“Release Ourselves Into the Nothing”: How Existentialists Handle Freedom

By Tristan Vanech

"Why are there beings at all, instead of Nothing" ~Martin Heidegger

In her essay entitled “Authenticity: An Existential Virtue,” Marjorie Grene explains that “the concept of authenticity is rooted in the existential interpretation of freedom” (Grene 266) and that “for the existentialist, freedom is transcendence” (Grene 273). Thus, freedom is dwelling in authenticity, a state where one is true to his principles despite external pressures. Freedom, in the existential sense, is the transcendental virtue to which we are always striving, but it can be a political virtue as well. In this essay, I will explore the relationship between authenticity (or individual freedom) and political freedom in the work of Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir.


Portrait of Martin Heidegger in 1955 (counter-currents.com)

Heidegger’s idea of the nothing as the basis of existence leads to the conclusion that freedom, at least the freedom to exist, is grounded in the nothing. Dasein, or being held out into nothing, transcends the totality of beings. Since “the nothing is the negation of the totality of beings” (Heidegger, “What Is Metaphysics?” 99), Dasein is itself transcendence. Heidegger remarks, “If in the ground of its essence Dasein were not transcending, which now means, if it were not in advance holding itself out in the nothing, then it could never be related to beings nor even to itself. Without the original revelation of the nothing, no selfhood and no freedom” (Heidegger, “What Is Metaphysics?” 105-06). Living authentically means constantly striving for freedom. In “Freedom and Finitude: A Study of Heidegger and Foucault,” Robert Lee Nichols explains Heidegger’s view of authenticity: “Authenticity refers not to a return to an original condition, but rather an acceptance or ‘ownership’ over one’s choices, the fact that a particular vocation, for example, is self-determined and that this is unique to oneself” (Nichols 71-72). Nichols offers an example, stating that a man can be imprisoned in a room if the door is unlocked but opens inward and it doesn’t occur to the man to pull rather than push it. He is free to go, but because he is not aware of his freedom, his “mode of being” is inauthentic. For Heidegger, freedom in the existential sense is not a quality of the static self but a condition of a dynamic being, one who constantly makes decisions and adapts to changes.

Once again, Heidegger’s thinking requires that Dasein not just exist in actuality but also have potentiality: “Letting one’s ownmost self act in itself of its own accord in its being-guilty represents phenomenally the authentic potentiality-of-being attested in Da-sein itself” (Heidegger, Being and Time 272). Dasein, as opposed to previous conceptions of metaphysical constructs, does not constrict itself to the self but is constantly in motion and can only be observed by removing it from the world which encapsulates it. The fundamental construct of Dasein is “the authenticity of its existence” (Heidegger, Being and Time 272). Nichols suggests that as a fact of its being, Dasein tends to conceal its own involvement in the world and thereby limit freedom of being to the individual. He relates, “Dasein is, amongst other things, characterized as a being that tends to flee from its own finite worldliness” (Nichols 102).  This sentiment echoes Heidegger’s words: “Dasein is ontically distinguished by the fact that, in its very Being, that Being is an issue for it.” Being unto death is the freedom “which emancipates the individual from bondage to the ‘they’” (Grene 267). Individual freedom, to Heidegger, occurs when “we release ourselves into the nothing” (Heidegger, “What Is Metaphysics?” 110), meaning we liberate ourselves from the constrictions society has placed on us.

Sartre responds that the nothing “provides a foundation for freedom” (Sartre, Being and Nothingness 71). The existence of the human reality precedes its essence, and in a similar vein, the freedom of an individual precedes his interaction with others. Intrasubjectivity comes before intersubjectivity. Sartre would argue, however, that the former is necessary for the latter: “Subjectivism means, on the one hand, the freedom of the individual subject to choose what he will be, and, on the other, man’s inability to transcend human subjectivity” (Sartre, Existentialism Is a Humanism 23-24). A man’s actions determine his existence, Sartre says, and thus his capacity to be free.

