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September 13, 2023

What is the human self? A story expounded through Sartre

Throughout human civilisation, the notion of an immanent self, emblematic of an immutable attribute that bestows upon humans their 'individual identity and autonomy' (Glynn, 2011) has prevailed. This self, frequently denoted as the 'I' is traditionally contemplated as delineating one’s essence. Notwithstanding the pervasive adherence to the conviction of a discrete self residing within each human being, a fundamental inquiry persists: is the conviction accurate? In pursuit of elucidation, we shall undertake an exploration of the conception of the human self propounded by the preeminent French thinker Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980) through the medium of a narrative.

Caesar’s story

As a child, Caesar’s world pivots around his parents; his friends Rick, Ram, Vladimir, and Susan; his teachers; his neighbours; and his home. He aspires to follow in his father’s footsteps as a businessman. Over time, he grows up, reaching the 12th grade and making new friends, but losing touch with his childhood companions due to a family relocation. His dreams shift towards joining the army, keeping fit, and finding love. As an adult, Caesar unexpectedly becomes a renowned writer, achieving fame and awards. He chooses a solitary life dedicated to his work, living far from his parents. Health issues limit his physical abilities, but he finds contentment in writing at home with only a couple of friends, as his worldview transforms.

Caesar’s self

Caesar’s identity is a dynamic conflux of evolving facets throughout his life, transcending a singular persona to embrace diverse roles. At times, he revels in youth among loved ones, yet at other times, he embraces solitude. His aspirations range from budding entrepreneur or soldier, to accomplished writer. He also tussles with physical wellbeing and periods of ill health. He exhibits ardour in romantic love and a profound passion for writing. All this renders his identity elusive and perpetually transforming, challenging others and himself to pinpoint a definitive essence.

The fluidity of Caesar’s identity raises questions about its nature, revealing a lack of a fixed self. Instead, he emerges as a composite of diverse impressions gathered across life phases. His multifaceted nature defies categorisation, and this phenomenon prompts an inquiry into its underlying cause.

The nature of Caesar’s self

The notion that Caesar lacks a fixed self finds a comprehensive explanation within Sartre’s existential framework, as articulated in his works like Being and Nothingness (1943) and Existentialism is a Humanism (1946). According to Sartre, individuals exist within a world replete with people and numerous animate and inanimate elements, collectively constituting their surroundings. Concomitantly, each individual finds themselves invariably situated within a specific situation. Within this framework, the value attributed to the world and its attendant situations is contingent upon the interactions and choices made by the individual’s consciousness. Consequently, the essence of one’s self is constructed through conscious decisions and actions. Importantly, as the world and its situations exist beyond one’s control, and given the intrinsic freedom of consciousness, one’s self undergoes a perpetual transformation over time, contingent upon one’s choices in response to the evolving facets of the world and its situations. This same dynamic applies to Caesar.

Caesar’s evolution occurs in tandem with encounters with diverse individuals and situations throughout the various phases of his life, signifying the mutable nature of his world. His identity continually shifts as he makes choices in response to this ever-changing world. Furthermore, as his choices invariably remain free, his self undergoes ceaseless adaptation in conjunction with his environment. Thus, his identity remains fluid and unfixed. During his childhood and youth, he embodies roles such as a student, a genial companion, a lover, and an aspiring soldier, among others. These attributes comprise his self, shaped and chosen through his voluntary decisions and actions at that particular juncture, dictated by the people, objects, and circumstances of his world. Similarly, Caesar as the solitary writer in his adult years, consciously assumes this identity and moulds it through his actions, determined by his conscious choices in the context of his altered physical condition, desires, and experiences garnered through interactions with his environment until adulthood.

Crucially, it is essential to acknowledge that the identity of the mature Caesar, the solitary writer, remains far from being his final iteration. The passage of time invariably heralds shifts in his world, accompanied by evolving desires and experiences. In response to these multifaceted factors, he continues to exercise his freedom of choice. These choices, in turn, serve to delineate his evolving self. Thus, in the future, he might assume an entirely different identity, perhaps that of a musician or a politician. Only upon his demise, will he attain a fixed essence – a culmination of the myriad selves he inhabited during his lifetime. This essence will furnish him with a definitive characterisation, thereby affording him a distinct identity.


Caesar’s narrative mirrors the universal human experience, illustrating the inherent ephemerality of one’s identity. Similar to him, every individual’s sense of self undergoes ceaseless transformation through the exercise of personal agency in response to the evolving milieu. A definitive depiction of self is only ascertained in death when one’s freedom or capacity for choice ceases to exist. Nonetheless, this definition is a posthumous construct, authored by those who outlive the individual, and is not subject to the individual’s decisions.


Glynn, S (2011) Sartre, Phenomenology, and the Buddhist No-Self Theory, in Park, J Y (ed) Buddhisms and Deconstructions. New Delhi: MLBD Publications, pp. 197 – 210.

Sartre, J P (2013) Being and Nothingness. London: Routledge.

Sartre, J P (2007) Existentialism is a Humanism. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Written By

Biswarup Das
University of North Bengal

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