Beach Reading– Nothingness Lies At The Heart Of Consciousness
June 12, `73
I’ve been working my way through Sartre’s Being And Nothingness. It
hasn’t been easy. The following is my take on what I think I
understand. Stay tuned, it may change, but for now here it is: Being
And Nothingness is a “study of being” in which the existence and
contingencies of being are examined. For Sartre, an examination of
being must start from our experience of it. It is through experience
that the “how” and “what” of being is made manifest to the moment. As
I continue to read, I hope to become clearer on this subject, but
for now I will try to summarize the interdependent relationship of
what Sartre calls being-in-itself and “being-for-itself.” First up,
The description of this being is Sartre’s attempt at poetry, for
being-in-itself escapes all definition. It is a comfort to know that
not understanding this concept is equivalent to understanding it.
Language, with its inherent limitations, is not able to penetrate
being-in-itself. It is self-identical being without gaps. It does not
act on consciousness. It knows no otherness, but, without it
being-for-itself could not exist.
I wonder if Sartre was influenced by Parmenides’ poem. In that poem
he, the pre-Socratic Greek, utilized motifs similar to Sartre’s—the
regression of being to “it is,” the concept of a non-spatial,
non-temporal being, being minus a subject, the coincidence of
knowledge and being, and the plenitude of being. Parmenides’ reduction
of the “all” to “oneness,” could very easily be compared to Sartre’s
being-in-itself. On the lighter side, this “oneness motif” could
hardly be called original. It goes back to the time of the Vedic oral
tradition where “tat twam assi” (I am that) got passed down from
generation to generation before the written word.
Being-for-itself is the subject’s own consciousness, a conscious
awareness of being-in-itself as being “other” than itself. But, here’s
the kicker, being-for-itself is “other” than it’s own being also.
According to Sartre, we have consciousness of an object only through
the negation of that object, which, in turn, means that
being-for-itself manifests consciousness by being its own negation.
That negation separates me from myself. Nothingness then, lies at the
heart of consciousness. Man is thus described by Sartre as “the being
by which nothingness comes into the world.” Being-for-itself can
never, in any final sense, be conscious of itself. It carries within
itself the rift of nothingness that negates that very possibility.