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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Sartre, J-P. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes, Routledge, 1995, 21.
- Danto, A. C. Sartre, Viking Press, 1975, 39.
- Catalano, J. S. A Commentary on Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, University of Chicago Press, 1974, 51.
- Ibid., 63.
- Ibid., 64.
- Sartre, J-P. Existentialism and Humanism. Translated by Philip Mairet, Methuen, 2007, 28.
- Danto, A. C. Sartre, Viking Press, 1975, 56.
- Sartre, J-P. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes, Routledge, 1995, 24.
- Caws, P. Sartre, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979, 70.
- Sartre, J-P. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes, Routledge, 1995, 24-25.
- Ibid., 25.
- Descartes, R. A Discourse on Method, Meditations and Principles. Translated by John Veitch, Everyman’s Library, J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1962, 115.
- Sartre, J-P. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes, Routledge, 1995, 25.