True to Oneself
True to Oneself
Sartre's Bad Faith and Freedom
Abstract and Keywords
Sartre’s Being and Nothingness is one of the great books in philosophy of the 20th century. One of the most excerpted and most discussed sections of that book is the chapter on “Bad Faith”. Sartre’s analysis centers on the twin concepts of facticity and transcendence and the complex relationship of the two. He also suggests that bad faith may be inescapable, a thesis seriously challenged here. This chapter also examines Sartre’s famous examples of bad faith in considerable detail.
The true hypocrite is the one who ceases to perceive his deception, the one who lies with sincerity.
—André Gide, Counterfeiters
Sartre's philosophy is best known for its harsh, uncompromising claim, his insistence that we are free and responsible for virtually everything we do, for what we are, and for the way our world is. He is also known for a concept, “bad faith” (mauvaise foi), that has much to do with freedom and responsibility: the denial of one's freedom and, thus, his or her responsibility. But the linkage is not entirely clear, Sartre's famous examples are less than fully persuasive, and there are deep ambiguities and conflicts in both his defense of freedom and his explication of bad faith. Indeed, I will suggest that one well‐founded concern regarding his defense of freedom would seem to undermine utterly his defense of responsibility. His treatment of bad faith also seems to undermine his defense of freedom. Since I accept, for the most part, Sartre's insistence that we are free and responsible, and I also applaud his notion of bad faith, these are issues that must be sorted out. But, as you will see, this is by no means a simple and straightforward matter.
I: Bad Faith in Being and Nothingness
Being and Nothingness is the best known if not the most widely read of Sartre's straightforwardly philosophical writings, and the chapter “Bad Faith” (chapter 2 of part I) is by far the most widely read section of that huge tome. Thus it is often assumed, uncritically and even in the absence of familiarity with the rest of the book, to be central to Being and Nothingness and to Sartre's (p.132) philosophy more generally. Many “existentialism” courses restrict their reading of Sartre to that chapter alone, or perhaps combine it with his early essay, Existentialism and Humanism.1 Yet it is for the most part an isolated and brief chapter. It is barely anticipated in what precedes it, and the topic is rarely taken up or even mentioned much again. Thus the centrality and importance of bad faith cannot simply be assumed, and it must be shown how what might be considered a merely interesting digression can and should be understood as something of a key to Sartre's thinking. How is the problem or paradox of “self‐deception,” with which Sartre begins, related to bad faith? Why is bad faith so central to Sartre's freedom‐centered philosophy? There is good reason for treating it so, but to complicate matters enormously, Sartre seriously misstates and misrepresents what bad faith is, what it signifies, and how it might be understood.
“Bad Faith” is a lucid chapter, compared with much else in Being and Nothingness. It introduces several key ingredients of Sartre's “ontology,” provides at least some preliminary considerations regarding what Sartre famously but problematically applauds as “authenticity” (Heideggerian “own‐ness”), and it encapsulates his running battle with Freud. Most important, it anticipates (if it also somewhat obscures) Sartre's central thesis about freedom and human nature, namely, that we are always responsible for what we make of ourselves. A good part of that responsibility is located in how we think of and identify ourselves. It more or less follows, therefore, that a good deal of irresponsibility can be traced to false or deceptive ideas about ourselves, and this is the subject matter of bad faith. Bad faith represents a betrayal, an abuse, a willful misunderstanding of our freedom and ourselves.
Mauvaise foi—the phrase comes from Jean‐Jacques Rousseau2—is initially treated by Sartre as “a lie to oneself.” But it is not just any sort of lie. Walter Kaufmann somewhat questionably translates mauvaise foi as “self‐deception,” but even insofar as this is a defensible interpretation, bad faith is a very particular kind of self‐deception, namely, self‐deception about oneself, about who or what one is. Thus many standard examples of self‐deception would not fall under the rubric of bad faith—for instance, the mother who refuses to believe (against all evidence) that her son is guilty of a heinous crime, the smoker who refuses to believe that tobacco products really cause cancer and other deadly ailments, or the partisan who refuses to believe that his habitually lying party candidate is a liar. The question in each is not just what the facts are but why they are not acknowledged. A particularly interesting case is Amelie Rorty's example of a doctor who refuses to acknowledge her own evident symptoms of cancer in order to keep on paying full attention to her patients.3 Insofar as this is only a flat denial of the facts about her health and well‐being because she does not want to think of herself as sick or mortal, it would seem to be bad faith. But if it is a strategy to allow her to keep focused on her life's work, it might not be. As these examples illustrate, self‐deception and bad faith often go together and may be hard to disentangle, but it is nevertheless important to insist that they are (p.133) distinct phenomena. As we shall see, the interpretation of mauvaise foi as “self‐deception” further suggests an unfortunate analysis of bad faith as a lie to oneself, and this model leads to paradox and tends to disguise the real issues.
Furthermore, we should note that the negative pall of “bad” and the quasi‐religious hint of “faith” are highly significant, even though Sartre routinely (and implausibly) denies that he is doing any “ethics” and despite his vehement atheism. There is no doubt, in spite of Sartre's demurring, that bad faith is bad, a matter for moral condemnation (although the above example of the doctor may make us wonder about this). When Sartre talks about bad faith, nevertheless, he is unquestionably critical and even damning, even though he raises a serious question of whether bad faith is avoidable at all. But, especially if it is unavoidable, we need to know what it is and what is so bad about it.
Sartre also insists that “bad faith is faith,” first in the usual sense that bad faith involves belief (as opposed to knowledge), but more important (and with Kierkegaard in mind), it involves an act, a commitment, a practical project, and not merely belief (B&N, 112). Thus, according to many people (Kierkegaard among them), we can have no knowledge of God, but belief in God requires faith. But also, faith in God requires a motivated (“passionate”) commitment, a “leap of faith.” It is a practical and very personal phenomenon, not a theoretical curiosity. Sartre's notion of faith is not intended to be at all religious, of course, but I think that there is a plausible suggestion that bad faith is Sartre's secular and “ontological” version of Christian “original sin,” that is, an intrinsic flaw in the human character, something that, no matter how one acts or what one does, cannot be transcended or resolved. Like human sin in Christian theology, it is both blameworthy and unavoidable.
At the end of his discussion, Sartre insists that there is “no way out,” that we are stuck in bad faith by our very natures. (This despite the fact that he insists, at least in his popular writings, that human beings have no “natures.”) I find his insistence on the inevitability of bad faith more unconvincing than disturbing, but in order to understand why, it is necessary first to go back to the basics: the question of what bad faith is and why it is so important in Sartre's philosophy.
Facticity and Transcendence: The Fundamental Tension
Sartre's official theory, the one that is most easily promulgated with the aid of two of his more famous pieces of jargon, is this: we (as consciousness or “Being‐for‐Itself”) are essentially, phenomenologically–ontologically, free. That is to say, we have transcendence, the ability to intend and reach beyond any factual situation in which we find ourselves. We have desires. We hope. We fear. (p.134) We have ambitions. We make plans and resolutions. The factual situation Sartre calls our facticity (a term borrowed directly from Heidegger). So, on the one hand (again from Heidegger), we find ourselves “abandoned” or “thrown” into a world not of our choosing—born into a violent century, an unjust society, a troubled family, a religious tradition; stuck with a sickly body, a homely face, or a troubled personality. This is our facticity, the facts that are true of us. But because we also have transcendence, we can always imagine “possibilities,” alternative ways that the world and we might be and devices by which we might try to bring these about. Thus human reality has two very different aspects: the facts that are true of us, the “given,” if you like, and our ability to choose, to aspire, to “transcend” ourselves. For instance, Johnny Weissmuller, the Olympic swimming champion who became the best‐known movie Tarzan, suffered from polio as a child and was given a bleak prognosis. But instead of accepting his facticity as a “cripple” (a word that was not “politically incorrect” at the time), Weissmuller took up swimming, practiced doggedly, became a champion, and then spent the best years of his adulthood on camera in a meager loincloth, swinging on vines between trees. He refused to accept his facticity and used his transcendence to make something very different of himself. It is against some such heroic story that the phenomenon of bad faith presents itself.
Johnny Weissmuller might well, as a child, have cursed his bad luck and resigned himself to life as a cripple. Sartre's cruel judgment would have been that he was thus in bad faith. But suppose Weissmuller lived a fantasy life in which he just imagined himself as a successful athlete and perhaps even a movie star but did nothing to realize his fantasies. In fact, suppose that he stayed in bed most of every day, merely daydreaming. That, too, would have been living in bad faith, a life of resignation coupled with a fantasy life that never actually engaged with his freedom (that is, apart from the freedom of mere imagination, which may be the first step to intentional change). Bad faith, in other words, is the denial of either one's facticity or one's transcendence. It is conceiving of oneself as nothing but one's facticity—such as the fact that one is a helpless and hopeless cripple, or as nothing but one's transcendence, ignoring the realities of one's situation.
Sartre sometimes suggests that bad faith is the confusion of one's facticity and transcendence:
The basic concept which is thus engendered utilizes the double property of the human being, who is at once a facticity and a transcendence. These two aspects of human reality are and ought to be capable of a valid coordination. But bad faith does not wish either to coordinate them or to surmount them in a synthesis. Bad faith seeks to affirm their identity while preserving their differences. It must affirm facticity as being transcendence and transcendence as being facticity, in such a way that at the instant when a person apprehends the one, he can find himself abruptly faced with the other. (B&N, 98)
(p.135) I will discuss this variation in what is to follow, but I think that Sartre's claim here that facticity and transcendence are and ought to be capable of a “valid coordination” is overly optimistic and against much that he suggests later on. This idea also seems to sit uneasily with both the idea that bad faith is an unstable (or “meta‐stable”) project and the idea that bad faith may be ultimately unavoidable. I would be happy to give up the latter, but I see good Sartrean reasons for continuing to insist on the former.
The facticity and transcendence formula provides a nice simple model, and it is the one Sartre uses (for the most part) throughout the chapter “Bad Faith.” It is also used to explain most of the examples in the section “Patterns of Bad Faith.” The waiter in the café, for instance, is described as in bad faith because he imagines that he is just a waiter, that is, he is thoroughly defined by the fact of his job and its duties. (That heavily ontological “is” is characteristic of Sartre's discussion.) One can imagine similar but more serious cases in which Nazi soldiers or Vichy policemen conceive of themselves as thoroughly defined by their jobs and their duties, who thereby refuse to disobey or even to scrutinize orders, no matter how immoral, cruel, or criminal. So, too, the homosexual discussed toward the end of the chapter has to decide, on the basis of the facts (that he has performed many homoerotic acts with many partners, that he continues to have strong desires for further liaisons), whether or not he is a homosexual. But his identity is not wholly determined by the facts, and as he resolves not to engage in such behavior any more (like Sartre's character Daniel, in the novel Age of Reason), he would be in bad faith if he were to accept his facticity as defining who he is.
The second form of bad faith, according to this formula—ignoring one's facticity in favor of some fantasy—plays a much smaller role in Sartre's philosophy, and for an obvious reason. What concerns Sartre most, not just as a philosophical thesis but also as a vital, living concern in the midst of the Nazi occupation of France, is the denial rather than the mere neglect of personal freedom and responsibility. Sartre looked around him in the early 1940s and saw his fellow citizens collaborating with the Nazis and making all sorts of excuses for their behavior. (“I couldn't help it. I just found myself in this situation, and I had no choice.”) Bad faith, in its typical and most disturbing form, is pretending that one has no choice. One always has choices. Of course, the choices may well be repellent. The consequences may be ghastly. It may take real courage or firm psychological resolve to be able to do what one comes to see should be done. But what one cannot and should not do is to wave one's hands helplessly and declare, “I have no choice.” Even looking down the barrel of a gun, one has choices. They just turn out to be rather terrifying and quite possibly fatal.
It is thus easy to understand both why Sartre thinks that bad faith is so central to his overall defense of freedom and why he tends to be so moralistic about it. I take his insistence that he is not doing ethics but rather only ontology (which I read as parroting Heidegger) to be both absurd and (p.136) self‐undermining. But the facticity and transcendence formula, as neat as it is, also has some rather disturbing implications, and it fails to capture the complexity of the phenomenon that Sartre seeks to understand. For one thing, Sartre makes it very clear throughout Being and Nothingness that facticity and transcendence are not so easily distinguished, and that confusing them is a matter not simply of bad faith but of the human predicament as such. Here is both the wisdom and the pathos of that well‐known Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971) “Serenity Prayer”: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.” Unfortunately, there is no decision procedure to discern the difference. Johnny Weissmuller would not have been wrong to take his doctors' prognosis as definitive. Who was in a position to definitively say what was possible and what was not? People who try to do the impossible sometimes succeed.
But what is the status of the “facts”? Was Weissmuller's incapacity simply a fact? Consider an unequivocal fact in our personal histories: we were born at such‐and‐such a time. But people lie about their age all the time. They even acquire false pieces of identification to “prove” that they were born a year or two earlier (more rarely, later) than they actually were. Having lied about it long enough, they may forget (and everyone else may, too) just when they were actually born. One can fantasize some metaphysical book, of the sort that only philosophers and theologians imagine, in which that fact is engraved forever. But if everyone in the world comes to believe that one's birthday is one particular day (and suppose that there is no scientific method or evidence that could disprove this), does it really matter what the metaphysical book says? In what sense, then, is there any such fact?
But from the other side, the side of transcendence, even the most fanciful fantasies are grounded in our experience and in the facts of our situation. There are limits to imagination. One cannot simply make up a birth date. One can imagine but not really believe that one was born in the fourteenth century (unless one is stark raving mad), or that one was born in the distant future (a science fiction possibility but a logical tangle). Just as Plato's merely imagined ideal Republic looked quite like his contemporary Athens, our fantasies hug pretty close to the facts of our reality. One can play with one's birthday within a small span of years, but one cannot just reinvent it from scratch. Our transcendence, as Sartre often reminds us, is an extrapolation from our facticity and is grounded in the facts. We are always, he says, “in situation.”
These complications are particularly pronounced when we consider what we might call “psychological” facts, such as the “fact” that one is depressed, or resentful, or happy and satisfied with one's life. These facts (“of consciousness”) are constituted in part by our consciousness of them. In this realm, there is a genuine insight in the familiar slogan “Thinking makes it so.” Whether one is grieving or merely sad or depressed is determined, in (p.137) part, by one's consciousness, one's outlook, one's thoughts, including what one thinks and perhaps says about how he or she is feeling. (I say “in part” because, clearly, the facts of one's situation are not irrelevant. In order to be grieving, for instance, one must have recently suffered a serious loss.) Whether one is embarrassed or ashamed depends, in part, on what one thinks one is feeling. Part of this is the authority of first‐person reports (about one's own mental states), but it is also because many psychological states, emotions in particular, are (partly) constituted in our consciousness of them. (This is less true of those emotions that are commonly called “basic,” which have substantial nonpsychological, neurological, and behavioral components.)
