse for a person’s actions, which, as we are beginning to comprehend, is the central pivot upon which bad faith revolves.

Central pivot.fw

Psychoanalysis, therefore for Sartre or, more correctly, entering into a belief system whereby one understands there to be an unconscious that is separate from one’s consciousness, is in itself an example of bad faith because one renounces ownership for oneself and abdicates responsibility for one’s actions by accepting the fundamental premise that there is a force motivating us that one cannot necessarily exert control over. To Sartre this fundamental premise is a lie. Thus, across five pages of tense, but ultimately unsatisfactory argument, we see Sartre state “Freud has cut the psychic whole into two. I am the ego but I am not the id,”8 and then declare that “the explanation by means of the unconsciousness, due to the fact that it breaks the psychic unity, cannot account for the facts which at first sight it appeared to explain.”9 Consequently, by working through his criticism of psychoanalysis Sartre came to confirm his position that if anyone adopts psychoanalysis in this manner then, absolutely, they could be accused of acting in bad faith.

A critical difficulty arises in accepting Sartre’s conclusion, however, because Sartre, all the way through his argument, unfortunately presented Freudian psychoanalysis in a two-dimensional way that simplified Freud’s work. Indeed, the simplification actually determines that bad faith will be the end result if the ‘psyche’ is seen to be cleaved in two in the manner that Sartre represented the psychoanalytic division of consciousness from the unconscious. Clearly, with such a ‘straw-man’ argument one feels obliged to take issue with Sartre even as one understands his concept of bad faith perhaps more fully courtesy of this mis-representation of psychoanalysis. However, even though criticism can be levied at his argument our interest, as it always must, lies in the potential ethical insight that Sartre offers and not in criticising his faux approximate understanding of psychoanalysis. The over-arching ethical point that Sartre quite clearly laid out, although it is implicit due to his insistence on engaging in an almost self-righteous but ultimately redundant critique of psychoanalysis, is that there is an issue of conscious responsibility to be considered for us as humans engaging with, and performing actions in, the world. Precisely what Sartre means by responsibility will be covered in a future post.


For the moment, let us return to Sartre’s passion: freedom. In his 29 October 1945 lecture, Existentialism is a Humanism, as his opening remarks suggest, “to offer a defence of existentialism against several reproaches that have been laid against it,”10  reworks his ideas on freedom. However, within the twenty-three page guided tour of his philosophy, given within two months of World War II finally being over, “existence precedes essence”11 initially takes centre stage. A phrase which means, as we know from post 41, that we have no preordained purpose and it is up to us to create our own essence. Such staging, in his lecture, then allows Sartre to position freedom:

“For if indeed existence precedes essence, one will never be able to explain one’s action by reference to a given and specific human nature; in other words, there is no determinism – man is free, man is freedom.”12

If we can accept that Sartre, being of his time, chose the signifier “man” to represent “human”, it becomes apparent that for Sartre one of the consequences of his neatly set out philosophy is that even “human nature”, that commonly used justification for personal and social mores and ills, is given no truck and kicked off the playing field of acceptability.

Human Nature being kicked by Sartre.fw

Sartrean freedom allows no ‘ifs’, ‘buts’ or ‘maybes’; it is resolute, uncompromising and completely pure in its conception. Indicative, as his positioning of freedom is, in terms of his passion and sense of rightness, Sartre turns his attention to his other passion: resistance. Throughout the text of Existentialism is a Humanism, Sartre refers time and again, with examples, to the situation that he and his fellow French citizens found themselves under German occupation.

In a possibly politically over-reaching section regarding the hopes he has for “the Russian revolution,”13 Sartre shows a deep understanding of how freedom runs deeper than political cause:

“Nor can I be sure that comrades-in-arms will take up my work after my death and carry it to the maximum perfection, seeing that those men are free agents and will freely decide, tomorrow, what man is then to be.”14

The acknowledgment that individual freedom of others means that his voice per se might well be ignored is testament to his understanding that the idea he had of freedom is stronger than his own voice that gave birth to it. Swiftly, following this understanding, Sartre starts to sharpen his claws and shows with extra-ordinary philosophic power precisely what he thinks of those who don’t accept their personal freedom. Starting relatively mildly he sharpens his blades and sets out his stall:

Knife Grinder.fw

“Tomorrow, after my death, some men may decide to establish Fascism, and others may be so cowardly or slack as to let them do so… Does that mean that I should abandon myself to quietism? No. First I ought to commit myself and then [en]act my commitment… Quietism is the attitude of people who say, ‘let others do what I cannot do.’ The doctrine I am presenting before you is precisely the opposite of this, since it declares that there is no reality except in action.”15

Sartre’s philosophy is, therefore, one of action and not acting simply won’t do. That, he makes clear, is “cowardly.”16 Obviously, the recent history in France focused his mind and one cannot help thinking that the indecisiveness of the two Andrés was possibly what he had in mind. Sartre didn’t stop sharpening his knives at this point, though, he had more to say, enact and attack.

Referring back to freedom and essentially the avoidance of it through acts of bad faith, Sartre outlined, alongside his thoughts regarding the adoption of quietism, two extremely cutting encapsulations:

“In the name of that will to freedom which is implied in freedom itself, I can form judgements upon those who seek to hide from themselves the wholly voluntary nature of their existence and its complete freedom. Those who hide from this total freedom, in a guise of solemnity or with deterministic excuses, I shall call cowards. Others, who try to show that their existence is necessary, when it is merely an accident of the appearance of the human race on earth, – I shall call scum.”17

Cowards and scum.fw

When studying philosophy one doesn’t readily come across such forthright judgements. However, as I hope to have possibly made clear in the discussion so far, Sartre was incredibly committed to his philosophy and that it should be a philosophy of action. Standing by quietly, denying responsibility, giving up due to excuses, or proclaiming one’s presence as necessary (as if put on earth by God to do his/her will) are positions to be fought against. For him, each of these positions came under the bracket of ‘bad faith’ and as such they run completely counter to how he thought life should be lead. And, he obviously was not going to be accused of being hypocritical due to being shy of letting everyone know just that. In Existence is a Humanism, Sartre made it very clear just what he thought of those in ‘bad faith’, even if paradoxically he never actually used the term itself in that text.


  1. Sartre, J-P. Existentialism and Humanism. Translated by Philip Mairet, Methuen, 2007 52.
  2. Sartre, J-P. ‘Paris Alive: The Republic of Silence’, The Atlantic Monthly, December 1944, vol. 174, no. 6, 39.
  3. Sartre, J-P. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes, Routledge, 1995,, 49.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid., 50.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid., 54.
  10. Sartre, J-P. Existentialism and Humanism. Translated by Philip Mairet, Methuen, 2007, 23.
  11. Ibid., 28.
  12. Ibid., 34.
  13. Ibid., 40.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid., 40-41.
  16. Ibid., 43.
  17. Ibid., 52.

44. American History X


“Has anything you’ve done made your life better?”1
Dr. Bob Sweeney in American History X

Are we free or psychologically determined? Can we act according to our own thoughts or will we act according to a causal pathway or narrative that we have accepted as true?

Each of us, if we are honest, probably tell ourselves stories as to why we believe the things we do and act the way we do. We develop linear thoughts that take us from our experiences, as we see them, through to assertions about life and how we should live. Nothing wrong in that most would say. There is, arguably, however a falsity here because, effectively, we are moving from a statement to a judgement, from a fact to a theory, from an ‘is’ to an ‘ought’. There is no real causal link in this chain, as those steeped in the analytic philosophical tradition would argue. One simply can’t move from ontology to moral theory.

But maybe I’m wrong because the experience is subjective and not actually objective or of an ontological nature at all. And here is the crux. For those who do assert their judgements based on their experiences there is, for them, a powerful sense that they are in possession of a truth, whether ontologically sound or factual correct it doesn’t really matter. It is just the truth as far as they are concerned. The problem is, though, that ‘as far as they are concerned’ is not very far at all. In fact it’s only really as far as they could see last week. And this is Sartre’s point. If we only recite and repeat the same stories to ourselves, then we are pretty much self-determining or self-narrowing and consequently chucking away our freedom. Breaking free from the stories we tell ourselves is immensely difficult of course if we have grown up in a dogmatic and claustrophobic environment.

