The Encounter with Nothingness

(from J.-P. Sartre's Being and Nothingness)

The condition on which human reality [this is Sartre's translation of Heidegger's famous term Dasein, which many translate as "Being-there"] can deny [nier] all or part of the world is that human reality carry nothingness within itself as the nothing which separates its present from all its past. But this is still not all, for the nothing envisaged would not yet have the sense of nothingness; a suspension of being which would remain unnamed, which would not be consciousness of suspending being would come from outside consciousness and, by reintroducing opacity into the heart of this absolute lucidity, would have the effect of cutting [consciousness] in two. Furthermore this nothing would by no means be negative. Nothingness, as we have seen above, is the ground of the negation because it conceals the negation within itself, because it is the negation as being. It is necessary then that conscious being constitute itself in relation past as separated from this past by a nothingness. It [i.e., consciousness] must necessarily be conscious of this cleavage in being, but not as a phenomenon which it experiences, rather as a structure of consciousness which it is. Freedom is the human being putting his past out of play by secreting his own nothingness. It must be clearly understood that this original necessity of being its own nothingness doe not belong to consciousness intermittently and on the occasion of particular negations. This does not happen just at a particular moment in psychic life when negative or interrogative attitudes appear; consciousness continually experiences itself as the nihilation of its past being.

But someone doubtless will believe that he can use against us here an objection which we have frequently raised ourselves: if the nihilating consciousness exists only as consciousness of nihilation, we ought to be able to define and describe a constant mode of consciousness, present qua consciousness, which would be consciousness of nihilation. Does this [implicit] consciousness exist? Thus a new question has been raised: if freedom is the being of consciousness, consciousness ought to exist as consciousness of freedom. What form does this consciousness of freedom assume? In freedom the human being is his own past (as also his own future) in the form of nihilation. If our analysis has not led us astray, there ought to exist for the human being, insofar as he is conscious of being, a certain mode of standing opposite his past and his future as being both this past and this future and as not being them. We shall be able immediately to...reply to this question; it is in anguish that man becomes the consciousness of his freedom, or if you prefer, anguish is the mode of being of freedom as consciousness of being; it is in anguish that freedom is, in its being, in question for itself.

Kierkegaard describing anguish before sin characterizes it as anguish in the face of freedom. But Heidegger, who is known to have been greatly influenced by Kierkegaard, considers anguish instead as the apprehension of nothingness. These two descriptions of anguish do not appear to us contradictory; on the contrary the one implies the other.

First we must acknowledge that Kierkegaard is right; anguish is distinguished from fear in that fear is fear of beings-in-the-world whereas anguish is anguish before myself. Vertigo is anguish to the extent that I am not of falling over the precipice, but of throwing myself over. A situation provokes fear if there is a possibility of my life being changed from without; my being provokes anguish to the extent that I distrust myself and my own reactions in that situation. The artillery preparation which precedes the attack can provoke fear in the soldier who undergoes the bombardment, but his anguish begins when he tries to foresee the conduct with which he will face the bombardment, when he asks himself if he is going to be able to "hold out." Similarly the recruit who reports for active duty at the beginning of the war can in some instances be afraid of death, but more often he is "afraid of being afraid"; that is, he is filled with anguish before himself. Most of the time dangerous or threatening situations present themselves in different perspectives; they will be apprehended through a feeling of fear or of anguish according to whether we envisage the situation as acting on the man or the man as acting on the situation. The man who has just received a hard blow -- for example, losing a great part of his wealth in a crash -- can have the fear of threatening poverty. He will experience anguish a moment later when nervously wringing his hands (a symbolic reaction to the action which has occurred but which remains still wholly indeterminate), he exclaims to himself: "What am I going to do? But what am I going to do?" In this sense fear and anguish are mutually exclusive since fear is unreflective apprehension of the transcendent and anguish is reflective apprehension of the self; the one emerges from the destruction of the other. The normal process in the case which I have just cited is a constant transition from the one to the other. But there also exist situations where anguish appears pure; that is, without being preceded or followed by fear. If, for example, I have been raised to a new status and entrusted with a delicate and flattering mission, I can feel anguish at the thought that I will not be capable [i.e, morally capable] perhaps of fulfilling it, and yet I will not have the least fear in the world of the consequences of my possible failure.

