ABSTRACT: I argue that Sartre posits language as a medium of communication that is capable of safeguarding the development of subjectivity and freedom. Language does this in a twofold manner: on the one hand, it is an action that does not phenomenally alter being, but that has the capacity of altering consciousness; on the other hand, language, more particularly written text, is a mode of communication that is delayed, hence that occurs outside the present, i.e. in a different space and a deferred time. As such, it preserves the subjectivity of both writer and reader. The argument is as follows: first, I present Sartre’s definition of freedom and subjectivity in terms of his definition of consciousness of the For-itself and In-itself in Being and Nothingness; second, I draw on examples from La Nausie to illustrate the link between language, consciousness and the expression of freedom and subjectivity; third, I refer to The Psychology of Imagination and What is Literature? to illustrate further the importance that Sartre places on writing and reading as means to establish a lasting impression of personal freedom and subjectivity in a manner that defies space and time.
In this paper I shall argue that Sartre posits language as a medium of communication that is capable of safeguarding subjectivity and freedom. Language does this in a two-fold manner: on the one hand it is an action which does not phenomenally alter being, but which has the capacity of altering consciousness; on the other hand, language, more particularly written text, is a mode of communication that is delayed, hence that occurs out with the present, i.e. in a different space and a deferred time, and as such it preserves the subjectivity of both writer and reader. I present this argument in the following manner: first, I present Sartre’s definition of freedom and subjectivity in terms of his definition of consciousness of the For-itself and In-self in Being & Nothingness; second, I draw on examples from La Nausie to illustrate the link between language, consciousness and the expression of freedom and subjectivity; third, I refer to The Psychology of Imagination and What is Literature? to illustrate further the importance that Sartre places on writing and reading as means both to freedom and subjectivity.
In Existentialism and Humanism (1946), Sartre states that “if God does not exist there is at least one being whose existence comes before its essence, a being which exists before it can be defined by any conception of it. That being is man or as Heidegger has it the human reality.”1F Sartre believes that “existence comes before essence – or, if you will, that we must begin from the subjective.”2F This implies that each individual “cannot pass beyond human subjectivity,”3F i.e. that the recognition and constitution of one’s subjectivity represent the highest point in the achievement of freedom, for there is no divine beyond, no transcendent Other whose Being can define the essence of humanity.4F Human reality is characterized by ‘contingency’, and the identity of the self hinges upon the total sum and interpretation of the product of these ‘accidents’.
In his definition of subjectivity, Sartre makes a distinction between consciousness of the self and creation of the self.5F Consciousness exists outside being, and is external to the phenomenon of existence; it appears in and through being, but does not constitute this being.6F By contrast, self-creation lies in praxis, i.e. the action made by the individual according to a decision to commit such an act. The result of such an action constitutes the self in reality. This distinction appears in this (radical) form in the early philosophical essays and, more explicitly, in Being and Nothingness (1943). It also appears in Sartre’s literary works: in La Nausie (1938), the author of the diary, Roquentin, recognizes that his essence is entirely distinct from his being. The freedom of his consciousness is displayed in its ability to become one with other existential beings, such as a tree-root or a gust of wind. Sartre’s work expresses his desire to give rise to a knowledge of individual subjectivity that is ‘authentic’ – untainted, uninformed by social, religious or political pressures.
In Being & Nothingness, Sartre identifies ‘authentic’ consciousness as the For-itself. It is the capacity to interrogate, eliminate possibilities, and establish a judgement based on negation of what is – i.e. by recognizing what is, one acknowledges also what is not. The For-itself stands generally outside of being, and as such it remains free. For Sartre, the For-itself is freedom.7F This freedom comes at the price of its being entirely, and permanently, separate from the In-itself, which occurs because consciousness reaches and acknowledges being merely as something external. The For-itself is thus never a thing or an object, but a force, that is linked to action rather than to observation. All phenomena (including another For-itself) belong, as a mass, to the realm of the In-itself. Subjectivity as consciousness is, therefore, a nothingness. It is emptiness of the In-itself. Sartre states that the For-itself never “exists For-itself but only for the object, and that subjectivity is a consciousness without Subject.”8F In other words, for the For-itself to remain free it must also be immaterial; it can never be an object, not even that of its own. As such, the For-itself is invariably action, energy, activity. Although as action the For-itself manifests itself through the object, it is never simply that object but the force that shaped it. This definition of consciousness is maintained even after Sartre embraced Marxism. Sartre was very critical of the Marxist definition of subjectivity, which claimed that subjectivity is dependent on production.9F
1. Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism and Humanism, trans. Philip Mairet, (London: Methuen, 1970), pp. 27-28.
2. Ibid., p. 26.
3. Ibid., p. 29.
6. J.P. Sartre, Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel E. Barnes, (London: Methuen, 1966), p. 435.
7. Ibid., p. 436; this position will be explained further in the discussion below on the nature and extent of freedom in Sartre’s philosophy.
8. W. Desan, The Tragic Finale, (New York: Harper & Row, 1960), p. 29.
9. Jean Paul Sartre, Search for a Method, trans. Hazel E. Barnes, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963), p. 85.