The Problem of World, 2

Jean-Paul Sartre

In the previous study, we introduced the problem of world as it is opened and developed by Martin Heidegger in his seminal work Being and Time (1927). We established the essential belonging together of man and world in the intentional relation (I-world), and the way in which this existential hyphenation affords us with an original comprehension of being, which Heidegger terms existentiell understanding. We are in play with being; it resonates within us. At a second level, inasmuch as we originally comprehend being, and we are temporal beings who, in our original comprehension of being, historicize being in its perdurance, we ontologize being as these beings. Being generally apprehended now finds itself determined, existentially articulated or structured. Finally, then, because the existentiell and existential levels of our understanding are not separate domains but two moments of a whole, an interpenetration of the two occurs, the existential structuration of being as it is understood at the second level coming to be integrated in the existentiell understanding of the first. Being is consequently destined, set on a way, covered over with its determination in beings, by our understanding that is always already interpreting the world in which it is involved. Thus, what is nearest to us is not our original, existentiell comprehension of the being of beings (which nevertheless founds our existential comprehension), but the manifold concerns of the workshop of being in its existential structure, the ensemble of instruments with which we are joined in the unity of the intentional relation. It is this conception of world that profoundly influenced Jean-Paul Sartre in his Being and Nothingness (1943), and which we must keep in mind as we embark upon an analysis of the French existentialist’s “phenomenological ontology.”

Sartre begins Being and Nothingness with a discussion of the “phenomenon,” that concept we saw to be vital in Heidegger’s Being and Time. As noted previously, the phenomenon, for Heidegger, refers to that indissoluble union of self-showing (phenomenon) and letting-be (logos). These admittedly peculiar definitions he derives from the original Greek usage, noting a shared root to which he attributes real, and not merely nominal, existence. Phenomenology is thus, for Heidegger, to “let something be seen as something” (31), a process signalling the original belonging together of Dasein and world. So, for Sartre, it is precisely this synthesis with which he begins, hailing it as “progress” beyond the “dualisms which have embarrassed philosophy” (1). For Sartre, the advent of the phenomenon signals a new philosophical “monism”—a designation that is essential for us to keep in mind. In the monism of the phenomenon, there is no longer an “exterior” and “interior” of the “existent” (1). The appearances of “superficial covering” and “true nature” collapse into each other; all “appearances which manifest the existent ... are all equal, they all refer to other appearances, and none of them is privileged” (1). Nothing which happens in the world, then, is possessed of “a secret reverse side” because “no action indicates anything which is behind itself; it indicates only itself and the total series” (1). In these first remarks of Being and Nothingness, we see a sharp break with the various theories of representationalism that have been articulated throughout the history of philosophy, the first of which is captured by Plato’s myth of the cave. Like Heidegger, who also argues against a representational theory of truth, Sartre refuses to make appeal to an external reality, an external truth, upon which the appearances of our world might be grounded. No longer is there a “dualism of being and appearance”; the “appearance becomes full positivity,” and its “essence is an “appearing” which is no longer opposed to being but on the contrary is the measure of it” (2).1 Sartre opposes this fully positive appearance to Kant’s “Erscheinung” (appearance)—whereas Kant’s appearance remains trapped in a “double relativity,” “point[ing] over its shoulder to a true being which would be, for it, absolute,” Sartre’s appearance is a “relative-absolute”: “What it is, it is absolutely, for it reveals itself as it is” (2). The relative-absolute phenomenon is “absolutely indicative of itself,” so deserving the designation absolute, but insofar as it cannot be reduced to a substantial being, it is thus also necessarily relative (2).

To accurately read Being and Nothingness, then, we must recognize Sartre’s emphasis on the monism of the phenomenon, and consequently, his monistic conception of the world. Being is what is—it is all that is. Everything that is in being is being. This is not, however, to put forward an actual stasis of being, such as in Parmenides. All that is is being but being is its appearing. Appearing is not a “thin film” covering over the real; being “can not be supported by any being other than its own” (4). As such, for Sartre, the “being of an existent is exactly what it appears” (2). It follows that his project of a phenomenological ontology is thus a project of the “description of the phenomenon of being as it manifests itself” (4). In this project, Sartre notes a subtle distinction between the “phenomenon of being” (as that which appears or reveals itself) and the “being of the phenomena” (revealed existents) (4). He sees in the phenomenologies of both Husserl and Heidegger the desire to pass beyond the existent to being, to find the revealing within the revealed, the being of the phenomenon, appearing as such. But in his commitment to monism, Sartre is resistant to such a move. He is leery of any conception of being that might separate it from concrete beings. He recognizes with Heidegger that human being is “ontic-ontological,” but he more strongly emphasizes the interpenetration of these two levels or moments of human being, to the point of completely identifying them (4). As we remarked in the previous study, the ontic level, at which being is originally, but only generally, comprehended, finds itself injected with the determinations of the ontological level. Existentiell understanding, average and indefinite, is thus informed by existential understanding, articulated and structured. Consequently, existentiell understanding is effectively existentialized, and we become indifferent to our determinations; the existents of ontological thought appear to us as given, destined to be what they are. But Heidegger presumes that in lapses of the existential our original belonging with being can be revealed. Sartre disagrees: “the being of the phenomenon can not be reduced to the phenomenon of being” (6). Sartre does not deny our ontic-ontological condition, but he denies that the ontic level can ever be experienced apart from the ontological. For Sartre, being is always already determined, articulated, structured.