Existentialism Is a Humanism

The cover of Existentialism Is a Humanism (yalepress.yale.edu)

Sartre’s idea of personal freedom is that individual choices reflect a choice for all of humanity but still are confined to the bounded self. Sartre and Heidegger are aligned in the view that humans are born without essence, which they call contingency or facticity/thrownness, respectively. Sartre notes that “to begin with [man] is nothing” (Sartre,  Existentialism Is a Humanism 22). We did not choose to be cast into this world, and we can only play the cards we are dealt. Living an authentic life for Sartre means exercising the freedom to act. Although “I shouldn’t seek within myself some authentic state that will compel me to act” (Sartre, Existentialism Is a Humanism 33), making decisions to freely exist defines authenticity. Those decisions imply an acknowledgement and embrace of the freedom one is born with. Grene writes, “For Sartre, again, the honesty of the authentic person consists in his facing the nature of his own freedom” (Grene 268). A hero is not born a hero. A coward is not born a coward. He has the freedom to choose; he is responsible to choose: “the coward is responsible for his own cowardice” (Sartre, Existentialism Is a Humanism 38).

Portrait of Jean-Paul Sartre (wikipedia.org)

Portrait of Jean-Paul Sartre (Google Images)

While Heidegger focuses his discussion of freedom primarily on the inner freedom of a dynamic being, Sartre seems to want to extend Heidegger’s ideas, and to connect the freedom of the individual subject to others and outward reality. Once, a student of Sartre came to him stuck in indecision. He wanted to join the army to avenge his brother’s death, but leaving would make his mother hopeless and depressed. The only advice Sartre could offer was, “‘You are free, so choose’” (Sartre, Existentialism Is a Humanism 33). No one can tell another definitely what the “right” choice is or what code of ethics is decisively true; it is ultimately the free chooser who will be responsible for his actions. Not only is man the sum of his actions, but “[h]e realizes that he cannot be anything…unless others acknowledge him as such” (Sartre, Existentialism Is a Humanism 41). Sartre claims that others are “essential” to one’s existence, an idea he calls “intersubjectivity” (Sartre, Existentialism Is a Humanism 42). Furthermore, the other’s freedom is essential to my freedom: “We will freedom for freedom’s sake through our individual circumstances. And in thus willing freedom, we discover that it depends entirely on the freedom of others, and that the freedom of others depends on our own” (Sartre, Existentialism Is a Humanism 48). For Sartre, an authentic individual sets out to achieve his own freedom, which then enables the freedom of others. How this happens is unclear, but de Beauvoir picks up where he left off.

Simone de Beauvoir goes beyond the mere fact that the freedom of the other is essential to personal freedom by explaining that this phenomenon happens through executing on your freedom rather than being confined to inner freedom, giving examples in the political sphere of tyranny and oppression. She alludes to slaves, women, soldiers, and the sub-man. She says that slaves “can exercise their freedom, but only within this universe which has been set up before them, without them” (de Beauvoir 37). She continues with examples of sexism: “Even today in western countries, among women who have not had in their work an apprenticeship of freedom, there are still many who take shelter in the shadow of men” (de Beauvoir 37). Once man unearths his subjectivity, he also discovers that of others. The sub-man wants to remain ignorant of himself, but “he cannot keep himself from existing, he can not efface the agonizing evidence of his freedom” (de Beauvoir 45). Nazis, Red Army soldiers, lynchers, and all “those who do the actual dirty work are recruited from among the sub-men” (de Beauvoir 44). The sub-man says to himself, “I am a rock.” But as Sartre notes, “Man has more dignity than a stone or a table” (Sartre, Existentialism Is a Humanism 23)—we are not material, static objects but dynamic “thinking things,” or res cogitans as Descartes would call it.

Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre

Lifelong lovers Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre at the Balzac Memorial (wikipedia.org)

De Beauvoir uses the example of love to illustrate otherness: “It is only through something strange, forbidden, as something free, that the other is revealed as an other. And to love him genuinely is to love him in his otherness and in that freedom by which he escapes” (de Beauvoir 67). De Beauvoir elaborates on this concept of solidarity by tying it back to Christian neighborly love. Heidegger also suggests that solidarity, what he calls empathy, is necessary for freedom, stating that it “is then supposed, as it were, to provide the first ontological bridge from one’s own subject, initially given by itself, to the other subject, which is initially quite inaccessible” (Heidegger, Being and Time 117). While de Beauvoir’s perception of love and solidarity tends toward political theory, however, Heidegger seems to stop short of any discussion of a political community. Another appropriate term to understand otherness would be Mit-sein, a “being-with” others in the world. Each man’s existence intertwines itself with his neighbor’s, and in so doing, Mit-sein “presupposes my existence, the existence of the Other, my existence for the Other, and the existence of the Other for me” (Sartre, Being and Nothingness 371). In order to be free, however, de Beauvoir, unlike Heidegger and Sartre, highlights that we must guarantee the freedom of others.

Fortunately for man, “[t]o will oneself free and to will that there be being are one and the same choice” (de Beauvoir 70), because by his very existence, his Dasein, he acquires the freedom which abandonment has thrust upon him. De Beauvoir alludes to Hegel’s maxim “Each consciousness seeks the death of the other” which inspired Sartre to say “Hell is other people.” She claims that “this hatred is naive” because if she were everything, “the world would be empty” (de Beauvoir 71). If I were the only being in existence, there would be no existence, at least from my subjective point of view. So too if I were the only free man, there would be no freedom. This proves that even tyrants need the freedom of other men: “[o]nly the freedom of others keeps each one of us from hardening in the absurdity of facticity” (de Beauvoir 71). More than that, “[t]o will oneself free is also to will others free” (de Beauvoir 73).  Looking at that argument from a different perspective, though, Grene critiques de Beauvoir for treating others’ freedom as a means to one’s own freedom: “to view the existence of others only as a means to my freedom is worse than not good enough—it is positively evil” (Grene 272). Either way, de Beauvoir has made up for where Heidegger’s and Sartre’s shortcomings in the practical application of the ideal of freedom set forth.

Heidegger, Sartre, and de Beauvoir all base their definitions of freedom on the existential virtue of authenticity. Heidegger’s argument constrains itself to the issue of inner freedom of Dasein, or being held out into nothingness. Sartre extends personal freedom to the idea that we are responsible for the choices we make with our inborn free will. He observes that the authentic man will consider that in making a decision using freedom of choice, he is choosing that his action is right for all of humanity. De Beauvoir, finally, says that only by executing one’s freedom to enable others to be free can freedom exist in the first place. We are all intertwined in authenticity and subjectivity. Grene summarizes the stance well: “we are all free, but we are free to achieve our freedom or to lose it. There are no natural slaves, but most of us have enslaved ourselves” (Grene 267). We must not enslave ourselves but rather act to liberate others and, in so doing, release ourselves and let the wind of freedom blow through the world.


In the following clip from Robert Harrison’s radio interview with Andrew Mitchell [“Entitled Opinions (about Life and Literature),” October 18, 2005], the two discuss the dynamism of Dasein and Dasein’s projection beyond itself temporally.


Works Cited

de Beauvoir, Simone. The Ethics of Ambiguity. Trans. Bernard Frechtman. New York: Kensington, 1976. Print.

Grene, Marjorie. “Authenticity: An Existential Virtue.” Ethics 62.4 (1952): 266-74. JSTOR. Web. 12 Aug. 2012.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. New York: Harper, 1962. Print.

Heidegger, Martin. “What Is Metaphysics?” Stanford University. Print.

Nichols, Robert Lee. “Freedom and Finitude: A Study of Heidegger and Foucault.” Diss. U of Toronto, n.d. 2009. Web.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. New York: Philosophical Library, 1956. Print.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism Is a Humanism. New Haven: Yale UP, 2007. Print.


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