Ourselves

Out of all the activities,
deeds, pursuits and service we can concoct,

there is one project above all others;
ourselves.

This project is yours,
it’s mine, it’s everybody’s.

We are each
our own project,

And, we are each free
to propel ourselves into the future.

Casting logic aside, Jean-Paul Sartre shaped the more positive side of his thinking when addressing the problem of existential identity and realised something quite wonderful. If we regard ourselves as possessing freedom then, we are free to invent ourselves.

Taking this further, by choosing a role, or inventing ourselves, we actually choose a project to undertake. David A. Jopling has the following to say about such a project of 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.”[1]

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.”[2]

That said, these acts of invention, or projection, must be understood as ones that, at any time, can be rejected, or surpassed, by the ‘freely choosing’ being-for-itself. Such rejection or surpassing might well lead, of course, to anguish as we cannot say whether our future self might 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.

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.

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 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 go. So, presumably cogitating upon his thoughts regarding freedom and bad faith, he stared, anguish ridden, at his life’s work and chose, with ideas of freedom foremost in his mind, to begin afresh and start a new project for himself.

‘Project Sartre’ turned away from ‘Sartre – The Grand Philosopher’ 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. To reject ease and comfort to embark upon an untested new project with only one’s self-belief to keep one warm at night shows great courage and integrity.

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 – ourselves. This project is yours, it’s mine, it’s everybody’s. We are each our own project and we are each free to cast ourselves into the future.

[1] Jopling, D. A. ‘Sartre’s Moral Psychology’ reproduced in The Cambridge Companion to Sartre. Edited by Christina Howells, Cambridge University Press, 1992. 111.

[2] Ibid., 113.

Published by Dr Jim Walsh

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

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