161. Some Notes on Sartre’s Existentialism

Here are some notes on Jean-Paul Sartre’s (1905-1980) Being and Nothingness that continue, on some level, to apply to the world around me more than any other set of philosophical propositions.

Sartre argued freedom is a defining characteristic of human beings. The reality of genuine freedom in our lives means we can choose between genuine possibilities and therefore be responsible for our choices. 

However, Sartre also argued, following Soren Kierkegaard, that humans typically try to escape freedom because of the anxiety and suffering it causes. Since freedom is germane to the human condition, this amounts to the impossible task of humans escaping their humanity. Sartre calls the impossible avoidance of freedom acting in “bad faith”. Bad faith occurs by denying our “facticity” and/or our “transcendence”.

Facticity represents all those facts we need to face about ourselves: where we were born, our color, our gender, our race, acts committed, etc.  In general, facticity is our past. To deny facticty is to remove a necessary condition for freedom.  Freedom is not abstract and indifferent; it is always freedom from something to something.  

Transcendence represents our ability to not be reduced to our facticty.  Through our power of negation we can see things differently and give new direction and meaning to past events.  We can choose new courses of action not determined by the past. So transcendence is future-oriented. To deny our ability to transcend is also to remove a necessary condition for freedom.

It is simply overwhelming to face all the transcendent possibilities that bubble up and threaten the so-called solid obligations, practices, and beliefs that make up one’s facticity.  Indeed, existential anxiety differs from fear insofar as it is not directed toward a fearful object but towards the very notion of being able to do something else. But the trouble doesn’t stop with transcendence: for it is obviously painful to take responsibility for one’s facticity as well.  We conveniently forget deeds we are ashamed of and we are happy to stress the good and overlook the bad in ourselves.

Taken together, this gives us a formula for an escape from freedom: “bad faith” occurs when we seek to run into total transcendence and deny facticity OR when we seek to reduce ourselves to our facticity and deny that we can transcend.  

If we are able to avoid these denials, then Sartre claims we have the opportunity to act authentically or in “good faith”.  This gives us the following formula: Authentic action or action in “good faith” occurs when we accept facts AND we don’t reduce ourselves to facts: we take responsibility for the past and accept that as free beings we can transcend into a new futures with new possibilities.  

Authentic action, however, is very hard to realize. People are always trying to steal our freedom and we are seeking to steal freedom from them. We find ourselves temporarily losing our freedom when we are victims of the “look”: the gaze from the other that suddenly makes us act as they want us to or be what they think we are. Of course, we can also turn the look onto others and freeze them in our Medusa-like gaze. Whatever the case may be, we are enmeshed in a world of shifting power relations in which our efforts to be authentic are more often failures than successes. 

We all dream of being both a subject and an object at the same time; we wish to be free and indeterminate as a subject yet also finished and complete like an object. Moreover, we wish our lovers could be this way as well: we want them to be subjects to whom we can relate, yet we want them to be objects that we can control which won’t threaten our freedom. But we can’t have what we want: humans can never be subjects and objects at the same time; they can never be both a for-itself (subject) and an in-itself (object) since this contradictory and thus asking for the impossible. Thus God, who Sartre thinks needs to be a pure subject that is nonetheless complete, doesn’t exist.

Sartre discusses the self-defeating strategies of sadism and masochism to dramatically illustrate hopeless efforts to escape freedom. He points out that the masochist wants to be an object, but tragically wants to know himself as an object.  But such knowledge would imply that he be an object and a subject at the same time—a contradictory task which is impossible. Similarly, the sadist seeks to possess another’s freedom by reducing this other to a mere object.  But he also wants the person so reduced to be aware of their humiliated state.  But this is yet another absurd attempt to make an object into a subject at the same time. Underneath both these strategies is a self-defeating desire to escape freedom. If someone can just be an object of sexual pleasure he doesn’t have to worry about transcendence, about the future, about possibilities. If someone can reduce other people to objects then he doesn’t have to be threatened by a future with that person, doesn’t have to be judged by that person, etc. The masochist wants his freedom to be possessed; the sadist wants to possess it. But, as we know from Hegel, we seek recognition in order to be self-conscious. And to have recognition we must be subjects who deal with subjects: not objects that deal with objects. Sadism and masochism, however, try to negate subjectivity and thus fail as solutions to the problems of recognition, love, and power if we are to grow.

Given all these power relations, Sartre is quite pessimistic about the prospects of two equal subjects coming into a meaningful relationship with one another. To be sure, we are doomed to love since we are nothing ourselves and find being in the other; but in the end the others we engage with are bound to lead us to say that “hell is other people.”

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