Sartre’s Gap of Nothingness

The Gap of Nothingness is an idea found in the existentialism of the French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre.

In his Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology of 1948, Sartre talks about a ‘place’ or ‘no-place’ between stimuli (from the world of experience) and a person’s response.

This “Gap of Nothingness” is the space between what we are given in our existence and what we make of it. The “gap” is the result of our freedom as conscious beings, who are able to make choices and give meaning to our lives. Sartre believed this freedom can generate anxiety and yet also be a source of empowerment, as we are ultimately responsible for the choices we make and the direction of our lives take.

This seat of human freedom separates us to some degree from brutes. Animals apparently do not have the ability to choose their response to stimuli as do humans.¹

When I was a student back in the Dark Ages, most undergraduate professors in the humanities would say an animal always eats when hungry and food is present, providing the environmental conditions are favorable to eating. Humans, however, are able to delay or deny this gratification through personal choice.

However, recent thinkers and scientific researchers question the conjectural line that so many draw between the free will of humans and the ‘natural response’ of animals. Recent studies have shown that some animals do, indeed, delay gratification for reasons often unknown to us.

Today, most people would not be so bold as to say they know how an animal thinks or doesn’t think. Moreover, to lump all animals together under the same umbrella seems ridiculous, considering what we have learned about neurological differences among species. But in the 1960s, Sartre was primarily concerned with human beings and was a superstar in academic and literary circles.

Sartre’s notion of the “Gap of Nothingness” is also related to his concept of “bad faith,” which is when we deny our freedom and try to escape responsibility for our choices. Since Sartre’s ascension and we might say “fall,” not a few thinkers have questioned whether we really are free. In fact, the question of free will goes back centuries and theologians take the debate to another level when suggesting we are free to cooperate with God’s plan.

I mention this only to say that, as with anything, no question about life on Earth is easily answered and those who think readymade answers solve all our problems tend to be either boring or shameless frauds—both of whom may be potentially harmful.

Related » Bad Faith

¹ A good discussion on Sartre’s view of animals: HELL IS OTTER PEOPLE: LOCATING ANIMALS IN SARTRE’S ONTOLOGY. See also


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