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Jaap Pronk 02-09-2009

Freedom and Determinism: Like Oil and Water? We are radically free beings, not determined by anything, and nothing can compel us to act in a certain way.1 This, in short, is a main aspect of Jean-Paul Sartre’s account of humans and how we experience the world. In his view, our consciousness separates us from the rest of the world, and because in our minds we are free: we are free. However, is this a holistic account of being? Are we not more than just our consciousness? And are we not in certain ways determined by what is outside of our consciousness? By looking at Sartre’s account of human reality, his view on freedom, and, most importantly, the way we experience it, I shall demonstrate that he is biased, incomplete or unrealistic when it comes to these notions. Hence, I argue that Sartre’s ‘radical freedom’ is not an accurate description of freedom as humans experience it, and therefore humans can, in fact, be determined by certain factors. First of all, we should investigate Sartre’s account of the ‘human condition’, or human reality. In his view there are two sides to a human being: facticity and transcendence. Facticity is what is factual about us, our history, our nationality, our bodily features, our situation, etc. Transcendence is our ability to ‘transcend’ or go beyond this factual information, it is our freedom. This transcendence also separates a human being from an object-like being, or a ‘being-in-itself’; it makes a human being what Sartre calls a ‘being-for-itself’. Sartre goes on claiming that because we live in the mode of being-for-itself we are essentially ‘nothingness’, the past can say a lot about someone, but it does not exist, and humans are future-directed beings, but the future is non-existent. Because of this, neither the past nor the future can determine us, thus making us radically free. And, according to Sartre, “[...] freedom is not a being; it is the being of man– i.e., his nothingness of being”.2 But are we not more than ‘nothingness’? It seems that Sartre has forgotten about facticity, which makes up an important part of our being. He focuses too much on our ability to transcend and starts to see this very ability as our being. But we do not live solely in our minds, we live within a world of being-for-itself and being-initself, in fact, even humans themselves are partly in-itself. This cannot simply be ignored. In reply, Sartre might say that he does acknowledge the fact that facticity has 1

Thomas Martin, Oppression and the Human Condition: An Introduction to Sartrean Existentialism, (2002) p. 15 2 Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology, (1958) p. 440441

Jaap Pronk 02-09-2009

an influence on us, but that it does not influence our freedom. So what does Sartre understand by the term ‘freedom’? In his work Being and Nothingness he writes: “[...] the formula ‘to be free’ does not mean ‘to obtain what one has wished’ but rather ‘by oneself to determine oneself to wish’ (in the broad sense of choosing). In other words success is not important to freedom.”3 Sartre seems to focus his notion of freedom on the transcendent world; we are free in our minds. And he is right in that sense. However, drawing back on the previous point, do we live solely in our minds? A human being is partly in-itself, and it is this part that connects us to the world of being-in-itself. In other words, Sartre’s notion of freedom is concerned with freedom of mind and not freedom of act. But which is more important? This is where our actual experience of freedom comes into play. Whereas Sartre claims that success is not important to freedom, do we really experience it that way? One of Sartre’s famous examples claims that “the slave in chains is as free as his master”4, for they are both equally free in their mind. But is this how the slave experiences his freedom? Most likely not. And this is where Sartre goes wrong, because existential phenomenology should be about how humans experience the world, not how it could be in theory. In other words, we might in theory be radically free, but life shows us that we are limited and sometimes even determined by certain factors and because of this we tend to make the same choices and mistakes. And so, in trying to describe human experience, theory does not suffice; instead we should be looking at the practical outcome of it. Success does matter; in fact, it determines our experience of freedom. Moreover, Sartre claims that because we are so radically free and responsible for every choice we make, we feel anguished by the vast horizon of opportunities and possibilities.5 So, if we truly experience radical freedom we should experience it at all times, because we are constantly faced with choices. Why then is it that we do not feel anguished all the time? Anguish is a powerful negative feeling that can mute other, more positive feelings, such as joy, love or happiness. However, we are still able to experience these feelings despite radical freedom. Again, radical freedom is not a holistic description of our experience. 3

Sartre, Being and Nothingness, p. 483 Idem, p. 550 5 Idem, p. 31-32 4

Jaap Pronk 02-09-2009

So are we free or determined? Sartre doesn’t think the two can go together: “Either man is wholly determined [...] or else man is wholly free.”6 But is this true? Is there no in between? Practically speaking, humans are determined by a lot of things. A simple example is death. Humans are determined to die; the only choice we might have in this is when we die. Sartre would most probably counter this by saying that this very choice makes us free, but this does not take away the inevitability, the determinism of eventually dying. Also, the genes in one’s body determine not only the colour of our hair, or the tone of our skin, it also determines us to be smart, or, for instance, an alcoholic. Being an alcoholic, you will be determined to have a tendency to drink. However, you still have a choice, although this is likely to be an uneven one. Imagine every choice we are faced with as a pair of scales. Given our facticity, the scales will never be equally balanced, and although our transcendence may be able to put some weight in the scale, it cannot always prevent it from tipping. In this way, it is similar to the question of whether or not a ball will always drop when the hand lets it go. By means of deductive reasoning – reasoning by logically analysing available facts – we can be pretty sure that it will always fall, for the ball is subject to gravity. So what happens when we apply deductive reasoning to human decisionmaking? Of course, a human being possesses an ability that the ball does not have: transcendence. Nevertheless, we can be pretty sure that the alcoholic – given his genes, his history, his addiction – will grab the bottle when he is faced with it. Or, in a more positive sense, who would not choose happiness over grief, love over hate, or life over death? Admitted, there are always exceptions, but isn’t the same true for the dropped ball? How can we know for sure that it will always fall? The lack of transcendence notably decreases the chance of the ball not falling, but transcendence in human decision-making can sometimes simply be too weak of a power to influence our ‘choices’. Hence, we could say that we are subject to our facticity and sometimes even determined by it, like the ball is subject to gravity and most of the times determined to fall. This does not mean, however, that human action can be causally explained. Having the genes of an alcoholic does not mean that you are determined to drink, or that drinking is contingent; it simply means that you are determined to have a 6

Sartre, Being and Nothingness, p. 442

Jaap Pronk 02-09-2009

tendency to. In conclusion, seeing that Sartre’s notion of the human condition is focussed too much on ‘what is not’, or us being ‘nothingness’, we could say that it is a biased account of human being. Furthermore, his focus on ‘freedom of mind’ and his ignorance of ‘freedom of act’ imply that his understanding of the term ‘freedom’ is an incomplete one. But most importantly, Sartre seems to have lost the intention of describing human experience, causing him to lose himself in the freedom within the transcendent world, forgetting that that is not the only world we live in. Freedom is not just freedom of mind, and therefore success an important part in experiencing our freedom. At the same time, this success is limited and sometimes even determined by certain factors of our facticity. Therefore, it can be said that humans are free to choose, but we are determined to have a tendency towards certain choices.


Jaap Pronk 609P0003 02-09-2009

Freedom and Determinism - Like Oil and Water  

We are radically free beings, not determined by anything, and nothing can compel us to act in a certain way. This, in short, is a main aspe...