In December 2014, the Association recherches mimétiques held a one-day colloquium on Girard and Sartre at the (new) Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Preparing my paper gave me the opportunity to reread after many years the passages of L’être et le néant in which Sartre introduces the categories of being and especially, nothingness.

Sartre’s fundamental object of investigation is the post-phenomenological, “existential” concern of Heidegger: the state of (human) being-in-the world, and what the human and the world must be in order that the relationship between them be possible. The main point of my talk was to point out the anthropological implications of Sartre’s conception of nothingness, which like all “existential” concepts remains nominally metaphysical while becoming an instrument for exploring the scenic, intentional human world. This is particularly true of Sartre, whose emphasis on pure negativity, in contrast with the more richly experiential concepts of Heidegger, makes him more attuned to the fundamental paradox of the human dependence on representation, which can best be expressed in metaphysical terms as the addition of “nothingness” to what had previously been the compact fullness of the world.

I have always been struck by the anthropological aptness of Sartre’s notion that we are separated from being by nothingness and that only humans experience nothingness or any other form of negativity. There is no primordial absence from which either being in general or the human for-itself emerges; l’homme est l’être par qui le néant vient au monde; man is the being by/through whom nothingness comes into the world (60). No doubt being-in-itself precedes nothingness, but this being—of whose preexistence to us only we are conscious—is “massive,” without negativity or absence—in a word, unthematized by thought (or rather, we would insist, language). “If nothingness founds negation, it is because it holds within it as its essential structure the no.” (54) It is curiously characteristic of Sartre that even no, French non,is presented as a concept rather that a word that one speaks, or even thinks. Sartre recognizes as our experience of nothingness only what he calls négatités (negativities), negations of specific human expectations, such as “the absence of Pierre,” “insufficient money to pay the fare.” The concept of nothingness is our generalization from such experiences; it is not an anti-substance in itself.

Rereading Sartre’s text confirmed my sense that his ontology is anthropologically sharper than Heidegger’s, for whom the source of our experience of negativity was our relationship to time, and the key to the human, our awareness of death. As Sartre points out, Heidegger’s notion of nothingness is, unlike his own, suffused with a ghostly substantiality that infects man with a tragic incompleteness. “Heidegger . . . makes of nothingness a kind of intentional correlative of transcendence [that is, the transcendence inherent in consciousness with respect to its content, what we call the situation of this content on the scene of representation] without seeing that he has already inserted nothingness into transcendence itself, as its originary structure.” (55) That is, consciousness itself supplies negation; there is no need to postulate it in the world that consciousness encounters.

This Chronicle attempts to sharpen my Parisian analysis to make clearer where Sartre does and does not anticipate the anthropological understanding of being that has been at the root of GA. I will concentrate my remarks on the passage at the beginning of L’être et le néant following the Introduction, where Sartre engages in a preliminary exploration of man’s relationship to the world.

Sartre has already made clear that, in contrast to being-in-itself, the en-soi, human being for-itself or pour-soi is defined as “being what it is not and not being what it is” (33), a paradoxical formulation that insists on the quality of consciousness as a transcendence of its content, since “consciousness is always consciousness of something.” But next we must understand how this relationship manifests itself in reality. Thus we must begin from some form of behavior(conduite) that allows us to examine the man-world relationship in action. It is here that Sartre will introduce non-being, not as a metaphysical a priori, but as an element of experience.

Seeking for a behavior that might reveal our relationship with Being, Sartre observes that since his discussion of this topic is the result of his having asked a question about it, he is already engaged in a behavior the analysis of whose characteristics might lead him to an answer: that of interrogation, which term supplies the heading of the first section of the first chapter entitled “The Origin of Negation” (pp. 37-40 in the original French edition).

Sartre discovers in his questioning three kinds of non-being. First: an interrogation, he notes, must be able to receive a negative response. Although asking how a given behavior reveals man’s relationship to the world does not allow of a yes-no answer, the question can receive the broader negative response that this behavior simply does not reveal the relationship he seeks. Sartre’s point is that whatever information an interrogation seeks, there is no guarantee that one’s need will be met by the response.

From this possibility, he derives a second negation, the absence of knowledge implied by his asking the question in the first place. One might think that since the question must precede the response, this negation should come first, and that Sartre’s exposition is faulty, but it is justified by the fact that his order follows that of the philosopher’s discovery of the possibilities of non-being inherent in our relationship to being. For if interrogation always succeeded, then the subject would not be aware of his ignorance as a mode of non-being, since to ask the question would be immediately to produce its response. (For example, today, given our access to the Internet, we know we can immediately find the answers to myriad simple questions, and therefore tend to consider ourselves no longer as lacking this knowledge, but as possessing it in a virtual state.) Sartre’s subject discovers the non-being of his not knowing only when his interrogation fails.

Readers of The Origin of Language will recall that a quite similar sequence describes the emergence of the declarative from the (failed) imperative: the subject, having learned the ostensive sign that accompanies the presence of its (originarily sacred) object, uses the sign imperatively to “produce” this object. If this imperative is always satisfied, as a baby’s cry makes “Mommy!” appear, then the sign appears indeed to produce the object, just as Sartre’s always-successful questioner would appear to “produce” a satisfactory answer. In this case, the subject need not consider the imperative as a different form from the ostensive, since one way or another, the sign is always accompanied by its referent, even if in the imperative case it precedes rather than follows it on the scene of representation. It is only when the object is not produced that, in our derivation, declarative language itself takes the place of the otherwise magical fulfiller of the ostensive aim of the imperative; instead of supplying the cat, we merelysay it is “on the mat.”

