Jean-Paul Sartre - Being and Nothingness -

David M. Boje, Ph.D. (September 3, 2001) - MAIN Site Fathers and Mother of Management

Also see What is Situation? - Sartre Applied to Situation Leadership

Being and Nothingness. In that work, Jean-Paul Sartre attempts to straighten out a question that had eluded Descartes, Kant and Leibniz, and to a lesser extent Heidegger and Bergson: What is the relation of being to its nothingness? Bergson, for example' posited the act of duration, in which organization is melodic, involving a multiplicity of interpretations. Anyone who has been in a meetings, knows there are always competing perspectives and interpretations of events.  Sartre, however, points out that if we talk of "temporality" then duration, as a multiplicity of interpretations, must presuppose "an organizing act" (Sartre, 1956: 135). Kant, in contrast to Bergson, did not see a synthesis in a multiplicity and the organizing act. At issue, for organization theory, is the terrain of "collective memory."  For Bergson, the past interpretations cling to those of the present, penetrating the present in the form of memory, which is "ekstatically in the Past." What is ekstatic? For, Sartre's theory of temporality and organizing, ekstatic is not one, but three dimensions. And this is one of many contributions he makes in Being and Nothingness.  To understand ekstatic, you will need a bit of vocabulary. I will work through an example of being David, not being Dave, and the nothingness of Dave and David.  Believe it or not, Sartre speaks to the soul of human beings, to our habits of drinking, work, and dress, to the fashioning of our life style. Anyone who has experienced divorce, alcoholism, or workaholism can understand Sartre without translation.  In the following vocabulary, I will point this out, and end with organizing and managing examples, for what is said about Being and Nothingness for Dave and David, can also be said of organizing and managing, and organization studies.

Sartre - Being and Nothingness -VOCABULARY

Affirmation - "Affirmation is always affirmation of something" (Sartre, 1956: lxv). When I say "I David, am happy" I am affirming something, and my act of saying my affirmation can be distinguished from the person (I reflect upon) that I am affirming. At the same time, an affirmation is always a negation of something, to be what it is not.  For example, in my first marriage I was called "Dave." In my second, marriage, to reflect, upon the new person, I am becoming, I changed my name to "David."  I do not turn around or respond, when someone yells, "Dave." Because, "Dave" is not the being-for-itself, I intend to be in my second marriage.  I want to free my self with my daily affirmations, to becoming "David" which here and there is really "nothingness" for I am not yet all of David that I want to be.  David asserts he can no longer be the Dave that he was, and can be the David that he is not yet being.  Still David, can also be in denial, not seeing the Dave he still is.

Being-For-Itself - Being has several dimensions. Being-for-itself is defined "as being what it is not and not being what it is" (Sartre, 1956: lxv). It is our potentiality to be more than we are being. The For-Itself is perpetually designing itself not to be the In-Itself. If Dave is In-Itself, and David is For-Itself, we can say the following: Dave is being David, which Dave is not, and at the same time Dave what Dave is.  I am a plurality: Dave is part of my being, and David is part of my being, and so is the nothingness that I have negated in both Dave and David. I see a certain lack in David, but a number of lacks no longer available to David. David is a line of flight away from Dave; fleeing the being David was, and fleeing the being which David is not. David is not a meat-eater, not an alcohol consumer, and not a Harley owner. Can I be joyful without Harley> I am the being David, along with the being Dave which I am denying in acts of nihilation. Being-For-Itself is an act of my self reflection of David making a conscious act to become what I am not yet being; Dave is completing himself in becoming David.  For example, Dave is a workaholic (and write-a-holic) who is in David about to become balanced (in work, leisure, spirit, joy and passion).  David-For-Itself reflect upon parts of David, such as finding balance, that is not yet.  While being Dave, I had this wondrous Harley-Davidson motorcycle. To become David, I sold the Hawg, stopped wearing all black clothes, black boots, and headed off to a new adventure.  Being-For-Itself became redefined as post-Harley lifestyle.  For-Itself is a witness of reflection, reflecting upon a form of flight in the face of being (Sartre, 1956: 1213). Post-Harley is a line of flight by Being-For-Itself, without Harley.

