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Existentialism:prof. Rowlands Negation

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Phi 381 Existentialism

Prof. Rowlands


        Most certainly you have heard the old philosophical riddle that if a tree should fall in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Though the answer we may look for is a simple yes or no, one must wonder what are the answers implied. It is short and sweet, the idea of nothingness. The possibilities of there being a sound and not being a sound are quite real and accepted, despite their being one true answer. Jean Paul Sartre’s coins the term nothingness or non-being to refer to such anomalies of the lack there of or absence of something, the idea that something is missing or incomplete. You may have a box and peer into it to know what is inside it but as a result subconsciously we know all the many things that are not inside of it. Sartre uses his own example of asking himself a question, supposing he has 5000 francs in his pockets. When asking this question, it brings into light two possibilities that there are in fact 5000 francs in his pockets or there is not 5000 francs in his pockets. That being said, every question has to it a certain mystery, a doubt in why we ask the question, and so Sartre coins his term negation as the very counterpart to any question asked.

        When we ask a question we make an assumption that there is doubt, at least to the person asking the question. This doubt could be referred to as a non-being, for which if we already knew the answer to our question it would not be a question but a formality. There is lack of an answer to our question; it is why we ask it to begin with because something is missing. Every question presupposes a negation according to Sartre, in that every question has the possibility of the answer being a negation or negative response. What I mean by this is that with each question asked we must consider that the answer may be the result of something not being or something missing or incomplete, to which Sartre refers this as a negative judgment. “Why did I fail the exam?” one might ask themselves, perhaps it was because I did not study, or did not buy the textbook, or did not even bother showing up for the exam. “Is Martha in the coffee shop at the moment?” she either is or is not. Is Schrodinger’s cat alive or dead? Whichever the answer, it also implies the “not” of the other. Sartre is trying to illustrate that when we ask a question we assume that the answer is a definite, it is this and thus not something else. According to Sartre, this negation is when we have a negative judgment on a question. This idea of something is and something is not is a result when compare possibilities, knowing that you can either have 5000 francs in your pockets or not, thus this negation leads to the creation of the non-being, the transcendental state of something not being, such as not having 5000 francs in your pocket or it not being October 5th and so on. If you are from Miami you may remember in 1992 when the calamitous hurricane Andrew swept away many houses and buildings. One could drive down a street and see where buildings once were there is now nothing, a state of non-being that the building was once there but we recognize it as not being there anymore, we bring nothingness into this word through our third party perception. Sartre saw that the world had this duality to it, that things of this world could have a property of being and not being. The world we know is divided into two parts, the certainty and definite and its counterpart the negative or negation, things it is, and things it is not.

        Man is the being through which nothingness comes to the world. We as being-in-itself, create these non-beings out of beings-for-itself. Through our conscious we assess things beyond a situation given, and through comparison come up with transcendental properties of nothingness or non-being. Sartre’s example of Pierre in the café shop requires him to negate all the objects for itself in the shop in order to comprehend the non-being of Pierre in the café shop. Our mind neglects everything in the café shop that is not Pierre and juxtaposes this to the idea of Pierre, and comes to the result that he is not there. We understand the situation of him not being there because we understand the concept of nothingness. This begs the question though can we then qualify it as existing if it is only through our perception it exists? The idea of transcendental objects has always been a matter of debate in philosophy. The most basic argument against Sartre’s concept of negation is that it could not exist simply given that non-beings do not exist in the realm of the physical but exist only in the conscious. Physicists may argue that if something does not fall under the laws of nature it cannot exist. Nothingness could not exist because it is not affected by the laws of nature; it could not exist outside of it and is only in the minds of beings-in-itself.



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