Chapter 2. Nothingness and Negation
2. Nothingness and Negation
To fully understand what Sartre meant by choice, it makes sense to explain where these choices come from. Sartre talked of the notion of nothingness in terms of its role involving the for-itself and therefore before being able to properly compare the in-itself and the for-itself it is necessary to explain nothingness first.
When describing nothingness, it is often easier to describe it as non-being, since that is basically what it is. This non-being is formed by the for-itself and as Sartre states “Non-being exists only on the surface of being” (SARTRE, JP. Being & Nothingness.2002. P16). What this means is that without a conscious being, nothingness cannot exist.
Despite the fact that Sartre often tends to use the term nothingness to include negation (Cranston, M. Sartre. 1962. P48), his aim is basically to “name that void, or emptiness by which a being for-itself is encompassed, and divided from objects in-themselves” (Cranston, M. 1962. P48). This runs along the idea that all for-itselves are able to imagine the world differently to how it really is and as a result when they are shown a scenario different to their expectations, they experience a sense of absence. Using the example of his friend and a café, Sartre considers how he would enter the café expecting to witness his friend Pierre sat in his usual seat with a coffee (SARTRE, JP. Being & Nothingness.2002. P9-10). When entering and noticing that Pierre was not there, there is this sense of absence and nothingness about the place as a result. Comparing the absence of his friend with the absence of the Duke Of Wellington, Sartre demonstrates the variance in nothingness and expectation. The reasoning behind this is that whilst, as previously mentioned, it’s not surprising to witness Pierre in the café, it would be incredibly unusual to expect a dead military leader to walk into this random French café.
As mentioned by Cranston earlier, there is an element of difference between nothingness and the idea of negation. The notion of negation is that it is a “refusal of existence” (SARTRE, JP. Being & Nothingness.2002 P11). The idea is that whilst nothingness is that space encircling all for-itselves which allows them to imagine the alternatives of the world, it is negation which nihilates the alternative choice to create the future. As Sartre states again “By means of it a being (or a way of being) is posited, then thrown back to nothingness” (SARTRE, JP. Being & Nothingness.2002 P11).
The link between nihilation and the individual’s choice runs along the lines that when we fulfil a choice, it is based on an external choice or “cause” and an internal choice or “motive” (Levy, N. Sartre. 2002. P90). Using the example of a man in a chair, upon becoming thirsty, it is through a realisation of an alternative that he can choose between remaining thirsty or by negating this thirst. This internal desire (motive) then will then be solved by the external decision to get a drink from the fridge.
With the ideas of nothingness and negation comes the start of the building blocks of Sartre’s theory. By being able to imagine an alternative choice, the for-itself is able to act upon its many options and make a choice. The option of choice however is not available to the in-itself and with this in mind it is worth analysing and comparing both the in-itself and the for-itself.