What is the meaning of anguish in the various examples which I have just given? Let us take up again the example of vertigo. Vertigo announces itself through fear; I am on a narrow path -- without a guardrail --which goes along a precipice. The precipice presents itself to me as to be avoided; it represents a danger of death. At the same time I conceive of a certain number of causes, originating in universal determinism, which can transform that threat of death into reality; I can slip on a stone and fall into the abyss; the crumbling earth of the path can give way under my steps. Through these various anticipations, I am given to myself as a thing; I am passive in relation to these possibilities; they come to me from without; insofar as I am also an object in the world, subject to gravitation, they are my possibilities. At this moment fear appears, which in terms of the situation is the apprehension of myself as a destructible transcendent in the midst of transcendents, as an object which does not contain in itself the origin of its future disappearance. My reaction will be of the reflective order; I will pay attention to the stones in the road; I will keep myself as far as possible from the edge of the path. I realize myself as repudiating the threatening situation with all my strength, and I project before myself a certain number of future actions destined to keep the threats of the world at a distance from me. These actions are my possibilities. I escape fear by the very fact that I am placing myself on a plane where my own possibilities are substituted for the transcendent probabilities where human action had no place.

But these actions, precisely because they are my possibilities, do not appear to me as determined by alien causes. Not only is it not strictly certain that they will be effective; but also it is not strictly certain that they will be armed, for they do not have sufficient existence in themselves We could say, altering the expression of Berkeley, that their "being is a sustained-being" and that their "possibility of being is only an ought-to-be-sustained." Due to this fact their possibility has as a necessary condition the possibility of contradictory action (not to pay attention to the stones in the road, to run, to think of something else) and the possibility of the contrary action (to throw myself over the precipice). The possibility which I make my concrete possibility can appear as my possibility only by emerging on the ground of the totality of the logical possibilities which the situation allows. But these rejected possibles in turn have no other being than their "sustained-being"; it is I who sustain them in being, and inversely, their present non-being is an "ought-not-to-be-sustained." No external cause will remove them. I alone am the permanent source of their non-being, I engage myself in them; in order to cause my possibility to appear, I posit the other possibilities so as to nihilate them. This would not produce anguish if I could apprehend myself in my relations with these possibles as a cause producing its effects. In this case the effect defined as my possibility would be strictly determined. But then it would cease to be possible; it would become simply "due-to-happen [à-venir]." If then I wished to avoid anguish and vertigo, it would be enough if I were to consider the motives (instinct of self-preservation, prior fear, etc.), which make me reject the situation envisaged, as determining my prior activity in the same way that the presence at a determined point of one given mass determines the trajectories followed by other masses; it would be necessary, in other words, that I apprehend in myself a strict psychological determinism. But I am in anguish precisely because any action on my part is only possible, and this means that-- while constituting a set of motives for repudiating that situation, I at the same moment apprehend these motives as not sufficiently effective. At the very moment when I apprehend my being as horror of the precipice, I am conscious of that horror as non-determining in relation to my possible conduct. In one sense that horror calls for prudent action, and it is in itself an adumbration of that action; in another sense, it only posits the final evolution of that action as possible, precisely because I do not apprehend it as the cause of this final evolution but as a demand, an appeal, etc.

