“Man Is Nothing But That Which He Makes Of Himself.” A Discussion Into The Existentialism Of Jean-Paul Sartre

1. Introduction

In “Existentialism & Humanism”, Jean-Paul Sartre states, “Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself” (SARTRE, JP. 1948. P28). According to Sartre, this is the first principle of Existentialism.

Existentialism, a passing ideology of great conversation during the mid 19th century, exists on the notion that in a lifetime, each person must make countless choices. These choices, whilst perhaps indicative of past experiences, are ultimately that person’s choice and only that person’s choice to make. When a person is faced with two suggested options, even if one option is being forced upon him by pain of death, it remains his choice and his choice alone.

According to Sartre, a key speaker for Existentialism for the majority of his life, man is basically what he makes of himself, and thus is responsible for his actions. This is what Sartre means when he claims that man is condemned to be free. When we are forced to take control of all our actions, this means that every action we make we must put our hands up in the air about and admit if they’re wrong. This can then be progressed a step and technically we are even responsible for the rest of mankind as well. The reasoning behind this is that every time we make a decision about ourselves, we express what we consider to be the morally right thing to do in that situation. To explain this more clearly Sartre talks on page 32 of “Existentialism and Humanism” (SARTRE, JP. 1948) of a General who is given an order to send his men on a mission of almost certain death (The Somme in World War One perhaps). This General is given orders from politicians and leaders above him to send these men to their graves. If he is faced with the threat of a firing squad if he disobeys this direct order, it could be argued that his actions are not of his choosing but of force. It can also be argued however that this is not true because despite forces on either side of the decision, it is still his decision to make. If the General sends his men into battle, he not only is showing his responsibility for their lives, but he is also showing others that you should follow an order irrelevant of its insanity. If however the General was to save his men by refusing to follow the order, then whilst facing death himself, the General is demonstrating to others that when faced with his situation, it is his opinion that the morally acceptable thing to do is to challenge the authority and do what you believe to be more virtuous.

Sartre’s example of the General (SARTRE, JP. 1948. P32) seems to suggest that irrelevant of external forces placed upon us, it is our responsibility for all our actions and that we possess a form of ultimate freedom.

To a lot of people, this idea of ultimate freedom is frightening, and this is one of the reasons Jean-Paul Sartre claims the idea of a “God” exists. If there is a higher being in the universe, then that being can not only take responsibility for someone’s actions, but can also be used as the foundation behind that person’s moral values.

It seems worthy of suggestion therefore to consider what it is that actually makes a person who they are. If what Sartre says is true and we must blame ourselves for who we are (SARTRE, JP. 1948. P28), then where do our morals and our attitudes to certain social situations come from? It is perhaps more appealing to suggest that rather than man being alone in his responsibilities, our attitudes are affected on a wider scale by other people and their views.

If it is worth arguing that man is himself not solely responsible for his own actions and flaws, then it is worth taking most of Sartre’s explanations of the world and considering whether they might fit into this hypothesis or not. Over the course of his works, but primarily “Being and Nothingness” (SARTRE, JP. 2002), Sartre constructs a sort of spiders web of ideas. The idea of the choice itself evolves from the way in which Sartre’s concepts of nothingness, in-itself and for-itself interact. The key difference between Sartre’s in-itself and for-itself is that unlike the in-itself (unconscious objects), the for-itself is conscious and it’s “existence comes before essence” (SARTRE, JP. Existentialism & Humanism.1948. P26). Therefore it seems logical to consider the relevance of a man’s essence in connection to his choices and whether he creates his own essence or whether it is created for him. With this link between the conscious being and its essence constructed the question of freedom is raised and how then how much it is dependent upon Sartre’s Original Project and his notion of Bad Faith. Finally it is necessary to analyse Sartre’s for-others and how people’s views of us affect how we see ourselves. With this in mind the impact other people have on our choices should become clear.

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.

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 (http://www.pbs.org/lifeofbirds/brain/index.html). 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.

4. Essence, Existence, Freedom and Bad Faith

So far the key aspects of Sartre’s two concepts of Being and Nothingness have been explained. This does not however cover his most famous notion of what it is to be free. In this section therefore it is worthwhile to analyse what Sartre feels it is to be free and how by denying that our existence precedes our essence and how all our choices are ultimately our own, we are living in what he would refer to as Bad Faith.

