Throughout our lives we are asked to take on many roles. Parents. Siblings. Employees. Spouses. Friends. Lovers. All of these roles come with certain expectations of action and responsibilities of being, and most of us adopt these expectations and responsibilities without giving much thought about what it actually means for our identities, our personal freedom, our responsibility, and our self-expression.
And in that lack of consideration lies a major problem for Existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. It is a problem that comes out of our full, unadulterated adoption of these roles when we exclude the responsibility of our freedom and when we wear those roles as masks to shield us from the anguish of being and becoming who we are truly meant to be. This problem, as detailed by Sartre in his seminal work, Being and Nothingness, is known as “bad faith”.
Now, before we give a more detailed definition of bad faith it is important to define a few terms that are crucial to the understanding of this concept.
Facticity and Transcendence
Sartre sees in all of us two facets of our existence that shape and mold the person we are in any given moment. This duality is facticity and transcendence.
Our facticities are the given particulars of our being – the details of our life that make up who we are at any given moment. Sartre refers to these facticities as “being-in-itself”. The color of our eyes. Our height. Our age. Our parents. Our environment. Our previous choices. All of these are examples of our facticity. They are the concrete details of who you are and they collectively make up one facet of who you are in life.
Within the boundaries of those facticities lies the primary extent of our freedom. We will discuss the Sartrean idea of freedom later in this article but for now, let us think of our factities as the fence around the complete freedom of our existence. There are some facticities that can certainly be overcome by choices we make, but a majority of our facticities are unavoidable barriers that influence the extent of our freedoms.
What this means is, our facticities preclude us from certain opportunities. By mere fact of certain things about myself other things about myself are simply not possible. No matter how much I would like, I am not going to be able to step back on a football field and be competitive with actual football players. The facticity of my age and body remove that opportunity from my being. No matter how much I would like to not be an old man whose body is slowly eroding away into a useless bit of flesh, I am beholden to the facticity of my age.
The problem of resting solely in your facticity, for Sartre, is that we attempt to make of ourselves “objects” of being in the world. We attempt to take on the identity of a thing, denying the responsibilities of our choices from moment to moment that we have as beings. In this denial we seek to mitigate the responsibility we have to choose in any given moment who we actually are.
Transcendence, however, is the ability to go beyond the majority of our facticities and to move towards something that we can imagine we want to be. Sartre refers to this as “bieng-for-itself”. It is our ability to create ourselves in the world and actuate the possibilities of our being. To put this another way, at any given moment we are more than just the facts of our being, we are also what we can imagine we will be and we project that possible future self into the world.
Where as facticity might be considered the present circumstances our existence, transcendence is the future circumstances we can imagine ourselves being in from the choices we make now. It is a moving beyond those facticities that we can move beyond to create new facticities of our being that we believe will make us into who we would like to be.
The problem of resting solely in your facticity, for Sartre, is that we completely ignore the facticity of our being. Facts about our being that makes us who we are and what we can become. If we ignore these facts we are attempting to make of ourselves something that does not and can not ever exist fully because it has no faciticty of being to anchor it into the world. It is merely a projection of a possibility.
The key for Sartre with these two concepts is that they both anchored to our radical freedom and as such, our freedom needs to be recognized to find the balance of them.
Freedom. Not the flag waving, give me liberty or give me death, 2nd amendment sort of freedom. The idea of freedom that is the most prominent common thread among all Existentialist philosophers goes deeper than that.
When we are talking about freedom in existentialism we are talking about our responsibilities of choice in any given moment. In every moment of our lives we are tasked with the responsibility of making a choice. Go this way or go that way. Pick this person or pick that person. Take that job or take this job. Be angry or be sad. You get the point. Every single moment we decide what we are going to work towards and who we are going to be in this world. We also decide the value of our facticities. We decide what those facts mean and how they will impact our lives.
What’s more, we are fully aware that making one choice essentially closes the door on the other choice. We can never return down that road and pick that thing instead of the other thing, so we know we are losing something of a future we can only imagine. That feeling, that knowing that we are completely free and utterly responsible for making and reaping the consequences of every choice in our lives, that feeling is referred to by Sartre as anguish.
Anguish is the felt experience of our responsibility towards freedom. It is that low, churning wave in our heads that never lets anything settle.
We have already established that you are constrained by your facticity in regards to your freedom but within those constraints you must still decide freely and perpetually the value of your factities and the trajectory of your life within those facticities.
That is the sort of freedom that Sartre believes we try to run from, by hiding in your facticity or your transcendence to avoid the responsibility of choosing. And in that neglect and denial of freedom lies the concept of bad faith.
What Is Bad Faith?
Bad faith, in its simplest definition, is an attempt to escape our absolute freedom in every situation and resting purely in either our facticity, being-in-itself, or resting purely in our transcendence, being-for-itself. It is an attempt to avoid altogether the question of who we should be in any situation by either fully adopting the roles we play in life or by never admitting our facticities.
It might be easier to think of bad faith as a denial of one of two things; who you are now or who you could become.
Sartre provides two examples of these concepts of bad faith in Being and Nothingness that capture these definitions. The first example is someone who adopts fully there facticity to the exclusion of their transcendence. In Sartre’s writing this takes the form of a waiter who lives entirely within the role of “waiter” and denies any sort of individuality he has in his own being.