Crowded Church.fw

One such environment is played out within American History X, the directorial debut from Tony Kaye, with screenplay by David McKenna, and starring Edward Norton alongside Beverly D’Angelo, Stacey Keach and Elliott Gould amongst many others.

Following the death of his racist father at the hands of black drug dealers, whilst on call as a fire-fighter, Derek Vinyard, played by Norton, appears to give in to repressed racist views in an emotional tirade when filmed by the local media after receiving news of his father’s death. The hard-working scholar evaporates at that instance and Vinyard allows his repressed side to come fully to the surface.

Egged on by Cameron Alexander, the neighbourhood White Supremacist leader of lost and angry young men, Vinyard becomes every inch the stereotypical shaven-headed, swastika-tattooed, neo-Nazi thug of nightmares. The only difference between him and his ‘Disciples of Christ’ cohort being that he is equipped with intelligence and becomes the leader or figure-head of the ‘D.O.C.’, with Alexander yanking the puppet strings.


With the murder of his father by a group of drug dealers, of whom the defining characteristic we are given is that they were black, Vinyard, one could argue, starts spiralling into racism foregoing the scholarly avenues that he was embarking on and hearing the echoes of his fathers words in Alexander’s grooming speeches of manipulation. The premise of psychological determinism and the pathway chosen by Vinyard are clearly set out for the viewer. The ingredients of Vinyard’s life result in an all too familiar, if extreme, final product. The story that Vinyard can tell himself is actually narrated by his younger brother, Danny, in the guise of an assignment, called American History X, given as an ultimatum by his black head teacher, Dr Bob Sweeney, who wants Danny to avoid following in his brother’s footsteps.

Told in a series of flashbacks, the story, as told by Danny unfolds in a series of tense and heightened scenes. Tony Kaye’s direction uses black and white film stock to show when Vinyard Snr. is consumed by White Supremacist conviction and juxtaposes this with colour when showing contemporary events and the family as it was before their father’s murder. The TV ‘interview’ where Vinyard unleashes is in colour because he has not become the skinhead fascist bully-boy at that point.


One of the flashbacks shows, in absolute graphic detail, the ‘heights’ that Vinyard reaches as he shoots one member of a black gang attempting to steal his father’s truck and executes another whom he has already injured. Without dwelling on the pure gruesomeness of the execution, we see Vinyard at his horrific neo-Nazi summit. However, just as the raw and self-righteous evil courses through his veins, as Danny watches in despair, the police arrive in a squad car to arrest him. The film’s iconographic imagery comes from this scene as an incensed Vinyard strides from brutality to sheer horror with eyes shining, as if in religious-like ecstasy. The conviction within him is palpable and screams through the stark night as we watch witness-like his unstoppable reeking of carnage.

Having reached the summit, the only way is down, right? Danny’s story continues as Derek begins a three-year prison sentence. Why only three years is not really made clear. We are only informed that Danny didn’t testified against him and left to surmise that the Los Angeles judicial system must have decided not to throw the book at him. In any case, the plot moves to the beginning of his incarceration and we soon find him grouping like-with-like. The ‘whites’ appear to accept him as one of theirs whilst they adopt the stereotypical posturing, snarling and sneering towards the ‘brothers’ and the ‘Hispanics’.


After a year, though, Danny relates that “things got complicated”2 for Derek. The ardent zeal of imprisoned Vinyard, still filled to the brim with White Supremacist ideology, can’t fathom why Mitch, one of his group of ‘whites’ (a term I have ascribed for convenience and not given in the film), seems to fraternize and “do favours”3 for the other groups concerning prison drugs. When Vinyard tries to discuss this apparent unconscionable attitude from Mitch he gets told “chill out on the preaching… we getting tired of it.”4 The final straw for Vinyard was the realisation that Mitch “was taking it from the Mexicans and dealing it out to his own people.”5 The symptom belied the cause for Vinyard because it dawned on him that Mitch didn’t believe in anything and neither did the rest of the ‘whites’.

Finding his peers lack of belief and conviction in ideology repugnant, Vinyard makes a point of separating himself off from them by deliberately ignoring them and sitting by himself in the canteen at lunch and playing basketball with Lamont, his laundry-duty co-worker, a ‘brother’. In prison gang culture, we are led to believe these are unpardonable sins. Vinyard consequently receives his punishment from the ‘whites’. He is raped in the showers and hospitalised afterwards.

Prison Shower.fw

At this juncture, Dr Bob Sweeney, Vinyard’s ex head teacher and Danny’s current one, arrives at the prison ostensibly to talk about Danny and give Derek some books. On his arrival Vinyard, lying on a hospital gurney with six stitches in him, breaks down and weeps in front of Sweeney. The mighty has fallen.

Sweeney confronts Vinyard on his anger and beliefs, and then proceeds to tell him about his own anger when he was younger:

“I know about this place. I know about the place you are in. There was a moment when I used to blame everything and everyone for all the pain and suffering and vile things that happened to me, that I saw happening to my people. Blame everybody. Blame white people. Blame Society. Blame God. I didn’t get no answers, ‘cos I was asking the wrong question. You have to ask the right questions.”6

Vinyard, giving complete attention asks “Like what?”7 and Sweeney delivers the film’s pay-off: “Has anything you’ve done made you life better?”8 Vinyard shakes his head in moment of honesty and asks Sweeney to help him.


This is the crucial moment in the film because Sweeney says he’ll agree to help, but only on the condition that Vinyard doesn’t run away and leave his family once he is released from prison, in four months time. Instead Sweeney wants Vinyard to make sure that Danny doesn’t fall into the same trap as he Vinyard fell into.

Wrapped up in this tight jail scene, is the precise focus of Sartre’s thoughts on freedom. Sweeney, by intervening, in the manner that he did, demonstrates to Vinyard that he personally identifies with the root of Vinyard’s anger, but more than this that he, too, had to ask himself the question ‘Has anything I’ve done made my life better?’ By identifying in this way Sweeney shows Vinyard that he has reached rock bottom and, obviously, Vinyard has the visceral reality of being not only in prison to confirm that but also that he has been raped as well. Things really couldn’t get much worse for Vinyard. Sweeney’s message, then, acts to present an objectivity to Vinyard who, consumed by anger since his father’s murder, has only processed life through a warped subjective lens that he thought was the ‘true’ path of his life. By confronting Vinyard, Sweeney manages to push down Vinyard’s subjective defences, courtesy of mirroring them with his own past version, in order to present a brutal but needed home truth to Vinyard.

Accepting the truth of Sweeney’s question and the obvious answer that nothing he has done has made his life better, Vinyard’s immediate intention is to flee from his family in order to prevent them further pain by his presence. Now, the risk at stake here is whether Vinyard would just run away to continue taking all his subjective anger and beliefs with him in order to act them out in a new environment. Possibly, conscious of this risk but also more aware that running away from the problem never solves anything, Sweeney places his condition on Vinyard based on the hold he has on him regarding Vinyard’s request of help. Sweeney’s condition, ostensibly, is for Vinyard to stay and help his brother. However, by requesting this, Sweeney knows that Vinyard would have to face his family, his friends, his past and his future and heal the wounds he has caused rather than running away.

Running Away.fw

It’s a big gamble on Sweeney’s part because staying with the problem and not running away is hard. It would be far easier for Vinyard to pay lip service to Sweeney rather than actually acceding to his condition and seeing it through.

The Sartrean moment, though, comes when Vinyard realises the choice he faces and that Sweeney is right. He also realises that it is an extra hard choice because he has to get through the last four months of prison alive and then go back home to face the people whose lives he has so effectively poisoned. There is a huge challenge on both fronts.

