The Cathartic Nature of Sartre’s World of Nothingness

Living a Justified Life With an Existence that Is Unjustified

Getting Existential

Jean Paul Sartre was one of the father’s of Existentialism. Existentialism can be summarized by a particularly interesting quote from Sartre:

“Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.”

In fact, Sartre thought humans were painfully forced (condemned) to be free. But this is no matter for the existentialists, for no matter the constraints of existence, we can exercise our freedom through the power of the will. And the justification for life arises in this action.

The existentialist justification of life is like your roommate throwing a party without your knowledge. No one asked you, and when the first party goers show up, your first reaction to it is to be angry about the party thwarting your evening plans. “What is this bullshit? I wanted to watch the new season of Stranger Things in the living room!” However, you’ve found yourself at a party at any rate, so you might as well partake (or curmudgeonly yell them out of the house).

The methodology for Sartre’s inquiry into the condition of the mind is known as phenomenology, or a descriptive account of what it is like to experience consciousness.

The Lack of Ego

Do you ever think about how much of consciousness is devoid of the feeling of having an ego? While you were reading this just now, there was no consciousness of your consciousness — you were unaware that you were thinking. There was no place for your ego to exist. Consciousness was not turned upon itself in that moment, and so, for you subjectively it seemed to not exist. This is not to say that your brain was not working in that moment, or that in some strange way that you “did not exist”.

The condition of the ego in unreflective consciousness is obvious. When you reach for a fork to begin eating, there is not consciousness of a fork, there is consciousness of the fork having to be used to eat. The sense of self is nowhere to be found. A world-class tennis player who is explicitly conscious of his actions during a serve will likely blunder.

Reflective consciousness is similar to meditation, you are taking yourself as an object of consciousness, and yet the sense of self is synthetic and only along the margins of consciousness. Sartre has an exacting way to describe what going from unreflective consciousness to reflective consciousness feels like. It is like being caught from behind unaware by yourself from a 3rd person perspective while you were paying attention to something, jolted away from what you were paying attention to, totally surprised. I’m sure you have had the feeling in the middle of doing something, a full arrival of the sensation of existing. It is like the spotlight for a play suddenly turns on the stage hand wielding it, and everyone becomes aware and surprised by this.

The World As Me

When consciousness turns to look upon itself as an object, it appears just as any other object, its qualities as distinct and real as the other objects of consciousness. That even consciousness just feels like another object in the world means that all of consciousness is subjectively the world — the mode of experiencing the world is the world. Or in the words of the immanent philosopher Rust Cohle from True Detective:

“To realize that all your life, all your love, all your hate, all your memories, all your pain, it was all the same thing. It was all the same dream, a dream that you had inside a locked room, a dream about being a person.”

Other cultures, even more popularly than the existentialists, promote the integrated nature of consciousness to the world.

Buddhism speaks of a way of meditation in which you strip away preconceived notions of experience. For instance, you could look at the cover of a beloved book that you have read dozens of times. You would stare at it until you notice it for what it is, an arrangement of color, distinct and separate from your preconceived notion of thinking that it is your favorite book. It would experientially change for you. It would go from something familiar to you to something unfamiliar. Alan Watts calls this, “the world as emptiness”. In this emptiness the self feels nonexistant. There is just experience. There is in fact no way to distinguish yourself from your surroundings. Subjectively you are the mode of experiencing the world, and the relations you feel with the various objects in conciousness needn’t be so.

Sartre argued against letting this sensation of being a part of the world as an object reduce one to determinism, or the claim that one has no free will. Sartre called this bad faith.

You are literally and subjectively a part of the world, and it is cathartic.

As Sagan put it:

“The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself.”

You can never act out of concordance with nature, because you are it. The essence that defines what you are follows you along in life like a shadow, and becomes whatever you do. This way of thinking allows for a greater sense of intentionality. In other words, the definition of what you are as a human being is what you do.

Sartre proposed that human consciousness only defined itself in terms of what it is not. For example, I am not this chair, I am not Tom, I am not Jane, etc. In doing so, we see that consciousness is at bottom an empty nothingness, totally undefined. Full of negation, it is the set of objects that it is not.

You are the world of nothingness that defines what it is by action, that never was, and never could be unjustified or unintentional.

Or in the abridged words of Alan Watts: How could the wake of the ship ever determine which direction the bow points?

  1. Sartre, J., Richmond, S., & Moran, R. (2018). Being and nothingness: An essay in phenomenological ontology. Abingdon, Oxon, UK: Routledge.
  2. Watts, A. (1999). The Way of Zen. London: Arkana.

Writes about science, politics, philosophy, and the spaces that separates us as as species — and occasionally in story form.

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