Jan 192014

On Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Existentialism is a Humanism” (1946), “Bad Faith” (pt. 1, ch. 2 of Being & Nothingness, 1943), and his play No Exit (1944).

What is human nature? Sartre says that there isn’t one, but there is a universal human condition, which is our absolute freedom. This freedom is a basic certainty in our experience, and it comes out of the mere fact of our being able to will, so no subsequent alleged science can contradict it. If you claim to be determined by your character or circumstances, you’re acting in “bad faith,” which is what for Sartre has to serve as an ethics given the lack of good and evil floating out there in the world or duties assigned to us by nature or God or any of that. He describes his project as a matter of teasing out the often unrealized implications atheism.

Though his reading is rife with fun, literary examples, we (the regular foursome) had trouble both with this insistence on absolute freedom in all circumstances and on on this claim about no human nature which ends up making bad faith seemingly inevitable: you can’t be “authentic” to your “true self” because there is no true self to be authentic to! So ha!

Read more about the topic and get the texts. Listen to Mark’s introduction and our read-through of “No Exit.”

End song: “Minnesota Freak” by Mark Lint and the Fake (2000). Read about it.

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  24 Responses to “Episode 87: Sartre on Freedom and Self-Deception”

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  1. Freedom and Self-Deception

    –precisely defines the double bind of Sartre. If only he had been able to listen to your existentially driven podcast attempting to give “meaning” to a confused and confusing Sartre. As a group you raised the existential angst of Sartre’s position to visibility. You did not fall prey to Sartre’s need to judge self and others to a Christian-like hell (no exit)–for anyone who does not live freely, while affirming his insistence on non-judgmental ownership of authenticity. I suspect this is the first publicly aired existential encounter with Sartre’s existentiality and his lack thereof. I think it is safe to say that judgmentalism is a lack of authenticity which Sartre lapses into, while other times stating that inauthenticity is “error” (description rather than judgmental). In fact you offered a cure to Sartre’s version of existentialism (no wonder Camus fell out with Sartre) in the midst of your podcast. Who does that? Well done guys.

    We can use Nietzsche as a guide to detect when Sartre goes offline, as you did.

    Sartre states that the transcendental ego is superfluous and the empirical ego (of scientific psychology) is an object for consciousness when it reflects on itself in an objectifying act. This is incredibly important, but Sartre just gets too intense (as a reflection of his historical facticity, he was furious about the failure of so many to be responsible and counter Hitler). Sartre does well to question the transcendental or the empirical ego in preference for ipseity/selfness (not transcendental or empirical) but spontaneous (not just ego). Therein lies our freedom.

    He rejected Freud’s unconscious because that gives us an excuse for not knowing, not being responsible, not being truly free. Likewise he rejected “sincerity” and seeking our selves in others (no exit/codependence) as well as passively accepting our everyday as our necessary condition as irresponsibility, lack of owning our freedom. (Nietzsche would say “duh, ” Simpson would say “doh.”)

    If Sartre had held freedom as a descriptive demand on us which is purely an existential condition, rather than dependent on his whining and railing, he could have pulled off true authenticity.
    My model for this legitimately held freedom is both Camus in The Stranger and McCarthy in Suttree:
    The novels represent the authenticity upon which Sartre equivocated, unlike Nietzsche.

    “In my father’s last letter he said that the world is run by those willing to take the responsibility for it” (Suttree, p. 13). For the whole novel, Suttree lived his life on the river (of his habitual, inauthentic life). At the end, the driver said: “let’s go.” “Hello, said Suttree, climbing in, shutting the door, his suitcase between his knees. Then they were moving.” He made his choice of authenticity by leaving the river of self-deception, to freely live his life. “Fly them.” (p. 471).

  2. For the record, a pederast is not a pedophile. A pedophile has sex with children, while a pederast has sex with younger males over the age of puberty, with consent.

    I think that Sartre was fairly liberal about homosexuality for his time. In his novel, the Age of Reason, one of the main characters, Daniel, is gay and a pederast (not a pedophile). Sartre also wrote a long study of one of the first openly gay writers, Jean Genet, with whom there was a bond of friendship. In his novel, Nausea, the protagonist (and a Sartre-like intellectual figure, a writer), Roquentin, who is a complete loner, only emerges from his isolation to defend a closet pederast from a potential lynch-mob.

