Notion Of Freedom In Jean Paul Sartre





Being in all its fullness, and as the ground of all beings remains a great mystery. All the philosophical epochs have tried in diverse ways without success, to expound a wholesome review of this question. According to L. Okika, he stated that,

The initial difficulty about being or reality is that, it is so very obvious, so that it is preternaturally easy to overlook; and yet at the same time, we find that if we try to construct a strictly logical argument to demonstrate what being is, we cannot do so[1] .

It is never a doubt that, history of philosophy is a history of problem; hence the question of being is never a new question. Though the problem of being is as old as time, it has continued to arouse the curiosity of many philosophers. The question of being remained unsolved because, it has no logical status or possesses a logical status so reduced that it cannot be what it appears to be, consequently, it has no logical status.

Some philosophers of different epochs came up with the aim of providing a permanent solution to this problem. Prominent among are Parmenides, Heraclitus, Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas et cetara. Parmenides declared that ‘what is, is’ and ‘what is not, is not’ in relation to being, so also other philosophers continued to explore and expose this question of being.

Etymologically, being has a Latin and Greek derivative ‘Ens and ‘ons’ meaning; ‘which is’ and ‘that which exists’ respectively. Due to the fact that being lacks univocal definition, it could only be described, hence different philosophers have their views about being. For instance, Thomas Aquinas and Martin Heidegger gave their own definition of being. Thomas Aquinas defined it as, “that whose act is to be”[2] But for Heidegger, “Being is the most universal and the emptiest of all concepts. As such, it resists every attempt at definition”[3]

We are here concerned primarily with the question of being in the existentialist philosophy of Jean Paul Sartre. The question of being proved problematic for Sartre like every other philosopher. In his utmost desire to locate and situate being, he came in contact with existence hence he writes:

…Usually existence hides himself. It is there around us, it is in us, you cannot say a couple of words without speaking of it but finally you cannot touch it.[4]

Sartre after locating the question of existence began fully to treat the problem of being. He categorizes existence into two major kinds of being namely; Being-in- itself (L’etre-en-soi) and Being-for-itself (L’etre-pour-soi). In his major philosophical text, Being and Nothingness, being-in-itself is one of the key concepts. However, it may not be surprising that most of this work is devoted to being-in-itself, for according to Sartre, being-in-itself is opaque, massive, self identical and of this existence, there is little that can be said about it. Moreover, Sartre being an existentialist is primarily concerned with the beingness of man or as he prefers to put it, “the human reality”.


Being-in-itself stands non-conscious things, which can be said to have essence, which exist independent of any observer and which constitutes all the things in the world. Being-in-itself is dense, massive and full. It harbours no nothingness and signifies all the objects around man. It is impermeable and dense, silent and dead. From it and in it comes no meaning.

This being-in-itself, Sartre tells us, is simply there. “It is without reason, without cause and without necessity”[5] . All hopes that are behind their appearance must be an essence, a “Ding un sich” (thing-in-itself) or any other vehicle of meaning is futile. Being-in-itself has no “Within’ which is opposed to a “without” and which is analogous to a judgement, a law, a consciousness of itself. Hence, this mode of being in all its entirely is absurd. Regarding this Copleston writes:

If we think away all that is due to the activity of consciousness in making the world appear, we are left with being-in-itself, (L’en-soi, the in-itself), opaque, massive, undifferentiated, the Nebulous background as it were, out of which the world is made to appear[6] .


Sartre maintains that, this being-in-itself is only illuminated in the light of non-being. Being-in-itself is therefore, without consciousness and to this extent, is obviously not free, since, freedom is an attribute of only conscious being. All objects in this state of being have exhausted all their potentialities and are left only in the state of actualities. They have nothing secret and are solid. The in-itself is immovable, dead and cannot move in itself unless a conscious being moves it. It is ultimately there and is an isolated being which is not conscious of its existence. Sartre in describing the origin of this mode of being writes:

…questions on the origin of being or on the origin of the world are either devoid of meaning or receive a reply within the actual province of ontology.[7]


Some good example of being-in-itself includes: stones, blocks, cloths, desk etc. In itself, it exist, it simply is and is thus, in no need of any compliment. It is uncreated and is without any relation to another being. This mode of being is opaque to itself precisely because, it is filled with itself.

The in-itself is full of itself, and no more total plenitude can be imagined, no more perfect equivalence of content to container. There is not the slightest emptiness in being, not the tiniest crack through which nothingness might slip in.[8]

Being-in-itself is completely different from being-for- itself; it is simply put, a world of objects that are simply what they are. Being-in-itself is solid and at the same time, permanence. It is these qualities that make it the extreme opposite of the for-itself. The qualities of the in-itself are mute, shapeless but all the same, they possess such a great density, which even threaten to overtake and overpower the for-itself. They exist in themselves independent of any conscious spontaneity. Using a white sheet of paper, Sartre illustrates that which presents itself to consciousness.

