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Philosophy of Literature

Language as Freedom in Sartre's Philosophy

Salam Hawa

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ABSTRACT: I argue that Sartre posits language as a medium of communication that is capable of safeguarding the development of subjectivity and freedom. Language does this in a twofold manner: on the one hand, it is an action that does not phenomenally alter being, but that has the capacity of altering consciousness; on the other hand, language, more particularly written text, is a mode of communication that is delayed, hence that occurs outside the present, i.e. in a different space and a deferred time. As such, it preserves the subjectivity of both writer and reader. The argument is as follows: first, I present Sartre’s definition of freedom and subjectivity in terms of his definition of consciousness of the For-itself and In-itself in Being and Nothingness; second, I draw on examples from La Nausée to illustrate the link between language, consciousness and the expression of freedom and subjectivity; third, I refer to The Psychology of Imagination and What is Literature? to illustrate further the importance that Sartre places on writing and reading as means to establish a lasting impression of personal freedom and subjectivity in a manner that defies space and time.

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In this paper I shall argue that Sartre posits language as a medium of communication that is capable of safeguarding subjectivity and freedom. Language does this in a two-fold manner: on the one hand it is an action which does not phenomenally alter being, but which has the capacity of altering consciousness; on the other hand, language, more particularly written text, is a mode of communication that is delayed, hence that occurs out with the present, i.e. in a different space and a deferred time, and as such it preserves the subjectivity of both writer and reader. I present this argument in the following manner: first, I present Sartre's definition of freedom and subjectivity in terms of his definition of consciousness of the For-itself and In-self in Being & Nothingness; second, I draw on examples from La Nausée to illustrate the link between language, consciousness and the expression of freedom and subjectivity; third, I refer to The Psychology of Imagination and What is Literature? to illustrate further the importance that Sartre places on writing and reading as means both to freedom and subjectivity.


In Existentialism and Humanism (1946), Sartre states that "if God does not exist there is at least one being whose existence comes before its essence, a being which exists before it can be defined by any conception of it. That being is man or as Heidegger has it the human reality." (1) Sartre believes that "existence comes before essence — or, if you will, that we must begin from the subjective." (2) This implies that each individual "cannot pass beyond human subjectivity," (3) i.e. that the recognition and constitution of one's subjectivity represent the highest point in the achievement of freedom, for there is no divine beyond, no transcendent Other whose Being can define the essence of humanity. (4) Human reality is characterized by 'contingency', and the identity of the self hinges upon the total sum and interpretation of the product of these 'accidents'.

In his definition of subjectivity, Sartre makes a distinction between consciousness of the self and creation of the self. (5) Consciousness exists outside being, and is external to the phenomenon of existence; it appears in and through being, but does not constitute this being. (6) By contrast, self-creation lies in praxis, i.e. the action made by the individual according to a decision to commit such an act. The result of such an action constitutes the self in reality. This distinction appears in this (radical) form in the early philosophical essays and, more explicitly, in Being and Nothingness (1943). It also appears in Sartre's literary works: in La Nausée (1938), the author of the diary, Roquentin, recognizes that his essence is entirely distinct from his being. The freedom of his consciousness is displayed in its ability to become one with other existential beings, such as a tree-root or a gust of wind. Sartre's work expresses his desire to give rise to a knowledge of individual subjectivity that is 'authentic' — untainted, uninformed by social, religious or political pressures.

In Being & Nothingness, Sartre identifies 'authentic' consciousness as the For-itself. It is the capacity to interrogate, eliminate possibilities, and establish a judgement based on negation of what is — i.e. by recognizing what is, one acknowledges also what is not. The For-itself stands generally outside of being, and as such it remains free. For Sartre, the For-itself is freedom. (7) This freedom comes at the price of its being entirely, and permanently, separate from the In-itself, which occurs because consciousness reaches and acknowledges being merely as something external. The For-itself is thus never a thing or an object, but a force, that is linked to action rather than to observation. All phenomena (including another For-itself) belong, as a mass, to the realm of the In-itself. Subjectivity as consciousness is, therefore, a nothingness. It is emptiness of the In-itself. Sartre states that the For-itself never "exists For-itself but only for the object, and that subjectivity is a consciousness without Subject." (8) In other words, for the For-itself to remain free it must also be immaterial; it can never be an object, not even that of its own. As such, the For-itself is invariably action, energy, activity. Although as action the For-itself manifests itself through the object, it is never simply that object but the force that shaped it. This definition of consciousness is maintained even after Sartre embraced Marxism. Sartre was very critical of the Marxist definition of subjectivity, which claimed that subjectivity is dependent on production. (9)

