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Research Essay

In: Philosophy and Psychology

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Second PHI1GPI Essay – Question Two
Humanity knows of nothing. And according to Jean-Paul Sartre this is what makes humanity unique. In his Being and Nothingness Sartre explores this uniqueness through a series of exercises that, he hopes, will bring forward new ideas of our existence and the meaning of nothingness. His chapter on ‘The origin of negation’ explores the existence of the non-being, a concept that he explains is unique to the human condition. In comparing the natural world with the human; we see that Sartre’s argument can make a clear distinction between the two, presenting a convincing argument that places humanity above anything else in this world. Sartre uses allegories to make a case
Humanity is unique in that we ask questions and have expectations of answers. Even the most seemingly simple of questions such as ‘what is that?’ is the sign of a higher level of thinking than had ever occurred before humanity. It is our questioning and expectation, according to Sartre, is our link between our being and non-being. Sartre starts off by stating the everyday experience “does not seem to reveal non-being to us” (Sartre, p.5), that if we take the world on face value non-being shall never be shown. Yet, he goes on to explore how our questioning of the world acknowledges that the world is made up of is and is nots. That objects have perceived essence and qualities, that is; a tree is a tree and is not a car because it shares simular qualities with other trees. When we question and expect an answer, we are forcing anything that is not that within that essence of expectation into the realm of non-being. Using his money analogy, Sartre shows the negation of being in the pre-judgment phase of a question or expectation. Before making a judgement on how much money is in his pocket, Sartre must first make the pre-judgement expectation that money is in-fact in his pocket. This pre-judgement has forced the infinite other possibilities that physics declares can occur (Holzner, 2010) as nihilated to non-being. That money is not the infinite other things has force those infinite other things to be non-beings with respect to money. Sartre later confirms this by stating “negation is a refusal of existence” (Sartre, p.11). This sense of non-being occurs when we have a concrete expectation of what money is and is not. Sartre is able to expect by creating a duality of everything; an object has a perceived being and anything that is judged not that being is the non-being. One object in this world can therefore be described as everything it is not, leaving the original object. Nothing and non-being is made of “the denial of an attribute to a subject” (Sartre, p.19). Yet it is not enough to say that just because humans expect and question that non-being is brought forward and is always within the limits of human expectation, we must also study the natural reaction to non-being.

In the natural world non-being is incomprehensible, there is only is. While a seemingly paradox, an examination of this sentence reveals sense in it. Take for example when we look at a building; we give that building a value, the value of shelter and prosperity among other things. It has being and non-being; the building is not a car or a tree or money. In our minds we have a clear idea or essence of what a building is. Yet when an animal looks upon the building, while it can differentiate that there is an object, it cannot comprehend what meaning the building holds or that the building is not a natural part of the environment, the animal has no idea that the building isn’t just some weird tree. This is why non-being is a human concept; we can recognize objects for what they’re not based on their expected worth. It was our move beyond the survivalist instincts of the animal kingdom has led us to this point where we can and do give worth to all objects (Smith, 2001). Sartre uses the analogy of the storm to describe our relationship with non-being in a natural sense. He states that the storm “does not destroy; it merely modifies the distribution of matter” (Sartre, p.8). Say this storm destroys a house, an animal would only see the ‘is’ in the pre and post-storm environments. In the pre-storm there is a thing and in the post-storm there is a different thing, in their mind the two aren’t linked, the animal can only see what is. Its instinctive nature does not allow rational reasoning or to ask what happened to that thing that was there. They are fighting for survival, it does not matter to their mind what is being and non-being. Yet to the human mind the house had being and value; it was not a pile of rubbish before the storm, after the storm it was not a standing house. As Sartre puts for being and non-being to exist “there must be a witness who can retain the past…and compare it to the present in the form of no longer”. Humanity is unique in this sense, that we hold ideas about what was and what is and what will be (Bermúdez, 1998). An animal cannot fathom its place in the world for it cannot recognize its own self-worth. Humanity relies on giving worth to other things for we seemingly have none of our own in the world. Since we have evolved past the survivalist nature to have a ‘self’ we need a sense of non-being so we can create a clear idea about what the world around. To the animal there is no world around them, only survival. If we didn’t have an expectation of non-being nothing would have worth and we would regress back to the survivalist nature.
Sartre makes many statements on being and non-being, but one of the more interesting ideas is how non-being is only within the human expectation. Our ideas on expectation have forced us away from the animalistic nature of our distant ancestors to the point where we stand today. And yes while, non-being does always fall within our expectations, it is because we expect the world to be a certain way we are able to recognize our place in it. Non-being is much a part of us as being, it is how we have come to define ourselves.
Sartre, J.-P., 1943. Being and Nothingness : An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. 1st ed. London: Routledge.
Bermúdez, J. L., 1998. The Paradox of Self-Consciousness. 1st ed. Cambridge,MA: MIT Press.
Holzner, S., 2010. Physics Essentials For Dummies. 1st ed. New York: For Dummies.
Smith, B., 2001. Objects and Their Environments: From Aristotle to Ecological Ontology. In: A. Frank, J. Raper & J. Cheylan, eds. The Life and Motion of SocioEconomic Units. London: Taylor and Francis, pp. 79-97.

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