Kate Kirkpatrick: Sartre on Sin: Between Being and Nothingness

Joeri Schrijvers

Sartre on Sin: Between Being and Nothingness Book Cover Sartre on Sin: Between Being and Nothingness
Oxford Theology and Religion Monographs
Kate Kirkpatrick
Oxford University Press
Hardcover £65.00

Reviewed by: Joeri Schrijvers (Independent Scholar)

Kate Kirkpatrick’s Sartre on Sin broaches a difficult topic; the relation between Sartre and theology. It does so, more specifically, through one of theology’s most difficult topics, the question of sin. The volume consists of an introduction and three main parts. Kirkpatrick’s work is informative and makes for a good ‘dossier’ for anyone who wants to read up on Sartre’s stance toward theology. Having not read Sartre in a long while and unaware of any links of his theoretical links with theology, I found helpful to read Kirkpatrick’s Sartre and Theology at the same time.[i]

Sartre was aware that a certain type of God was dead and the second part of the book demonstrates that he was informed when dismissing that concept of God. It is Kirkpatrick’s merit to show how theological debates informed Sartre’s education in philosophy and literature. Furthermore, she demonstrates how these debates are echoed in the works of Racine, Voltaire and Victor Hugo.

The book shows “a level of theological sophistication that is underexplored in Sartre scholarship” (2017a: 17). Kirkpatrick extrapolates certain themes within Sartre’s Being and Nothingness and then shows how these themes make for a “realized eschatology of damnation” (2017a:181) by focusing on a number of ‘unrealizables’, including inadequate knowledge of the self, others and the world. Kirkpatrick almost exclusively focuses on what she calls a pessimistic reading of Sartre—one of the reasons why her reading focusses mainly on Being and Nothingness.

Kirkpatrick concludes that Sartre takes from Jansenist pessimism and, later in his life, from Kierkegaardian despair, the figure of a “tragic refusal” (2017a: 83). For Calvinism and Jansenism, the nothingness of nature is such that humanity qua being is dependent upon God (as a creator or maybe even in a creatio continua). For Sartre, “the human exists in a tensive state between being and nothingness” (2017a:60). However, “while there exists a nothingness of nature and (arguably) of sin, there is no nothing of grace” (ibid.). Sartre accepts the disease, one might say, but “rejects [the] cure” (2017a: 61). He refuses the grace that cures the pains of the tension between being and nothingness – an assessment Kirkpatrick shares with Gabriel Marcel (2017b: 157). Kirkpatrick finds in Sartre not a determinism of grace (as Jansenists and Calvinists would have it) but a “determinism of nothingness” (2017a: 162). In other words, our endeavors are bound to fail and will lead to nothing whether we seek knowledge of the self or of others. Theologically, Sartre shares with Pelagius the view that the human being is able to seek transcendence but, unlike Pelagius, nothingness is that into which we try and transcend. Whereas, for Pelagius, the perfectibility of human beings unfolds through their own doing, for Sartre, this freedom is now directionless. Beings can do whatever they want, whenever they want though not with whomever they want (Sartre’s limit on freedom is determined by others and the world).

One of the best parts of Kirkpatrick’s book concerns her insistence that philosophy should be lived. It is through this lens that she reads The Transcendence of the Ego. Here, Sartre lays bare the gap between the cogito and reflective consciousness arguing that the first is constituted by, as much as it would be constitutive of, the self, others and world. If the transcendental ego itself is constituted (rather than constituting) then it seems no more than a side-effect of being-in-the-world. Consequently, one can see in Sartre a further decentering of Descartes’ cogito. Whereas Cartesians tell us that this cogito can only be certain of itself when it thinks and as long as it thinks, theologians of the seventeenth century undermine this certainty by insisting on the nihilism of sin (cf. 2017a: 59, ‘he did not discover that he was but rather he was lacking’). For Sartre, between being (‘in itself’) and reflective consciousness (‘for itself’) a cleavage exists that cannot be bridged. This gap is a nothingness that creeps into being (ontologically), into what we can know (epistemologically) and into what we can do with and for others (ethically). Consequently, this gap between reflective consciousness and the ego is a perpetual ‘filling-in-the-blank’—human being becomes the being “by which nothingness arrives in the world” (BN 47). However, a human being knows such a négatité—the absence at the heart of being—in and through anxiety, which reveals the freedom for human beings “to become other than we are” (2017b: 95). Anxiety and freedom thus reveal a non-being and an indetermination of the self. Anxiety is a fear and trembling before the fact that things can always be different than they presently are. However, according to Sartre, we flee from this anxiety.

