Jean Paul Sartre: What is “Bad Faith?”

The one theme from Sartre’s magnum opus, Being and Nothingness, that stuck was his commentary on “Bad Faith.”  Ignorant atheists who have never read Sartre have employed Sartrean language to refer to religious faith as the bad faith that Sartre is discussing even though it is not.  Furthermore, the concept of bad faith is included in Sartre’s many criticisms: he critiques Freud, psychoanalysis, reductionist materialism, and all forms of anthropological essentialism; these were the main targets of Sartre’s criticism and not religion.

Sartre’s understanding of what he calls bad faith is premised on the ontological dialectic of Georg W.F. Hegel.  That is, I primarily understand myself through the encounter with the Other.  This encounter with the Other, however, often leads one down the route of bad faith.  Though it can also lead one, ideally, to freedom as one comes to understand themself.  For Sartre, the essence of bad faith is to allow others, or the world, to define what you are.  This follows from Sartre’s famous dictum that “existence precedes essence.”  Thus, all forms of essentialism are representations of bad faith.

Bad Faith as Essentialism

Why is essentialism bad?  Because essentialism doesn’t follow from Sartre’s metaphysical premise: nothingness (man at the center of the universe as a free and creative being).  If humans have an essential nature this means, for Sartre, that humans cannot be free.  This logically results from the notion of having to live in accordance with nature.  This would be analogous to living for others since I do not have control over what I can position myself as and create myself to be.  Thus we see in Sartre the idea of existence preceding essence is a philosophy of becoming – we become whatever we want to be.  This is what our essential freedom entails.  Anything less than this is bad faith.

But you might ask, why isn’t the essentialism of freedom which undergirds Sartre bad?  This is because freedom is not something essential.  Freedom is nothingness.  Freedom is always a process of becoming.  Freedom is not something fixed.  Thus, our essential freedom isn’t a form of essentialism because freedom is a constant state of fluidity.

Bad faith has two component principles to it: first is the unconscious; second is self-deception.  Lying is not a form of bad faith because lying involves a conscious choice on the part of the liar.  Bad faith is allowing oneself to be defined by something other than oneself which would be a restriction of freedom.

Why does bad faith arise?  According to Sartre bad faith is the retreat into unconsciousness after having been awoken to consciousness.  Our realization of freedom and the cold, dark, and meaningless Cosmos is something that causes deep anxiety, anguish, and worry.  Instead of embracing the freedom of being the creators of the Cosmos we sink into an attempt to bring order to the unorderly and meaningless Cosmos.  This retreat into bad faith is also the retreat into dualism which is what Sartre is attempting to resolve, “Better yet I must know the truth not at two different momentsm which at a pinch would allow us to reestablish a semblance of duality-but in the unitary structure of a single project.  How then can the lie subsist if the duality which conditions is suppressed?

Bad faith exhausts itself into into dualism and a false sense of security and order.  I either live for another who defines me (like in the Master-Slave relationship).  Or I live in the false accord with nature (nature defining me).  But the reality of the world is that I am my own – I am my own being and should live for myself which means I create for myself my own meaning in the meaningless Cosmos.  Everything is a social construction and has no teleological end to it.  In the randomness and chaos that is existence, I control everything.

Psychoanalysis as Bad Faith

Phenomenology is the philosophy of consciousness and being-in-the-world, or self in the world.  Phenomenology has its roots in Augustine and, more contemporarily, in Hegel.  The problem with Freud and psychoanalysis from Sartre’s perspective is that Freudian psychoanalysis is about the unconscious.  The unconscious is what permits bad faith as one is not consciously aware of their being and freedom.  As he wrote, “Psychoanalysis has not gained anything for us since in order to overcome bad faith, it has established between the unconscious and consciousness an autonomous consciousness in bad faith.”

Psychoanalysis defines us in our unconsciousness which is why it is worthless and dangerous.  Psychoanalysis comes to define us by arguing that most of our actions are done unconsciously or subconsciously.  Thus, I am not a free being (because I am not conscious of my choices).  I am defined by an essentialism of determinism.

The reason why psychoanalysis is bad faith is because psychoanalysis creates a pattern of permanent bad faith by deceiving one to reject their own consciousness of freedom.  Psychoanalysis boxes one in through its unconscious determinism which demands that people understand themselves as being constrained by their unconscious actions.  Thus, psychoanalysis is deficient in understanding our being and freedom therein.  For Sartre, psychoanalysis is a form of secularized Original Sin – “psychoanalysis has not succeeded in dissociating the two phases of the act, since the libido is a blind conatus toward conscious expression and since the conscious phenomenon is passive.”

