Being-For-Itself

Cover: 1964, 7th printing of Nausea; New Direc...
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Right now I’m about a third of the way through Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, and so far I’m finding it to be an immense pleasure. Effectively, this is the first time I’ve been able to really engage with Sartre’s fiction; I read the original text of Hui Clos (No Exit) in high school French, but given that French was never my strong suit I probably would have gotten more out of reading the Wikipedia synopsis. As for his straight philosophy (specifically Being and Nothingness), I found it maddeningly cryptic and elliptical. I wanted to grapple with the ideas he was proposing, but the presentation made much of it incomprehensible to me.

Nausea personalizes and makes concrete Sartre’s existentialism, which is a great way to clarify both the structure of his phenomenology and his own feelings on its implications. Given that he is one of the great giants of existentialism, and I’m probably one of the last American philosophy majors to unself-consciously identify as an existentialist, the clarification has been invaluable.

I’m particularly interested in the book’s treatment of one of the author’s key concepts from Being and Nothingness: being-for-itself. In the latter work, Sartre argues that consciousness is the being-for-itself because it is that which can observe itself. Because it has that ability, it is, itself, nothing; any of its features can be discarded or remolded at a moment’s notice. The fact that we are, ourselves, nothingness surrounded by (for lack of a better word) thing-ness is profoundly disturbing to us. This comes up a lot in Nausea, in various forms: Roquentin, the main character, is unsettled by the fact that his own reflection in the mirror doesn’t signify anything to him. As a professional historian, he reads up on the fictional (I think) Marquis de Robellon, and is disturbed by the Marquis’ seeming fluidity of character. Robellon, it seems, has embraced the nothingness at his core and set out to simply be whatever he needs to be in any given situation.

I’m of two minds about being-for-itself. On the one hand, I’m something of a soft determinist: I believe that we spend about 99.9999% percent of our lives blindly reacting to external stimuli in predictable, far from unique ways. In fact, I’d argue that this is empirically true; go ahead and ask a political scientist or behavioral psychologist if we’re all the precious little snowflakes we think we are. To the extent that our behavior seems determined by our deepest inner selves, that is because we are remarkably talented at rationalizing our own actions.

On the other hand, I think this feeling of essential emptiness is a good description of one of the fundamental anxieties of self-consciousness; and considering Sartre’s existentialism is founded in phenomenology, the philosophy of describing the character of one’s experiences, that makes all the difference.

Take, for example, my fear of heights. I rarely feel agitated when I’m gazing through a thick pane of glass or over a high railing, but climbing a ladder or standing anywhere near an unprotected ledge can be profoundly distressing. Intellectually, I understand that the only way I’ll fall is if I let go of the ladder or walk off the ledge, two things which I have no interest in doing; on a visceral level, I experience letting go or walking off as real options. That I would never do such a thing is sort of beside the point. The point is that I’m being presented with the choice, and the only things preventing me from making the wrong choice are hardwired self-preservation and my incomplete, shallow perception of myself and what I’m like.

We block out most of these choices just to get through the day without being paralyzed by anxiety. But I think realizing that we are, at our core, not really anything in particular can also liberate us from those of our own habits and behaviors we dislike. That there is a behavioral or physiological element to those habits and behaviors—one which Sartre downplays far too much—makes breaking them one of the most difficult things you can do. Yet doing so can also be the most profound disclosure of your own freedom and agency.

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