Photo 1: Dave's Electroglide Harley

Being-In-Itself - We can be conscious of events, of our being (ontology).  There are several types of being.  Dave simply being who Dave is, is only one way of being David (In-Itself).  Being-in-itself is just being, being what it is. Being-In-Itself is full of itself (Sartre, 1956: 74). It is engaged in the world, too busy for self-reflection.  When Dave wrote the Harley at 90 MPH along the LA freeways, he was just being full of himself. It takes total concentration to ride. In some cases, we have to be what we are being, head out onto that road, come what may, feeling every bump, wind change, and aware of traffic behind, on the side, and ahead.  Sometimes being is what it is. Just a guy out for a ride on his Hawg. The moment you stop to reflect upon the rider riding the Hawg, some pothole, or rut in the pavement, will claim you.  Beings have to be what they are  (Sartre, 1956: lxv). A Harley dude has to ride to live, and live to ride.   When I write and work beyond certain limits, I am just being what David and Dave are, workaholic. I am working myself to death. As I reflect upon my workaholism, declare an affirmation, "being happy is being balanced," then I switch from Being-In-Itself (workaholic) to Being-For-Itself (affirmation of being balanced, or not being as balanced as I want to be).  Still a workaholic has to be what they are, David still has to work to feel good about himself as a human. Sartre was a workaholic, writing past the point where his health would fail him. David does not have to ride the Hawg, dress all in black, and put on the shades to feel good about himself. 

Ekstases - There are three dimensions, or ekstases to nihilation (Sartre, 1956: 137):

  1. To not-be what it is,

  2. To be what it is not,

  3. To be what it is not and to not-be what it is -- within the unity of a perpetual referring.

These three ekstatic dimensions rest on the definition of "ekstasis" as the distance from self. My Dave =:= David consciousness exists on these three dimensions.  I may discover one first, but that does not mean the other two will not be discovered in acts of self-reflection or some accident of discovery or encounter.  My distance from my "self" is nothing real, nothing In-Itself, it is as Sartre says, simply nothingness which "is made-to-be" as a separation (p. 137). Consider each of the three dimensions.

  1. To not-be what it is - For-It-Self has to be its being, being what It-Is. A nothingness of facticity separates Dave from David. David is still just being Dave, trying to not-be what Dave is. David can neither get rid of Dave, nor merge with it.  You do not escape the Past; it is always bearing witness to David non-being David. As Sartre says, when "I have finished drinking," I have drunk the ensemble slips into the past (Sartre, 1956: 141).

  2. To be what it is not - is the game of David reflecting on what he is not being. David, is never what David is, even with vegetarian practices, David is not fully vegetarian; even as Vegan, there are practices yet to be achieved. David seeks to not be alcoholic, to not be Dave drinking, but David is always alcoholic, haunted by a craving to taste the red wines of France. David is always apprehending himself as a certain lack, and it is this lacking, that prompts my desire to be what Dave is not.  "To drink or to be drinking means never to have finished drinking, to have still to be drinking beyond the drinking which I am (Sartre, 1956: 141).  You see Dave is the unachieved totality of David, to be what it is not, that is the question, I ponder.

  3. To be what it is not and to not-be what it is -- within the unity of a perpetual referring - is my David =:= Dave perpetual game of reflected-reflecting. I am plurality and a unity of one, and the lines of flight my selves are taking. Whenever I reflect upon both David and Dave, one comes to mine and the other escapes my grasp.  "It is this game of musical chairs at the heart of the For-itself which is Presence to being" (Sartre, 1956: 142).  My Present, Past, and Future are all at the same time, me dispersing in three directions. No one has ontological priority over the other except in the fictive imagination of the storyteller.  Yet Sartre accuses Heidegger of putting the accept on the future ekstasis, and I accuse Sartre of putting the accent on the present (here and now) one (p. 142).

The three ekstatic dimensions introduce a dynamic quality to temporality, and for Sartre an accent on the way Kant refuted Berkeley for his idealism in assuming humans are beings-in-itself, a favorite argument of Leibniz change change also implies permanence (change and permanence interpenetrate). Change is more in the eye of the witness than in the actions of the collective. 

