Chapter 3. The in-itself, the for-itself and the notion of being

3. The in-itself, the for-itself and the notion of being

An understanding of Sartre’s theory of the in-itself and the for-itself is crucial to any form of analysis or criticism of his work. In the in-itself Sartre categorises all unconscious objects, whilst in the for-itself he places humanity and the notion of the mind. The differences between the two are relatively easy to define and yet are enormously intricate in implications. It is worth comparing and then criticising them however. Sartre’s classifications, whilst a logical step, do contain one or two flaws which are worthy of mention. Ultimately however, the key element is that by understanding the for-itself, it allows for an explanation of Sartre’s idea that “existence comes before essence (SARTRE, JP. Existentialism & Humanism.1948. P26). Therefore, the for-itself’s involvement in a discussion on choice is as much a stepping-stone towards the wider picture of essence and existence, as a point in itself.

Sartre’s notion of the in-itself is that the in-itself is simply there. The table you sit at, the pen you write with, even the window you stare out of as you look for ways to avoid working, all these things are part of this world and exist irrelevant of whether we question metaphysics. They are simply what they are however. The pen just sits there and waits to be used. It doesn’t stare up at the sky and ponder its existence it simply exists as itself. It would be interesting to attempt to understand what it is to actually be that object, but impossible because ultimately, even if we were to remove our senses in regard to the world, as conscious beings we retain our personal identity, something a pen or any other in-itself doesn’t have.

Sartre claimed in relation to these objects or “in-itselves”, that they could also be divided a second way. Sartre claimed that whilst objects are complete in themselves without human involvement, what was interesting is how humans as the “for-itself” viewed these objects. If a man passes you an object which looks remarkably like a lighter, obviously, that’s what you will assume it to be. If however it is a novelty water-spraying toy, then your original view of it is different. The same is true of all objects. To a prehistoric caveman for example, he might not be able to identify the use of a Parker Fountain pen. When the object has no usage as a tool to a person, Sartre stated that it was simply Present at Hand. The pen would still have been created with a definitive purpose and would have an essence, but to the caveman it would simply be an unknown object. If you were, however, to get a piece of paper and explain to the aborigine that you could write with the pen, he would not know how it worked, and probably he would have no use for it, but he would be adding a role to the pen and giving it a job. At this point the pen might become Ready to Hand.

The for-itself in contrast to the in-itself is a conscious being that is forced to choose his own direction and make his own choices. The for-itself relates to negation and nothingness as it experiences the negation of its actions and is surrounded by nothingness, separating it from the real world and all the in-itself. The for-itself is not just separated from the in-itself by nothingness, but also from itself. The for-itself, if imagined as being the consciousness of an individual, has the ability to step back from it’s own image and analyse itself. It can question its appearance; it’s goals, aims, most of its life. The for-itself is also different to the in-itself in that whilst an in-itself can never become a for-itself, a for-itself becomes an in-itself upon death.

When he was placing humanity as the “For-itself” and objects as “In-itself”, Sartre relies on the straight split between us in that one has consciousness and the other doesn’t. The flaw however is that with other living creatures, Sartre seems to be almost ignoring whether they can be classified as an in-itself or a for-itself. The lion in the prairie lies in the sun and sleeps. When he is hungry he sends his mate out to find food. Sartre claimed that this was simply animal nature taking effect and that the lion just did things automatically.

The problem with Sartre’s views on nature’s involvement is that he did not really take account of the more intellectual members of the animal kingdom. The dolphin is an example that is normally regarded as the most important member of the animal kingdom. Also, birds have been shown to produce problem-solving abilities. On the PBS Internet homepage, there is a page regarding to “The Life Of Birds”. This page talks about crows in Japan which place nuts on a road at a red light and when the light turns green. The cars drive over the nuts cracking them open ( On an even more simple level, there is the parrot that constantly copies its owner’s words. The point here is that at what point does an animal cease being an in-itself and show the intelligence required for a for-itself. If Sartre is to place this direct split between in-itself and for-itself, then it must be questioned whether animals could be listed as a form of instinctual middle ground.

            When discussing the notion of being, Sartre suggests a definitive split between the conscious and the unconscious. The conscious being, or the for-itself, he classifies as humanity. In contrast the unconscious object is referred to as an in-itself. When considering how much of a person’s identity is based on his or her own choices rather than their facticity, Sartre seems to lack the interest, desire and perhaps the ability to find a place in his structure for the animal kingdom.

About T.Bonney

Northerner with a penchant for optimism and self-deprecating humour. London based for 14+ years now and still love it most of the time. Philosophical, film fan with tastes for beer, rugby, reading and more.

Posted on 22/03/2013, in Dissertation. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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