The eternal questions,
“Who am I?” and “What am I?”

Reveal a gaping void
at the centre of every one of us.

Hollowed with the presence of nothingness,
we persevere.

Acceptance of emptiness,
irks the ego and causes turmoil.

Let go, dream anew,
there is no schedule to fulfil.

When the eternal questions “Who am I?” and “What am I?” are asked, they reveal the Sartrean ‘non-answer’; there is only a gaping void at the centre of every one of us, filled with the presence of nothingness.

For Jean-Paul Sartre, if we challenge ourselves with a little bit of persistence and stamina, ultimately the questions “Who am I?” or What am I?” will lead to nothingness because there is no majestic grand being, or deity, with a purpose for us. For example, as far as Sartre was concerned, the possibility of answering “Who am I?’ with the reply “I am a Christian” is not a given or pre-determined account but one that has been chosen. And, because of being chosen it is therefore utterly without truth. The declarative “Christian” in another mindset could easily have answered “I am a Muslim” or “I am a musician”. All such answers are choices. There are no factual statements as to one’s essence, because there is no essence. Or conversely, if we ask a question which has different possibilities and admit that we don’t know the answer, we bring forth nothingness; an impossibility for something with an essence.

For Sartre, “existence precedes essence”[1] as far as a being-for-itself is concerned, such as I regard myself and, presumably, you regard yourself.

The Sartrean issue 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, nothingness sweeps into play. And, such nothingness empties our consciousness of any predilections toward 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, there is a preclusion of nothingness, courtesy of the elimination of possibilities, which renders one a being-in-itself and effectively 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. The very thing that makes one human, the ability for our consciousness to allow possibilities, crystallises into brute matter and becomes stone.

Although, as Arthur C. 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.”[2] 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.

Sartre’s next move was to ask: “What must man be in his being in order that through him nothingness may come to being?”[3] which we can modernise to ‘What must a human be in order through them nothingness may come to being?’ Following his thoughts, the meaning of a being (a human) questioning its own being, takes a unique shape. If, for example, I am the cipher for Sartrean exegesis, then I can question being by putting forward varying possibilities, conjured from my consciousness, as to where I might direct this paragraph. At such a moment, I act so as to hold up “a particular existent”[4] (a chunk of being) and view it “as a totality,”[5] as if I had pressed the pause button on my existence whilst I reflect before proceeding with my typing. Obviously, my typing is only one example of an action, I could indulge the inner superhero complex within each of us and examine the possibilities of becoming a masked vigilante. Possibilities come in many forms and are infinite after all.

However, as Sartre wrote, to place “a particular existent… out of circuit” in whatever manner is also to place oneself “out of circuit”[6] as well. A situation Sartre poetically depicted as retiring “beyond a nothingness.”[7] Such a retirement, Peter Caws described as a “buffer of nothingness between us and the world.”[8] The intentionality of our consciousness, toward the object of being that we hold in question, creates a ‘buffer’ of nothingness around us which 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.

[1] Sartre, J-P. Existentialism and Humanism. Translated by Philip Mairet,Methuen, 2007, 28.

[2] Danto, A. C. Sartre, Viking Press, 1975, 56.

[3] Sartre, J-P. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes, Routledge, 1995, 24.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

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

Published by Dr Jim Walsh

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

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