What one feels in such cases also depends on one's culture and language, on the social context, but also on whether there are even conceptions of shame and embarrassment operative in that culture. So, too, whether one is motivated by greed or selfishness or genuine compassion is partly (but surely not wholly) determined by the consciousness one has of his or her motives and intentions and attitudes toward other people. It is also determined—and this is a much larger issue—by what the concept and boundaries of the self are in the culture.4 None of this is to deny, of course, that one can be in bad faith and self‐deception about such matters. Indeed, there is no realm riper for bad faith and self‐deception. But the issue cannot be clarified using the simple formula “denying either one's facticity or one's transcendence.” In the realm of psychology, the difference is rarely clear (indeed, even regarding those more or less attitude‐independent feelings such as physical pain5). To a significant extent, our psychology is self‐created.
A particularly powerful example has to do with the very important distinction that Sartre makes in the chapter “Nothingness” between fear and anxiety (peur and angoisse or angst). In chapter 3, we said that the difference is that fear is apprehension about something happening to oneself, whereas anxiety concerns what one might do. It is a difference that turns on the difference between victimization and responsible activity, obviously a central concern of Sartre's. I am afraid of being fired, but I am anxious about what I might say to my boss in a moment of fury: for example, “Well, I quit!” But the distinction may be problematic in practice even if it seems clear in theory. Impulses, urges, and other “spontaneous” bursts of motivation may well be prompted or triggered by external events, and the speed with which one reacts may make the difference quite uncertain. To what extent are such outbursts voluntary?
Already apprehensive, I am frightened by a sudden sound. Like Meursault in The Stranger, my hand naturally tightens around the grip of the pistol I just happen to have in my pocket. I am in a state of high tension. Am I afraid of what might happen, or of what I might do? Like Meursault, I fire. (This is a prudential argument against carrying firearms as well as an abstract philosophical argument.) Or do I? As in the Stranger, one can easily imagine a description that makes little use of agency‐talk and speaks only of my (p.138) physical reaction. How do I conclude that I have in fact “done” anything (although, to be sure, I will probably take the blame)? Where does “suffering” a passion become a “doing,” and when vice versa? Even with a good deal of warning and preparation, for instance, if I am to meet my ex‐wife's new boyfriend, do I know what I will do, or indeed whether what I “do” is my doing at all? (To be sure, my agreeing to the meeting is my doing, and I am responsible at least for that.) Clearly these questions take us deep into the heart of bad faith, but the issue is not whether I understand or refuse to correctly apply the distinction. Spontaneous action, as Sartre is all too ready to tell us, confuses the issue of responsibility. And facticity and transcendence, more generally, cannot be so easily distinguished
But if facticity and transcendence cannot be readily distinguished, then we can see how Sartre might have concluded that we cannot escape from bad faith. If bad faith is the confusion of facticity and transcendence, the denial of one or the other, and if facticity and transcendence cannot be adequately distinguished, then we might well find ourselves doomed to bad faith. Couple this with Sartre's rather infuriating but typical philosophical bad habit of thinking in stark “either/or” dichotomies, and it becomes clear why he seems so hesitant to evaluate bad faith in terms of degrees of blameworthiness. In ontology, some “this” is or is not (the classic formulation of Parmenides, unfortunately with us still). There is no room for “sort of,” “more or less,” “in a way,” or “in a sense.” But we are not talking ontology here but ethics, and we are talking about a very common yet problematic range of human experiences in which we are not straight with ourselves about who we are and what we can and should do. Sometimes our self‐deception is merely a matter of willful distraction, choosing not to attend to my irritation at the student crinkling a potato chip bag during my lecture. Sometimes denial is pathological; I refuse to acknowledge my own proven ignorance in a domain of expertise. Often the facts are uncertain, or even indeterminate: our options are limited in ways that are not yet clear. The huge range and the multitude of experiences that fall under the rubric of “bad faith” cannot be captured by so crude a set of dimensions as “the facts that are true of us” and “our possibilities.” At the same time, however, this dichotomy allows us to understand and appreciate some of Sartre's most provocative and broadly philosophical declarations about human nature.
There is, first of all, the tantalizing thesis that there is no human nature, if by that we mean set behavioral tendencies that are inborn and beyond the bounds of human effort and control. “Man makes himself,” Sartre famously tells us. We are, to be sure, embodied creatures, and we always operate within biological, situational, and personal limitations. But those limitations never fully define us. We do that through our actions. Second, and consequently, there is the profound but discomforting idea that human nature is always in tension. We live this tension. It is a continuous struggle between two impossible ideals: the solidity of being “thing‐like,” complete within oneself, being set and settled in a role and a way of life, on the one hand, and (p.139) the imaginary fantasy of being totally free and not bound by any limitations, including not only the facts about our age and our health and our social situation but even the brute facts about being a living, vulnerable, mortal human being, on the other hand. Thus, we would like to wholly accept our lot in life and the way the world is, what Nietzsche calls (in bad faith) amor fati. But we would also like to be free to be whatever we are not. In other words, we would like to be God, as Sartre rather blasphemously suggests when he playfully describes the ultimate human project. But the sad truth is, to be human is to be neither what one is nor to be otherwise. It is “to be what one is not and not to be what one is.” This is the essential tension of the human condition. We are unable simply to resign ourselves to our lives as they are, and we cannot be and do all that we might desire and imagine.
The importance of this claim notwithstanding, the facticity and transcendence formula oversimplifies the complexity of bad faith in yet another way. We can start suggesting this by means of a number of very Sartrean questions: Does one willfully get into bad faith or does one just “fall” into it? Must one be conscious of being in bad faith (and what does this mean)? How does one keep from becoming conscious of the fact that he or she is in bad faith? What is the self that is engaged in bad faith, and how much of the self is in question? (Surely it is not one's facticity as a whole that is in question. Nor is the entire scope of one's transcendence, that is, all one's possibilities.) Furthermore, what is the role of other people in bad faith? Sartre's discussion in the chapter looks, at least superficially, as if bad faith is just a matter of the facts about oneself versus one's opinion of oneself that others might enter only as observers, faceless partners, or provocateurs. (Examples would be the young woman's date at the café, the “frigid” woman's husband, her sex partner, and the “Champion of Sincerity” who teases the homosexual resolving not to be a homosexual.) But bad faith, we will see, is not nearly so simple nor so solipsistic.
Bad Faith as Self‐Consciousness
Bad faith is a product of self‐consciousness or, more accurately, of consciousness of one's self. Sartre thinks that self‐consciousness is the case in all consciousness, insofar as consciousness is necessarily and immediately aware of its being aware. But consciousness of one's self as the subject—or as the object—of conscious activity is a special case of “mediated” self‐consciousness, and that is what I will be referring to here. To put the matter simply, if we were not self‐conscious beings, there would be no question of bad faith, or of good faith (“authenticity”) either. Animals can be neither self‐deceived nor inauthentic, although, of course, they can be deceived. But bad faith as self‐deception is a peculiar phenomenon of self‐consciousness, and whether or not animals have any sense of self (a hotly debated topic, with various species each having their champions), they cannot achieve self‐consciousness. And self‐consciousness is, indeed, a remarkable achievement.
(p.140) Many philosophers, linguists, and social scientists would say that self‐consciousness is the product of language, and not just any language, but a special self‐referring language. There must be first‐person pronouns in some sense (whether singular or plural is a further concern). There must be not only some sense of self but also some conception of self, and this does indeed require language. Sartre does not exactly commit himself to this, but he does insist on the importance of “reflection,” which he more obscurely refers to as “thetic” consciousness. I take it that “thetic” involves a “thesis,” and a thesis must be couched in language. But Sartre also tries to retain a purely phenomenological, as opposed to a linguistic, interpretation by further identifying the “thetic” with the “positional,” presumably because once the “I” appears, one “takes a position” in the experience. I would suggest that the “thetic” and the “positional” mark out very different positions in phenomenology, however, the one having to do with language and “spelling out” one's experiences and engagements, the other having to do with taking a personal role in them or “avowing” them. (The language of “spelling out and avowing” comes from Herbert Fingarette, who will appear several times in this discussion.)6 Presumably, the link between the phenomenological and the linguistic interpretations is that by articulating the “I” via language, one thereby takes a positional role in experience.
In any case, to have a conception of oneself requires language, and the conception one has of one's self in bad faith presupposes reflective consciousness and the ability to articulate or “spell out” that conception and avow one's engagements in the world. Again, the realm of the psychological should be our focus here. If our psychological states are in part constituted by consciousness, and in particular by our conceptions of those states, then it will make all the difference what our language and vocabulary are regarding them. One can argue convincingly that to be ashamed as opposed to embarrassed, for instance, depends in part on having the concepts of shame and embarrassment.7 But this is not to say that bad faith must itself be a reflective or a linguistic phenomenon or the product of reflective consciousness any more than our emotions are generally reflective as opposed to prereflective (which, in his The Emotions, Sartre insists they must be). Sartre is very clear, in fact adamant, that bad faith is often “spontaneous” and prereflective. (He compares it, rather dubiously, to falling asleep.) But it is the possibility of articulating or spelling out and avowing one's engagements and one's consequent conception of self that is the key to bad faith. It is always possible to “see through” one's own bad faith, and bad faith is precisely the refusal to do just this. And yet, while I am in bad faith, I may not be reflectively aware that I am.
But there are several different conceptions of one's self in play here. There is the conception of one's self as the subject of consciousness, the “I” reflected upon so ceremoniously by Descartes and Kant, and presumably the “I” as agent that is responsible not only for one's actions but also for the refusal that constitutes bad faith. But this is by no means a univocal or (p.141) unproblematic concept (as David Sherman has pointed out to me in considerable detail). It is not at all clear, by Sartre's own account, that there is any personal “I” at all. But then there are the various conceptions of one's self as the object of consciousness, as the “me” that has various physical, personal, and psychological features, including the virtues and vices. It is the “me” self that is, presumably, the object of the distortion imposed by bad faith, the self as a hero or a coward (in Garcin's pathetic case in No Exit), the self as homosexual or straight (as in Daniel's case in Age of Reason and as in the example in the Being and Nothingness “Bad Faith” chapter), and of the self as free or as “bourgeois” (as for Mathieu, in Age of Reason). The “me” self is also the self of one's autobiography, or any significant segment of that story. Indeed, it is also the stuff of one's biography as told by other people (as the plot of No Exit makes painfully clear). But it is the self as the agent in bad faith and of bad faith that raises the biggest problems for Sartre.
Regarding the self as personal subject and agent, David Sherman and I have discussed for years the problems surrounding the commonsense presumption, merely implied by Sartre, that the “I” is in some sense the author of its (our) actions. David holds that there is no “I” as such, but only the “I” as a thin “me,” and thus not so clearly an agent at all. When one refers to oneself as the agent of an ongoing activity (for example, when David complains, “I am having trouble with my jump shot”), he notes, “This thin ‘I’ might then be expanded to a thicker ‘me,’ … I have trouble with so much in life, … why do I bother, etc.?”). But both the “I” and the “me” are reflective here: one thin, one thick, and both are “empirical” in the sense distinguished by Kant (as opposed to the “transcendental” ego). But the first “I” is merely lexical, a placeholder. (In this sense it has traditionally been argued not to be empirical, in that it has no empirical content. Nevertheless, it can be responded, it clearly has an empirical context, namely, the particular person doing the referring.)
Sartre attempts to finesse the problem of the (thin) “I” by identifying it with the prereflective “cogito” or consciousness, both of which are said to be impersonal. In prereflective consciousness, Sartre says, neither the “I” nor the “me” has yet appeared, but both, according to this analysis, are objects of consciousness. (Thus David claims that I am wrong to say that the “I” is the subject of consciousness even for Descartes and Kant because the “I” that thinks is not the “I” that exists. But what this means is that the “I” that exists is the person.) But Sartre retreats problematically to the prereflective cogito and then relies on his claim that it is consciousness and not the self that is the agent of and in bad faith. But then we hit the other, even more serious problem, and that is in what sense Sartre's consciousness can be an agent at all. In what sense can his “spontaneity” be compatible with responsibility?
My self‐consciousness of myself as an agent is clearly central to Sartre's entire philosophy, as well as to his conception of bad faith. If I am responsible for everything that I do, and if what I do encompasses far more than (p.142) what I will usually admit to, and if it is in bad faith that I refuse to acknowledge my responsibility, then my agency is very much at the core of Sartre's existentialism. No agency, no responsible self, no responsibility. But insofar as bad faith is “spontaneous” (“the instantaneity of the pre‐reflective cogito” ), this suggests (and Sartre even says) that it is not something voluntary and willful. Indeed, insofar as my project of bad faith can be spelled out, it almost looks as if it can be spelled out only as an aspect of the “me,” not the “I.” It must be admitted that in Sartre's ontology, as in grammar, this distinction between the “I” and the “me” is not always clear or rigorous. But, to wrap up this point, whether self‐awareness involves the “I” or the “me,” Sartre says, bad faith requires reflection, for (in Fingarette's terms) it is only against the possibility of spelling out and then avowing one's engagements, one's self‐conceptions as well as one's bad faith, that bad faith is possible at all. Nevertheless, Sartre insists that bad faith is spontaneous and prereflective, and this, I suggest, threatens to undermine his entire philosophy. What would it mean to say that freedom and responsibility do not involve or require agency?
Furthermore, there are least two different and quite opposed conceptions of self‐consciousness that are evident in Sartre's discussions. The first is a matter of more or less “immediate” reflection (that is, consciousness of myself which I achieve just by being aware of myself). This is not just the awareness of awareness that Sartre insists is essential to all consciousness, but also that reflection which brings the self as an “I” into the picture. (Sartre's examples: “I am counting cards,” “I am running for the streetcar.” This is what Sherman calls the “thin” reflection of the “me.”) But second is that sense of self that Sartre inherits from Hegel, of reflection mediated by the awareness or the possible awareness of others. One might argue that neither sort of reflection is strictly immediate, in that all reflection involves the mediation of the “me,” but in the first third of Being and Nothingness, which includes the chapter “Bad Faith,” it is the first conception of self‐consciousness that gets most of the attention, in the guise of the “For‐Itself.” But beginning with part III, in which “Being‐for‐Others” is formally introduced, it is the Hegelian conception that is most in play (though we might point out that in Sartre's discussion of “The Reef of Solipsism,” Hegel is shown to be aufheben'd [overcome and improved upon] by Husserl, Heidegger, and, finally, Sartre).
Sartre's discussion of “Concrete Relations with Others” is notoriously dependent on Hegel and on his “Master–Slave” parable in the Phenomenology in particular. In that parable, selfhood emerges only out of a life‐and‐death conflict as each tries to gain the “recognition” of the other. The outcome of the battle is mutual personal identity; one becomes the “master” or “Lord,” the other, the “slave” or servant (Knecht). Indeed, one might well insist that, in Sartrean terms, if the slave yields to the greater strength of the master and chooses life as a slave over death, but then represents his choice as part of his facticity, he is in bad faith. (It may or may not be true that the (p.143) slave is bound by his facticity to be the loser of the fight, but it is his transcendence that he decides to live as a slave.) But getting back to the Sartrean picture, I think that this is yet another juncture where Sartre is torn between his inherent Cartesianism and his admiration for German philosophy. Both of these conceptions of self‐consciousness cannot be primordial, but Sartre does not choose between them. Thus I see a major rupture in his great book, or at the very least the peculiarity of presenting what I take to be the derivative sense of immediate self‐reflection long before the true origins of self‐consciousness in interpersonal mediation are even mentioned.