    Now liberal attitudes towards homosexuality have become much more liberal since Sartre’s day and Sartre seems a bit dated in his attitudes towards homosexuality today.


  3. I find this a remarkably uncharitable, even inaccurate, representation of Sartre’s notion of bad faith. At bottom, he is simply reflecting on a simple reality: that people erect a vast amount of excuse-making systems in their own lives in order to excuse and justify behaviors that they would never tolerate in others, and that this is responsible for a tremendous amount of the evil in the world.

    If you’re interested in reading charitably, I’d very much recommend The Ethics of Ambiguity by Simone de Beauvoir, which is a much more livable, fully-realized version of Sartrean ethics than Sartre himself ever wrote. It’s a masterpiece, her greatest work.

    • Perhaps you can be more definitive on what you mean by “I find this a remarkably uncharitable, even inaccurate, representation of Sartre’s notion of bad faith.” What are you referring to by this?

      I find it interesting you recommend a book not by Sartre to get a better version of Sartre. I suggest you try” Philosophy of Existentialism: Selected Essays,” and see what you think.

      • I don’t know why you would find it interesting; as I said, it’s a more thorough and livable account of Sartrean existentialism than Sartre himself ever wrote. I’m sure you’ll agree that students and followers of a thinker can, sometimes, better articulate that thinker’s position than the thinker himself.

        And as per usual, I think your podcast involved a lot of “so what, why should I find this important” attitudes. I don’t find that a very useful way to proceed. Mauvaise fois is at heart a falling into permanence, so rejecting or fighting it involves a committed dedication to remaining a being at play. Any self-definition becomes necessarily a way in which free individuals deny that freedom, which in turn becomes the vehicle through which they can excuse any manner of bad behavior. Sartre asks us to remain permanently aware of our own shifting self; to Sartre, the human task is one of remaining undefined. Many people have said that’s too high a bar for humans to clear, and maybe it is. But it is not at all a trivial project, and saying “so what?” to it strikes me as unhelpful.

        • I have never heard a “so what” on any PEL podcast, not even regarding Ayn Rand. In fact, the PEL guys offered a corrective to Sartre’s responsibility polemic, so that Sartre could be more true to himself (as was Simone de Beauvoir–behind every great man is a great woman, or deep soul, and as you are being in understanding the value of Sartre’s position, though he at times lost perspective. In fact, I agree with how you interpret the value of Sartre).

          The vulnerable times for Sartre (given the pressure of his times, as I noted in my first post) is to take on a “self-definition” of the holder of responsibility for never authorizing another Hitler (objectifying himself), and ironically becoming defined, objectified, and inauthentic (as represented in his rigidity, oughtness, preachyness –did you read Philosophy of Existentialism?–, obligation, duty, hyper-definition).

          If you felt any “so what” -ness to the episode, it was to his inauthentic, rather than to his authentic self, or valid position which was actually affirmed. Does that make sense? Wish Simone de Beauvoir could have been a guest.

  4. Also: you have to place all of this in the historical context in which Sartre was living. This was post-World War I Europe. Sarte lived through the horrors of the Nazi occupation, and in fact faced very real physical danger during that period. And what was fascism but the perfect example of bad faith, of a vast number of people abandoning their personal responsibility to moral action, out of a conviction that they were “Germans” or “members of the Reich” or “the ubermenschen”? The horrors of that period must have left Sartre searching for a reason why so many people allowed themselves to inflict such violence while absolving themselves for doing so. Bad faith strikes me as a remarkably useful way to understand it.

    Also: the problem with the waiter is not for Sartre, but for the waiter himself. He’s not complaining about how the waiter makes him feel. He’s saying that the waiter himself is constrained, that the waiter is not living the life that he could be leading because he has so allowed his waiter-ness to overwhelm his status as a human being. He has cut off his own freedom out of playing the role. The problem isn’t that the waiter is creepy, or whatever. The problem is that a free being has made himself significantly less free.

    • Hi Freddie,

      There may be something to this, but Sartre didn’t simply derive the concept of “bad faith” ab initio from his experiences in Vichy France.

