49. Project ‘I’

“We make ourselves and define our way of life by projecting ourselves toward the future, and by constantly going beyond the given situation in which we find ourselves.”
David A. Jopling

This is going to be our last outing with Sartre, plus we are approaching the end of our journey altogether. There will be just one final philosopher to briefly, all too briefly, consider before our ethical thirst has possibly been quenched.

At the start of our foray into Sartre’s thinking we learned how consciousness is based upon ontological precepts, and also that there is a difficulty in trying to get to ethics from ontology. We then grappled, in post 41, with the veil of nothingness and got directed, by the Parisian, to freedom, which, if we recall, was his special chosen term to describe the “buffer of nothingness” that appears when an object is held in question. He could have chosen contemplation, consideration or inspection, however freedom, evidently, was his goal and our first real clue regarding his ethical agenda. The clue being that the pathway from nothingness doesn’t solely, logically or even necessarily lead to freedom. Rather, Sartre seemed to pre-empt freedom and we, taking him on faith, followed him in the hope of being rewarded. The temporary reward in post 43 was to see, fleetingly, Sartre gesture towards freedom as an attitude of mind that one needs to adopt. However, maybe so as not to allow any questions as to quite why that is the case, he immediately plunged into a description of anguish, swiftly followed by bad faith and responsibility.


Anguish is an appropriate response when trying to accept that one’s freedom is based upon existence preceding essence, because there is a leap into the unknown and one has every right to feel scared. To be in bad faith, on the other hand, and believe that one has a pre-given essence or destiny is to be a coward or worse. There is a beautiful simplicity to Sartre’s internal logic within these thoughts as long as we allow him this space and don’t caught up in the lack of foundation. It’s true that ultimately, Sartre’s thinking rests thinly upon the rocks of his conviction regarding freedom as opposed to sound philosophical reasoning as performed in the good ol’ days of yore (which, as we all know, yielded to their own fallacies upon close inspection). However, if we allow him his head, from the moment of bringing forth freedom as an attitude of mind, Sartre starts to wind a very convincing and coherent set of lines around ethics. To place responsibility for our actions squarely upon our own shoulders is a bold and innovative stance, just as stating that the opposite positions of quietism, excuse making or fulfilling destiny are despicable. There is great power in his persuasion and it is hard to argue against without looking weak and coward-like.

Sartre’s next play is to revisit consciousness and give it another dimension within his thinking. This time, it becomes the plateau from where the decision to be responsible arrives. Consciousness precedes responsibility in Sartre’s world and, indeed, it governs so as to make us responsible. Of course, logic gets damned once more by Sartre because, consciousness doesn’t necessarily bring forth responsibility although, in an ideal world, it should. Casting logic aside, then, Sartre continues shaping the more positive side of his thinking and, when addressing the problem of existential identity, realises something quite wonderful. If we regard ourselves as possessing freedom then we are free to invent ourselves.


It seems that by forsaking his once cherished ontological and foundational precepts, Sartre cuts himself free to float loftily upwards where a greater perspective can be gained. Nothingness to freedom, and consciousness to responsibility, might not be necessarily so: it seems one can never go easily from ontology to ethics. However, there is a clearer view up here in Sartre’s balloon, than arguably can be seen from scrabbling around in ontology’s debris and dust.


So, let us continue onwards to our final Sartrean destination.

It seems that we are condemned to invent ourselves: there is nothing else we can do. However, as we have mentioned previously, we have to take moral responsibility for this ‘invention’ because there no blame can be apportioned elsewhere, if we are completely free to choose our invention.

Taking this further, by choosing a role, or inventing ourselves, we actually choose a project to undertake, and it’s this last piece of Sartre’s thinking that we now need to explore. David A. Jopling has the following to say about undertaking a project of our self:

“We make ourselves and define our way of life by projecting ourselves toward the future, and by constantly going beyond the given situation in which we find ourselves. The multifarious actions, desires, beliefs, and experiences our lives comprise must, in Sartre’s words, ‘derive their meaning from an original projection’ that we make of ourselves.”


Digging deeper into the process and mechanics of how such a projection occurs, Jopling continues:

“The project is actively constructed, and not given or fixed. The numerous antecedent conditions that are ordinarily constructed as having a causal influence in the formation of our identity (such as genetic, environmental, and social factors) affect us not for what they are in themselves, but for what we make of them insofar as we project ourselves beyond them, confer meaning upon them, and construct from them a signifying situation.”

