The phrase “A man is what he does with what they did with him” is very revealing in the thinking of Jean-Paul Charles Aymard Sartre. In fact, we can say that it contains the base of Sartrean existentialism.
The human being is defined, among other things, by its quality of temporality. Every man has past, present and future. The conception of this temporality is what makes Sartrean existentialism so special. In fact, his way of conceiving existence is one of the most important of the twentieth century.
Consciousness is intentional
Marxist theory had explained human consciousness as a reflexive and passive awareness of the conditions of the world that surround it. Consciousness, for this line of thought, was reflective and totally separated from the world. Sartre will renege on these Marxist theories postulating a humanist materialism.
The human conscience is active; his relationship with the world is not passive, but, being projected into the future, he builds it. Consciousness and the world are inseparable, and there is only “self-consciousness” insofar as there is “world consciousness”.
What does it mean that consciousness is projected outward?
Sartre distinguishes two modalities of being: “being in itself” and “being for oneself”. The first modality of being refers to that which is immovable and which will always be so; Examples of being in themselves would be a stone, a pen … They are in a certain way and their nature is not change.
On the other hand, “being for oneself” is that modality of being that consists in going out into the world and projecting into the future. It is the being in a state of courage and is, therefore, pure project.
In the case of the human being, these two modalities coexist. The being in itself of the human conscience would be those choices that it has been taking throughout its life. The human being constructs himself by choosing throughout his life. The past forms the face of what one is and is immovable. We are, in part, what we have chosen throughout our history.
Man’s being for himself is the consciousness projected towards the future and towards the new decisions he will make, but which he has not yet taken. It is pure project. That is why Sartre posits a famous apothegm:
“Being for oneself is that being that is not what it is”.
It is not what it is because, being projected towards the future, it is changing and, potentially, it is the decisions it will make. It is not what it is because, although it is constructed from being in itself, we can not say that it is exactly that (its past).
Is man a nothing according to Sartrean existentialism?
As we have said, human reality has a past that is already irremovable. We are our past. On the other hand, the future is not yet, but the consciousness is ejected towards it.
The present consciousness looks towards its possible choices. Therefore, Sartrean existentialism postulates that the human being present is a pure project thrown. The human being present is nothing. We are our past, but we are not only that; the present leads us to what we are going to be and that is why, as such, it is nothing.
“A man is what he does with what they did with him”
Now we can better understand this phrase that defines Sartrean existentialism so well. World and consciousness, being one, they are mutually giving shape. The world makes man what he chooses among his multiple possibilities, limited by external conditioning.
In this way, our past is what we have chosen, what the world has enabled us to do. However, as we have pointed out before, we are not only our past, since here and now we are thrown into a world that is pure possibility and that we will choose. Man is condemned to be free! And, if we are allowed, we will add a touch of psychology to all this theory mentioning the pindiaric imperative: “Dare to be what you are”. Do we dare?