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on 1 May 2005
Probably the best description of what this book is about comes from the subtitle, 'An essay on phenomenological ontology'- its a thorough analysis of the nature of existence from the point of view of human consciousness. Sartre begins with our most basic knowledge and works his way up to the complexities of human relationships, leaving nothing out. The first Part (of four) of the book centres around the two fundamental components of consciousness. Being is what we are aware of as existing; and Nothingness signifies any kind of negation, such as what we identify as missing, or even the giving of boundaries to an object. Consciousness is shown to be the agency responsible for introducing nothingness into the world: it is we who decide where the boundaries lie or who notice a component missing from the whole. Hence Sartre distinguishes two species of being: in-itself, i.e. a fixed, definable object in the normal understanding of the word; and for-itself, something with free will and which, therefore, is constantly moving beyond what it is was towards something new. Part II deals in-depth with the for-itself, Parts III & IV move on to relationships between for-itselves. One of the other reviews condemns Sartre for lack of argument. In fact, there is nothing to argue for, this book is a description, Sartre regards knowledge derived from closer scrutiny of the subject matter as superior to that elicited by chain of reason. Actually, the misunderstanding here is fundamental, and boils down to the conflict between the analytic and continental schools of philosophy.

This book is anti-religious, anti-scientific and anti-analytic. These three facts are the reason for a lot of general abuse that is hurled at the book, Sartre, and continental philosophy as a whole. However, with an open mind you will find that Sartre makes a very strong case for himself. The prose is difficult to follow, there is no disputing that, however, it is premature to dismiss the work as impenetrable, or even 'confused and obtuse'. I am an A-level student with no formal background in philosophy and I found no insurmountable problems. Continental philosophy is almost always like this, and the reason for it lies in the nature of the content. Sartre is attempting to describe something that precedes logic, and if you are willing to accept that such a notion is possible you will realise that it makes redundant the use of clear-cut definitions and logical language structure. Instead, Sartre must resort to using almost poetic descriptive methods (paradox and oxymoron abound), and the result of this is that the reader must take a more active approach to the understanding of the text. You have to 'think around' the words and sentences to find a meaning that is coherent. Sometimes this requires adapting your interpretation of earlier material. Having read to the end, I can assure you that there is a least one way of understanding what Sartre is trying to put across, although it is a time-intensive endeavour. I would recommend reading a short introductory book, some of Sartre's fictional works or Existentialism And Humanism, to get an idea of what you're in for; you're liable otherwise to regard yourself as having wasted a considerable amount of life-time and 13 quid on top of that. Also, Sartre kicks off with an immense amount of jargon, if you are without a basic grounding in philosophy, something like Penguin's Dictionary of Philosophy will prove useful.
It's not an easy read, and I can't agree with everything said, but for the most part it is incredibly perspicacious. It is written with an intensity that simultaneously demands and enthrals. Sartre's philosophy answers a lot of questions very well, and if you are both interested and determined enough to want a full account of his thought, this book is wholeheartedly recommended.
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on 17 September 2014
Bought this for my wife, just before she divorced me, I think she was pleased with it though.
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on 29 March 2000
Parts of this book deserve 5 stars. Much of what Sartre has to say in it is cuttingly insightful, indeed life-changing. His writing is lucid (perhaps too lucid for philosophy - this was Merleau-Ponty's opinion) and the book is a great read. But underlying everything, with huge passages directed exclusively to it, is Sartre's own ontology, mish-mash of Descartes (via Husserl), Hegel and Heidegger, which falls well short of Heidegger's own subtlety. This has led to a certain contempt among serious continental philosophers for Sartre's work. Ironically, for all that, he has had an obvious powerful influence on many of them. This is not a book to be ignored by ANYONE.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 26 November 2010
Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre, 1943; translated by Hazel E. Barnes, Methuen, London, 1958; Routledge, London, 2003, 688 ff.

To be . . . or not to be, that is the question
By Howard Jones

This substantial philosophical treatise from a master of French existentialism is his most important work. Rather than a brilliantly argued philosophical treatise, Sarte's work is really 1001 ways of looking at life. Its philosophical style bears much resemblance to those of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, who are not the most accessible of writers from whom to tease out meanings. His novel, The Age of Reason, conveys many of the same ideas but is vastly more accessible. Indeed, Sartre's experience as a novelist helps him in some of the more difficult moments to get his message across - I think!

The title of Sarte's work reflects that of one of his existentialist mentors, Martin Heidegger's Being and Time. The other major influence on Sartre was Edmund Husserl. They were reacting against Descartes' distinction between mind and body, between subject and object. They and Sartre maintained that we humans are objects just like any others in a world of objects. Because of the problems in defining consciousness, Sartre and his predecessors wanted to say that, most of the time, we are not really aware of the contents of mind or consciousness at all. We just get on with the job and exist. We alone are responsible for our conduct in the world: `the destiny of man is placed within himself'.

