Sartre’s exposition of the superfluousness of things found in the municipal park scene in Nausea gives us the foundation for his realism. The experience of nausea is however far from ordinary and the literary style in which it is described makes it difficult to grasp all the philosophical implications. In Nausea, the protagonist exclaims that: “Existence is not something which allows itself to be thought of from a distance; it has to invade you suddenly” (Sartre 2000: 189). We do, however, find a more systematic exposition in later writings. It can be found primarily in the introduction to Being and Nothingness and we find another description in the article “Consciousness of Self and Knowledge of Self”. Apart from these philosophical treatises, we also find the position described in a nutshell in “What is Literature?”:
Each of our perceptions is accompanied by the consciousness that human reality is a ‘revealer’, that is, it is through human reality that ‘there is’ being, or, to put it differently, that man is the means by which things are manifested. It is our presence in the world which multiplies relations. It is we who set up a relationship between this tree and that bit of sky. Thanks to us, that star which has been dead for millennia, that quarter moon, and that dark river are disclosed in the unity of a landscape. It is the speed of our car and our aeroplane which organizes the great masses of the earth. With each of our acts, the world reveals to us a new face. But, if we know that we are directors of being, we also know that we are not its producers. If we turn away from this landscape, it will sink back into its dark permanence. At least, it will sink back; there is no one mad enough to think that it is going to be annihilated. It is we who shall be annihilated, and the earth will remain in its lethargy until another consciousness comes along to awaken it. Thus, to our inner certainty of being ‘revealers’ is added that of being inessential in relation to the thing revealed. (Sartre 1988: 48).
Here, Sartre gives a more concise description of the ideas already present in Nausea. The meaningful world which we experience only exists in interaction between us and the world. Although we are what Sartre calls the ‘directors of being,’ we are not its producers. Sartre deems a non-realist position to be absurd. Although things can show their different faces because of our presence, there is still a thing required outside of our experience which can reveal itself. Furthermore, Sartre once again stresses that the relationships between things are inessential to them: they are imposed upon them by us. This once again stresses that every thing exists on its own and overflows definite characteristics and relationships.
Before we turn to Being and Nothingness, it is important to note that when Sartre uses the term realism in this work, he refers to representational realism. This is the epistemological position that when we experience things, we do so via representations of these things in our consciousness. Sartre is very much opposed to this position and defends the idea that we experience the things themselves. In a letter to De Beauvoir, Sartre calls his position ‘an absolute neo-realism’ (Sartre 1993: 43).
With this in mind, let us turn to the introduction of Being and Nothingness. The introduction of this work immediately starts from the phenomenological principle of appearing, ‘the phenomenon’. This seems to be another phrasing of the idea of intentionality (Sartre 2018: 22). It seems that he considers this idea to be simply true and adequately developed by his predecessors. He takes it as his axiom for the ontological system he starts out to develop in Being and Nothingness. Sartre aims to find the ontological consequences of the idea that we directly experience the things outside of our own consciousness. In what manner can we say that things exist and that which experiences these things, consciousness, exists? We will not delve into the details concerning the latter. It suffices to say that Sartre deduces two absolute modes of being from the phenomenon. The being-for-itself of consciousness, and the being-in-itself of things. As we are primarily interested in the question of how things exist outside of consciousness, we will focus on the latter.
The phenomenon eliminates a number of dualisms that appear throughout the philosophical tradition. An important one is the Kantian duality between the thing as it appears and the being behind the appearance:
The phenomenon remains relative because its ‘appearing’ necessarily implies someone to whom it appears. […] It does not indicate, behind its shoulder some true being, a being that is itself the absolute. It is what it is absolutely, because it is disclosed as it is. (Sartre 2018: 2)
The idea of intentionality simply implies that the object of consciousness (save for the case of reflection) is given in our experience. That does mean that there is no true being hidden behind the experience, but it does not adequately answer the question concerning the being of this thing. What is its mode of being? In order to answer this question, Sartre turns to a new kind of dualism, that between ‘the finite and the infinite’ (Sartre 2018: 4). Although the phenomenon is an appearance of a thing, it never reveals itself fully. In the case of visual perception, we quite literally only see one side of a thing and have to walk around it to see the other side. Things can always be revealed to us in a different light, literally and figuratively. The ways in which an object can manifest itself is infinite: although a thing may appear in a way that is almost identical to which it has appeared before, it will be accompanied by a feeling of familiarity and will therefore have a different meaning to us. As we already mentioned in the previous section when we mentioned the inexhaustibility of things: things can never be exhausted, we can never experience everything there is to experience about them. This is what the distinction between the finite and infinite refers to: an appearance of a thing is always finite, but the ways in which it could appear is infinite.