As mentioned before, according to Sartre at the beginning of “Existentialism and Humanism”, man is responsible for his own actions and is who he is through his own choices (SARTRE, JP.1948. P28 – 29). To take a modern example however, Sartre’s views can be questioned when in relation to the current trends of abuse directed to certain Arab members of the British and American populations.

Imagine if in August 2001, on the main street of one of England’s main towns, for example Birmingham, a family of Arab immigrants opens a shop. This family has been forced to flee their country for their own safety and have abandoned everything they owned so that they could move to Great Britain and start afresh.  The locals of this area, whilst slightly critical about new people and especially new immigrants, are generally very friendly and warm and the family slots into their new life with minimal problems. One month later however and two planes are hijacked by terrorists and flown into the World Trade Towers in New York. From this moment on, and through no fault of their own, the family’s lifestyle is forever to be changed. Instantly the family begins to sense an air of hostility towards them from certain locals. Maybe one of the children is bullied at school, the shop might be vandalised, all number of events could happen, but the key point is that none of them are this family’s fault. The father could appear on the news and condemn the atrocities, he could tell everyone around him that he disagrees with the terrorists’ aims, and he could do any number of options. The point is that whilst it is his choice how to react to events that have unfolded, it is not his choice that these events happened in the first place. To what degree does this family’s, but in particular the father’s, current situation rely on what Sartre termed his essence. It is this essence and our facticity that gives us our identity and our available choices. In the next chapter it will be necessary to question how much our original choices are reliant upon other people and our surroundings, at this point however, it is more important to examine what Sartre meant by essence.

In both “Existentialism and Humanism” and “Being and Nothingness”, Sartre refers to the topics of essence and existence. As stated in the key to special terminology at the end of “Being & Nothingness”, Essence is “what has been” or “man’s past”. Ultimately “since there is no pre-established pattern for human nature, each man makes his essence as he lives”. (SARTRE, JP. 2002. Being and Nothingness. P631) Basically Sartre felt that our essence was who we are as a result of those aforementioned choices. Put simply, by possessing existence before any sort of essence, man becomes responsible for his own life and his own personality. It is this form of unlimited freedom and responsibility that Sartre feels certain critics are opposed to. In “Existentialism and Humanism”, Sartre claims “ugliness is being identified with existentialism” (SARTRE, JP. 1948. P24) and that existentialism is attacked from all sides for seeming subjective and for denying the unity of man and leaving the individual isolated and alone. The flaw with existentialism is implied as being that because of this unlimited choice, without specific set rules, all humanity would conduct themselves in a negative manner since “experience has shown men to be invariably inclined to evil” (SARTRE, JP. 1948. P25). Sartre felt that this criticism was down to frustration at existentialism’s optimism rather than it’s pessimism. In effect he felt that these people were alarmed more at the fact that it gave man choice than by its lack of rules and structure (SARTRE, JP. 1948. P25).

In contrast to the flexibility of Essence, Sartre defined Existence as “Concrete, individual being here and now” (SARTRE, JP. 2002. Being and Nothingness. P631). So whilst we have the variable of our Essence and how we can affect who we are, the contrasting nature of our Existence, which is simply “there”, is a firm point in our lives.

Assuming Sartre is right and that each person exists before they develop their essence, it is strange that so many things might influence us before we are even born. Imagine all the people who might chastise our immigrant family’s father along his street and accuse him of being a terrorist, these people will no doubt act this way, not necessarily because he is an immigrant but because of his skin tone. Whilst it is a fact that skin colour should make no difference to anyone in this world, there is little doubt that to certain groups of people it makes a huge difference. In places like Bradford where racism and racial tension are at a high, the colour of a man’s skin is often taken to be enough reason to attack him. In this respect therefore, for Sartre to claim that we have no essence before we are born is not quite correct. By being born to the parents he was born to, and in the area he was born in, the father possessed influences to develop who he would become even before he was even born.

If as just suggested, an element of us is with us at birth, the question then arises about its creation. Our immigrant father might sit in his shop one day and look at the sky and wonder why it is that he was born as he was and why the local population in Birmingham might treat him differently. If this man is religious he could even suggest that it is God’s will that he has developed as he has. Whilst Sartre would chastise this for being bad faith, there are existentialists who are not atheist and do indeed believe in a God.

