Language as Freedom in Sartre’s Philosophy

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Language as Freedom in Sartre’s Philosophy

This accords with Roquentin’s discovery that there are no adventures. He bases this on the logic that adventures are stories, and “one does not live a story.”20F It is an established act which acquires the defining meaning of adventure in terms of its conclusion; hence one is forced to live one’s experiences only through the relating of an event, rather than through the very act of living it. Roquentin faces the disillusionment of the present: if one can only tell of life after having lived it, then one is forced to do one or the other: “one can either live or tell; not both at once.”21F In other words, in order to make sense of life one has to record it as it occurs, and then only later by reading it as a literary work, listening to it as a piece of music, or looking at it as a work of art, can one conceive of the meaning of this life in its totality. It is important that it be seen in its totality, for Sartre defines existential humanism to be “this relation of transcendence as constitutive of man (not in the sense that God is transcendent, but in the sense of self-surpassing) with subjectivity (in such a sense that man is not shut up in himself but forever present in a human universe).”22F
Roquentin’s attempt to relate his story as the meaning of his life suffers from the absence of a certainty in language. While staring at a seat in a tramcar, Roquentin murmurs to himself: “it’s a seat, as a sort of exorcism. But the word remains on my lips: it refuses to go and rest upon the thing … Things are delivered from their names. They are there, grotesque, stubborn, huge, and it seems crazy to call them seats or to say anything whatever about them.”23F These thoughts are continued in his visit to the public park, as are his reflections upon the absence of perceived relations between the words and the images of the things in themselves. Roquentin seizes upon these limitations through the use of words; the absence of the ‘middle way’ between non-existence and the abundance of things is identified as the absence of the naming, the identifying of action, the process of becoming free that Sartre formulates later in Being and Nothingness. These are the words which define being, as distinct from simply existing. Words come as the writing of this history, my history, takes shape, and therewith the meaning of my being as essence. For until I am able to define the process of this becoming24F in the form of a story that I can relate and through which I can objectify my being-as-consciousness, I merely exist as empty consciousness.
Therefore, it comes to appear that individuals need language – as distinct from simply disjointed words – to identify and define the content of their essence. The self is constituted in the totality of words defining its moments of ‘becoming’. For Sartre, the self acquires a meaning in the very act of objectifying itself, albeit for simply the mere moment of this action. Its meaning is momentary, the time it takes to act, or utter a sentence, and then this self is altered by this act thereby becoming other to itself (i.e. the self before the act occurred). As such, the words uttered to express the first moment of an acted consciousness cannot be taken as final, and will have to wait until this self ceases to act, collects the essence of all previous actions in their totality, composes one last narrative that may be used to define it. Hence, words, although not defining the immediate empty self, do arise, and are indeed necessary, as Roquentin suggests, for the recognition, the knowledge of this lived life.