This is in turn only possible because the series of appearances is ‘connected by a principle that does not depend on my whim’ (Sartre 2018: 4). The fact that the multiple appearances of a thing are indeed appearances of the same thing cannot be attributed to consciousness. When I walk around something and see it from multiple angles, it is given in the experience that it is the same object. The principle of the series of appearances of a thing is what Sartre calls an essence. This essence, however, is also not something that is somehow behind the series: “an essence, understood as the principle of a series, is no more than the connection between appearances – which means it is itself an appearance” (Sartre 2018: 3). This point is important. Although the essence is the principle that ties all the appearances of a series together, it is itself something that can appear to us, for example when we actively think about the fact that the tree we saw yesterday is the same one we see today. Therefore, the question of the being of the appearance is not yet answered, we still need to account for the being of the essence. In other words, the essence is the principle of the series, but we still need to account for the existence of the series as a whole. Sartre describes the distinction between essence and being in Consciousness of Self and Knowledge of Self:
[I]t is very evident that the essence does not exist with regard to the object in the way that being does with regard to the phenomenon. Indeed, essence is the ground of the series of appearances of the phenomenon. Essence is that which permits me to join synthetically—the fact that, when I open this book, I see characters in it, the fact that when I pick it up, it has weight, the fact that if I burn it, it gives off smoke—all this must be reunited synthetically by the synthetic connection of the appearances: that is what I shall call the essence. (Sartre 1967: 120)
This description of the essence of an object is clear: it is that which makes us able to join certain appearances of the same object together as appearances of that object. As said, this is given in experience. When I hold a book in my hand, feel its weight and see the words written in it, it is given in the experience that both appearances are of the same book. This is quite different for being, which never reveals itself. Sartre immediately continues his description of the difference between essence and being:
On the contrary, when it's a question of the contrary of being, one maintains that being accompanies all the appearances of an object. It is not different in each of these appearances. The appearance does not disguise it, no more does it reveal it. If I cut this book into little pieces, if the fancy takes me, there will be as much being in each of the pieces as in the book. When I give it another form by burning it or in compiling from it, it will always have as much being in each of its manifestations. A division to infinity or a transformation will not reveal the book to me in a better way, nor will it hide it from me. (Sartre 1967: 120)
Here, the fundamental difference between essence and being is described by Sartre. The essence is what binds the appearances of a series together, but that does not reveal anything about the being of theses appearances. We are here also reminded of the swarm of things: a book may be the same book when it is torn to pieces, but each piece is itself also an object. All these objects have an essence that binds them together. All these things are given to us as existing, but the being of them does not itself appear. However, it is also not disguised in the sense that there is somehow a being behind the object. Being can never appear because it is that which makes objects able to appear:
The being is something which I cannot grasp in its being, except as a phenomenon originating from the object which is presented. Being is that which makes the object appear. Each object is on a foundation of being. Each appearance has a being. But the being cannot in any case be reduced to appearance. (Sartre 1967: 120)
This means that there is nothing behind the series of appearances which supports its being. Thus, we must instead search for its ‘transphenomenal foundation’ (Sartre 2018: 7). In the introduction of Being and Nothingness, Sartre discusses two of those transphenomenal foundations. One of them is the being of consciousness, the for-itself and the other one is the being of things, the in-itself. In short, a phenomenon requires something to which it appears, consciousness, and something which appears, a thing. Again, we will not go into the details considering the for-itself here. It suffices to say that Sartre’s argument is rooted in his account of intentionality. Intentionality according to him means that consciousness is nothing but a relationship to a thing and can therefore not exist on its own. Therefore, the for-itself depends on the in-itself:
Consciousness is consciousness of something: therefore transcendence is a constitutive structure of consciousness, which is to say that consciousness is born bearing on a being that it is not. Let us call this the ontological proof. […] Naturally, this being is nothing other than the transphenomenal being of phenomena and not a noumenal being hiding behind them. Consciousness implies the being of this table, of this package of tobacco, of the lamp and more generally, the being of the world. Consciousness requires simply that the being of that which appears does not exist only in so far as it appears. (Sartre 2018: 22f.).
Here, we see once again that the transphenomenal being is not a general monolithic mass of being, with Sartre stressing the being of each individual object around him. This would be a noumenal being hiding behind the objects. Instead, he clearly states that all things that appear to consciousness have a transphenomenal dimension to them. However, as the being is transphenomenal, literally ‘beyond appearing,’ we cannot describe it as one would describe a thing. We can, however, deduce its meaning (Sartre 2018: 24). Although Sartre uses the term meaning here, it still seems to be in continuation with the experience of Nausea: we can experience the limits of experience and being can reveal itself, but because being is that which escapes our conceptual apparatus, it remains impossible to describe it in full. This does not mean however that we cannot give a general description of characteristics that it should have.