The above suggests a distinction also suggested by Hegel in his parable, between self‐consciousness as such, the self‐consciousness of the self as agent, “the self in itself,” what Kant called “the Will,” and having a particular self‐consciousness, that is, self‐consciousness of oneself as such‐and‐such, as the bearer of certain features, of being ugly, of being out of place in an elegant restaurant, of being the smartest kid in the class, of being the loser in Hegel's mythic battle for recognition. Such features are clearly constitutive of the “me.” There is some question whether the first and more general sense is presupposed by the latter more or less particularized senses or is, rather, derived from them. A pack animal (a wolf or a dog) might be self‐conscious of itself as the loser of a battle without becoming self‐conscious as such. But a person has both identities, and this, one might suggest, would be the source of Hegel's slave's bad faith, shifting his claim from the supposed involuntariness of the self as loser to the alleged helplessness of the self as such. Where a particular conception of self is concerned, we might add, the tense of the verb makes all the difference. Having done something wrong or inappropriate is straightforwardly a characteristic of the “me,” of my awareness of my self in my recent past as an object, not as a subject. But when I think back to the moment of action, or when I plan to act in the immediate future, it seems impossible to think of myself as anything other than an “I,” even if it is now remembered or is anticipated as a “me.” This tangle, I think, also permeates much of Sartre's early philosophy. It is, again, a dimension of the agency problem.
The origins of self‐consciousness by way of mediation by other people, finally, suggest one more problem with the facticity and transcendence formula of bad faith. I suggested that Sartre's discussion of bad faith makes it look as if bad faith might be just a matter of one's opinion of oneself qualified, in some troublesome way, by the facts about oneself. Other people seem to enter in only as dates, sexual partners, or provocateurs. But if self‐consciousness is itself the product of one's relations with other people, as in Hegel's parable, it is easy to see how other people might not be at all tangential or incidental to bad faith and to one's opinion of oneself. In fact, even the chapter “Bad Faith” is shot through with considerations of bad faith via the looks and opinions of others, including virtually all of Sartre's examples. So bad faith turns out not to be a two‐way tension but a three‐way tension (p.144) among one's facticity, one's transcendence, and what Sartre calls “Being‐for‐Others.” But as we saw with facticity and transcendence, the distinction among these supposed dimensions of human reality is none too clear. So what the facts are and what people widely believe (about one's age, for example) are often problematic, and what one thinks of oneself and what one “internalizes” as other people's opinions of oneself (as in Freud's “Superego”) turns out to be an enormous issue and a new source of tension.
Bad Faith as a Real Problem, Not a Paradox
I am trying, despite the technicalities, to capture the heart of Sartre's concern about bad faith. It is not essentially a technical question, but a heartfelt and indignant response to the very upsetting situation in Paris during the Second World War, people not taking responsibility and making excuses for what are clearly their own personal choices. When Sartre introduces the issue in Being and Nothingness, however, he does so in strikingly technical terms, not only in terms of facticity and transcendence but also, first, as a kind of transcendental argument (with Kant clearly in mind) and then, worse, as a kind of a logical paradox. The transcendental argument (which actually appears just before the chapter begins) is stated in familiar (Kantian) terms: “How is bad faith possible?” That is, bad faith is a fact about human beings, so what else must be true of them to account for this? But Sartre seems to forget about this peculiarly Kantian question as the chapter gets under way (though it briefly reappears at the beginning of the second section, “Patterns of Bad Faith,” 96). The real question isn't how bad faith is possible, but the practical concern of how we use it to deny our freedom. However, Sartre presents this urgent practical problem as a philosophical paradox, and the nature of the paradox is quite false to the phenomenon as well as to the analysis that Sartre goes on to give us.
As the chapter opens, Sartre presents bad faith as a problem about knowledge and belief rather than about self‐consciousness and freedom. He sacrifices his hard moral stance to play with a simple logical dilemma. He tries to turn “self‐deception” into a paradoxical notion, “a lie to oneself,” in which one must both know and not know one and the same proposition. The emptiness of this formulation and the problems it seems to generate would not become clear for a good many years, through the work of Herbert Fingarette, Alfred Mele, and others, but it is evident that Sartre saw through it himself. (Indeed, this alone would explain and justify his calling the phenomenon “bad faith” instead of “self‐deception.”) As self‐deception, bad faith can be presented as a paradox, and we all know how enamored philosophers, including Sartre, are of paradoxes. (This started well before Plato—Heraclitus, Parmenides, and Zeno, for instance—and continues via both Continental and “analytic” philosophers of the present day. “Poststructuralist” (p.145) philosophers, in particular, may pretend to reject much of mainstream and traditional philosophy, but they certainly share this love of paradoxes.) The paradox in question here derives from a long and illustrious list of “liar” paradoxes of various kinds, and it turns on the problematic formulation that self‐deception is a lie to oneself: to lie, one must know the truth, but to be lied to, one must not know the truth. So self‐deception requires one both to know and not to know the truth, a seeming contradiction.
Now, on the one hand, people often hold contradictory beliefs. They just don't see the implications of one or both of them, so in the absence of juxtaposition the contradiction doesn't get noticed. The fact that people hold contradictory beliefs is not itself a contradiction or a paradox. It's just a curious but familiar fact about the limited thinking of most human beings. But, on the other hand, bad faith would seem to require just such a juxtaposition, insofar as the one belief is the active denial of the other. It is not as if one might not notice that he or she is denying what he or she knows to be important, urgent, and true. One might invoke here what Sartre calls the “translucency of consciousness,” but one need not. As I noted, people frequently entertain unrecognized mutually incompatible thoughts. But here, it is enough that a person seems to be focusing on precisely what he or she is denying, and if this is not just plain cynicism—namely, pretending to believe what one does not (or not to believe what one does in fact believe)—it would seem that one is thus both believing and not believing one and the same proposition at the same time, holding the truth in mind just in order to not believe it. So if bad faith is, as Sartre sets it up, “a lie to oneself,” in which one is both the deceiver and the deceived, it looks as if bad faith does involve simultaneously both believing and not believing contradictory beliefs.
But self‐deception, a real phenomenon, cannot involve, much less require, self‐contradictory beliefs. Indeed, Sartre quickly shows how such a conception is nonsensical. So when Sartre begins his chapter on this false note, suggesting a phony paradox instead of a very real life problem, he aims us in the wrong direction. To be sure, “I am a homosexual” and “I am not a homosexual” are contradictory statements, but it is not the belief in both of them that characterizes the dilemma of bad faith. Rather, they indicate different ways of acting, different ways of conceiving of oneself, different ways of being and becoming. Furthermore, if there is one thing that philosophers have come to agree on—excepting only those who are so mesmerized by the appeal of a paradox that they no longer care about the phenomenon being so misdescribed—it is that neither self‐deception nor bad faith is to be understood on the model of one person deceiving or lying to another.8 Thus, insofar as it tends to lead us down this path to paradox, “self‐deception” is a very problematic and not at all innocuous translation of “bad faith.” Sartre goes into considerable detail about what is involved in lying, as if to drum in not only the problem but also the appropriateness of the model. Nevertheless, he recognizes that this is not his concern at all. So what is really going on here?
(p.146) Bad faith cannot be self‐deception because it is not primarily about belief. It is about our modes of engagement in the world. Of course, beliefs often follow, but to say that our engagements can become reflective is not the same as saying that we necessarily formulate beliefs about them. Insofar as we do formulate beliefs about our engagements, we may well choose to formulate a set of beliefs that describe the admirable course of behavior we would like to see ourselves as following rather than another set of beliefs about a more disreputable or shameful course that other people may see us as following. But “I am a homosexual” and “I am not a homosexual” are not two beliefs but two projects, two different ways of presenting and being myself.
Here is a less controversial example. Immediately following an award ceremony, I spell out (to myself and to others sitting near me) my indignation about how unfair it is that the prize was given to some undeserving fool, but I do not spell out (either to myself or to others) my envy, my resentment, and my belief that I deserved that prize just as much (and just as little) as he did. I avow (admit and stand behind) my indignation, but I neither admit nor stand behind my resentment. Needless to say, I like to see and present myself as a fair‐minded fellow, and I do not like to see or present myself as an envious, resentful person. So I choose the one way of spelling out and avowing my engagement rather than the other. Serious cases of bad faith, of course, involve much more serious situations and much more disturbing conceptions of oneself. But the model in this relatively harmless example is instructive. Bad faith is not primarily about beliefs. It is (in this case) about feelings and emotions and competitiveness, how one is engaged in this particular world of honors and other people competing for them. But so, too, the Vichy and Nazi collaborators spelled out their engagements in terms of a carefully delimited number of seemingly reasonable choices and commitments that they could then avow and stand behind. What they refused to spell out, especially to themselves, was the wider range of choices and commitments regarding their wartime duties to their country and their countrymen.
To finish this up, much ink has been spilled on the so‐called paradox of self‐deception, but by the turn of the twenty‐first century, it has become evident that, like most philosophical paradoxes, this one may seem logically tantalizing but is quite off the mark and false to the problem. Sartre, at the end of the chapter preceding “Bad Faith,” asks the quasi‐Kantian question, “What must we be that we are capable of bad faith?” But what he is really asking is how we can so subvert our freedom and be false to ourselves, a practical moral problem and not a logical dilemma. Self‐deception is very real, and any suggestion that it is logically impossible is laughable. But, of course, laughter never stopped any philosopher. The bottom line, however, is that self‐deception is not primarily a matter of beliefs, much less contradictory beliefs. It is not (literally) a matter of self‐deception. It is, rather, a question of taking responsibility. Luckily, after a few pages of discussing the “lie to oneself” paradox, Sartre recovers, and having fiddled a bit with the (p.147) problem of “knowing and not knowing,” he happily moves beyond it. He has much bigger game in mind.
Another Roadside Distraction: Sartre versus Freud
Despite the false start of Sartre's conception of bad faith as a lie to oneself, his consideration of the paradox of self‐deception allows him to engage in one of the most titanic intellectual contests in the twentieth century—his monumental opposition to Sigmund Freud. The excuse is that Freud can be interpreted as trying to resolve the paradox of self‐deception, although it is obvious that Freud, like Sartre, is not concerned with a mere paradox at all but with the deepest issues of human motivation and responsibility. Furthermore, in the face of Sartre's notoriously harsh critique of Freud, we should note that Sartre was a very sympathetic reader of Freud. Sartre, in fact, was entangled with Freud through his entire career. Later in Being and Nothingness he presents an outline of his own conception of “existential” psychoanalysis, one focused on “not only dreams, failures, obsessions, and neuroses but also and especially the thoughts of waking life, successfully adjusted acts, style, etc.” (734). He notes, with atypical false modesty, “This psychoanalysis has not yet found its Freud.” But the truth is and was that Sartre learned a great from Freud, and he was worried about many of the same issues and proposed some similar solutions, although in existentialist rather than quasi‐physiological and dubious anatomical terms. Indeed, although he does not even bother to employ the phrase, the section on “existential” psychoanalysis is all about bad faith, the conflict of facticity and transcendence by way of desire.9
Bad faith—in the form of self‐deception—plays an obvious role in Freud's theory. Nevertheless, Sartre (in a late interview) claimed to be appalled by Freud. As a good Cartesian, he claimed to have had no patience or comprehension of what Freud might mean by the fragmentation or opacity of consciousness, one part of the mind hidden from another. And as a good humanist, he was similarly appalled by Freud's attempt to “naturalize” and even “mechanize” the mind. Thus he opposed what he called “psychic determinism” in Freud. He also criticized this in William James (in his essay on the emotions). It is worth noting, however, that in that earlier essay Sartre praised Freud for having improved upon James insofar as Freud recognized the meaning of emotions and to that extent rejected the mechanical model. But one of the main themes of Sartre's philosophy is to combat “mechanism” wherever he finds it if it might be used to compromise our sense of responsibility.
In this discussion, however, it is not Freud's determinism but his appeal to the “Unconscious” that Sartre attacks. The driving force of Freud's psychoanalysis is his observation that people seem not to know what is (p.148) obviously most troubling to them, not because it is unimportant or because they are not paying attention, but, to the contrary, just because it is so important and upsetting that they cannot forget it or get over it. By distinguishing between the conscious and the unconscious mind (where the former does not have easy access to the latter) and, later in his career, among Ego, Id, and Superego, three separate “agencies,” Freud seems to explain how one can hide an awkward or awful truth from oneself. But the disagreement between Freud and Sartre does not turn on the translucency–opacity issue, even if that is how Sartre sets up the debate. Sartre has his “pre‐reflective consciousness,” and this plays at least some of the role played by Freud's conception of the “subconscious.” (Although this is Freud's “pre‐conscious” and not the “Unconscious,” which is the product of “repression.” I capitalize “Unconscious” to mark this special, technical meaning.) Sartre's prereflective consciousness, like Freud's subconscious, explains how something can be “in the mind” but not reflected upon, attended to, or acknowledged, not “spelled out” or “avowed.”
Sartre never pretends that all of consciousness is immediately accessible. If one refuses to accept some description of his engagement in the world, it more or less follows that he will not readily acknowledge the plausibility of that description. Thus the difference between Freud's Unconscious and repression and Sartre's characterization of bad faith is said to be the difference between “cannot” and “will not,” an inability versus a refusal. But the idea of a “mechanism” in the Freudian case is not so obviously Freud's own view.10 Freud, too, takes as his guiding principle the idea that the Unconscious can be made conscious, repression can be undone, and the Id can be converted to the Ego. And Sartre expresses the view that we cannot (ontologically) get beyond bad faith. Indeed, the more one looks at the details, the smaller the differences between Freud and Sartre start to seem.
Nevertheless, Sartre's harsh treatment of Freud reveals some real insights that are important for understanding both great authors. For example, Sartre accuses Freud of treating the instincts or drives in the Unconscious not as appearances but as “real psychic facts.” What Sartre is anticipating here, I suggest, is the idea that the “facts” of consciousness are at least partially constituted by consciousness, which would include the activities of reflection and interpretation. But there are no such facts “in themselves” (90). Sartre also criticizes Freud for “cutting the psychic whole into two. I am the Ego but I am not the id” (91). For Sartre, as I said, the question of how I am the self is a knotty question, but I think that he is right to challenge Freud's conception of the “it” as a part of myself that is at the same time not myself.