Sartre sees the waiter as “too precise” and “too mechanical” in his movements and expressions. Sartre accuses the waiter of “play-acting” at being a waiter. Now, we need to clarify a frequent misconception here about what Sartre has a problem with here and what puts the waiter in bad faith.
Sartre does not take issue with the prospect that the waiter is acting phony. What Sarte takes issue with is the fact that the waiter is trying to become the “object” of a waiter. He is trying to act out the precise definition of a waiter-object and by doing so the man is trying to identify himself as an object, whose essential nature is already predetermined and who can rest solely in the facticity of that predetermined nature that is given to all waiter-objects. This man is denying his freedom and responsibility to choose how he is to act in his job by merely adopting the role of “waiter”.
The other example Sartre gives is that of a homosexual who appears to be living fully in his transcendence by denying the facticity of his being. This is a man who engages in homosexual behavior on a regular basis but refuses to acknowledge the facticity that he is in fact a homosexual.
He views his homosexual behavior as past experiences, facticities that do not point to who he really is, and instead insists that they are anomalies of his behavior and not indicative of his actual being. This man is resistant to adopt the label of homosexual, as he knows that, once applied to the facticity of his being, it imposes a sort of limit on his freedom to be other than that.
Sartre does offer other examples of bad faith but you get the point.
Bad faith can exist in one of two ways and both ways are a denial of authenticity, to Sartre. They are a denial of our freedom because both deliver us the opportunity to remove ourselves from the requirements of choice in any given moment and allow us to alleviate the burden of responsibility for our choices by making us mere objects instead of what we are, radically free individuals that have a responsibility towards authenticity.
I have written about the existentialist concept of authenticity in a previous article but I think it is important to briefly revisit it here, as it is directly related to the concept of bad faith. The idea is that, after we have come to join the two aspects of our life into a symbiosis, after we have assured the “valid coordination” of our facticity and our transcendence, only then are we are ready to approach our authenticity.
According to Sartre, a life lived in true authenticity is one of constant choice. It is a live lived with the responsibility of freedom where one considers their facticity, applies the appropriate value to those facticities and then works towards their transcendence within the confines of those facticities. That is how we come to be our authentic self in any given moment.
Authenticity, then, is the affect of an absence of bad faith. It is most certainly a created thing by each individual, and not a thing discovered, but when you can live within the understanding of your facility and the acknowledgment of your transcendence you can see honestly, not only what you are and what you have been, but what you can become. You will form a perfect union between what you were and what you will be and in that union will rest what you are. And that is the strength of identity that comes from the Satrean idea of bad faith.
So, What Does Any Of This Mean For Our Lives?
For that answer I present two exercises that we can call upon in our day to day experience of living – thought experiments of sorts that can help us expose our own potential for bad faith in our lives and help us to live towards our most authentic self.
Ok. So, look at your life right now. What does it look like? Have you let go of your long term goals or projects or ideas in favor of the role you have to play right now? Are you trying to be the “ideal” parent or the “ideal” partner or the “ideal” worker, deriving your value from the measures you can take of how close you are to the factual definition of those things and turning yourself into an object of those definitions?
If you have so closely tied your identity to a role that you have to play in this world, forsaking the individual dreams and goals you have, then you are living in bad faith. You are not being honest about the choices you have to not be that thing. As much as we would like to try to tie our personalities to our role identities to excuse ourselves from the freedom of choosing who we are in any given moment, we can not. To do so would make you nothing more than an object in this world. A bundle of mere facticities.
Now look at your life again but instead of focusing on the facts of your existence look at the things that you do everyday. Look at the condition of your body. Look at the quality of your thoughts. Look at where you live and how much money you have and the people around you. This requires a sincere amount of honesty. You can not go into this with any sort of denial. These facts have to be as close to objectively observed as possible.
Ok. Now. Who do you act like you are? Do you act like you are healthy even though you eat like shit? Do you act like you care about people but behind their backs you are cursing them every way you can? Do you live in a toxic environment but act like everything is fine, or act like you have money to spend with friends on bullshit but are secretly bankrupt? If the things you are doing everyday do not align with the thing that you are presenting yourself as, then you are living in bad faith.
If you are pretending to be something you are not, acting as though the facts of your day-to-day existence have no bearing on who you actually are, then you are in denial about an essential ingredient what makes you, you.
The reality for Sartre is that we are both, a facticity and a transcendence. Both are equally important and meaningful to our attempts at living an authentic life. We have to come to embrace the anguish of our freedom of choice in every moment of our being and accept the responsibility of that freedom and the consequences of the choices that we make as we move towards the projects of the world that excite us and promise us our future transcendence.
Is this easy, no? But it is a whole hell of a lot more rewarding than simply condemning yourself to becoming an object in the world and blindly adopting the role responsibilities that society places on us or denying the reality of who you are now because you can imagine yourself being something different in the future.
So now you are left with another choice in your life. A choice that will cause you pain either way. You can either endure the disharmony and deception of living in bad faith or you can endure the anguish of authenticity. There will be pain in whatever direction you choose but at the end of one you will be created by the reflection of an empty life, a life half-lived of self-deception and at the other you will be greeted by your authentic self, the you that is only possible through a balance of who you are now and who you want to become. I know what I am going to choose.