Now as we have seen, consciousness of being is the being of consciousness. There is no question here of contemplating afterwards a horror already constituted; it is the very being of horror to appear to itself as "not being the cause" of the conduct it calls for. In short, to avoid fear, which reveals to me a transcendent future strictly determined, I take refuge in reflection; but the latter has only an undetermined future to offer. This means that in establishing a certain action as a possibility and precisely because it is my possibility, I am aware that nothing can compel me to adopt that action. Yet I am indeed already there in the future; it is for the sake of that being which I will soon be at the turning of the path that I now exert all my strength, and in this sense there is already a relation between my future being and my present being. But a nothingness has slipped into the heart of this relation; I am not the self which I will be. First I am not that self because time separates me from it. Secondly, I am not that self because what I am is not the foundation of what I will be. Finally I am not that self because no actual existent can determine strictly what I am going to be. Yet as I am already what I will be (otherwise I would not be interested in being this rather than that), I am the self which I will be, in the mode of not being it. It is through my horror that I am carried toward the future, and the horror nihilates itself in that it constitutes the future as possible. Anguish is precisely my consciousness of being my own future, in the mode of not-being. To be exact, the nihilation of horror as a motive [i.e., as a determining cause], which has the effect of reinforcing horror as a state [i.e., as an effect], has as its positive counterpart the appearance of other forms of conduct (in particular that which consists in throwing myself over the precipice) as my possible possibilities. If nothing compels me to save my life, nothing prevents me from throwing myself into the abyss. The decisive conduct will emanate from a self which I am not yet. Thus the self which I am depends on the self which I am not yet to the exact extent that the self which I am not yet does not depend on the self which I am. Vertigo appears as the apprehension of this dependence. I approach the abyss, and it is myself that I am looking for in its depths. At this moment, I am playing with my possibilities. My eyes, surveying the abyss from top to bottom, imitate my possible fall and realize it symbolically; at the same time suicide, from the fact that it becomes a possibility possible for me, now provides possible motives for adopting it (suicide would make my anguish cease). Fortunately these motives in their turn, from the sole fact that they are motives for a possible action, present themselves as ineffective, as non-determining; they can no more produce [i.e., cause] the suicide than my horror of the fall can determine me to avoid it. It is this counter-anguish which generally puts an end to anguish by transmuting it into indecision. Indecision, in its turn, calls for decision. I abruptly get away from the edge of the precipice and resume my way.

The example which we have just analyzed has shown us what we could call "anguish in the face of the future." There exists another: anguish in the face of the past. It is that of the gambler [joueur] who has freely and sincerely decided not to gamble anymore and who, when he approaches the gaming table, suddenly sees all his resolutions melt away. This phenomenon has often been described as if the sight of the gaming table reawakened in us a tendency which entered into conflict with our former resolution and ended by drawing us in spite of it. Such a description is a description of things, and peoples the mind with opposing forces (there is, for example, the moralists' famous "struggle of reason with the passions"). Furthermore, it does not account for the facts. In reality-the letters of Dostoevsky bear witness to this -- there is nothing in us which resembles an inner debate as if we had to weigh motives and incentives before deciding. The earlier resolution of "not playing any more" is always there, and in the majority of cases the gambler, when in the presence of the gaming table, turns toward it as if to ask it for help; for he does not wish to play, or rather having taken his resolution the day before, he thinks of himself still as not wishing to play anymore; he believes in the effectiveness of this resolution. But what he apprehends then in anguish is precisely the total inefficacy of the past resolution. It is there doubtless but congealed, ineffectual, transcended by the very fact that I am conscious of it. The resolution is still me to the extent that I realize constantly my identity with myself across the temporal flux, but it is no longer me -- due to the fact that it has become an object for my consciousness. I am not subject to it, it fails in the mission which I have given it. The resolution is there still, I am it in the mode of not-being. What the gambler apprehends at this instant is again the permanent rupture with determinism; it is nothingness which separates him from himself; I should have liked so much not to gamble any more; yesterday I even had a synthetic apprehension of the situation (threatening ruin, disappointment of my relatives) as forbidding me to play. It seemed to me that I had established a real barrier between gambling and myself, and now I suddenly perceive that my former understanding of the situation is no more than a memory of an idea, a memory of a feeling. In order for it to come to my aid once more, I must remake it ex nihilo and freely. The not-gambling is only one of my possibilities, as the fact of gambling is another of them, neither more nor less. I must rediscover the fear of financial ruin or of disappointing my family, etc., I must re-create it as experienced fear. It stands behind me like a boneless phantom. It depends on me alone to lend it my flesh. I am alone and naked before temptation as I was the day before. After having patiently built up dams and walls, after enclosing myself in the magic circle of a resolution, I perceive with anguish that nothing prevents me from gambling. The anguish is me since by the very fact of taking my position in existence as consciousness of being, I make myself not to be the past of good resolutions which I am.