Kirkpatrick recalls that this nothingness (or lack of being) is a nothingness of sin, a nothingness stripped of God and grace. There’s no overcoming this lack (2017a: 102/BN 67). In many respects Kirkpatrick follows Judith Wolfe’s analysis in Heidegger’s Eschatology, where she describes Being and Time as an ‘eschatology without eschaton’. However, whereas Heidegger’s eschatology was a bit utopist, Sartre’s tends towards dystopia. Kirkpatrick concludes that “to be free is to be between being and nothingness” (2017a:102). Intriguingly, Descartes still claims, on basis of the Augustinian-Bérullian tradition that Kirkpatrick traces, that humans are ‘between God and nothingness’ (2017b: 54).

Since, for Sartre, human being is between facticity and transcendence, it is the conclusion that Kirkpatrick does not draw that seems to me to be more important. Whereas, in classical theology, sin cannot be conceived as an entity in the sense that it has no real being and, therefore, must be understood in terms of its relation to grace, its presence (in the world and in being) cannot be looked at otherwise than as the disruption of the balance between sin and faith. Where there is sin, grace is not. If there is grace, there is no sin. In Kierkegaard, sin shows itself in a double way: first, in not wanting to be oneself; secondly, in too much wanting to be oneself (elucidated in pride). For Kierkegaard, faith navigates this tension by allowing for a self that wants its self just as God wants this self (Cf. 2017a: 81-87). However, if Sartre can be conceived as a secular translation of theology’s account of sin (cf. 2017a: 113, quoting Robert Solomon), and if sin is a thoroughly relational term, then it in the (dis)order and unbalance of facticity and transcendence that we need to look.

For Sartre, faith cannot navigate the tension between facticity and transcendence. On the one hand, there is the flight from freedom through bad faith. On the other hand, because of freedom, there is transcendence towards the world. Sartre, Kirkpatrick notes, mentions that there is a “valid coordination” (BN 79) between these two aspects. Yet such a coordination is of a peculiar kind, and it is one that can never be ascertained and assured by a certain idea of God and theology. Kirkpatrick argues that, because Sartre opts for an autonomous subject (2017a:177-81), it must be an account of sin (an absence of a relation with God). However, it seems that, for Sartre, existence is far from non-relational; it is just that, because of its being stripped from grace—a secular translation of sin—a just and faithful way of coordinating facticity and transcendence is never a (phenomenological) given. Where Kirkpatrick sees Sartre’s subject as a conscious turning away from relation(s) and veering towards an autonomous monad—a ‘walled city’ (2017a: 222)—and for this reason she discerns a phenomenology of sin, I think something else is going on: not the absence of relation, but the perpetual missing out on each other, the failing of relationality in its very act.

Kirkpatrick does not explore this coordination between facticity and transcendence in Sartre. The only ‘valid’ coordination, for her, seems to be theological in nature. Yet what Sartre wanted to point to was precisely the absence and the lack of the assurance that theology could provide. It is not that there is no coordination ‘between being and nothingness’, it is that no one knows just how to balance these coordinates. Whereas theology, in a sense, always brings the tension to a halt, Sartre wanted to keep his eyes on the very existence and presence of this conflict. Sartre’s trouble with theology, then, was perhaps not so much with sin, but rather with grace and how theology conceives it as the privatio peccatum—the end of sin and the end of tension.

How are the gaps between the ego and reflective consciousness and between transcendence and facticity lived? Kirkpatrick’s fifth chapter explores this gap on an epistemological and anthropological level. The self is but a presence to itself (2017a: 118). On the one hand, the self is a longing for the identity of an en-soi (which can simply be what it is). On the other hand, it is a consciousness of the perpetual escape of such an identity (we are conscious of the fact that we always are in relation towards what we are not). For this reason, the self exists as its own non-coincidence (it is what it is not, perpetually). Sartre writes that the self posits this identity as a unity and as a “synthesis of multiplicity” (BN 184). In short, the self believes that there is a recognizable ego underlying its diverse experiences. The self reaches for identity but knows that it cannot obtain one.