One thing is certain, and that is, that white sheet, I observe cannot be the product of my spontaneity. The inert form, which is beyond all conscious spontaneities and which must be observed and gradually learned is what is called a ‘thing’.[9]

To this extent then, it is no overstatement to conclude that, Being-in-itself is a world of existing things, which actually has no reason to exist, since Sartre denied the existence of God. In the absence of God, everything just exist without even any rational foundation, origin and meaning. According to Sartre in his Nausea, “Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs  itself but of weakness and dies by chance.”[10]

These words contain the basic themes of Sartre: existing is absurd, in that it can neither be explained nor justified; that existing itself is problematic, and bad faith, and that death too is absurd and wholly beyond anticipation and preparation. Regis Jolivet, in Sartre ,The theology of the Absurd, paints a striking picture of the term in-itself. He writes:

The in itself, the specific revelation of nausea, is being itself: massive, opaque, gloomy and glutinous. We can say nothing about it except that it is, for it is devoid of any relationship either interior or exterior. It is so helpless that it cannot stop itself from being. Where does the in-itself or being come about? From no place, from nothing. It is without reason, unjustifiable absurd, too much for all eternity. It is and it proliferates itself horribly obscenely. Any attempt to explain it is fruitless. First of all, God does not exist being is self-contradictory. Moreover, the very idea of creation is meaningless.”[11]


This is the being of consciousness, capable of thinking for itself. Making decisions and accordingly, choosing between alternatives. This consciousness differentiates it from other thing, the in-itself. We shall consider being-for-itself under two categories: first as consciousness of an object and secondly, being-for-itself as nothingness. Considering the being-for-itself as consciousness, we have to acknowledge the fact that, it is forever incomplete (openness), fluid, vacuous and lacking in determinate structure; what he is now is neither what he was in the past nor what he will be in future. It is at this level that it corresponds to the being of human consciousness. Thus, being-for-itself is equivalent to consciousness. Here, it should not be forgotten that Sartre was very much influenced by Husserl’s concept of intentionality, according to which consciousness is always consciousness of something.

This means that, “there is no consciousness which is not the position of a transcendental object or if one prefers, that consciousness has no content”12. Suppose for instance, I am aware of this table, the table is not in my window, or near a window, or near the door or wherever it may be. And when I intent it, I posit it as transcending and not as immanent in conscience. One is not wrong them to say that, there is no consciousness without affirming the existence of an object, which exists beyond and transcends it. Commenting on this, Stumpf has this to say:

Without consciousness, the world simply is, it is being-in-itself (L’etre-en-soi) and as such, it is without meaning of things in the world, though it does not constitute their being13

It must be recalled that in Heidegger’s search for fusion with being, consciousness lost its central position, but in Sartre, this central position, consciousness was regained. Thus, Sartre realizes very clearly that consciousness is possessed only by the pour-soi (man). For him, man is not-something. He is not an already made being and his course is not predetermined;

…Man is condemned to be free by his choices, man makes himself not that he creates himself out of nothing but rather, by a series of choices and decisions. He converts his existence into the essence of his final self14.


The for-itself is an extreme opposite of the in-itself. This was illustrated in philosophical work of Mary Warnock where she stated that, being-for-itself brings nothing into the world both in the sense of emptiness and in the sense of negation; Being-for-itself is aware that, it does not have pure concrete existence. The pour-soi (man) is like an empty shell but, through his choices in his life, he fills this shell. Sartre quite agrees that, all consciousness is always consciousness of something but unlike all other beings this consciousness is embodied and concretized in man. To this extent then, he is related to the world of things and people in variety of ways. At one level, man is consciousness of the world, which is everything that is beyond or other than himself and which therefore, transcends him. At this level, the world is experienced simply as solid, massive and undifferentiated, single something that is not yet separated into individual things. Here, consciousness shifts a person from simply being there, being-in-itself to being-for-itself where consciousness dramatically differentiates the object of the world from the conscious self as subject. This brings us to the question of consciousness and its twofold activities. Stumpf has this to say about the twofold activity of consciousness:

…First consciousness defines the specific things in the world and invest them with meaning. Second, consciousness transcends, that is, puts a distance between itself and objects and in that way, possesses a freedom from those objects.15

Because the conscious self has this freedom from the things in the world, it is within the power of consciousness to confer different or alternative meaning on things. The activity of consciousness is what is usually called choice.

Being-for-itself in its aspect of nothingness can be perfectly defined as, “being what it is not and not being what it is”.16 Sartre explains that man is not what he is in as much as he is not now what his past has been. At the same time man is what he is not since he is not as yet the undetermined future which he will become in terms of the choice he makes.