If one knows Augustine’s understanding of Original Sin and sin is, which is the lust for domination and belief that this lust will bring about our happiness which is what we all desire, we see psychoanalysis as arguing much the same.  The unconscious lust for gratification prevents one from making a rational (conscious) decision.  And since, in Christianity, God is Reason and Christ is the Logos, the elimination of human rationality and consciousness is the human acting apart from God (and therefore sin since the human is directing their desire to things that cannot satisfy it).

Bad Faith as Reductionism

Another problem that Sartre is tackling is the push toward facticity.  For Sartre, the biggest proponent of bad faith in the modern world is not religion as ignorant atheists often say.  It is, for Sartre, the reduction of the human to mere facticity (material objectification).  As he says, “If we reject the language and the materialist mythology of psychoanalysis we perceive that the censor in order to apply its activity with discernment must know what it is repressing.”  Because psychoanalysis is the outgrowth of materialistic reductionism, psychoanalysis is a form of bad faith – but so too then are all forms of reductionism.

To reduce the person to mere material objectivity and physical facticity is bad faith because this is using matter to define us.  The reduction of everything to material facticity is to deny the reality of the erotic and consciousness which are profound elements to the human being.  Admittedly, however, this is difficult for Sartre to resolve because he himself is something of a materialist.  In denying God and transcendence he cannot appeal to innatism, idealism, or transcendental phenomenology.  He is thus trapped in having to accept materiality as the cause of everything but a materialism of emergentism rather than reductionism.  The problem of reductionist materialism is that it denies to intense reality of consciousness and the erotic.

Consciousness is what allows us to decide for ourselves what our life will be and what we will live for.  Consciousness cannot be reduced to objective facticity because that would be a restriction on consciousness and therefore a restriction of human freedom.  The materialistic brand of liberalism also comes under attack by Sartre when he assails the “person possessing rights.”

To be free in the form of having rights is itself a restriction of freedom.  If I am free by having C, D, E, and F, but not A and B, I am not fully free.  Rights-based freedom is a form of control and dictation, permitting what a person can do and be and denying what a person cannot do and be.  True freedom, in the form of true consciousness, is all-encompassing and knows no rights because rights are a form of control and boundaries.  The truly free person does not have rights because the truly free person and can and be whatever they decide to do and be on a continual basis.

Highlighting his famous example of the waiter, to accept myself as just a waiter is to reduce myself to facticity and reduction.  I am not Pierre.  I am a waiter.  I am not merely a “waiter,” I am further reduced to what a waiter does.  But I am not just a waiter who does X, Y, and Z, I am reduced further because as a waiter I am a being-for-others; my existence as a waiter is defined by others and not myself.  In accepting being a waiter I am objectifying myself into something that I am not: a waiter, who does certain actions, whose actions are dictated to me by another, thereby I live for others rather than myself.  This is a reductionism of Pierre to a waiter which further reduces him to what a waiter does and, finally, exhausts itself in a final reduction of being-for-others since the waiter lives for others and does things for others rather than determine things for oneself.

For Sartre, reductionism does this for everything.  In reducing everything to a single cause we are further reduced in our freedom and our consciousness is retarded from possible becoming.  An accountant, for instance, is defined by what he does and what orders he takes.  As such, the accountant is also a being-for-others.  A soldier too is reduced to what he does and what orders he takes.

In between the lines we see Sartre’s anti-capitalism and crypto-Marxism on display in his attack of being-for-others and materialist reductionism (even if Marxism is a materialist philosophy).  In examining the reduction of people to their jobs and what they do and what orders they take, we see that the vast majority of people are not free but enslaved.  The only people who are free are those who control others and dictate to them what to do and what to say (e.g. the capitalist bosses).  To accept my reduction to facticity and job is to accept my enslavement and abdicate my freedom of being.

Sincere Belief as Bad Faith

In another famous section in dealing with Bad Faith Sartre attacks sincerity.  Sartre’s assault on sincerity stems from his belief that sincerity is a form of self-deception.  It is to embrace an essentialism “sincerely” and living by that standard which is automatically a form of restriction.

