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A Show About Nothingness: Episodes From Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness

Lecturers: Robert Boncardo and Steven Churchill

Originally Taught: Winter School 2018

When Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness was first published in 1943, some Parisian shopkeepers took to using the hefty tome as a means of weighting their fruit scales. Later, former French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing would praise the book for its uncanny ability to send him straight to sleep at night. But a closer look at this ostensibly dense philosophical masterpiece reveals a cast of weird and wonderful characters caught up in vividly filmic situations that could have come straight from the script of a sit-com or a soap-opera. In this course, students will be introduced to Being and Nothingness as a series of ‘episodes’ at once disturbing and hilarious, tragic and heartening. Each ‘episode’ will present a key philosophical theme — from negation to temporality, bad faith to existential psychoanalysis — and will interweave Sartre’s phenomenological descriptions of everyday scenarios with an account of the conceptual architecture that gives them meaning. Over the course of the five days, students will also progressively become acquainted with Sartre’s most cherished theme — freedom — and will ideally leave the course with a sense of what Sartre means when he says, infamously, that each of us is ‘condemned to be free’.

Course Schedule

Each lecture or ‘episode’ is divided into two halves, with Robert taking the first and Steven the second, including dialogue between them but also discussion with the audience.

Episode 1, Part 1: Nausea, Roquentin and the Tree Root: Being-in-Itself

Being and Nothingness begins with the following insight: if anything at all exists, then it is because we, as conscious subjects, are conscious of something existing. Yet originally this ‘something’ is not a thing that we know anything about; it is not an object we can domesticate both intellectually and practically. Rather, it is something we encounter. This ‘something’ is what Sartre calls being-in-itself, and it constitutes one the two most fundamental categories of his ontology in Being and Nothingness. In this first ‘episode’, we will  introduce this existential encounter with being-in-itself through the story of Sartre’s most famous protagonist: Roquentin, the anti-hero of his first novel Nausea, whose meeting with a tree root in a public park marks the start of a unique philosophical adventure…

Episode 1, Part 2: A Broken-Down Car, A Café, Euclidean Geometry: Being-For-Itself

For Sartre, if consciousness is consciousness of something, then considered all on its own consciousness is strictly speaking nothing. Everything is outside of it. Indeed, Sartre shows that if there are species of nothingness in the world at all — from absences to obstacles, failures to flaws — then it is because we, as consciousnesses qua ‘nothing’, effectively bring them in to the world. Sartre develops this insight through a series of striking examples, including his famous analysis of his friend Pierre’s absence from a rendezvous at a Parisian café and an account of his car breaking down. Yet Sartre also shows that such technical domains as geometry similarly require his concept of nothingness. In this second part, we discover through these examples how Sartre understands consciousness as nothingness and how he conceives of it as the infinitely fragile condition of possibility for the existence of any world whatsoever.

Episode 2, Part 1: The Woman, the Waiter, the Homosexual: Bad Faith

This first part of the second ‘episode’ will take up three of Being and Nothingness’ most well-known examples, along with what is perhaps its most popular — albeit misunderstood — concept: bad faith. With the example of the woman on a date, who is unsure whether to encourage her companion’s interest or to reject him, we discover consciousness’ ability to strategically deploy both of its contradictory facets at different moments: its facticity and its transcendence. With the waiter, we encounter a case where consciousness doubles down on its facticity, at the cost of denying its transcendence. Finally, with the reluctant homosexual and his companion, the champion of sincerity, we see consciousness attempt to identify itself exclusively with transcendence. In each of these examples, Sartre demonstrates how, if the nature of consciousness determines that we are never identical to ourselves, bad faith remains an ever-present possibility, albeit one that will inevitably lead to failure.

Episode 2, Part 2: The Mountain Climber and the Gambler: Time and Anxiety

For Sartre, consciousness’ non-self-identity also entails that it is divided across the three temporal registers of past, present and future. More precisely, he claims that consciousness’ inner division is time itself in the form of the unstoppable passage of the present into the past and the unavoidable upsurge of another, future moment. Sartre’s characters of the mountain climber and the gambler both experience this temporal division; a division that breaks the causal links between past, present and future. Thus, there is nothing that can stop the mountain climber, paralysed by vertigo, from throwing himself over the mountain’s edge — not even the frightening possibility of his future death. Likewise, the gambler’s past decision to stop gambling has no causal force on his present actions, leaving him adrift and afraid. Both are cases of what Sartre calls anxiety — a privileged affect that attests to our diasporic, divided being; or, to what amounts to the same thing: our freedom.