Kirkpatrick points out that this non-coinciding relationship with oneself is the source of “suffering”, that is, an understanding of oneself as a contingent and unjustifiable factum (2017a: 121-22). This epistemology gives way to ontology. For Sartre, “lack is […] an element of the real. But it is important that this lack is not lived neutrally, as a brute fact among brute facts. Rather, [it] is an experience of failure (échec), of missing the mark” (2017a: 128). In other words, the self has to be this lack-of-being while being-in-the-world-with-others. However, in my opinion, the world and others make for more obvious adversaries than ‘being’ or ‘consciousness’. This problematizes Kirkpatrick’s interpretation, a problem hinted at when she considers the worumwillen of the self in Sartre. The self suffers from not having a self. As Sartre claims, “the self haunts the heart of the for-itself as that for which the for-itself is” (BN 117-8). Consciousness, Kirkpatrick concludes, is haunted by the desire “to be meaningful” (2017a: 129). With such meaningfulness, I suggest, the self comes across something that is not of its own making, something present in the world and in others that, in more than one sense, is granted and given to the self (with a special kind of facticity, one that disrupts Sartre’s neat distinction between the for-itself and the in-itself).

The sixth chapter turns on the question of being-with-others. Kirkpatrick explains that “while the distance between consciousness and the ego arises on account of time, the distance between consciousness and the other arises on account of space: Sartre attributes the separation of consciousness to the separation of bodies (BN 255)” (2017a: 139). Elaborating, she claims that “when alone, I can see the fissure between the self-knowing (consciousness) and the self-known (intentional object of consciousness)” (2017a: 143/2017b: 91). As a result of this fissure, we can know something pertaining to the world but the instance of knowing remains in the dark about itself. Kirkpatrick argues that “the self-known is always indeterminate, because it is always subject to the freedom of others” (2017a: 143). The intentional object of the other leaves me and my being, in a way, at the mercy of the other. Consequently, the intentional object of consciousness is something that I cannot master—“the other reveals something I cannot learn on my own, which is how I really am” (2017a: 153.

It is in this context that Sartre discusses the Book of Genesis and the concepts of shame and nakedness. The shame we feel before the other is described as an “original fall” (BN 312). Karsten Harries notes the Christian overtones in Sartre’s work and queries whether Sartre’s philosophy is not excessively burdened by an uncritically assumed Christian inheritance (Cf. 2017a: 153). The questions that would need to be posed are whether Sartre’s references make for an inheritance (as something acknowledged) and in what sense such an inheritance can be considered to be a burden. Kirkpatrick does not address such questions. She does claim, however, that with guilt, and after God’s departing, “there is no true being to be neglected” (ibid.). For Kirkpatrick, the body becomes “both warrior and warzone in the fight for my identity[;] it is both active agent and passive site. [I]n the face of objectification, one can either give in (in bad faith) or fight back” (2017a: 155 and 159). This tension and conflict is one between identifying and being identified, between defining as and being defined as.

The problem is that Kirkpatrick does not consider the fact that the other exists in a perceptual relationship with the subject. Furthermore, as much as others reveal themselves to me as the image I have of them, they have but an image of me. One might legitimately wonder whether this presence-to-self (as it concerns the other) might not limit intersubjective objectification. After all, there is little reason to assume that if the other knows that he or she is incapable of obtaining a definitive self, he or she can define me once and for all. If the presence-to-self needs to be extrapolated to the consciousness of the other, then perhaps what is going on here is not so much a battle and a war but a perpetual ‘missing out’ on each other, an overreaching that comes with suffering and conflict.

Chapter seven focuses on Sartre’s account of freedom as “anti-theodicy” (2017a: 13). Contra Leibniz, Sartre argues that freedom is not sufficient reason to explain the presence of evil in the world. In this context, Kirkpatrick argues that Sartre offers no proper account of freedom. A case can, of course, be made that Sartre did not insist on the notion of responsibility until Existentialism is a Humanism. Kirkpatrick is clear, however, that she does adopt an “optimistic reading” (2017a: 178) of Sartre, one that would focus on responsibility, authenticity and salvation through art. The reasons for adopting a pessimistic reading are unexplained, but it is clear that Sartre’s footnotes on salvation through art and ethics do not convince her (2017a: 127 and 160).

