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Bad faith (existentialism)

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In existentialism, bad faith (French: mauvaise foi) is the psychological phenomenon whereby individuals act inauthentically, by yielding to the external pressures of society to adopt false values and disown their innate freedom as sentient human beings.[1] Bad faith also derives from the related concepts of self-deception and ressentiment.

Freedom and choice[edit]

A critical claim in existentialist thought is that individuals are always free to make choices and guide their lives towards their own chosen goal or "project". This claim suggests that individuals cannot escape this freedom, even in overwhelming circumstances. For instance, even an empire's colonized victims possess choices: to submit to rule, to negotiate, to commit suicide, to resist nonviolently, or to counter-attack.

Although external circumstances may limit individuals, called facticity, they cannot force a person to follow one of the remaining courses over another. In this sense, the individual still has some freedom of choice. For this reason, an individual may choose in anguish, fully aware that this will have consequences. For Jean-Paul Sartre, to claim that one amongst many conscious possibilities takes undeniable precedence (for instance, "I cannot risk my life, because I must support my family") is to assume the role of an object in the world, not a free agent, but merely at the mercy of circumstance (a being-in-itself that is only its own facticity, i.e., it "is" inside itself, and acts there as a limitation).[2] For Sartre, this attitude is manifestly self-deceiving.

Intentional consciousness and freedom[edit]

According to this philosophy, humans are always aware that they are more than what they are aware of; they are not solely what they are aware of. In this sense, humans cannot be defined as "intentional objects" of consciousness that includes the restrictions imposed by facticity, personal history, character, bodies, or objective responsibility. According to Sartre, "Human reality is what it is not, and it is not what it is." For example, being a doctor but wishing to "transcend" that to become a pig farmer. One is who one is not, a pig farmer, not who one is, a doctor.

According to Sartre, a person can only be defined negatively, as "what it is not", and this negation is the only positive definition of "what it is".[3]

From this, an individual is aware of a host of alternative reactions to our freedom to choose an objective situation, since no situation can dictate a single response. An individual may pretend that these possibilities are denied to them by assuming social roles and value systems external to this nature,[clarification needed] but this is itself a decision made possible by their freedom and separation from these things.

"Bad faith" is the paradoxical free decision to deny to oneself this inescapable freedom.



Sartre cites a café waiter, whose movements and conversation are a little too "waiter-esque". His voice has an eagerness to please; he carries food rigidly and ostentatiously; "his movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid".[4] His exaggerated behavior illustrates that he is play-acting as a waiter, as an object in the world and as an automaton whose essence is to be a waiter. That he is obviously acting belies that he is aware that he is not (merely) a waiter, but is rather consciously deceiving himself.[5]

Another of Sartre's examples involves a young woman on a first date. She ignores the obvious sexual implications of her date's compliments to her physical appearance, but accepts them instead as words directed at her as a human consciousness. As he takes her hand, she lets it rest indifferently in his, "neither consenting nor resisting – a thing"[6] – refusing either to return the gesture or to rebuke it. Thus, she delays the moment when she must choose either to acknowledge his intention and reject or consent to his advances. She conveniently considers her hand only a thing in the world and his compliments as unrelated to her body, playing on her dual human reality as a physical being and as a consciousness separate and free from this physicality.[7]

Sartre suggests that, by acting in bad faith, the waiter and the woman are denying their own freedom by using their freedom to do so. They manifestly know they are free, but are actively choosing not to acknowledge it. Bad faith is paradoxical in this regard; when acting in bad faith, a person is actively denying their own freedom, while relying on it to perform the denial. However, Leslie Stevenson believes this characterization of the waiter itself as being an example of bad faith is a misrepresentation of Sartre's intentions.[8]

De Beauvoir[edit]

Simone de Beauvoir described three main types of women acting in bad faith: the Narcissist who denies her freedom by construing herself as a desirable object; the Mystic, who invests her freedom in an absolute; and the Woman in Love, who submerges her identity in that of her male object.[9]

She also considered what she called the Serious Man, who subordinated himself to some outside cause, to be in bad faith inasmuch as he denies his own freedom.[10]

Two modes of consciousness[edit]

Sartre claims that the consciousness with which we generally consider our surroundings is different from our reflecting on this consciousness; that is, the consciousness of "ourselves being conscious of these surroundings". The first kind of consciousness, before we think about or reflect on our previous consciousness, is pre-reflective consciousness. Reflecting on the pre-reflective consciousness is reflective consciousness.[11] Sartre contends that this cannot be called unconsciousness, as Freud used the term. He gives the example of running after a bus: one does not become conscious of "one's running after the bus" until one has ceased to run after it, because until then one's consciousness is focused on the bus itself, and not one's chasing it.

