While his pursuits in political activism took up his later life, his early work in existentialism is considered to be some of the most profound philosophical work ever produced.
Knowing the Self
Sartre believed every individual person to be a “being-for-itself” that has self-consciousness. According to Sartre, people do not have an essential nature. Rather, they have a self-consciousness and a consciousness, and these can always be changed. If a person believes that his place in society determines his sense of self or that his views cannot be changed, he is deceiving himself. Telling someone “that’s just how I am” is also self-deception.
According to Sartre, self-actualization, the process of making something from what someone has already been made into, is always possible. To do so, one must recognize what Sartre calls the “facticity”—the realities (based on facts) that occur outside of the individual that are acting on him. One must also understand that he has a consciousness that exists independently from those realities.
Sartre believed the only type of truly authentic outlook is understanding that, while an individual is responsible for his consciousness, consciousness of self will never be identical to actual consciousness.
Being-in-Itself and Being-for-Itself
To Sartre, there are two types of being:
- en-soi (being-in-itself): Things that have an essence that is both definable and complete; however, they are not conscious of their complete essence or of themselves. For example, rocks, birds, and trees.
- pour-soi (being-for-itself): Things that are defined by the fact that they have consciousness and are conscious that they exist (like humans), and are also consciously aware that they do not have the complete essence associated with en-soi.
The Role of the Other
Sartre says that a person (or being-for-itself) only becomes aware of his own existence when he sees another being-for-itself observing him. Thus, people become consciously aware of their identity only when being viewed by others who also possess consciousness. Thus, a person only understands himself in relation to others.
Sartre goes on to claim that encountering the “Other” can be tricky at first because one might think that the other conscious being is objectifying him with regard to appearance, type, and essence (even if that is imagined). As a result, a person may then attempt to view Others as simple and definable objects that lack any individual consciousness. According to Sartre, it is from the idea of the Other that we see things like racism, sexism, and colonialism.
Sartre believed that all individuals have an essential freedom and that people are responsible for their actions, their consciousness, and all aspects of their self. Even if an individual wishes not to be held responsible for himself, according to Sartre, that is a conscious decision, and he is responsible for the results of his inaction.
Based on this notion, Sartre explains that ethics and morals are subjective and related to an individual’s conscience. Therefore, there could never be any type of universal ethics or morality.
As he began to focus more on politically inclined issues, Sartre examined how individual consciousness and freedom fit into social structures such as racism, sexism, colonialism, and capitalist exploitation. He said that those structures do not recognize individual consciousness and freedom, and instead, objectify people.
Sartre believed people always have freedom—no matter how objectified an individual is, the fact that freedom and consciousness exist means that individuals still have the ability to make something happen. To Sartre, the inherent freedom of consciousness is both a gift and a curse. While freedom can allow one to make a change and shape his life, there is also a responsibility that comes along with it.