yexist - a page of notes on existentialism

Jean-Paul Sartre

born Paris 1905 died 1980

Sartre, J.P. 1943 Being and Nothingness. An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology (English 1958 Translation by Hazel Barnes, London)

Meanings of three key words form Hazel, E. Barne's "Key to Special Terminology" appended to her English translation of Being and Nothingness:

"Human reality can not receive its ends, as we have seen, either from outside or from so called inner "nature". It chooses them and by this very choice confers upon them a transcendent existence as the external limit of its projects. From this point of view - and if it is understood that the existence of the Dasein precedes and commands its essence - human reality in and through its very upsurge decides to define its own being by its ends. It is therefore the positing of my ultimate ends which characterizes my being and which is identical with the sudden thrust of the freedom which is mine." (Sartre, J.P. 1943 p.443)

Part One: The Problem of Nothingness

Chapter One: The Origin of Negation

In the beginning of Being and Nothingness Sartre proves philosophically:

  1. That a philosophical argument is the only way one can prove certain things about reality. These things include two important, taken for granted, premises of positivism:

      i) that the appearances a positivist says constitute the real are real

      ii) that his consciousness of them exists

    (Introduction: The Pursuit of Being. pp xxi-xliii)

  2. That the same philosophical argument also proves that the subject (a human being) does not have the same being (mode of existence) as the physical world, in that what he (she) is (his being) is not provided for him, but he has to provide it himself. A person is being for itself, not in itself. He (she) chooses what he is/does/has. The only thing he (she) cannot choose is for this not to be true.

But human beings do try to convince themselves that they had no choice in a situation - that they were not responsible for their actions. This is "bad faith" - lying to oneself.

"In freedom the human being is his own past (as also his own future) in the form of nihilation. If our analysis has not lead us astray, there ought to exist for the human being, in so far as he is conscious of being, a certain mode of standing opposite his past and his future, as being both his past and his future and as not being them. We shall be able to furnish an immediate reply to this question; it is in anguish that man gets the consciousness of his freedom, or if you prefer, anguish is the mode of being of freedom as consciousness of being; it is in anguish that freedom is, in its being, in question for itself." (Sartre, J.P. 1943 p.29

".. anguish is distinguished from fear in that fear is fear of beings in the world whereas anguish is anguish before myself. Vertigo is anguish to the extent that I am afraid not of falling over the precipice, but of throwing myself over." (Sartre, J.P. 1943 p.29)

Bad Faith defined pp 43-44:

".. we flee from anguish by attempting to apprehend ourselves from without as an Other or as a thing." (Sartre, J.P. 1943 p.43)

"I can not avoid knowing that I am fleeing; and the flight from anguish is only a mode of becoming conscious of anguish." (Sartre, J.P. 1943 p.43)

"If I am my anguish in order to flee it, that presupposes that I can decenter myself in relation to what I am, that I can be anguish in the form of "not being it", that I can dispose of a nihilating power at the heart of anguish itself. This nihilating power nihilates anguish in so far as I flee it and nihilates itself in so far as I am anguish in order to flee it. This attitude is what we call bad faith." (Sartre, J.P. 1943 p.44)

Freud's "ego" "id" distinction splits the unity of consciousness in order to deal with the difficulty of "lieing to oneself" (bad faith)

"By the distinction betwen the "id" and the "ego", Freud has cut the psychic whole into two. I am the ego but I am not the id." (Sartre, J.P. 1943 p.50

Part Four: Having, Doing, and Being

Chapter One: Being and Doing: Freedom

1 Freedom: The First Condition of Action
In the first chapter we established... that if negation comes into the world through human-reality, the latter must be a being who can realize a nihilating rupture with the world and with himself: and we established that the permanent possibility of this rupture is the same as freedom. But on the other hand, we stated that this permanent possibility of nihilating what I am in the form of "having-been" implies for man a particular type of existence.

We were able then to determine by means of analyses like that of bad faith that human reality is its own nothingness. For the for-itself, to be is to nihilate the in-itself which it is.
To say that the for-itself has to be what it is... to say that in it existence precedes and conditions essence.. is.. to be aware that man is free. Indeed by the sole fact that I am conscious of the causes which inspire my action, these causes are already transcendent objects for my consciousness; they are outside. In vain shall I seek to catch hold of them: I escape them by my very existence. I am condemned to exist forever beyond my essence, beyond the causes and motives of my act. I am condemned to be free. This means that no limits to my freedom can be found except freedom itself or, if you prefer, that we are not free to cease being free. (Sartre, J.P. 1943 p.439)


Extracts from The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness. (1960)

Ronald Laing was a psychiatrist. He was born 7.10.1927 and died 23.8.1989. From 1951 to 1961 he worked at the Tavistock Clinic in London. His first book, The Divided Self, was published by Tavistock in 1960.