Kirkpatrick admits that Sartre’s discussions regarding the limits of freedom as they concern the other might “mitigate the charges of radical voluntarism” (2017a: 177). However, she goes on to claim that “the other limits my freedom only insofar…as I let her” (ibid.). Kirkpatrick concludes, in ways similar to Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity, that Sartre’s ‘determinism of nothingness’ resembles Calvinist predestination but she insists that such determinism is not arbitrary (like grace in Protestantism) but egalitarian—we all have an equal share in this tragic existence and all of us are ‘condemned to freedom’. That said, Kirkpatrick acknowledges that this account of tragedy is but one component of Sartre’s ontology of freedom. The stress on tragedy “[misses] an important component: namely that it is an account of refusal, an anti-theodicy” (2017a: 190). The utmost freedom is “to refuse God and the good” (ibid.). We refuse God because God can put an end to freedom and so submit to the tyranny of freedom and its concomitant ‘determinism’.

That Sartre was acutely aware of the death of God is evident from his review of Georges Bataille’s Inner Experience with which the fourth part of Kirkpatrick’s monograph begins. Here, Sartre speaks of a mute God that remains as a corpse (Cf. 2017a: 201). Kirkpatrick focuses on Sartre’s view of love in a “loveless” world where relationality is but a ruse. The aim is to demonstrate how Sartre “might […] inform contemporary hamartiology, arguing that […] theological categories […] cannot be known merely conceptually, but must be acknowledged personally” (ibid.). This happens, Kirkpatrick concludes, in a situation of “original optimism [entailed by] the Christian doctrine of sin” (ibid.).

In Augustine, sin is but a “disordered love” (2017a: 203), a love that, to resort to Kierkegaard, focuses too much or too little on the self. The ‘proper’ love of self, others and world, in theology, is of course ordered by God. For Sartre, love promises more than it can actually offer, even when the other whom I love might for a while “save my facticity” (BN 392/2017a: 207) and justify my existence. Love, then is “deceptive” (2017a: 207) and entails a self-love that demands of the other a complete surrender or objectification—Sartre’s thought that love easily gives way to sadism and masochism is well-known. Kirkpatrick reminds us that “all love is ultimately reducible to amour-propre” (2017a: 205). We should in effect consider “how theological Sartre’s ‘unrealizables’ are” (2017a: 204). What Sartre offers is more than just a suspicion about theology—e.g. unmasking some aspect of neighborly love as one more instance of self-love—he shows us a loveless world that is abandoned by God (2017a: 209).

According to Kirkpatrick, if the Jansenists temptation was to despair over grace, the Sartrean temptation is, in despair over sin, to refuse (2017a: 212). For classical theology, sin and evil are to be understood on a scale, admitting of degrees, and are always balanced within the broader horizon of God and goodness. For Sartre, the presence of evil negates the idea of God. Kirkpatrick’s concludes that Sartre “explicitly inverts the imago Dei, embracing instead the fallen human desire to be sicut Deus”. Furthermore, “his psychological description of unrealizables can be read as affective consequences of God’s absence” (2017a: 211). However, one might question whether this conclusion is a matter of theology at all. After all, Sartre may well be describing the consequences of God’s death without drawing any theological conclusions. One could claim that this desire to be ‘like God’ is, for Sartre, phenomenological commonsense. What matters for theology is precisely Sartre’s insistence on the failure of love and the concomitant need to think of God otherwise than the assurance that our relationships of love will succeed. The death of God, for Sartre as for theologians, ought to mean that what has died is precisely the God that serves to remedy, and is instrumental to, our own failures.

Kirkpatrick ends with an interesting rapprochement between phenomenology and theology. For a philosopher who does not acknowledge the least possibility of ‘salvation in Christ’ (2017a: 2014), what function does theology serve? According to Kirkpatrick, theologians either believe that it is through revelation that we know what sin is or they believe that it is sin that puts us on the path to salvation. For those that believe the latter, lived experience with sin might shed light on revelation. A particular understanding of phenomenology will aid theology here. Far from presenting a survey of inner experiences, phenomenology tends to interpret our experience in the world. In this regard, recognition serves as a criterion of correctness for description—if no one really knew what Heidegger meant when writing on angst, for instance, it is unlikely that Sein und Zeit would have been such a success (Cf. 2017a: 217). Theology seems to allude to such a criterion when it speaks of the difference between ‘knowledge’ and ‘acknowledging’—I might know everything there is to know about sin in classical theology, for instance, without ever acknowledging any sins of my own (Cf. 2017a: 220). It is for this reason that Kirkpatrick focuses on Sartre’s literary legacy. She claims that his “use of narrative […] was undergirded by a conviction that […] precision concerning individuals can only [occur] when individuals are considered in […] their situated, lived experiences” (2017a: 219). Kirkpatrick argues that Sartre’s notion of ‘the unrealizable’ can be interpreted within the context of this relationship between knowledge and acknowledgement (2017a: 220-221).