One of Nietzsche's most brilliant aphorisms (much admired by Freud) is “A thought comes when it will, not when I will,” expressing (according to one of many interpretations) his doubts about mental agency in general. We normally think of thoughts as direct expressions of the self, but the fact is that thoughts often “pop into” our minds. Sartre certainly agrees with this (p.149) insofar as he emphasizes the “spontaneity” of consciousness. But the question to scrutinize is whether Nietzsche is right to suggest that this casts doubt on agency. If it does, Sartre's central theme is in trouble. But so, too, are Nietzsche's idea of a society of selves, disconnected from one another, and Freud's efforts to so neatly divide consciousness (or “the mind,” the “psychic whole”) into arenas of agency and non‐agency. One should notice that all three philosophers thus tend to render the self or consciousness impersonal. Sartre does this quite explicitly by turning consciousness into “spontaneity.”
For instance, Sartre discusses the impulse to theft (91, which he elaborates in his later book Saint Genet) as not clearly the expression of an agent. As prereflective, according to Sartre, it cannot be the expression of an agent. So Sartre's example of an impulse raises not only a challenge to Freud but to Sartre's own theory as well. How and where does agency enter into the picture? And whose agency, we might ask? If Freud's id is an agent, who is it, given that it is not the “I,” the Ego? As Sartre correctly points out, “It is not accurate to hold that the ‘id’ is presented as a thing in relation to the psychoanalyst, for a thing is indifferent to the conjectures which we make concerning it, while the ‘id’ on the contrary is sensitive to them when we approach the truth” (93). In other words, the id must be in some intimate relation with consciousness, which seems to be precluded in the Freudian picture.
Sartre's criticism of Freud hones in on one idea in particular: the hypothesis of a censor, “conceived of as a line of demarcation with customs, passport division, currency control, etc., to re‐establish the duality of the deceiver and the deceived” (90). One might suspect that this is an unfairly detailed metaphor, but it is Freud, not Sartre, who offers us this analogy. Sartre asks, regarding the “resistance” of the patient (defiance, refusal to speak, lying about his dreams, even quitting the analysis), “What part of himself can thus resist? It cannot be the ‘Ego,’ … [but] it is equally impossible to explain the resistance as emanating from the complex the psychoanalyst wishes to bring to light” (92). Sartre concludes, “The only level on which we can locate the refusal of the subject is that of the censor—it alone because it alone knows what it is repressing” (93). In short, “If we reject the language and the materialistic mythology of psychoanalysis, [and] if we abandon all the metaphors representing the repression as the impact of blind forces, we are compelled to admit that the censor must choose and in order to choose must be aware of so doing” (93). Thus the resistance of the patient gets located in the censor, and we are right back where we started. It is the censor that is in bad faith, who both knows and refuses to know the same forbidden bit of information, which must, therefore be repressed. The paradox has not been solved.
Furthermore, no number of mechanistic metaphors can disguise the need to understand the repression in terms of its “finality,” that is, the purposiveness that Sartre defended in his earlier essay regarding the emotions. The (p.150) censor must have some comprehension of the end to be attained, which is simultaneously both desired and forbidden (94). Thus there is both the pleasure and the anxiety of the forbidden. (There is some danger here in taking the pleasure and anxiety as ends themselves, but we need not assume that Sartre does this.) One might object that both Sartre and Freud are employing misleading metaphors here, beginning with the spatial (“topological”) representation of “areas” of the mind and extending so far as to turn these parts into “agencies” that are, in effect, their own little personalities, “homunculi” of the sort often dismissed in discussions of the mind–body relation. (Even Descartes insisted that “I am not only lodged in my body as a pilot in a vessel, but I am besides so intimately conjoined and as it were intermixed with it, that my mind and my body compose a certain unity”; Meditations, Meditation VI.) But insofar as the aim of the Freudian move is the solution of the self‐deception paradox, it must be evident that it does not succeed. So given the way that Sartre sets up the problem, the Freudian move to an opaque consciousness, part of which is hidden from itself, is of no avail. This, of course, is not all that there is to Freud, nor, I would argue, does his supposed solution to the self‐deception paradox necessarily address the problem that Sartre seeks to solve. The question of responsibility hovers above psychoanalysis just as it does over existentialism.
A more straightforward argument is the one that Sartre makes using the example from Freud's maverick Polish colleague Wilhelm Stekel, of a woman “whom marital infidelity has made frigid.” Such patients, Sartre says, do not hide their complexes from themselves. Rather, they practice acts of conduct that are “objectively discoverable.” Stekel points out that the husband insists the woman has shown signs of pleasure, but the woman denies this. (We should be very suspicious of both the husband's self‐serving assurances and Stekel's acceptance of them, not to mention of Sartre's own notoriously sexist bias in such matters.) But what happens in such cases, according to Sartre, is that these “pathologically frigid” women distract themselves from the pleasure they dread, for example, by thinking of their household accounts while having sex. (Young men, I seem to remember, similarly distracted themselves by thinking of baseball statistics, but for a very different purpose, certainly not to avoid pleasure.) Sartre exclaims, in response to Stekel's case, “Will anyone speak of an unconscious here?” But this is not cynical, Sartre concludes, “It is in order to prove to herself that she is frigid.”
Although this quick analysis immediately follows the argument about the censor, it is in fact of a very different nature. Here, Sartre's emphasis on “finality” finally comes to the fore of the analysis, and the argument that it is “in order to” prove something to herself takes the place of any effort to hide some forbidden knowledge from herself or deny a painful belief. For bad faith is not, after all, a phenomenon of knowledge and belief, much less a lie to oneself. It is a phenomenon of intention and engagement, of constituting a self in accordance with one's needs and ideals. Freud, I think, can also be so (p.151) interpreted, and without the dehumanizing emphasis on mechanism, with an appropriately “dynamic” model of the Unconscious.11 But for Sartre the existentialist, there is little question: bad faith must be understood as a betrayal of freedom, not an epistemic paradox.
II: Freedom Beyond Belief
The first act of bad faith, Sartre writes, is to flee what it cannot flee, to flee what it is. Fleeing is very different from lying, and fleeing from oneself is a very different kind of act than lying to oneself, though equally problematic. Bad faith, according to Sartre, depends on the peculiarity of consciousness “to be what it is not, and to not be what it is,” but the question here is being or, more correctly becoming, becoming a self. And this is an ongoing project and process, never completed (while one lives). Bad faith, in its most typical manifestation, is the denial of this unwanted “freedom” in favor of coming to terms with a settled self that one simply is. I think that Sartre at first errs, along with a great many other writers on “self‐deception,” by focusing on the beliefs that may or may not be involved in one's articulation and avowal of one's conception of the self rather than the engagements in which one constitutes that conception of self. What is at stake, in other words, is the matter of responsibility. After all, it is my consciousness and it is my self that are being described. And so with every conception of self or, more specifically, with every unwanted or distasteful realization of who and how one seems to be, there is the pressing question, “So what do I do now?!” Typically, that is a responsibility we would rather ignore or not take on (at least, not right now).
Just suppose I leave a 13 percent tip at one of my favorite restaurants. I was distracted, but I also tend to be “tight,” and I fear that this is a serious flaw in my character. My undertipping tonight may well be evidence, if not proof, of my miserly tendencies. I am also well aware that my waitress is quick with numbers and recognizes the shortfall as soon as she picks up the check, even if she does not say or show anything. I get very embarrassed—or am I ashamed?—but she walks away, and I turn toward the door. Now what do I do? In one sense, the damage is done. But in another, of course, I can call her back and make amends. I fluctuate between prosecuting myself for my momentary inattention (a mere source of embarrassment) and for my miserly tendencies (a clear source of shame), but after a few moments (that seem like many minutes) I rationalize, “There is not much to be done about it now.” Or so I tell myself.
I would say that there is no question that I am in bad faith. Nevertheless, it has nothing to do with a lie to myself or, for that matter, hiding anything from myself. It has much more to do with the fact that I am unwilling, for whatever reason, to get up and undo what I have done, even though I feel guilty about it and I am now very worried about my “reputation.” I think now that I shall never again be able to come back to this restaurant, (p.152) although then I think (inconsistently) that next time I will have to leave a very large tip, and I briefly debate with myself whether 25 or 30 percent will do, assuming that I get the same waitress, and so on. But underlying this beside‐the‐point inner debate is the fact that I feel quite insecure in my conception of myself and very wary of repeating this behavior in the future.
Then, I quickly distract myself from dwelling on my behavior and its meaning, perhaps by finding something to get enraged about. (In the lot, someone has parked only inches away from my new car.) But the point of my distraction is not not knowing what I have done and what it signifies. Rather, it concerns my ongoing behavior: what I could do, and what I will do, and who I am. That is my concern, and that is the subject of my bad faith. One need not talk about anything “unconscious” here, nor need one say very much about belief. It is enough that I am torn in my motivation and between embarrassment and shame and about what to do now. It is not a matter of contradiction but of deciding how I feel and what I am to do. Needless to say, I much prefer embarrassment to shame, to pretend it was a negligible slip‐up rather than a definitive demonstration of a flaw in my character that will manifest itself again and again. Note that there is nothing impossible or paradoxical about this scenario. The critical “facts” of the case, whether I am blameworthy or not, whether I feel shame or embarrassment, are at this point not yet determined. They will be settled, if at all, by what I do now. Thus my anxiety is about what I will do, not what is true of me. But since my momentary “project” is to not take responsibility or even to think about what it is I've done or might do, I take refuge in distraction, a bit of “escape behavior.”
My bad faith project, Sartre insists, is bound to be “meta‐stable,” that is, subject to sudden disruption. Hazel Barnes notes that it is a term that Sartre invents, but it comes from chemistry and refers to momentarily stable but ultimately unstable compounds. Some chemical compounds are famously unstable (nitroglycerin, for instance), but they may, like bad faith, maintain stability for a substantial period of time. Then, with a mere jiggle or a spark, they explode. Freud, too, often notes the tension and the “leakage” that can be detected in all repression—odd rituals and compulsions that have no rational explanation, slips of the tongue, dreams, and occasional explosions of violent behavior. Such “Freudian slips” are a familiar experience for most of us, when our artfully constructed wall of defenses and distractions springs a leak or “explodes” in frustration or anger. The slips are not only the result of repression; they threaten to undermine it, letting us know that something is very wrong. Of course, Sartre does not buy into the “mechanisms” of Freudian defensiveness, but in the terms I have been suggesting, I think that there is much to say about the tentativeness of one's refusal to spell out and avow one's engagements and conceptions.12
For the most part, such behavior is more or less “translucent” or “transparent” in the sense that, to oneself, at least, one is always in some sense aware of what one is doing, and one can become so much more so (p.153) with just a moment's reflection (for instance, in response to the somewhat rude question, “What in the world are you doing?”). But in bad faith, everything depends on a subterfuge, pursuing or pretending to pursue one project while in fact pursuing another and, if asked, I misdescribe what it is I am doing. Thus I fume about the inconsiderate parker even as I worry whether anyone else in my party noticed the poor tip that I just left. Thus the resentful loser of the prize acts as if he is standing up for justice and fairness instead of expressing his bitterness. And the collaborator insists that he is only doing what is necessary and that he does not fear for his life or favor his personal advancement over his friendships, his citizenship, or his solidarity with his neighbors. But such pretenses are not secure, and though one might explain this by appeal to the translucency of consciousness, a more plausible explanation is that it is juggling too many balls in the air. It is not that one is not conscious of all of them, but rather that it is more than one can handle—one cannot even keep track of them.
This has much to do with the complexity of the bad faith project. As we noted, Sartre insists that bad faith would reduce to mere cynicism if one recognized and acknowledged that he or she was in bad faith. So in order to keep up the project, it is necessary to avoid spelling out the fact that we are avoiding spelling out our engagement. Early in his book, Fingarette gives us the stunning example from Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, in which the protagonist, Hickey, is relating to his pals at the bar the sympathetic reasons why he murdered his wife (to give her peace and free her from the misery of loving him), when he suddenly blurts out the awful truth: that he resented the “damned bitch.” He starts, as if shocked out of a nightmare, “No! I never—!” Even the most carefully developed pretenses momentarily fall apart, and when they do, the whole story about one's motivation has a way of pouring out. “Meta‐stable” is a good description of this tendency. We all know, if only from a very brief experiment, that juggling balls is an awkward business. All might be going smoothly, until one misses or drops the first ball. And then the whole performance falls apart dramatically. So, too, with our pretenses. Whether it is distraction or repression may be not so important. It is the tangled web we weave when we set out to deceive ourselves about who we are and what we are doing, consciously or unconsciously.
A further consideration is this: it is not as if spelling out what one is doing is by any means automatic, nor is avowing what we do, but neither does it usually take any special effort. We are language‐using creatures, and our language pervades most of our activities, even the most habitual. We spell things out mindlessly, often without paying much attention to the fact that we are doing so. (Am I confessing too much when I tell you that I often catch myself giving a running commentary even when I am doing something incredibly routine, such as washing dishes or taking a bath?) So the articulation, the “spelling out,” is often already going on, just “below the surface” (that is, just outside of the focus of my fully conscious attention). I “catch” myself doing it. So, too, our avowal of what we do is typically built (p.154) into the doing itself, with no further “stand” required. But, for many of us, it takes at least as much effort not to spell out what one is doing as it does to spell it out. So we can understand Freudian slips without any reference to repression and defense mechanisms in purely Sartrean terms by interpreting them as the natural consequence of distraction or momentary inattention, dropping the ball, in effect. The meta‐stability of bad faith is due simply to the fact that our efforts not to spell out and avow engagements that are in fact very important and significant to us are always quite vulnerable. We tend to express them in spite of ourselves. Or, if we are quite self‐conscious or steeped in psychoanalytic thinking, we will tend to spell out—or at least ask tough questions about—our meta‐project of not spelling out our project of not spelling out what we are doing. And once one begins to realize the extent of one's willful “cover‐up,” there stands naked before us the awful truth about our responsibilities that is the focus of our refusal.13
Thus Sartre as I read him holds, much in line with Fingarette's theory, that self‐deception has to do not with perception and belief but with volition and action, with the learned skill of articulating or “spelling out” one's beliefs and actions and their implications. Alfred Mele, by contrast, insists that such language is inappropriate. One could argue that he therefore deals exclusively with the phenomenon of “self‐deception” rather than with bad faith as such, but I think he clearly appreciates the linkage between the two. Richard Moran, it seems to me, is closest to the mark. He takes the responsibility inherent in first‐person authority to be the key to bad faith, and he writes convincingly about Sartre in this regard. Consciousness is a matter not of seeing and believing but of looking and attending, intentional acts. We are engaged in tasks and projects. We do not just perceive the world and form beliefs about it, and the first‐person standpoint, he writes, is not just about observing ourselves from a peculiar perspective. It is always and irreducibly about our sense of responsibility.14
Perhaps, one might argue (as Sartre suggests), we do not normally “spell out” or “make explicit” activities in which we are engaged. In Sartre's terms, we only sometimes engage in activities reflectively, but we are often engaged prereflectively. I run for a streetcar, and my consciousness is “streetcar to be overtaken.” Only occasionally do I shift my focus to the fact that “I am running for a streetcar,” and then, Sartre suggests, there is usually some special reason for becoming reflective (for example, when we notice that some stranger is watching us or, worse, laughing at us). But I think reflective engagement is far more common than Sartre suggests, and we sometimes quite reflectively avoid becoming reflective and spelling out our activities. (This is where Sartre offers us the misleading analogy of falling asleep. But in trying to go to sleep, we are waiting for something to happen. In bad faith, we do not wait for something to happen but, rather, engage ourselves trying to do something [or refusing to do something].) But then we have to ask, What is the motivation for avoiding reflection and spelling out what we are doing?