Sincerity is also impossible according to Sartre because this involves a moment of conscious decision-making on part of the one who is acting, or living, sincerely.  Sincerity is the worst form of the retreat from the conscious back to the unconscious because it is the conscious decision to reject one’s consciousness and live a false life of sincerity and deceive oneself that one is being sincere when, in reality, one is living by a feeling of anguish and guilt.  It is the anguish of living in a cold and harsh world and the guilt of living by being defined by others.  Sincerity casts oneself as an object rather than a being of consciousness.

Sincerity is, as Sartre says, “to be what one is.”  To be what one is is to embrace essentialism over existence.  It is the reversal of the metaphysical axiom of nothingness and that existence precedes essence.  And this is, by axiomatic definition, impossible if nothingness and existence preceding essence is the reality of existence.  Sartre takes as a given, naturally, that his metaphysic is correct – thereby all other alternatives are wrong.  This is why sincerity is a form of bad faith.  It would be the philosophy of essentialism and living in accordance with nature.  Since there is no nature (no essence prior to existence) sincere living is false.


What is the essence, pardon the pun, of Sartre’s Bad Faith?  Bad faith, for Sartre, is living-for-others or, simply, not living-for-myself.  Rather than me being the controller of my destiny I allow myself to be defined by others, or things, other than myself.  Bad faith is the retreat away from being the center of the universe, the decider of all things and the measure of all things.

Sartre is a modern day Protagoras.  Protagoras famously said that “man is the measure of all things.”  Sartre said that “existence precedes essence.”  In phenomenological and existentialist language, Sartre’s declaration is identical to Protagoras’s.  In existence preceding essence, that means man, as simply an existent being, controls what he does and what he is to become.  Hence man is, in fact, the measure of all things.

  1. Bad Faith is not lying to others.
  2. Bad Faith is acting in a manner contrary to one’s own being, the being of freedom (existence preceding essence).
  3. Bad Faith allows others, or the world, to restrict one’s freedom and define one’s essence for oneself.
  4. Bad Faith accepts this external essentialism proscribed onto oneself and living in accord to this external essentialism.
  5. Sincerity of belief is also a form of Bad Faith because it endorses a form of essentialism that is automatically restrictive in the form of “sincere belief” and therefore a form of self-deceit and deception.  Sincerity is the retreat back into the unconscious.
  6. Bad Faith always has an unconscious element to it.

Sartre’s analysis of bad faith is not a commentary over the problems of religion.  Though religion is also an institution of bad faith from Sartre’s perspective, his commentary over bad faith is about how people live for others or union with non-existent nature which suppresses one’s free and creative being.  Bad Faith is the embrace of essentialism over nothingness; it is the embrace of a non-existent ideal to live up to instead of living for oneself and constantly creating one own’s being and freedom.  We live in a fluid and non-orderly and non-defined state of existence for Sartre.  Any attempt to cast an orderliness, fixity, or nature to existence is to corrupt the premise that existence precedes essence.

The radicalness of Sartre’s ontology is that it answers the three big questions of life: who are we, why are we here, and where are we going with: (1) we are nothing; (2) we exist for no reason; (3) we are going nowhere.  Sartre is living in a nihilistic reality.  But rather than let the world (nihilism) defeat us, we are called upon to embrace the freedom which is nothingness and constantly decide for ourselves what our lives are to be.  Readers of Nietzsche will find commonality between Sartre and Nietzsche on this point.  We have eaten from the tree of good and evil, the realization of our freedom, the freedom to decide for ourselves what is right and wrong, what is meaningful and what is not, and we will constantly create right and wrong and meaning in our lives.  Sartre subverts Nietzsche’s hierarchy and aristocratic ethos of overcoming nihilism with a prototypical leftwing approach: non-hierarchy and egalitarian.

Bad Faith is, essentially, the embrace of the Nietzschean Last Man as what life is rather than the superman who is in a constant state of creating his own meaning through the freedom he realizes he now possesses.  In Sartre’s metaphysical and ontological framework, Bad Faith is the rejection of freedom, which is the rejection of the nothingness that undergirds reality.  It is, in other words, the attempt to reject existence itself since existence precedes essence.  Bad faith is the attempt to establish any sort of preordained meaning, truth, system, structure, or telos into the world and living by that standard, rather than living by your own (constant) self-creating standard.  In many ways Sartre just augmented Nietzsche’s philosophy within his section on Bad Faith.


Support Wisdom:

My Book on Plato:

1 comment

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 )

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: