Quora Answer: What is the difference between being-in-itself, being-for-itself, and being-for-others, according to Sartre?

Oct 18 2014

Sartre is famously said to have misunderstood Heidegger in Being and Nothingness and Heidegger rejected Sartrean Existentialism in Letter on Humanism. However, given the fact that Being and Time essentially goes back to Hegel in order to escape Husserl’s overwhelming presence in Heidegger’s mind along with the phenomenological reading of Aristotle, it may be that Sartre was closer to the truth than many admit when he uses quasi-Hegelian terms to interpret Heidegger. The reappraisal starts with: Sartre: The Philosopher of the Twentieth Century: Bernard-Henri Levy: 9780745630090: Amazon.com: Books.

What is interesting is that Sartre’s inversion of Heidegger’s philosophy of Being into Nothingness was very prescient in as much as it predated the frenzy in Physics over black holes but essentially builds a philosophical model of a black hole at the center of consciousness. We can think of Being-in-itself as what is within the black hole. Being-for-itself as the event horizon, and being-for-others is what is outside the blackhole. The ground of consciousness is groundless and that produces this dynamic of nothing called nothingness. This is like the Process Being (ready-to-hand) of Heidegger. But for Heidegger Pure Being (present-at-hand) and Process Being form a monolith because the different modes of Being are eqi-primordial. M. Henry criticizes this ontological monism of early Heidegger.

Sartre has a radical dualism between what is within the blackhole underlying consciousness (bieng-in-itself) and what is out-side the blackhole which is (being-for-others) and the dynamic of nothingness by which experience is a falling into this black hole creating the being-for-itself of consciousness in the process. As things become nothing they are a dynamic nothingness which is the negative self-ungrounding of consciousness, which Sartre takes as the meaning of existentialism, i.e. that existence comes before essence. For Heidegger on the other hand the ecstasy of exi-stance (standing outside of oneself) is precisely what defines dasein. Exi-stance is the projection of the a priori prior to the split between subject and object for Heidegger. Dasein is at first lost in the mists of the Mitsein and has to separate itself from that in order to Be what it is, i.e. the source of the meaning of being for itself. We could naively equate being-in-itself with Sense Certainty in Hegel, and Being-for-itself with Self-consciousness, and Being-for-others with Spirit. But that skips over the creative use of the Hegelian terms that Sartre appears to employ. Schopenhauer, contra Hegel, recognized that the Wille is the noumena in man himself. And this profoundly changes the simple equation by introducing the unknown into the equation. Sartre sees being-in-itself as materiality. But it can also be seen as the unconscious which is a deep well underneath consciousness. Once we see that we have being-in-itself both inside us and outside us, then we are ready to think of our relation to the mitsein differently. The mitsein supplies what we need to be human as Heidegger recognizes, and Sartre emphasizes and it is also the source of inauthenticity and false consciousness. We come to treat being-for-others as if it were being-in-itself which is a fundamental mistake of objectifying others producing alienation.

Existentialism is about radical freedom in each instance and how we create the meaning in our lives and we don’t have to take that meaning from anyone else. In a sense it is a radicalization of Nietzsche’s idea of free-spirit. Everyone is already a free spirit but just does not know it yet. We reify by being too immersed in Being-for-others and by reifying others into material objects. These are like the two Parmedian failse ways. The only true way is being-for-itself which is self-consciousness but that is ungrounded, but also unverifiable, because consciousness is not just founded over an abyss of groundlessness but is in fact the implosion of that groundlessness as nothingness, the infalling into the black hole at the center of consciousness which renders things to our self-consciousness.

It is really an amazing and tantalizing picture as things that are nothing fall into the groundlessness of consciousness and vanish within it into the being-in-itself which is our materiality. They are subject to our self-consciousness for only a moment as they realize their nothingness which is self-negating dynamic. Positive meaning is realized in the moment of the dynamic nothingness of everything being realized on a moment by moment basis. This dynamic negation is what frees us from the chains of convention, and prior interpretations of things. In a way we could see this as a precursor to the deconstruction of Derrida. It is this nothingness as a dynamic that destroys meaning which is for Sartre the thing that allows us to create our own meanings giving us radical freedom to at any moment change who we are. This is the antipode of the Process Being of Heidegger, as recognized by Merleau-Ponty who defines Hyper Being as the Hyper Dialectic between Being (ala Heidegger) and Nothingness (ala Sartre). Hyper Being is Differance seen as an expansion of Being-in-the-world. Being-in-itself is closure to the world. Being-for-itself is a reflexive move that makes us aware of what is closed  in the context of the intersubjective immersion, i.e. Being for others. We stand naked before the gaze of others. But they cannot see our Being-in-itself. Our own materiality hides the nothing within us from the materiality of others outside us which are also nothing. Only in the moment of self-consciousness are we released from that materiality momentarily by the realization of the groundlessness of everything which makes nothing though a dynamic nothingness of everything. But for that very reason we can positively create meaning ourselves, and thus the negative moments and their dynamic relation are just there to define he positive moment of creativity which is positive but remains groundless because it is merely a spark over an abyss.

