The Humanistic Psychologist 49 (Advance online) (2021)

Renxiang Liu
McGill University
My task in this article is to prepare a multilayered conceptual framework so that one can then read, from Being and Nothingness, an account of human freedom that is both psychologically relevant and ontologically acute. Crucial to this framework is a distinction between three interpretations of freedom: ontological freedom, psychological–practical freedom, and the psychologistic misinterpretation of freedom. First, I articulate the sense and extent of ontological freedom against the background of Sartre’s phenomenological ontology, comprising concepts such as the in-itself, the for-itself, nihilation [néantisation], and constitution. Based on the universal structure ontological freedom discloses, I make sense of Sartre’s controversial claim that freedom is absolute or “total,” suggesting that a contradiction arises only when one fails to distinguish between ontological and psychological–practical freedom and mistakes the latter to be absolute. Second, I argue that ontological freedom is the condition for the possibility of psychological–practical freedom or the lack thereof. This, then, allows me to develop some psychologically relevant implications from Sartre’s ontological account of freedom. Third, I show that Sartre’s critique of a psychologistic interpretation of freedom, which treats the for-itself as if it were in-itself, renders irrelevant, if not obsolete, the debate between determinism and free will—to reduce freedom to a will isolated from the action would make freedom either capricious or impotent, depending on one’s ontological commitment. I conclude with a remark on the temporal finitude of human action in Sartre, which helps explain why the psychologistic misinterpretation arises and becomes predominant in the first place.
Keywords Jean-Paul Sartre  Ontological freedom  Psychological-practical freedom  Free will  Differentiation
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