Week 7 logbook

What role does consciousness have in our freedom?

Sartre’s view on freedom is that humans have metaphysical freedom. Note that this freedom is not political, social or the everyday use of the word freedom. For Sartre, our existence precedes our essence. In other words, we are born into the world, and then we create ourselves, we shape our identities. This is opposing the essentialist view of the world, where it is believed that we are born with a set of properties. Metaphysical freedom is the idea that we have no constraints whatsoever to do any act we wish to do, however we must also bear the full burden of the consequences that come from that act. We must create our own moral codes for ourselves, we must choose what to do, and we must bear the consequences of our actions. Which is why Sartre is so opposed to the notion of “bad faith” as it imposes on our sense of absolute freedom. The problem Sartre faces with bad faith is that we make ourselves believe our freedom is then confined in these situations, whereas above we have shown that this is not true. We are able to escape the notion of bad faith by accepting the responsibilities of the choices we have made, and thus accept that it was due to our freedom of choice to feel or do a certain thing. Therefore, we are able to overcome the notion of bad faith by accepting that we were free to make the choices and take responsibility for doing so.

Sartre begins by distinguishing between the for-itself and the in-itself. The notion of the for-itself links with Sartre’s notion of consciousness of human beings, and the notion of in-itself links with non-consciousness of human beings. Sartre describes the two as interlinked as the for-itself is just the negation of the in-itself. Freedom plays an important role then for Sartre as it is linked to the for-itself. Sartre concludes in Being and Nothingness that the for-itself is “nothing but a pure nihilation of the in-itself; it is like a hole of being in the heart of Being”(Sartre:2003:637). The for-itself then nihilates itself so it is able to bring out the possibility of nothingness, The nothingness of consciousness thereby enables the for-itself to define itself, having complete freedom to create itself. Consciousness is dependent for its existence upon its objects, it intends its objects. It is, however, separate from its objects and its actions which are outside of it and thus consciousness is empty. The in-itself is an object of consciousness. Because consciousness cannot be its object or its actions, it realises what it is not and this negation of its being (the in-itself) implies nothingness. Once the in-itself has been negated there is no object of consciousness and hence a nothingness arises. Consciousness can be viewed as the means by which nothingness comes into the world.

Sartre then believes that “freedom is the human being putting his past out of play by secreting his own nothingness” (Gardner:2009:159). Due to consciousness being nothingness, there are then no factors that prevent the for-itself from being absolutely free. Sartre states that “human freedom precedes essence in man and makes it possible”(Sartre:2003:49) meaning that freedom is our existence in the world, as our mode of being has no essence, due to our consciousness being a nothingness. We are then able to define ourselves in any moment, by taking up fundamental projects. Sartre separates the nothingness of the for-itself by distinguishing between time and freedom. Consciousness is separated by its past and present due to the nothingness of its being. By having consciousness as an empty phenomena, the for-itself is able to break away from its time constrains, and redefine its self in the future, and differentiate itself from the past. This is due to Sartre’s notion that ‘an act is a projection of the for-itself toward what it is not, and what is can in no way determine by itself what it is not(Sartre:1969:435).

For Sartre it is the “act that is the expression of freedom”(Sartre:1969:438). Sartre goes onto coin two terms in relation to freedom, the facticity of freedom and its situation.

The facticity of freedom, is quite simply, the fact that human beings are not “free to cease to be free”(Sartre:1969:439) Human beings do not have the freedom of choosing whether or not they are free — they simply are, “condemned to be free”(Sartre:1969:439). This sounds like a great thing, but on a darker tone we are forced to be free, Sartre claims even when we do not want to. The facticity of freedom is fundamentally what allows Sartre to build up his concept of bad faith, which is our attempt to avoid our own freedom by “lying” to ourselves. If we do not wish to own up to our own essential freedom, we treat ourselves as an in-itself, by explaining something as determined by our past, or by saying that something is foreordained for the future.

Sartre uses the term of the situation to complete his view of freedom in everyday life. He uses the term situation to explain how “freedom is precisely the nothingness which is made-to-be at the heart of man”(Sartre:1969:440) which forces us to make ourselves. As it is through freedom we continuously choose our goals or projects and it is this choice that controls the way that we interpret the objects that we deal with in everyday life. As a consciousness that is always redefining its project, which continually projects itself towards its chosen end, we frame our understanding of what we encounter in the world in terms of this choice.


Gardner, S (2009) Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, Continuum

International Publishing Group

Sartre, J.P (1969) Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel Barnes, London: Methuen

Sartre, J.P (2003) Being And Nothingness : An Essay On Phenomenological Ontology, n.p.: trans Hazel Barns, London : Routledge

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