Jean-Paul Sartre’s bad faith

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.


5 thoughts on “Jean-Paul Sartre’s bad faith”

  1. Thanks for the quick discourse on bad faith. Two quick points. 1) Sartre borrowed the term “facticity” (like so much else) from Heidegger’s “Being and Time.” You likely know this, but some readers might be misled by the assertion that Sartre invented the term. 2) Back in 1975, in my doctoral thesis on Freud, Sartre, Hegel, and Jung, I showed that Sartre himself was in bad faith when he turned the pre-reflective cogito (a translucent non-thetic self-awarenss of awareness) into a multidimensional, multi-functioning process, which he does in order to explain phenomena like bad faith. Thus, having denied the Freudian unconscious, he slips it in, as it were, through the back door (although of course substantially modified). Not that he’s wrong about the cogito’s translucency; but he should have made the cogito’s multidimensionality (as in bad faith) a function of diaphonous interaction (or something to that effect). Meanwhile, Freud’s mistake was to turn “unconscious” from an adjective (describing a fundamental aspect of ego) into a noun (a separate, almost independent dimension of the psyche). My thesis was dialectical. Freud (thesis) posits the existence of “the unconscious.” Sartre (antithesis) shows that the Freudian unconscious is a self-contradictory notion, since it must be a consciousness in order to perform the various functions Freud attributes to it (compensation, symptom formation, dream symbolism, etc.) Sartre concludes that a conscious unconscious is self-defeating and absurd; thus he discards the notion, and argues instead for psyche’s pure transparency. Alas, this is, as it were, throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Via Hegel, then, I show that Jung (synthesis) persuasively argues (in too few, but crucial, places) that the so-called unconscious does exist, but as a consciousness (necessarily wiser than ego). Hence the notion of a conscious unconscious is not at all (to use Sartre’s terms) “self-defeating and absurd,” i.e., a contradiction in terms. Rather, it is the paradox at the heart of our becoming, whose investigation (through lucid dreaming, for example) opens the door to a kind of soulful, authentically multidimensional (holographic?) understanding of human reality, as evidenced in Jung’s notions of Self and “collective unconscious.” Freud’s and Sartre’s atheism, of course, prevented them from taking the Jungian leap; but contemporary transpersonal psychology has resurrected the Jungian bridge to spiritual (holographic?) dimensions of the psyche.


    1. PS: I should have noted that Sartre’s conception of the “prereflective cogito” — as the non-thetic self-awareness ingredient in (thetic) consciousness of the world (i.e., consciousness is always a consciousness (of) itself as a consciousness of the world) — is not only not a separate entity, it is by definition non-creative. Insofar as Sartre uses the prereflective cogito as a substitute for the Freudian notion of the unconscious, he runs into the same problem Freud did when trying to account for the conscious and creative activities of the unconscious. Freud was forced to utilize the notion of “the censor” as a kind of gatekeeper or border guard — a metaphoric homunculus — between ego and id, which, of course, Sartre rightly rejected as absurd. Sartre’s masterful, deconstructive critique of the Freudian unconscious (in “Being and Nothingness” primarily, but also implicitly elsewhere) remains one of his most profound and sophisticated contributions to philosophical psychology (while granting that most of the key concepts in Freud and Jung, not to mention Wittgenstein, were anticipated by Nietzsche). My point here is simply that Sartre is in bad faith when the prereflective cogito turns out to be the creative locus of the various mechanisms and functions of bad faith — mechanisms and functions by definition precluded from the prereflective cogito as purely and merely and necessarily (in Sartre’s terms) a consciousness (of) consciousness of the world. Bad faith is rightly translated as “self-deception,” and part of Sartre’s genius is manifest in his audacious and sophisticated attempt to tackle this fundamental feature of human reality. Sartre’s main problem was that he starts from and remains stuck in Cartesian dualism. Jung’s genius was to show that the (conscious) unconscious is teleological and projective, not merely, as in Freud, a blind, brute, regressive feature of psyche. Jung adds a potent instinct for self-actualization (which he calls “individuation”); and Jungian psychology points to the possibility (necessity?) of something like a wise, creative, soulful “nuclear self” (which he calls The Self), which itself merges into collective, holographic dimensions of reality now increasingly being affirmed and confirmed by the fusion of cognitive and transpersonal psychologies — these deeper and higher psychic dimensions clearly indicated in the philosophies of Plato and Hegel. All that being said, one of Sartre’s most insightful lines is this: “It is as hard to wake up from bad faith as it is to wake from a dream.” Hard, but hardly impossible; indeed, such “waking up” is necessary for a life of authenticity.