The traditional Christian existentialist, such as Karl Jaspers (1883 – 1969) and Gabriel Marcel (1889 – 1973), believe, like all Christians who believe firmly in the Bible, that God created man. Sartre stated that the religious element of existentialism felt that man could have a purpose and in effect be compared to a paper knife (SARTRE, JP. 1948. P26). Sartre’s example talks of the creation of the paper-knife and how the object is created, using a formula, “in a certain manner and one which, on the other hand, serves a definite purpose, for one cannot suppose that a man would produce a paper-knife without knowing what it was for.” (SARTRE, JP. 1948. P26). This example appears to imply that in contradiction to Sartre’s entire view, man is created with an essence and if this is the case, then man suddenly develops less responsibility for his actions.

Sartre never really deals with the notion of God as a provider of essence, rather he allows the religious existentialists their beliefs and places them to the side. In reference to his own religious beliefs, Sartre refers to a day in La Rochelle in 1917 when waiting for some school friends and he began to think about God. The second Sartre considered any notion of an all powerful being, “He at once tumbled down into the blue sky and vanished without explanation” (SARTRE, JP. 1967. Words. P155). Sartre’s complete conviction in an absence of God allows in part for his views since without a God there could be nobody to conceive of a human nature and in effect “Man simply is” (SARTRE, JP. 1948. P28).

If we are to follow Sartre’s lead and place God to one side that still does not mean we cannot feel there are alternative factors. Scientists for example have found evidence to suggest that mothers who smoke marijuana during pregnancy have babies that are born “smaller than those born to mothers who did not use the drug” and “In general, smaller babies are more likely to develop health problems (http://www.personalhealthzone.com/marijuanasideeffects.html). Even being named differently might affect our development as an individual. A boy named John Smith will no doubt have a simple life in respect to insults directed at his name at school, whilst if the boy’s parents name him Waldark or something equally random, then the boys schooldays will probably be merciless and harsh.

Despite countless potential examples of how someone could be influenced by experiences which predate their lives, Sartre would claim that by denying our own freedom we would be experiencing bad faith.

Earlier on when discussing nothingness, the idea of negating a thirst by walking to the fridge and drinking was mentioned (Levy, N. Sartre. 2002. P90). According to Sartre our freedom is the option to be able to do this and to look at our options and make a decision. This ability to think of an alternative to our current state of affairs and then take it is part and parcel of being a for-itself and it allows us to choose.

When a person claims they have no choice in a situation, Sartre suggests that they are living in bad faith and in effect in a state of denial. If the father of the immigrant family from earlier chooses to just sit and do nothing and hope that any sort of racial anger will disappear, he is making a choice. He is choosing to do nothing. If however he states that he has no choice because he cannot do anything other than ignore the abuse, then he is demonstrating bad faith.

One suggestion against freedom is that in particular countries, these freedoms might not exist. In fictional stories like George Orwell’s “1984” (first published 1948) or Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” (first published 1932), people are controlled by the Government and taught to act a certain way. In “Brave New World” for example, particular social classes are formed and brainwashed into thinking that their own class has the best jobs. In the first chapter, the director of a plant which engineers people actually states that “All conditioning aims at that: making people like their inescapable social destiny” (HUXLEY, A. 1994. P13). The way the society in the book has been developed, it appears to imply that freedoms cease to exist, but ultimately this isn’t true. As Gregory McCulloch states in his book “Using Sartre”, “even the subjects of repressive regimes in barren conditions can still make a choice between raw potato and the squashed tomato” (MCCULLOCH, G. 1994. P38). Even in scenarios where we appear to have absolutely no freedoms, we still have a particular choice.

Huxley’s book implies as well that whilst we have certain freedoms, ultimately we are limited to what we can imagine as an alternative. What can be suggested is that when one of Huxley’s characters, Bernard, meets a man from a different society called John, he introduces Bernard to a different viewpoint on life that he has never experienced before. At one point John’s mother is given a powerful narcotic drug known as Soma, John raises objections claiming it to be unacceptable as the drug would eventually kill her (HUXLEY, A. 1994. P139). John’s shock option surprises everyone because it demonstrates to them an alternative way of thinking. Before his questioning of the process, the Dr (Dr Shaw) and Bernard would never have even considered preserving life by denying someone this drug. By imagining an alternative, it becomes an option on our list of choices. As Neil Levy states, “So long as the Russian peasants, for example, live their situation under the Tsar as natural, their hunger is something to be endured. But once they are able to conceive of a different state of affairs, it becomes a motive for action” (LEVY, N. 2002. Sartre. P91).

