From the very beginning we find Sartre aware of the dynamic which would come to define his philosophical life, the tension between his phenomenologically rooted theory of consciousness and practical political activity. He concludes The Transcendence of the Ego satisfied that he had vouchsafed phenomenology from the “theorists of the extreme left” who critiqued it for collapsing into a pure idealism. Believing that by removing the ego from the absolute structure of consciousness he had preserved what he saw as the ultimately realist tendencies of phenomenology, he writes “no more is needed in the way of a philosophical foundation for an ethics and a politics which are absolutely positive.” But by the time of writing Being and Nothingness Sartre has become aware of the inadequacies of this conception:
“I thought that since I had emptied my consciousness of its subject, nothing remained there which was privileged as compared to the Other. But actually although I am still persuaded that the hypothesis of a transcendental subject is useless and disastrous, abandoning it does not help one bit to solve the question of the existence of Others.”
The ontology of Being and Nothingness expands on that sketched in The Transcendence of the Ego, and consists of two contraposed forms of being : the for-itself and the in-itself, the former the radically empty intentional consciousness, the latter the objects of such a consciousness. The in-itself is characterised by its determinate nature, it “is what it is, [and] is opaque to itself precisely because it is filled with itself.” So perfectly self-identical is the in-itself that it leaves not the slightest opportunity for it to be anything other than that which it is, this opacity being starkly contrasted with the transparency of the for-itself, which is precisely that which it is not, or as Sartre puts it “a perpetual surpassing towards a coincidence with itself which is never given.” The for-itself operates as a gap in the midst of the seamless in-itself, freely sliding through the concrete objectivity of the world of the in-itself and nihilating both the determinate world and its own past instantiations. This ontology is evidently absolutist in nature: on the one hand lies absolutely brute and concrete being, on the other the void of freedom represented by consciousness. It is perhaps this extreme ontological binarism (the radical freedom of nothingness versus unintelligible deterministic matter) which leads to the rampant individualism which is at the root of Sartre’s difficulties in comprehending the social.
Alongside these two primary categories of being there is a third quasi-category, being-for-others. In theorising on the existence of Others, Sartre takes as his starting point the way in which a given consciousness is taken as an object by another consciousness, (described firstly via ‘the look’) which operates as an assault on the fundamental freedom of the for-itself, fixing an indeterminate for-itself as a determinate self. My external view of you will be based upon certain qualities you display, (for example as being lazy, a pervert, an architect etc) but this is to reify and entirely misconstrue the for-itself which you actually are, which as Sartre has established, doesn’t have to be anything in particular, and is constantly escaping and transcending itself. Hence his analysis comes to be modelled on the idea of struggle, (“conflict is the original meaning of being-for-others”), as each for-itself attempts to gain control over the freedom of the other, and to resist their objectifying gaze. Crucially for Sartre “being-for-others is not an ontological structure of the for-itself.” Whilst as we have seen the for-itself is always necessarily in relation with an object, it cannot reach beyond the objective external form of a human being and relate directly with the for-itself which its consciousness consists of, or as Sartre puts it: “we encounter the other, we do not constitute him.”
On such a basis Sartre is hampered when he comes to account for the complexity of macro-social phenomena, which relies on the idea of ‘the third’. In a situation consisting of two for-itselves when a third party enters the equation and views both as objects, the initial two become constituted as an ‘us-object’. A sense of collective identity is forged, (and this enables him to think social features such as class) but only as a reactive negative external relation to another who is excluded. Further Sartre distinguishes between this ‘us-object’ and the ‘we-subject’, with the latter conceived as “of the psychological order and not the ontological”, being merely an individual consciousness’ feeling or longing for unity between for-itselves, which may not be shared by the rest of the collective in question, a longing which remains properly unrealisable as “subjectivities remain out of reach and radically separated.” In some limited regards Sartre does indeed gesture towards the kind of group subjectivity outlined in Critique of Dialectical Reason, relating the idea of the rhythmical nature of the potential we-subject and how an individual for-itself comes to follow a collective rhythm (of activity), as if in the slipstream of others, but always ultimately serving their own individual project. The chief distinction is that here a given consciousness may well believe they are part of a we-subject, but ultimately remain close to a parasitic entity, exploiting the activity of others for their own ends. In this sense at least, criticisms such as Herbert Marcuse’s (that the politics of Being and Nothingness come dangerously near to a bourgeois liberal individualism, predicated on competition), appear to hold true.