In this context, Sartre also seems to distance himself a little from Nausea, when he says that in order to give a phenomenological account of being, that “Being will be disclosed to us through some immediate means of access (boredom, nausea, etc.)” (Sartre 2018: 6). This description will only give an account of the phenomenon of being, which as it is itself a phenomenon, does not answer the question of the being of phenomena. One must still pose the question of the being of the phenomenon of being. Hence, the description Sartre gave in Nausea is not wrong per se, as Sartre still thinks that being can disclose itself in special experiences. However, in the context of ontological inquiry, this is not enough to constitute evidence for the nature of being outside of our experience.
Sartre gives three characteristics of being-in-itself: being is itself, being is what it is, and being is (Sartre 2018: 29). These characteristics are indeed very general and may sound similar and perhaps even obvious, but Sartre tries to convey something quite nuanced. The first one, ‘being is itself,’ means that it is not rooted in something else (Sartre 2018: 26). It is truly an absolute, because if another being would support it, then this being would require another being to support it. We have already discussed this at length: there is nothing behind the being of things.
The second characteristic, ‘being is what it is,’ means that it has no relationships within itself. Another way to say this is that it completely coincides with itself. This characteristic easily falls prey to the monolithic misinterpretation of being-in-itself, for Sartre describes it as ‘massive’ (Sartre 2018: 28). It is important to note that the English word massive and the French word massif have similar meanings but also different connotations. Both have to do with mass and size, but the French word can also mean solid in the sense of an object consisting of only one kind of material. For example, in the sense that we speak about a solid, wooden chair. It is this meaning that Sartre is tending to: being-in-itself is solid. This is also how the word is translated in the older translation of Being and Nothingness by Hazel Barnes. Sartre does not mean this in the material sense, but in the sense that it has no different components or parts in any sense. This characteristic follows the same logic as the first one: if being-in-itself consisted of parts, then these parts needed to exist in some way and hence we would have to answer the question concerning their being once again. Therefore, it is solidly being and nothing else. Sartre also calls this the opacity of being and states that “Being-in-itself has no inside that could be opposed to and outside” (Sartre 2018: 28).
Another important aspect of the second characteristic is that “the in-itself has no secret” (Sartre 2018: 28). This formulation seems strange in regard to the idea that being is superfluous and inexhaustible. It seems that Sartre says that being is shrouded in secrecy. We can in principle never know anything about a thing and hence it always seems to have secret aspects to us. This is true, a specific being always has secrets to us, but it is not its being that is secret. In other words, although to exist in-itself means that a thing is inexhaustible by our experience of it, we have discovered that this is the way in which it exists. This mode of existence of being superfluous has no further secrets when it comes to its being. To put it simply: it is no secret that every thing exists in such a way that it has secret aspects to us. These secrets aspects, however, are not a part of its mode of being, as being-in-itself is solidly being.
Furthermore, this opacity relates to the relationship between different beings. Sartre states that “being is isolated in its being, and maintains no relationship with anything else” (Sartre 2018: 28). Again, we must understand this in the sense that the being of each thing has no relationship to itself or other things. The fact that a book consists of pages does not mean that the being of the book depends on the being of the pages. The book may rest on a shelf, but the being of the book does not rest on the being of the shelf. Each exists in isolation in this regard.
This is very much in line with Nausea and the example of the swarm of things: relationships between things and also between perceived parts of those things have to do with our conceptual demarcations. Being is ‘full positivity,’ and does allow for any demarcations which imply negativity (Sartre 2018: 28). This is addressed again by Sartre much later in the book, in a section called ‘On Determination as Negation’ (Sartre 2018: 255). Here he states that “its [the for-itself] presence is what makes it the case that there is a ‘this one’ rather than a ‘that one’” (Sartre 2018: 255). It is the presence of consciousness that allows for negativity. Sartre adds to this that totality is also something that can only come to being through consciousness. The judgment that “this is everything that exists” implies that someone accounted for all beings and judged that there is nothing beside those beings. A totality of beings is not the same as the endless plurality of beings. Hence: “the for-itself can make it the case that there is an all, and that there are ‘thises’” (Sartre 2018: 256):
Indeed, we should be quite clear that we can only refer to this being right here as ‘this’ against the ground of the presence of all being. It does not follow that, in order to exist, one being needs all of being. (Sartre 2018: 256)
Sartre cannot be more clear: there is no such thing as a pure monolithic being that encompasses all things outside of our experience. In short, being does not allow for negativity as this would cause it to have parts and therefore internal relationships, but it does not follow that there is a single being that encompasses everything as this would also require negativity. Sartre states that we should not “understand being as one undifferentiated self-affirmation” (Sartre 2018: 27).