Surviving prison becomes a practical matter when the ‘whites’ hate you and won’t protect you if the other groups want to enact their boredom or rage upon you bodily. Fortunately, for Vinyard it appears that Lamont has put in a word or two to the ‘brothers’ to leave him alone. Sweeney also helps by sending books for Vinyard to read, which enable Vinyard to become to all intents and purposes a “ghost”9 for those last four months. He even grows his hair and covers up his tattoos by wearing the prison uniform as it is intended rather than stripped to the waist in machismo bravado.

Reading in Prison.fw

Practical survival out of the way, the test of whether Vinyard can accept that he alone is the author of his life and that he has the freedom to reject his past self and establish a new one, comes once he is released. The real choice of taking the first train out of Los Angeles must still be there, however, Vinyard stays true to Sweeney’s condition and returns to the bosom of his family.

Breaking Sweeney’s condition would be relatively simple and non-consequential to Vinyard, however leaving Danny to become infected with White Supremacist values at the hands of Alexander and others is possibly more of a dilemma. Equally, though, one does get the sense from the film that Vinyard genuinely wants to change and reject his former life. To do this, of course, means that he has to absolutely believe that he is free to do this. The test of this freedom of choice comes via confrontation with the key players in his life, those with whom in his past he colluded as he lived and breathed racist ideology.

Seth Ryan, Vinyard’s close and extremely obnoxious family friend is the first to greet him outside the family. Cameron Alexander and Stacey, Vinyard’s girlfriend, are quickly re-introduced on the night of Vinyard’s release as he attempts to inform them both that he no longer wants anything to do with neo-Nazism. The news is not received at all well. Vinyard ends up punching Alexander, then having Seth pull a gun on him, with Stacey urging Seth to kill Vinyard, after they find Alexander in bloody heap.

Seth Ryan.fw

Vinyard manages to grab the gun from Seth and make his retreat out of the clutches of around fifty Disciples of Christ members having a ‘welcome back’ party in his honour at Alexander’s club.

The choice of slotting back into his shaven headed life is one that must have been alluring to Vinyard, rather than finding himself in the predictable position of alienation from those he once ran with. The freedom attained in prison, from Sweeney’s intervention, stays with Vinyard and he continues to try and get on with his new life and ‘saving’ Danny.

Right at the end of the film, Danny, in an all so typical nihilistic moment of gangland brutality, gets shot and killed in the school’s restroom by another sixteen year-old, a black youth with unfinished business on his mind from when Danny intervened on his bullying of a nerdy white kid. The film ends with Derek running past Sweeney to go into the restroom to hold his dead brother’s body in waves of understandable emotion.

Danny's death.fw

Now, the film ends here.

However, the film might well have ended differently. Another scene was shot, but never made it to the final edit. The extra scene was of Vinyard in front of a mirror, in the family bathroom, shaving his head. The imagery being that he would once again turn to neo-Nazism. Personally, I’m glad that this scene never got included because it would have dramatically changed the driving force of the narrative, from one that showed how someone can escape from deterministic forces by embracing freedom, to one where they can’t actually escape. So, in the final cut Sartre wins out. However, embracing one’s freedom is certainly not for the faint-hearted.


  1. American History X, directed by Tony Kaye. US: Turman-Morrissey Company, 1998.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.

43. Freedom


“Man is condemned to be free.”1
Jean-Paul Sartre

Having observed previously how Sartre introduced the idea of freedom into his philosophy, we could be ready to move on. However, maybe sensing that he didn’t quite nail the argument for freedom logically, as we saw earlier, Sartre stopped, tapped his fingers, scratched his head and reintroduced freedom from a different angle, the temporal.

As always, Sartre starts from a phenomenological position and uses his old chum consciousness as his point of entry. Consequently, it is of no real surprise to see him re-examining the conscious processes that occurs when Pierre was a ‘no show’ at the café. For Sartre, the realisation that Pierre was absent entailed a ‘negation’ of the causal chain of events, because within his consciousness of walking into the room and looking around there is no determined factor that introduces thoughts of Pierre. It is only when Sartre negates his present causally produced train of consciousness that he introduces thoughts of Pierre. For Sartre, this process of negation was his active instigation of a “break with being,”2 which, as we have seen before, was due to the coming forth of nothingness.


It appears that so far Sartre has purely retraced familiar steps regarding possibilities and has just got to the fun part of nothingness. However, embedded within his re-examination of how his consciousness conjures Pierre’s absence, Sartre begins to alter our focus as he starts to develop his ideas on temporality.

By looking at what occurs when one’s consciousness moves through a period of time, essentially to be able to state that there is a temporal difference between a thought in the past and a thought in the present, Sartre peered into the potential causal cleavage that can occur between these two episodes. And, by doing so, he discovered something he found intoxicating: “Freedom is the human being putting his past out of play by secreting his own nothingness.”3 So, Sartre once again discovered freedom in the process that Peter Caws describes as a “buffer of nothingness”4 separating one’s consciousness from something else. This time though, rather than the separation being created between, for example, my consciousness and the physical entities surrounding me, the separation is created between my present consciousness and my past consciousness. Sartre, consequently, has created an internal schism, as well as the external one we examined previously. The consciousness that one had in the past is complete and it is now in the present as an existent, a thing, a being-in-itself, and viewed as such it is separate from the consciousness of the present, which is being-for-itself. One’s old thoughts are finite much like a book, such as Dickens’ Great Expectations. However brilliant Dickens’ tale of Pip, Magwitch, Estella, Miss Havisham, Joe, Orlick and Herbert Pocket might be, those characters will never deviate from the plot or new ones be introduced. Dickens’ characters and plot are set in stone much as our past thoughts. Our present thoughts, though, ah, now that’s completely different. The sky’s the limit.

Sky's the limit.fw

The separation from one’s past consciousness by the coming forth of nothingness is of great boon to Sartre because it allows him to declare the presence of freedom. A declaration based on the premise that if one is separated from one’s past consciousness then one does not have to meekly follow the causal chain of events and submit to what is invariably construed as a set of pre-determined limits placed upon one’s possible thoughts. Instead, by severing oneself from one’s past consciousness one can become imbued with the full force of freedom because one is able to think anew without constraint.

Gregory McCulloch demonstrates how complete Sartre’s thinking was on this issue of freedom by extending Jean-Paul’s reasoning into thoughts regarding one’s future consciousness: “As far as my future is concerned, that is just a range of possibilities among which I alone can decide.”5 Consequently, McCulloch summarises “My past does not force me on, my future does not draw me forward. I am separated from both in a void of freedom.”6


Indeed, Sartre has created a “void of freedom” if we are separated from our past, our future and also, if we remember, those physical entities surrounding us. Freedom, as we can rapidly understand was absolutely pivotal to Sartre. In her treatise, Sartre: The Necessity of Freedom, Christina Howells encapsulates the role Sartre gave to freedom with her opening statement: “As philosopher, dramatist, novelist, critic and moralist Sartre’s major preoccupation was, throughout his life, always the same – freedom, its implications and its obstacles.” 7

If we allow Sartre his intoxication with freedom, it is essential for us to understand what he meant by freedom. Anthony Manser, in Sartre: A Philosophic Study, simplifies things enormously by stating the following: “to talk of someone as free is only to say that nothing determines his actions.”8 Sartre’s lust for freedom becomes palpable in this encapsulation because we can see how neatly he has removed and eradicated all determining factors that once appeared to hold us in their grip. Whether they are religious, social convention, or even psychological, all determining forces evaporate under the new all giving power that is freedom, as provided for by Sartre. Any given action that we might perform is undertaken on the basis that there is no prior cause attributable and that we are entirely free to perform that action. As with some moments of discovery, a darker side may also appear and, to his credit, Sartre does not shy away from staring at his ‘invention’. Perhaps, somewhat similarly to Robert Oppenheimer, who poignantly confessed to Harry S. Truman “Mr President, I feel I have blood on my hands,”9 Sartre wanted to look deeply at the potential cost of his discovery. So, when reflecting later in Being and Nothingness upon the philosophical journey he had undergone, Sartre wrote of freedom in the following terms:

“I am condemned to be free. This means that no limits to my freedom can be found except freedom itself or, if you prefer, that we are not free to cease being free.”10


Famously or infamously, depending on your perspective, the initial focus upon himself as the subject condemned became universalised in Existentialism and Humanism, where Sartre declared “man is condemned to be free.”11

Through this ‘dark’ acknowledgement of the power of freedom, I find that in some ways Sartre is, perhaps quite subtly, trying to persuade us of the validity to his argument in his use of the emotive term “condemned” when describing what he finds at the heart of the human condition. However, the emotive leverage of the assertion that “man is condemned to be free” is more often than not usurped by those possibly more politically minded. The phrase, as drafted by Sartre, appears to ignore any consideration towards those suffering under regimes of political oppression. The issue being, how can any such person be deemed to be free?