      1. PPS: It’s clear that the author of the article says Sartre “uses” the term “facticity”, not that he “invents” it. Mea culpa. Tangentially, and merely as a linguistic point, the subtitle of the article — “Jean-Paul Sartre’s Bad Faith” — may be taken in two ways. It can refer to Sartre’s use and meaning of the term. Or, it can refer to the possibility that Sartre himself is in bad faith (in a particular context or situation). The author of the article utilizes the first option. In my comments above, I utilize the second. I’ll conclude by noting that, in his persistent questioning and challenging of Euro-American racism and imperialism, Sartre was (to quote a comment I once heard) “the Socrates of the 20th century.”


    2. Thank you for sharing. To your first point, I have now changed the wording here as you are right – the term facticity was in fact coined by Heidegger, not Sartre. And, of course, Sartre’s existentialism borrows greatly from Husserl and Heidegger – though I seem to remember him disagreeing with Heidegger on a fundamental point – one which I can’t bring to mind right now (if you know what I’m alluding to please do say).

      Your thesis sounds very interesting. I don’t know much at all about Jung, but I find the application of phenomenology/existentialism to psychology and vice versa fascinating.

      I think Freud’s mistake, as you point out, was to reify the subconscious, and make it in to something naturalistic that acted on other things like physical objects do. I would be interested to read more about your thesis if you have any work online you could link me to.


      1. Thanks for your response to my comments. Not sure if you’ve seen my third, which I might have been writing while you were posting your response. In that third (above), I qualify the first point I made, and to which you respond.

        Now, with regard to your two inquiries ….

        1) The “fundamental point” on which Sartre disagrees with Heidegger is Heidegger’s notion of (and use of) the term Being (with a capital B). For Sartre, this is an empty concept; a mystical notion without referent; a Heideggerian return to Aristotelian metaphysics. Tangentially, but crucially: We now know, from Heidegger’s notebooks, that Heidegger was a committed Nazi. Had Sartre known this, he would have thundered against Heidegger’s inauthenticity — his racism, nationalism, and support for Germany’s genocidal imperialism. If Sartre was here today, I’m sure he’d agree with my assertion that Heidegger cared more for his black forest trees than his fellow human beings.

        2) The one work online that I might fruitfully refer you to, and which extends my doctoral thesis into new territory, is my youtube lecture on “The Reawakening of Bicameral Mind.” If you wish to respond to it, feel free to write me at my email address: That doesn’t mean we can’t also continue our discourse here (more briefly), in the off chance that some readers might find it edifying, and might wish to join our conversation.

        A couple of decades after my doctoral degree, and well launched into my teaching career, I had a poignant dream. In the dream, I entered a spacious room full of philosophers in lively discourse. Sartre was there, and he noticed me. He came over with a big bright smile, shook my hand, and congratulated me on my doctoral thesis, saying it was the most original and convincing evaluation of his “existential psychoanalysis” that he had yet encountered. I woke up in the morning very pleased indeed. Freud, of course, would say that my dream was pure “wish fulfillment.” Jung would say: “No, Freud, you’re wrong again;” and then he’d paraphrase Shakespeare, noting that “there’s more to heaven and earth than is dreamt of in your psychology.” Needless to say, I’d side with Jung; and my reasons for doing so are partly laid out in my Bicameral Mind lecture. 🙂


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