For Kirkpatrick, “to refuse anything that comes ‘from without’ (BN 463) is to refuse the gaze of love” (2017a: 221). Although not everything that comes ‘from without’ should be confused with a gaze of love, it is remarkable that Sartre should not consider the fact that the other’s point of view might be at least as valid as our own. Kirkpatrick neglects the fact that this immunization against otherness, this attempt at a ‘walled city’, is itself a ‘useless passion’. What matters is that, for Sartre, there is a multiplicity of others. It is not the case that one is either a free, autonomous subject or ‘condemned’ by the other. Amidst a multitude of viewpoints, one should still try to assert oneself in the world. For Sartre, the point is that no one can step outside of their situation, a situation that always concerns a “multiplicity of consciences”. This “antinomian character” of the totality of beings-in-the-world is “irreducible” and obeys no laws that would oversee it. Consequently, it is impossible to “take a point of view on this totality, that is to say, to consider it from the outside”.[ii] I am always and already engaged, immersed and absorbed by the world and being-with-others. Furthermore, there is no ‘God’s eye point of view’ of this being-with-others.

Kirkpatrick’s sympathizes with Beauvoir, who is “closer to the Christian position [where the] self is invited to a life of intersubjective co-creativity. It is an invitation to know that we are both constituted by and constitutive of the others in our lives, and to acknowledge our co-constitution in humility, love and mercy” (2017a: 222 and 224). It is toward such love and mercy that Kirkpatrick gestures in the final chapter of her book. She asserts that it is theology that is able to offer us a “rightly ordered self” (2017a: 225). This theology is developed through two provocations: the first is that Sartre is right in stating that optimism, considering the state of the world, is irrational and that optimism is justified only if God exists; the second extends her interpretation of Sartre as a Westphalian ‘master of suspicion’—an “atheism ‘for edification’” (2017a: 212)—by questioning how love is to be set in order. For Kirkpatrick, one must first “recognize—and acknowledge—our own failures in love” (2017a: 234). Kierkegaardian ‘edification’ turns out to be “self-examination” (2017a: 235). She argues for a position between néantisme (nothing is any good) and Pelagianism (an overconfident claim toward self-assertion). Identification with facticity entails a passivity that would reject all responsibility while identification with transcendence entails an oversight of our thrownness in determinate situations with determinate others. Humility and love require both activity and passivity: a “personal transformation [which] takes into account the situatedness of our convictions and the importance of our conduct in relation to them” (2017a: 238). Such an autonomy from within heteronomy warrants the optimism that “failures don’t have the last word” (2017a: 241). Kirkpatrick’s hope is that the reality of sin might give way to an intellectual climate that “hold[s] open the possibility of taking religious points of view seriously” (2017a: 233). However, Kirkpatrick stops short of dealing with those questions that attracted me to this book in the first place, such as, “if we find recognizable descendants of […] sin in some of the twentieth century’s most prominent philosophers: why?” (2017a: 233, her italics).

Kirkpatrick is to be commended for the conversation she establishes between philosophy and theology. She makes a strong case for interpreting Sartre as ‘phenomenologist of fallenness’. One learns in her other book that the great theologians that responded to Sartre—Barth, Tillich, Wojtyla and Yannaras—agree upon one thing: that Sartre’s account of self-alienation stands in clear opposition to the Christian stress on relationality (Cf. 2017b: 136, 142, 173 and 181). Yet the trouble for theology, then and now, is that this does not seem entirely correct and its praise for relationality is premature. If Sartre was describing the failure of relationality in the very act of relating to self, others and world, then one is left wondering, whether and how theology could respond to such a situation.

[i] Kate Kirkpatrick, Sartre and Theology (London: Bloomsbury, 2017b). The work under review will be referred to in the text as (2017a). References to Being and Nothingness, trans. H. Barnes (London: Routledge: 2003), the editions which Kirkpatrick uses, will be given in the text.

[ii] Sartre, L’être et le néant, p. 349.

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