The criticism is a valid one of course, but also interestingly one that Sartre had considered within Being and Nothingness. As well as pushing the limitations of how far freedom’s reach could stretch, Sartre did also acknowledge that it cannot be infinite and that is bound by physicality. Thus, alongside freedom comes what he called its “reverse side,” a strange term given the title “facticity.”12 This is the concrete background of factual information upon which freedom is made manifest by an individual. For example, my ‘facticity’ has among its components that I was born in England, am the height I am, and have two children. For Sartre though, as we shall observe, there is an immense desire to not bow down and give up too easily before these factual elements in our lives: “The decisive argument which is employed by common sense against freedom consists in reminding us of our impotence.”13 The explanation he gave for such ‘impotence’ was a self-imposed resistance to change: “Far from being able to modify our situation at our whim, we seem to be unable to change ourselves.”14

Resist Change.fw

Consequently, for Sartre, the cause of such impotence and inability to change is built, more often than not, upon the notion of an over-reaching sense of “facticity”. And, Sartre illustrated such fallacious thinking through his graphic portrait of factually based resistances:

“I am not ‘free’ either to escape the lot of my class, of my nation, of my family, or even to build up my own power or my fortune or to conquer my most insignificant appetites or habits. I am a born worker, a Frenchman, an hereditary syphilitic, or a tubercular.”15

Essentially, the nub of Sartre’s argument rests here within his positioning of limits, because it is a matter of where the limits come from: a pathetic attitude of self-imposed conditions that hinder all prospect of success or a positive life embracing attitude based upon a deep conviction that one is free. So, it is very apparent that within the text of Being & Nothingness that Sartre wanted to make a ‘meta-level’ claim for freedom which solely regarded the attitude of the individual to their situation and not their surrounding reality.


As ever though, just when one is getting comfortable, Sartre darts ahead and throws something seemingly incongruous at our feet. This time he plucks something from psychology.

According to this new development, anguish is the awareness and realisation that one is free: “it is in anguish that man gets the consciousness of his freedom.”16 Placing anguish within an ontological framework, Sartre adjusts its position slightly to demonstrate its relationship to freedom:

“Anguish is the mode of being of freedom as consciousness of being; it is in anguish that freedom is, in it’s being, in question for itself.”17


Let’s make that a tad easier on the mind, and remove the ontological-speak.

Anguish is the ‘mode’ that one enters into when one has the conscious realisation of one’s freedom: it is the reaction to the magnitude of one’s ultimate self-responsibility. For some, and this is how Sartre’s logic unfolds, the enormity of their freedom is greatly troubling and a constant source of personal concern, because the acceptance of freedom also means the loss of any invoked strength-giving superior authority in the form of a deity, religion, or political system. Such a loss, if seen in this manner, can obviously give rise to anguish because the weak and the pathetic, an implicit and unavoidable judgement when following Sartre’s argument, have their various crutches removed and are left to their own ill-prepared devices. Although, it must be stated that also implicit within Sartre’s argument is the assumed acknowledgment that those who attempt to embrace their freedom, even though they might flail and stumble without their crutches on the plateau of anguish, are courageous for at least endeavouring to lead themselves rather than meekly follow someone else’s teachings or cite a catalogue of insurmountable obstacles preventing their freedom: situations for which Sartre holds particular contempt as we shall soon discover.

However, returning to anguish, per se, Sartre took it upon himself to clarify a possible point of confusion, and at the same time offer a powerful insight into the potential working of the human mind, when he compared anguish to the meaning of fear within a non-medical reconstruction of the term vertigo.


Vertigo, to some, is the fear of falling from a great height, which can be classified as a reaction to something external to oneself. In Sartre’s hands though, vertigo appears in a much more menacing form: “Vertigo is anguish to the extent that I am afraid not of falling over the precipice, but of throwing myself over.”18 Tapping deeper into the insightful vein he had unearthed, Sartre further explained the distinction between fear and anguish in regard to the relationships they have with freedom:

“A situation provokes fear if there is a possibility of my life being changed from without; my being provokes anguish to the extent that I distrust myself and my own reactions in that situation.”19

In some ways, therefore, one could argue that fear is the response to one’s life possibly being overridden; whereas anguish is the response to the realisation that one is ultimately in charge of one’s life and in all likelihood woefully underprepared. The latter, of course, being especially the case where philosophies of religion or political dogma have been the dominant paradigms. Consequently, if freedom is the ‘natural state’ of humans then anguish is its darker twin that lurks at every turn and gives meaning to the well-worn and much overused phrase existential angst.


Pausing momentarily, the following should really be borne in mind. By conceding that Sartre can bring his philosophy of freedom to the table, a positioning indebted to our ‘non-logic’ obsessed spirit of philosophical charity which allows ideas to be presented despite their awkward formation and starting point, we now find ourselves approaching the glimpse of ethics we seek. This is because leading on from his thoughts on anguish we shall observe the counterpoint he introduces under the guise of ‘bad faith’ which helps to establish the axis line of movement between the acceptance of freedom and its disavowal. The axis line being of course the horizon of responsibility along which one plays out one’s ethical life. Sensing that our goal is nearly present we must keep to our path however and not run too far ahead, because to appreciate the glimpse that Sartre promises we must understand the journey taken and consciously make every step rather than rushing and stumbling blind and confused toward our target. So, picking up from where we left off, we can see that anguish is a troubled emotion and one that in all reality is not easily embraced. Indeed, several of Sartre’s commentators have described in a variety of ways the ‘flight from anguish’ of those struggling with the demanding and ferocious bravery required by Sartre.

Howells writes that “Much of L’Etre et le Néant is concerned with a description of the ways in which men try to hide their freedom from themselves,”20 and McCulloch talks of “evasion” and “self-deception” when explaining that “we are always subject to anguish, but typically pretend not to notice.”21 Covering quite a few paragraphs to illustrate such self-deception, McCulloch, gives a particular piercing reflection to the so-called educated classes:

“Universities, British ones anyway, are hardly angst-ridden existentialist hotbeds. Rather, Sartre would say, they tend to be complacent and disingenuous sources of psychological determinism and similar evasive doctrines.”22

British Univerisities.fw

Leaving the distaste, but taking the point concerning psychological determinism, Joseph Catalano also reflects on this predominant method of anguish evasion from Sartre’s perspective. Quite neatly, Catalano summarises psychological determinism, whereby we “consider that our intentions are in fact determined by a causal series – that our seemingly free acts are really determined by environment and history.”23 For Sartre of course, as Catalano makes evident, such consideration effectively renders “ourselves as an in-itself, one of the fixed beings among many in the world.”24 The idea being that we are merely rudderless vessels floating on a sea of swirling activity caused by other entities: our existence being purely to be buffeted.

Lost at Sea.fw

Placing to one side such lifeless implications, Catalano examines Sartre’s thoughts on the problem of psychological determinism a little deeper and sees that the situation twists upon one’s perspective:

“Psychological determinism does not itself attempt to deny the original intuition (experience) that we are free… Rather, it offers an argument that this original intuition of freedom is deceptive, since it claims that we are actually determined in our decisions.”25

The point being that psychological determinism, as Catalano states, “attacks freedom not on the level of experience, but on the level of logic, by presenting to consciousness a purely possible hypothesis.”26 So, rather than seeing ourselves as beings freely choosing how to act, we understand ourselves and our actions to be determined by a causal chain of events that we become subject to and immersed within, without any hope of the freedom Sartre described. However, by presenting such an alternative hypothesis, or perspective on one’s situation, ironically a card is dealt in Sartre’s favour because he is logically at liberty to state that it is freedom that allows one to consider adopting an alternative attitude or hypothesis towards a given situation, even one strangely that debates whether we are free or psychologically determined.

