Sartre’s Existentialism: Radical Freedom and Bad Faith

Jean-Paul Sartre is often referred to as “the philosopher of sincerity”. He frequently accused people of living inauthentic lives in an attempt to cover up their true nature and the radical freedom it entailed. Here I’d like to take a look at why Sartre thought this and how it’s related to his philosophy as a whole.

Sartre referred to the attitude and practice of insincerity as bad faith. Sartre’s use is different in that the insincerity is directed toward oneself. Typically we understand people as insincere when they assert a lie or pretend to be something they’re not, often in hope of achieving some end; such as a person exaggerating his accomplishments in order to achieve acceptance into a group he respects. So how does one lie to oneself? What does bad faith look like? Sartre offers the example of a waiter,

“His movement is a quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid. He comes toward the patrons with a step a little to quick. He bend forward a little to eagerly; his voice, his eyes express an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the customer… All his behavior seems to us a game. He applies himself to chaining his movements as if they were mechanisms, the one regulating the other…”

The waiter is playing the role of a waiter as if he is a waiter in the sense of identity. As if he was designed and processed to perform the role of a waiter. 

You might be asking, “what’s wrong with this, he’s just doing his job?”. Sartre’s going to accuse this sort of thinking as another form of bad faith, because it’d be making an excuse for the permissibility of a person pretending to be something they’re not. Although this still doesn’t answer why he is necessarily being insincere because it could be that he truly does see himself as a waiter, and that he freely choose this project as his identity. The problem is that on Sartre’s metaphysics, persons can’t wholly be anything. Persons don’t posses a wholly determinate nature (see my summary of Sartre’s account of persons). Sartre captures the impossibility of this strong sense of identity with the assertion, Human reality is what it is not, and it is not what it is.”

This notion arises out dual nature of persons entailed by Sartre’s metaphysics. Persons possess determinate characteristics as well as indeterminate ones. A persons determinate properties are referred to as the persons facticity, while that fact that a persons nature exceeds these determinate descriptions is referred to as transcendence. This leads to two possible forms of bad faith:

1. Wholly identifying with ones facticity, rejecting transcendence.

2. Wholly identifying with one’s transcendence, ignoring one’s facticity.

The former sense is definitely the most common variety. We’ve all been situations when we are asked why we performed a particular action and we’ll answer in a way that cites our nature. We may be asked, “why did you fail the test?” answering with “because I’m a failure”. Any answer to why have we have acted as we did that alludes to our nature is going to to fall under the first variety of bad faith. It is bad faith because we are radically free beings that lack a determinate nature, therefore are never necessitated by our facticity to act in any particular way. The human reality is not what it is because a description of one’s facticity doesn’t exhaust who one is. You are your facticity in a limited sense, in that you yourself own that, but there’s always more. There’s always the opportunity revise your self-conception in light of radical freedom entailed by the indeterminate nature of consciousness.

This identification is related to another part of the human reality referred to as being-for-others, which exists in relation to two other dimensions of persons. So within Sartre’s ontology there is being-in-itself, which is essentially identical to concrete matter or anything that’s essence precedes it’s existence. Next is being-for-itself, which is consciousness. It is for itself because there is a gap in it’s ontological structure which gives it the opportunity to be reflective of it’s own nature. The last is being-for-others. This is the phenomena of persons being made concrete by being the object of experience for another. When persons see and engage with each other, they don’t directly experience each others consciousness. We only see their behavior. This inclines us to see others as having concrete natures, or of being such and such a person. People will makes claims of others like “He is an unusual and quiet person” or “She is an independent thinker”.

This way of experiencing others is what inclines us to make same sort concrete attributions of our own nature. Caught in the act of shameful behavior, we’ll be inclined to see ourselves in the light of that persons experience of us, which is an object of shame. So it is idea that persons can be made concrete in the experience of others that leads us to the mistake thinking of ourselves this way. However this only a partial explanation of this mistake. Sartre would always make the claim that the deeper reason for denying our transcendence is crushing responsibility being entirely responsible for ones own self and behavior.

The other variety of bad faith is overt identification with our transcendence. This sort of bad faith can be witnessed in the hedonists who pretends he isn’t a hedonist because his nature always exceeds the totality of his hedonistic acts. The problem is that this person forgets that it’s not that persons lack an essence altogether, its that’s we are always in the context giving ourselves one. It can be revised in the light of new projects, but your past behavior is always going to be a part of you, even if you choose to see if differently later. A nice way of contrasting these two forms of bad faith is to see first sort as denial of one’s freedom, and the second as a denial of responsibility for one’s acts.

The question to ask here is how can one even be authentic? In strong sense you can’t because to be authentic, in the sense of being true to your nature, would be assume that you have a true concrete nature that you align yourself with. The only way to exemplify good faith is to take responsibility for you actions while recognizing the ultimate groundlessness of why anyone does anything. There is supposed to a sort of anxiety in taking this stance because you have to own up to every decision you make, while having no choice not to do so. Persons are condemned to be free. It’s not just the responsibility for oneself that’s overwhelming, it’s this in the context of never being able to truly authentically invest yourself into any identity. You have to juggle this reality of being responsible and free all while never being able to truly invest yourself into a concrete identity. It’s essentially seeing yourself as an ambiguous revisionary reality with nothing to stand on.

Now if this sounds strange and/or vague, I’m with you. A lot of Sartre’s work is vague and nearly impossible describe with total clarity. Part of this arises from that the subject matter is intrinsically ambiguous (according to Sartre), so by this very fact, total clarity is impossible in principle. I think upon closer analysis, Sartre’s account would lead to some sort of incoherence. Yet it least can be framed in a way that makes prime facie possible.

  • Juan

    I enjoyed this article and can understand (from experience) the ambiguity and ungroundedness that Sartre describes. I didn’t quite understand the second condition of bad faith, however. A little more explanation would have been nice.

  • Wow, this piece of writing is good, my younger sister is analyzing such things, therefore I am going to inform her.