For Sartre, the In-itself is defined as what is, the knowledge of which is intuitive. (10) Here, Sartre reverses the Husserlian definition of intuition by stating that it is not the presence of the thing to consciousness, but "the presence of consciousness to the thing," (11) a claim which denies the presence of a transcendental ego, a pure and original I. This occurs because for Sartre, it is consciousness that presents itself to the world, and is thereby constituted. Consciousness is the permanent game of reflexivity-reflecting. This becomes problematic since consciousness, in merely reflecting a reflex, remains an activity which falls away at the moment that the In-itself vanishes and ceases to exist as thingness. As such, the knowledge of the In-itself remains unknown to consciousness because it is essentially a product of negation, i.e. not-this or not-that, leaving what-is to remain a mystery. (12) The In-itself does not hold a certain 'external relation', for the relationship of a 'this' to a 'that' must occur within the For-itself. Consequently, knowledge of the world appears as what the For-itself perceives it to be; on this Sartre states: "an external relation is neither objective nor subjective, but 'hangs, ... in the air.' It is nothing; its whole being consists in 'being quoted' by the For-itself." (13)

Following from this radical separation between things and thought, freedom for Sartre is limited to the extent that I am able to remain as consciousness acting on the Other. However, the Other is not always a tree-root, or a gust of wind, but it is also, and more fundamental to my freedom, an-Other consciousness. My freedom is limited and runs the risk of disintegrating when faced with the Other's subjective world. (14) This falling apart of my universe occurs because in and through the Other's gaze I am an object in the Other's world, as much as the Other is an object in mine; to be looked at is to be annihilated in the gaze of the Other, thereby feeling myself transformed from a Subject to myself to an object for the Other. By being looked at I am transcended, my possibilities are transcended by those of the Other, and this because I am no longer the sole actor in the situation, nor the sole perceiver; my actions (intentions) are already perceived and observed by the Other, a situation which renders my possibilities (what I can and shall do) into probabilities (what I may and will do). The Other locates me in space, and posits me in time. This occurs because with the Other's presence I am forced to acknowledge the feeling and possibility of simultaneous existence. This feeling of simultaneity makes me also feel subject to the Other's actions, and therewith "I am his slave." (15) However, the Other's gaze does not endow me with ordinary knowledge, but is literally a "hole in my universe," and hence a new dimension which gives rise to specific reactions (shame, pride, alienation etc.) proving the Other's existence, as well as my 'being' as 'object' of these feelings. It then becomes my duty to myself to render manifest my will, hence 'act' according to a 'choice' that I have made, in order to alter this situation of 'objectivity'. It is up to me to become subject again, to free myself from this 'objectification'. This choice and its responsibility constitute my For-itself, i.e. my freedom, as well as my subjectivity. It is in the very nature of this choice and responsibility that lies my existential angst. According to Sartre, anguish is "far from being a screen which could separate us from action, it is a condition of action itself." (16) It is in this action that my reality is constituted, and lies the essence of my selfhood independent of any socially determined consciousness. This explains Sartre's demand that consciousness and actuality be distinct, for one may be conscious of many things, but it is only in action that one is able to ground this potential into reality.

Since action denotes a choice which is an expression of subjectivity, what is the relation between the conscious I think and the active I do? In other words, how is an individual to achieve freedom in the world, and what type of action represents an authentic expression of individual will? To answer this question, I must examine how Sartre's philosophy of being conceives of the relationship between the freedom to act, and the consciousness of this freedom as lived-reality.