(p.155) There are various reasons for refusing to spell out our engagements to ourselves, from the innocent need to concentrate on something else we are doing (for instance, Merleau‐Ponty's example of needing to concentrate on the activity of typing a letter or playing the piano, and thus trying not to reflect on or spell out one's activity while one is doing it) to the not‐so‐innocent need not to avow or acknowledge what we are doing where that activity weighs negatively on our conception of ourselves. Of course, it is not necessary that such refusal pertain only to presently ongoing activities. Sartre's homosexual is trying to process a whole history of homoerotic activities in his conception of himself as, or as not, a homosexual. Walking out of the restaurant, I am trying to understand my whole history as an undertipping tightwad. But the processing itself is an ongoing activity, and according to many hypercerebral authors, an ongoing activity that most of us are engaged in much of the time. (I think of Sartre as a hypercerebral author who goes out of his way to deny this.) Bad faith is about our self‐identifying engagements and activities, whether we engage in them reflectively and articulate or spell them out for ourselves, or not. Bad faith, in its most usual manifestation, is the refusal to take responsibility for our engagements in the world by way of the dubious strategy of refusing to spell them out as such.
“Patterns” of Bad Faith: Sartre's Infamous Examples
I have argued that Sartre starts us off on the wrong foot by presenting bad faith on the model of self‐deception and a lie to oneself. But to make matters worse, Sartre's examples of bad faith are for the most part not really worth the fame and attention they have received as illustrations of bad faith. The rather casual Stekel example, which ends the first section of the chapter, is quite convincing, although, to be sure, there is much more to say about it than Sartre has indicated. The point, often made (and I have made it often in this book), is that Sartre's otherwise Teutonic‐styled philosophy comes alive in his examples, and the more personal they are, usually the better. Thus I think the most telling (and revealing) examples in the book have to do with his own sense of frailty, for instance, while out on a hike with his friends, or his perennial sense of being unattractive and how he deals with that. It is this that makes the phenomenology in Nausea so convincing. But that already suggests what I think is so weak about the examples of bad faith in the “Bad Faith” chapter. Namely, they are not personal. Nor are they, properly speaking, phenomenological. Phenomenology is the careful and insightful description of one's own experience (leaving aside the difficult questions about how far such personal experience can be generalized). But most of Sartre's examples here are descriptions of other people's experiences.
Thus I disagree with Allen W. Wood, who in a critical article attacks Sartre's examples for a very different reason, namely, that he manufactures (p.156) his examples for his own purposes. “Sartre describes these examples so skillfully and vividly that it is easy to overlook the fact that they do not tell us much about self‐deception. … In fact, they are little more than a series of illustrations of Sartre's own radical and idiosyncratic views about human freedom.”15 But, of course, all philosophers produce (whether or not they “manufacture”) examples for their own purposes and to prove their points. And Sartre does indeed produce these examples as “illustrations of [his] own radical and idiosyncratic views about human freedom,” for, as I have argued, the discussion of bad faith is utterly central to Sartre's views about freedom and responsibility (however radical and idiosyncratic they may be).
Perhaps Wood is misled because he buys into Sartre's own misleading presentation of the problem: “Sartre's problem about self‐deception arises because it seems that in order to deceive myself I must simultaneously believe and disbelieve the same proposition at the same time, and this looks like a contradiction.”16 That would indeed make the issue of freedom seem tangential and secondary. But if Sartre's analysis is all about the denial of freedom, I would say that his examples do tell us quite a bit about bad faith (and, secondarily, about self‐deception), but much more about what Sartre really has in mind (namely, freedom and its denial) rather than what he says he has in mind (that is, lying to oneself). Two of Sartre's examples, in fact, are quite convincing, although the first and most famous, the waiter in the café, is admittedly a bit oversimplified and merely suggestive. The second, however, Sartre's homosexual acquaintance, is both insightful and profound. I also think the short example on sadness is insightful. Regarding the others, however, I think there is much room for serious criticism, but not for the reason that Wood suggests.
Thus I want to look again at Sartre's description and analysis of Stekel's “pathologically frigid woman.” I said that I thought that the example is effective and nicely illustrates Sartre's central point about the purposiveness (as opposed to the epistemology) of bad faith. Nevertheless, Sartre's presentation is suspicious. It is obvious that this is not phenomenology but a borrowed and second‐hand assumption about another person's experience. In fact, it is a second‐hand version of a psychiatrist's report of the woman's husband's dubious claim about what she may or may not have experienced. In other words, it is a description four times removed, with built‐in biases all along the way. Now Sartre is rightly celebrated for his phenomenological insights (again, Nausea is exemplary), but he is not similarly praised for his empathy, his ability to “get inside other people's heads.” Especially when they are women. (To protect myself against the charge that I am doing just what Sartre was doing, presuming to understand a woman's point of view, let me say that the following analysis was first suggested and then vetted by my wife, Kathleen Higgins.)17
Let us review (so far as we have them) the facts of the case. First of all, we are told that this woman may have been made frigid by her husband's (p.157) marital infidelity. But Sartre goes on to describe her as “pathologically frigid,” thus indicating his insensitivity. Moreover, was she “made frigid” in a merely causal way or is her frigidity a strategy for getting back at her husband? Sartre presumes the latter. He may be right in attributing the obvious purpose in her distracting herself from sex by thinking of household accounts (namely, to avoid enjoying sex with her husband). It is no doubt true that sex is amplified by attention (though not necessarily by way of “spelling out”), and dampened by inattention (especially if the topic of distraction is tedious and takes some concentration on its own). But the question, What is the purpose of the woman's distracting herself? and the further question, Does she realize that this is what she is doing? are not so obviously answered by Sartre. It is not clear that he has eliminated the unconscious (that is, purposes and strategies that the woman might well be able as well as might not want to acknowledge). Moreover, why does she not want to enjoy herself? Might there be some further (ulterior) purpose, one that she cannot understand?
I think it best to quote Kathleen Higgins here. First, she points with suspicion to Sartre's use of sexual examples:
The preponderance of sexual examples in Sartre's list is noteworthy. Such examples are convenient for displaying his analytical moves of preference, for sexual interactions often do render problematic the notions of subjective independence and objectification. However, Sartre exploits the reader's ability to identify with fictional sexual desire—the sole feature through which the man in his example is characterized—to present the woman's response and behavior as unwarranted.18
Thus my snide inclusion of a predictable Sartrean sexist sidebar, in which Sartre notes that Stekel points out that the husband insists that his wife has shown signs of pleasure, even though she denies this. But Kathleen Higgins rightly points out:
Sartre apparently considers pleasure to be a mere facticity of someone engaged in sexual intercourse. Thus, the frigid woman is dreading pleasure, and indeed, Sartre goes on to say, experiencing pleasure. It does not strike him that what the woman dreads may indeed be dealing with her husband. Given the allusion to marital infidelity, however, she may well associate her husband with feelings of betrayal, emotional abuse, rejection—strong emotions that bear little relation to pleasure.19
Even if one were to agree with Sartre that the woman is avoiding pleasure as such, it does not follow that she is in bad faith. Her strategy, whether consciously or unconsciously adopted, may be the best emotional recourse she has available to her, and indeed one that she might rationally adopt. (p.158) Very likely, she no longer trusts her husband. In general, it is a reasonable strategy to avoid depending on an untrustworthy person for anything, pleasure included. Sexual pleasure also renders many women emotionally vulnerable to their partners. Such vulnerability would put the woman in this example at risk of future hurt should her husband be unfaithful again. She might very reasonably be inclined to forgo physical pleasure in order to avoid such emotional risk. Moreover, deliberate distraction from potentially pleasurable activity may be much more easily achieved than the distraction she would require for enjoyment—distraction from awareness of her husband, her emotions in response to him, her disturbance over the condition of her marriage, etc.20
None of this is intended to suggest that Steckel's patients do not have problems. Indeed, their strategies may be misguided with respect to certain of their goals. A woman's evident sexual disinterest might, for example, motivate her husband to seek sexual applause elsewhere— very likely not the result desired by a woman who responds with such distress to infidelity. Nevertheless, in a situation that might strike a woman as far from ideal, it is not obvious that self‐deception is involved in her sexual resistance. Sartre's account is deficient in that he does not seek to understand the concerns of these patients.21
I have little to add to this. The upshot, even in this example, is that Sartre has shown himself to be insensitive, too quick to judge, and unwilling to ask deeper questions even where they fit his analysis. His use of sexual pleasure is suspect, and his presumption of understanding a troubled woman's strategy is contrary to his phenomenological method. If he had instead talked about his own sense of sexual inadequacy (modestly but sympathetically described on occasion by Simone de Beauvoir), he would have made a much more convincing case.
A similar analysis is appropriate for Sartre's example of the young woman sitting at a café with a date. Bad faith is a function of self‐conception, but Sartre feels quite confident saying, from his third‐person (voyeuristic) perspective, “We shall say that this woman is in bad faith.” Again, the unwarranted empathetic presumption, and again, we shall see, the projection of sexual intentions. Sartre simply assumes that he knows more about this woman's state of mind than she does. But the real problem is the nature of the example. It is terribly confused. Sartre invokes two very different analyses, first by way of the facticity–transcendence formula discussed earlier, and second by the “lie to oneself” analysis that has been the curse of the entire chapter. (“It is a certain art of forming contradictory concepts which unite in themselves both an idea and the negation of that idea.”) But the first, even without the second, is multiply ambiguous.
(p.159) The woman “has consented to go out” with a man she is seeing for the first time, although he is barely described at all. Indeed, Sartre presumes his frame of mind is a singular desire, which if spelled out (whether by him or by her) would be “cruel and naked,” and would “humiliate and horrify” her. But we are given a detailed description of her supposed state of mind. (Again, one must imagine Sartre the voyeur, writing all of this down.) She “knows very well” his intentions, Sartre assures us. (Because all men “want just one thing from a woman,” one wonders? Or is Sartre betraying his own desire? Does a leer creep across his face?) Sartre says she knows that she will have to make a decision sooner or later. But does she? Perhaps she is naïve. Perhaps she is more confident with men than she looks. Perhaps she has already made a decision. (As the comedian Paul Rodriquez plaintively observes, quoted by Higgins, “Women are psychic. They always know if you're going to get laid.”) But Sartre assures us that “she does not want to realize the urgency; she concerns herself only with what is respectful and discreet in her companion.” (What was she supposed to do, ask him matter‐of‐factly about his intentions?) She does not think about what might happen (Sartre again assures us). Indeed, Sartre even imagines the date saying to her, “I find you so attractive!” but assures us that she would “disarm this phrase of its sexual background.” The man appears to her as pure facticity, as “sincere and respectful as the table is round or square” (99). This indicates “a permanence like that of things.” But all of this, Sartre again assures us, is because “she does not quite know what she wants.”
All of this is brazenly presumptuous, even if Sartre made it all up. Then the facticity–transcendence formula kicks in, but not in any obvious way. Sartre tells us that in order for him to satisfy her, she would have to be addressed in her “full freedom.” But at the same time, this feeling would have to be “wholly desire; that is, it must address her body as an object.” This impossible “either/or” choice already condemns the woman, assuming that she is as ontologically flat‐footed as Sartre is. But in any case, the situation changes. He takes her hand. Now she has to make a decision. “To leave the hand there is to consent to flirt. … To withdraw it is to break the troubled and unstable harmony which gives the hour its charm” (97). Her aim (Sartre supposes) is “to postpone the moment of decision as long as possible.” So she leaves her hand there, but “she does not notice that she is leaving it.” She is at that moment all intellect, “drawing her companion up to the most lofty regions of sentimental speculation.” (Why “sentimental speculation”?) “The divorce of body from soul is accomplished, the hand rests inert …—a thing.”
It is at this point that Sartre confidently asserts, “We shall say that this woman is in bad faith.” But this is also where the account gets even more confused. She has reduced her companion's gestures to being only what they are, the “in‐itself,” but she will enjoy the desire as not being what it is, as its transcendence (98). Finally, she is aware of her own body (“as being aroused, perhaps”), but as if from above, “as a passive object.” What then (p.160) follows is several pages of distraction of literary references, ontological speculation, a too quick introduction of the problem of Being‐for‐Others, and an even quicker mention of sincerity as the antithesis of bad faith, the impossibility of being what we are, and the consequent necessity (“obligation”) to “make ourselves what we are” (99). All of which has the intended effect of making us lose track entirely of the young woman in the café, her bad faith, and the probable sexual outcome of the afternoon.
But let us not forget her. What is the nature of her bad faith? Is it that she considers herself pure transcendence as she rattles on enthusiastically about matters of high intellectual significance? Or is it that she treats herself (that is, her body, her hand) as mere facticity, as a thing, to which events can only happen but which do not in any way provoke or invite them? Is it the way she treats her date, as a thing, and his desire as yet another thing? Or is it the way she thinks of his desire as transcendence (although it is by no means clear whether it is his transcendence or hers that is in question)? Is she in bad faith insofar as she recognizes (what Sartre supposes as) her arousal, or insofar as she does not? Is Sartre so much a sexist that he presumes a young woman could not possibly be so entranced by intellectual matters when the possibility of sex presents itself? Or, for that matter, that a man cannot remain intellectually involved when the possibility of sex is on the horizon? And what is she to do with her hand, once it has been grasped by her date? Pull it away (a sure way to break the “charm” of the afternoon)? Grasp his hand in turn (marking the end of the conversation and distracting both of them, indicating a decision that she possibly has not made yet)? Higgins notes that there is no indication of any negotiation, verbal or nonverbal, between the couple. His desire is just an unproblematic fact, and her treating her hand as a thing, possibly her arousal, too, is just a launch pad for a transcendence that leaves them both behind.
But if Sartre's treatment of the example is deeply troubling, Fingarette's attempt to straighten it out is even more problematic. He asserts what Sartre at most implies: that it is her “flirtation project” that drives the plot of the encounter, and that she does indeed know what she is doing with her hand, which makes her cynical rather than in bad faith, on Sartre's analysis. He also adds that she is “playing the role of the intellectual” though she disavows this role, and she “carries on her amorous invitations without reflecting.” Fingarette presumes that, unless she is very skillful, there will be “a certain artificiality, a certain glib irrelevance about her conversation,” “even momentary eruptions of patently flirtatious phrasing, expression, or gesture.” This makes the young woman's project transparent, all right, but only by turning her into the sexual predator, the very opposite, I presume, of Sartre's intention.
