Bad Faith | The Paradoxes of Denomination and Decision [1]


Since listening to a short podcast on the subject I’ve been very interested in Satre’s idea of ‘Bad Faith’, and I want to explore some thoughts springing from it in a short series of posts.

As an existentialist, one of the central tenets of Satre’s thought was complete freedom. Everyone is free – but some people choose to live in ‘bad faith’, trying to deny this true freedom, and acting as virtual automatons as a result. One of the examples that Satre used was of a waiter he observed in a Parisian café. He was acting too much like a waiter: putting on a very obvious waiterly manner. Satre sees him as play-acting the role of a waiter, and thus presents us with this paradox: his acting as a waiter means he is presenting himself as an object, a robot who is programmed to be the good waiter – and thus he is denying his true freedom. But on the other hand, his acting shows that he is aware at some level that he is more than just a waiter. He is thus deceiving himself, and acting in ‘bad faith.’

The root of the problem, Satre perceives (or, more accurately, I perceive Satre to perceive) is that the acting that the waiter does is a play in the space between the Self and the Other. The waiter is presenting an act to us of the object we expect a waiter to be… and we are acting out similar plays of being waited upon. Thus:

“The human reality is one characterized by a dialectic of facticity and transcendence, of being what it is not and not being what it is, of a relation to the Other and a relation to the Self. The resulting synthesis is a murky amalgamation of contradictory phenomena. The human person thus perpetually becomes a battleground between opposing forces. The resulting instability becomes itself the very condition for the inevitability of bad faith.”

The problem that this presents is that the bad faith that the waiter is displaying is itself a free decision to take. Extrapolating this to belief, Satre notes that: “to believe is to know that one believes, and to know that one believes is no longer to believe.

You may not be a waiter. But what about the parts we play in our decision to denominate ourselves as ‘Christian’ or ‘Jew’ or ‘American’? Are we acting in bad faith by naming what we believe? I’ll explore that in the next post.