And yet, Sartre feels it necessary to introduce one of his more problematic concepts, one with which he himself wrestles. Insofar as he denies that we can attain to the being of the phenomenon, because being is this being, he is thus obliged to posit the “transphenomenality of being” (6):

That does not mean that being is found hidden behind phenomena (we have seen that the phenomenon can not hide being), nor that the phenomenon is an appearance which refers to a distinct being (the phenomenon exists only qua appearance; that is, it indicates itself on the foundation of being). What is implied by the preceding considerations is that the being of the phenomenon although coextensive with the phenomenon, can not be subject to the phenomenal condition—which is to exist only in so far as it reveals itself—and that consequently it surpasses the knowledge which we have of it and provides the basis for such knowledge.

Where Heidegger would be comfortable with saying that “the being of the appearance is its appearing,”2 and that for instance this appearing can be encountered in the breakdown of our tools, Sartre on the other hand finds this statement to be just another form of Berkeleyan idealism, and thus a return to dualism (6). Being is coextensive with the phenomenon, with its appearing, but is not itself phenomenal; the being of beings, in Sartre, cannot itself appear. In his commitment to concrete monism, Sartre resists the often mystical inclinations of Heidegger. All existents are phenomenal, meaning they are what they appear, but this appearing as appearing is not available to us; it always surpasses us; it is transphenomenal. Without this transphenomenality of being, Sartre argues that we are left with only “the totality ‘perceived-perception,’” which “lacks the support of a solid being and so falls away in nothingness” (6). Whereas in Heidegger we saw that perception is the tensile play of the original relation between Dasein and world, Sartre refuses to admit such a reciprocal foundation.

In order to proceed, then, Sartre resorts to a more Husserlian phenomenological approach. “All consciousness ... is consciousness of something,” Sartre maintains. There can be no “positing of a transcendent object,” nor any “consciousness [that] has no ‘content.’” He denies both the existence of “neutral ‘givens,’” and the possibility of “representation.” Consciousness is therefore always a “positional consciousness of the world.” Things are not abstracted into or represented by the mind; rather, consciousness “transcends itself in order to reach an object” (7). Consciousness is always defined in this way by its “intention,” in its being “directed toward the outside” (8). Thus, we see here Sartre’s iteration of the intentionality relation (I-world), and again his repudiation of representationalism. But, insofar as being is always already articulated, has always already appeared as this being, there must be “an immediate, non-cognitive relation of the self to itself” that exists prior to this consciousness of the world (9). Accusations of dualism against Sartre, despite his assertion of monism, can find support in this claim. Sartre maintains that “spontaneous consciousness of my perception is constitutive of my perceptive consciousness,” and that therefore “every positional consciousness of an object is at the same time a non-positional consciousness of itself” (9). This leads him to his articulation (structuration, existentialization) of consciousness as consciousness (of). Pleasure is not a raw “hedonistic material” represented by consciousness as pleasure. Instead, “[c]onsciousness (of) pleasure is constitutive of the pleasure ... [it] is not a representation, it is a concrete event, full and absolute” (10). Pleasure and consciousness (of pleasure) form an “indivisible, indissoluble being—definitely not a substance supporting its qualities like particles of being” (11). Thus, the relation positional consciousness (of) pleasure can also be represented as consciousness-pleasure. The consciousness (of) pleasure is the consciousness of consciousness as it is articulated in the “concrete event.”

The formula that results from this line of argumentation is consciousness as “conscious (of) itself,” or we might say, conscious-itself. Consciousness rises “to the center of being,” and therein “creates and supports its essence,” possessed of no “motivation other than itself” (11). The being of consciousness as consciousness-itself is its necessary, concrete appearance; but its appearing as such, its coming into being, is not available. In its being it is “pure appearance,” and because appearing is not available to perception, as we have seen above, the being of consciousness is thus transphenomenal. As total self-motivation, consciousness is also a “total emptiness,” the very “identity of appearance and existence” (12). Sartre proceeds to inquire, then, whether this “transphenomenal being”—consciousness—is “the being to which the phenomenon of being refers,” the “foundation for the appearance qua appearance” (13). Considering that consciousness as an emptiness or nothingness cannot give being to beings, insofar as consciousness is always consciousness of something, and cannot exist otherwise, Sartre concludes that “this very transphenomenality requires that of the being of the phenomenon” (16). It is the relative-absolute. Consciousness is “to be confronted with a concrete and full presence which is not consciousness” (16). It is absolutely consciousness, but always so relative to the appearance of being. It is also thus not self-founding, despite its total self-motivation, insofar as its absolute being must always be relative to the being that it is not. Consciousness is therefore that “being such that in its being, its being is in question in so far as this being implies a being other than itself” (18, Sartre’s emphasis). The transcendent emptiness of consciousness necessarily implies “the being of the world” (18), that being whose being is also transphenomenal, but who exists in a different way from the being of consciousness.

