Bad Faith and Sartre’s Waiter

September 19, 2013 — 2 Comments

From Chapter 2 of Being and Nothingness: “Bad Faith”

Sartre’s example of the waiter to demonstrate bad faith (lying to oneself) starts with an odd caricature:

“Let us consider this waiter in the cafe. His movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid. He comes toward the patrons with a step a little too quick. He bends forward a little too eagerly; his voice, his eyes express an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the customer. Finally there he returns, trying to imitate in his walk the inflexible stiffness of some kind of automation while carrying his tray with a recklessness of a tight-rope walker by putting it in a perpetually unstable, perpetually broken equilibrium which he perpetually re-establishes by a light movement of the arm and hand.” (p 101 B & N)

We could assume that this waiter, whose movements are too precise is being contrasted with another waiter whose movements are precise in the sense required by the profession (not too precise). Further to this, Sartre goes on to describe the waiter as playing a game in which he marks out the territory of what it is to be a waiter, and what gives that territory its defining characteristics. The waiter is not merely emulating other waiters, but is realizing his condition along with theirs. This seems to be a contradiction built into Sartre’s example. On the one hand, the waiter objectively strives to be like a waiter (his step is a little too quick). On the other hand, the waiter realizes through role playing his condition as a waiter (in which case his step would be just quick enough).

What of this contradiction? Does Sartre mean to say that people are imposed upon from without (expectations to behave as a waiter) and also persuade themselves from within (realizes his condition as a waiter as similar to other waiters) and so have bad faith in identifying themselves as such?

An important missing element from Sartre’s argument is the motivation to play such a game and the extent to which this identity defines the person. Perhaps the bad faith is of such a degree that the financial rewards of the job as a waiter outweigh the so-called self-deception. An ethical dimension could be added; the waiter has a child to support and so enters the bad-faith with a clear motivation advantageous outcome. Bad Faith is trade off with interactions in society.

These thoughts so far are taking Sartre’s example as a present tense example: “I am a waiter in a cafe now. What is the nature of the role that I am playing.” Sartre however shifts his argument to consider the projected self; what one sets out to be; a future tense:

“… it is precisely this person who I have to be (if I am the waiter in question) and who I am not. It is not that I do not wish to be this person or that I want this person to be different. But rather there is no common measure between his being and mine. It is a ‘representation’ for others and for myself, which means that I can be he only in representation.” (p 102, B & N my italics)

This seems natural. The self that I imagine myself to be in the future, even the future of a few seconds, is not myself. It is a representation of myself that my imagination has conjured. Sartre then shifts back to present tense:

“I can only play at being him.” (p 103)

Is there not a point however when being a waiter becomes non-imaginary and factual? Sartre might say: “I aim at being a philosopher”. Once he has written Being and Nothingness surely he can be a philosopher, good or bad, as well as anything his being might envelope? Though I understand and agree with the sentiment that people are not what they are and are what they are not, this example underplays the value and humility of also being simply what you are.


Phillips, D. Z; Bad Faith and Sartre’s Waiter Philosophy, Vol 56, No. 215 (Jan 1981) Cambridge University Press


2 responses to Bad Faith and Sartre’s Waiter


    Could it be that Sartre didn’t mean to compare the man to the appositely acting waiter, but to a man who has not defined themselves as a waiter at all. The whole show is about the man’s belief over what it means to carry the tray as a waiter, instead of just carrying the tray. They believe their role as a waiter means they need to do something more or different than just take orders and ferry the tray.

    That would do away with the apparent contradiction.

    Emerson Hurley July 25, 2017 at 7:29 am

    As I understand it, Sartre’s objection to the waiter is that he defines himself as being essentially a waiter, rather than a free human being doing waiter-ly things; in the same way that a policeman might try to deny the freedom he is exercising in arresting someone by saying “I am a policeman, my action comes from that essence, not from my own freedom”, the waiter is claiming that his waiter-ly actions come from his identity as a waiter, and do not come from his freedom; he is denying his transcendent freedom and as such he is acting in bad faith.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s