      Sartre’s “bad faith” co-opts Heidegger’s concept of “inauthenticity” from Being and Time.

      And Heidegger’s “inauthenticity” (G: uneigentlich) simply adopted Kierkegaard’s term “inauthenticity” (D: uegentlig) taken from The Sickness Unto Death, without ever crediting Kierkegaard.

      In other words, I’m not sure one needs to understand Nazi-occupied France to understand the term “bad faith”, and in fact I reject the idea that fascism is a perfect, or even a particularly good, example of “bad faith.” The etymology of the term ultimately leads to a fascist (Heidegger, who indeed later became a Nazi) before Sartre ever committed “bad faith” to print. To paraphrase Rick Roderick, one can be a perfectly authentic Nazi.

      Perhaps one can meaningfully distinguish Sartre’s mauvaise foi from Heidegger’s uneigentlich from Kierkegaard’s uegentlig. But I think that is be a thesis to be argued and defended, not a fact to simply accept. (In fact, I suspect there are dozens, if not hundreds, of college term papers on just this topic!)

      • Well, it’s a longer conversation than can be had in the comments here, but I find the idea that the concept of bad faith leads necessarily to Nazism a pretty perfect example of trying to dismiss a philosophical tradition through the genetic fallacy. And I find it positively crazy to call oneself a student of philosophy and then to deny the responsibility to historicize. When you guys say “so what’s the big deal here”– as was also said, incidentally, in your Heidegger podcast– you’re speaking from a culture that has been influenced by Sartre and Heidegger and then asking what the big deal is because you already assume their influence without knowing it.

        I also find a simplistic equivalence drawn between Sartrean and Heideggerian existentialism reductive and incorrect. During the Heidegger podcast, the point was made several times that Heidegger had no ethics, which is precisely the opposite of Sartre: he had an ethics but did not build an epistemology or metaphysics sufficient to act as a foundation for it.

        Yes, one can be a perfectly authentic Nazi, but my point, if you’d bother to actually consider it, is that the ability of millions of people to endorse nationalistic and fascist ideologies is largely predicated on the fact that they weren’t authentic. Precisely the appeal of such parties is that they allow the people within them to abandon their responsibility to define what it means to be a human in deference to the party, the leader, the nation, or the state. This was a point made by, for example, Gunter Grass in The Tin Drum, that the question of how so many people could be evil is best answered by saying that they gave up their moral imagination first, to the ideal of Germany. That’s bad faith.

        • Hi Freddie,

          Boy, that escalated quickly!

          I’m not sure I follow this line:

          “I find the idea that the concept of bad faith leads necessarily to Nazism a pretty perfect example of trying to dismiss a philosophical tradition through the genetic fallacy.”

          Wait, who argued that the concept of “bad faith” necessarily leads to Nazism?

          For my part, I asserted that:

          (1) Sartre’s notion of “bad faith” originated more from reading Being & Time than from his experience in Vichy France,

          (2) because S’s “bad faith” derives from H’s “inauthenticity”, the terms are largely synonymous (though of course one can cite differences), but anyway

          (3) Heidegger’s own quest for authenticity led him toward fascism, not away from it. That wasn’t necessary or inevitable, but it did happen to the guy who gave Sartre the very concept of “bad faith” in the first place.

          I certainly agree that there were “just-following-orders” Germans and French who fell into fascism, and in that sense they acted in “bad faith” as Sartre would describe it. There can be inauthentic fascists along with authentic ones.

          But an unquestioning, incurious American/British/French, etc. democrat is as good an example of “bad faith” as a 1940s-era fascist. Most people living in liberal democracies accept democratic principles because they were raised that way, not because they made a considered commitment.

          And thus, as I consider (I hope?) the point I think you’re making, I reject it. I find no connection whatsoever between “bad faith” / (or “inauthenticity”) and fascism. Bad faith essentially boils down to conformity, and one can conform to democracy as easily as to fascism.

  5. Nice episode. You guys clarified a lot of Sartre’s points for me, though I’m still unclear on just how his notion of freedom could stand up to various forms of determinism. I though that Wes was accurate in that, to the extent that this proposes to displace a more therapeutic approach, it’s a bit ridiculous. Sartre doesn’t seem to have aged well to me, but given his personal historical circumstances I can see why his thought developed the way it did and why it was useful.