Epistemology - This is defined as how we know the world, our methodology for knowing what we are being and not being. One methodology is self-reflection. Nietzsche keep notebooks, and did lots of self-reflection (Will To Power is a collection of his notebooks). Therapy is another method to know the being-in-itself (being what it is) and to know the being-for-itself (being all you can be), and confronting our nothingness (I am not this inner or outer experience of self).  I know I am being perpetually renewed, yet staying the same, and also I am nothingness (all at the same time).  Dave is a phantom presence that haunts David, and vice versa, and in acts of self-reflection I apprehend this plurality (Sartre, 1956: 90). And David is a completion of Dave that haunts my For-Itself. 

(See Pistol Pete Example)

Nihilation - The nihilating act of David erasing the "e" from Dave and replacing it it "id" is an example of nihilation. It is an ontological act, and an epistemological act of self-reflection.  There came these moments in my life, where I apprehend myself as not being what I want to be, and being what I did not want to be (each act is a reflective cogito). The nihilation of Dave as my being is more than the duality of David =:= Dave or For-itself =:= In-itself, or the trilogy of Being-For-Itself =:= Being-In-Itself =:= Nothingness.  Nihilation of Dave, is Dave recovering the necessity of being David into his being through acts of reflexivity.  Being is the foundation of nothingness as the nihilation of its own being (Sartre, 1956: 80).  For Dave to found David, in a nihilation of Dave, requires finding a certain distance from the self I am being and not being. This distance found in the act of nihilation, is more than a duality (either/or) and it is more than a dialectic in search of some new synthesis. "In short, every effort to conceive of the idea of a being which would be the foundation of its being results inevitably in forming that of a being which contingent as being-in-itself, would be the foundation of its own nothingness" (Sartre, 1956: 80). Being cannot be annihilated, it can be nihilated in acts of re-reflection and reflection.  Nihilation also means, I can play at being what I am not, and being who I am; a sort of methodology of investigation of the self. I must play at being David the university professor, but sometimes I see Dave creep back in, and I am teaching in a way that is more Dave than David. Playing at being Dave and at being David is methodology for nihilation.  I was born "David" and somehow got scripted into the role of "Dave" and it took divorce to set me free of that performance.  I am not sure I must reunite Dave and David to be what I am. In decompressing Dave =:= David, I nihilate myself, in the sense of In-Itself sees its nothingness, and For-Itself seeks some foundation in David.  "Desire is a lack of being" (Sartre, 1956: 88). I apprehend not being what David can be, and here and there reflect on the unity of the totality of Dave, David, nothingness, and my reflecting on the reflection of this plurality. There is lack, suppressing, denial, and discovery of my human reality and the nihilation of Dave and David. On the face of David is a tragic mask of not becoming Dave, and on David is a mask or unconscious grimace of a sleeper who is dead to the desire for meat, alcohol, work, and Hawg.  Dave and David nihilate each other in acts of transformation and transcendence.  At any moment the For-itself can become In-Itself, as it perpetually exists, in any case.  Dave is a fragment of David, and both are me.

Nothingness - Nothingness, where to begin? "Nothingness is the putting into question of being by being--that is, precisely consciousness or for-self" (Sartre, 1956: 79). Nothingness is always right there with being; being can not escape nothingness.  As Dave, I drank, smoked, ate meat, rode my Hawg, and worked myself to the point of exhaustion and stupor each and every day of my life.  As David, this is becoming nothingness to me. I am vegetarian (vegan), do not drink alcohol, don't smoke, the Hawg is memory (though I rent one from time to time), and workaholism (still sits on my shoulder). David is a negation of Dave; Dave is a negation of David. And it is not through a dialectic that David will merge with Dave and become some new synthesis of being.  But if we ask what it is that separates David from Dave, we are forced to admit it is nothing (Sartre, 1956: 77). Dave and David are co-presents.  I can not conceive of the "separation," the "betweenness" can not be grasped or reflected upon, unless I am conscious of Dave and David.  David seeks to have a negating or nihilating power over Dave; and vice versa. David has faith that the "e" will disappear, an "i" will replace it, and a second "d" will be added.  I am not another being, just my perpetual reference of self to self, David to Dave, and my reflection on my act of reflection, and my reflection to the reflection. Each moment has infinite possibility, for me to apprehend my own totality, which includes reflection on the reflecting I do here and now.  As the "e" disappears in Dave, there is this hole in my being, the fall of being-in-itself toward being-for-itself, the fall of Dave, toward being David.  But his is nothingness, veganism, not drinking, not being workaholic, and not being Harley-man, that toward the For-Itself, is a "be-made-to-be" (Sartre, 1956: 79)