Of course, men know women like that, and men have all acted on occasion like the callous cad that Sartre casts in the male role of this little drama. But the net result of the example is to wholly confuse the issue of bad faith, in large part because Sartre is in no position to tell us what this young (p.161) woman is thinking and feeling. It is all made up, and not very well, if the purpose is to illustrate the dynamics of bad faith. In this case, Wood is absolutely right, but the example fails to shed any more light on Sartre's radical view of freedom than it does on the perplexing and pervasive phenomenon of bad faith in sexual encounters.
But finally, the more convincing examples: the waiter in the café (Sartre spent a remarkable amount of time in cafés), Sartre's own experience of sadness, and the homosexual who questions his own homosexuality. In the first and last cases, one can put forward a version of the above complaints: What did Sartre understand about the menial and solicitous job of being a waiter? (Sartre, the self‐appointed working‐class spokesman though he may be, pretty much admits as much.) And what did he know about being homosexual, even if he had homosexual friends and acquaintances? But at least they both are males. The most powerful and appropriate example, however, is the personal one, Sartre's analysis of his own emotion. Oddly enough, this is the one that rarely gets talked about in the commentaries on Sartre's bad faith, and Sartre gives it relatively scant attention.
The waiter example is a plausible example of bad faith according to the facticity and transcendence formula, and it is a good illustration of what Sartre means when he says that “we have the constant obligation to make ourselves what we are” (101). But since we “are what we are not and are not what we are,” this, too, will always be meta‐stable, will always betray “leaks,” will always be tinged with artificiality. Thus, he notes, the waiter's movements are “a little too precise, a little too rapid,” his step is a bit too quick. He bends a bit too eagerly, his voice is a little too solicitous. Sartre comments, “All of his behavior seems to us a game.” The waiter pretends that he is a mechanism. “He is playing at being a waiter in a café” (102). So, too, grocers play at being grocers, soldiers play at being soldiers, and philosophers, to be sure, play at being philosophers. But of the waiter, unlike his female patron from the preceding example, Sartre does not simply exclaim, “We shall say that this man is in bad faith.” Surely Sartre knows (from his own grocer example) that the waiter is just doing what is expected of him by his customers. It is enough to say, now appropriately in the first person, “I am a waiter in the mode of being what I am not” (103). Sartre throws out some plausible, because more personal, analogies: the student who tries so hard to be an attentive student that he exhausts himself playing the attentive role, the lecturer who is a good speaker just because he plays at speaking (an example I find dubious, but I can imagine giving it a plausible interpretation). The upshot is that there are no facts that are simply true of one. “On all sides I escape being and yet—I am” (103).
Now, Sartre's sadness. It is “a mode of being that concerns only myself.” This casual admission throws into relief a problem that has persisted through all of Sartre's examples, not just his implausible presumptions of empathy but the fact that all of the examples in fact involve other people, and this changes the dynamic of the examples. Sartre does bring in (p.162) “Being‐for‐Others,” very briefly, almost silently, on page 100, in his long distraction from the young woman's case, but he doesn't make much of it. I will have more to say about this toward the end of the section, but first, let's appreciate Sartre's personal sadness.
Sartre's description does not begin very poignantly, as he says, “One might think that surely I am the sadness in the mode of being what I am” (103–104). He becomes more insightful when he becomes more phenomenological and less ontological, and tells us that the sadness is the intentional unity that “reassembles and animates the totality of my conduct. It is the meaning of this dull look with which I view the world of my bowed shoulders, my lowered head, of the listlessness of my whole body” (104). But then, Sartre tells us, he realizes that he cannot hold onto his sadness. If a stranger appears, he would show a lively cheerfulness. He would “obligingly” promise his sadness an appointment later. Now this, I think, is deep and insightful. So often, sadness is treated as a state. But Sartre suggests that it is something quite different, which he dubiously calls a “conduct,” referring us back to his earlier essay noting that it is consciousness affecting itself, a “magical recourse against a situation too urgent.” I think that this oversimplifies sadness. Sometimes, we feel sad just because of the weather. Other times it is due to a momentary feeling of loss. But Sartre's insight is that we make ourselves sad. We may “receive it” from elsewhere—in other words, we may be caused to be sad by any number of external factors (the weather, a loss), but consciousness affects itself just for this reason. It may not be entirely voluntary, but it is not wholly involuntary either.
Moreover, I must continue to make myself sad. My sadness is never a finished product. Here our brief discussion about consciousness constituting the “facts” of consciousness comes once again into focus. Sadness is routinely treated as a “basic” emotion, one largely defined by a neurological syndrome (or “affect program”) and all but indifferent to both outside causes and its own intentional objects. It is, in an important sense, inert, continuing without effort once it begins. But Sartre is insisting that there is no such inertia, only renewed investment, and that pretending this is just another form of bad faith (“I can't help it, I'm just sad today”).
But isn't my sadness just the way my consciousness is? Or perhaps it is rather the case that my sadness is my chosen object of consciousness? But this would involve us in an all‐too‐familiar tangle, in what sense can consciousness be its own object, etc.? But Sartre at this turn insists that my sadness is neither something that I am nor that I have for myself so much as it is a response to other people—in other words, a phenomenon of Being‐for‐Others. This takes us far beyond the solipsistic “escape behavior” of the earlier essay and even the seemingly personal nature of sadness he began with here. Sartre's description is rather labyrinthine, but I take it that the essence of it is that my sadness is largely a presentation, which is why I “turn it on” for people with whom I am intimate but can readily turn it off, at least temporarily, for strangers. This may hardly be fair to our friends, but Sartre here appreciates and explains how our (p.163) emotions have an intricate involvement in the intimacy of the roles the Other (friend or stranger) plays in my constitution of myself. My sadness is not just a state but a kind of performance.
Sincerity in the case of emotions might be understood as just being what one feels, and then perhaps reflectively accepting or approving of what one feels. (This two‐tier model of emotion should remind us of the Stoic theory, in which an emotion is an “affirmation of an appearance.”) But Sartre is saying that there can be no such being, and so one's sadness, if I continue the Sartrean jargon, is largely a meta‐stable product of our intentionality, something constituted by consciousness that then “discovers” it. I try to figure, via introspection, just what I am feeling. But the attempt, which should be all too familiar to us, is unsuccessful. There doesn't seem to be anything there. I look for my sadness, as I have just presented it to my best friend (putting her in a somber mood as well), and what I see is just my own behavior in progress, no sadness at all. So, too, when I am trying to decide whether or not I am in love, especially in the presence of my beloved, I cannot find what I would like to find—and what she is surely hoping for as well—love. The bold truth that Sartre is proclaiming here is that we make love, as we do sadness, as we do all of the many emotions and feelings we live through. The conditions may present themselves, but it is up to us to decide or, in the Stoics' language, affirm through judgment the legitimacy (or the lack of it) of what we feel. To pretend otherwise is to be in bad faith.
Bad Faith and Being‐for‐Others
In most of the chapter “Bad Faith,” Sartre maintains the misleadingly simple, and therefore seductive, thesis that bad faith is a denial or a confusion of two very different and opposed aspects of ourselves: facticity, the facts that are true of oneself, and transcendence, that which goes beyond the facts. To be sure, there are examples of self‐deception that are somewhat like this, and Sartre plays with them, notably with the waiter in the café who pretends to be a waiter; in his novel Age of Reason, where his character Mathieu insists (à la Sartre) that he is not what he obviously is; and in the play No Exit, where the male protagonist wrestles with the question of whether he is (or was) nothing but the sum of his actions (and of which actions?). But most of Sartre's examples of this supposed phenomenon are demonstrably something quite different, in which it is the view of other people that creates the problem of bad faith, and not just the self‐reflection of the subject. In other words, bad faith is the product not only of facticity and transcendence (“being‐in‐itself” and “being‐for‐itself”) but of what Sartre calls “Being‐for‐Others” as well. We shall see that this complicates matters enormously.
In Stekel's frigid woman story, the husband is not just a sex partner whose instrumentality the wife fails or refuses to enjoy. The example is all about their relationship: how she thinks of him and his infidelity, what she (p.164) thinks he thinks of her, and how he thinks of her or at least how he treats her (given that negotiation between them, apart from sex, seems to have broken down). We cannot talk about bad faith in such a case without talking about the manipulation and deceit that go on between them and how sex is particularly fertile soil for such manipulation and deceit, especially as, among human intimate activities, sex invites less candor and “spelling out” (and, ironically, less intimacy) than almost any other. Thus the young unmarried woman in the café can hardly express whatever sexual feelings, fears, or expectations she may have, particularly to the man sitting across from her, but her feelings for him, his feelings for her, her feelings about his feelings—not to mention either of their feelings regarding the philosophical pervert sitting at the next table—are all relevant to the question of whether either of them is in bad faith. It is certainly not just a question of whether the young woman identifies with her body and its arousal or, rather, identifies with her intellectual transcendence of her body. (Suppose that the man across the table is her philosophy tutor. What difference would that make to Sartre's simpleminded account?)
The waiter case is much less complicated than the others, but it is pretty evident that he, too, is putting on a performance. He may just be “playing,” but he is playing as in a theater, and not as in a sandbox. It is extremely doubtful that he would continue the performance after all of the customers have gone off for the evening or when he gets back to his apartment at night. The sadness example is even more to the point. Sartre begins by asking us whether we think that this is an instance that concerns only oneself, but answers with a resounding “no.” It, too, is a presentation. My sadness depends for its meaning not on my introspective psychology but on my interplay with others in the world. In other words, Being‐for‐Others is not a casual third term in the understanding of bad faith, and so the discussion of it in the chapter “Bad Faith” is both misleading and woefully incomplete.
That leaves us with the last and most extended example of the chapter, which we have touched on throughout our discussion. It follows the discussion of sadness, but the emotion here in question is guilt, even though Sartre rarely refers to it as such. The point is the same: guilt is not just a psychological fact that we discover in ourselves but is, to a certain extent, something that we make so. But this is complicated by an ambiguity that we keep running into in this book, with both Camus and Sartre. There is legal guilt, which is in an institutional sense “objective”; and there is causal guilt, which in a factual sense is also objective; and then there is moral guilt, which (certain theological and moral doctrines aside) is what we have mainly been talking about. Feeling guilty, one might say, so long as we don't take this to be just a feeling (a sensation). What gets us into the homosexual case is his guilt, and his question is Should I feel guilty? Sartre tells us that he has “intolerable guilt,” and he is therefore in bad faith. Moreover, all of this is complicated by subsequent discussions of shame and guilt in Being and Nothingness, where Sartre insists, “My original fall is the existence of the (p.165) Other” and “It is before the Other that I am guilty” (352, 531). But we need to slow down and ask whether it is his feeling that he is guilty that puts him in bad faith, or other people and their “looks” that put him in bad faith, or his “conduct” that makes him such. (Obviously, the question of legal guilt cannot be wholly excluded from consideration, and given that he is described not as a homosexual but as a “pederast,” we cannot retreat to contemporary liberal sexual platitudes.)
On the one hand, the conflicted person in question—and I again find myself picturing Daniel in the Roads to Freedom trilogy—has a clear and undeniable history of homosexual encounters. Furthermore, he suffers from repeated homoerotic urges and desires. All of this, his past and his psychology, falls into the “facticity” side of the ledger. On the other hand, this man is repulsed by his past behavior and disgusted by his urges. He resolves to act differently. He resolves to be a different person. But temptation and opportunity present powerful obstacles. And so he struggles. Sartre rather unsympathetically describes his evasion and uncertainty as “comic” insofar as he refuses to draw the conclusion that seems so obvious from the facts. But his friend, whom Sartre dubs “the Champion of Sincerity,” insists that he declare frankly, “I am a pederast.” And Sartre rather evenhandedly but implausibly questions, “Who is in bad faith, the homosexual or the champion of sincerity?” (As if turning another person into an object is also a serious act of bad faith.)
The poor fellow fights against what he fears is his destiny. I often compare him with the inveterate smoker who is trying desperately to quit but is so “hooked” that he always finds another excuse to keep smoking. But however powerful the addiction and its physiological and psychological compulsions, there is always that sense that one can, with sufficient “will power,” successfully resolve to quit. After all, millions of others have done it. Sartre describes all of this in some pretty fancy talk about “rebirth” and “being” and the “peculiar, irreducible character of human reality.” But without getting spookily ontological, we are all familiar with the pattern. At some point, the smoker denies that he is addicted, denies that anything stands between him and quitting (despite many failures before), and in so denying reality, he is, according to an unsympathetic Sartre, in bad faith. He is condemned whether he identifies himself and his determined destiny according to his facticity or he rejects his facticity and insists on his transcendence. So, too, the homosexual, whatever the pressures of his habits and his urges, and despite the temptations he so readily (but guiltily) gives in to, continues to insist on his transcendence. He, too, can be condemned in either direction.
But there is a further turn in the argument, prompted, in Sartre's version, by the Champion of Sincerity. And that is the reflective turn, or rather, the confessional turn; Sartre even reminds us of the slogan “a sin confessed is half pardoned,” as if reflective confession is already an assertion of freedom. But Sartre's cynical take on this has a powerful measure of plausibility: that it is for the benefit of the other (the Champion of Sincerity), and not for the (p.166) sake of his own freedom, that the homosexual is urged to confess. How much better it would make us feel to say, “He's a hopeless homosexual” (or “He's hopelessly addicted”), thus both celebrating our own freedom and wisdom (“I, at least, have the wisdom not to be a homosexual/not to smoke”). At the same time, we deny the same freedom of choice to the Other. (This, perhaps, is the source of the Champion of Sincerity's bad faith.) Sartre also predictably cross‐references his insight to Hegel's master/slave parable in the Phenomenology: one is forced to give up his freedom to the other in return for the mere possibility of freedom yet to come.
But apart from this insightful (and cynical) aside, the role of reflection in the homosexual's bad faith is quite significant. For one thing, it is only on the level of reflection that “will power” appears (“I have got to stop doing this!”). And despite Sartre's insistence that bad faith must be a prereflective phenomenon, it is only on reflection that certain critical features of bad faith—and human engagement in general—come into full play. Second, it is in reflection, most notably, that one opens up that critical “gap” between oneself and one's engagements, commitments, emotions, motives, and desires. One “pulls back” to reflect upon the fact that one is investing enormous amounts of effort and energy in the pursuit of some trivial activity. One pauses to reflect on one's anger or sense of growing resentment, suddenly aware of how unwarranted and unseemly it is. One may even stop mid‐sentence—in either thought or speech—as one “listens to oneself” say something about oneself that suddenly, as if in a flash of insight, seems utterly absurd. Other people, “champions of sincerity” or not, may prompt or even demand such reflection, but as essentially reflective creatures we often initiate it, sometimes spontaneously, ourselves. (Surely it is not always spontaneous. If one decides to go to a therapist or talk to a friend or even spend a quiet hour alone, “thinking things over,” one invites such reflection.) Surely our homosexual is sufficiently wracked by intolerable guilt so as to be not only prompted but obsessed with reflecting on his nature and his fate. He hardly needs the self‐serving Champion of Sincerity to urge him on.
