Contemporary Philosophy: Heidegger and Sartre

By Dr. Garth Kemerling / 11.12.2011
Professor of Philosophy
Capella University

Philosophy Pages

Heidegger: Being-There (or Nothing)

Life and Works

After studying with Husserl, Martin Heidegger undertook an academic career in Germany, lecturing with great success both in Marburg and at the University of Freiburg, where he served as Rector in 1933-34. During this period, Heidegger not only cooperated with the educational policies of the National Socialist government but also offered it his enthusiastic public support. As a result, Heidegger was suspended from all teaching duties in the post-war era from 1945 to 1950.  The nature and extent of his sympathies for Nazi ideology remain matters of some dispute.

Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit (Being and Time) (1927) applied the methods of phenomenology to ontology, in an effort to comprehend the meaning of “Being” both in general and as it appears concretely. This led Heidegger to a conception of human existence as active participation in the world, “being-there” {Ger. Dasein}, despite its inherent limitations and the threat of inauthenticity.

Heidegger’s most familiar themes are evident in The Basic Problems of Phenomenology (1927) and EinFührung in die Metaphysik (Introduction to Metaphysics) (1953).

“Hegel and the Greeks” is a sample of Heidegger’s reflections on the history of philosophy.


German philosopher Martin Heidegger employed the methods of phenomenology in pursuit of more comprehensive metaphysical goals. In Heidegger’s full-fledged existentialism, the primary task of philosophy is to understand Being itself, not merely our knowledge of it.In the lecture, “What is Metaphysics?” Heidegger developed several of his themes in characteristically cumbersome language. The best way to exhibit the subject-matter of first philosophy is to pursue one actual metaphysical question; since all of them are inter-connected, each inevitably leads us into all of the others. Although traditional learning focusses on what is, Heidegger noted, it may be far more illuminating to examine the boundaries of ordinary knowledge by trying to study what is not.

What is Nothing, anyway?

It’s not anything, and it’s not something, yet it isn’t the negation of something, either. Traditional logic is no help, since it merely regards all negation as derivative from something positive. So, Heidegger proposed, we must abandon logic in order to explore the character of Nothing as the background out of which everything emerges.

Carefully contemplating Nothing in itself, we begin to notice the importance and vitality of our own moods. Above all else, Nothing is what produces in us a feeling of dread {Ger. Angst}. This deep feeling of dread, Heidegger held, is the most fundamental human clue to the nature and reality of Nothing.

Human Life as Being-There

Human beings truly exist, yet our “being-there” {Ger. Dasein} is subject to a systematic, radical uncertainty. Because we know that we will die, concern with our annihilation is an ever-present feature of human experience: Death is the key to Life. The only genuine question is why we are at all. Once we experience the joy[!?!] of dread, we recognize that our lives are limited—and therefore shaped—by death.

In just the same way, Heidegger argued, so Nothing is what shapes Being generally. This reveals the most fundamental, transcendent reality, beyond all notions of what-is slipping over into what-is-not. Even in the historical tradition, according to Heidegger, Nothing is shown to be the concomitant rather than the opposite of Being. The only genuine philosophical question is why there is something rather than nothing.

The Ground of Metaphysics

Writing allegorically in “The Way Back into the Ground of Metaphysics,” Heidegger notes that although metaphysics is undeniably the root of all human knowledge, we may yet wonder from what soil it springs. Since the study of beings qua beings can only be rooted in the ground of Being itself, there is a sense in which we must overcome metaphysics in order to appreciate its basis. Looking at beings of particular sorts—especially through the distorted lens of representational thinking—blocks every effort at profound understanding. We cannot grasp Being by looking at beings.

This was the point of Heidegger’s introduction of the term Dasein. It isn’t simply a synonym for “consciousness”, he maintained, but indicates the vital fact that human beings—and only human beings—truly exist, in the fullest sense, only when being-there for-themselves. Properly understood, self-awareness leads to the authenticity of a life created out of nothing, in the face of dread, by reference only to one’s own deliberate purposes.

For this process of self-creation, Time is crucial. What we are at present matters less than what we are becoming, through the dynamic temporal process that constitutes our personal histories. There is no abstract essence of human nature; there are only individual human beings unfolding themselves historically. In the end, this is the answer to the question of why there is something rather than nothing.

It is only because we choose being-there.

Sartre: Existential Life

Life and Works

Educated in his native Paris and at German universities, Jean-Paul Sartre taught philosophy during the 1930s at La Havre and Paris. Captured by the Nazis while serving as an Army meteorologist, Sartre was a prisoner of war for one year before returning to his teaching position, where he participated actively in the French resistance to German occupation until the liberation. Recognizing a connection between the principles of existentialism and the more practical concerns of social and political struggle, Sartre wrote not only philosophical treatises but also novels, stories, plays, and political pamphlets. Sartre’s personal and professional life was greatly enriched by his long-term collaboration with Simone de Beauvoir.  Although he declined the Nobel Prize for literature in 1964, Sartre was one of the most respected leaders of post-war French culture, and his funeral in Paris drew an enormous crowd.

Sartre’s philosophical influences clearly include Descartes,KantMarx, Husserl, and Heidegger. Employing the methods of descriptive phenomenology to new effect, his l’Être et le néant(Being and Nothingness) (1943) offers an account of existence in general, including both the being-in-itself of objects that simply are and the being-for-itself by which humans engage in independent action. Sartre devotes particular concern to emotion as a spontaneous activity of consciousness projected onto reality. Empasizing the radical freedom of all human action, Sartre warns of the dangers of mauvaise foi (bad faith), acting on the self-deceptive motives by which people often try to elude responsibility for what they do.

