As is evident by the title of Being and Nothingness, nothingness is an important concept in Sartre’s philosophy. In Sartre’s view negation is an important phenomenon and it is important for his description of a typical phenomenological scene, which is grounded in his conception of how the world itself is constituted. Above, Sartre’s being-in-itself and being-for itself distinction is articulated. It is out of the relation between being-in-itself and being-for-itself constituted by us that the word emerges. Sartre maintains that we, as conscious perceivers, direct being-for-itself at the density being-in-itself that constitutes the non-person components of the world. By directing being-for-itself at being-in-itself, Sartre claims that the world becomes decompressed and the scene of typical conscious experience emerges. This world itself has a figure-ground structure in Sartre’s theory. It is in this figure-ground structure that we can understand why negation and nothingness is so integral to Sartre’s phenomenological picture of the world.
Sartre astutely observes that even in the simplest perception, there is always something we are intending explicitly toward (the figure) and everything else (the ground). When, for example, we are looking for something specific (as Sartre is looking for Pierre in the café), we search for a figure against a ground that shows up for us as nothing. While searching, we are negating everything we see as not-X, that is, not the figure we are searching for. As soon as the figure is found, being emerges out of nothingness for Sartre. This negation and figure-ground is something that we as conscious beings bring into the world. Moreover, the negation is decidedly not mental, but rather the third member in the relation among nothingness, being-for-itself and being-in-itself. We can bring nothingness into the world in other ways as well and Sartre discusses the idea of “destruction” in this context. For example, when a building is demolished by a natural disaster, we say it is “destroyed” although, in truth, its matter is merely redistributed. The building is still something, yet we, after the disaster, perceive nothingness where the building used to be. We can also introduce nothingness by thinking of the past or present. For Sartre, both the past and present are not actual things in the world (they do not have being-in-itself of being-for-itself) and thus are part of the realm of nothingness. When we think about the past and future then, we take ourselves “out of circuit” with respect to being, and think about nothingness. This introduction of nothingness is a fundamental feature and central phenomenon of consciousness in Sartre’s theory of being.
A fundamental part of Sartre’s theory of being involves our being able to take ourselves “out of circuit” with respect to the world of being. We do this when we think about the past or the future. This going out of the circuit of being and into the realm of nothingness has important consequences in Sartre’s theory. By going out of circuit, we assume existence as a freedom, that is, as a nothingness outside the causal order of being-in-itself and the rest of the existing world. For Sartre, this entails the consciousness of our own freedom precisely because we become removed from the (perhaps) determined and strict causal order of the world of being. Instead, we are conscious of ourselves as a point consciousness that is disconnected from its past and has an infinity of possibilities in front of it. Since Sartre’s theory stipulates that we have both positional and non-positional consciousness, this consciousness of nothingness also entails consciousness of consciousness of nothingness. The non-positional consciousness of ourselves as a freedom and the source of nothingness is what Sartre calls “anguish.” He carefully distinguishes between anguish and fear by invoking the positional/non-positional consciousness distinction. That is, while fear is a relation of positional conscious comprised of a person (for-itself) and a thing in the world (in-itself), anguish is a self-consciousness of having that fear. It is consciousness of having fear, specifically toward the infinity of possible futures that lie in front of me at any given time and in any given course of action. It is a reflective state in which we are conscious of our own positional consciousness of freedom. In anguish, I reflect on this aspect of my conscious existence. I can apprehend myself in a relation to the world and become anxious about my future, through the realization that I have no control over my future self. The same is applicable to the past, insofar as I must reconstruct the path of conscious experience that brought me to the present if I wish to avoid anguish and realizing myself as unbound to any actions performed by my past self. Sartre takes our going out of circuit and the consciousness of our own freedom as evidence that we are necessarily free as a result of our ability to go out of circuit from being into nothingness. Sartre seems right in this astute observation. What more is freedom than the consciousness of being free to choose the future without being restrained by the past or the typical causal order of the world?