This is from memory, in a far away time when I studied Sartre fairly deeply. This may be just a fantasy, now. I often thought that Sartre needs to be reconsidered based on the Hegelianism of Heidegger. Sartre’s misreading of Heidegger may be closer to the mark that we have imagined so far. But by far the better book by Sartre is Critique of Dialectical Reason and his discussion of the fused group as the substrate beyond all reified institutions. Merleau-Ponty was truer to Heidegger in his rendering present-at-hand as pointing and ready-to-hand as grasping in Phenomenology of Perception. Merleau-Ponty goes on to discover the other two kinds of Being: i.e. Hyper and Wild. Sartre’s attempt to make Marxism relevant by crossing it with this strange reading of Heidegger, as caused him to fall from favor. But he could be read as a proto-deconstructionist.

We could read the in-itself as Ultra Being. If we did that we would take Heidegger seriously when he says that Being is no-thing, and so what is inside or outside is no-thing, but the falling into the black hole of the Abyss of groundlessness would be the dynamic of Process Being inverted as its antimony. This would make Being for others into Pure Being. The differance would be between the two false paths of Being-in-itself of materiality, which is unconscious as well. and Being-for-others. So Hyper Being would be the difference between Being-for-itself and Being-for-others. We are either immersed in the Mitsein or we are reified and alientated as objects by others. This is like the difference between the It and Thou of Buber. Wild Being would then be what separates the two kinds of false path from the real path of self-consciousness (being-for-itself) which is reflexive. It lifts us out of the Mitsein and at the same time allows us to de-objectify ourselves which is the projection of others on us. So the whole basis of Sartre’s philosophy is to give us freedom to change things radically. He attempts to reconcile materiality and the unconscious and show us that self-consciousness is the path of liberation.

As I remember there is also the synthesis of being-in-and-for-itself. This brings up the question why there is not being-in-and-for-others as a counter synthesis? And of course it brings up why there is no being-with as in Heidegger’s mitsein. See Being-In, Being-For, Being-With: Clark E. Moustakas: 9781568215372: Amazon.com: Books. As I remember there is no being-in-the-other for Sartre. And Being-with does not play a role which is the important intermediary position that Heidegger recognizes. Thus there is an asymmetry in relations in Sartre who concentrates on two sorts of alienating relations rather than just inauthenticity that Heidegger discusses. There are then without the asymmetry six relations when you pair up the in, for, and with to the division between self and others. Better to explore the whole field. We are literally are “in” others when we are in the womb. Being with is an intermediate category between materiality and the unconscious of the In-itself and pure For-itself of self-consciousness and reflexivity. Heidegger is always trying to get to the point prior to the subject-object dichotomy as a dualism arises. Sartre does not get this at all. For Sartre the individual as existential being is always self-conscious. But can fall into materiality/unconscious of the in-itself, or into being-for-others where we are alienated by their gaze. What he misses appears to be the fact that there is a being-in-others literally, and then a being-in-the-family which is close knit and organic immersion when we are children. But then there is also a looser immersion of being-with. What is normally missed is the idea of Being-with-ourselves as the opposite of Being-with-others, that Moustakas is sensitive to, when we are with ourselves in solitude rather than alone.

One good way to get a picture of the underlying assumptions of existentialism is to look at Existence And Love;: A New Approach in Existential Phenomenology: William Alan Sadler: Amazon.com: Books. Sadler notes that existentialism concentrates on the individual and visual perception is taken as the primary metaphor. On the other hand if we take sound as the primary analogy then we can see that there are states in which individual isolation is not the major theme. Of course, Sadler uses romantic love as his example which is unfortunate. See Coming to Our Senses: Morris Berman: 9780553348637: Amazon.com: Books for a critique of Romantic Love. AlsoLove and Limerence: The Experience of Being in Love: Dorothy Tennov: 9780812862867: Amazon.com: Books. Note also Eros the Bittersweet: Anne Carson: 9781564781888: Amazon.com: Books.

So we can see that Sartre’s existentialism has many distortions built in and although it was exciting at the time, it has lost favor as time has gone by due to the extreme position that it took toward meaning production by individuals who realize in their self-consciousness that they are utterly free to create themselves as they see fit so as to break from society and also to de-reify themselves so that they are not objects. The pure for-itself of self-consciousness as complete freedom in existence beyond the projections of Being as essence is seen as a negative dynamic of the in-falling of experience into the black hole of the in-itself from the for-others. It is really quite an amazing vision, especially when you pair it up with the fascination with Black Holes in physics which was to come later as a philosophical precursor. Another way of looking at it is via The Stone Monkey: An Alternative, Chinese-Scientific, Reality: Bruce Holbrook: 9780688006655: Amazon.com: Books. All illness in the Chinese medical system occurs when we depart from the natural rolling over of opposites in the combinations of Yin and Yang, through the generation of Yang Splendor or Closed Yin. We can see the self projection of the a priori of Dasein as yang splendor, and the falling into nothingness within consciousness as a version of closed yin. As Merleau-Ponty recognizes these are antimonic duals. It is out of these two antimonies that he generates Hyper Being as the possibility of the expansion of being-in-the-world. Which then makes possible the idea that being-in-the-world could also contract giving us Wild Being.

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