Ah, irony. Some say it was invented by Socrates: another darting thinker. And still others say that if you make an anagram out of “Socrates” and “ironic” you virtually get “Sartre is iconic”. I say, let’s take a break before I let my own freedom run away with its self.



  1. Sartre, J-P. Existentialism and Humanism. Translated by Philip Mairet, Methuen, 2007, 34.
  2. Sartre, J-P. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes, Routledge, 1995, 27.
  3. Ibid., 28.
  4. Caws, P. Sartre, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979, 70.
  5. McCulloch, G. Using Sartre: An Analytical Introduction to Early Sartrean Themes Routledge, 1994. 42.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Howells, C. Sartre: The Necessity of Freedom, Cambridge University Press, 1988, 1.
  8. Manser, A. Sartre: A Philosophic Study, The Althone Press, 1966,117.
  9. Robert Oppenheimer to Harry S. Truman when they met on 25th October 1946, A Tragic Life: Oppenheimer and the Bomb, Arms Control Association, [viewed on 26th January 2018]. Available from: https://www.armscontrol.org/print/1851.
  10. Sartre, J-P. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes, Routledge, 1995, 439.
  11. Sartre,J -P. Existentialism and Humanism. Translated by Philip Mairet, Methuen, 2007, 34.
  12. Sartre, J-P. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes, Routledge, 1995, 481.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid., 29.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Howells, C. Sartre: The Necessity of Freedom, Cambridge University Press, 1988, 16.
  21. McCulloch, G. Using Sartre: An Analytical Introduction to Early Sartrean Themes Routledge, 1994. 52.
  22. Ibid., 53.
  23. Catalano, J. S. A Commentary on Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness,University of Chicago Press, 1974, 74.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Ibid.

42. Nausea


“When you are living, nothing happens.”1
Antoine Roquentin in Nausea

The concept of nothingness, if one is allowed to call it a concept, is an ethereal notion that seems to slip, shimmer and slide from our grasp as we direct our focus upon it. In Being and Nothingness, Sartre introduces it through a description of looking for Pierre in a café where they have agreed to meet. Nothingness arises, though, because Pierre is not there:

“To be sure, Pierre’s absence supposes an original relation between me and this café; there is an infinity of people who are without any relation with this café for want of a real expectation which establishes their absence. But, to be exact, I myself expected to see Pierre, and my expectation has caused the absence of Pierre to happen as a real event concerning this café. It is an objective fact at present that I have discovered this absence… by contrast judgements which I can make subsequently to amuse myself, such as, ‘Wellington is not in this café, Paul Valéry is no longer here, etc.’ – these have a purely abstract meaning…”2

Wellington and coffee.fw

As we saw in the last post Catalano, gives other possible examples of nothingness occurring, such as when the person you are walking with suddenly isn’t there or when the horse you considered having a bet on, but didn’t, wins their race. I also suggested that when making decisions as to what to type next in an essay one also opens oneself up to nothingness.

The issue at stake is not absence per se, but rather that our very consciousness is not set or programmed to think in a certain way when presented with any given situation. Our consciousness is infinite in terms of how it can respond, reflect or cogitate upon the environment that we find ourselves in. And, perhaps one of the best literary examples of this facet of consciousness getting an airing is Sartre’s own work, Nausea.


Published in 1938, but written between 1932 and 1936, Sartre’s novel Nausea predates Being and Nothingness, which was published in 1943 and written in the early 1940s, and so can be thought of, arguably, as a literary pre-cursor to Sartre’s great tomb. Many of the philosophical themes in Being and Nothingness are given an initial outing in Nausea, however it is in Sartre’s treatment of his protagonist’s consciousness that we find our current interest.

The story is given a sense of truth with the opening “Editor’s Note”3 as Sartre’s situates his work within a tradition of writing that has the narrative prefaced, such as with the letters Dracula or Frankenstein:

“These notebooks were found among Antoine Roquentin’s papers. We are publishing them without alteration.”4

Old papers.fw

Immediately, then, one is guided to believe that the events that follow are real and not a work of fiction. This device helps Sartre to position what happens in the text as being grounded in reality as opposed to being something more like a fairy tale. “Once upon a time…” is replaced with a series of ‘facts’.

The next seed that Sartre sows concerns the reliability of the narrator. In most cases this seed blossoms to reveal the unreliability of said narrator. Sartre’s twist, however, is to unsettle us by having Roquentin question his own reliability and even sanity.

“The odd thing is that I am not at all prepared to consider myself insane, and indeed I can see quite clearly that I am not… Perhaps it was a slight attack of insanity after all.”5

Uncertainty and intrigue catered for, Sartre can proceed and give a bit more context to our character: “I for my part live alone, entirely alone. I never speak to anybody, I receive nothing, I give nothing.”6 It appears, then, that dialogue isn’t going to occupy much of the 250 pages. Within a few more pages the main theme, Roquentin’s nausea, arrives:

“Now I see; I remember better what I felt the other day on the sea-shore when I was holding that pebble. It was a sort of sweet disgust. How unpleasant it was! And it came from the pebble, I’m sure of that, it passed from the pebble into my hands. Yes, that’s it, that’s exactly it: a sort of nausea in the hands.”7

Stone in hand.fw

Other episodes swiftly follow. In a café, the face of Madeline, the waitress, induces an ‘attack’:

“Then the Nausea [Roquentin has officially named it now] seized me, I dropped on to the bench, I no longer even knew where I was; I saw the colours slowly spinning around me, I wanted to vomit. And there it is: since then, the Nausea hasn’t left me, it holds me in its grip.”8

In an almost pre-cognition moment, Roquentin makes a significant throwaway comment: “When you are living, nothing happens.”9 The full meaning of this comment, though, is left unexplained as we read further. Indeed, it is only by dwelling with the text that one can start to grasp at the hidden meaning. So as not to complicate things further by being oblique myself I will presume to interpret. ‘Living’, in this instance, means getting on with one’s daily life and habits. The normality of ‘living’ that we each create for ourselves or have thrust upon us is in some sense a lie. Work, meals, relaxation, reading newspapers are all activities that we layer over our existence. And, it is that existence that Roquentin is beginning to experience in his attacks of nausea. The existence that lies behind our stories, facts and understanding of the world starts coming out from beneath the glib self-assurance we each adopt in order to function ‘normally’ in the world. The cracks are showing for Roquentin and he begins to believe he is accessing real the existence of objects and people that surround us and that we profess to have calm dispassionate knowledge of.


After the nausea connected with Madeline’s face, Roquentin fixates on other faces and begins to push aside humanity and empathy in his gaze:

“On the opposite pavement, a gentleman who is holding his wife by the arm has just whispered a few words in her ear and has started smiling. She promptly and carefully wipes all expression from her cream-coloured face and takes a few steps blindly.”10

“Doctor Rogé has finished his calvados. His great body relaxes and his eyelids droop heavily. For the first time I see his face without the eyes: you might take it for a cardboard mask.”11

“Once a woman’s face took shape on a level with my shoulder.” 12

“I was not alone. A woman with a waxy complexion was sitting opposite me and her hands were moving all the time.”13

“I saw the fellow in the blue cape sitting in the same place; he had a huge pale face between two ears which were scarlet with cold.”14

There is slight dysfunctional and intermittent dialogue interspersed between these snapshots, however Roquentin’s detachment from his fellow citizens is very apparent as he regards them really as objects.

