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Not Just Lying to Oneself: An Examination of Bad Faith in Sartre

A Correction to this article was published on 07 May 2021

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Bad faith is commonly conceived as lying to oneself or self-deception. This folk definition is too simplistic as it undermines the rich ontological underpinnings of bad faith. While both simple self-deception and bad faith are opposed to the general phenomenon of lying (to others), for Sartre bad faith is also meant to explain both the working of consciousness and the ubiquity of pre-judicative nothingness. Together, consciousness and nothingness supply the special ontological foundation required for bad faith to operate. To enter into bad faith is to escape from the anguish of the experience of insubstantiality and freedom into deterministic attitudes about the self, such as the deceiver/deceived bipolarity of Freudian psychoanalysis. Sartre rejects the thesis that there can be hidden motivations in consciousness by arguing for the reflexivity and the translucency of consciousness. Further, he would take the ubiquity of nothingness to explain the wide prevalence of bad faith as a state-of-being in the world. Bad faith cannot be equated with simple cases of self-deception as bad faith is sustained by a unique mix of ontological postulates. Sartre argues for this point cogently through his examples of bad faith in Being and Nothingness. In these examples, Sartre shows that sincerity, the purported anti-thesis of self-deception, causes one to fall even deeper into bad faith.

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  1. Translations of and references to Being and Nothingness are from and to Sartre, J.P. (2003). Being and Nothingness. Hazel E. Barnes (tr.) (1957). First publishes in the original French in 1943. (Abington, Oxon: Routledge).

  2. For a detailed treatment of bad faith as self-deception tout court, see Detmer (2013).

  3. Sartre writes that in fear one is “afraid of dying,” in anguish one is “afraid of being afraid (2003, p. 53).” Anguish is thus the realization that any decision I take lacks sufficient justificatory grounds. It merely has a being that “ought to be sustained (2003, 54).”.

  4. By “metastable,” Sartre implies susceptible to change; evanescent (2003, p. 73).

  5. For instance, Sartre writes that if being of consciousness is consciousness of being, then the being of freedom must be an unceasing consciousness of freedom.

  6. Sartre reject the idea that consciousness can be reduced to knowledge, such that to know a particular consciousness, another act of knowing must be posited. If consciousness must be known by a knower, then a third term, to relate the known to the knower, would be required, and so on ad-infinitum.

  7. Sartre argues that when a reflective consciousness takes a pre-reflective consciousness as its positional object, it endows the latter with a propositional content. For instance, in reflection, I may pass judgement on my pre-reflective consciousness: I “am ashamed of it, I am proud of it, I will it, I deny it, etc. (2003, p. 9–12)” Pre-reflective consciousness, on the other hand, is world-directed, and lacks any judgmental or propositional content. Thus, a pe-reflective consciousness cannot be known by a subsequent reflective consciousness. To be known, a pre-reflective consciousness must be reflexive. Sartre also contends that one can easily think of pre-reflective consciousnesses that have never been reflected on. The very fact that a pre-reflective consciousness can occur without the need for it to be revealed through subsequent reflection indicates the reflexivity of consciousness.

  8. Certain interpreters of Sartre (Gordon 1985; Detmer 2013) explain the possibility of bad faith in terms of the denial in reflective consciousness of a truth that a person’s pre-reflective consciousness possesses. Such an epistemic explanation of the possibility of bad faith, however, is problematic in the wake of the thesis of consciousness’ reflexivity. The problem with a theory that explains bad faith in terms of distortion of the truth in reflection is that it fails to account for how consciousness hides the truth from itself.

  9. “… consciousness is radically ontologically original, that is, that there is no higher concept under which it falls (Gardner 2009, p. 38)”.

  10. “Indeed, where would consciousness ‘come’ from if it did come from something? From the limbo of the unconscious or of the physiological? But if we ask ourselves how this limbo in its turn can exist and where it derives its existence, we find ourselves faced with the concept of passive existence; that is, we can no more absolutely understand how this non-conscious given (unconscious or physiological) which does not derive its existence from itself, can nevertheless perpetuate this existence and find in addition the ability to produce a consciousness (Sartre 2003, p. 11).”.