When reviewing someone’s choices, one critical analysis might suggest that ultimately whilst they have a choice, the limitations of this choice are placed upon the person outside of their control and in effect their choice is narrowed down. Ultimately however, whilst it is true that there might be one or two limitations imposed without their choice, the opportunity for a male to give birth for example, most of our choices are imposed upon us in our past. Referring back to our immigrant family, it could be argued that if one riotous youth believing to be acting with the best intentions was to attack the father of the family, the father would face the choice of fighting back and being further chastised by the local population, or to take any sort of action directed towards him in submission. The father is placed in a situation where his choices are limited by his current surroundings and people’s opinions as a result of September 11th, but at the same time, he is in this situation through his own choosing. If the father was offered a choice when he arrived in Great Britain about where to live, he could have chosen London or Manchester or anywhere else, but it was his choice to move to Birmingham. Even if the immigration authorities told him he must go to Birmingham, it was still within his power to attempt to challenge the law and move elsewhere. The state or situation in which a person might find his or herself in therefore appears to be a result of events which they may or not have been involved in, but which they reacted to a specific way.

One of the best examples Sartre gives of bad faith is that of a waiter (SARTRE, JP. 2002. P59). The waiter, well dressed, graceful, eloquent, almost acrobatic in his manner of carrying plates, the waiter was a character Sartre seemed to have a strong dislike for. What it was to be a waiter according to Sartre was to basically play a part. Being-a-waiter would become an in-itself because the waiter would adopt a style and put on a show. Sartre himself wasn’t the only one to notice this in the 1920s. In George Orwell’s “Down and Out in Paris and London” (published originally in 1933), Orwell noted that it was an “instructive sight to see a waiter going into a hotel dining-room. As he passes the door a sudden change comes over him. The set of his shoulders alters; all the dirt and hurry and irritation have dropped off in an instant. He glides over the carpet, with a solemn priest-like air” (ORWELL, G. 1940. P67 – 68). This image, this play, Sartre claimed was bad faith. The waiter’s actions become almost automatic as he floats around the room performing his services. He absorbs his role fully and tries fully to become nothing except for that job which he currently occupies. He abandons the notion of choice as he fulfils his role superbly and he does this both because he desires it and because the public demand it. As Mary Warnock states, “They do not want to have to think of him as a free human agent, but prefer that he should be nothing but the character demanded by his job” (WARNOCK, M. 1970. Existentialism. P103). The waiter therefore fulfils this role, as does any other tradesman who deals with the public. The shopkeeper who is expected to sell you items and perhaps engage in a little light humoured conversation whilst remaining in character. The barman who serves drinks and is expected to hear other people’s problems and not have any of his own. Even the Premiership footballer that is expected to play football is fulfilling this obligation. When these performers move out of their respective roles in which the public views them, the public often takes offence, most especially in the case of the Premiership footballer that is criticised the second that he steps foot inside of a nightclub. Sartre feels that whilst people request these members of social services to act their parts, that it is the feeling of necessity about particular actions that is the act of bad faith. As Warnock points out, “the waiter could choose not to get up in the morning, not to make the coffee, not to be polite to the customers and so on. If he did not fulfil his duty, he would doubtless be sacked. But he could perfectly well choose to be sacked” (WARNOCK, M. 1970. Existentialism. P104).

In a way, our previous choices also seem to act upon us in a sense of bad faith. In reference once more to our immigrants in Birmingham, if the local population were to continue to torment him over other people’s actions, the father would be left with a selection of options, some of which would be to move. Sacrificing his possessions once more, the family could potentially move to countless locations, but one place, which would probably not be on their list, would be to return to their original home country which they retreated from. The flaw with this is that by using the past as a basis for our actions, we are in effect again living in bad faith. Whilst the father might have painful experiences from his time in his home country, it is entirely possible that since then the area has changed and improved. Ultimately by using our past to influence our decisions constantly we severely limit our future.

            In the example of the waiter, Sartre talks of a man in a state of bad faith that in effect lives a job. The waiter performs his part because of a desire from himself and from his patrons to do a job and be nothing more. In contrast, the immigrant family’s father is placed in a negative position almost because of a form of bad faith from other people being imposed upon him. Whilst both men will have been born with a certain degree of facticity placed upon them, it is through their choices in which these facts seem to develop. Sartre appears to suggest that through our own choices in life, we develop who we are. To deny this is possibly to be in bad faith, but at the same time, an element of who we are must be determined by events that occur without our influence. Our immigrant family in Birmingham are changed as people, not just through their choices, but also because of how people view them as a result of external events of which they have no say about.

