More on Bad Faith…

September 20, 2013 — 1 Comment

Notes from Sartre on Bad Faith Leslie Stevenson

Stevenson starts by arguing that most interpretations of Sartre (including D. Z. Phillips whom I have discussed and responded to in the post below) are misguided due to reading out of context. Sartre’s real life examples are not meant as direct analogies of (in this case) bad faith but perform some other contextual function. Think of them as setting parameters or providing a set of logic formulas. Stevenson sets out to give an account of bad faith with more thought given to Being and Nothingness’ introduction. In the introduction and in part one of Being and Nothingness Sartre sets down necessary truths about consciousness. These necessary truths make bad faith possible and so it’s here that we begin:

“The distinction between reflective (positional, thetic) consciousness and pre-reflective (non-positional, non-thetic) consciousness plays a fundamental and recurring role in Sartre’s argument. In Section III of the Introduction he says that all consciousness is consciousness of something and is thus ‘positional’ consciousness of some object taken to be distinct from the conscious subject. But he adds that ‘the necessary and sufficient condition for a knowing consciousness to be knowledge of its objects, is that it be consciousness of itself as being that knowledge’. He then asks how we should understand this latter principle, and rejects the suggestion that it means ‘To know is to know that one knows’, which would imply that all consciousness would involve reflective consciousness of itself. Sartre suggests that what is true instead is that ‘every positional consciousness of an object is at the same time a non-positional consciousness of itself.’ ” (Stevenson)

So the take home message here is that ‘to know is to know that one knows’ is entirely not the point, but rather that at any given moment of consciousness, consciousness is at once reflective/positional (conscious of an object) and pre-reflective/non-positional conscious of itself not of having knowledge but as being knowledge. One could invoke epistemological frameworks such as coherentism or particularism as a way of illustrating this mode of being. Particularism especially is helpful in that it argues that we know a thing before we know how we know it. Invoking the logic of particularism allows us to say to know is to know, which comes before knowing that or how one knows. Better: To know that or how one knows if and only if one knows.

a previous post on particularism (Chisholm)


(1) For all conscious predicates F, and all people x, x is F if and only if x is pre-reflectively aware that he is F.

(2) For all conscious predicates F, and all people x, x’s being F allows the possibility of, but does not entail, x’s being reflectively aware that he is F.

Stevenson goes on to further extrapolate how this foundation relates to Sartre’s stress on freedom and his claim that ‘human reality must not be necessarily what it is but must be able to be what it is not.’

(3) For all first-order conscious predicates F, and all people x, if x is F he can try to become not F (and if he is not F he can try to become F).

The following paragraph shed’s the most coherent light on Sartre’s example of the waiter that I have come across so far:

“The point that Sartre wants to make by the perhaps by now shop-soiled example of the cafe waiter is surely made plain in the sentences which follow and precede the paragraph which Phillips so misinterprets. ‘The waiter in the cafe cannot be immediately a cafe waiter in the sense that this inkwell is an inkwell’; ‘it is necessary that we make ourselves what we are’. Anything we do, any role we play, even (Sartre wants to say) any emotion we feel or any value we respect, is sustained in being only by our own constantly remade decision. The little Parisian scene of the waiter who is ‘over-acting’ his role is chosen simply as a specially vivid, conspicuous example of what is in Sartre’s view a completely general and necessary truth. There is no suggestion that the waiter need be in bad faith, any more than any player of any human role. He is (for the moment) a waiter, but he does not have to remain one any longer than he wants to; he would presumably be in bad faith if he denied the latter truth, but he may be well aware of the possibility of disputes with the management, angry stormings out, and job resignations even at the cost of unemployment and poverty.” (p256)

On a side note, Stevenson seems to be a person who understands that to have a job is not to be degraded, but rather empowering in its own right, unlike Phillips for whom ‘job’ seems to be a dirty word.

With regards to bad faith Stevenson now moves to the example of the woman on a date to further extrapolate the condition. In the moment in which the woman leaves her hand in the hand of the man, though does not notice as she is all intellect, it is clear that the implication is that she is actively allowing his advances whilst at once unaware. She does not realise that she is encouraging his sexual advances. Bad Faith cannot simply be the mere absence of reflective, introspective awareness of what one is doing. Such an absence is far to common a condition for it to be as much a concern as Sartre is inferring in bad faith. Bad faith must be the denial of what she is doing in encouraging or allowing his sexual advances. After-all self denial/self-deception seems to be the characteristic of bad faith that Sartre is driving at.

What to make of this passage:

“What unity do we find in these various aspects of bad faith? It is a certain art of forming contradictory concepts which unite in themselves both an idea and the negation of that idea. The basic concept which is thus engendered, utilises the double property of the human being, who is at once a facticity and a transcendence. These two aspects of human reality are and ought to be capable of a valid co-ordination. But bad faith does not wish either to co-ordinate them nor to surmount them in a synthesis. Bad faith seeks to affirm their identity while preserving their differences.” (Sartre, p98)

We can try to contrast this with sincerity. Sincerity would require someone to be what he is. Sartre asserts this as impossible and does so through the example of the homosexual. Briefly and simplistically, the homosexual man resists the description of himself as a homosexual man, as he is not a homosexual man in the way that a table is a table. If upon reflection he admits that he is a homosexual man but by that he admits that he cannot cease his homosexual activities (Sartre was writing in the 1940’s and so is antiquated on the issue of homosexuality) he would be in bad faith.

“To the extent that a pattern of conduct is defined as the conduct of a paederast and to the extent that I have adopted this conduct, I am a paederast. But to the extent that human reality cannot be finally defined by patterns of conduct, I am not one.” (p 108)

Although the example in reality is a bit confused, Sartre is driving at the point: here we have an example of bad faith which consists in denying one’s freedom to be otherwise than one is.

Stevenson has provided a clear logic interpretation of Sartre’s bad faith examples. The next step is to further understand them as such and then try to ascertain whether they apply universally or exist only for the Sartre convert and as to whether they form a plausible and holistic view of consciousness and the human experience of dissonance.


One response to More on Bad Faith…


    Like Kierkegaard, Sartre saw problems with rationality, calling it a form of “bad faith”, an attempt by the self to impose structure on a world of phenomena — “the Other” — that is fundamentally irrational and random. According to Sartre, rationality and other forms of bad faith hinder people from finding meaning in freedom. To try to suppress their feelings of anxiety and dread, people confine themselves within everyday experience, Sartre asserts, thereby relinquishing their freedom and acquiescing to being possessed in one form or another by “the Look” of “the Other” (i.e. possessed by another person — or at least one’s idea of that other person).

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