Episode 3, Part 1: The Man in the Park, the Voyeur at the Keyhole, the Resistance Fighters: The Look

Sartre’s account of our relations to others is a dark masterpiece. Unlike any other philosophical work, Being and Nothingness captures just how much others — while obviously providing us with essential aid and daily enriching our lives — are also, irreducibly, a problem. In his haunting example of encountering another man in a park, Sartre first presents the other in the surprising guise of a thief, that is, as someone who ‘steals our world’, divesting us of our sovereign capacity to determine the significance of the objects around us. In Sartre’s more famous example of the voyeur caught at a keyhole, we discover how the other ‘fixes’ our being, at once determining who we are yet doing so in a way that leaves us without any control over the matter. Finally, with the example of a group of French résistants about to storm a farmhouse atop a hill, Sartre shows how our encounter with the other is fundamentally the encounter with a look. This look, however, is not identical with the other’s eyes but can be any number of things: a creaking floorboard, a snapped twig, a glint of light coming off what might well be a gun…

Episode 3, Part 2: Visiting the Doctor, Participating in an Experiment, Torturing, Loving: The Body

For Sartre, the body is not only a biological phenomenon: it is also something lived. He stages this duality in two striking examples: that of visiting a doctor for a wounded leg, and participating in a scientific experiment. In these two examples Sartre makes the world of the body as it exists for the other — that is, as a possible object of analysis and inquiry — and the world of the body as I live it, collide. Yet for Sartre the body is also the terrain on which we play out the two most fundamental forms of our relation to the other: sadism and masochism. In masochism, for which Sartre gives the unexpected example of love, we attempt to turn our body into a fascinating object for the other. In doing so, we leave ourselves dependent on our facticity and vulnerable to the other’s look. In sadism, which Sartre illustrates with the example of torture, we try to destroy the other’s transcendence by reducing them to pure flesh. Sadism too, however, fails, as our flesh is never just an inert object but the vehicle of our subjectivity. Sartre’s account of being-for-others thus culminates in a conflictual dialectic that sheds philosophical light on the perpetual instability of our intersubjective relations.

Episode 4, Part 1: The Mountain Climber (Reprise), Skiing, Riding a Bike: The Situation

Sartre’s doctrine of absolute freedom inevitably raises the question of how we are to understand what Simone de Beauvoir called the force of circumstance. If we are indeed free, then in what ways does our socio-historical situation nevertheless determine the contours of our lives? Sartre responds to this question by forging the concept of the situation, which he illustrates by again taking up the example of the mountain climber. By showing how, as a free, world-constituting subject, the mountain climber invests the physical parameters of their situation with meaning — the mountain’s height, the difficulty of certain passes, their own fatigue — Sartre demonstrates how there is an indissoluble relation between the world and freedom. He develops this account through two further examples: those of skiing and riding a bike. In each example, we learn how any property of the world — even its physical properties — is tied to the subject’s choice of itself.

Episode 4, Part 2: The War: Freedom and Responsibility

Being and Nothingness has often been read as a book of its time; specifically, of the Second World War, of the Nazi occupation of France, and of the Resistance. In fact, Sartre explicitly addresses the War in the section ‘Freedom and Responsibility’ from the chapter ‘Being and Doing: Freedom’. There, by building upon his account of the concept of situation, Sartre affirms, in terms at once grandiose and disturbing, that each subject is entirely responsible for the War. This second part of te fourth ‘episode’ will allow us to take stock of what we have learnt of Being and Nothingness so far. Does the book support Sartre’s radical claim about the War? In what way is the book’s philosophical content inflected by Sartre’s situation and the decisions he made in response to it?

Episode 5, Part 1: Flaubert, Rowing and Giving up Smoking: Existential Psychoanalysis

With his claim that the subject’s freedom is constitutive of the world, Sartre must also account for how this freedom does not make the subject indeterminate or unpredictable, but rather forms the basis of a coherent personality; a personality based not on some prior substance but rather, as we know, on a choice. Sartre’s infamous refiguring of Freud’s psychoanalysis has for its principle aim the recovery of this choice, which forms the overarching structure governing each of the subject’s individual acts. The examples Sartre offers to illustrate this new-fangled form of psychoanalysis include his analysis of rowing and an intriguing account of his own efforts to quit smoking. He also presents the first outlines of his existential psychoanalysis of the 19th century writer Gustave Flaubert, the subject of his final and longest work published thirty years later: The Family Idiot.

Episode 5, Part 2: Being and Nothingness: The Sequels

This final half-lecture will reflect on Being and Nothingness as a whole — on its distinct philosophical achievements, its blindspots, as well as its futures, both real and still to-come. Along with a series of reflections on how Sartre himself would go on to deploy and adapt Being and Nothingness’ ontology in the years and decades following its publication, we will also briefly address what some of the book’s most famous readers’ have said about the work.

Course Difficulty

This course will presume no knowledge of Sartre, nor of Being and Nothingness. It will work on the basis of Sartre’s examples, all of which are drawn from everyday life, and will steadily draw out their philosophical significance. It therefore aims to be accessible to all.

Recommended Readings

  • Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel Barnes (Routledge, 2003)
  • Sebastian Gardner, Sartre’s ‘Being and Nothingness’ (Continuum, 2009)