So why does Sartre introduce the champion of sincerity into the discussion at all? I think that Sartre introduces this dubious character in order to make the highly controversial point that even sincerity is in bad faith. It is yet another effort to dissociate oneself from oneself, and therefore even in “good faith,” bad faith is unavoidable. But I think that this is a troublesome conclusion, a bad argument, and it undermines the value of an extremely important ethical concept.
Can One Be or Become “Authentic”?
I have been using the word “authenticity” somewhat loosely (usually parenthetically) as more or less a synonym, or at any rate a rough equivalent, of the notions of “good faith” and “sincerity,” as the opposite of bad faith (as (p.167) well as of self‐deception). First of all, I bother mentioning “authenticity” at all just because it has become such a cornerstone of popular “existentialist” thinking, although even the two authors with whom it is most correctly associated (Kierkegaard and Heidegger) in fact said remarkably little about it. Heidegger, in particular, spends most of his time cataloging the various forms of inauthenticity. His suggestions about authenticity [literally “own‐ness”] are famously confusing if not obscure. Sartre rarely uses the word, except occasionally to link his own thinking to Heidegger, and in any case he never subjects it to even the most minimal analysis. He does give us an extensive analysis of bad faith, but we should by no means assume that “good faith” or authenticity is the “opposite” of bad faith, despite his contrasting them at the end of the chapter. And to make matters even more complicated, Sartre clearly suggests that there is no possibility of authenticity or of “good faith” or of “sincerity” (which in his writing seems like a variation of cynicism). So at best we might be able to say what good faith would be if it were possible. But here again the comparison with virtue and vice might be valuable. Just as no one can be completely in bad faith, so no one could be completely in good faith. But just as one can be quite honest, or generous, or courageous, so one might be better or worse in avoiding bad faith. To be sure, “no one's perfect.” But that is surely not the end of the story.
Bad faith is a bad thing, but like all bad things it admits of degrees and is rarely found in “pure” form. It can be “more or less”: more or less destructive, more or less egregious, more or less justified. Refusing to face up to one's cheapness is much less egregious than collaborating with the Nazis. In this, it might profitably be compared with the traditional conception of the vices. (As “sins,” the vices may have some claim to absolute status, but even sins are routinely distinguished both by lay folk and church doctrine as “major” and “minor” as well as “mortal,” “venial,” and “cardinal.”)
Like the traditional vices, bad faith has an awkward logical relation with its “opposite,” “good faith,” just as the vices have an awkward logical relation with the virtues. The “opposite” of gluttony, for example, is what? Moderation at the dinner table? Abstemiousness? Self‐denial? Starvation? Is chastity the “opposite” of lust? And what is the “opposite” of anger? For Aristotle, it would be getting angry judiciously— in the right way, at the right time, and so on. For the Stoics, it would be abstaining from anger altogether. For Saint Augustine, it's leaving it all up to God. Again we should not leap too quickly to the idea that “good faith” (or “authenticity”) is the “opposite” of bad faith.
Aristotle says that a virtue is “the mean between the extremes [of vices].” What if we were to take the comparison with the vices a step farther and suggest that the “extremes” of bad faith would be (1) total emphasis on one's facticity and (2) total emphasis on one's transcendence? To be sure, Aristotle's doctrine is a matter of considerable controversy, and it is widely held that his list of virtues is ad hoc (or ad hominem, simply a description of the ideals approved of among his peers). Thus his list of virtues and vices has (p.168) nothing of the elegance of the medieval lists, and so, too, I think that “bad faith” encompasses a wide swath of human failings and weaknesses that cannot be easily unified by any simple criterion. Thus, again, we should be careful about assuming any straightforward relationship between bad faith and good faith, including the idea that good faith is the correct “balance” of facticity and transcendence. Nor should we assume that the absence of bad faith is equivalent to good faith (or “authenticity”) and vice versa.
All that having been said, however, I would like to say something about the cluster of concepts “authenticity,” “good faith,” and “sincerity” in Sartre. “Authenticity” has become the word that attracts the most attention (whereas “good faith” is pretty much restricted to the margins of commentators writing about Sartre on “bad faith”). With “authenticity,” the English association with “genuineness” can be misleading. In Kierkegaard and Heidegger, the word might better be understood as something more like “integrity,” or even as “autonomy,” insofar as both authors explicitly contrast the notion with something like Kant's “heteronomy”: in Kierkegaard “the herd” and “the public,” in Heidegger Das Man and the anonymity of the “they”‐self. The word “integrity,” we know, has its roots in “wholeness” or “completeness,” as does the Heideggerian notion of “own‐ness” (Eigentlichkeit). But it is important (particularly if we keep an eye on Heidegger) not to render this “own‐ness” too subjectively. That is, we should be wary of an overly “internalist” understanding of integrity or “own‐ness” in which it might be said of someone that he or she has integrity or “own‐ness” if only he or she is perfectly consistent and coherent in thought and feeling.
To any such “internalist” understanding there is a ready sophomoric rejoinder: What if a person is completely evil? Is “integrity” enough? Is it necessarily a good thing? Heidegger is famously obscure on this, especially considering his own political history. But I think that there is a good answer. It involves a version of what Aristotle called “objectivity” in ethics, in other words, not just consistency of personal values but consistency involving the right values as well, including the values of one's community and, ultimately, basic human values.22 Describing authenticity this way would seem to violate Sartre's views, since in his more theoretical writings he seems to reject “human values” along with “human nature.” But in his political writings, and in Being and Nothingness as well, it is evident that he takes freedom to be just such a value and not just as an abstract matter of ontology. Whether or not this value can serve in turn as a fulcrum for a more general conception of universal human values is a difficult question, and Sartre's toleration and even defense of violence certainly raises even more difficult questions.23 But on the basis of that one value, freedom, I think there is a good argument to be made that Sartre is no “relativist” or “subjectivist.” Thus the concept of “authenticity” may have some genuine purchase in his philosophy.
I distinguish “authenticity,” however, from “sincerity.” The two terms have been played off against one another a great deal since Sartre's work.24 (p.169) “Sincerity,” like “authenticity,” also involves something like consistency and coherence in one's thoughts and feelings. But “sincerity” does allow for ethical failures of just the sort that “authenticity” excludes. A person might indeed be evil and sincere, and he or she might be thoroughly self‐deceived and quite sincere. I noted earlier that Sartre, at least in the “Bad Faith” chapter of Being and Nothingness, suggests that sincerity is cynical, or at least his “Champion of Sincerity” is self‐servingly so. But I would argue that the one thing that a sincere person cannot be is cynical, on Sartre's own analysis. The coherence of one's thoughts and feelings make that “double consciousness” (as in Camus' Clamence) impossible. Thus I think that there is a good case to be made that sincerity is not so much opposed to bad faith, nor is it identical to authenticity, but a noteworthy alternative and neither bad faith nor cynicism. As for “good faith,” finally, this is a term that is pretty well restricted to Sartre's own occasional use as a contrast to bad faith, but apart from meaning “not in bad faith,” it seems to have little positive content.
So what are we to say about the possibilities of not being in bad faith or, more modestly, about the possibilities of being more rather than less in touch with one's engagements in the world? I have already suggested that we should ignore Sartre's “either/or” ontological bias and think in terms of degrees of self‐awareness and, as in our talk of virtue and vice, use “being in touch with one's engagements” and “bad faith” as straightforwardly moral terms of evaluation, approbation, and disapprobation. Sartre only pretends to be an amoralist. He is, as I've said, the harshest of moralists. Moreover, I think that Sartre is a “particularist” in these matters. That is, if he does not talk about virtues and vices, it is because he insists on what in more modest ethical quarters might be called “situation ethics.” He rejects the very idea of “character traits” because, he would say, these point only to the expected outcome of a history of certain behaviors. They are hypotheses about future behavior, not personality structures. They may summarize the “facts” of our behavior so far and give other people an empirical basis for predicting future behavior, but they say nothing about who or what we are. So gluttony points to a history of behaving gluttonously and eating like a pig. It also provides grounds (for everyone except the glutton) to predict future gross behavior at the dinner table. (The glutton is surely in bad faith if he/she resigns him/herself to being a glutton on the basis of such evidence.) But gluttony does not capture any kind of “essence” of a person. So, too, being in bad faith is something a person does in a particular situation (or sequence of situations). It says nothing about who or what a person is. (If one resigns oneself to bad faith, one is thereby and furthermore in bad faith.)
Perhaps it is the case, as Sartre suggests, that we are always to some degree in bad faith. Indeed, the central Sartrean image of human existence as always an unresolved tension between facticity and transcendence, between our conceptions of ourselves and how we are conceived of by others, between different possibilities that keep presenting themselves as choices, or obligations, or desires, would seem to require that this be so. Furthermore, (p.170) we should question what Sartre calls the “translucency” of consciousness. One cannot pay close attention to both a philosophy lecture and a video game at the same time (however many students may try to do so in class). One cannot focus on one's embarrassing history and the open‐ended possibilities of one's transcendence at the same time (however bravely we might try to do so in the name of “authenticity”). But as an inescapable aspect of human consciousness, bad faith is not necessarily blameworthy. Specific episodes and processes of bad faith become blameworthy. How bad they are depends on the context. (The particularist is often a contextualist, too.) Just as one can be a little bit gluttonous, one can be a little bit in bad faith.
There are times, as in some of Sartre's literary examples, when bad faith may devour the whole of one's life. But even so, it is not as if one just is in bad faith. Again, people might say this (“Well, I guess I'm just in bad faith”), but this, quite palpably, is just another case of bad faith, another way of refusing to face up to one's responsibilities. No one, however, is “just in bad faith.” Some people are more conflicted, less consistent and less coherent in their values and their ideals, and more willfully distracted. But it is the nature of consciousness that, short of extreme trauma or psychopathology, few of us are all that conflicted, inconsistent, or incoherent. (This is what I take Sartre to suggest by “translucency.”) Our lives (more or less) “hang together,” and the right hand usually has a good idea what the left hand is doing. We may all occasionally fool ourselves about what we are doing with our lives and conceptualize ourselves in self‐serving (or in some cases self‐denigrating) terms, but there are almost always limits to how extensively we can do so.
But if bad faith is always a matter of more or less, we might think, too, of good faith or authenticity as a kind of ideal that no one can actually be expected to achieve. It would require a kind of full transparency and lucidity about oneself that is so rare that it is truly amazing when we discover it even “to a large extent” in someone. (We would rarely claim this for ourselves, for the very thought regarding oneself is very likely to be in bad faith.) But if no one can really be in good faith or be fully authentic, we surely recognize more or less in virtually all virtuous human behavior. Saints are people who tend to rate very high on the authenticity meter. Liars and hypocrites tend to do very badly. Most of us have our good days and our bad days. But “in bad faith” and “in good faith” are two dangerous Sartrean locutions insofar as they lead us to assume that a person is or is in one or the other. If, however, we were to think in terms of a person's being “more conflicted” or “less conflicted” (with regard to some particular course of action and the conception of self with which it is correlated), more or less consistent and coherent in his or her desires and impulses and emotions and ideals, I think that we would have a much more workable model (or set of models) of what it means to “be in” bad (or good) faith.
So, is good faith or authenticity possible? Is bad faith unavoidable? The answer to both questions is “yes, to a degree.” This reply is not nearly so dramatic (nor so ontological) as Sartre, following Heidegger, would lead us (p.171) to wish for, but it renders these moral categories imminently useful in the everyday real world. This is not the place to discuss some of the even more dramatic suggestions regarding authenticity, Heidegger's linking it to “Being‐unto‐Death” and Sartre's vague hints at the value of “purifying reflection.” But with regard to the mundane, and occasionally even the heroic and the scandalous, we can say without mystification both that authenticity is possible and that bad faith defines and pervades the human condition. The matter comes down to particulars and particular contexts. Who is conflicted about what issues in what circumstances, and what rides on it? As many authors have pointed out, notably the two early existentialists Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, a little bit of bad faith may be not only unavoidable but also necessary for human flourishing.
Are We Responsible for Bad Faith?
I have evaded the question, Is bad faith something we do, something for which we can be held responsible? Or is it simply something that happens to us, for which (therefore) we can make excuses? That question is critical, at least for Sartre, for whom doing is the prerequisite for responsibility. If we suffered from bad faith, we would not be responsible, any more than we are responsible for getting sick (though, to be sure, we might well be responsible for not taking care of ourselves, exposing ourselves to pathogens, etc.). But Sartre remains caught between his uncompromising insistence on “absolute freedom” and his problematic conception of (prereflective) consciousness as “spontaneity.” Whether or not we are willing to go all the way with Sartre in his admittedly harsh and radical notion of freedom, it is clear that he would make no sense at all if we were to conclude that, given his conception of consciousness, we are never responsible for what we do. Nor would the moral condemnation attaching to being in bad faith make much sense if it was merely a “character flaw” or a misfortune, and not our own responsibility.
Accordingly, I think we are forced to give up at least some of Sartre's conception of spontaneity. And the best way to do this, I think, is to weaken his insistence that consciousness is by its very nature spontaneous. I think Sartre is right about the fact that most of our acts and engagements are not deliberative, not reflective, not fully self‐conscious. Much of our behavior is habitual, practiced, “thoughtless,” but it does not follow that human consciousness is spontaneous. I think that Sartre is trying to embrace Nietzsche's aphorism “A thought comes when it will, not when I will,” extended to intentions and actions, but in doing so, Sartre downplays reflection too much, as if it were just an occasional accompaniment or embellishment of consciousness. We are, as Merleau‐Ponty so clearly pointed out, obsessively reflective beings (some people more than others, needless to say). I suspect that Sartre's motive in downplaying reflection is to dramatize the important point that he makes in his Transcendence: that we are not always reflective. (p.172) The fact that we are obsessively reflective beings does not mean, as Sartre rightly insists, that we are reflective all the time. But I think we need to bring reflection back to center stage.25 Our consciousness would be incomprehensible to us without reflection (and not just in the trivial sense that we could not comprehend anything without it). Without reflection, I have argued, there could be no bad (or good) faith. Without reflection, we would not be human.
Bad faith, I have insisted, has to do with our engagements in the world and not merely with our beliefs, but it has a great deal to do with our selectively “spelling out” and “avowing” one's engagements. These are actions, which sometimes seem to be automatic or “spontaneous.” When we are talking to someone or even teaching a class, it may well seem as if the words just pour out of our mouths. Indeed, paying too much attention to one's speaking interferes with, and may even stymie, one's talking. But there is no question whether or not one is doing something. So, too, when we spell out or avow our engagements, no matter how spontaneous or even seemingly involuntary this may be, there is no question that one is doing something. But refusing to spell out or avow our engagements is also doing something, and we are therefore responsible for it.