Ontology - This is being in the world, and can be being-in-itself and being-for-itself, and just being nothing. Ontology implies both being and not-being, and our nothingness. Our consciousness, in acts of reflection, can pass beyond what exists in the world, to what is not being. Dave is reflecting on being David, and David is reflecting on Dave not being.  Heidegger says we can have a pre-ontological comprehension of being, that does not yet have concepts for explaining it. I think I felt this impression, one I could not put into words, when I left my first marriage, to be For-Itself, and stop being In-Itself.  I refer to this as pre-narration, and to the bet that some being (story of being) can be fashioned and take hold in the collective mind and collective memory (I call this antenarrative).  My antenarrative was that I could become David, and stop being Dave.  "Pre-reflective consciousness is self-consciousness" (Sartre, 1956: 76).  In my pre-reflective cogito of the possibility and the ante (bet) that Dave could become David was an affirmation, as well as a thirst to nihilate Dave.  And here and there is a pre-narrative of my consciousness of my own plurality, and what I am doing to my selves.

Temporality - Chronology is an illusion, a storyteller's fiction about the linearity of time, about the chronologically ordered succession of events to come, that are the results of these prior events, accidents, and choices. The past is no longer; the future is not yet; and the instantaneous present does not exist (Sartre, 1956: 107).  All three are fiction images, and part of our collective memory, when we look at managing and organizing. "We shall not succeed in constituting the dimension 'past' out of elements borrowed exclusively from the present any more than 'geneticists' have succeeded in constituting extension from unextended elements" (Sartre, 1956: 109).  For Bergson, an event goes into the past, but does not cease to be; it ceases to act and remains "in its place" at its date for eternity (p. 109).  Sartre goes beyond Bergson's idea of temporality as a multiplicity of interpretations that invade the present. Sartre uses the concept of "interpenetration" (also a favorite term of Mary Parker Follett).  Sartre moves beyond Bergson (and Descartes), because they each isolate the present as apart from the past and future. For Sartre, "the past is not nothing; neither is it the present; but at its very source it is bound to a certain present and to a certain future, to both of which it belongs" (Sartre, 1956: 100).  For example, Dave, for David is part of a past, but Dave's existence continues to touch (and haunt) David, for I have these pasts, these presents, and these possible futures, all at once. Past, present, and future interpenetrate me. Organizations, are always reorganizing their past, present, and future. Organizing is forgetting events, restorying events, and reimagining some history as a pathway to a future that is not yet.  Organizing always involves historical revisionism. As soon as some CEO pronounces a vision, it becomes false at the moment it is announced; the organization is not being that, and is being what it is now nothingness.  The organization is not its past, and seeks to be answerable instead to a future that is for now nothingness. Organization is related to its being by a bond to its non-being.  The past is restoried as the In-Itself the organization now seeks to surpass, in order to found itself in nothingness, for it is not being the performances it seeks to be. Nihilation of past, present, and future is the interpenetrating being of organizing, the foundation of all organizational change and transformation. What is down-sizing and reengineering, or TQM, if not acts of nihilation to birth some novel temporality.  The organization Being-For-Itself enters into acts of reflection and nihilation to be aware of the co-present interpenetration of past, present, and future.

In Sum, Sartre's contribution was to move from the philosophy of "I think, therefore I am" to "I think; therefore I was" (Sartre, 1956: 119). The problem for organization studies is to answer the question of how is it that organizations change and are interpenetrated by permanence (what does not change In-Itself), and collective memory (that is being perpetually restoried), in time? Duration of organization presupposes an organizing act which is antenarrative, foreshadowing the nihilation of In-Itself and the becoming For-Itself.  Organizing is the multiplicity and interpenetration of Being and Nothingness. 

