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Notes on consciousness and bad faith in Sartre

Non-thetic consciounsness

Sartre’s theory of consciousness, as outlined in early works such as The Transcendence of the Ego and Being and Nothingness, emerges out of his close critical engagement in the 1930s with Husserl’s phenomenological approach to philosophy.

In particular, Sartre adopts and radicalises Husserl’s notion that consciousness is ‘intentional’. All consciousness is consciousness of something. Moreover, this ‘something’ is fundamentally external to consciousness (or ‘transcendent’), rather than being some kind of mental representation contained within consciousness as the neo-Kantians would have it.

Consciousness is thus fundamentally directed away from itself and towards the world. It simultaneously posits and grasps its object as something other than itself. Even when we contemplate our own navels, or our own consciousness, we are in fact positing these things as transcendent objects rather than engaging in any kind of introspection.

But consciousness is not just intentional for Sartre – it is also transparent. Consciousness is always at some level aware of what it is doing, and indeed must be so in order to qualify as consciousness in the first place. Sartre dismisses the notion of “a consciousness ignorant of itself, an unconscious” as simply “absurd” (B&N, p8). Opacity is a feature of being-in-itself, and never of consciousness.

So consciousness of something is always accompanied by consciousness of that consciousness. But there is an important difference between these two ‘of’s – the former is ‘positional’ or ‘thetic’ in that it points to an external object, while the latter is “an immediate non-cognitive relation of the self to itself” (B&N, p9) which Sartre calls ‘non-positional’ or ‘non-thetic’ consciousness.

This non-thetic consciousness acts as a kind of ever-present background hum or drone to our thetic conscious activity. Sartre writes: “Every positional consciousness of an object is at the same time a non-positional consciousness of itself” (B&N, p9). Ordinary, externally directed consciousness – what Sartre calls ‘non-reflexive’ consciousness – thus has both a thetic and a non-thetic aspect to it.

What, then, remains of the traditional Cartesian cogito whereby consciousness reflects upon itself? We have already mentioned that for Sartre, the I-that-is-reflected-upon is a transcendent object, no different in principle to a book, a tree, or the I of an other. And Sartre argues that “it is non-reflexive consciousness which renders reflexion possible; there is a pre-reflexive cogito which is the condition of the Cartesian cogito” (B&N, p9).

Non-thetic consciousness is thus the pivot on which consciousness turns when it seamlessly switches between its non-reflexive and reflexive modes. No matter how immersed we are in our non-reflexive activity (Sartre gives the example of counting cigarettes), we can always snap out of it and give a lucid account of what we were doing. We can do this precisely because we were already aware of ourselves despite our seeming immersion.

It is this ever-present minimal degree of self-awareness that binds together Sartre’s two fundamental characteristics of consciousness: intentionality and transparency. Non-thetic consciousness holds the two in tension, preventing one from ever overwhelming the other (ie, collapsing into either determinism or solipsism). It thus allows consciousness to be entirely immanent to the material world but at the same time radically free.

Bad faith

The essential feature of bad faith (“mauvaise foi”) is deception. But not any old deception – a peculiar, doubled-up and reflexive form of deception that arises from unfolding the paradox of “lying to oneself” in the context of Sartre’s distinctive theory of self-consciousness outlined above. It is also a deception that is doomed to fail, which complicates Sartre’s account of ethical choice.

How does bad faith arise? Initially, from being’s encounter with the nihilating power of consciousness. “Man is the being through whom nothingness comes to the world” (B&N, p48), riddling the previously impenetrable phalanx of being-in-itself with cracks and seams of nothingness. This in turn opens up a space to move that ensures that consciousness is radically free in the world to modify its relationship to being, even to its own past.

The consciousness of this radical freedom is anguish, which we typically blot out by immersing ourselves in action. Sartre gives the example of how we treat an alarm clock as an irresistible summons rather than think through the fact that “it is I who confer on the alarm clock its exigency – and I alone” (B&N, p61).

But in moments of reflexive self-awareness (moments that are always possible because of non-thetic consciousness), we are faced with a choice: to face up to our freedom or to flee from it. It is this latter option (which is itself a mode of anguish) that Sartre dubs ‘bad faith’.

Sartre begins his analysis of bad faith by comparing it to lying. Bad faith involves lying to oneself by denying ones freedom – pretending that one had no choice in the matter, meekly adapting oneself to preordained roles and conventions as if they were the only possible human reality.

But Sartre notes that “the essence of the lie implies in fact that the liar is actually in complete possession of the truth which he is hiding” (B&N, p71). Consequently a lie told to oneself is bound to be a performative failure, in that one can never truly be taken in by it. It therefore has to be supplemented by a second lie whereby we deceive ourselves by pretending that we are deceived.

The paradoxical structure of lying to oneself imparts a certain brittle quality to bad faith. Sartre writes: “We have here an evanescent phenomenon which exists only in and through its own differentiation” (B&N, p73). If it endures, it does so only by constantly renewing itself. Bad faith is not therefore some kind of quagmire into which one steadily sinks – it is lived in, “a particular style of life” that Sartre more or less identifies with the hypocrisies of bourgeois convention.

This ‘metastable’ nature of bad faith imparts a certain asymmetry to the choice mentioned above between facing up to or fleeing from our freedom. Sartre returns to this theme in his 1945 lecture Existentialism and Humanism, where he notes: “Choice is possible, but what is not possible is not to choose. I can always choose, but I must know that if I do not choose, that is still a choice” (E&H, p48). In this sense bad faith represents a futile attempt to choose not to have a choice – the inverse, perhaps, of an authentic ethical decision that is both compelling and voluntary.

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This entry was posted on 7 April 2010 by in Philosophy and tagged .