5. The Original/Fundamental Project

If man is indeed born without any sort of essence, then it stands to reason that at some point we will develop those values which we base our lives upon. The desire to reproduce, the desire to survive, all the primary values which might be defined as a form of human nature, these values must appear from somewhere. Sartre referred to this one original choice as a person’s Fundamental (or Original) Project.

In Sartre’s quest for freedom, the Fundamental Project appears to be his way of answering those physical boundaries that seem to limit our choices. Hazel Barnes in her essay “Sartre’s Ontology” in The Cambridge Companion To Sartre describes the Project itself as “the for-itself’s chosen orientation toward being, its way of making itself be, its nonreflective creation and pursuit of values, the process whereby it chooses to make itself” (BARNES, H. 1992. P32). By this she seems to imply that by adding original meaning and value to things in its life, the for-itself creates who it is.

Perhaps the best way of describing the Project itself is through an example. Sartre himself suggests the idea of a backpacking expedition with friends (SARTRE, JP. 1943. P453). During the walk, Sartre suddenly finds himself exhausted and unable to go on. Putting his knapsack on the ground, Sartre gives in to this sense of fatigue and rests. His friends continue on without him and he asks himself why it is that they are able to continue to progress whilst he has been forced to give up. Sartre eventually talks to one of these companions and the friend inform him that whilst he is also fatigued, he “loves his fatigue; he gives himself up to it as to a bath; it appears to him in some way as the privileged instrument for discovering the world which surrounds him, for adapting himself to the rocky roughness of the paths, for discovering the “mountainous” quality of the slopes” (SARTRE, JP. 2002. P455). In effect, by experiencing the same pain to which Sartre has surrendered himself, the friend is experiencing the world on another level. Sartre’s friend in effect experiences pain as a part of a larger picture and if something hurts, then it teaches him something new about the world. By experiencing this pain, Sartre’s friend is obeying his fundamental project of experience.

Every action that we choose, we are basing it on a larger picture. If two friends play together for a Sunday League Rugby Union team, how much they involve themselves in the game will depend upon how much it fits into their wider scheme of life. If one of the friends desires to one day marry and produce offspring and is only in effect playing to remain fit and to have a laugh, then whilst he will place himself in harms way occasionally, he won’t constantly put himself into positions where he is likely to get hurt. Other issues take priority over his performance on the field of play. In contrast however, if his friend is primarily devoted to experiencing the pain of an event, to play well and has no desire to reproduce, then he will gamble more. He might play without a jockstrap because he feels he can move faster without one, he might leap into the incredibly dangerous tackles and risk everything, he will push his body to the limits because the game and the experience it brings is everything to him. It is his desire, his will, and his project.

If every man has an original project, therefore, is there a sort of universal desire by which these separate projects might be linked? According to Sartre, one desire that all men wish is to basically become an in-itself-for-itself, or put another way, to become an ideal being or God. Therefore according to Sartre “man is the being whose project is to be God” (SARTRE, JP. 2002. P566). In effect, by becoming a god, man desires to become a contradictory being, a being by which has the substance of an in-itself and is complete, whilst simultaneously remaining a for-itself and possessing the ability of choice. If God is a non-linear being, then whilst possessing a choice, he is already aware of the outcome and the correct way to choose. God appears to have both choice and no choice at the same time. It is this idea of having a substance and an element of completion and yet remaining an individual with a choice and an identity which every for-itself desires, and which every for-itself may never possess.

If therefore every individual possesses this desire to become an in-itself-for-itself, this explains why it is that particular choices appear to be external. In the case of Sartre’s backpacking expedition, whilst experiencing his fatigue when Sartre’s friend keeps going, the fatigue appears not as a choice but as a force imposed upon him. By imposing the original choice upon itself by making it appear like an external force, the for-itself is turning a part of itself into an object and thus becoming partly an in-itself.

In our attempts to become for-itself-in-itself, the fundamental project allows us to attempt to fulfil this aim by giving us a direction in our life. In reference to the rugby playing friends again, it could be suggested that by desiring children, it is the case that when one of the friends dies and becomes an in-itself, an object, his decisions will be passed onto his children and in effect he is achieving part of this desire to become a for-itself-in-itself by remaining immortal in memory. In contrast with this player, his friend is keener to be remembered by his friends as an amazing player who placed himself into dangerous situations in an attempt to understand the world. In both men’s cases, through the involvement of the other, his desire to become an in-itself-for-itself takes a step closer to reality. Sartre refers to the persona we place upon ourselves in front of others as being for-others, and it is worth discussing later on.

