Some brief thoughts on “bad faith”

A quick post for today. I’ve been working on a longer one, but I wanted to do some edits, and I have to run some errands this morning. Expect it later in the week. I hope the holidays have been good to everyone and that the new year is shaping up as it nears.

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of Existentialism, researching for a paper I hope to write examining the existential elements in O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, especially as they connect to Jean-Paul Sartre’s unique brand of it.

One particular tension that has always struck me, which Sartre stresses, is the limited nature of “facticity” and the perceived limitless horizon of the “transcendent.” Facticity captures the “in-itself” nature of something, and is connected with objects. So a particular table could be wooden in itself, three feet tall, made by Stickley Furniture, etc. These are largely fixed properties and therefore limiting.

Transcendence covers the “for-itself” nature of the subjective: the comprehensive range of possibilities, hopes, plans, dreams, and perceptions individual people have. These do change. Constantly. They push and prod us into action, then shift as the action shapes us.

Sartre always stressed the tension between these two ideas as “bad faith.” Sometimes people try to be objects, limiting their transcendence. Sartre gives the example of the waiter who wants to be known only as a waiter, but he has a whole life beyond this. Other times we try to escape our facticity–like our past actions. These are fixed qualities that affect who we are and how others see us. I am a white male.

To me, this tension is a really interesting thing to puzzle over. How am I limited? How am I limiting myself?


4 thoughts on “Some brief thoughts on “bad faith”

  1. This whole bad faith thing leaves me cold. For starters, it always seems to be applied to someone else, while, in its essence, it can only possibly be known by oneself, since it is impossible to know the variables, both internal and external, in another’s life. Most famously, Sartre once chided Camus for claiming to speak for the masses, saying Camus shouldn’t presume to speak “for us.” That single incident (I have forgotten the citation) illustrates the problem nicely. Who is acting in bad faith here, Camus, or Sartre, both, or neither? Even if we are posturing, faking, ignoring our potential, or however else sinning unforgivably, isn’t that very behavior an authentic expression of ourselves? In any case, all of our decisions are the result of what we, mistakenly or otherwise, consider in our best interests in the circumstances. Is bad faith the same as bad decision?

    1. I think what Sartre is doing is using his own experience as a means to reach something more universally human, “the human condition,” as Sartre saw it. Doing this, he is attempting to use his subjective experience to speak for people in a more objective way, which seems all the more absurd since he stresses the limits of the subjective and the inaccessible or meaningless character of the objective. It’s a method that particularly infuriates analytic philosophers, but which is really throughout much of traditional philosophy.

      However, when it comes to bad faith itself, I think two things are important. First, “bad faith” is really not as bad as it sounds. Kaufmann translates the French, which literally is “bad faith,” as “self-delusion.” This is really what it is. Sartre’s notion of “authenticity” is less about trying to be yourself and more about being aware of what a self is and how we consistently complicate it with self deception. This leads to the second point. For Sartre, the human “self” is a complex blend of facticity and transcendence. This is something we can never escape, so we are always in bad faith. We are always going to behave more object-like sometimes, as the waiter does, or try to act more subject-like and believe that we are not limited by the facts of our actions, like Sartre’s example of a self-denying homosexual who argues that his past acts have nothing at all to do with how he “really” is.

      Sartre’s authenticity is about awareness: seeing how we do deceive ourselves and taking command of it. Once one is aware of bad faith, argues Sartre, one can either persist acting the same way or change. In either case, one is making a deliberate choice, since choosing not to change is itself a choice. It’s like Keirkegaard’s notion of “despair” at the heart of this. The first level of despair for Keirkegaard is not being aware that one is in despair. After we realize this, we immediately become more authentic because we can take command of our life. It would be like a character on stage suddenly realizing he or she is a character. Either he or she keeps playing the part or doesn’t. In either case, it’s the awareness that makes the decision authentic.

      However, I personally think Sartre is over simplifying things. Such an awareness and its implications is much more complex. For example, it’s not easy to take command of our lives or our self, nor is the self, if modern psychology is correct, stable, singular, and persistent.

      Thanks for the comment!

      1. But self delusion, or any kind of delusion, by definition, is not accessible to awareness without some kind of external change. I see the whole thing as a manifestation of Sartre’s enormous ego, in which he deludes himself that his peccadillos are fine as long as he is aware of them and chooses to continue them.

      2. Oh, now I see what you mean. It’s almost like a catch-22: how can we be self-aware of our self-delusion if we are deluding ourselves. Makes sense.

        I also agree that Sartre’s philosophy is likely an extension of his large ego, and what you say about his own self-delusion is likely true. He was, by all accounts, egotistical for the most part. I think this egoism gives his brand of existentialism in particular the reputation that it is immature and needlessly rebellious.

        But I think, in some ways, it has some potential implications that lead it beyond this self-focused, limited frame. This is the rout that Victor Frankl and others took into existential psychology, or Frantz Fanon into the political realm. It can be applied in effective ways because people do yearn for a clear sense of self, at least in the modern and post-modern West.

        While Sartre is easy to dismiss, I think existentialism, even Sartre’s brand, has a lot to say, or else it wouldn’t have made such a deep impact.I think it becomes an issue when it gets too egoist or judgmental or when it becomes a system of processing the world and judging others. If anything, it’s a series of tools that can be shaped, altered, or rejected by people as they shape themselves, whether as individuals or as a group.

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