One can find an answer to these questions in La Nausée and in subsequent writings. In La Nausée, Roquentin exemplifies the pure consciousness of the For-itself as active self-questioning of the self and its environment. He seems to be stumbling endlessly in a world he did not shape, did not fashion, and is merely observing. Roquentin conceives of himself as a prisoner of a world in which he is able to reflect his essence, but from which he remains separate. Sartre defines the world of free individuals as filled with obstacles and illusions, alien and terrifying. There is no sphere in which social, political and economic relations or conditions are 'excuses' for my failure to be free. History is my history, the one that I have written, or have yet to create, all "in respect of concrete circumstances." (17) Freedom is that responsibility that I carry for my choices and my actions.

By separating act and thought, Sartre's definition of the freedom in the world makes of freedom an impossibility. Sartre insists that consciousness only comes after the act, for consciousness itself is unthinking (irréfléchi) and can only acquire meaning and content once reflected, i.e. in terms of an act, an objectification of the will. (18) However, once reflected, the meaning and content of this consciousness appears invariably as belonging to a past moment, an earlier self that, since, has been altered by the very action this reflection has brought about. This clearly indicates the néant, the nothingness contained within the Cartesian cogito's I think; for Sartre, since consciousness cannot reflect prior to an act, then it must be concluded that it is empty, i.e. an "active, individual nonself." (19)

This accords with Roquentin's discovery that there are no adventures. He bases this on the logic that adventures are stories, and "one does not live a story." (20) It is an established act which acquires the defining meaning of adventure in terms of its conclusion; hence one is forced to live one's experiences only through the relating of an event, rather than through the very act of living it. Roquentin faces the disillusionment of the present: if one can only tell of life after having lived it, then one is forced to do one or the other: "one can either live or tell; not both at once." (21) In other words, in order to make sense of life one has to record it as it occurs, and then only later by reading it as a literary work, listening to it as a piece of music, or looking at it as a work of art, can one conceive of the meaning of this life in its totality. It is important that it be seen in its totality, for Sartre defines existential humanism to be "this relation of transcendence as constitutive of man (not in the sense that God is transcendent, but in the sense of self-surpassing) with subjectivity (in such a sense that man is not shut up in himself but forever present in a human universe)." (22)

Roquentin's attempt to relate his story as the meaning of his life suffers from the absence of a certainty in language. While staring at a seat in a tramcar, Roquentin murmurs to himself: "it's a seat, as a sort of exorcism. But the word remains on my lips: it refuses to go and rest upon the thing ... Things are delivered from their names. They are there, grotesque, stubborn, huge, and it seems crazy to call them seats or to say anything whatever about them." (23) These thoughts are continued in his visit to the public park, as are his reflections upon the absence of perceived relations between the words and the images of the things in themselves. Roquentin seizes upon these limitations through the use of words; the absence of the 'middle way' between non-existence and the abundance of things is identified as the absence of the naming, the identifying of action, the process of becoming free that Sartre formulates later in Being and Nothingness. These are the words which define being, as distinct from simply existing. Words come as the writing of this history, my history, takes shape, and therewith the meaning of my being as essence. For until I am able to define the process of this becoming (24) in the form of a story that I can relate and through which I can objectify my being-as-consciousness, I merely exist as empty consciousness.

Therefore, it comes to appear that individuals need language — as distinct from simply disjointed words — to identify and define the content of their essence. The self is constituted in the totality of words defining its moments of 'becoming'. For Sartre, the self acquires a meaning in the very act of objectifying itself, albeit for simply the mere moment of this action. Its meaning is momentary, the time it takes to act, or utter a sentence, and then this self is altered by this act thereby becoming other to itself (i.e. the self before the act occurred). As such, the words uttered to express the first moment of an acted consciousness cannot be taken as final, and will have to wait until this self ceases to act, collects the essence of all previous actions in their totality, composes one last narrative that may be used to define it. Hence, words, although not defining the immediate empty self, do arise, and are indeed necessary, as Roquentin suggests, for the recognition, the knowledge of this lived life.