A key concept in Sartre is his distinction between what he calls being-in-itself and being-for-itself. The first of these applies to inanimate objects in the world; the latter describes the human condition. Our consciousness is always consciousness of something. The fact that we can use our minds to determine the presence or absence of something gives us huge potential, but the objects of the world are simply the objects of our consciousness: `existence before essence'. Instead of agonizing about the nature of consciousness, Sartre was preoccupied with examining the contents of consciousness. Sartre maintains that as soon as we accept a job or role in life, we lose our freedom. Once we embark on that role, whether as a wife or as a waiter, we are no longer free; to renegue on that role then is to Sartre a sign of `bad faith'. But death is an absurdity. When I die, it will then be left to other people to make decisions for me.

There are some interesting ideas here but it's jolly hard work teasing them out, if only for the necessity of working through nearly 700 pages of prose. I have never found existentialism to offer anything as a philosophy that was not more accessibly presented by, say, Buddhism.

Dr Howard A. Jones is the author of The Thoughtful Guide to God (2006) and The Tao of Holism (2008), both published by O Books of Winchester, UK.
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Written in that obtuse verabage beloved of philosophers this when stripped to its essence creates a whirlwind of ideas when finally laid on the table. "Bad Faith" is the pressure to act within an alienated role, something that exists as an alien concept imposed from without. Meanwhile few people achieve the being for itself, a rejection of all imposed values as someone who creates the world around them rather than is created by the structures.

This book is based on Marx's theory of alienation as much as it is Kierkergaard or Heidegger. It aims to find the essence of "I" by a philosophical dig to recover the self. Similar to Stirner in many respects as it eradicates all outside meaning and looks for the truth within. It dissolves god, morality and the other structures and then tries to rebuild a social world from an inner core.

An important project within therapy. I doubt few but the bravest of soul can read this in one sitting. It is a book I dip in and out over the years. A few pages in one sitting before the mind wanders, not through boredome but trying to concretise the pictures in the mind of what is being said. Then it is a drift into a reverie as images flash by.

Therefore it achieves its purpose as a stimulation to change rather than providing a programme.
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on 25 October 2007
Sartre builds up a big, abstract, speculative system, apparently as a framework for his belief in human freedom, choice, and responsibility. What does this construction accomplish that simple assertions wouldn't of our freedom, our not being determined, our defining ourself via our yet-to-be-accomplished projects, our responsibility rooted in our unavoidable need to make choices? Perhaps both emphasis (you'll be less likely to forget you are free), elaboration (you'll learn more what being free as well as trying not to be implies), and examples (you'll learn more of the ways in which people try to avoid the weight of their freedom).

Even if the experts tell you they have you all figured out, you'll have decide whether to buy that or not. Even if you want to be all figured out and delivered from uncertainty, they (and you) may be wrong. If Sartre only argued for our individual freedoms, he wouldn't be so important. It is in his exploration of the ways in which we cringe from our freedom, of our "bad faith", that he connects and makes what seems a speculative, abstract system instead a powerful emotional truth.

If all this philosophy has captured you, Satre's novels and plays are no less powerful in presenting his themes: the novel "Nausea", the 3-volume "The Roads to Freedom", the play "No Exit", and more. Or if "Being and Nothingness" seems a bit much, try "Existential Psychoanalysis" which consists of two more grounded excerpts from "Being and Nothingness".
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on 1 November 1998
Sartre, more than any other existentialist writer, has in Being and Nothingness developed a comprehensive philisophical system. The book is concisely written -- every sentence is important. I found that it was useful to become completely familiar with the introduction by translator Hazel Barnes before diving into the text. The book is fascinating, and for anyone interested in existentialism, provide a wealth of insights into the nature of choice, the other and man's relation to the universe.
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on 1 February 2008
I would recommend this "existentialism Bible" to only two types of believer-

a)the serious philosophy student who has to read it because their tutor said so

b)prisoners of war or similar, as a method of torture.

This is tedium incarnate. What Jean-Paul does is spend 650 cursed pages rambling aimlessly and vaguely about the nature of existence only to draw such earth-shattering conclusions like "consciousness is consciousness of consciousness" and (too) many other frankly useless anecdotes.

For something bordering on relevance, I'd urge those still compelled to explore existentialism to instead read something by Camus, a superior writer who doesn't suffer verbal diarrhoea (J-P seems to repeat himself over and over without really adding anything to his highly suspect and largely fatuous non-arguments). Try "The Outsider" or "A Happy Death" by Camus- they bring the ideas of existentialism into something resembling clarity of perspective.

Anybody with a serious interest in their own existence will avoid this at all costs, unless they are a perverse sadist suffering from insomnia, or are planning to be stranded on a desert island, where this lump will doubtless serve as an aid to starting fires.
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on 19 July 2016
Sartre manages to stretch to 600 pages what can fit in a Haiku: "What is self? Not this, not that.".
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on 19 April 2012
The book came in perfect condition, and without a mark on it- something that hasn't always happened with me from Amazon. It was delivered in excellent time and earlier than predicted.
I'm reading social policy at university at the moment, and I have bought this book to further my philosophical knowledge before I start the second year.
I'll try and read it over the summer. Wish me luck, its quite dense and quite big.

I would highly recommend this seller, although I can't really recommend the book itself yet as I haven't read it.
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