I am a novice to JP Sartre's philosophy of existentialism and I came across the notion that in Being and Nothingness,The Origin of Negation where he claims that "nothingness is at the origin of negation". I do however have difficulty understanding this notion. I understand that négatité, being a phenomenon, brought into being only by being-for-itself, can only happen because of the unbound freedom we possess, and that our existence precedes our essence. Is this why nothingness is at the origin of negation? Any help would be appreciated.

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    The claim - very debatable, if Sartre's point of view on philosophical discourse is not fully adopted - is that negation is not defined only as "lack of" some "positive" quality or fact. Negation is "real": it is grounded into nothingness that in turn has ontological status. Feb 7, 2017 at 7:26
  • We can easily find some relevant linguistic examples. Consider the statement : "I have not eaten even an apple today". It is fully "negative", but it is hard to find its "positive" counterpart. At the same time, we grasp its meaning quite easily. But, from this linguistic fact, to conclude with a full-blown ontology... Feb 7, 2017 at 7:30
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA I still don't understand why nothingness would be the origin of negation. Could you elaborate a bit more?
    – O.A.
    Feb 7, 2017 at 20:01
  • You can see the comment into Sebastian Gardner, Sartre's Being and Nothingness : A Reader's Guide (2009), page 65. Feb 7, 2017 at 20:13
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA Page 65 is blocked from view for me, could you briefly describe what it says?
    – O.A.
    Feb 7, 2017 at 20:32

2 Answers 2


Nothing(ness) definitionally is being not Being. It therefore not is, ontologically. It is just that "not", the refusal to be this or that concrete X. Sartre often characterizes for-itself and its activity (choosing, i.e. running from a fact towards a possibility) as "being by mode of non-being".

Nothingness should not be understood as something which is absent here still potentially is present somewhere else (real or imaginary - no matter). Nothing is what is nowhere. Or, rather, it is here as the pure negation/attenuation of any state of identity in "i is X"; that bold "is" is what gets negated. Nothingness emerge (due to human Consciousness making choices) as holes bored through on the body of Being, to attenuate self-identity of things.

Because, for a thing (phenomenon) to have any sense/meaning it must be weakened in its sameness with what it is - for the sake of tying with some chosen possibility. For example, a red ball appears meaningfully "red" to us because its redness is being rejected in exchange of some potentiality in the red quality of the ball. Venus de Milo "has no arms" to us meaningfully only because it could have arms, i.e. be what it is not; however, that "could have arms" is firstly not another state or being, it is the possibility which exists by mode of nothing because it does not change the Venus de Milo to another identity, it just attenuates its present identity by loosening. Only due to that attenuation (negation) of the statue's being without arms it can appear meaningfully as having no arms.

There is nothing (no anything) that separates the Venus as it appears from its identity of Venus armless, yet it is not equal to it. Simultaneously, there is that same nothing that separates it from the possibility of armness, yet having arms is not any guaranteed, even not under consideration. (Nothingness does separates by no miles or millimeters, and it does link by no bridges or molecules.)

Consciousness opens things as phenomena (appearances). That is, it acts as negation and brings nothingness to things. It attenuates a thing's being what it is, due to which the thing can appear what it is. To appear means to be X with potentialities, while being is just to be X - the state of closed and dense identity where no meaning could arise and even the statement "i is X" can't linger as intelligible. Sartre's concept of Nothing/Negation is sharply dialectic, it owes to Hegel.

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    I mentioned earlier two good answers on Sartre by ttnphns, and of course this is one of them! I neglected earlier to upvote both of them because my mind was in the air, so I corrected that tonight and upvoted both answers.
    – Gordon
    Aug 8, 2017 at 23:30
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    May I also speak of this negative in another context, the context of Hegel? The cold, hard finite, the IS, we may think of as positive Being. This Being (the status quo) is confining, even suffocating. The negative step is the step to freedom! It negates the present IS, smashes it, transcends it, frees the possibilities contained in the status quo. The swing of Hegels logic: First: Being, then Nothing (the space for freedom).
    – Gordon
    Aug 9, 2017 at 0:00
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    Hegel: even nature frees itself and realizes its possibilities through a series of negations. "The bud disappears and the blossom breaks through, and we may say that the former is refuted (negated) by the latter..."
    – Gordon
    Aug 9, 2017 at 0:22
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    Thank you for your comments. Your second one demonstrates even sartrian Being accurately, to me.
    – ttnphns
    Aug 9, 2017 at 5:01

[why is that] nothingness is at the origin of negation

According to the IEP

The power of negation is an intrinsic feature of the intentionality of consciousness... in... this power of negation... I operate a nihilation of that which is given... Sartre says that 'the name (...) [of] this possibility which every human being has to secrete a nothingness which isolates it (...) is freedom' (BN, 24-25).

So yes, the answer of why it can occur is "freedom".

Obviously, this answer is quite short.

  • I would only object that it is freedom which is possible through the "mechanics" of nothingness/negation, rather then vice versa. Othervise we have first to define and explain what is "freedom" (for Sartre). Without relying on nothingness/negation concepts it would be quite difficult to do. More, the freedom is a wider concept because it includes also spontaneous self-projection, or choice.
    – ttnphns
    Aug 8, 2017 at 7:40
  • @ttnphns would that depend on the definition of 'why' in the question? i'm not sure, i only answered through google (as you may see), so am more that willing to bow to your greater knowledge
    – user28117
    Aug 8, 2017 at 7:41
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    My comment was no more than a comment. I wasn't in disagreement. I just wanted to say that nothingness/negation are tied with freedom, as you correctly pointed out, still, I don't think it is didactically effective to explain their origin from freedom since freedom is a wider term.
    – ttnphns
    Aug 8, 2017 at 7:45

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