The Fundamental, or Original, Project is one of Sartre’s biggest problems in regard to his work on freedom. If what Sartre put forward is true and the for-itself attempts to become a god by fulfilling this original project (SARTRE, JP. 2002. P566), then at what point does our project begin to exist, what influences our choice, and if it cannot be changed without in effect changing our entire life view, then can freedom technically exist?

When considering the Rugby playing friends, their projects are inherently different. If we possess in our lives this project which our lives abide by and which influences all our decisions, then aside from our freedom being limited, this project’s entire existence must have been influenced at an early stage. Basically, if the family orientated rugby player from earlier had grown up in an environment where his parents were the most important thing in his life, he’d be inclined on their input to try to copy their lifestyle. In contrast, his experience driven friend might have experienced a more negative view of parenting with a father who was nasty to him. Whatever happened to these men in their childhood is likely to affect their decision to raise children of their own. In the same respect, if one of the men feels an overwhelming urge to have a greater income and never be short of money, it could be down to the economic effects on his family as a child, or it could be down to what his parents generally told him. The point to be made here is that whilst Sartre points towards the fact that we are in possession of this project which influences our decisions and which makes us experience life a particular way, this project’s primary mission, on route to becoming God obviously, is going to be based on countless social conditions which the person experienced as a child. This suggests that whilst we might be free in our choices, as long as they run along with the project, these choices are originally going to have been affected by our facticity and by our history.

The Fundamental Project, irrelevant of where it came from and who influenced it’s creation, is also faced with the problem that it contravenes our freedoms. As Neil Levy states in his book “Sartre”, the for-itself cannot choose an option which counter-acts it’s project because if we were to choose an option outside of the project we would be “at the same time modifying my entire project” (LEVY, N. 2002. P103). If a person’s project imprints upon them a pain barrier for the reason of denying them harm, then by breaking that barrier, that person is cancelling out his entire project since he will then be able to experience life completely differently. If our rugby playing father-to-be for example was to one day decide, despite it being handily sat next to him, to not wear a jockstrap, he would be opening himself up to the risk that his project would be changed through outside interference. In effect, the project denies us certain choices in an attempt to protect our goal. Basically, “our life is already made [and]…. [Its] development is nothing but a pale repetition of the primordial choice” (DREYFUS, HL. & HOFFMAN, P. 1981. Sartre’s Changed Conception Of Consciousness: From Lucidity To Opacity. In. SCHILPP, PA. The Philosophy Of Jean-Paul Sartre. P237).

If, as appears to be the case, the Fundamental Project is in fact incapable of allowing ground for movement, then there must be an alternative way in which Sartre’s freedom can be restored. One way of doing this is perhaps to suggest that the fundamental project does control elements of our lives, but at the same time, different elements can be changed. This would allow a middle ground as it were to be formed in which our fundamental choices can be changed in favour of an alternative, but particular effects that appear as physical would remain the same.

In the works of Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900 – Present), Gadamer talks of an idea of historicity. According to Gadamer, during our lifetimes, we slowly change in our views as we experience new events. So in the case of our rugby playing friends for example, the man who does not want children might fall in love with a girl who convinces him that they are a good idea. In this respect, his fundamental project would change slightly since he would no longer take risks on the rugby field because he would be attempting to conceive. His way of thinking, his horizon, will have changed and part of his project will be changed, albeit the physical aspects of pain would remain the same.

Another suggestion for the alteration of the Fundamental Project as well is that rather than man’s freedom and choice being based on the project; it is replaced by a social structure or system. The reasoning is that, as Sartre changed his way of thinking to towards the end of his life, by creating a sort of social grouping, a man’s choices become free within the confines of a society. We are “born into a world that is already conferred with meaning, in which hodological paths have been carved out, in which certain enterprises count as meaningful and others as trivial, all independently of our choices” (LEVY, N. 2002. P113-114). This Marxist style view, adopted by Sartre later in life allowed for flexibility in our every day life, but simultaneously limited our choices in terms of the physical and the social sides. In the example of our rugby playing two friends, it would allow for their changes in heart depending upon feeling, but it would simultaneously not allow them to live outside the framework of their society and thus limit their options.