The most important of the three non-beings that Sartre discovers on the way to understanding our relationship to the world is the third, that of limitation. The answer is “limited” in the sense that it may be stated “this, and not otherwise”; determinatio est negatio. In the penultimate paragraph of this section, Sartre sums up his quest and reformulates this response as our fundamental relationship to being:


We went on a search for being and it seemed to us that we were led into the heart of being by the series of our interrogations. Now, it appears that a glance at our interrogation itself, at the moment when we thought we had reached our goal, reveals to us all at once that we are surrounded by nothingness. It is the permanent possibility of non-being, outside us and in us, that conditions our questions about being. And it is again non-being that will circumscribe the answer: what being will be will necessarily stand out against a background of what it is not. Whatever that answer may be, it can be formulated thus: “Being is this, and outside of this,nothing.” (40; emphasis the author’s)


Sartre’s being surrounded by nothingness is a metaphysical version of Durkheim’s sacred surrounded by the profane. In our hypothesis this opposition defines the referent of the originary sign: the participants point with their aborted gesture of appropriation to the central object, the appetite for which is too great to permit its undeferred appropriation by any one or all. This object is the sacred referent of the sign; everything else is “profane,” without significance. And in this most general of respects, nothing in the world of human representation has changed since the origin. A declarative sentence today is about a subject/topic that, for the space of that sentence, is the sole criterion of significance. As far as that sentence is concerned, the rest of the world does not exist; its existence is not denied, but it is simply irrelevant, absent from the scene of representation.

Thus Sartre’s existential discovery procedure follows on a purely conceptual plane the series of linguistic forms that GA derives from the originary hypothesis. Yet this “return to the origin” is not conceived as a temporal retrogression, but a voyage of discovery within the metaphysical realm of mature language. The interrogation of our relationship to being is conceived as a purely conceptual one that forecloses any search for the pre-historical origin of the human relationship to being. The third non-being, “this, and otherwise, nothing,” is not understood as the originary one that underlies the others. Sartre’s remains a metaphysical, not an anthropological humanism. For the latter to be the case, Sartre would have had to justify anthropologically humanity’s choice of being, which is to say that the being that comes into being surrounded by nothingness would have to be motivated by a condition in the prehuman world.

This point having been made, Sartre’s more abstract version of the free human for-itself inspires us to reflect on the preconditions of our hypothesis. On the one hand, the heightened level of mimesis that makes the pecking-order hierarchy impossible is also the precondition for a universe of shared representations where the latter can be guaranteed of sufficient “imitation” from one mind to another on the basis of common appetitive interest. But on the other hand, what makes human intentionality possible is the dense non-significance of the “profane,” the rarity of the sacred/significant that lets us experience it in our world within a protective surrounding of nothingness. We can look around us today and name everything within sight, even write about it in our novels and poems; but our existence as humans is dependent on the fact that our appetites pick out for us a few rare objects as truly significant, objects that are susceptible to become the foci of rivalry but are also sufficiently detached from their surroundings to lend themselves to the deferral of this rivalry by means of the signifying contemplation whose origin our hypothesis seeks to describe.

Sartre’s understanding of negation is deep enough to be called prelinguistic, in the sense that the exclusion of the non-significant is a precondition of significance. The existence of a scene of representation implies the exclusivity of its content; Durkheim never reflected on the fact that the sacred exists only “surrounded” by the profane. Put another way, if signs were merely “substitutes” for things, as folk semiotics would have it, we would still be in the natural world of Pavlov and Skinner—and of the present-day apostles of “neuromania” denounced by Raymond Tallis. The first purpose of the sign is to pick out from its surroundings a unique being whose election places it in a space of interdiction.

In prefiguring, albeit in the solitude of the isolated pour-soi, the scenic nature of human attention, Sartre anticipates Derrida’s différance—which itself, let us not forget, still retains too much of its metaphysical grounding in the givenness of language to account for anthropogenesis. Both le néant and la différance are modes of non-immediacy that create the space for the scenic intentionality of human consciousness. The difference that moves Derrida into the anthropological domain of the sign while Sartre remains behind in that of metaphysics is expressed in the first word of the title of Derrida’s first book: La voix et le phénomène. It is the voice, the instrument of speech, that remains absent throughout all of Sartre’s meditation on being. His thinking subject, even when on occasion he engages in conversation, never comes to reflect on the communicative, collective nature and origin of this central human behavior.

Both Sartre and Derrida agree that in order to intend the being surrounded by the non-being of limitation, the subject must forgo the immediate, prehuman connection to it that the originary gesture of appropriation would have attempted to enact, and which even in the absence of such an act would have existed between perception and “reflex” action in the animal brain. The consciousness-of that excludes the rest of the universe (“this, and otherwise, nothing“) is not a mere detection mechanism driven by reflexive tropisms; the nothingness that surrounds meaningful being and that defers its appropriation in reality is already an instrument of deferral in the mind of the human subject.

Sartre brings nothingness and negation into metaphysics not merely, as does Hegel, as logically necessary aspects of being, but as the mark of the human. Sartre purges Heidegger’s metapsychology of its naturalistic haze; negation/non-being is not death, it is not “time,” it is, in effect, a linguistic category. In Sartre the existential (in fact, anthropological) turn taken by Heidegger acquires the rigor of a semiotic, as illustrated in the two originary values of beingand nothingness, opposed in Sartre’s title as being and time are not in Heidegger’s. Hence I think it fair to say that L’être et le néant represents the summit and the endpoint of classical metaphysical reflection.