That said, though by Jopling, these acts of invention, or projection, must be understood as ones that can at any time be rejected, or surpassed, by the ‘freely choosing’ being-for-itself. Such rejection or surpassing might well lead, of course, to anguish as we can not say whether our future self will at a later date reject or comply with such a decision. However, the point stands that just as once we had a project to direct all our energy towards being a paleontologist when aged nine, the day might come when that project is set aside in favour of being, let’s say, a Lego designer.

Image courtesy of lego.tomleech.com
Image courtesy of lego.tomleech.com

Each of us, then, can be considered in some ways as an ongoing project, not fixed or determined but ever evolving and extending into the future.

At the risk of repeating what we have already seen in post 39, but for a different purpose, I want to look again at the limits of Sartre’s philosophical starting place, which he himself set out:

“Ontology itself can not formulate ethical precepts. It is concerned solely with what is, and we can not possibly derive imperatives from ontology’s indicatives.”

En route, we can acknowledge that Sartre’s ontological bind shows why Levinas started from scratch and not ontology or phenomenology, however let’s remember that Sartre also stated, in Being and Nothingness, that ontology “allows us to catch a glimpse of what sort of ethics will assume its responsibilities when confronted with a human reality in situation.” Now, the reason for this re-fresh is the addition that Christina Howells brings to the table. Howells thinks that by peeking at ethics through ontology’s door Sartre is leading himself, and us, to a place where freedom acts like a value. This is because Sartre’s whole philosophy, one could argue, steers towards the announcement of freedom as being the critical component of our lives. The game is given away, though, not by Howells in the first instance, but by Jean-Paul himself. In Existentialism and Humanism he actually declares, “We will freedom for freedom’s sake”, and by doing so declares that freedom is a value.


Now, hold on to your hats, because there is a deeper impact than one might at first suspect. From this honesty in Being and Nothingness, regarding his belief that ontology itself cannot form ethical precepts, I believe that the declaration in Existentialism and Humanism, of freedom being willed for freedom’s sake, represents a significant shift. The shift is that ontology has been abandoned to something more important and that something is what Sartre has developed from his thinking around freedom. In some ways the statement in Existentialism and Humanism casts off the shackles of his previous thinking and plonks freedom before his audience with defiance in his heart. He knows the move he is making is philosophically unjustified, but takes the spirited leap from ontology to morality anyway. And this is, ultimately, where we see Sartre taking his own medicine, as I will now explain.

Throughout Being and Nothingness, Sartre was trying to demonstrate his adherence to the current vogue of philosophical protocol as executed ‘on the continent’ as opposed to in America or Britain. Phenomenology and ontology were assiduously studied, advanced and pushed to their limits. The difficulty for Sartre was that he wanted to get beyond their limits, to ethics, but was shackled by the very discipline he sought to uphold. In his eyes his project was to be a philosopher in the grand continental tradition. However, this project he came to realise could not get him where he wanted. So, presumably cogitating upon his thoughts regarding freedom and bad faith, he stared, anguish ridden, at his life’s work and chose, with his ideas of freedom foremost in his mind, to begin afresh and start a new project for himself. The new Sartre project turned away from ‘Sartre – The Grand Philosopher’ to ‘Sartre – The Existential Freedom Fighter’, where freedom was to be at the heart of all his thinking and his actions. To authentically believe in freedom and that ‘man’ should invent ‘himself’ was for Sartre absolutely something he couldn’t just theorize, he had to embody it. So, that is what he did. He leapt from ontology with all its comfort, security and both feet planted firmly on the ground, to the giddy swirling currents of airborne existential freedom, with no parachute attached.


The leap of faith to freedom, with all its multi-faceted dimensions and internal coherence, is nonetheless still a leap. However, it is also a testament to Sartre’s belief in himself that he had discovered something valuable and intrinsically more worthwhile than following traditional agendas. To write and conceptualise is one thing, but to take your own medicine and in this case tear up the rulebook because you have discovered something you believe is better, is the stuff of great anguish. Sartre could easily have knuckled under and kept on plodding and poking around ontology and phenomenology and given himself a very easy life studying and tutoring the continental philosophical canon as it had come to be. To reject the ease and comfort and embark upon an untested new project with only one’s self-belief to keep one warm at night shows great courage and integrity. Now, hats off to Jean-Paul!