In the lecture l’Existentialisme est un humanisme (“Existentialism is a Humanism”) (1946), Sartre described the human condition in summary form:freedom entails total responsibility, in the face of which we experience anguish, forlornness, and despair; genuine human dignity can be achieved only in our active acceptance of these emotions.

Sartre’s complex and ambivalent intellectual relationship with traditional Marxism is more evident in Critique de la raison dialectique (Dialectical Reason) (1960), an extended sociological and philosophical essay.


French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre focussed more sharply on the moral consequences of existentialist thought. In literary texts as well as in philosophical treatises, Sartre emphasized the vital implications of human subjectivity.Sartre’s 1946 lecture L’Existentialisme est un humanisme (“Existentialism is a Humanism”) offers a convenient summary of his basic views. The most fundamental doctrine of existentialism is the claim that—for human beings at least—existence precedes essence. As an atheism, Sartre demands that we completely abandon the traditional notion of human beings as the carefully designed artifacts of a divine creator. There is no abstract nature that one is destined to fill. Instead, each of us simply is in the world; what we will be is then entirely up to us. Being human just means having the capacity to create one’s own essence in time.

But my exercise of this capacity inevitably makes me totally responsible for the life I choose. Since I could always have chosen some other path in life, the one I follow is my own. Since nothing has been imposed on me from outside, there are no excuses for what I am. Since the choices I make are ones I deem best, they constitute my proposal for what any human being ought to be. On Sartre’s view, the inescapable condition of human life is the requirement of choosing something and accepting the responsibility for the consequences.


But accepting such total responsibility entails a profound alteration of my attitude towards life. Sharing in the awesome business of determining the future development of humanity generally through the particular decisions I make for myself produces an overwhelming sense of anguish. Moreover, since there is no external authority to which I can turn in an effort to escape my duty in this regard, I am bound to feel abandonment as well. Finally, since I repeatedly experience evidence that my own powers are inadequate to the task, I am driven to despair. There can be no relief, no help, no hope. Human life demands total commitment to a path whose significance will always remain open to doubt.

Although this account of human life is thoroughly subjective, that does not reduce the importance of moral judgment. Indeed, Sartre maintained that only this account does justice to the fundamental dignity and value of human life. Since all of us share in the same situation, we must embrace our awesome freedom, deliberately rejecting any (false) promise of authoritative moral determination. Even when we choose to seek or accept advice about what to do, we remain ourselves responsible for choosing which advice to accept.

This doesn’t mean that I can do whatever I want, since free choice is never exercised capriciously. Making a moral decision is an act of creation, like the creation of a work of art; nothing about it is predetermined, so its value lies wholly within itself. Nor does this mean that it is impossible to make mistakes. Although there can be no objective failure to meet external standards, an individual human being can choose badly. When that happens, it is not that I have betrayed my abstract essence, but rather that I have failed to keep faith with myself.


Sartre thoroughly expounded his notion of the self-negation of freedom in l’Être et le néant(Being and Nothingness) (1943). Since the central feature of human existence is the capacity to choose in full awareness of one’s own non-being, it follows that the basic question is always whether or not I will be true to myself. Self-deception invariably involves an attempt to evade responsibility for myself. If, for example, I attribute undesirable thoughts and actions to the influence upon me of the subconscious or unconscious, I have made part of myself into an “other” that I then suppose to control the real me. Thus, using psychological theory to distinguish between a “good I” and a “bad me” only serves to perpetuate my evasion of responsibility and its concomitants.

Sartre offered practical examples of mauvaise foi (bad faith) in action. People who pretend to keep all options open while on a date by deliberately ignoring the sexual implications of their partners’ behavior, for example, illustrate the perpetual tension between facticity and transcendence. Focussing exclusively on what-we-might-become is a handy (though self-deceptive) way of overlooking the truth about what-we-are. Similarly, servers who extravagantly “play at” performing their roles illustrate the tendency to embrace an externally-determined essence, an artificial expectation about what we ought-to-be. But once again, of course, the cost is losing what we uniquely are in fact.

The ability to accept ourselves for what we are—without exaggeration—is the key, since the chief value of human life is fidelity to our selves, sincerity in the most profound sense. In our relationships with other human beings, what we truly are is all that counts, yet it is precisely here that we most often betray ourselves by trying to be whatever the other person expects us to be. This is invidious, on Sartre’s view, since it exhibits a total lack of faith in ourselves: to the extent that I have faith in anyone else, I reveal my lack of the courage to be myself. There are, in the end, only two choices—sincerity or self-deception, to be or not to be.


Sartre‘s short story “The Wall” captures his central philosophical themes in a fictional setting. Only in the true-to-life moment of someone facing up to the immanence of his own death will the nature of human life be revealed.

Pablo fully experiences his own weakness in the face of death. But then his captors offer him the choice of saving himself by betraying his comrade. Now he must decide whether to defend the great cause or to live. After sweating it out, he chooses to give the authorities a phony story, knowing that it will guarantee his death. But the tables are turned when the lie turns out to be true.

Here are all of the consequences of human responsibility: anguish over the decision, abandonment in making it alone, and despair when it backfires. This, Sartre believed, is the character of human life.