Applying Sartre to Organization Studies: Nike - For-itself in the organization is its ekstatic being, preventing change from existing as Being-In-Itself. Permanence and change, for Sartre have a relative being. The organization is a trilogy: not-being what it is, being what it is not, and both (all three ekstatic dimensions co-present and interpenetrating).  Take my favorite example, the Nike Corporation. It is not-being what it is, a contractor to sweatshops, paying mega-millions to sports celebrities and principal owner, Phil Knight, while paying pennies an hour to mostly women, 730,000 of them (at last head count) working in 720 sweatshops.  Then Nike is being what it is not, that is being the savior to the Third World, the promoter of codes of conduct, and investigator of subcontractor abuse.  Finally, Nike is both of these ekstatic dimensions at once, and is both Being and Nothingness. The activists pressure for a metamorphosis, but Nike-In-Itself can not resist just being Nike, and is having a good deal of difficulty transforming For-Itself post-sweatshop values into Nike-Being-In-Itself. Or as Argyris would say the "espoused theory" can not overtake the "theory in use." Still, giving Nike its due, here and there Nike is raising a wage a penny or two, canceling a contract, no longer employing children to make Soccer balls, and has spent a minor fortune on consulting firms, to write monitoring reports. The perpetual renewal of Nike in the Present, to reform (and restory) the Past, by invoking a new change that will be Nike-For-Itself in the Future, is both change and not change. Nike continues to change without transforming the basic global commodity distribution and supply chain. Nike the virtual corporation, is still addicted to sweatshops, that are in turn, addicted to work-them-to-death and convinced that no other way is possible (denial). And in denial, For-It-Self can not transform Nike-In-Itself. Nike is a split personality: The Present becomes by way of the PR Department the Former Future of the Past, while denying that Nike is this Future. Nike remains co-present with the Present sweatshop being, and the unrealized Future of the Past of this Present, the post-sweatshop world, that is not yet.

There is a deep fissure in Nike, the Past exposé is restoried into Progress for Nike: "we are not being that, and that which we are being is progress for us and them." Yet, each new exposé reveals Nike as Nothingness, as promises unfulfilled, as codes of conduct that are not enforced, a shell game of hide the factory from the monitor (and the consumer). Nike is in perpetual flight from Nike-In-Itself, from Nike just doing and being Nike.  It is the death of the sweatshop that is the final victory for the anti-globalism movement, and like it or not, Nike is the poster child of globalization.  Nike is one of the best examples of the dynamic character of temporality, the contingent quality of Nike storytelling, points to the interpenetrated co-presence of Present, Past, and Future; no linearity here, and only stories of some new temporal corporate being. Nike is Being and Nothingness, merely a dream of sweatshop =:= post-sweatshop. Nike nihilates its own corporate conduct, subcontracting its body to the Third World, but fixated on its image-management, yet somehow confused, unable to do reflection-reflecting, to grasp the totality of the game, the flight of Nike-For-Itself from Nike-In-Itself.

The flight of the for-itself is the refusal of contingency by the very act which constitutes the for-itself as being the foundation of its nothingness. But this flight establishes in contingency exactly what is fled: the for-itself which ahs been fled is left at its place (Sartre, 1956: 149). 

Nike seeks to nihilate itself, to end sweatshop, but can not resist its addiction, which is the foundation of its own nothingness. At the same time, Nike wrenches against its own reforms in order to return to its sweatshop alliances.   I dream that someday Nike can reflect upon itself reflecting, and grasp the possibility of  a post-sweatshop capitalism.

Applying Sartre to Situation Leadership - See Study Guide - What is Situation?

Bio for Sartre


Sartre Works


Boje, D. M. (2001) Narrative Methods for Organization and Communication Research. London: Sage. New Book that contains several analyses on temporality and narrative, Nike and Athletic Apparel narratives, and the concept of "antenarrative."  (on line book intro chapter)
Sage   for U.S. pricing. See BOOK REVIEWS and paperback at or Euro order (Sage London).

Boje, D. M. (2001). Spectacles and Festivals of Organization: Managing Ahimsa Production and Consumption. To be published by Hampton Press (San Francisco), 2001 (To access book draft, please use ID=aggie359 PASS=adventure). See chapter on Faciality.

Sartre, Jean-Paul (1956). Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes. NY: Philosophical Library.

Sartre, Jean-Paul (1963) Search for a Method. Translated from the French with an Introduction by Hazel E. Barnes. NY: Vintage Books (A Division of Random House). Vintage Book edition is 1968.

Sartre on the WWW


Recommended Sites for Managing Scholars See TAMARA: Journal of Critical Postmodern Organization Science