Sartre’s ‘Being and Nothingness’: An Introduction to Existentialism

Jean-Paul Sartre's seminal work, Being and Nothingness, encourages individuals to take control of their own lives and make meaningful decisions without relying on external forces.

Dec 23, 2023By Viktoriya Sus, MA Philosophy

being and nothingness sartre existentialism


Is freedom the pre-eminent human value? What makes human beings free? Jean-Paul Sartre’s major work Being and Nothingness sets out to answer some of these questions. Sartre’s existentialist philosophy proposes that, unlike animals which are born with a predestined nature and purpose, humans possess the power to create their own meaning in life.


The Creation of Being and Nothingness

rex features jean paul sartre photo
Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Rex Features, via The Independent


Jean-Paul Sartre was a French philosopher who made his mark in the philosophical scene of the 1930s and early 1940s with his renowned work on existentialism. He truly cemented himself as an influential figure when he released Being and Nothingness—which is over 600 pages long!—to great success in 1943.


This book wasn’t just written overnight; it had been years in the making for Sartre. He was influenced by Martin Heidegger’s 1927 release Being and Time. It took until at least the early 1930s before he began drafting the book which would initially be known as The Transcendence of The Ego.


As time went by, Sartre’s ideas developed, prompting a title change that reflected a renewed focus on being itself. Thus, Being and Nothingness was finished around 1940.

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The Two Types of Reality Beyond Consciousness

woman yellow hair
Woman with Yellow Hair, Pablo Picasso, 1931, via The Guggenheim


Jean-Paul Sartre defines two types of reality beyond human consciousness in his work, Being and Nothingness. There is “being-in-itself” and “being-for-itself.” By distinguishing these realities, Sartre is able to emphasize the importance of human freedom as a defining characteristic of existence.


Being-in-itself is a concrete reality that exists outside conscious awareness due to its inability to change or develop; this type of existence is completely unaware of itself in an objective sense as it simply “is” what it is. It is devoid of subjective experience or identity. The “being-in-itself” is a concrete, nonconscious being that lacks the ability to change or be aware of itself. This type of being represents nature—it is solid, unchanging, and unknowable.


In contrast, the being-for-itself experiences anxiety derived from its own selfhood by living with awareness of individuality which creates choices leading one away from predetermined paths. It differs from animals in that it can consider its actions dispassionately; this capacity for genuine self-awareness enables humans to make choices with greater objectivity than other creatures.


The distinction between these two types of reality beyond consciousness presented by Sartre holds great significance for understanding existentialist concepts pertaining to freedom, human experience, and choice in life.


Human beings alone combine both aspects—we have a nonconscious aspect that allows us to remain rooted in culture while also having a conscious aspect through which we can reflect on our situation critically and create meaning for ourselves independently from our environment or historical circumstances.


The Concept of Freedom as It Relates to Being and Nothingness

vincent van gogh prisoners excercising painting
Prisoners Exercising, Vincent Van Gogh, 1890, via Vanderbilt University Library.


The freedom of choice is key to Sartre’s project in Being and Nothingness. He encourages people not to rely on external forces or assume there is some higher power dictating our actions.


Instead, they should be responsible for themselves and make decisions without any outside influence. Ultimately this gives us autonomy over our existence, as Sartre believed that existence precedes essence. Our choices play a role in determining who we are.


Freedom is central to the philosophy of existentialism as a whole. Sartre posits that human beings are “condemned to be free” due to the fact that we do not have predetermined purposes in life and must make meaning for ourselves through our choices.


This notion—that humans are completely responsible for determining the meaning of their own lives—radically differs from traditional notions of predetermination, responsibility, or purpose assigned by external forces such as religion or authority.


Freedom thus becomes a defining characteristic of human existence in Sartrian existentialism: we must use our complex consciousnesses to actively make decisions regardless of how hard they may sometimes seem—only then can we find true meaningfulness within our life journey.


As such, prior conceptions about determinism become irrelevant since humans no longer depend on an outside force assigning them some sense of order or inherent purpose. Instead, every individual has complete responsibility for crafting their own subjective reality and individual experience, thereby creating autonomous pathways full of potentiality.


