Term Paper: Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre

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[. . .] Sartre's understanding of authenticity begins from a different epistemological point, which is the fact that people are free. He views this to be as inarguable and as absolute as the nature and reality of death: in Existentialism and Humanism he will argue that: "Man makes himself. He isn't ready made to begin with. By choosing his ethics, he makes himself, and the force of circumstances is such that he cannot abstain from choosing one" - an essential summary of his beliefs. And yet while Heidegger begins with death as a reference point for authenticity and Sartre begins with life (or at least with free will), it can be seen that in many ways the two end up meeting in the middle.

And yet, even while we must acknowledge the ways in which Da-sein and consciousness can be understood to be the two sides of the same coin, it must also be acknowledged that they are the two different sides. We can see that there are important differences within these two essentially similar concepts in part four of Being and Nothingness, for example, when Sartre discusses the strivings of consciousness, which has no real "beingness" in the world. Sartre argues that knowledge, that the desire to know and to discover, are essentially aggressive actions taken on the part of consciousness to acquire pieces or aspects of the world. That even artistic enterprise, which can create something entirely new and does not necessarily depend on any appropriation of what already exists in the world, remains acquisitive in a fundamental and destructive sense.

Heidegger would disagree with this, criticizing what he would see as a reiteration of Nietzsche's concept of "will to power." Sartre sees consciousness as a sort of black hole, something that draws other things into it (indeed seems to draw everything into it) while Heidegger is not quite so inclined to see his Da-sein in such negative terms. This is what brings Heidegger far closer to dualism than Sartre is inclined to stray.

And yet despite these differences, we can still see the ways in which, if we were to employ a Structuralist mode of analysis here, both Da-sein and consciousness are essentially similar to each other because each of the philosophers is opposing them to a trait that is essentially the same.

In order to understand the ways in which the two concepts of being and the two philosophers are more similar than not, we must train ourselves to look beyond the often gloomy tone of much of Sartre's writing. Sartre, after all, always firmly insisted that his understanding of existentialism was in fact a form of humanism (which must be seen as essentially a joyful perspective) with its emphasis on human freedom, choice, and responsibility. (He also strongly argued that these same qualities made existentialism compatible with a Marxist analysis of society and history, but that is a different story than the one being told here.)

We can perhaps better understand the essential similarities between the two philosophers and the two philosophies by looking at the ways in which Sartre uses his ideas about consciousness and beingness to explain the importance of perception in Being and Nothingness - and especially the perception of one's own body. He recognizes this as a particularly difficult issue for the philosopher arguing for a distinction between perception and reality, for our knowledge of the structure of our own bodies is dependent on the perception of them by our bodily organs of perception (Manser, 1966, p. 81). This is further complicated by the fact that we tend to perceive ourselves not only through our own senses but as a reflection of the ways that other people see us. Sartre addresses the problem in this way:

My perception of the other's sense-organs is the foundation for an explanation of sensations and in particular of my sensations; but, reciprocally, my sensations so conceived constitute the sole reality of my perceptions of the other's sense-organs... In appearance the structure of the classical theory of sensation is exactly that of the argument of the liar (Sartre, 1956, p. 378).

This description of the way in which we know that we are in the world is in fact not at all distant from Heidegger's, as Murdoch (1953, pp. 85-6) suggests:

To see ourselves through the eyes of another is to see ourselves suddenly fixed, opaque, complete; and we may well be tempted to accept such a valuation as our own, as a relief from the apparent emptiness of self-examination. On the other hand if we disown that which we apprehend the other as seeing, the experience may be distressing or maddening.

It should perhaps be noted that Sartre's idea on the nature of the authentic, on perception and on being, are actually perhaps better understand through an examination of his fiction and his drama than his non-fiction: It is hard to find a more powerful expression of Sartre's ideas than one finds in the compelling Huis-Clos, as Danto (1975) argues.

But wherever one looks in Sartre, one sees an insistence on an acknowledgement of human consciousness as being brought to light by its opposition to less authentic states - which is precisely what Heidegger will also argue.


It is impossible to conclude this discussion of these two philosophers without a biographical note. It is impossible to forget Heidegger's own enthusiastic (if brief) participation in Nazism in the 1930s. His insistence on understanding human nature and human being as states that are intimately connected to the state of other things in the world must be read within the context of a man who would, after the war, be himself so seemingly unwilling to acknowledge his own responsibility. This must in the end distinguish the two philosophers, despite the many points of similarity and agreement between their perspectives.

World War II as an historical event was marked by people's refusal both to take responsibility for their own actions and to acknowledge the reality behind their perceptions. It requires a remarkable degree of divorce between self and responsibility (and self and reality) not to acknowledge the stigmatization and later removal of so many "undesirable" people from a society.

In this historical light, Sartre's extreme insistence that people grapple with the real rather than the imagined or their perceptions seems far less extreme and Heidegger's edging toward dualism far more alarming. Sartre, one of the few leading socialists who so vehemently criticized the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, had learned in the 1940s that ideology can never be substituted for personal responsibility and a realistic perception of what is actually happening in the world. Sartre, who begins with the fact of human freedom, ends with the fact of human responsibility. Heidegger, who begins with the reality of death, dabbled himself with some of the greatest merchants of death in history.


Danto, A. (1975). Jean-Paul Sartre. New York: Viking Press.

Heidegger, M. (1997). Being and time. New York: SUNY.

Manser, A. (1966). Sartre: A philosophic study. London: Athlone Press.

Murdoch, I. (1953). Sartre: Romantic rationalist. New Haven: Yale University.

Sartre, J.-P. (1967). Existentialism and humanism. London: Eyre Methuen.

Sartre, J-P. (1946). (Stuart Gilbert, trans.) No Exit. New York: Alfred Knopf.

Sartre, J-P. (1956). (Hazel Barnes, trans.) Being and nothingness. New York: Philosophical Library.

Sartre, J-P. (1959). (Lloyd Alexander, trans.) Nausea. New York: New… [END OF PREVIEW]

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