Finally, we have arrived at Sartre’s famous distinction between “being-for-itself” (consciousness) and “being-in-itself” (the world; being). Consciousness, consciousness-itself, total self-motivation, total emptiness, nothingness, arises in being as for-itself; the being in which it arises is itself always articulated, always structured, always existent, not deriving its existence from anything other than itself, and is therefore in-itself. This is a vital distinction for Sartre, and yet one which causes a myriad of problems for interpretation. Certainly, the being of consciousness seems quite different from the being of that which consciousness is consciousness of. But in schematizing this difference in such a way, Sartre arrives at what he himself admits to be “two absolutely separated regions of being,” the relation between which he himself must now explain (19). He has already asserted a concrete monism, but now he has also asserted the existence of two incommunicable beings. How, then, can they stand “under the same heading” (19)? And indeed, how can something like the nothingness that Sartre holds consciousness to be arise within being? Sartre’s in-itself is “glued to itself,” admits no gaps, no spacing (21). It is “one undifferentiated self-affirmation,” it is “dissolved in an identity,” it is “opaque to itself precisely because it is filled with itself” (21). All this means that being-in-itself is “solid,” “full positivity,” a total, indissoluble “synthesis of itself and itself” (22). Yet, somehow, consciousness also is, in an entirely different mode, self-referring and other within that which “can encompass no negation,” nor “know[] no otherness” (22). How can this be so?

Though this paper is not the suitable venue for a further, more detailed analysis of the problematic Sartre has erected, it will suffice to identify it here, and remark that the following journey Sartre takes is neither simple nor altogether clear. He remains trapped between Husserl and Heidegger, between the intellective and the actional, and it seems to be the disparity between these two approaches to phenomenology that leads to the many difficulties of Sartre’s own text. It is not until part four of Being and Nothingness, “Having, Doing, and Being,” that he manages to wrest himself from the chains of his own making, and it is precisely in his taking up of action that his previously asserted monism begins to reassert itself against the dualism of in-itself and for-itself. The prior three sections are all so concerned with establishing the total difference, total nothingness, and totally absolute being of the for-itself, that the original pollution of the intentionality relation becomes obscured. In fact, it is because of Sartre’s commitment to his conception of the for-itself that intentionality can appear as a pollution at all, as something which might compromise the absolute freedom of the for-itself. But in part four, in looking to action, these prior commitments fade into the background and the necessary involvement and interdetermination of for-itself and in-itself, I and world, re-emerges. These later pages leave the intellective, Husserlian predilection of the earlier behind, and more fully embrace the Heideggerian sense of action as a unity of meaning, of which we wrote in the previous study. Specifically, in his taking up of facticity and the “situation,” the monism he claimed as philosophical progress comes into full expression (503). The monism of part four of Being and Nothingness is dynamic and complex, far from the classical stasis of the what is. It remains for a future study to more carefully attend to the intervening pages of the text, and to chart the development of Sartre’s thought over the course of this single book, so that dualistic readings of him might be overcome, and his own assertion of monism be more clearly presented. Indeed, it is Sartre’s taking up of the Heideggerian workshop, in his explication of actions, instruments, and ends, that his phenomenological ontology comes into its own, and becomes something truly valuable. Unfortunately, one must grapple with over four hundred pages of prior material before reaching this illuminating final section.

Works Cited

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. 1927. Translated by Joan Stambaugh, revised by Dennis. J. Schmidt, State University Press of New York, 2010.

Heidegger, Martin. Introduction to Metaphysics. 1953. Translated by Gregory Fried and Richard Polt, Yale University Press, 2000.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. 1943. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes, Routledge, 2003.


  1. The use of “appearing” here signifies more accurately the “presencing” of Heidegger’s later work than the “appearing” of Being and Time. In Being and Time, “appearing” is opposed to the phenomenon as a subsidiary mode of that which shows itself as itself (so, as that which shows itself as itself not showing itself as itself—an essential possibility of self-showing), but this is a purely terminological, and not conceptual, difference. Being is “being-for-revealing (être-pour-dévoiler),” Sartre says, and this revealing is decidedly Heideggerian (5, translator’s insertion). 

  2. In Introduction to Metaphysics he says as much: “Phusis is the event of standing forth, arising from the concealed and thus enabling the concealed to take its stand for the first time” (16). The being of the real, nature, phusis (in its original Greek sense) is for being to stand forth, manifest itself, or appear out of its concealment. 

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