Sartre poses another problem regarding language, for in this distinction between existing and being, the existentialist angst appears as the absence of this certainty present in the naming of the nature of what I am. In La Nausée, what frightens and nauseates Roquentin is the recognition that while he pronounces the words, 'root', 'seagull' and so on, he acquires no image of these things, and therewith recognizes the futility of the words uttered, and consequently the futility of the words he uses to write his life. Roquentin's knowledge of his subjectivity seems elusive, for the action which determines being comes always from without and not from within; the angst is that of not knowing, not having the power to alter the situation in which we are, but continue to shoulder the responsibility of the actions we voluntarily make within pre-determined circumstances. The self is not the author of its conscious act, for the self is not the other in which it recognizes itself, in which it is reflected onto itself, through which it becomes conscious and acquires a value.

The problem posed by Sartre is two-fold: on the one hand, I, as reflective consciousness, perceive my freedom as limited by the gaze of the Other. On the other hand, it is also limited by language. Language appears as a 'medium' which 'objectifies' the consciousness of the Other and allows it to rest upon me, thereby objectifying me. Furthermore, it is also clear that Sartre is deeply concerned with the absolute necessity for the individual to be perceived, and thereby to perceive him/herself, as a subject in the world. It therefore follows that Sartre found it necessary to acknowledge the true nature of the For-itself (as freedom and subjectivity) as distinct from all otherness. However, how is one to be free in the world when the world itself is a prison in which consciousness is forever encountering other beings that appear as constant threat to its subjectivity, and hence freedom? More importantly, how does one acknowledge this freedom?

An answer to this may be glimpsed in an earlier work, The Psychology of Imagination (1940), where Sartre established direct links between nothingness and freedom: "in order to imagine, consciousness must be free from all specific reality and this freedom must be able to define itself by a 'being-in-the-world which is at once the constitution and the negation of the world'." (25) In other words, consciousness, the For-itself, must be able to establish a consciousness of the "unreal." (26) This occurs because the unreal "is produced outside of the world by a consciousness which stays in the world, and it is because he is transcendentally free that man can imagine." (27) It is essentially this freedom, which 'nihilates' the determined being of society, also allows the individual to establish his/her own self independently of the social world. In imagination, the individual is able to posit his/her understanding of all phenomena as lived-reality. This permits release from the phenomenal world and its knowledge all at once.

This is equally evident in La Nausée. In his reflection on language, Roquentin comes to the understanding that "there was no middle way between non-existence and this swooning abundance. What exists at all must exist to this point: to the point of moldering, of bulging, of obscenity. In another world, circles and melodies retain their pure rigid contours. But existence is degeneration." (28) These preoccupations suggest that the choice, the intent upon an action, even if this be the simple naming of a thing, limits other possibilities that are potentially present in the nothingness of consciousness. However, they equally denote Sartre's attachment to a different sphere of existence, where meaning remains free of adulteration, a sphere where the author of thought is one with the thought uttered: it is the realm of imagination. Based upon this point I wish to argue that in imagination, Sartre finds means by which consciousness achieves freedom, a freedom that is expressable to the self and the Other through language. Sartre makes this clearer in his discussion on freedom and the relationship between writer and reader.

In What is Literature? (1947), Sartre suggests that freedom is intimately bound up with the activity of the writer whose work appears to the readers in terms of a universal definition of the meaning of being, thereby freeing them. Sartre views the relationship between the writer and the reader in terms of dialectical aufheben, i.e. that the "creative freedom" of the first must be recognized and solicited by the second such that "the more we experience our freedom, the more we recognize that of the other; the more ...[the writer] demands of us, the more [the reader] demand[s] of him." (29) Here, Sartre points to a mode of communication which safeguardes the subjectivity of individuals involved, which he formulated in Existentialism and Humanism. Writing and reading become the medium permitting this exchange and universalization of the essence of the self. For Sartre, language "is a prolongation of the senses, a third eye which is going to look into our neighbor's heart. We are within language as within our body. We feel it spontaneously while going beyond it toward other ends, as we feel our hands and our feet; we perceive it when it is the other who is using it, as we perceive the limbs of others." (30) Words and writing, I would argue, appear as a peculiar process of 'active objectification' of human essence; they constitute an act which captures, without altering (this is because it is not phenomenal), the meaning of freedom as both consciousness and action.


