I suppose Sartre could’ve used a different example to make his point, but I can see a couple of reasons why he chose the gambler. For one, doing so enabled him to acknowledge in a subtle way the influence of Fyodor Dostoevsky. I’ve written here before about Dostoevsky’s 19th-century novel The Gambler and his status as a thinker whose ideas helped provide some of the groundwork for modern existentialism. Dostoevsky was also himself an inveterate gambler -- indeed, Sartre is referring to the Russian writer’s life (and not his fiction) when he brings him up here.
The example of a gambler who is trying to quit gambling also demonstrates in a particularly useful manner Sartre’s argument about existence. In particular, speaking of a problem gambler helps Sartre clearly distinguish the difference between who we are and our ideas about who we are.
I’m probably asking for all sorts of trouble, but I thought it’d be worth trying to take a shot at presenting Sartre’s gambler. My main motive here is just to try to sort out what Sartre is saying in order to understand it better myself. But I also thought others might be interested, too, as some of what Sartre says about his gambler seems to prefigure certain ideas I’ve seen explored from time to time in discussions of poker (both strategic and theoretical). That is to say, whether or not you buy Sartre’s explanations of existence, I think poker players might at least be somewhat intrigued by some of the various implications of what comes up in this here passage.
Gonna try to pull this off in three posts. In this first one, I’ll see if I can present in at least a semi-coherent way Sartre’s general argument about “being” and “nothingness” in order to give us a context for reading the passage. In the next post, I’ll do my best to summarize what Sartre is saying in that passage about the gambler. Then, in a third post, I’ll try to connect Sartre’s gambler to certain ideas I’ve seen specifically expressed by a few poker players.
Being and Nothingness
Being and Nothingness is a big, thick, imposing book. And making matters worse, it begins with a very hard-to-read introduction in which Sartre explains what he thinks “being” is. A lot of readers never get beyond the first few pages of this introduction. It’s understandable -- the prose is very rough-going, and the arguments not really as conclusive as what one finds elsewhere in the book.
Sartre starts out by rejecting “the dualism of appearance and essence” that he says has long “embarrassed” philosophy. According to Sartre, there is no such thing as “essence” (or “soul” or a “noumenon” or whatever you want to call that stuff that isn’t really there but which many philosophers insist is somehow accessible to us). No, says Sartre, “the being of an existent is exactly what it appears.” There is no “interior” or “secret reverse side” or whatever.
Of course, when it comes to us poor humans, we have this thing called “consciousness” that tends to complicate our experience of the world. Consciousness is what makes me different from, say, a poker chip or a playing card or all of the other stuff that exists but lacks consciousness.
Everything that exists -- me, the chip, the card -- has what Sartre calls “being-in-itself.” Of each of these “existents” we can say “it is what it is.” But unlike the chip and the card, I also have consciousness, which means I am also aware of all sorts of stuff that is not -- i.e., that is not there, that is not me, etc.
This leads to a distinction that Sartre is willing to make, and which is fairly important to everything else he has to say in Being and Nothingness. There’s “being-in-itself,” which I have, but which the chip and the card have, too. That’s a kind of being that is “unconscious” or “unaware.” We can only say that “it is” and nothing more.
Then there’s “being-for-itself,” which I have but which the card and chip do not -- namely, a kind of being that is “conscious,” but we’re not talking merely self-consciousness. Rather, says Sartre, “being-for-itself” is “consciousness conceived as a lack of Being.” To put it broadly, it is being conscious of what I am not. And that is “nothingness” -- the idea, I mean, not the “being-for-itself.” Nothingness not a type of being; rather, nothingness is brought into the world by those of us who are conscious of our being.
So unlike a lot of earlier philosophers, Sartre is not a “substance dualist.” There’s just the one substance for Sartre, and that is “being-in-itself.”
After that difficult introduction, Sartre gets into part one of the book where he addresses “The Problem of Nothingness” and this part is much more accessible. He presents some examples to illustrate nothingness. (This is the part of the book where his discussion of the problem gambler comes in.)
One such example involves a person looking in his wallet and expecting to find 1,500 francs, yet only seeing 1,300. As he “experiences the absence” of 200 francs, Sartre would say, he “brings nothingness” into the world. He gives another example of going to the café to meet his friend Pierre at four o’clock and discovering he isn’t there. Again, he experiences the absence of Pierre, or, to put it differently, he brings “nothingness” into the world.
Notice how both of those examples involved expectations being foiled. In other words, unlike “being-in-itself” (that mode of being that exists without needing anyone to be aware of it), “nothingness” is wholly dependent on our awareness.
Sartre goes on to talk about some other aspects of nothingness, but I’m going to leave it there. You can probably already see how this way of explaining our experience of the world -- talking about “being” (all the stuff in the world, including ourselves) and “nothingness” (all the stuff we imagine about the world, including what we imagine about ourselves) -- potentially relates to poker.
As I said, in the next post I’ll see if I can summarize Sartre’s portrait of the gambler, then add one more where I’ll try to make a connection or two to poker.