This article will look at Sartre’s analysis of the human act in Being and Nothingness. In Sartre’s understanding a motive is not something that exists prior to the act as its cause. Motives and causes only come to exist through freely chosen human acts, and these choices have no foundation outside the upsurge of the act itself. This is an unusual and counter-intuitive description of human action, but it fits with the phenomenological evidence of human experience, and illuminates a number of problems that arise in deterministic accounts of action.
Jean-Paul Sartre argues that human beings are fundamentally incomplete. Self-consciousness brings with it a presence-to-self. Human beings consequently seek two things at the same time: to possess a secure and stable identity, and to preserve the freedom and distance that come with self-consciousness. This is an impossible ideal, since we are always beyond what we are and we never quite reach what we could be. The possibility of completion haunts us and we continue to search for it even when we are convinced it can never be achieved. Sartre suggests that we have to continue seeking this ideal in the practical sphere, even when our philosophical reflection shows it to be an impossibility. Sartre puts this existential dilemma in explicitly theological terms. 'God' represents an ideal synthesis of being and consciousness which remains a self-contradictory goal. This dilemma remains unresolved in his thinking.