The third characteristic is that being is. This aspect has to do with necessity: every thing exists without reason. If this would be the case, the being would depend upon said reason, and hence would no longer be absolute. We would then have to ask the question concerning the being of the reason. This means that being is fully contingent: it simply is. It is therefore also beyond possible and impossible. This would require actual beings being derived from possible being, and would therefore again diminish its status of an absolute. Sartre describes this by using a familiar term:
Being-in-itself is never either possible or impossible; it is. Consciousness expresses this by saying – in anthropomorphic terms – that it is superfluous, which is to say that it is absolutely unable to derive it from anything, either from another being, or from something possible, or from a necessary law. Uncreated, without any reason for being or any relationship with another being, being-in-itself is superfluous for eternity. (Sartre 2018: 28f.)
Being is superfluous, it ‘overflows’ any relationship towards something else and every reason or explanation we try to give of it. Every attempt to fully capture it is doomed to fail. It is superfluous for all time. This means on the one hand that we will in principle never discover some reason behind it, some grand theory that finally makes us able to truly move beyond the limits of experience.
On the other hand, it also refers to the fact that being is beyond temporality. Change requires a negative judgment, something was first this and is now that. Such as judgment requires consciousness. However, as is the case with totality, we should not understand this to mean that things are in a certain way and are static and unchangeable. Staying the same also requires a certain negative judgment. First there was this moment, in which a thing has certain characteristics, and now that moment is no longer but the thing still has those characteristics. Such judgments also require negativity, and being, devoid of any negativity, is thus beyond temporality.
We may say that an acorn has become a tree and is therefore the same thing which changed. We may also say that an acorn is a different thing from the tree. Things swarm and flow into one another, regardless of our judgments.Footnote 5 However, what does not change is the way in which they exist. Whether the acorn is the same thing as the tree or not, in any case, they still exist as a superfluous being. Being-in-itself is their mode of being. Each thing exists in this way, there is no ontological differentiation between their modes of being.Footnote 6 This is, however, a very different philosophical position from that which regards that being to be a single thing.
The fact that Sartre ends the introduction with the description of these three general characteristics of being-in-itself is something which may contribute to the misreading that being-in-itself is a single, monolithic being. We must not forget the reasoning that leads Sartre to these characteristics, however. Sartre takes the phenomenon as a starting point, which leads him to the distinction between the finite appearances of things and the infinite series of those appearances. There needs to be something that binds the series together, a principle that causes all the appearances of an object to appear as being the same object. This cannot be the essence, because this is itself an appearance. The thing that appears needs to have a transphenomenal ground. This cannot be another object behind the thing as it appears, however, as this would mean that we simply introduce a new kind of thing and have to answer the question what the mode of being of this thing is. This would simply move the question of being, rather than answer it. Hence, there is no being behind the object, things as they appear do so on a ground of being. This being is transphenomenal and not itself a thing, that is to say, it is simply its mode of being.
This is itself an argument for the fact that there is no single being-in-itself. Sartre’s argument rests on the principle that binds the series of appearances together, and hence every series needs to exist in-itself. Furthermore, Sartre’s emphasis on the fact that the being of each thing is not itself a thing provides further reason to assume that there is no single in-itself. This monolithic being would be something different than the thing in question. Being-in-itself cannot be something, as it is a mode of being.
Sartre’s idea that a thing as it appears cannot be reduced to another being behind it, brings us to the main tenet of Sartre’s reasoning. This reasoning, at its core, resides in the strong emphasis on the irreducibility of being. Things cannot be reduced to another being and therefore exist separately, yet on the ground of the same kind of mode of being. This irreducibility of the being of things is precisely why being-itself is a transphenomenal foundation of Sartre’s ontological system. It cannot be reduced to anything else and we therefore need to assume that this is the way things exist.
The three characteristics also boil down to irreducibility: it cannot be reduced to something behind it, it cannot be reduced to any kind of component in it, and it cannot be reduced to any other kind of being. While Sartre only used the term superfluous for the last characteristic, we can transpose this term to all of them. To be irreducible means to escape all relations to other things, and this is precisely how Sartre uses the term superfluous in Nausea: Things overflow their relations, they are hence irreducible to them and each of them therefore properly exists in-itself.
Thus, for our purposes, it follows that each thing cannot be reduced to a single being-in-itself. Each thing exists as in-itself, meaning that its very mode of being is that it is irreducible to anything else. From this irreducibility or superfluousness it follows that each being cannot be reduced to a single being-in-itself. The description of the in-itself in the introduction of Being and Nothingness therefore further shows that Sartre is indeed a realist in the sense that things exist as things outside of our experience of them.