PD 230 Existentialism and Phenomenology

Final Essay

Gavin Gee-Clough, postgrad dip.

2390 words

Q6) Discuss Sartre's ideas about meaning and value. If there is no objective meaning, how can our lives be meaningful?

Sartre's conception of meaning and value is derived from his phenomenological ontology. This ontology, described in Sartre's 'Being and Nothingness', distinguishes 'being-for-itself' or consciousness, from 'being-in-itself' or simply being. Consciousness is shown to be empty, consisting of nothing-in-itself – it is pure intentionality - and is therefore referred to as nothingness 1. Likewise being-in-itself is devoid of consciousness. Therefore being and nothingness are polar opposites.

These polar opposites constitute a schizophrenic human reality. Man is a being-in-itself, or facticity, in that he is an object in the world; he has a definite past which constitutes his essence and can be perceived as an in-itself by others; but he is also transcendent in that the for-itself, the nothingness of consciousness 2, is the vehicle by which he knows himself and the world in general. Consequently man can only know himself as his past, inasmuch as he can be conscious of his past like any other object or entity. But he – his self – is in the present, he is not his past and the future is yet to happen, he is just consciousness, but consciousness of consciousness is consciousness of nothing. “Consciousness is a being, the nature of which is to be conscious of the nothingness of its being” 3. Man exists in an unanchored present; he is without foundation. In other words his existence is always ahead of his essence.

Consciousness is consequently paradoxical: it is nothing in itself, yet it is everything in that it is the vehicle through which I am conscious of everything. Because consciousness is nothingness there can be no laws or conditions upon it – it is nothing; and because every action or decision I make is by definition made in the present, which is pure consciousness, there is nothing compelling me to do one thing over another, in fact there is nothing compelling me to do anything at all. Consciousness, in being nothing, is totally free. It is without cause or effect (can nothing cause something? 4). This means that nothing I have done or plan to do has any bearing on what I do now, since what I have done and plan to do are something and what I do now is spontaneous - it is based on consciousness, on nothing - I have no control over it! Consequently what was total freedom becomes total lack of freedom because of this spontaneity. This terrible paradox is the source of anguish.

Anguish is recognising Kierkegaard's awful freedom and, like Heidegger, it is staring into nothingness; in Sartre's ontology these are one and the same. Anguish is the basis of authenticity, of facing and understanding reality. Avoiding or denying anguish, by refusing to recognise the structure of human existence, is called 'bad faith' in Sartre's terminology. Anguish is the starting point in man's search for 'true' meaning and value in his existence:

All these trivial passive expectations of the real, all the commonplace, everyday values derive their meaning from an original projection of myself which stands as my choice of myself in the world.... For the rest there exist concretely alarm clocks, signboards, tax forms, policemen, so many guard rails against anguish. But as soon as the enterprise is held at a distance from me...then I discover myself suddenly as the one who gives meaning to the alarm clock...I emerge alone and in anguish confronting the unique and original project which constitutes my being...I don't have, nor can I have any recourse to any value against the fact that it is I who sustain values in being... I have to realize the meaning of the world and my essence.” 5 (my emphasis)

This extract describes the starting point from which we can consider the Sartrean concepts of meaning and value. Put simply the anguish in the face of freedom (consciousness) is a recognition that all meaning and value must come from me. There are no objective values: “...my freedom is the unique foundation of values...nothing, absolutely nothing justifies me in adopting this or that particular value...As a being by whom values exist I am unjustifiable.” 6 Value and meaning are revealed through choice and action, through projects, through active immersion in the world. To hold that there exist objective values is to adopt the 'spirit of seriousness' that Sartre sees as predominant, especially in those that rule the world. This stance is one of bad faith.

