Being and Nothingness – Jean-Paul Sartre

I was bought this book a number of years, if I remember correctly in about 2006, when I had chosen Philosophy as an A-Level subject.  I haven’t however read it until now because it’s a daunting book; minimalist cover design, small font and over 650 pages. I am not a philosopher, have not studied it extensively and have only read this out of interest.

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Just before Christmas I decided not to buy any more books until I had finished all the unread books I have in a box by my bed. Due to the fact I’ve owned this for 10 years I started with this. It has taken me about three weeks to complete, a fair length of time considering the content and nature of the work. In this extensive ontological work, Sartre discusses the nature of an individual’s existence and an individual’s essence, as well as mans free will. This is considered to be one of Sartre’s most important philosophical works, and is his most famous non-fiction existential writing. It is in essence Sartre’s explanation of consciousness being the key part of existence, or as he says ‘being’ itself. I have previously read Sartre but only novels such as Nausea, Iron in the Soul and The Age of Reason. I may read these again with more understanding as I will have a more in depth understanding of his existential philosophies.

Sartre breaks down his essay into four parts each tackling a different aspect of existence. This is my understanding of them, remember I am not a philosopher or philosophy student. Sartre discusses first the idea of nothingness, for there to be nothing something must have been there to begin with and as such nothing becomes a being in itself, but only through consciousness do humans realise that nothing exists. Man can create himself through consciousness and cause change within his being because he is aware that he exists. He also discusses freedom, humanity is free to make decisions, but we cannot blame our decisions on anything prior to the decision because we still made that decision ourselves, and once we have made that decision we are responsible for it. Then Sartre discusses ‘bad faith’ and wrestles with the idea that we are all denying our dynamism, by saying ‘I am’ we deny ourselves the opportunity to become something else. Later Sartre discusses our relationship with others. I feel that he basically comes to the conclusion in this section that how we perceive ourselves is directly influenced by how we think others perceive ourselves. In Sartre’s conclusion he outlines the idea that without consciousness the world would not exist. We need consciousness for us to realise that there are other objects around us. Now, as I stated previously, I am no philosopher, and I have just read this out of interest, so this is a very brief outline of my understanding of this essay and I may have misinterpreted it. I do intend however to read some more of Sartre’s writing later in the year to help understand this essay further.

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