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