The me that was,
is different to the me that I.

Where yesterday
I swam in the city,

today I muse
where tomorrow I fly.

I am free to choose.
There is nothing to abide.

The shape and course
of my future is always alive.

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, Jean-Paul 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.”[1] As Peter Caws describes, the arrival of freedom comes from the “buffer of nothingness”[2] which separates one’s consciousness from something else. Just like the separation between my consciousness and physical entities surrounding me, a separation is created between my present consciousness and my past consciousness. And, this separation, for Sartre, brings forth freedom.

The consciousness that one had in the past is complete. In the present, the past consciousness is transformed into an existent, a thing, a being-in-itself, which is separate from the consciousness of the present, being-for-itself. One’s old thoughts are finite, much like a book such as Dickens’ Great Expectations. However marvellous 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 get 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!

The separation from one’s past consciousness by the coming forth of nothingness is a 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 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.

When allowing Sartre his intoxication with freedom, however, it is essential to understand what he meant by freedom. Anthony Manser, simplifies things enormously: “to talk of someone as free is only to say that nothing determines his actions.”[3] 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. 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’. So, when reflecting later in Being and Nothingness upon the philosophical journey he had undergone, he 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.”[4]

Famously, the initial focus upon himself as the subject became universalised in Existentialism and Humanism, where Sartre declared “man is condemned to be free.”[5]

With such a strong declaration, potential criticisms can abound. It is safe to say, though, that Sartre was more than aware of these. For example, if we ask how can freedom be said to manifest in regimes of political oppression, we should look to the ‘meta-level’ claim for freedom which regards the attitude of the individual to their situation and not their surrounding reality. Sartre’s freedom, after all, does not brook limits.

[1] Sartre, J-P. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes, Routledge, 1995, 28.

[2] Caws, P. Sartre, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979, 70.

[3] Manser, A. Sartre: A Philosophic Study, The Althone Press, 1966,117.

[4] Sartre, J-P. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes, Routledge, 1995, 439.

[5] Sartre, J -P. Existentialism and Humanism. Translated by Philip Mairet,Methuen, 2007, 34.

Published by Dr Jim Walsh

CEO of Conway Hall Ethical Society and author of 'Ethics Starts With You'.

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