In conclusion, I would argue that for Sartre, freedom represents an actualization of the self as subjectivity, a process which demands that individuals maintain a separation between themselves and the world. Although we may know the world through reflective consciousness, our freedom resides solely in our capacity to survive the active objectification of our inner selves which occurs every time we encounter others. Imagination does not depend on the nature of being, but is experienced as flight from the world. In order to posit the world in the imagination, the individual must perform a three-form movement. According to Sartre, the imaginative act is "constituting, isolating, and nihilating. ... It constitutes the world as a world, for before consciousness there was no 'world' but only full, undifferentiated being. It then nihilates the world from a particular point of view and by a second act of nihilation isolates the object from the world as-out-of-reach." (31) In this manner, the world for the individual becomes a state of being in consciousness that is imagination, or life in thought. In the mind, the individual is never subject to the nihilating effect of the other, and in imagination, Roquentin can find or create the words which best express his understanding of the world he encounters. In imagination, the individual remains both free and a subject, and the words remain authentic. As writers and readers, individuals are able to experience their own and others' subjectivity and freedom free of objectification.

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(1) Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism and Humanism, trans. Philip Mairet, (London: Methuen, 1970), pp. 27-28.

(2) Ibid., p. 26.

(3) Ibid., p. 29.

(4) Ibid.

(5) Ibid.

(6) J.P. Sartre, Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel E. Barnes, (London: Methuen, 1966), p. 435.

(7) Ibid., p. 436; this position will be explained further in the discussion below on the nature and extent of freedom in Sartre's philosophy.

(8) W. Desan, The Tragic Finale, (New York: Harper & Row, 1960), p. 29.

(9) Jean Paul Sartre, Search for a Method, trans. Hazel E. Barnes, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963), p. 85.

(10) Sartre, B&N, op. cit., p. 172.

(11) Ibid.

(12) For Sartre, Knowledge "is neither a relation, a quality, nor an activity; it is the essence of the For-itself insofar as it is 'present to...'." Ibid.

(13) Ibid., p. 51.

(14) Ibid., p. 256.

(15) Ibid., pp. 268, 339, 351. In Sartre's Roads to Liberty, Vol. II, The Reprieve, trans. Eric Sutton, (London: Penguin, 1982), the look has not only an epistemological value concerning the existence of the Other but also concerning my own existence.

(16) Ibid. p. 32 my italics.

(17) Ibid., p. 51.

(18) Sartre, Being and Nothingness, op. cit., cf. Part IV, ch. 1.: Freedom: The First Condition of Action, pp. 433-481.

(19) Hugh Silverman (ed.), "Sartre's Words on the Self," Jean Paul Sartre, (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1980), p. 87.

(20) Iris Murdoch, Sartre: Romantic Rationalist, (London: Penguin Books, 1987), p. 39.

(21) Ibid. p. 40.

(22) Sartre, Existentialism & Hum. . , op. cit., p. 55 my italics.

(23) J.P. Sartre, Nausea, tran. Hamish Hamilton, (New York: New Directions, 1962), p.69.

(24) Sartre establishes this notion of Becoming in his later works Search For A Method (1960), and Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960), however I do believe that this very notion, albeit not in terms of the Hegelian Aufhebung, was implicitly present in Sartre's earlier definition of existentialism.

(25) J.-P. Sartre, The Psychology of Imagination, (New York: Knopf, 1952), p. 269.

(26) Ibid.

(27) Ibid., p. 271. Italics added.

(28) Ibid.

(29) Jean Paul Sartre, What is Literature?, trans. B. Frechtman, (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), p. 45.

(30) Ibid., pp. 14-15.

(31) The Psychology of Imagination, op. cit., p.69.

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