In the notion of the Fundamental Project, Sartre created an explanation for all those aspects of our lives that appear to limit our choices. He suggested that all those pains that limit the individual, the fatigue of his backpacking expedition for example, could be put down to our very first choice in our lives. Ultimately though, by suggesting this, Sartre not only considered where this choice would originally come from, but he also managed to limit the human freedom to an almost non-entity. Later in his life he changed his views to a more social standpoint, and this suggestion of a social framework and the role of the other, is perhaps the best analysis of human freedom.

6. The Other

In the final section of this work comes perhaps the most important part of it, the notion of the Other. In “Being and Nothingness”, Sartre suggests that there are two types of being. There is the unconscious in-itself and the conscious for-itself. In the third section of his book however, he suggests that there is another, which he calls For-Others.

In Sartre’s concept of Freedom, it is claimed that the for-itself is free. It is also claimed that the for-itself desires to be more than it is. In “Being and Nothingness”, Sartre claims that for-itself desires to become an in-itself-for-itself, a complete being, a God (SARTRE, JP. 2002. P566). As a result of the other, the for-itself is given not just the opportunity to become an object, an in-itself, but it is also given an outside influence that affects its identity and choices.

In “Being and Nothingness”, Sartre talks of performing an offensive gesture. This gesture has no affect on him; it is simply an action he has performed. After doing this action however, upon raising his head, Sartre is aware of someone watching. Instantly a sense of shame overcomes him. He does not feel shame because of the action itself, but more he is “ashamed of myself as I appear to the Other” (SARTRE, JP. 2002. P222). The appearance of another being has in effect turned Sartre into an object. He is being perceived by another for-itself and he is being perceived not as a for-itself, but as an in-itself.

In the world of politics, when a member of the British parliament performs a function on television, countless people are watching him and he is aware of this. This M.P. stands up in the House of Commons, and he performs. He portrays himself as being loyal and trusting and worthy of your vote. In his own time away from other people, he could do whatever he likes, but in the front of other people, he puts on an act.

At the same time as putting on a performance for another for-itself, we learn about ourselves through this. Assuming the politician views himself as an honest man, to prove this it is required that other people view him that way. Without the input of other people into who we are, our personal identity remains limited. The level of how we might be considered attractive can be measured on a form of social scale; the way we dress is the same. Ultimately, without other people it is very difficult to be fully aware of oneself.

When two people are communicating, Sartre feels that the two are in conflict. When others view us, we are automatically made into an in-itself. According to Sartre in every relationship there is an element of a master and a slave. When the politician is talking to one of his voters, he performs an act; he becomes an in-itself and in effect becomes a slave. In contrast to this, the voter has all the power. The voter has the power to remove the politician from office, and he can dominate the conversation and fast becomes the master. At this same moment however, whilst to the voter he is the master, the politician might look at the voter as someone who relies upon him. At this point it is the politician who becomes the for-itself and the master.

This conflict of for-itself is reflected perhaps at it’s best in the notion of love. When one for-itself categorises another, they limit the freedoms of the other and turn them into an in-itself. In love, Sartre showed where this conflict “is fierce and hopeless” (WARNOCK, M. 1970. P117). In love, it is the positioning of labels that defines us and presents us with our freedom. By being classified as someone’s lover, we are simultaneously turned into an in-itself whilst remaining a for-itself in that we are in control of the situation. In our love we find ourselves at war with our own choices. We are faced with the possibility of submitting fully to being an in-itself (a masochist) or fighting our fight and dominating our lover (a sadist). Whilst the second of the two options appears infinitely more appealing, by controlling our lover fully, we turn them into an object and as such alienate their love for us. In effect, by turning our lover into an object, we are destroying their love for us and we are once again alone. As Warnock states, “the lovers embark upon a hopeless struggle, each wanting wholly to limit the freedom of the other and yet to be loved by someone who is still free” (WARNOCK, M. 1970. P118).

The reasoning behind the idea of limiting another’s freedom is based upon the human obsession with predictability. When the politician sits on his bench in Parliament, he doesn’t expect the bench to miraculously change shape or to move, he will expect it to predictably remain how it is. In the case of the Other however, this predictability has disappeared. When the politician knocks on the door of the voter, he has no idea whether the voter will listen attentively or will shut the door on him. Not just the politician feels this lack of predictability however, but also so does the voter. When the voter answers the door, if he is going to listen, he is unsure whether the politician will talk about European policy or crime, or any other topic for that matter. As a result of this unpredictability both the politician and the voter desire to be able to control the other. They wish to be able to predict each other’s movements and to turn the other one into an object. Ultimately when two for-itselves meet, the only way they can communicate without conflict is by one being revealed to the other “both as subject and as object … which is in principle impossible” (CRANSTON, M. 1962. Sartre. P61).

