In Being and Nothingness, Sartre defines bad faith as a lie to oneself in order to conceal a displeasing truth or present as truth a pleasing untruth (Sartre 1989, p.301). This self-deception commonly involves a denial to oneself of the freedom of human consciousness to become other than it is and the subsequent responsibility of the choice to change or persist (Stevenson 1983, p.255; Catalano 1990, p.677). It is distinguished from lying to others in that the ontological duality of deceiver and deceived is replaced by a double activity within the unity of a single consciousness, wherein the one who lies and the one being lied to are the same person. Following Sartre’s notion of the translucency of consciousness (wherein all being of consciousness is consciousness of being), deceiving oneself about something necessitates that one must first be (at least pre-reflectively) aware of both that something and of its concealment. However, if these conditions are satisfied and one then successfully deceives themselves about something, we are now faced with an issue of compatibility. This is the contradictory existence within a single consciousness of both an idea and its negation, of both a facticity and its transcendence — and is thus the paradox Sartre must overcome in asserting the possibility for bad faith. Although several scholars maintain that Sartre ultimately fails to account for this incompatibility, alternate interpretations of his work allow for its viability (Santoni 1978, p.394; Gordon 1985, p. 258). The most convincing of these understand bad faith as occurring through a person’s reflective misinterpretation of their pre-reflective knowledge as a falsifiable belief.
Fundamental to any understanding of bad faith is the distinction between pre-reflective and reflective consciousness. Leslie Stevenson (1983, p.254) interprets Sartre’s pre-reflective cogito to mean that being or doing a thing x entails: 1) the necessity of a pre-reflective awareness of x, and 2) the possibility of a reflective awareness of x. Herein, a person’s pre-reflective consciousness is always aware of their reality and thus contains the primacy of knowledge, but as a non-thetic, non-positional awareness involves no mediation between knowing and that which is known (Catalano 1990, p.680). Conversely, reflective consciousness is not necessarily aware of this knowledge, but may have secondary access to it — manifesting as a positional, thetic awareness which involves an element of interpretation; a “freedom of attitude” taken toward its description of the pre-reflective experience (Haynes-Curtis 1988, p.272. For Stevenson, arriving at bad faith from this distinction is fairly straightforward. Surely, he writes, it involves not just an absence of reflective awareness of x, as this would be more commonplace than even Sartre intended — but instead must be the reflective denial of x (Stevenson 1983, p.256). The most prominent example of this form of bad faith occurs in Sartre’s notion of sincerity, which aims to “bring me to confess to myself what I am in order that I may finally coincide with my being” (Sartre 1989, p. 322). Although this may appear an admirable intention, sincerity soon becomes bad faith through its desire for a fixed human essence (in-itself), and subsequent failure to recognise the freedom of human consciousness (for-itself) to be otherwise than one is. Herein, the ‘champion of sincerity’ effects a reflective denial of that which they pre-reflectively know to be true: that is, their ability for change. However, Stevenson’s conclusion proves unsatisfactory not just because it oversimplifies the issue, but because in some cases it renders the occurrence of bad faith quite absurd. Gordon (1985, p.261) identifies this problem, arguing that in certain instances to directly confront one’s pre-reflective awareness through reflective denial “calls altogether too much attention to it to allow it to remain pre-reflective” and thus transforms a pre-reflective assertion into reflective knowledge (which cannot then be denied). An alternative explanation of bad faith avoids this problem by interpreting the disparity between pre-reflective and reflective consciousness as emanating from a reflective misinterpretation, rather than a simple denial, of a pre-reflective truth.
This account primarily focuses on bad faith’s exploitation of the uncertainty of belief in order to choose and sustain an incorrect conceptualisation of something. Herein, the ability of reflective consciousness to choose how it (mis)interprets pre-reflective knowledge rests on Sartre’s assertion that bad faith’s true problem is that it is faith. It thus involves a choice of belief rather than a certainty: “faith is decision and after each intuition, it must decide and will what it is.” (Sartre (1989, p.325). Unlike knowledge, belief is something one chooses to entertain and it therefore requires no commitment; it can be ‘unchosen’ at any time. Following this, we can understand bad faith as emanating from a person’s ability to misidentify their pre-reflective feelings as beliefs (rather than knowledge) and thus have greater agency in either dismissing or asserting their truthfulness (Haynes-Curtis 1988, p.270). In doing so, one is able to exploit the uncertainty of belief in two principal ways. The first capitalises on the fact that beliefs have the potential for either falsity or truthfulness. As Sartre writes, “Every belief is a belief that falls short; one never wholly believes what one believes. Consequently the primitive project of self-deception is only the utilisation of this self-destruction through the fact of consciousness.” (Sartre 1989, p.327). Herein, a person in bad faith identifies something they pre-reflectively know as a belief in order to subsequently enable the possibility of themselves no longer believing it (Sartre 1989, p.327; Haynes-Curtis 1988, p.270). The second way uncertainty of belief facilitates self-deception originates in the fact that a belief’s assertion or dismissal is, unlike knowledge, dependent on an arbitrary degree of evidence. According to Sartre (1989, p.325-6), bad faith exploits this by accepting insufficient or ‘non-persuasive’ evidence as sufficient for its beliefs. On that count, writes Ronald Santoni, one can be persuaded of something, “and yet be aware that the ‘required’ evidence is inadequate for full (‘fulfilled’) persuasion.” (Santoni 1978, p.395-6). It is precisely through this exploitation of belief’s lack of certainty that a person can successfully deceive themselves and yet be simultaneously aware of that fact via the translucency of consciousness.
Various attempts have been made to explain the contradiction within Sartre’s bad faith, in which a single consciousness paradoxically represents both the deceiver and the deceived. Arguments which simplify this self-deception as merely the reflective denial of pre-reflective knowledge are initially constructive but ultimately fall short of a satisfactory explanation. Conversely, those which recognise the fundamental role belief plays within the project of bad faith not only offer a viable solution to Sartre’s puzzle, but are applicable to a wider range of circumstances in which self-deception occurs.
Catalano, JS 1990, ‘Successfully Lying to Oneself: A Sartrean Perspective’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, vol. 50, no. 4, pp. 673-693.
Gordon, J 1985, ‘Bad Faith: A Dilemma’, Philosophy, vol. 60, no. 232, pp. 258-262.
Haynes-Curtis, C 1988, ‘The ‘Faith’ of Bad Faith’, Philosophy, vol. 63, no. 244, pp. 269-275.
Hymers, M 1989, ‘Bad Faith’, Philosophy, vol. 64, no. 249, pp. 397-402.
Santoni, RE 1978, ‘Bad Faith and “Lying to Oneself”’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, vol. 38, no. 3, pp. 384-398.
Sartre, JP 1989, ‘Self-Deception’, in Kaufman W (ed.), Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, Plume, New York, pp. 299-328.
Stevenson, L 1983, ‘Sartre on Bad Faith’, Philosophy, vol. 58, no. 224, pp. 253-258.