Here, I reproduce extracts from The Divided Self which are chosen to explain Laing's contention that

  • an existential-phenomenological psychology is required for a valid study of the human mind
and how that relates to his other contention, that:

  • the apparently incomprehensible language of madness is, in fact, comprehensible.

Some of these extracts have been re- arranged, in an attempt to bring out the meaning more clearly. You may find it useful to compare with the original. The page references are to the Penguin edition (1965).

Chapter 1: The existential-phenomenological foundations for a science of persons.

"Man's being (I shall use `being' subsequently to denote simply all that a man is) can be seen from different points of view and one or other aspect can be made the focus of study. In particular, man can be seen as person or thing. Now, even the same thing, seen from different points of view, gives rise to two entirely different descriptions, and the descriptions give rise to two entirely different theories, and the theories result in two entirely different sets of action. The initial way we see a thing determines all our subsequent dealings with it." (p.20)

"Now, if you are sitting opposite me, I can see you as another person like myself; without you changing or doing anything differently, I can now see you as a complex physical-chemical system, perhaps with its own idiosyncrasies but chemical none the less for that; seen in this way, you are no longer a person but an organism. Expressed in the language of existential phenomenology, the other, as seen as an organism, is the object of different intentional acts." (p.21)

"One's relationship to an organism is different from one's relation to a person. Ones's description of the other as organism is ... different from one's description of the other as person ... ;similarly, one's theory of the other as organism is remote from any theory of the other as person. One acts towards an organism differently from the way one acts towards a person. The science of persons is the study of human beings that begins from a relationship with the other as person and proceeds to an account of the other still as person." (p.21)

" For example, if one is listening to another person talking, one may either (a) be studying verbal behaviour in terms of neural processes and the whole apparatus of vocalizing, or (b) be trying to understand what he is saying. In the later case, an explanation of verbal behaviour in terms of the general nexus of organic changes that must be necessarily be going on as a conditio sine qua non [indispensable condition] of his verbalization, is no contribution to a possible understanding of what the individual is saying." (pp 21-22)

" the theory of man as person loses its way if it falls into an account of man as a machine or man as an organismic system of it-processes.[p.23] ... Physics and the other sciences of things must accord the science of persons the right to be unbiased in a way that is true to its own field of study." (p.24)

Chapter two: The existential-phenomenological foundations for the understanding of psychosis.

"When I certify someone insane, I am not equivocating when I write that he is of unsound mind, may be dangerous to himself and others, and require care and attention in a mental hospital. However, at the same time, I am also aware that, in my opinion, there are other people who are regarded as sane, whose minds are as radically unsound, who may be equally or more dangerous to themselves and others and whom society does not regard as psychotic and fit persons to be in a madhouse. I am aware that the man who is said to be deluded may be in his delusion telling me the truth, and this in no equivocal or metaphorical sense, but quite literally, and that the cracked mind of the schizophrenic may let in light which does not enter the intact minds of many sane people whose minds are closed." (p.27)

"The standard [psychiatric] texts contain the description of the behaviour field that includes the psychiatrist. The behaviour of the patient is to some extent a function of the behaviour of the psychiatrist in the same behavioural field." (p.28)

"The clinical psychiatrist, wishing to be more `scientific' or `objective', may propose to confine himself to the `objectively' observable behaviour of the patient before him. The simplest reply to this is that it is impossible. To see `signs' of `disease' is not to see neutrally. ... We cannot help but see the person in one way or other and place our constructions or interpretations on `his' behaviour, as soon as we are in a relationship with him." (p.31)

[Laing is arguing that the approach that a doctor takes to a medical disease is inadequate in psychiatry, because the relationship to a `thing' (disease) is different to the relationship between peopležand psychiatry requires the later approach.]

"The crux of the matter is that when one examines `a heart', or even the whole man as an organism, one is not interested in the nature of one's own personal feelings about him. (p.29)

[Laing thinks this is the wrong way to understand the schizophrenic person. He gives an illustration to illustrate that there is another way to interpret a `schizophrenics' `symptoms']

" ... this patient's behaviour can be seen in at least two ways ... One may see his behaviour as `signs' of a `disease'; one may see his behaviour as expressive of his existence. The existential-phenomenological construction is an inference about the way the other is feeling and acting. (pp 30-31)

[The example is taken from the work of the German psychiatrist, Emil Kraepelin (1856-1926), who pioneered the classification of mental disorder on the basis of thousands of case studies.] Here is Kraepelin's (1905) account to a lecture-room of his students of a patient showing the signs of catatonic excitement:

"The patient I will show you today has almost to be carried into the rooms, as he walks in a straddling fashion on the outside of his feet. On coming in, he throws off his slippers, sings a hymn loudly, and then cries twice (in English), `My father, my real father!' He is eighteen years old, and a pupil of the Oberrealschule (higher-grade modern-side school), tall, and rather strongly built, but with a pale complexion, on which there is often a transient flush. The patient sits with his eyes shut, and pays no attention to his surroundings. He does not look up even when he is spoken to, but he answers beginning in a low voice, and gradually screaming louder and louder. When asked where he is, he says, `You want to know that too? I tell you who is being measured and is measured and shall be measured. I know all that, and could tell you, but I do not want to.' When asked his name, he screams, `What is your name? What does he shut? He shuts his eyes. What does he hear? He does not understand; he understands not. How? Who? Where? When? What does he mean? When I tell him to look he does not look properly. You there, just look! What is it? Why do you give me no answer? Are you getting impudent again? How can you be so impudent? I'm coming! I'll show you! You don't whore for me. You mustn't be smart either; you're an impudent, lousy fellow, such an impudent, lousy fellow I've never met with. Is he beginning again? You understand nothing at all, nothing at all; nothing at all does he understand. If you follow now, he won't follow, will not follow. Are you getting still more impudent? Are you getting impudent still more? How they attend, they do attend,' and so on. At the end, he scolds in quite inarticulate sounds."

Kraepelin notes here among other things the patient's `inaccessibility':

"Although he undoubtedly understands all the questions, he has not given us a single piece of useful information. His talk was ... only a series of disconnected sentences having no relation whatever to the general situation." (pp 29-30)

[Laing disagrees. He thinks that Kraepelin's own approach is shaping his vision in a specific way, and that there is another, better approach:]

"Now it seems clear that this patient's behaviour can be seen in at least two ways ... One may see his behaviour as `signs' of a `disease'; one may see his behaviour as expressive of his existence. The existential-phenomenological construction is an inference about the way the other is feeling and acting. What is the boy's experience of Kraepelin? He seems to be tormented and desperate. What is he `about' in speaking and acting in this way? He is objecting to being measured and tested. He wants to be heard." (pp 30-31)

"Now there is no question that this patient is showing the `signs' of catatonic excitement. The construction we put on this behaviour will, however, depend on the relationship we establish with the patient ... What does this patient seem to be doing? Surely he is carrying on a dialogue between his own parodied version of Kraepelin, and his own defiant rebelling self. `You want to know that too? I tell you who is being measured and is measured and shall be measured. I know all that, and could tell you, but I do not want to.' This seems to be plain enough talk. Presumably he deeply resents this form of interrogation which is being carried out before a lecture-room of students. He probably does not see that it has to do with the things that must be deeply distressing him." (p.30)

"Kraepelin asks about his name. the patient replies by an exasperated outburst in which he is now saying what he feels is the attitude implicit in Kraepelin's approach to him: What is your name? What does he shut? He shuts his eyes. ... Why do you give me no answer? Are you getting impudent again? You don't whore for me? (i.e. he feels that Kraepelin is objecting because he is not prepared to prostitute himself before the whole classroom of students), and so on ... such an impudent, lousy fellow I've never met with. ... etc. (p.30)"

[The following quotations, from The Divided Self, introduce Laing's concept of ontological security, by which he just means being secure in ones own being. He also calls it, having a sense of being a whole person. Certain people in certain families, he argues, do not develop feelings of ontological security, and this can result in schizophrenia. This idea was developed much further in Families of Schizophrenics (Laing and A. Esterson, 1964)]

Chapter 3: Ontological insecurity

"A man may have a sense of his presence in the world as a real, alive, whole, and, in a temporal sense, a continuous person. As such, he can live out into the world and meet others: a world and others experienced as equally real, alive, whole, and continuous. Such a basically ontologically secure person will encounter all the hazards of life ... from a centrally firm sense of his own and other people's reality and identity." (p.39)

"This study is concerned with the issues involved where there is the partial or almost complete absence of the assurances derived from an existential position of what I shall call primary ontological security: with anxieties and dangers that I shall suggest arise only in terms of primary ontological insecurity; and with the consequent attempts to deal with such anxieties and dangers." (p.39)

Chapter 11: The ghost of the weed garden: a study of a chronic schizophrenic.

"In recent years, the concept of a `schizophrenogenic' mother has been introduced. ... This concept ... can be stated in the following terms: there may be some ways of being a mother that impeded rather than facilitate ... any ... inborn tendency there may be in the child towards achieving the primary developmental stages of ontological security. Not only the mother but also the total family situation may impede rather than facilitate the child's capacity to participate in a real shared world, as self-with-other." (p.189)

"It is the thesis of this study that schizophrenia is a possible outcome of a more than usual difficulty in being a whole person with the other, and with not sharing the common-sense (i.e. the community sense) way of experiencing oneself in the world."q (p.189)

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De Beauvoir


See Ginny Goudy on the existentialist movement

Sartre's Being and Nothingness

Introduction: The Pursuit of Being pp xxi-xliii

Part one: The Problem of Nothingness

Chapter One: The Origin of Negation
Chapter Two: Bad Faith

Part Two: Being-for-itself

Part Three: Being-for-others

Part Four: Having, Doing, and Being

Chapter One: Being and Doing: Freedom