Human freedom has been a constantly discussed subject over the last century. In schools, students are taught that freedom is one of life’s pillars. It is for this reason that freedom has been redefined a number of times by various contributors. One of the people who have forwarded their own definition of freedom is French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. In his book “Being and Nothingness”, Sartre expresses his views on what consists of human freedom and lays down the frameworks of his definition.
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In a summary definition Sartre divides his philosophy into two, “for-itself” and the “in-itself”. The “for-itself” is simply the definition that takes into account the conscious part of human beings. The in-itself takes into consideration the non-conscious part of human beings. According to Sartre, even though these two divisions seem separate, they are linked in the sense that the “for-itself” is just a part of the “in-itself”.
Sartre continues to explain that freedom is the central factor in human beings and it is permanently connected to the “for-itself” or consciousness. Accordingly, even if it seems like an unconventional idea, human beings are always free. The notion that there are scenarios in which this freedom can fail to be exercised is therefore untrue. In the end, Sartre’s definition of freedom is that it is the mode of being conscious. This freedom is the one that provides a new manner of looking at things.
For Sartre’s philosophy to be understood, its foundation has to be explained. The foundation of this theory is the existence of the conscious and the non-conscious. Sartre describes “consciousness as the state of being conscious of something” (Sartre 214). Therefore, consciousness can only exist in relation to something that makes one conscious.
It is then easy to question how consciousness can exist if it is by itself nothing. To answer this, Sartre put forward a scenario in which someone sees a table but is instead conscious of his/her own aura. This means just by being in existence and being conscious of things around us, there is a consciousness already.
Freedom as defined by Sartre has played a major role in the day-to-day lives of human beings. In his philosophical view, “through freedom, we continually choose our goal, or project, and it is this choice that controls the way that we interpret the objects that we deal with in everyday life” (Sartre 626). Our consciousness is always evaluating projects and choices in relation to the end result. For instance, if someone wanted to climb a rock wall and another one wanted to photograph it.
The climber would focus more on the steepness while the photographer would be concerned with the wall’s color and texture. The freedom of human beings is realized only in relation to the end project chosen by the conscious elements. Therefore, as human beings we do not have any knowledge of how much our freedom contributes to our final decisions. The only thing that is clear is that freedom played a part.
This brings up another important philosophical question. The question is just how much responsibility human beings have in shaping their lives, and the possibility of oppressing people who already have freedom. Sartre’s model of freedom excludes the existence of a standard by which human beings can measure themselves.
This is because such a standard would make it possible for them to “fail” in life. According to Sartre, there are no fixed measures of success or failure. For instance, if an alcoholic man sits down and thinks about the way he is not living up to his potential, he is simply not exercising his freedom.
This is because the man can reposition this freedom in a manner that aligns with his current situation. There is no put-down standard that specifies that he should be a successful businessman or realtor. The notion that he is not living up to his potential is just a belief he holds. If he was to exercise his freedom, he can be comfortable with his life as an alcoholic. Sartre’s description of freedom exempts an individual from responsibility and accountability from his/her actions.
This line of thinking can be instrumental in explaining oppression. Oppression is described as a scenario in which an individual is unable to exercise his/her freedom. An oppressed person cannot speak freely or even escape. According to Sartre, such a state does not have any effect on someone’s freedom. People are fundamentally free in spite of their situation. In order to affect a person’s freedom, you have to affect his existence, which is tantamount to killing him/her (Sartre 346).
Sartre’s explanation of freedom seems to raise a few controversies. For a start, he seems to assert that human beings are not responsible for their actions. His definition of freedom as the ability to wish for something someone wants also raises questions. However, the freedom Sartre is defining seems to be existential freedom. Not all types of freedoms are covered in this case. His definition also allows his audience to understand that the way one sees things presently is directly related to how someone views the future.
Sartre on Human Character
Character is made up of several traits that a particular person possesses. Traits on the other hand are a person’s tendencies to feel and behave in a certain way. Examples of character traits are honesty and bravery.
The tendencies to act in an honest manner or act bravely in times of danger are some traits that can be found in one person. A collection of traits makes up a character. Other such traits include hating being alone or having stage fright. To most people traits are not an individual’s choice. Therefore, if an individual is talkative, it is not his choice to be talkative.
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In this same way, if an in individual has stage fright it is not because he/she chose to have it. This is why even individuals are not apologetic about their traits. Most philosophers including Aristotle agree that traits cannot be changed. However, Jean-Paul Sartre disagrees with this notion. According to him, a person’s traits are as a result of the projects he/she has been involved in when trying to fit into his/her environment. Therefore, Sartre’s view is that a particular environment can change a person’s traits.
In his book “Being and Nothingness”, Sartre had defined character traits as dispositions that make one act in a certain manner. However, it was his understanding that these traits cannot influence someone’s behavior. His emphasis is on the difference between inclination and determination of behaviors. Traits incline an individual towards some actions but cannot determine them. This is one of the claims forwarded by Sartre in his theory of freedom.
Later on Sartre forwarded another theory that like the first one covers human behavior. This theory is often referred to as Sartre’s theory of character. Before delving into this theory, it is important to understand how Sartre views the role of character traits. When explaining this theory, Sartre uses two terms, “mobile” and “motif”. Mobile refers to a fact about an agent that can be attributed to a specific action.
Motif on the other hand refers to a fact about the environment of an agent that can be referenced when explaining an action. For instance, to explain why I washed the car one can use a motif and say that the car was dirty or it appeared so to me. Alternatively, one can employ a mobile and say that I just wanted the car to be clean. The “motif” in this case is a rationalization of an action while a “mobile” just explains the desires that make one act in a certain way.
Using the terminologies above, Sartre explains that all actions can be explained in terms of a motif or a mobile. Using this line of thinking, Sartre explains that an individual’s traits are what he/she projects to the rest of the world. This projection is what shapes expectations from the rest of the world for an individual to act in a certain manner. It is therefore safe to declare that traits are not dependent actions that make up a person, but rather an organization of actions influenced by environmental and day-to-day encounters.
This organization reflects individuals’ aims. For instance, an individual can act bravely in order to ensure survival. This means that what makes the individual organized in a brave manner is because the environment he/she is in requires it. For Sartre, character traits are not elements that cannot be changed through choice. It is the environment and circumstances that make it seem so.
Sartre’s theory of character and character traits has attracted a lot of commentary over the years. There are those who see some good points in it and there are those who dismiss it in its entirety. In my view, Sartre’s theory does not hold any water. It is a theory that lacks substantive claims and follow-ups. The first apparent weakness in this theory is that it is a philosophical theory that incorporates metaphysics. Some of these metaphysics seem a bit overstretched. The other weakness is in the way Sartre dismisses the role of responsibility in shaping of a person’s character. This theory is well explained in paper but its practical application makes little to no sense.
In explaining his theory of freedom, Sartre says, “existence precedes essence”. When interpreted, this view produces two outrageous explanations. The first is that an individual does not have a behavior-determining essence. The second is that human nature is non-existent.
Both of these interpretations point towards a misplaced philosophy. There was also no subsequent work on Sartre’s philosophy that sought to justify these views. According to Sartre, one can change his/her character traits as he/she chooses new projects in life. The question is what agent drives a person to change these projects. This is not addressed in Sartre’s work and it nullifies this claim.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness, Washington D.C: Washington Square Press, 1984. Print.