What is freedom? According to Sartre, it is the most fundamental aspect of being human. The actions we take in our lives can be explained in many different ways: by neuroscience, psychology, psychoanalysis, and various social and cultural theories such as feminism and Marxism. But all of these are turned on their head by something that Sartre believed explains our actions more than anything — freedom. Freedom of choice. Freedom to change the present circumstances. Freedom to re-invent ourselves, to change direction, to say ‘No!’ According to Sartre, this ability — indeed this relentless tendency — to say ‘No’ to the present, and strive towards a future that looks different, this drive to change even our very personalities, is the defining characteristic of consciousness. Because of consciousness’s unquenchable need to negate the actual ‘somethingness’ of the world as it is at any given moment, Sartre equated consciousness with what he called ‘nothingness’. As a philosopher concerned with metaphysics (the branch of philosophy concerned with what exists), Sartre was committed to including consciousness as a primary aspect of existence, even though it was clearly different from the material world, which he called Being. Thus the title of his major philosophical work published in 1943 — Being and Nothingness — in which he tried to explain the nature of existence in a way that encompassed both the material world and our ineffable experiences of consciousness and free will.
Cartoon Credit: Mark Doeffinger
Martin Heidegger came up with a radical notion that has enabled a whole new way of seeing ourselves and the world. This notion has since gained wider acceptance, and is especially prevalent in European contemporary philosophy. The notion is this: that language speaks us rather than we speak language. Or that we are constructed by the language. As Heidegger put it, if we listen we hear the language before and as we speak it–the words come naturally to us and shape what is important in the world.
Language can also help us to uncover, to unveil, to reveal the truth. Thus words, through speaking or writing, can help us to see the truth. Words can show us what is there.
The above ideas might not seem so strange to those of us who have tried creative writing. Just as the sculptor chips away at the marble to reveal the figure that was waiting to be revealed, writers have often commented how their stories unfold despite the writer. The writer’s worst-kept secret is that they didn’t write stories; the stories write themselves.
A Stephen King described in his book On Writing, the writer is like the palaeontologist who brushes the dust off to reveal the fossil (writing–the story–the creation–the work of art), perfectly formed underneath (that was always there).
Cover of Derrida
Amy Ziering Kofman:
If you were to watch a documentary about a philosopher – Heidegger, Kant or Hegel, what would you like to see in it?
Their sex lives. If you want a quick answer. I would like to hear them speak about their sexual lives. I would like to hear them speak about it. What is the sexual life of Hegel or Heidegger?
Derrida. Dir. Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman. Zeitgeist Films. 2002. Film1