A head-up: I am from an analytic background, and I have only read continental philosophy via second sources.

I am confused about what 'nothingness' mean in Sartre's ⟪Being and Nothingness⟫. Some authors explain that 'nothingness' is the denial of thinking of one's consciousness as a concrete entity with predefined essence. Consciousness is nothing more than the state of perceiving numerous individual stimulations; consciousness is nothingness. Sartre's 'nothingness' is an affirmation of vanishing the boundary between the subject(consciousness) and the object(the external world).

Other authors explain that 'nothingness' represents the unique ability of a human to perceive a lack of something in the world. Ordinary objects can only exist, and in that sense, it is a being-in-itself. Humans, on the other hand, can perceive a lack of something and can strive forward to solve its deficiency, and in that sense, it is a being-for-itself.

Which explanation is correct? Are both correct? Or is my understanding just wrong?

  • 1
    Did you tried with SEP's entries for Sartre and Existentialism? Oct 3, 2022 at 16:27
  • "Things can be - and their Being is grounded in Nothing's ability to noth." - Kenneth Burke
    – Scott Rowe
    Oct 3, 2022 at 16:52
  • 2
    These 2 readings may not conflict. Inspired by Heiddeger's "being-in-the world", Sartre's Nothingness is uniquely brought by the "being-for-itself" (aka consciousness conceived as a lack of being, a desire for being, a relation of being) into the world and therefore can stand out from being and form attitudes and intentions about other beings by seeing what it is not. But nothingness is not the vanishing boundary between the subject and object, but the ends of fullfillment completion after rid of the bad faith or false consciousness and the necessity to be for-itself instead for-others... Oct 5, 2022 at 5:49
  • In how many ways can we listen to the voices of the dead?
    – Hudjefa
    Mar 16, 2023 at 5:50

1 Answer 1


In Jean-Paul Sartre's existentialist masterpiece, "Being and Nothingness" (1943), nothingness (néant or le néant in French) is a central concept that plays a crucial role in understanding human existence and freedom. As Sartre himself notes, "Nothingness lies coiled in the heart of being – like a worm" (Sartre, 1943, p. 21).

Sartre distinguishes between two modes of being: being-in-itself (être-en-soi) and being-for-itself (être-pour-soi). Being-in-itself refers to objects or things that simply exist, without consciousness or self-awareness. Being-for-itself, on the other hand, is the mode of being associated with human consciousness, which is characterized by self-awareness, intentionality, and the capacity for self-negation or negation of objects (Sartre, 1943, p. 106).

Nothingness, for Sartre, emerges from the distinction between these two modes of being. Human consciousness, as being-for-itself, introduces nothingness into the world by negating or "making nothing" of the being-in-itself (Sartre, 1943, p. 49). This capacity for negation allows humans to envision possibilities, alternatives, and potentialities that do not currently exist.

Furthermore, Sartre argues that human consciousness is defined by a fundamental lack or absence – it is always conscious of something other than itself, and is thus always directed towards something it is not (Sartre, 1943, p. 86). This lack is what makes desire, choice, and freedom possible, as humans are constantly striving to fill the void created by the nothingness at the core of their being. As Sartre writes, "Man is a being who makes himself a lack of being in order that there might be being" (Sartre, 1943, p. 616).


Sartre, J.-P. (1943). Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Gallimard.

  • this seems to get to the point and at least be broadly right. but no quotes makes it more like noise
    – user65174
    Mar 15, 2023 at 23:10
  • well done, thanks. for easy reading, you might add a summary sentence
    – user65174
    Mar 15, 2023 at 23:30
  • +1 Outstanding answer.
    – J D
    Mar 16, 2023 at 1:35
  • Where does this urge fill the void of nothingness comes from? Why can't we just simply live in nothingness? Mar 16, 2023 at 7:23

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