Sartre poses another problem regarding language, for in this distinction between existing and being, the existentialist angst appears as the absence of this certainty present in the naming of the nature of what I am. In La Nausie, what frightens and nauseates Roquentin is the recognition that while he pronounces the words, ‘root’, ‘seagull’ and so on, he acquires no image of these things, and therewith recognizes the futility of the words uttered, and consequently the futility of the words he uses to write his life. Roquentin’s knowledge of his subjectivity seems elusive, for the action which determines being comes always from without and not from within; the angst is that of not knowing, not having the power to alter the situation in which we are, but continue to shoulder the responsibility of the actions we voluntarily make within pre-determined circumstances. The self is not the author of its conscious act, for the self is not the other in which it recognizes itself, in which it is reflected onto itself, through which it becomes conscious and acquires a value.
The problem posed by Sartre is two-fold: on the one hand, I, as reflective consciousness, perceive my freedom as limited by the gaze of the Other. On the other hand, it is also limited by language. Language appears as a ‘medium’ which ‘objectifies’ the consciousness of the Other and allows it to rest upon me, thereby objectifying me. Furthermore, it is also clear that Sartre is deeply concerned with the absolute necessity for the individual to be perceived, and thereby to perceive him/herself, as a subject in the world. It therefore follows that Sartre found it necessary to acknowledge the true nature of the For-itself (as freedom and subjectivity) as distinct from all otherness. However, how is one to be free in the world when the world itself is a prison in which consciousness is forever encountering other beings that appear as constant threat to its subjectivity, and hence freedom? More importantly, how does one acknowledge this freedom?
An answer to this may be glimpsed in an earlier work, The Psychology of Imagination (1940), where Sartre established direct links between nothingness and freedom: “in order to imagine, consciousness must be free from all specific reality and this freedom must be able to define itself by a ‘being-in-the-world which is at once the constitution and the negation of the world’.”25F In other words, consciousness, the For-itself, must be able to establish a consciousness of the “unreal.”26F This occurs because the unreal “is produced outside of the world by a consciousness which stays in the world, and it is because he is transcendentally free that man can imagine.”27F It is essentially this freedom, which ‘nihilates’ the determined being of society, also allows the individual to establish his/her own self independently of the social world. In imagination, the individual is able to posit his/her understanding of all phenomena as lived-reality. This permits release from the phenomenal world and its knowledge all at once.
This is equally evident in La Nausie. In his reflection on language, Roquentin comes to the understanding that “there was no middle way between non-existence and this swooning abundance. What exists at all must exist to this point: to the point of moldering, of bulging, of obscenity. In another world, circles and melodies retain their pure rigid contours. But existence is degeneration.”28F These preoccupations suggest that the choice, the intent upon an action, even if this be the simple naming of a thing, limits other possibilities that are potentially present in the nothingness of consciousness. However, they equally denote Sartre’s attachment to a different sphere of existence, where meaning remains free of adulteration, a sphere where the author of thought is one with the thought uttered: it is the realm of imagination. Based upon this point I wish to argue that in imagination, Sartre finds means by which consciousness achieves freedom, a freedom that is expressable to the self and the Other through language. Sartre makes this clearer in his discussion on freedom and the relationship between writer and reader.
In What is Literature? (1947), Sartre suggests that freedom is intimately bound up with the activity of the writer whose work appears to the readers in terms of a universal definition of the meaning of being, thereby freeing them. Sartre views the relationship between the writer and the reader in terms of dialectical aufheben, i.e. that the “creative freedom” of the first must be recognized and solicited by the second such that “the more we experience our freedom, the more we recognize that of the other; the more … [the writer] demands of us, the more [the reader] demand[s] of him.”29F Here, Sartre points to a mode of communication which safeguardes the subjectivity of individuals involved, which he formulated in Existentialism and Humanism. Writing and reading become the medium permitting this exchange and universalization of the essence of the self. For Sartre, language “is a prolongation of the senses, a third eye which is going to look into our neighbor’s heart. We are within language as within our body. We feel it spontaneously while going beyond it toward other ends, as we feel our hands and our feet; we perceive it when it is the other who is using it, as we perceive the limbs of others.”30F Words and writing, I would argue, appear as a peculiar process of ‘active objectification’ of human essence; they constitute an act which captures, without altering (this is because it is not phenomenal), the meaning of freedom as both consciousness and action.


In conclusion, I would argue that for Sartre, freedom represents an actualization of the self as subjectivity, a process which demands that individuals maintain a separation between themselves and the world. Although we may know the world through reflective consciousness, our freedom resides solely in our capacity to survive the active objectification of our inner selves which occurs every time we encounter others. Imagination does not depend on the nature of being, but is experienced as flight from the world. In order to posit the world in the imagination, the individual must perform a three-form movement. According to Sartre, the imaginative act is “constituting, isolating, and nihilating. … It constitutes the world as a world, for before consciousness there was no ‘world’ but only full, undifferentiated being. It then nihilates the world from a particular point of view and by a second act of nihilation isolates the object from the world as-out-of-reach.”31F In this manner, the world for the individual becomes a state of being in consciousness that is imagination, or life in thought. In the mind, the individual is never subject to the nihilating effect of the other, and in imagination, Roquentin can find or create the words which best express his understanding of the world he encounters. In imagination, the individual remains both free and a subject, and the words remain authentic. As writers and readers, individuals are able to experience their own and others’ subjectivity and freedom free of objectification.

20. Iris Murdoch, Sartre: Romantic Rationalist, (London: Penguin Books, 1987), p. 39.
21. Ibid. p. 40.
22. Sartre, Existentialism & Hum. ., op. cit., p. 55 my italics.
23. J.P. Sartre, Nausea, tran. Hamish Hamilton, (New York: New Directions, 1962), p.69.
24. Sartre establishes this notion of Becoming in his later works Search For A Method (1960), and Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960), however I do believe that this very notion, albeit not in terms of the Hegelian Aufhebung, was implicitly present in Sartre’s earlier definition of existentialism.
25. J.-P. Sartre, The Psychology of Imagination, (New York: Knopf, 1952), p. 269.
26. Ibid.
27. Ibid., p. 271. Italics added.
28. Ibid.
29. Jean Paul Sartre, What is Literature?, trans. B. Frechtman, (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), p. 45.
30. Ibid., pp. 14-15.
31. The Psychology of Imagination, op. cit., p.69.

AuthorSalam Hawa
2018-08-21T17:23:53+00:00 April 1st, 2000|Categories: Essays, Literature, Blesok no. 14|0 Comments