  11. Sartre cautions against misinterpreting the statement that causation is self-caused. Consciousness is not “prior to itself,” nor is it “an act (2003, p. 11).” Sartre further reckons that: “It would be unwise to misuse the expression ‘cause of self,’ which allows us to suppose a progression, a relation of self-cause to self-effect. It would be more exact to say simply: The existence of consciousness comes from consciousness itself (2003, p. 11)” Besides, Sartre reiterates that consciousness does not emerge from a nothingness, as consciousness is “prior to nothingness. (2003, p. 11)” For Sartre, before consciousness arises, there can only be a “plenum of being” which cannot refer to a “absent consciousness (2003, p. 11).” Therefore, when Sartre contends that consciousness is self-caused, he does not mean that there is an absolute, witness-consciousness that causes specific instances of consciousness to arise. Instead, what he means is that though consciousness requires being to arise, being is not the cause of consciousness. Consciousness is a stand-alone, unique, and autonomous category.

  12. “This different way of being of consciousness implies that any notion of self cannot be a notion of a self as substance in the sense that being-in-itself is the type of being of substances. And not being substantial means two interrelated things for Sartre: first, it means that there is no substratum for this type of being, which is pure appearance. Second, it means that this kind of being is not its own foundation (Onof 2013, p. 33).”.

  13. “Freedom is the human being putting his past out of play be secreting his own nothingness. Let us understand indeed that this original necessity of being its own nothingness does not belong to consciousness intermittently and on the occasion of particular negations. This does not happen just at a particular moment in psychic life when negative or interrogative attitudes appear; consciousness continually experiences itself as the nihilation of its past being. (Sartre 2003, p. 52).”.

  14. “Man is the being through whom nothingness must come to the world. But this question immediately provokes another: What must man be in his being in order that through him nothingness may come to being? (Sartre 2003, p. 48).

  15. “Non-being does not come to things by a negative judgment; it is the negative judgment which is conditioned and supported by non-being (Sartre 2003, p. 11);” “This example is sufficient to show that non-being does not come to things by a negative judgment; it is the negative judgment, on the contrary, which is conditioned and supported by non-being. (Sartre, p. 35).” Also see Richmond (2013, p. 97).

  16. “There are questions which on the surface do not permit a negative reply – like, for example, the one which we put earlier, ‘What does his attitude reveal to us?’ But actually we see that it is always possible with questions of this type to reply: ‘Nothing’ or ‘Nobody’ or ‘Never.’ Thus at the moment when I ask, ‘Is there any conduct which can reveal to me the relation of man to the world?’ I admit on principle the possibility of a negative reply such as, ‘No, such a conduct does not exist.’ This means that we admit to being faced with the transcendent fact of the non-existence of such conduct. (Sartre 2003, p. 28–9).”.

  17. “But this intra-mundane Nothingness cannot be produced by Being-in-itself; the notion of Being as full positivity does not contain Nothingness as one of its structures.”.

  18. “There is a trans-phenomenality of non-being as of being (Sartre 2003, 32–33).’’.

  19. BN, 50–2.

  20. “That is actually what the critic is demanding of his victim – that he constitute himself as a thing, that he should entrust his freedom to his friend as a fief, in order that the friend should return it to him subsequently -like a suzerain to his vassal (Sartre 2003, p. 88).”.

  21. Sartre writes that if sincerity or candor is the universal value of human existence, then “what is posited is not merely an ideal of knowing but an ideal of being (2003, p. 82).” Sartre argues that the ideal of sincerity is impossible to achieve, as it is incompatible with how consciousness is structured (2003, p. 85). If consciousness (or conscious being – being-for-itself) is “not what it is and what it is not,” then any attempt to be “what one truly is” is absurd and futile (2003, p. 85).

  22. In BN Sartre does not talk about authenticity; he merely declares it to be the anti-thesis of bad faith (2003, p. 94). For a constructive account of authenticity in the commentarial literature on Sartre, see Webber (2013, p. 131–142).


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Correspondence to Stalin Joseph Correya.

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Correya, S.J. Not Just Lying to Oneself: An Examination of Bad Faith in Sartre. J. Indian Counc. Philos. Res. 38, 103–121 (2021).

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  • Sartre
  • Bad faith
  • Consciousness
  • Self-deception
  • Sincerity
  • Nothingness