In Being and Nothingness, Sartre argues that consciousness is consciousness of its being (what we might call ‘self-consciousness’). He also argues that what consciousness is conscious of – its ‘being’ – is that it is what it is not. What does this mean by this? For Sartre, human consciousness is a ‘nothingness’ – it is unique in that it can not be pointed to like a thing in the world; tables, chairs, my hands and legs. It is also unique in that, unlike tables and chairs, consciousness is conscious of itself. It is for this reason that the phenomenon of bad faith shows itself to be a conundrum: if consciousness must always be conscious of itself, then how can people fall in to the sort of dissonance that Sartre terms ‘bad faith’?
When one person lies to another, the lie is made possible by the fact that the liar’s consciousness is hidden from the one being lied to. But how can a person carry out the sort of self-deception needed to be in bad faith – to deny, in short, that consciousness is what it is not?
Psychoanalysis splits consciousness in to distinct categories: with the conscious part (the ego) and the subconscious (the id) working mechanistically upon one another to cause thoughts and actions. Bad faith happens when things in the subconscious express themselves through thoughts and actions, whilst remaining hidden from consciousness. But for Sartre, this could not be true: to know is to know that I know (consciousness is consciousness of its being). So for people to fall in to bad faith, they must be conscious of the thing that they deny. Therefore the psychoanalysts’ positing of ego and id is false: consciousness exists as a unity, and this is because consciousness is consciousness of its being.
To help illustrate the concept of bad faith, Sartre uses the example of a young man who is working as a waiter. A waiter, unlike a table or a chair, doesn’t exist other than in the abstract. Certainly, there are a set of actions that we associate with being a waiter, but there is nothing that it is like to be a waiter like there is to be a chair (to have four legs and be fashioned for human beings to sit on). ‘A waiter’ doesn’t exist and so can not be; but the young man makes ‘being a waiter’ like ‘being a chair,’ and in doing so comes to experience himself as an object. In doing this he denies that consciousness is what it is not, i.e. that it cannot be anything.
The second example Sartre uses is that of a woman on a date, when her date puts his hand on hers in a bid to make his feelings known. Rather than act by either withdrawing or keeping her hand where it is, she experiences herself as pure transcendence; as that part of consciousness which is free at any moment to act on any number of possibilities.
By denying that she exists as a thing in the world – a thing for-others, to use Sartre’s terminology – she is committing bad faith. Unlike the waiter, she is not denying that consciousness is a nothingness (it can not be anything); rather she is denying who she is for others. In that moment, she experiences herself as pure nothingness.
Both the waiter and the woman on the date are in bad faith, but they fall in to bad faith for different reasons. Sartre uses two terms to describe the aspects of consciousness which they deny: transcendence, and facticity. The waiter, in making himself an object, denies his transcendence – that he can not be anything because consciousness is not what it is. The woman on the date, on the other hand, denies her facticity; which is to say that she denies that she is a thing for others: somebody who was born at this or that time, in to this country, to this set of parents; and to have shaped herself up until that point by the actions that she has willed.
This dividing of consciousness in to two aspects – transcendence and facticity – allows an explanation of bad faith to be given. Note that though separate, transcendence and facticity must be unified in to one overall consciousness. When committing bad faith, it is not that she does not know what she is doing (as the psychoanalysts argued), but that she directs and experiences herself as this or that thing (either pure transcendence; a nothingness, or facticity – a set of defined qualities like that of an object).
It might be contended that the antidote for bad faith is sincerity – just being yourself rather than trying to be something or nothing. But there is contradiction in this, too. You can not ‘be yourself’ if there is nothing to be. For this reason, even sincerity – the endeavour to be who you really are – results in bad faith.