I am currently studying Existentialism and have come across a statement by Sartre that appears to suggest that consciousness or being- for- itself is not determined in any manner by being-in-itself (which presumably is absolutely determined). However, the question arises that if the world of objects (being-in-itself) represents the total environment then how it is possible, in the light of recent neurological, genetic and psychological findings (e.g. questioning volitional aspects of freewill) can being-for-itself (i.e. consciousness) not interact with being-in itself? Have I misunderstood the meaning of this idea? All the best Paul C. Clinical Psychologist

You raise--in Sartrean terms--the excellent question of whether Sartre engages what contemporary philosophers call 'the problem of free will', the problem, that is, of how, if determinism, according to which every event is caused by some preceding event, is true, agents can be said to make free choices or determine themselves. Recent philosophical answers to this problem fall broadly into three classes: compatibilists believe that even if every event, including human choices, are determined by some preceding event, human beings are nevertheless free; incompatibilists believe that if every event is determined by some preceding event, then only if human choices are not determined by some preceding event can they be free: libertarian incompatibilists believe that human choices are not determined by preceding events, and therefore agents are free, while other incompatibilists believe that because human choices, like all other events, are caused by preceding events, human beings are not free.

In light of Sartre's admittedly sometimes hyperbolic claims about human freedom in Being and Nothingness, that his view of human freedom is akin to that of recent libertarian incompatibilists. Yet Sartre does not deny that the choices of free agents--beings-in-themselves--are shaped by their circumstances, histories, etc.--being-in-itself: indeed, in "Freedom and Facticity: The Situation," the second section of Part 4 of Being and Nothingness, he even says "that there is only freedom in a situation"--hence that being-for-itself is in some way conditioned by being-in-itself--although he immediately adds that "there is only a situation through freedom," which would seem to imply that being-for-itself somehow shapes being-in-itself. Sartre calls this "the paradox of freedom" and the claim might seem not only paradoxical, but contradictory. But I don't think it is. For Sartre, freedom is the ability of agents to confer meaning on their situations, hence the ability of being-for-itself to determine the value and/or significance of being-in-itself. So, for example, according to Sartre, a free agent must operate within the limits of her physical situation--a human being must confront the limits set by her body in determining what she will do, she must confront the physical situation in which she is acting in determining what she will do--but the situation, being-in-itself, does not and cannot determine how an agent will conceive of that situation. So a mountain climber, to take an example that Sartre himself gives, may conceive of a peak as an obstacle, or a challenge, but neither conception is fixed by the nature of the thing itself, one can only determine for oneself how one conceives of a situation, but one must, regardless, engage with the situation.

So Sartre does not mean, I think, to take a position on the 'problem of free will'--near the beginning of Part 4 of Being and Nothingness he suggests that the 'problem of free will' is ill-conceived--and I think that he seeks, instead, to transform the problem, by shifting it to another register.

I hope that these remarks prove helpful, and I wish you good luck in working through Sartre!!

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