Another way of looking at this shift is suggested by Alasdair MacIntyre in his After Virtue. MacIntyre reasons that a morality based on ‘what man is like,’ or an ontology as we understand it, needs a metaphysical bridge to get from that ontology to the morality. The metaphysical element needs to be a form of teleology according to MacIntyre. Interestingly, Sartre also recognised this from the get-go at the very start of his Notebooks for an Ethics:

“So long as one believes in God [as a form of teleology] one has the right to do the good in order to be moral. Morality becomes a certain mode of ontological being, even something metaphysical in that we have to attain it.”

So, the problem for Sartre, it could be argued, was to find a replacement metaphysical teleology for that of God, or another way to base morality other than upon ‘what man is like.’ Personally, I think he did this in his conceptualization of what freedom meant because as he said in Existentialism and Humanism, “We will freedom for freedom’s sake”. This is not a replacement metaphysical teleology but it is another way to base morality. Plus, as is suggested by the title of the lecture, it is not reliant upon metaphysics and therefore becomes a form of Humanism. Sartre did waver, though. Anthony Manser spots the wavering in Sartre’s monumental study Saint Genet where he wrote: “I am… deeply convinced that morality as such [non­ Christian/religious] is both impossible and necessary.” If we can forego his wavering in Saint Genet, what we find in Existentialism and Humanism is a handcrafted piece of thinking that starts philosophy afresh and builds a whole approach for how to live that one doesn’t find anywhere else in the traditional canon. Of course, there are resonances and slight borrowings from previous thinkers. However, the system that Sartre builds with all its varying components is unique, just like a Louise Nevelson work. Plus, it is a form of Humanist thinking.

Sky Cathedral by Louise Nevelson, 1982
Sky Cathedral by Louise Nevelson, 1982

Where traditional philosophies crack under the burden of bridging from ontology to morality via the required invocation of a metaphysical element and as a consequence bring forth a conception of God, Sartre resists. Better yet, Sartre invents. And what he invents is that we are each the controllers of our own selves, because we are free. Sartre rejects metaphysical notions of God, religion and the afterlife and he brings his ideas squarely into our day-to-day lives. There is no need for metaphysics in any of its forms because he gives freedom its own space and stature by stating, “We will freedom for freedom’s sake”. So, freedom does becomes a value to uphold in its own right, in Sartre’s hands.

By the introduction of freedom in this manner, Sartre cleared the decks and swept out the turgid thinking of centuries, of not only philosophy, but also religion. In turn, this clearing brought forth the idea that each of us should become our own project. And, as Jopling states: “We make ourselves and define our way of life by projecting ourselves toward the future, and by constantly going beyond the given situation in which we find ourselves.” Out of all the activities, pursuits, service and projects we can concoct and submit ourselves to, Sartre stands proud and declares that one project above all others should be prioritised and that I call “Project ‘I’”. It’s yours, it’s mine, it’s everybody’s. We each have our own Project ‘I’ and we are each free to cast ourselves into the future.


Hence we near the completion of our Sartrean sojourn. He has given us a thorough, and incredibly complex, explanation of what he means by ‘man is free’. However, should we believe we have freedom, responsibility, ourselves as projects and take arms against bad faith? Or, should we argue that Sartre’s ethics is commits some sort of fallacy and is thereby unfounded and ultimately redundant? Personally, as I hope to have made clear, I feel there is much to learn from Sartre. However, maybe, if my argument has not been strong enough to convince you and you still hold that he was misguided in trying to derive ethics from ontological principles, the following can be said. One mustn’t forget that myths, sci-fi and fantasy provide examples of how to live if we suspend disbelief as to their originating premises. And, whilst they might not be held in high esteem when compared to the exalted heights of traditional philosophical thinking, they do emit, sometimes incredibly powerfully, tangible examples of how we should live and how we can be ethical. Not all learning about ethics comes solely from the font of the preserved tradition. I think Sartre’s didn’t and I certainly think yours shouldn’t.

These are my personal views on ethics and they are not intended to represent the views of Conway Hall Ethical Society.
Dr. Jim Walsh

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

  • Newsletter

  • @ConwayHall