Being and Nothingness
More books in the category:
by: Jean-Paul Sartre
Sartre launched the existentialist "movement" with the publication of Being and Nothingness in 1943. Though the book is thick, dense, and unfriendly to careless readers, it is indispensable to those interested in the philosophy of consciousness and free will. Some of his arguments are fallacious, others are unclear, but for the most part Sartre's thoughts penetrate deeply into fundamental philosophical territory. Basing his conception of self-consciousness loosely on Heidegger's "being," Sartre proceeds to sharply delineate between conscious actions ("for themselves") and unconscious ("in themselves"). It is a conscious choice, he claims, to live one's life "authentically" and in a unified fashion, or not--this is the fundamental freedom of our lives.
This book is, for most people (philosophers included), unwieldy, incomprehensible, impenetrable, and virtually unreadable. That said, it also contains one of the most revolutionary and incontestable phenomenolgical theories ever devised, and it can be yours in exchange for a "mere" two months of your life. Sound like a good deal? Well, it's not. Unfortunately there was nobody around to tell me "don't jump!" as I was about to plunge headlong into this book, with obsessive-compulsive and mono-maniacal desire to get through it. Apparently, I wanted to prove something to myself and others, by putting a tattered and heavily underlined copy of _Being and Nothingness_ back on my bookshelf, and being able to say "I read that". These types of motivations may be the only force in the known universe powerful enough to propel a man through a book such as this. And it's a good thing I read it when I was still young enough, stubborn enough, and crazy enough to do so.
First, there is a huge difference between difficult reading and bad writing. This is simply bad writing. For example: "Being-for-itself is the being which in its mode of being is what it is not and is not what it is." or whatever. That sheer grammar of that sentence is daunting. It is designed to be deliberately confusing. No idea, no matter how brillant or profound, needs to be presented in this manner. As I understand Sartre's theory (as least the foundation of it; heaven knows its almost impossible to understand all the points he makes in the book) it basically comes down to this: Imagine that you have before you a photograph, and this hypothetical photograph contains everything that exists in it. The whole universe is contained in the picture. This is what Sartre called being-in-itself. Now, the problem is, where is the camera that took the picture? It can't be in the picture and take the picture at the same time. This camera represents consciousness or what Sartre called being-for-itself. If you took a second camera and tried to take a picture of the first camera taking a picture of the universe then this first camera would no longer represent consciousness. It would represent instead our idea of consciousness. Since the second camera would now be the perspective from which the picture is taken it would represent consciousness, and once again it would not be in the picture. This is what Sartre calls our nihilating withdrawal from ourselves and from being-in-itself. Consciousness is always the vantage point from which the whole situation is viewed, and so it itself can not be viewed. The closest one could get to having a camera take a picture of itself is to stand in front of a mirror and take a photograph of your reflection taking the photograph. This is what Sartre calls relection-reflecting, and the problem here is that the camera featured in the photograph is not the actual camera. It is just a reflection of the camera. No matter what you do, its always the same problem. The camera that takes the picture can't be IN the picture at the same time. Similarly, consciousness can never have an adequate perspective of itself. This is what Sartre's theory basically comes down to. He believes that since the camera or consciousness can never be squeezed into is own picture, it must lie somehow outside of existence. The flaw here is that he assumes that reality must be framed by a perspective in order to be a unified whole. But I don't see how it's inconcievable for there to be a unity-involving camera and photograph without there being an all-seeing eye which unites them, i.e. without another camera to capture them together. It seems that Sartre has allowed a thin sliver of subjectivism to infect the foundations of his theory. No doubt someone will say that you're way off and that you've missed Sartre's point by miles. That very well may be. But it took a Herculean effort just to understand this much of his theory and no book should make anyone have to work that hard.
Why would anyone bother with a 'thinker' who attacked Flaubert and Proust for not putting trite social, socialistic commentary into their masterpieces (see that massive chunk of tragically stupid, anphetamine-powered Marxo-Freudian rigmarole 'The Family Idiot'), a fool who wrote that Nabokov should have stayed in Russia to help Lenin build 'the workers paradise' (the same Eden that welcomed Gumilyov and Mandelshtam, you'll remember)? Sartre was a blind, vulgar dunce...a man who endorsed terrorist violence (Fanon; the fashionable murderer Che G.) and pulled a treadbare, shoddily second-rate 'philosophy' over the eyes of intelligent people who should really have known better. A falsely profound, bourgeois Philistine--that's Sartre in a nutshell.
The book is a waste of time. It is a lot of "nothingness" concealed behind a dazzling wall of language that is purposefully esoteric and employs vague and ambiguous terminology. Naturally, proponents of this book (and others like it -- there are plenty more out there) reason that such critism is the result of frustration, the readers' having not given the book an ample study, or are lacking the intellectual capacity to comprehend the matter. But the truth of the matter is, the book provides nothing satisfying, practical, or enlightening. And of those who do acknowledge Sartre's elaborate charade, a few insist on praising him solely on the grounds that, hey, at least he devised a grand philosophical system. So what? Any buffoon with enough time on his hands can devise a system...just look at L. Ron Hubbard of scientology "infamy".
Resources:Human, All Too Human (BBC) - Jean Paul Sartre: Part 3