What then does this mean for the individual? Is one course of action, or choice as worthy or valid as the next? This meaninglessness, this arbitrariness of choice and value are central to Sartre's literature. The character of Mathieu in Sartre's wartime 'Roads to Freedom' trilogy is paralysed, rendered impotent by this realization. He cannot seem to act at all; he can't decide to marry or not; he can't decide to join the communist party or not. In recognizing the absence of objective value he can't find a reason to act. Eventually situation forces Mathieu to act: he fires upon German soldiers in World War Two and experiences a shift in reality. He sullies his pure consciousness with facticity; he commits a crime, an irrevocable act (killing someone) that leaves his mark on the world. His subjectivity has become objectified. This is an epiphanous moment for Mathieu and illustrates Sartre's point that fundamentally man is the desire to 'be' – to become real.

According to Sartre man is a union of facticity and transcendence, of the in-itself and the for-itself. When a child, a man is mostly facticity, an in-itself, he is an object or possession of his parents like everting else. He sees himself through his parents' eyes and his values are objective, in that they come from his parents. At some point in life a man may reach a new stage - that of Mathieu in the first two books of the 'Roads to Freedom' trilogy – where he realizes, through anguish, that values are not objective, he is totally free. As we have seen this freedom is paradoxical, it is a negated freedom - since I am conscious of this freedom, the nothingness of my consciousness separates me from it. It renders the individual impotent, isolated from his freedom; this is the stage of pure consciousness or transcendence – man is a for-itself. The third and final stage 7 is that of uniting the in-itself and the for-itself. It is the desire to become an object, but not the object of the first stage - not someone else's object; it is to become an object of your own continual choice and creation, an object that is its own foundation, ens causa sui 8it is the in-itself-for-itself. This is the stage that reveals meaning and value through choice and action:

Fundamentally man is the desire to be...since desire is a lack and since the for-itself is the being which is to itself its own lack of being...the fundamental value which presides over this project is exactly the in-itself-for-itself; that is the ideal of consciousness...the foundation of its own being-in-itself by the pure consciousness which it would have of itself. It is this ideal which can be called God. The fundamental project of human reality is to say that man is the being whose project is to be God.” 9

The clearest example of this “fundamental desire” is seen in sexual desire. In sexual desire the other that I desire makes me aware of myself as an object, as facticity, 10 through his/her transcendence or consciousness. This awareness is not trivial; it invades and eventually overwhelms consciousness. Through the other, sexual desire is the consciousness becoming flesh, the for-itself becoming its own foundation in my body. This falling into flesh is commonly called swooning. Through the other I then fulfil my desire to be a in-itself-for-itself, and this effect is reciprocal; it is what Sartre calls a 'double reciprocal incarnation'. Thus in being made flesh I have not only become a unity (in-itself-for-itself) but I am aware of another unity. In this way then I can know another ('know' in this sense seems biblical).

Furthermore in the sense that sexual union leads to procreation, the sense of being 'God' is very strong – life is created 11. The biological imperative is therefore consistent with Sartre's assertion that man is that being whose project is to be God 12.

We can also use the example of sexual desire to show why Sartre believed (at least early in his life) that this fundamental project of man's – the in-itself-for-itself – was doomed, impossible. According to Sartre the unity of transcendence and facticity facilitated by sexual desire is disintegrated, usually by the sexual act itself. Sartre believes that eventually 13 I become just an object for you (hence your consciousness becomes separate from your body) or vice versa - masochism or sadism, respectively. “Thus sadism and masochism are the two reefs on which my desire may founder” 14

This disintegration to sadism or masochism seems inevitable to Sartre because he sees sexual desire as fundamentally desiring to appropriate the other's body. Therefore there is an intentionalisation of that body – an objectification.

What this analysis shows, with regard to meaning and value, is that Sartre (at least initially) believed that our fundamental project was a doomed one; the attempt to unify facticity and transcendence is ultimately futile. To Sartre it seemed that the polar opposites are irreconcilable 15. The ideal of the in-itself-for-itself – God – is a contradiction, a paradox. “Man is a useless passion.” 16 Where then does this leave us with regard to revealing meaning and value through our actions, if the union necessary to reveal that meaning is beyond our reach?

