Being-in-Itself and Being-for-Itself
Existential Philosophy is important – and it amazes me how much it has been ignored – especially by British and American philosophers. It is true, that taken to extremes it ends up being a bunch of twaddle, as philosophy often does – and it is also true that it was sentimentalized into trite nonsense by the New Age generation (and even, at times by Sartre himself). But the basics are solid, and I will try to go into them here.
The basics are a new duality – not mind and matter, as Descartes formulated the problem – but being-for-itself (consciousness) and being-in-itself (things). They key point here is that being-for-itself is empty, and only exists as it relates to things-in-themselves. This offends people who like to think they are all-important.
People are both – we are conscious (strictly speaking, it is inaccurate to say we have consciousness), and we have bodies and we are objects for other people and other things. This is what Simone de Beauvoir speaks of in her book The Ethics of Ambiguity, which is relatively accessible.
Beauvoir’s influence on existentialism has been underplayed – since Sartre was such a showman. But it would not be inaccurate to say it was a joint creation. Sartre, when in a prison-of-war camp in Germany, would send each installment to her to be edited and commented on. She, in turn, would send him his writing materials. The Germans were easy on Sartre, perhaps because he used Heidegger as one of his sources. (For those not familiar with Heidegger, he tolerated the Nazi regime, and never apologized for this.)
Instead, Beauvoir is usually considered a feminist – which she certainly was. When later questioned by her biographers, she was often ambiguous herself when describing her role in its creation - preferring to see herself as social writer.
From my own viewpoint, I think existentialism was overlooked because it said too much about the human condition, which was fast deteriorating. People no longer wanted to think about their situation – or much of anything else. This is what existentialists call bad faith – not taking responsibility for one’s life.