Sartrean Existentialism: Who We Really Are

19 February, 2021
Sartre is one of those philosophers whose teachings were a turning point in the history of psychology. Today, we're going to take a closer look at his thinking, paying special attention to the construction of Sartrean existentialism.

The saying “Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself” reveals a tremendous amount about the thoughts of Jean-Paul Charles Aymard Sartre. In fact, we could even say that it contains the basis of Sartrean existentialism.

We can define human beings, among other things, by their temporal nature. Every person has a past, a present, and a future. The conception of this temporality is what makes Sartrean existentialism so special. In fact, his way of conceiving existence is one of the most important of the 2oth century.

Consciousness is intentional

Marxist theory had defined human consciousness as a reflexive and passive consciousness in the face of the conditioning of the world around it. Consciousness, following this line of thought, was reflexive and totally separated from the world. Sartre disavowed these Marxist theories by postulating humanist materialism.

Human consciousness is active; its relationship with the world isn’t one of passivity, but, rather, one that projects itself towards the future. In fact, human consciousness constructs the future. Consciousness and the world are inseparable, and there’s only “consciousness of self” as long as there’s “consciousness of the world”.

A woman with a lit mind.

What does it mean that consciousness is projected outward?

Sartre distinguishes two modalities of being: “being-in-itself” and “being-for-itself“. The first modality of being refers to that which is immovable and will always be so; examples of being-in-itself would be a stone or a feather. They form in a certain way and their nature isn’t going to change.

On the other hand, “being-for-itself” is the modality of being that consists of going out into the world and projecting oneself into the future. It’s the way of being that’s in a state of projection, pure projection.

In human beings, these two modalities coexist. The being-in-itself of the human consciousness would be the choices that a person has been making throughout their life. Human beings construct themselves by making choices throughout their lives. The past forms the basis of what we are and is immovable. We are, in part, what we’ve chosen to be throughout our history.

Man’s being-for-itself is their consciousness projected towards the future and towards the new choices they’ll make, but still haven’t made. It’s pure projection. That’s why Sartre postulated a famous apothegm:

“Through the awareness of what it is not, the for-itself becomes what it is: a nothingness, wholly free in the world, with a blank canvas on which to create its being.”

This being isn’t what it is because, being projected into the future, it’s changeable and, potentially, it “will be” the decisions it will make. It isn’t what it is because, although it’s constructed from being-in-itself, we can’t say that it’s exactly that (its past).

Is man a nothingness according to Sartrean existentialism?

As we’ve said, human reality has behind it a past that’s already immovable. We’re our past. On the other hand, the future isn’t yet decided, but our consciousness is projected towards it.

The present consciousness looks towards its possible choices. Therefore, Sartrean existentialism postulates that the present human being is pure projection. The present human being is nothingness. We are our past, but we aren’t only that; the present takes us towards what we’re going to be and, therefore, as such, mankind is a nothingness.

A man in a cave.

“A man is what he does with what they made of him.”

Now we can better understand this saying that defines Sartrean existentialism so well. The world and consciousness, being one, mutually shape each other. The world makes of human beings what they choose from among all their multiple possibilities, always limited by their external conditioning.

In this way, we can understand that our past is what we’ve chosen, what the world has made possible for us. However, as we pointed out above, we aren’t only our past, as here and now we’re living in a world that’s pure possibility and that we’ll choose.

Mankind is condemned to be free! And, if we may, we’ll add a touch of psychology to this whole theory by mentioning the Pindaric imperative: “Dare to be what you are”. Are you willing to do that?