    Seth’s comment on “No Exit” about hell being oneself reminded me that T. S. Eliot deliberately made exactly that counter to Sartre in “The Cocktail Party”. If anyone is interested (http://tactnyc.org/show.php?id=327&sid=28).

    • Sartre displacing a therapeutic approach wasn’t a bug in his philosophy; it was the purpose of his philosophy, because he located in that therapy an abdication of the responsibility to own’s own choices which had a lot of resonance in a Europe that had been totally devastated by two wars for nationalism.

  6. Maybe Sartre’s concept of authenticity is clearer in his book, On the Jewish Question (assuming that Sartre has one concept of authenticity which does not change from one work to another).

    There Sartre points out that a Jew exists in situation: others see them as a Jew because of their physical appearance (they look Jewish) or their last name or because they go to a synagogue or because they work in a job where Jews work (the diamond trade) and treat them as a Jew.
    (Remember that Sartre is writing in the 1940′s)

    The Jew may insist that they are a human being just like everyone else, but that’s in bad faith, since we are our situation, which includes how others treat us and see us and others treat us as a Jew, not as an abstract human being.

    At the same time, the Jew is not a Jew like a rock is a rock. A Jew chooses to be a Jew, while a rock does not choose to be a rock, even though that choice to be a Jew in some way ratifies what others make of them (the situation). A Jew could also freely choose to deny their Jewishness, but that would be in bad faith, since their situation is one of Jewishness.

    That is, a person acting in good faith chooses to be what others choose for them because they cannot deny their situation in good faith.

  7. Doesn’t the idea that we can self-deceive (i.e., be in bad faith) require the formula: “A does not believe what A believes”?

    Because it’s either that, or A is being posited as “being” something (or someone) he does not know he “is” when he is not at work being not A. A’s acting not A is clearly a practiced habit and, while not at the front of A’s conscious mind at every second, does not appear to be the result of A thinking he’s B.

    Another way of looking at Sartre’s bad faith (i.e, his theory OF bad faith) is that he simply thinks it better for us all psychologically were we to be more vigilant about “keeping it real” at all times, though if he’s ever waited on line at a McDonald’s until the girl behind the counter finishes texting her friend, only then to look up at you with contempt for having interrupted her texting her friend, then he may have wanted to reconsider. It may do wonders for the emotional state of the girl behind the counter, but I’d bet he’d soon grow somewhat impatient.

  8. The other day I saw an interview with Wim Wenders, german film maker. At some point he mentions that while studying medicine in Freiburg he crashed a masterclass with Heidegger himself. He says he was allowed to stay in the class, but when it finished, he was told he would be kicked in the ass if he came there again, and they were serious about it. He admits he didnt understand a world of what was being taught in the class. It was not for him, he says. But, on a brighter side, he admits that he understood a bit of Being and Nothingness, by Sartre — and even translated Les Mots to german. I suppose I will not be kicked out by Sartre from this podcast.

  9. A couple of corrections about Satre’s life. There is no evidence, apart from his claims, that he was part of the Resistance. He started in a government job with the Vichy government after the surrender of France. Also, he was published through the war – so his work was passed by French and German censors. So Satre himself was in very little danger.

    A hostile reading would argue that Satre adopted some of Heidegger’s system to ingratiate himself to the occupying forces – noting that Heidegger himself was a member of the Nazi party.

    His behavour post-war was a little extreme, leading to the falling out with Camus. To psychoanalyse Satre in a very hostile manner one could say that Bad Faith was applied to everyone he was angry with – those who might criticise him for his wartime collaboration with the Vichy government to the girls who flirted with him, but did not sleep with him.

  10. The song at the end is probably my favourite one yet! The other Sartre one was awesome too, by the way.

  11. Jean-Paul Sartre may have criticized schizophrenics and people who are in bad faith because of actual emotional or mental problems such as an inferiority complex. Wes made the point that Sartre’s approach isn’t therapeutic. However Sartre actually made an outline of an existential psychoanalysis in Being and Nothingness which was eventually picked up by actual psychologists.

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