This outlook is profoundly pessimistic. It left Sartre without a firm ethical conception. He turned back to the freedom of consciousness itself and tries to affirm that as the value which is the source of all value:

“..is it possible for freedom to take itself for a value as the source of all value, or must it necessarily be defined in relation to a transcendent value which haunts it.” 17 (my emphasis)

This is the point of departure for de Beauvouir's 'Ethics of Ambiguity'; but it is evident that Sartre is unconvinced as to the absolute value of freedom 18. In this respect the word 'haunts' is revealing: it seems Sartre suspects something indefinable but intimately related to freedom is the absolute value he seeks. With a transcendent value the leap from negative freedom (pure consciousness – the for-itself) to creative freedom (action, and the revelation of value through it) may be less problematic. It is obvious that we value some things over others, and that freedom leading to action is how we reveal this value, but how can this value just be freedom? Action, freely chosen reveals value. What this value is, other than being intimately related to consciousness and freedom, was not stated by Sartre, and it seems to me he suspected that it couldn't be stated.

Because of this impasse in his philosophy Sartre sought to redefine his ontology in 'Search for a Method' (also known as 'Critique of Dialectical Reason'). He abandons the starting point of the cogito he used in Being and Nothingness, in favour of man as a maker of history, man as an active, involved revealer of value. That is, his starting point was now the in-itself-for-itself. To do this he formulates two new terms: dialectical and analytical reason. Dialectical reason is dynamic, withdrawn from being – it is the source of novelty and change. Analytic reason is a moment of dialectical reason, it is thought made inertia – made being. This conception: dynamic, indefinable, dialectical reason and its static quasi-material manifestation, analytical reason, is identical to the basic duality of Pirsig's metaphysics of Quality – dynamic and static quality 19.

This similarity is interesting, especially with regard to meaning and value. The subtitle of Pirsig's first novel, 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance' (ZAMM), is 'An Inquiry into Values.' Pirsig's analysis of the nature of value, of how value is revealed, seems to complement Sartre's work. Put simply, value is not an objective thing or entity, nor is it subjective, emanating from 'me'; it is an event. “It is the event at which the subject becomes aware of the object” 20. This conception of value explains why it is only revealed through action, through our projects. Value is revealed when the distinction between subject and object melts away; when the for-itself and the in-itself merge; when we are absorbed in something, when we get it, dig it, as Kerouac might say.

This value Pirsig called Quality and he regarded it as the Absolute; it is very similar to the Tao of Lao Tzu. We haven't time for a thorough exposition and integration of Pirsig's metaphysics and Sartre's phenomenological ontology, but I for one think that such an enterprise would be worthwhile and illuminating.

As for the leap from negative freedom (for-itself) to creative freedom (in-itself-for-itself): this leap can perhaps be seen more clearly in the context of Pirsig's novels and Sartre's later work (his 'analytical reason' being the bridge between nothingness and being), that seem to point out that the two are not 'naturally' separate but are so only because of the situation 21 man finds himself in. “Men of the present are born criminals.” 22 As Pirsig points out, the legacy of Plato and Aristotle has been to separate man from nature; subject from object. This conception, though responsible for great scientific advances, has left mankind adrift on a sea of meaninglessness, unable to grasp the value that once was implicit in his existence.

Creative freedom is then a return to a 'natural' state of affairs - a higher quality state. For Sartre this transition can only happen through and with others, since we are inextricably linked and dependent on others for our own facticity. Sartre seemed to hold, like Kant, a belief in a kind of categorical imperative; that is, we must assert our actions as ones that all should adopt. This is why Sartre, and de Beauvouir were active as workers against oppression; they espoused liberation as the path to creative freedom and advocated a revolutionary shift in global political affairs. Sartre refers to the need for a shared history and struggle, a brotherhood of man that will end strife and unite men as in-itself-for-itself, which he began to see as a future possibility towards the end of his career. It may be clearer now why Sartre regarded Che Guevara as “the most complete human being of our age” 23(my emphasis).

