Existentialism: What would Sartre’s response be if we asked “what does it mean to be free?” – Part 1

Throughout history freedom has been a contentious subject. There is not a universal definition as many types and scenarios imply, although most classifications of freedom are relative to each other. Hence when asking the question “what does it mean to be free?” the explanation is never the same. A multitude would, to a certain degree, accept an answer provided where they can identify those relative aspects to their own or more agreed upon views of freedom. For instance, using two examples; I personally see freedom as being able to do anything I wish without restrictions. Whether these constraints are coercive or enforced by some form of law, I must bypass them to achieve this total freedom. This view takes into consideration physical freedom. It is a widely accepted notion that we are not entirely free – but free to an extent to act in accordance to the law to respect everyone’s mutual rights. A more conventional view may assess situations where an absence of freedom is evident, like during the slave trade and the aftermath of its abolition. Many black people, despite the abolition of slavery and delegation of civil rights, still experience discrimination in the form of systematic racism. An example many use to show this lack of freedom, not only for black people but different ethnicities in Societies which aren’t exactly theirs, is in application of a job. An ethnic minority in England may struggle for a certain position due to where they come from. An employer may feel more inclined to give an opportunity to someone English, over an African or Asian as the company may not want to be represented by other. The majority of the companies customers are English, catering to that majority would be more important than alienating them. Though the coloured person who is denied this opportunity is physically free, and through law shares the same rights as his denier, in this case it is evidently discrimination and so people may claim he and those similar to him are not free.

Another view of freedom is based on religious practices; in countries where a many people follow Islam. In most of those countries it is the norm for women to wear headscarves and veils. In France such religious garments due to secularity have been banned in Schools and recently they have introduced a ban on accessories which cover the face – including masks, helmets, balaclavas, niqābs and others.  It is considered a lack of freedom on both sides; one side states that to ban such would be disrespectful to people of religion, who want to wear it in order to follow their religious practices properly. Whilst the other states by forcing women to wear this it is oppressive, against freedom and it is for security reasons that it should be maintained. Straying from these conventional views, Jean-Paul Sartre presents his concept of freedom in his book “Being and Nothingness”. His concept is created through his interpretation of the phenomenology of previous Philosophers such as Heidegger, Husserl and Hegel. Through this phenomenology, Sartre forms his own definitions of consciousness and being, which in totality creates his existential framework. He applies this existential framework to his concept of freedom in order to generate an ontological understanding of the concept. This perplexing and unique approach to freedom allows Sartre to set aside his thesis from conventional views. In this two part article, I shall ask Sartre – “what does it mean to be free?” whilst entertaining other thoughts from orthodox views and other Philosophers.

Before divulging into Sartre’s concept of freedom, it is important to understand his viewpoint on phenomena, the consciousness and being. Sartre’s views of phenomena, being and consciousness are the root of a majority of ideas within Being and Nothingness. I shall briefly explain these points before moving on to an assessment of Sartre’s freedom in order to deduce an ideal response to the proposed question. 

Sartre claims philosophy has been embarrassed by dualisms. Yet he utilises some of these dualisms, such as Kantian dualism of noumena and phenomena, to form his own. Husserl, an influential figure in Sartre’s phenomenological Philosophy, attempted to overcome dualisms. He reduced real objects, the phenomena, to a series of appearances – nothing more, like many dualisms suggest. Sartre uses four examples of dualisms which Husserl’s phenomenology is said to have overcome. For the sake of brevity I shall only explain two of the dualisms. Immanuel Kant’s dualism of noumena and phenomena suggests we have no notion of what is truly real in phenomena e.g. the phenomena of a chair, that outward appearance is what we understand it to be – but there is a chairness. That chairness is the noumena, which in Kant’s view we cannot comprehend. Sartre claims Scientific dualisms of interior and exterior are similar to this, for instance; the inner nature of electricity opposed to its evident effects. Sartre criticises Husserl’s phenomenology, stating it does not entirely deal with dualisms. Sartre only reduced these dualisms to one, which logically survives them all. The dualism of finite and infinite, a single noumena against an infinite series of phenomena. This is evident in the fact all those dualisms reappear in through this one e.g. revisiting the example of the chair I provided in reference to Kant’s dualism; if chairness was visible to us there would only be one chairness that is mutual to all chairs. This is the finite part of the dualism, whilst the infinite are chairs– the phenomena which are all unique with dissimilar properties e.g. this chair is wooden, this chair is metal – the noumena of chairness is still the same and representative of both. As the chairness remains the same, it is finite. This is comparable to Platonic ideas, where Plato suggests we can identify something through form. For instance; the form of a Human being – at our core we are all the same, yet in branches we differentiate through sex, genetic features, race and nationality. Although it should be stated Kant is suggesting we cannot grasp what is the noumena behind the phenomena, unlike Plato who states we can acknowledge an idea and branch off the forms, highlighting a couch as a form of chairness. After refuting Husserl’s phenomenology, Sartre concludes there is nothing behind the phenomena and proceeds to define what he sees as being.

In Sartre’s view of being there is a duality of varying types of it. Utilising Hegelian terminology, Sartre presents the Being-for-itself and the Being-in-itself. Sartre defines consciousness in simple terms, noting there must be a consciousness of something e.g. the consciousness of Socrates. Consciousness is not existent without something to possess, and so Sartre concludes consciousness by itself is nothing. The way we define consciousness is always of something, not by itself. We would not claim Socrates’ consciousness is doing anything without the phenomena of Socrates. Therefore, Sartre states consciousness as being nothingness, and the phenomena we claim is conscious is being. Sartre asserts consciousness understands it is consciousness, similarly to the notion proposed by Descartes through his renowned “cogito ergo sum” – “I think therefore I am.” Descartes questioned his existence in his Meditations, coming to the conclusion that he exists because he possess’ the ability to think. He alters Descartes’ views in order to explain this. He calls this the pre-reflective cogito. Sartre claims there is a self-reflective consciousness before the self-consciousness of the cogito, the thought itself. This is best explained through analogy; by observing objects in the World, such as a tree or rock – I am indirectly conscious of my own being, I acknowledge I am not the tree or the rock. That ability to be conscious of objects implies there is a form of consciousness that is aware of other objects. Through this Sartre claims consciousness, which he earlier defined as being nothing, is aware of itself. Utilising these notions Sartre links it back to being, noting a Being-for-itself is able to use pre-reflective cogito. Human beings are examples of a Being-for-itself. A Being-in-itself is an object that does not evidently have consciousness. An example would be a chair, or other inanimate objects.

Conspicuously Sartre’s views on the phenomena, being and consciousness ties in together. He claims that there is nothing behind the phenomena, which over the course of the book is used to refer to objects, consciousness itself does not exist and yet a Being-for-itself has consciousness. In a more literal sense, the consciousness, which is nothing, resides in a Being-for-itself, which is a form of phenomena that also hosts nothing. Asserting consciousness has no objective route, Sartre claims it has a task of defining itself and filling that void at its core through that which it entertains itself. In example: I could feel an intense lack of something within me, I would not allow this feeling to envelop me and accept I cannot change it. With my being I can endeavour to fill that void in any way I can. I have this freedom to utilise. So if we were to ask Sartre the question “what does it mean to be free?” in his own provided definition; Sartre: “It does not mean ‘to obtain what one has wished’, but rather ‘by oneself to determine oneself to wish’ In other words, success is not important to freedom”

In the next part of this article I shall conclude Sartre’s supporting points, moving onto views which can be used to object his idea of freedom.

Author: Jude

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