People as objects.fw

Just as in Being and Nothingness, a duality is demarcated which, in Nausea, is encapsulated by those ‘objects’ Roquentin comes into contact with and the ‘I’ of Roquentin. In his philosophy, Sartre formulates the latter as ‘Being-For-Itself’. So, switching to himself, after observing the others, who are cast effectively as objects or ‘Beings-In-Themselves’, Roquentin states:

“… I had always realized that: I hadn’t any right to exist. I had appeared by chance, I existed like a stone, a plant, a microbe.”15

His random popping up of out of the blue, strikes Roquentin as a significant realisation and, indeed, Sartre obviously thinks deeper on this in his later philosophy where he declares, “existence precedes essence.”16 The philosophic driving force being to nullify the claims of those suffering from religious preconceptions that their life has a purpose and that their divine creator has given them an essence. For now, though, we need to focus on Roquentin.

When thinking about the history he is writing on the obscure Marquis de Rollebon, a fictional character invented by Sartre who supposedly lived through the French Revolution, Roquentin develops the theme of his existence:

“Monsieur de Rollebon was my partner: he needed me in order to be and I needed him in order not to feel my being.”17

Marquis de Rollobon.fw

When working on his project, Roquentin recognises that as well as bringing Monsieur de Rollebon to life he distracts himself away from his own being, his existence. The activities of researching and writing preoccupy him and give him the ‘normality’ of a standard existence. However, the focus that Roquentin sees the relationship with is one where only one of them can be said to ‘exist’:

“I no longer noticed that I existed, I no longer existed in myself, but in him; it was for him that I ate, for him that I breathed… I was only a means of making him live.”18

A turning point comes when Roquentin states “The great Rollebon affair has come to an end”19 and by deciding to stop his work on Monsieur de Rollebon he forces an internal crisis: “he was my raison d’être, he freed me from myself. What am I going to do now?”20 Without his work on Monsieur de Rollebon, Roquentin is pushed back on himself with no distractions. Without Monsieur de Rollebon there is no hiding place whereby Roquentin can convince himself that he is ‘normal’, just chugging along with the rest of humanity. Instead, Roquentin is exposed. At first this exposure, or realisation, is a relief to be relished, “I exist. It’s sweet, so sweet, so slow. And light.”21 To no longer hide in the same shadows us the rest of us, but to see oneself and the world all around as existing comes to Roquentin as if an epiphany.


A change occurs however when Roquentin observes his own hand and starts to see it as crab-like and begins to realise that his new found awareness of existence doesn’t appear to have an off-switch:

“I exist. I think I exist. Oh how long and serpentine this feeling of existing is – and I unwind it, slowly… If only I could prevent myself from thinking!”22

Descartes cogito seems to swirl like a spell around Roquentin and cast him deeper into turmoil, which Sartre executes majestically by having his antihero go on a rampaging tour de force of babbling. However, just before the onset of incoherence, Roquentin announces the following to himself:

“I exist by what I think… and I can’t prevent myself from thinking. At this very moment – this is terrible – if I exist, it is because I hate existing. It is I, it is I who pull myself from the nothingness to which I aspire: hatred and disgust for existence are just so many ways of making me exist, of thrusting me into existence.”23

Given as a diary, Nausea relates day-by-day Roquentin’s experiences and, rather beautifully, after the babbling rampage, Sartre writes “Nothing. Existed.”24 as the sole entry for the next day, Tuesday. Those two words, written as two separate sentences show that Roquentin was still caught up entirely in the serpent of existence and that “nothing” else of note occurred.


I have to add that Sartre cannot have formulated his philosophic ideas on nothingness at this stage because the use of “nothingness to which I aspire”25 runs contrary to his later ideas on nothingness. In Nausea, nothingness pertains to Roquentin desiring to be ‘normal’ with the blankness of living an everyday life, such as he observes in others. As we can read, though, he is thwarted in this desire by the very act of thinking so that he is unable to arrest the swirl of existence around him.

On Wednesday the internal activity has quietened down and Roquentin is able to substitute something for Monsieur de Rollebon to fill his ‘life’. He has arranged to see his ex-girlfriend, Anny, in Paris: “In four days I shall see Anny again: for the moment, that is my only reason for living.”26

But how does all this relate to nothingness?

Starting with Roquentin’s ‘attacks’ of nausea, we find ourselves observing a person within their environment displaying what Peter Caws, in the previous post described as a “buffer of nothingness between us and the world.”27 Roquentin, whilst under the influence of those ‘attacks’ is not engaging in the real world in a ‘normal’ manner and, as Sartre understood, he had placed himself “out of circuit.”28 Roquentin’s nausea, as such, then becomes a display or an example of nothingness, just like Sartre’s fixation upon the absence of Pierre or Catalano’s unplaced bet on the winning horse.

Winning Horse.fw

Nausea is a manifestation of nothingness and it helps to highlight the infinite nature of one’s consciousness in how that consciousness might actually interact with objects and people in the world. We do not absorb, ponder or engage with the world according to set programs. This being the point Sartre develops as regards freedom, something we shall explore later.

Getting back to Nausea, though, nothingness is given a twist when Roquentin starts to see behind the veil of ‘normality’ and into the pit of existence because Sartre takes down the “buffer of nothingness” and somehow presses pause on Roquentin’s consciousness or, arguably, over excites it and temporarily at least breaks it. The ‘protection’ of Roquentin’s consciousness is disabled and he loses the inherent power within consciousness to process the world in its own way according to its rules, which might vary of course but are usually always there. The protection being nothingness and without it Roquentin is thrown into mental disorder and we are left watching him babble until nothingness returns because his consciousness has found a way to process the world again: “In four days I shall see Anny again: for the moment, that is my only reason for living.”


There are, I’m sure, psychological depths to be plumbed in a character such as Roquentin, however our task is to stick with the philosophical and perhaps give one further example of nothingness contained within Nausea: Anny.

Anny’s nothingness example is wrapped up in the way she used to process the world, such as when she was with Roquentin. As she reveals to him, it was all based around her childhood fascination with the choice of pictures used to illustrate Michelet’s encyclopaedic History of France. For Anny, the limited amount of illustrations meant that each one, depicting scenes from history, had to be specially selected over other possibilities and this meant that they were very rare and precious. The fascination in pictures then turned into a desire to emulate the preciousness of the scenes but in real life, which gave rise to her yearning for “perfect moments.”29 Her way of processing life, her nothingness, was to always be on the look-out for the possibility of creating a “perfect moment” which gave rise to her pressing need to transform any environment she was in with objects d’arte that could help set the scene. The problem in her relationship with Roquentin was that she never told him at the time about her desire to create “perfect moments” and what they meant to her.

American Gothic.fw

Interestingly, Sartre parallels Roquentin’s overload, where the loss of nothingness caused him to stare into the abyss of existence. For Anny, her loss of nothingness comes when she gives up on seeking “perfect moments”: “I live surrounded by dead passions.”30 Her renunciation effectively means that she is set just to exist from now on and she encapsulates this in the phrase “I am outliving myself.”31 Hope for Anny is dashed onto the floor like a smashed vase and she is destined to float from one place to another:

“’I travel,’ she goes on in a gloomy voice; ‘I’ve just come back from Sweden. I stopped in Berlin for a week. There’s a fellow who’s keeping me…’”32

Roquentin’s life almost appears positively rosy in comparison, especially when Sartre ends Nausea by having him think about writing a novel that would be “beautiful and hard as steel and make people ashamed of their existence.”33 Nausea perhaps?

Writing Novel.fw

Perhaps nothingness always finds a way to come back, even when it gets lost, overloaded or broken? Maybe Simone will also write a book. Did I say Simone? I suppose I meant Anny, just like I suppose I meant Roquentin rather than Sartre.