When Sartre argues that bad faith need not be reflective or articulate, I think that he is trying to solve a number of problems. First, a basic practical problem: if someone is responsible only for “possibilities” that he or she has considered and articulated, that would eliminate from consideration many of the most egregious cases of bad faith: the rich person who never even thinks of his or her effects on the poor or of the inequities of which he or she is the beneficiary; the SUV driver who just never thinks about, nor has ever articulated, the damage his purchase is wreaking upon the earth; the soldier or policeman or prison guard who has never even thought of the possibility that he could refuse to obey an unethical command. So opening up the arena of responsibility to include matters not reflected upon or articulated serves an essential purpose for Sartre, one at the very heart of his theory of freedom.
It may take considerable effort not to spell out one or another of one's engagements, and at some stage along the way this needs to involve a fully conscious decision. To be sure, it will probably not be of the form “I had better distract myself in order to not pay attention to … .” But it does not follow that no step in the project of bad faith can be fully conscious, nor does it follow that the number of steps might be unending. The amount of prereflective activity involved in most cases of bad faith may be rather modest, and most of the process tends to be reflective if not necessarily attended to. I think that the distinction between a conscious process being reflective and being attended to is extremely important, although it slips between Sartre's clumsy categories of reflective and prereflective consciousness.
Alfred Mele writes at length about self‐deception and the question of whether it is willful or voluntary, and he, too, is tempted by the “anti‐agency (p.173) view” that “no motivationally biased beliefs are intentionally produced or protected” in self‐deception.26 The advantage of such a view is that it avoids the unpalatable conclusion that I must be aware of my motive and my strategy in maintaining some unwarranted conception of myself. Sartre is right, in his essay on The Emotions, that awareness of one's motives may well undermine an emotional strategy. The disadvantage of such a view, of course, is that it seems to leave the obvious “why?” question unanswered: “Why would one bother to do this?” It seems to be one of the data of both bad faith and self‐deception that it is motivated behavior, not something that simply happens to us. Sartre writes, “One does not undergo his bad faith; one is not infected with it; it is not a state. But consciousness affects itself with bad faith.”
The problem, again, lies in Sartre's dichotomous ontological thinking: bad faith versus good faith, motivated versus nonmotivated, reflective versus prereflective. I noted a moment ago that I consider the distinction between a conscious process being reflective and being attended to as extremely important, even though it slips between Sartre's categories of reflective and prereflective consciousness. One might note that there is also noticing what is going on, and “barely noticing” as well. There is no simple dichotomy here, but several complex dimensions of self‐awareness. From our more or less habitual behaviors to fully conscious, deliberate actions there is an enormous range of senses in which one can be “conscious” of one's engagements. Insofar as an engagement is articulated or “spelled out,” there are also many ways in which one can describe it, some of them evasive, some of them insightful, some of them cynical, some of them unwittingly revealing. Insofar as an engagement is avowed, there are always alternative avowals, ranging from straightforward “taking ownership” to devious acknowledgments and admissions that evade the issue at hand. (Think of the now standard political phrase “Mistakes were made… .”)
Sartre is probably right that we do not usually attend to, spell out, and avow our actions and our engagements. It is only on rare occasions—such as when we are trying to break or alter a habit—that we actually attend to the habit and its accompanying sensations. But even where it is a deliberate action (which already involves “spelling out” as well as avowal), we do not always or even usually pay close attention or continue to spell out our action once the action or engagement has been “launched.” But these various levels of attention and reflection form the complex fabric of consciousness. Most of the time, we may barely notice what we are doing and what we feel, but this would still seem to count, in Sartre's phenomenology, as reflective consciousness. You see, I hope, what I am suggesting, that there are many “levels” of (self‐)consciousness and it is the interaction and shifting between them that explain most cases of bad faith. Full consciousness (wholly articulate and avowed consciousness) is perhaps rare, but prereflective consciousness in the strong sense that Sartre defines it plays a negligible role in any instance worth talking about.
The discernment of dimensions and levels of reflection is important for another aspect of bad faith, one I have alluded to several times, and that is the “reiteration” of bad faith. Bad faith is not simply a prereflective phenomenon. It is not a one‐stage, one‐dimensional psychological, much less an epistemic, act or state. Bad faith is a process, a project, an engagement that takes time and preparation, whatever its seeming “spontaneity.” But as part of this process, Sartre tells us, bad faith must “reiterate itself.” That is, one must further be in bad faith about one's being in bad faith. (Freud also faced this complexity. That is, the mechanism of repression must in turn be repressed.) But it is difficult to see how bad faith might reiterate itself without at the same time betraying itself, since this would involve self‐consciousness in further convolutions. Indeed, there is the obvious question of whether one must furthermore be in bad faith about one's being in bad faith about one's being in bad faith. Then there is the immediate question: Doesn't becoming reflectively aware of one's being in bad faith undermine the bad faith and make it unsustainable, the way that (in Emotions) Sartre insists that one's emotional strategies must remain prereflective or else be “seen through” and thus lose their “magic.” (There is nothing magical about just pretending that the grapes are sour.) This is why Sartre insists that bad faith is “meta‐stable” and liable to “disintegrate” at any time. But Sartre presents this as the result of the impossible project of holding in consciousness two contradictory beliefs. The real problem lies elsewhere.
The project of bad faith would certainly fail insofar as one fully recognized that one was acting in bad faith. Such recognition is possible, of course, but it is no longer bad faith. It is rather what Sartre refers to as a cynical consciousness, one that sees through its own pretenses but maintains them just the same. The cynic, unlike the person in bad faith, is a fully self‐conscious hypocrite. Thus my opening quotation from Gide's Counterfeiters: “The true hypocrite is the one who ceases to perceive his deception, and lies with sincerity.” This is a depiction of cynical consciousness. But to be in bad faith is not to be cynical or to be hypocritical or to be conscious (of one's bad faith). It is to be sincere (whereas the cynic is thoroughly insincere). And the only way not to be cynical is to “cover up” what one is doing and hide it from oneself. To be in bad faith is also to be in bad faith about one's being in bad faith.
Fingarette rightly invokes the figure of Clamence in Camus' The Fall to illustrate such cynicism. Clamence knows full well what he is doing, and for that reason he is cynical rather than simply self‐deceived. He confesses,
I have been practicing my profession at Mexico City for some time. It consists, to begin with, as you know from experience, in indulging in public confession as often as possible. I accuse myself up and down. … I navigate skillfully, multiplying distinctions and digression too—in short I adapt my words to my listener and lead him to go me one better. … When (p.175) the portrait is finished, … I show it with great sorrow; this, alas, is what I am. But at the same time the portrait I hold out to my contemporaries becomes a mirror. (The Fall, 139–140)
From politics, we know all too well the hazards of cover‐ups. They are rarely successful, and the consequences of a failed cover‐up are often more devastating than the original fault covered up. There are almost inevitably “leaks,” whether by way of Freudian verbal slips or uncontrolled gestures or facial expressions. There are also anxiety and nervousness, which signal the cover‐up, not to mention tell‐tale eye movements and other “tells” that poker players are so quick to recognize. But the most serious leaks and betrayals are not so much leaked to or picked up by other people so much as they are evident to the person in bad faith, from uninvited thoughts to noticing inconsistent or incoherent bits of behavior to the explosive realization that one does not in fact accept what one is doing or how one is behaving. This may creep into one's self‐consciousness in fits and starts of self‐recognition and reflection, or it may seem to burst in all at once, “spontaneously.” In such a fashion does cynicism give way to regretful sincerity.
But the reiteration of bad faith presents Sartre with a problem (as it does Freud). So long as there is some compartmentalization of consciousness, whether in the difference between prereflective and reflective consciousness or in the “topography” of consciousness and the Unconscious, it makes some sense to suggest that what (self‐) consciousness doesn't know is that which is outside of its domain. But once we begin talking about reiteration, it is no longer clear where or how the secondary bad faith is to be identified or located. If bad faith is the refusal to reflectively spell out and avow one's engagements, is this refusal itself reflective? (Thus Sartre seems caught in the same dilemma that he finds in Freud.)
Sartre is surely right that some aspects of bad faith are prereflective (i.e., not spelled out) but others are fully reflective. As I have interpreted him, one must be capable of self‐reflection—of having some conception of who or what one is—in order to be in bad faith. It is in the complexity of the reflection that bad faith is maintained. But we all know what a philosopher will ask at this point: Where will this reiteration end? If one now has to be in bad faith regarding one's meta‐project of denying that one is in bad faith about one's bad faith, isn't there an infinite regress argument, the bane of philosophers since Aristotle? But the regress does come to an end, sometimes quite quickly and simply when one just loses focus or interest. Sometimes it is only by way of using elaborate and ingenious subterfuges such as massive distraction and putting oneself in emotionally or even physically harrowing situations. But we can agree with Sartre that bad faith does indeed require reiteration and a “cover‐up,” and this in turn makes bad faith an extremely complicated phenomenon, its recursive complexity denied or at least hidden behind the simple formula of “facticity versus transcendence.”
(p.176) Sartre sometimes seems to assume that in order for the further project of reiteration to succeed, it is necessary that bad faith never become reflective at all. This, I think, is a serious mistake. On some level, at some point, bad faith has to become reflective—it is not enough that it is capable of becoming reflective—if it is to be bad faith at all. But how can this be if bad faith is not to betray itself? If bad faith were just a matter of belief, it might be represented as denying that one believes what one believes. But insofar as it is more akin to not knowing what one is doing, it is much less obviously a problem and involves nothing so obviously unstable as a straightforward or even a twisted contradiction of beliefs.27
Conclusion: Bad Faith as the Human Condition
Sartre is right that human life is a struggle and always in tension and that we can never get it permanently in balance. Fingarette dubiously argues a resolution for Sartre: by way of “pure reflection,” choice coincides with and “endorses the system of the self.” The problem is that for Sartre there is no such systematic self. The self is an “impure reflection” that is always in question. I think that this is the strongest single point of Sartre's theory, and it is a shame that he polemically (but mistakenly) seems to insist that to have any conception of self is therefore to be in bad faith. Sartre as ontologist has once again belied his own phenomenological insights by insisting on the clumsy categories of ontology instead of the keen analytic lens of phenomenology.
Authenticity (“good faith”) should be conceived of not in terms of the absence of bad faith but rather as an optimized sense of self, consonant with one's reflective ideals and values as well as prereflective emotions and desires. This may not be very easy, “flawed” creatures that we are. But it is by no means impossible; rather, it is a more or less essential part of being human—trying to “get it together” or cultivate one's integrity or express one's human dignity or ren or whatever one may call it in whatever culture. But authenticity is not an illusion, and inauthenticity (bad faith) is not in any reasonable sense unavoidable. Can we be perfectly authentic, that is, “wholly one's own person?” No, of course not. According to Sartre, not even God can do that. But can we strive to be clear about who we are and what we are doing, about our self‐conceptions and our self‐deceptions? I think that most of us do that most of the time. It is one of the more obnoxious pretensions of contemporary European philosophy to make authenticity (like “genuine thinking”) seem like something rare and unattainable except for the exceptional philosopher (or, for the postmodernists, something laughably naïve). True, there remains an ideal of total transparency and transcendence that is unattainable, as are perfect virtue and final truth. But to be cynical in the face of that ideal is at least as serious a mode of bad faith as not recognizing or trying to pursue the ideal at all.
(1.) I take some responsibility for this. Walter Kaufmann included these two selections in his Existentialism: From Dostoevsky to Sartre (New York: Meridien, 1960), and I followed him in doing so (along with a few other selections) in my Existentialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
(2.) E.g., “quand un philosophe viendra me dire que les arbres sentent et que les rochers pensent, il aura beau m'embarrasser dans ses arguments subtils. Je ne puis voir en lui qu'un sophiste de mauvaise foi” (''when a philosopher comes to tell me that trees feel and that rocks think, he can embarrass me all he likes with his subtle arguments. I cannot see in him anything but a sophist of bad faith). Oeuvres complètes, edited by B. Gagnebin, vol. 4 (Paris: Pléïade), 585. But my dear friend and French Enlightenment scholar Jenene Alison suggests that Rousseau is playing with the notion of being “de bonne foi,” meaning “according to received religion.” But “un sophiste de mauvaise foi” is a way of saying rather agitatedly, “someone who doesn't write as honestly as I do.” Thus Rousseau defends “good faith” in just the sense that Sartre denies it, as evidenced, supposedly, in Rousseau's own much misunderstood integrity.
(3.) Amelia Rorty, Perspectives on Self‐Deception (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 11.
(4.) H. Markus and S. Kitiyama, “Independent and Interdependent Cultures,” in Cross‐Cultural Psychology 33 (1991): 248–269.
(5.) See Mary Delvecchio, Pain as Human Experience (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994).
(6.) Herbert Fingarette, Self‐Deception (London: Routledge and Kegan‐Paul, 1963).
(7.) See Robert C. Solomon, Not Passion's Slave (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003); and Richard Moran, Authority and Estrangement (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).
(8.) I think the main credit here goes first to Fingarette, but more recently to Alfred Mele, who in his book Self‐Deception Unmasked (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001) shows once and for all, I think, that the “lie to oneself” model is inappropriate here.
(9.) Being and Nothingness, pt. IV, ch. 2, sec. 1.
(10.) Bruno Bettelheim's Freud and Man's Soul (New York: Knopf, 1982).
(11.) See, for example, Fingarette, Self‐Deception.
(12.) Fingarette offers a similar analysis of Freud and the “Unconscious,” ibid., 111–135.
(13.) See “The Reiteration of Bad Faith” (pages 174–176 in this book).
(14.) Fingarette, Self‐Deception; Mele, Self‐Deception Unmasked; Moran, Authority and Estrangement.
(15.) Rorty, Perspectives on Self‐Deception, 207.
(16.) Ibid., 208.
(17.) In her “Bad Faith and Kitsch as Models for Self‐Deception,” in Self and Deception: A Cross‐Cultural Philosophical Enquiry, edited by Wimal Dissanayake and Roger Ames (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996).
(18.) Dissanayake and Ames, Self and Deception, 126.
(19.) Ibid., 127.
(20.) Ibid., 128.
(22.) I have also been prompted to think about this with regard to the notion of “authentic emotions” by Mikko Salmela of the University of Helsinki. See his “What Is Emotional Authenticity?” in Journal of the Theory of Social Behavior 35 (September 2005).
(23.) Again, see Ronald Santoni, Sartre on Violence: Curiously Ambivalent (University Park: Penn State University Press, 2003).
(24.) For instance, Lionel Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972).
(25.) Sartre is particularly insightful on the nature of reflection in sec. 3, “Reflection,” of ch. 2 (“Temporality”). There, he explains reflection as a (further) attempt of consciousness to “recover itself, to finally be to itself its own foundation.” On love, he adds, “this reflection is in bad faith” (225).
(26.) Mele, Self‐Deception Unmasked.
(27.) The notion of “twisted” self‐deception has been ingeniously developed by Mele, Self‐Deception Unmasked.