In an attempt to escape the other therefore and remain a for-itself, we are presented with one basic option. The for-itself can only escape the other by not being aware of its presence. If a for-itself was to live on a deserted island there would be no other for-itselves to witness it, or even more simply, by watching a movie on television and thus being so absorbed by the screen that it is unaware of the other for-itself which has entered the room.

When considering this notion of being controlled by other for-itselves, Sartre talks about their influence upon us. Where he goes wrong however is that he fails to fully consider just how much the other affects our choices. In the fundamental project that was mentioned earlier, it was pointed out that each person possesses an original choice. This choice, whilst limiting in our later choices, was designed by Sartre to explain how it was that particular aspects of our lives could affect us without appearing to be our choice. By challenging this original choice, it was apparent that we would be destroying our entire view on life. What Sartre failed to mention though was how much the Other influenced this original project. In making our original choice, we are going to be heavily influenced by perhaps the two most important for-itselves of our lives, in other words, our parents. By choosing our names, our parents are instantaneously labelling us as a person and as an object. In the way they act around us as we grow up, they influence all our decisions and in effect make us who we are. Added to this the impact our friends, other family members, and other acquaintances have upon us, and other for-itselves play a crucial part in developing as whom we are.

Sartre realised this to a degree in later years as he developed more in favour of Marxism. According to Sartre, in every age there is a dominant philosophy and countless ideologies that develop under its wing. According to Sartre, Marxism was the philosophy of the twentieth century and “existentialism is an ideology conceived within its framework. The Existentialist view of the world may… have some contributions to make to philosophy, but only in so far as it succeeds in illuminating some aspect of Marxist theory (WARNOCK, M. 1970. P127). Sartre slowly developed the notion that whilst the individual possessed some freedoms, it was as a social grouping where change was most likely. In effect, it is through our involvement with the Other that we experience ultimate freedom. Whilst in some respect we possess some element of choice in our lives, buying a particular type of beer from an Off-license for example, it is through our involvement with other for-itselves in our society where the greater changes come about. The politician from before is allowed to make his minor choices, but without the voting power of the voter and his friends, the politician will not be able to help to change the social grouping of Great Britain for the better.

In our challenge against other for-itselves, we seek to limit their unpredictability and regain control. Throughout our lives however, so many for-itselves influence us, both in our first original choice and in all other choices after it, that ultimately our freedom is dependent upon the Other considerably more than Sartre will give it credit for.

7. Conclusion

In his “Being and Nothingness” and “Existentialism and Humanism”, Sartre paints a picture of a world where there are two types of thing, the for-itself and the in-itself. Whilst the in-itself is your every day object that exists for a purpose and contains no choices since it possesses no consciousness, the for-itself is a conscious entity, humanity, which is able to choose what to do with it’s existence.

The for-itself is able to choose options in its life because it is able to exploit the nothingness that surrounds it. This nothingness, which features in the title of Sartre’s first book, exists as every potential option for the for-itself. By negating this nothingness, the for-itself chooses whatever option it desires.

This choice of the for-itself is however more contained than Sartre gives it credit for. It is true that by denying responsibility for particular choices due to job specifications, events in your past and other scenarios, you are living in bad faith. Ultimately though, as Sartre would later realise, someone’s facticity and their social climate has a greater impact on their choices than he originally gave it credit.

In his notion of the Fundamental Project, Sartre puts forward the notion that all our choices are dependent upon one original project that we desire to achieve. With this project comes the problem that changing a project that controls everything in our world is the only true way of achieving freedom. It is with this in mind which Sartre eventually abandons the individual freedom and focuses upon a form of socially controlled freedom. Each man possesses unlimited freedoms as long as it is acceptable within his chosen social realm.

Ultimately Sartre realises that through our social interactions with the Other, we develop as an individual and possess our choices. It is through the limitations of our experiences with other for-itself that we gain our choices. The influence of the Other helps mould us as a person and as a result, man is not quite “nothing else but that which he makes of himself” (SARTRE, JP. 1948. P28).



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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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