So for Sartre, at this point in history, in this situation, we can have a meaningful existence – we can become a united in-itself-for-itself - through plunging ourselves into action that seeks to liberate mankind and reveals the indefinable value that Pirsig calls Quality.


Anderson, J.L. Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life (London: Bantam, 1997)

Blackburn, S. Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press1996)

Capra, F. The Tao of Physics (New York: Bantam, 1975)

King, T.M. Sartre and the Sacred (Uni of Chicago: Uni of Chicago press, 1974)

Oaklander, L.N. Existentialist Philosophy: An Introduction, 2 nd ed. (Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall 1996)

Pirsig, R.M. LiLa: An Inquiry into Morals (London: Vintage, 1992)

Pirsig, R.M. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (London: Vintage, 1989)

Sartre, J.P Age of Reason (Hammondsworth: Penguin 1961)

Sartre, J.P. Being and Nothingness (London: Methuen&Co, 1957)

Sartre, J.P. Iron in the Soul (Hammondsworth: Penguin 1967)

Sartre, J.P. Nausea (Hammondsworth: Penguin 1965)

Sartre, J.P. The Reprieve (Hammondsworth: Penguin 1963)

1 This is how many mystic traditions refer to consciousness. Sartre's insight into the literal accuracy of the word was new to western philosophy at the time (Sartre and the Sacred p67).

2 This consciousness is not 'the subject'; Sartre rejects subject/object duality as unhelpful. The 'me' and the 'world' are seen as two objects connected by the absolute, impersonal consciousness.

3 Being and Nothingness p47

4 This seemingly innocuous question is extremely important, especially given Sartre's later philosophy and his concept of dialectical and analytic reason. In this framework analytic reason is that thought which makes itself an inertia - a 'thing'. Here 'nothing' produces 'something'. I feel Sartre's position is tenable, or at least conceivable, given the insights of quantum physics: particles at the subatomic level flit in and out of existence – being and nothingness – continually.

5 Being and Nothingness p39

6 ibid p38

7 These three stages of life bear more than a passing resemblance to those described by Kierkegaard and as with Kierkegaard it is the jump from the second to third stages that is the most difficult to understand. It seems like a leap of faith. This point will be dealt with more thoroughly later.

8 cause of itself

9 Being and Nothingness p557

10 This point - awareness of our facticity - is important since it can only be achieved through the other. As becoming aware of ourselves as facticity is necessary in fusing the for-itself with the in-itself we are hence dependent on others, whether through sex or something else, to fulfil our fundamental desire to be an in-itself-for-itself. Hence the Sartrean notion, in the 'Search for a Method', of salvation through others – through a brotherhood of man.

11 This idea of consciousness making itself flesh or 'being' through sexual desire and sex may add insight into why the first accounts of the creation of the universe were cosmogonical.

12 God is a vague term. Sartre means primarily that we are our own foundation. Viewing God pantheistically we could say that the fundamental project becomes one of returning to a 'natural' state where one is aware of 'god' and that one is part of 'god'.

13 However Sartre does seem to be saying that, for a brief while at least, this ideal union – the in-itself-for-itself – is attained. Reconciling this with his assertion that the in-itself-for-itself is a contradiction, impossible to attain, is problematic.

14 From Being and Nothingness, in Existentialist Philosophy p300

15 I believe that this reconciliation is possible since being and non-being, coming from one another is paradoxical but not impossible. Reality revealed through quantum physics is inherently paradoxical. Another way to envisage reconciliation is through the Taoist conception of yin and yang – polar opposites that within themselves contain a seed of the other.

16 Being and Nothingness p615

17 Being and Nothingness p546

18 Sartre seemed to suspect that this freedom as absolute value may be a form of bad faith (Existential Philosophy p309).

19 LiLa: An Inquiry into Morals

20 Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance p 242

21 Hence the Situationiste Internationale's axiom: man is defined by his situation.

22 Sartre and the Sacred p186

23 Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life