Sartre admits that consciousness is always a consciousness of something, something that is extremely different from the conscious object, hence consciousness is always used to denote a separation from, a distance from, and above all, a negation of its object

Sartre attempts to demonstrate… that consci-ousness is non-substantial or nothingness. Nothingness not in the sense of not being anything but a nihilating activity. As nothingness, it is separated from the object by not being the object and preserves a distance from it17



Generally, being-for-others refers to the inter-human or inter-subjective relationship, the relationship that exists between the for-itself and another for itself. The question is, how do I know that there are other beings in existence except myself? Sartre refashioned the question thus: what is the fundamental relationship that exists between one person and another that led him to posit the question of this being for others?

The certainty of the existence of the other cannot be doubted as Jolivet R. stated that, once one is in the world, he does not only find out that he is conscious of himself but also that there are other people imposing themselves on him which implies relationship. Consequently, this relationship brings about conflict because looking at other, I reduce him to an object. It is this being-for-other that Sartre generally calls inter-subjectivity. For Sartre, the other is ‘‘The one who excludes me by himself, is the one who I exclude by being myself”18, The other is that “self which is not myself, the one which is not me and the other one whom I am not”.19  My apprehension of my own being is so structured that, it presupposes the existence of other conscious beings which is manifested in the feeling of shame. In this, I discover simultaneously the other and the aspect of my being as standing in front of the other, thus I am uncomfortable. The other is obstacle to the fulfilment of my own existence and his arrival brings about the alienation of my existence. The whole look of the other is to expose me in my nakedness and them, empty my whole being into his, that is, terminate my being as subject into an object. I experience my freedom being threatened by another who is about to absorb me into the orbit of his concerns. But for Sartre, I can defend and affirm my freedom in retaliation by rendering the other into an “it”. The other as well can stage a similar counter attack and the cycle simply repeats itself. I can defend, affirm and regain, my consciousness in retaliation by rendering the other an object. For Sartre, conflict is the original meaning and essence of being-for-others. Each seeks to dominate the other as a free being, to possess him both as an object and as a free being.

According to Sartre, there can never be cordial relationship between the other and I. He contends that the impossibility of achieving true love inevitably begets one or other of two extreme attitudes. Either I try to make myself a kind of object in the eyes of the other (masochism) or I try through violence and pain to make the other an instrument and to pulverize his subjectivity for my own pleasure (desire, sadism, hate).

From Sartre’s view then, he calls for a reconsideration of Heidegger’s general account of being together (mit-sein). For Sartre, there can be consciousness of community togetherness, a sense of we, as in the case of pre-reflexive outburst of applause at a concert or at a festival or theatrical performance. But on the love of reflexive consciousness, it is conflict and “to this extent, them, a conflict is the original meaning of being-for-others”20.

[1] L. Okika, unpublished work  2005, p. 2.

[2] F.C. Benjamin, Nature, Knowledge Of God: An Introduction To Philosophy Of St Thomas Aquinas, (New York: 1974), p. 386.

[3]   M. Heidegger, Being And Time, translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, (London: 1962), p. 74.

[4] J.P. Sartre, Nausea, (New York: 1978), p. 182.

[5] J.P. Sartre, Being and  Nothingness, p.619 quoted by F. Copleston, History of philosophy Vol. IX,             (New York : 1985),  p. 350.

[6] F. Copleston, History of Philosophy, Vol. IX, (New York: 1985), p. 350.

[7] J.P. Sartre, Op. cit., p. 619.

[8] Ibid.,  p. 74. Jean Paul Sartre

[9] J.P. Sartre, Imagination, ( Ann Arbor: 1962),  p. 1. Jean Paul Sartre

[10] J.P. Sartre, Op. cit.., p. 180. Jean Paul Sartre

[11] Regis Jolivet, Les Doctrines Existentialism de Kierkegaard and Sartre, ( Paris: 1948), p. 24. quoted by Lessoe F. J, Existentialism : with or without God, ( New York: 1974), p. 292. Jean Paul Sartre

12 J.P. Sartre, Op. cit., p. 11. Jean Paul Sartre

13Stumpf, Philosophy; History and problems,  (New york:1977), p. 473. Jean Paul Sartre

14Ibid., p. 474. Jean Paul Sartre

15Ibid., p. 474. Jean Paul Sartre

16 J.F. Lescoe, Existentialism: with or without God, (New york:1947), p. 269. Jean Paul Sartre

17 N. Greene, J.P. Sartre, The existentialist Ethics, (university of Michigan press: 1963), p .17. Jean Paul Sartre

18 J.P. Sartre, Op. cit., p. 130. Jean Paul Sartre

19Ibid., p. 312. Jean Paul Sartre

20Ibid., p. 475. Jean Paul Sartre

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