43. Freedom

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“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.

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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.

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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References

  1. Sartre, J-P., Existentialism and Humanism, 34.
  2. Sartre, J-P., Being and Nothingness, 27.
  3. Ibid., 28.
  4. Caws, P., Sartre, 70.
  5. McCulloch, G., Using Sartre: An Introduction to Early Sartrean Themes, 42.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Howells, C., Sartre: The Necessity of Freedom, 1.
  8. Manser, A., Sartre: A Philosophic Study, 117.
  9. Robert Oppenheimer to Harry S. Truman when they met in 1946.
  10. Sartre, J-P., Being and Nothingness, 439.
  11. Sartre, J-P., Existentialism and Humanism, 34.
  12. Sartre, J-P., Being and Nothingness, 481.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid., 29.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Howells, C., Sartre: The Necessity of Freedom, 16.
  21. McCulloch, G., Using Sartre: An Introduction to Early Sartrean Themes, 52.
  22. Ibid., 53.
  23. Catalano, J. S., A Commentary on Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, 74.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Ibid.

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