Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) is the philosopher whose work largely defined the existentialist movement in the twentieth century. The themes that he explored in his writings – particularly, the primacy of individual existence, human freedom and the lack of objective values – are precisely those of existentialism. Consequently, a common view about Sartre is that he is a kind of humanist, concerned with the necessity that individuals face to choose their own lives and the morals that they espouse. However, although there is something right about this view, the truth about Sartre’s philosophy is more strange than might at first be supposed.
Some of this strangeness derives from the way that he conceptualised consciousness and the human subject. In Being and Nothingness (1943), his major existential work, Sartre divided being into two primary realms: being for-itself, which is consciousness; and being in-itself, which is everything else. He argued that the for-itself is characterised by nothingness – that is, that emptiness lies right at the heart of being. What did he mean by this? In simple terms, he meant that there is no human essence. Consciousness is permanently detached from the given order of things. It is pure, empty possibility, and therein lies its freedom.
This is a complicated idea. Some light can be shed on it by considering Sartre’s treatment of the concept of negation. This concerns the capacity to conceive of what is not the case. It is manifest in a whole series of attitudes that the for-itself can adopt towards the objects to which it is directed. Perhaps most significant is the ability of the for-itself to project beyond the given present to an open future of unrealised possibilities – to imagine what might be the case. In this sense, the freedom of the for-itself is the permanent possibility that things might be other than they are.
Human beings do not find this freedom easy to live with. With the realisation that the future is always radically in doubt comes anguish. Sartre argued that in order to escape anguish individuals adopt strategies of bad faith; that is, they seek to deny the freedom that is inevitably theirs. They might do so, for example, by adopting an attitude of seriousness towards a perceived moral sphere. That is, they might portray their actions as entirely governed by a binding moral code – “I’d like to help you, but I can’t, it would be wrong”. Of course, as far as Sartre is concerned, this is just so much rationalisation. As he showed in his popular Existentialism and Humanism, there are no binding moral codes. The moral choices that individuals make are theirs and theirs alone, and they are fully responsible for them. All people can do is to choose authentically in the full recognition that they choose freely.
However, the fact that the for-itself is always and inevitably free does not mean that individuals make their choices in a vacuum. Rather, they face-up against the specifics of the situations that they confront – for example, that the bank-robber has a gun in his hand – and the facticity of their particular lives. Facticity here refers to all the things about an individual that cannot be changed at any given point in time, such as their age, sex and genetic dispositions. Choices then are made against a particular background, so freedom of consciousness does not translate into the idea that people are free to do absolutely anything at the drop of a hat.
Interesting in this regard is the role of the self and its relation to human freedom (the self was first discussed in an early work, The Transcendence of the Ego). Sartre denied that individuals have essential selves. Indeed, part of what defines his philosophy as existentialist is his claim that existence precedes essence. We exist first – the self that we subsequently become is a construct that is built and rebuilt out of experiences and behaviour. In principle, then, the self is something that can be changed, it can be reconstructed. However, in practice, it is not easy to choose a course of action that is out of character with the fundamental project of the self. Consequently, the self that we have become imposes another limit on the practice of the freedom that belongs inevitably to the for-itself.
In this short treatment of Sartre’s ideas, we have concentrated on the philosophical foundations of his idea of freedom. As a result, his philosophy comes out looking almost entirely individualist. This is something of a distortion. It would have been possible to have entered Sartre’s work at a different point – for example, with his later book, Critique of Dialectical Reason – and to have painted a different kind picture. Nevertheless, his early existentialist work has proved to be of the most enduring interest, and underpinning this work is the idea that the individual consciousness is always and inevitably free.