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An Explanation of Jean-Paul Sartre's Concept of 'Bad Faith'

Updated on December 11, 2016

Like with seemingly everything associated with the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, a proper definition of his concept of bad faith can seem frustratingly elusive. That really comes with the territory, though - existentialism, in general, has always tended to have that same elusive quality. It is a school of philosophy that has always seemed to concern itself more with abstract ideas than it does with the rigidly defined logic you can find elsewhere.

At the heart of the concept is a seemingly straight-forward belief that there is never a point in a person's life in which the freedom of choice is truly taken away. Even if someone should find themselves in a situation where the options available to them are constrained, they still possess the freedom to make choices within those constraints. A prisoner, for example, would still possess the freedom to submit to his imprisonment, or to rage against it. He would still possess the freedom to decide how he will treat the people around him, and how he will respond to their treatment of him. This is the sort of authenticity which Sartre considered to be so central to his philosophy. In any circumstance, a simple declaration along the lines of 'I had no choice' would have to be taken as an act of falsehood bordering on self-delusion. There is always a choice, and you are always responsible for the choices you make.

This idea is perhaps better explored with reference to one of Sartre's own examples.

A young woman sits with a young man in a cafe, sharing a cup of coffee. The young man's intentions are clear, and his feelings for the woman are obvious. Yet, at the same time, the woman is still unsure of what her feelings for the man may be. For the moment, she is simply content to enjoy her coffee, and the pleasant conversation.

Yet, a moment of choice quickly approaches. The young man reaches across the table and lays his hand over hers. The young man has made a choice, and made his feelings clear - and, now, the young woman would seem to have a choice of her own to make. She could reciprocate, and take the young man's hand. Or, she could draw her hand away. Each would be a clear response to the young man's action, and a clear decision on the young woman's part regarding her feelings.

Instead, though, the young woman simply leaves her hand where it is on the table - not entirely accepting or rejecting his advance. By doing this, Sartre suggests, the young woman is attempting to distance herself from the decision being asked of her. It is as though the young woman is trying to separate herself from her own hand - to pretend, for that moment, that it is not truly a part of her. She is trying to pretend that the hand resting over hers is of no real concern to her, and that it does not require a response on her part.

What the young woman is feeling in this moment, according to Sartre's existential philosophy, is the anguish of free will. This anguish is based on the idea that, just as we are often presented with choices, we are also responsible for the consequences of those choices. If the young woman were to reciprocate, and accept the young man's advances, she would be committing herself to something she might not be entirely prepared for. If, on the other hand, she were to draw her hand away and reject his advances, she would risk hurting the young man's feelings. She is caught between these two fears but, instead of choosing, she tries to pretend that nothing is required of her in response - she leaves her hand where it is, and tries to pretend that there is no choice for her to make. But, in refusing to make the choice presented to her she is, in a sense, denying her own freedom to make that choice. In acting in this way, Sartre believed, the young woman is acting in bad faith.

© 2014 Dallas Matier


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