  1. Sartre, J-P. Nausea. Translated by Robert Baldick, Penguin, 2000, 61.
  2. Sartre, J-P. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes, Routledge, 1995, 10.
  3. Sartre, J-P. Nausea. Translated by Robert Baldick, Penguin, 2000, 8.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid., 10.
  6. Ibid., 16.
  7. Ibid., 22.
  8. Ibid., 33.
  9. Ibid., 61.
  10. Ibid., 69.
  11. Ibid., 103.
  12. Ibid., 105.
  13. Ibid., 106.
  14. Ibid., 114.
  15. Ibid., 124.
  16. Sartre, J-P. Existentialism and Humanism. Translated by Philip Mairet, Methuen, 2007, 28.
  17. Sartre, J-P. Nausea. Translated by Robert Baldick, Penguin, 2000, 142-143.
  18. Ibid., 143.
  19. Ibid., 142.
  20. Ibid., 143
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid., 145.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid., 149.
  25. Ibid., 145.
  26. Ibid., 150.
  27. Caws, P. Sartre, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979, 70.
  28. Sartre, J-P. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes, Routledge, 1995, 24.
  29. See Sartre, J-P. Nausea. Translated by Robert Baldick, Penguin, 2000, 204-205.
  30. Ibid., 207.
  31. Ibid., 206.
  32. Ibid., 216.
  33. Ibid., 252.

41. Nothingness


The eternal questions “Who am I?” and “What am I?” arise… regarding one’s identity, to reveal the Sartrean ‘non-answer’ that there is a gaping void at the centre of every one of us, filled only with the presence of nothingness.

So, let us remember that when we left Sartre in the previous-to-previous post he had just announced that the ‘appeal to infinity’ found within the philosophies of Spinoza and Hegel, to aid our understanding of consciousness, wouldn’t serve. Instead, Sartre introduced ‘Nothingness’ to get round the problem of the ‘appeal to infinity’ having an inherently reducible quality that acted counter to its purpose and caught infinity within the finiteness of a set phrase. The veil of ‘Nothingness’, consequently, lies before us to intellectually grapple with and apply our minds.

Rather enigmatically, Sartre stated “Nothingness lies coiled in the heart of being – like a worm.”1 In some ways, it would be right to leave any inspection of this uniquely Sartrean term at this poetic statement. For us, however, there must be a deepening of our understanding of nothingness if we are to chase and catch the ‘glimpse’ of ethics that Sartre has enticed us with. Some commentators, such as Joseph S. Catalano have tried to bite off component elements from Sartre’s thoughts to deliver examples of where and how nothingness takes place. Others such as Arthur C. Danto, resist the urge to simplify in this manner and want to retain the complexity of Sartre’s thinking on nothingness because, as Danto states, “We are dealing with a piece of ambitious metaphysical architecture, not just a list of what there is.”2 However, almost counter-intuitively, I want to follow Catalano’s thoughts for the time being because I believe that in finding fault we might be able to find our own thoughts when exploring the challenge that nothingness presents. Consequently, I want to begin with one of Catalano’s ‘bite-sized’ chunks and examine a re-working he gives to one of Sartre’s well-known vignettes, that of Pierre’s absence from the café.

Les Deux Magots.fw

Rather than directly using the absence, Catalano simplifies the notion and makes it more universal: “while walking with someone in a crowd, I suddenly turn and perceive that the person is not there.”3 To Catalano this is a clear example of nothingness becoming manifest and appearing from the feeling of absence. Similarly, Catalano demonstrates how nothingness comes about from the feeling of regret when he describes the feeling one undergoes when the horse that one had previously resisted the urge to place a bet on actually wins the race. Further into his commentary, Catalano attempts to “anticipate Sartre’s discussion” to “consider the main characteristics”4 of nothingness and duly progresses his task by delivering his understanding of nothingness in what appears as a series of logical premises. Now, these are quite dry and lacking a certain poetic style contrary to Sartre, however, they are a useful attempt and do actually provide, if nothing more, a context from which to develop our own thoughts on nothingness.

Firstly, Catalano states: “There are two fundamental regions in which concrete nothingness is to be found: the world and the human reality.”5 Secondly, he writes “The human reality’s concrete nothingness is its consciousness.”6 These are relatively straight-forward statements with no real cause for concern even though, peculiarly, Catalano appears to be trying to ground nothingness with a physical attribute, concrete, which is possibly more than just strange and maybe indicative that there is a confusion present within his understanding of nothingness. However, with the next premise Catalano, I believe, demonstrates actual confusion because he takes Sartre into the realm of circular reasoning by stating “Consciousness, or awareness, is a concrete nothingness because consciousness is not perfectly one with itself or its ‘object’.”7 The problem of circularity comes about because Catalano places the dependency of nothingness upon the non-identity of consciousness within its bodily form. Whereas I believe Sartre was trying to understand the dependency the other way, i.e., the issue of non-identity comes about because of the presence of nothingness. Both Catalano and I cannot be right in this instance because that would give rise to circular reasoning whereby object A is dependent upon object B which in turn is dependent on object A.

Chicken and Egg.fw

Catalano’s statement therefore cannot be accepted as logically conditioned, but rather should be read as a presentation of properties for consideration when thinking about nothingness.

Where I think Catalano starts to get his exposition and understanding back on track however, is when he attempts to describe the ethereal or non-physical dimension that nothingness has by writing “concrete nothingness cannot be pictured”8 and alluding that it can only be approached. He also correctly, but somewhat stiltedly, surmises that nothingness becomes manifest when consciousness questions itself as to its own identity: an addictive and paradoxical line of thought that opens up possibilities, but contains no definitive answer.

Consciousness questions itself.fw

The eternal questions “Who am I?” and “What am I?” arise out of this line of thought regarding one’s identity, to reveal the Sartrean ‘non-answer’ that there is a gaping void at the centre of every one of us, filled only with the presence of nothingness. The important realisation that Sartre gestured towards with his thoughts on nothingness, and that Catalano at times inadvertently is helping to present, is that if we challenge ourselves with a little bit of persistence and stamina, ultimately the questions “Who am I?” or What am I?” do lead to nothingness. This is because, for Sartre, there is no majestic grand being or deity with a purpose for us. Plus, if we probe questions of identity hard enough in this knowledge then nothingness will stride in, alongside the varying concocted possibilities of what our essence could be that briefly emanate within our thoughts and then evaporate when the heat of our determined focus questions their truth.

For example, the possibility of answering “Who am I?’ with the reply “I am a Christian” is, for Sartre, absolutely not a given or pre-determined reply but one that has been chosen and therefore without truth as to being an essence in the way that it is declared. The declarative Christian in another mindset could easily have answered “I am a Muslim” or “I am a musician”. All answers are choices and there are no factual statements as to one’s essence, because there is no essence. The point being that, by the act of asking of a question which has different possibilities and actually admitting that we don’t know the answer, we bring forth nothingness; an impossibility for something with an essence.

Universl Mind.fw

Remember that, for Sartre, “existence precedes essence”9 as far as a being-for-itself is concerned, such as I regard myself.

The Sartrean matter at stake here is that when consciousness actually kick-starts itself into operation, and breaks free of any prescribed routes of thinking placed within it from dogmatic ideologies, and allows varying possibilities in terms of ideas, thoughts, and especially one’s own identity to occur, nothingness sweeps into play. And, such nothingness swirls around, emptying our consciousness of any predilections towards becoming a brute being-in-itself. For Sartre, nothingness can be seen as that which separates being-for-itself from being-in-itself. Indeed, I would almost go as far to say that when a dogmatic ideology has taken hold of one’s consciousness to the extent that one ‘knows’ all the answers to all the questions that one allows oneself to entertain, then there is a preclusion of nothingness, courtesy of the elimination of possibilities, which renders one a being-in-itself and one effectively becomes brute matter. Obviously, if the boldness of my statement is considered consistent within Sartrean thought then the position of the ‘know-it-all’ is something to be avoided at all costs, because it crystallises into brute matter that which should be beyond mere rock, table or glass and removes the very thing that makes one human: the ability for our consciousness to allow possibilities, which in turn is the well-spring of nothingness.

Human Brain.fw

Although, as Danto is quick to make clear we have to be careful because “nothingness is not an entity,” instead, he explains, “it is a kind of shadow which we cast rather than an antecedent vacuity that we discover.”10 Nothingness only becomes manifest by virtue of an operational consciousness, it is not ‘out there’ as an ontological presence with associated determining attributes. One cannot measure nothingness, or point towards it, or buy some.

As if in agreement with Danto, at this juncture, Sartre’s thinking shifts and there appears to be a decision made because there is a quite unexpected turn in his approach. The strictly phenomenological enquiry into the makeup of nothingness, it seems, is found to be insufficient to his philosophical needs. After stating “Man is the being through whom nothingness comes to the world”11 (which we could modernise to ‘humans are the beings though whom nothingness comes to the world’) and continuing with a phenomenological examination of nothingness per se. Sartre, instead, shifted his attention towards the implications of nothingness. The shift occurs, of course, within the guise of an ontological framework. However, where it leads is a place that feels at times as if Sartre has tricked us by a sleight of hand, or rather drugged us so that we awaken disorientated in a completely new environment; not necessarily unpleasant, but most certainly different to what we would have expected.


Sartre’s seemingly ontological gambit then, after his summary statement, “Man is the being through whom nothingness comes to the world”, was to ask “What must man be in his being in order that through him nothingness may come to being?”12 Perhaps, because Sartre ladled so thickly the touchstone of ontology, the word being, he sought to persuade his readers of his continuing ontological rigour? Within a very short distance of text, though, he seems to depart quite dramatically from ontology into a wholly other form of enquiry. That being noted, let us reserve judgement and follow his line of thought, even with a suspicions eye-brow raised as to his ontological credentials, because I believe that from this point onwards Sartre becomes at his most interesting and our goal, the glimpse of ethics, is dangled tantalizingly before our eyes.

Following his thoughts, with their acknowledged ontological smokescreen, from asking what must ‘man’ be if through him nothingness becomes manifest brought Sartre to an investigation of what it means for ‘man’ as a being to question being; which as we know is the setting for nothingness. For Sartre, this meaning took a unique shape. If, for example, I am the cipher for Sartrean exegesis, then when I question being by putting forward varying possibilities conjured from my consciousness on the subject of where to direct this paragraph, I at that moment hold up “a particular existent”13 (a chunk of being) to view it “as a totality,”14 as if I had pressed the pause button on my existence and everything else around to arrest life’s natural ‘cause and effect’ chain of events, whilst I reflect, as a demigod, before proceeding with my typing. Obviously, my typing is only an example of an action, I could indulge the inner superhero complex within each of us and examine the possibilities of becoming a masked vigilante crusading on behalf of a helpless community threatened by a terrifying crime epidemic and a corrupt legal system; possibilities come in many forms.

Masked vigilante.fw

However, as Sartre wrote, to place “a particular existent… out of circuit” in whatever manner is also to place oneself “out of circuit”15 as well. A situation Sartre poetically depicted as that where one has effectively “retired beyond a nothingness.”16 Such a retirement, Peter Caws described as a “buffer of nothingness between us and the world.”17 The intentionality of our consciousness, toward an object of being that we hold in question, consequently creates a ‘buffer’ of nothingness around us that separates us for that moment from the overwhelming dominance and physicality of the world in which we live. It is at this moment that I believe Sartre departed from ontology because he summarised and interpreted this sequence of events as freedom.

We should do well to note here that Sartre didn’t decide to choose contemplation, consideration, inspection or a myriad of other possible choices to describe the “buffer of nothingness” when an object is held in question. Instead, he chose freedom and, as we shall see, that choice was in all likelihood governed by a desire to steer in freedom’s direction rather than necessarily blindly moving step-by-step through a series of philosophical arguments. And, it is in that particular choosing of freedom as opposed to anything else that I believe Sartre gives a glimpse of what we are looking for. It is a fleeting did-I-just-see-that glimpse out of the corner of our eye, such as a cat darting past unexpectedly, where really we seem to sense more than see what has just occurred. Acknowledging, though, that our glimpse so far purely indicates an intention to pursue freedom we should note it and continue on.

Cat darting.fw

The pedigree which Sartre gave to this announcement of freedom comes not from a logical progression of his own thought, which as we have seen contained no hint of freedom within its relatively insular exploration of being and nothingness. Instead, Sartre looked to predecessors for the granting of credibility to his claim for freedom. Descartes, for example, was drawn upon, as if Sartre were merely strolling down well known and obvious pathways to his philosophic ancestor:

“Descartes following the stoics has given a name to this possibility which human reality has to secrete a nothingness which isolates it – it is freedom.”18


Realising perhaps the tenuousness of his link, Sartre later elaborated:

“What first appears evident is that human reality can detach itself from the world – in questioning, in systematic doubt, in sceptical doubt… This was seen by Descartes, who is establishing doubt on freedom when he claims for us the possibility of suspending our judgements.”19

Taken from what appears to be the philosophy of Descartes’ fourth ‘Meditation’, where discussion on ‘freedom of choice’ is contrasted to other ‘faculties’ such as memory or imagination and peppered by such phrases as “we act so that we are unconscious that any outside force constrains us in doing so,”20 Sartre was quite blatantly appealing to Descartes’ presumed philosophical authority to persuade us of his claim that freedom arises, and is created by nothingness, due to our separation from the daily physical grind of cause and effect.

Freedom from cause and effect.fw

The fallacy Sartre committed was that he argued by appealing to an authority, where the implicit justification for his argument, or conclusion regarding freedom, is given by our acceptance that Descartes’ philosophy on the subject of freedom was the ‘truth.’ However, recognising that such a justification might be weak, Sartre continued to appeal to other authorities such as Hegel, and then even Heidegger, Husserl and Brentano under such statements as “it is one of the trends of contemporary philosophy to see in human consciousness a sort escape from the self.”21 By so doing, Sartre appears to be effectively resorting to a line of persuasion that his thoughts follow a trend rather than being philosophically constructed. This is not really how one should argue if one wants to maintain philosophical rigour.

However, I am a great believer that just because someone argues incorrectly it doesn’t mean that their conclusion is necessarily erroneous. So, perhaps I am being too harsh on Sartre by highlighting the fallacy in his thinking. Especially given that I am actually greatly interested in where his thinking leads and genuinely desire to discover the glimpse of ethics he tempts us with. However, I do also believe that in examining the fallacy and being hyper-critical we can also discover why his project offers only a glimpse of ethics from within its dense and overgrown forest and doesn’t continue by striding purposefully into the open pasture of ethics.

Overgrown Forest.fw

My supposition is that Sartre was trapped within the bounds of his own system, a system built upon ontological and phenomenological principles which clasped him tightly to its framework preventing the escape he appeared to cherish. So, it is in some ways inevitable that he, at certain moments, argued fallaciously to catch the glimpse he desired. I also believe there was nothing wrong with where he was attempting to get to but only from where he started. Too many babies get thrown out with bathwater and we should not fail Sartre, with his apparent intention to reach ethics, by dismissing his thoughts on the grounds of logical fallacy. Instead, charity and benevolence should be our manner of conduct because we are after all interested in ethics and not just proving points of logical consistency. Consequently, we should return to Sartre’s thoughts and give him his head in asking “What is human freedom if through it nothingness comes into the world?”22 Lead on, darting Jean-Paul, we trust your intentions.


  1. Sartre, J-P. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes, Routledge, 1995, 21.
  2. Danto, A. C. Sartre, Viking Press, 1975, 39.
  3. Catalano, J. S. A Commentary on Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, University of Chicago Press, 1974, 51.
  4. Ibid., 63.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., 64.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Sartre, J-P. Existentialism and Humanism. Translated by Philip Mairet, Methuen, 2007, 28.
  10. Danto, A. C. Sartre, Viking Press, 1975, 56.
  11. Sartre, J-P. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes, Routledge, 1995, 24.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Caws, P. Sartre, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979, 70.
  18. Sartre, J-P. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes, Routledge, 1995, 24-25.
  19. Ibid., 25.
  20. Descartes, R. A Discourse on Method, Meditations and Principles. Translated by John Veitch, Everyman’s Library, J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1962, 115.
  21. Sartre, J-P. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes, Routledge, 1995, 25.
  22. Ibid.