In this sense, consciousness always entails being self-aware ("being for-itself"). Since, for Sartre, consciousness also entails a consciousness of one's separation from the world and, hence, freedom, an individual may also always be aware of this. However, one can manipulate these two levels of consciousness, so that their reflective consciousness interprets the factual limits of an objective situation as insurmountable while the pre-reflective consciousness remains aware of alternatives.

Freedom and morality[edit]

One convinces oneself, in some sense, to be bound to act by external circumstance in order to escape the anguish of freedom. Sartre says that people are "condemned to be free"; whether they adopt an "objective" moral system to do this choosing for them or follow only their pragmatic concerns, they cannot help but be aware that they are not – fundamentally – part of them.[12] Moreover, as possible intentional objects of one's consciousness, one is fundamentally not part of oneself, but rather exactly what one, as consciousness, defines oneself in opposition to along with everything else one could be conscious of.

Fundamentally, Sartre believed humankind cannot escape responsibility by adopting an external moral system, as the adoption of such is in itself a choice that we endorse – implicitly or explicitly – for which we must take full responsibility.[13] He argues that one cannot escape this responsibility, as each attempt to part one's self from the freedom of choice is in itself a demonstration of choice and choice is dependent on a person's wills and desires. He states, "I am responsible for my very desire of fleeing responsibilities."[14]

As a human, one cannot claim their own actions are determined by external forces; this is the core statement of existentialism. One is "condemned" to this eternal freedom; human beings exist before the definition of human identity exists. One cannot define oneself as a thing in the world, as one has the freedom to be otherwise. An individual is not "a philosopher" as, at some point they will cease the activities that define the self as "a philosopher". Any role that one might adopt does not define them, as there is an eventual end to one's adoption of the role; that is, other roles will be assigned to us, "a chef", "a mother", and so on. The self is not constant and it cannot be a thing in the world. Though one cannot assign a positive value to definitions that may apply to oneself, there remains the ability to be able to say what one is not.

This inner anguish over moral uncertainty is a central underlying theme in existentialism, as the anguish demonstrates a personal feeling of responsibility over the choices one makes throughout life.[15] Without an emphasis on personal choice, one may make use of an external moral system as a tool to moralize otherwise immoral acts, leading to negation of the self. According to existentialism, dedicated professionals of their respective moral codes – priests interpreting sacred scriptures, lawyers interpreting the Constitution, doctors interpreting the Hippocratic oath – should, instead of divesting the self of responsibility in the discharge of their duties, be aware of their own significance in the process. This recognition involves the questioning of the morality of all choices, taking responsibility for the consequences of one's own choice, and, therefore, a constant reappraisal of one's own and others' ever-changing humanity. One must not exercise bad faith by denying the self's freedom of choice and accountability. Taking on the burden of personal accountability in all situations may be an intimidating proposition – by pointing out the freedom of the individual, Sartre seeks to demonstrate that the social roles and moral systems people adopt protect them from being morally accountable for their actions.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The Columbia Dictionary of Modern Literary and Cultural Criticism (1995) J. Childers and G. Hentzi Eds., p. 103
  2. ^ Jack Reynolds, Understanding Existentialism (2006) p. 73
  3. ^ Flynn, Thomas (2011). "Jean-Paul Sartre". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  4. ^ Sartre, quoted in R. D. Laing, Self and Others (1969) p 44
  5. ^ Sartre, Jean-Paul, Essays in Existentialism, Citadel Press. 1993, pp. 167-169
  6. ^ Sartre, quoted in Erving Goffman, Relations in Public (1972)in p. 248
  7. ^ Sartre, Jean-Paul, Essays in Existentialism, Citadel Press. 1993, pp. 160-164
  8. ^ Stevenson, Leslie (1983). "Sartre on Bad Faith". Philosophy. 58: 253. Retrieved 26 April 2024.
  9. ^ Reynolds, p. 143
  10. ^ Reynolds, p. 150 and p. 161
  11. ^ "Sartre, Jean Paul: Existentialism - Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy".
  12. ^ Sartre, Jean-Paul (2007). Existentialism is a Humanism. New Haven: Yale University Press. p. 29. ISBN 9780300115468. OCLC 80180903.
  13. ^ Onof, Christian J. "Jean Paul Sartre: Existentialism". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 1 November 2020.
  14. ^ Sartre, Jean-Paul (1948). Existentialism and Human Emotions. France: Les Editions Nagel, Methuen & Co. ISBN 978-0413313003.
  15. ^ Natanson, Maurice (1951). "A CRITIQUE OF JEAN-PAUL SARTRE'S ONTOLOGY".

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