Radical Freedom as a Defining Characteristic of Human Existence

eastman johnson ride for liberty painting
A Ride for Liberty—The Fugitive Slaves (recto), Eastman Johnson, 1862, via Brooklyn Museum


Unlike any other objects in the world, we have no pre-existing nature or essence to dictate our behavior or existence; instead, it’s up to us to craft ourselves and ascribe meaning to our lives—something which might sound liberating on the surface yet can be an intimidating reality as well.


We become solely responsible for all the decisions we make, and we can’t blame anyone else if things don’t go according to plan. To escape this responsibility, many adopt “bad faith” tactics, such as pretending they’re merely abiding by societal norms or others’ expectations when really they’re too afraid of facing their own choices head-on.


Even when embracing autonomy,  there may still be anxiety about making life-changing decisions without external guidance. Despite these challenges, however, Sartre views such freedom positively. Having full control over our lives grants us ownership and allows everyone unique opportunities to build lasting legacies based on personal convictions rather than outside forces.


The Role of Consciousness in Creating Meaning

ilya repin freedom painting
What a Freedom, Ilya Repin, 1903, via Wikimedia Commons.


The concept of consciousness in Being and Nothingness is that it allows people to make choices and create purpose in an otherwise meaningless world. This conscious power gives us the freedom to transcend our predetermined nature—freeing ourselves from external pressures.


However, this ability also comes with challenges, such as grappling with “nothingness”—an existential crisis we must confront in order to find meaning within ourselves. This can be both liberating and terrifying at once. If we have the courage, we can learn to rely on our consciousness, guided solely by our beliefs and values. In doing so, we can view nothingness not as something to fear but as a means of ultimate liberation. By transcending predetermined paths, we discover true freedom within ourselves.


In essence, Jean-Paul Sartre encouraged self-reflection so that one might go beyond mere existence into actual being through meaningful action generated solely through personal choice rather than outside influence.


The Concept of Bad Faith

louis janmot wrong path painting
The Poem of the Soul: The Wrong Path, Louis Janmot, 1835-81, via Google Arts & Culture


The notion of bad faith is central to Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. It involves sidestepping responsibility for our decisions by denying that we ever had any choice to begin with. According to Sartre, individuals can choose “bad faith” as a way to flee from facing reality or seeking meaning in life.


On the surface, this might seem like an easy way out of difficult situations, such as choosing between college majors or career paths, but it also robs us of genuine fulfillment. To give an example: someone might deny their right to choose freely in order to evade any potential problems that arise with choice because it entails negative consequences like failure, guilt, or a feeling of emptiness.


Sartre argued that humans lack a predetermined essence, so they are free to shape themselves through their choices—although this level of freedom can be intimidating! It’s natural to want to evade accountability with excuses, which amounts to self-deception, according to Sartre.


However, counterintuitively, bad faith does nothing more than limit personal growth and thwart potential happiness: authentic living demands embracing liberty while staying true to ourselves despite how overwhelming this may feel at times.


So, What Is the Significance of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness in Existentialist Philosophy?

david jacques louis madame récamier painting
Madame Récamier, née Julie (dite Juliette) Bernard (1777-1849), Jacques-Louis David, 1800, via Louvre Museum


Being and Nothingness offers powerful insights into concepts such as freedom, consciousness, ontology, and more while also provoking us to reevaluate our accepted beliefs about what it means for human beings to exist.


In Being and Nothingness, Sartre lays the foundations for his version of existentialist philosophy. He insists that humans have no predetermined essence or purpose; instead, they must use their autonomy to make meaningful decisions in life without relying on external forces.


Sartre holds that consciousness is integral to this process—we can recognize the potential within ourselves even when faced with what may appear to be an empty world at first glance. Though it may seem intimidating, making choices congruent with our beliefs allows us to find meaning rather than being beholden solely to society’s expectations or destiny.


The philosopher also identifies “bad faith” tactics which involve dodging accountability through denial or justifications so one can avoid possible failure—ultimately blocking personal growth while denying greater joyfulness in life.


In summary, this book endeavors to alter how humanity views its own existence by giving precedence over free will plus mindful choices carried out via individual volition. By facing up courageously to self-directed control, we could start forming intentions and living truthfully together.

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By Viktoriya SusMA PhilosophyViktoriya is a writer from L’viv, Ukraine. She has knowledge about the main thinkers. In her free time, she loves to read books on philosophy and analyze whether ancient philosophical thought is relevant today. Besides writing, she loves traveling, learning new languages, and visiting museums.