It would be vain to object that the sole condition of this anguish is ignorance of the underlying psychological determinism. According to such a view my anxiety would come from lack of knowing the real and effective incentives which in the darkness of the unconscious determine my action. In reply we shall point out first that anguish has not appeared to us as a proof of human freedom; the latter was given to us as the necessary condition for the question. We wished only to show that there exists a specific consciousness of freedom, and we wished to show that this consciousness is anguish. This means that we wished to establish anguish in its essential structure as consciousness of freedom. Now from this point of view the existence of a psychological determinism could not invalidate the results of our description. Either anguish is actually an ignorance (of which we are ignorant) of this determinism -- and then anguish apprehends itself in fact as freedom -- or else one may claim that anguish is consciousness of being ignorant of the real causes of our acts. In the latter case anguish would come from a presentiment, hidden deep within ourselves, of monstrous motives which would suddenly trigger guilty acts. But in this case we should suddenly appear to ourselves as things-in-the-world; we should be to ourselves our own transcendent situation. Then anguish would disappear to give way to feat, for fear is a synthetic apprehension of the transcendent as threatening.

This freedom which reveals itself to us in anguish can be characterized by the existence of that nothing which insinuates itself between [allegedly causal] motives and act. It is not because I am free that my act is not of subject to the determination of motives; on the contrary; the structure of motives as ineffective is the condition of my freedom. If someone asks what this nothing is which provides a foundation for freedom, we shall reply that we cannot describe it since it is not, but we can at least suggest its meaning by saying that this nothing is made-to-be by the human being in his relation with himself. The nothing here corresponds to the necessity for the motive to appear as motive only as a correlate of a consciousness of motive. In short, as soon as we abandon the hypothesis of [thing-like] contents of consciousness, we must recognize that there is never a motive in consciousness; motives are only for consciousness. And due to the very fact that the motive can emerge only as appearance, it constitutes itself as ineffective. Of course it does not have the externality of a temporal-spatial thing; it always belongs to subjectivity and it is apprehended as mine. But it is by nature transcendence in immanence, and consciousness escapes it because of the very fact that consciousness posits it; for consciousness has now the task of conferring on the motive its meaning and its importance. Thus the nothing which separates the motive from consciousness characterizes itself as transcendence in immanence. It is producing itself as immanence that consciousness nihilates the nothing which makes consciousness exist for itself as transcendence. But we see that the nothingness which is the condition of all transcendent negation can be elucidated only in terms of two other original nihilations:(1) Consciousness is not its own motive inasmuch as it [consciousness] is empty of all content. This refers us to a nihilating structure of the pre-reflective cogito. (2) Consciousness confronts its past and its future as facing a self which it is in the mode of not-being. This involves a nihilating structure of temporality....

Freedom, manifesting itself through anguish, is characterized by a constantly renewed obligation to remake the self which designates the free being. As a matter of fact, when we showed earlier that my possibilities were agonizing because it depended on me alone to sustain them in their existence, that did not mean that they derived from a Me which to itself, at least, would first be given and would then pass in the temporal flux from one consciousness to another consciousness. The gambler who must realize anew the synthetic apperception of a situation which would forbid him to play, must re-invent at the same time the self which can evaluate that situation which "is in situation." This self with its a priori [i.e., pre-established set of beliefs, attitutudes, etc.]] and historical content is the essence of man. Anguish as the manifestation of freedom in the face of self means that man is always separated by a nothingness from his essence. We should refer here to Hegel's statement: Wesen ist was gewesen ist. Essence is what has been. Essence is everything in the human being which we can indicate by the words "that is." Due to this fact it is the totality of characteristics which explain the act. But the act is always beyond that essence; it is a human act only insofar as it transcends every explanation which we can give of it, precisely because everything about man that can be designated by the formula "that is" has been.