What it Means To Truly Exist

Sartre, a French philosopher, tackles the issue of human freedom using the notion Bad Faith. Can we exist outside of the societal norms we have adopted?

The difference between a wooden table and the waiter is that the table has legs, was built for certain purposes, and has an essence since it was thought of before its production. This is the essence of a wooden table; whereas the waiter did not come to this world with a specific essence. He acts in a way as if he is obligated to do so.

It can be thought of as if the waiter is performing this role to the extent of becoming a “thing”. This is when one faces the central problem of our freedom. Human beings are essentially free and by deciding to perform the role of a philosophy professor, a chef, or a waiter, we habitually mislead ourselves into creating a purpose that is not defined in humanism.

Jean Paul Sartre, a French philosopher, held human freedom and choice in the highest regard. To truly live a life or “exist”, you must be responsible for all actions you take. Your freedom, however, often puts you in a state of anguish, where you are constantly in a state of having to take decisions. Thus, there follows the temptation to avoid this anguish and live a life of inauthenticity by following certain rules or standards, and objective norms. 

Whenever you flee from something, you know something. If you draw yourself away from anguish, you are necessarily aware of it. The term “flight”, in this sense, means the wish for ignorance. When you flee your anguish, you try to deny it although you must first recognize the being of anguish to start the effort.

What is Bad Faith?

Sartre’s famous phrase “existence precedes essence” implies that we, human beings, exist before we become anything. Since birth, we are confronted with the notion that we must grow up to become something. As we grow older, societal rules and middle class codes control our daily lives to an extent that they lead the human being to occupy a certain function in society.

This act of inhabiting a role is what Sartre calls, acting in bad faith, convincing ourselves that this something is what we are, and that we are nothing more. Joseph Catalano further demonstrates this by saying “most of us play roles assigned to us by society, and society expects us to stay within the limits of that role.” Thus, if society has shaped our roles, it is society as well which has withdrawn our freedom.

The fundamental feature of bad faith in this sense is that it includes an internal contradiction in one’s consciousness. Take the example of a lady on a date:

She takes everything the man says on its surface. She is aware that his kind words are not only compliments, but are linked to the deeper intentions of the man. She shields herself from the consciousness of her own existence for another as an object of desire and instead concentrates on her consciousness as being something more.

Though, she wants to be objectified, for if she didn’t she would not have gone on the date in the first place, nevertheless thinks that she is more than an object of desire for the other and tricks herself into thinking that this is the truth and that it is how the suitor views her as well, despite her consciousness of herself as an object of desire.

For Sartre, this is a common pattern of bad faith. In essence, the woman exploits ambiguities in the duality between our being as being-for-itself and being-in-itself. Our in-itself defines our facticity, which cannot be modified by our will or decisions. On the other hand, our being-for-itself is our transcendence, and it qualifies us as different than our own being-in-itself.

In Bad Faith, we deny our facticity in favor of our transcendence or our transcendence over our facticity in order to convince ourselves of something. Sartre thinks that we take advantage of the gap or distinction between transcendence and facticity in order to be in bad faith.

The waiter is a waiter because of his facticity, as in his own circumstances and his past choices got him to this certain social role. However, as a transcendent being he is not a waiter as his principled freedom against his position makes it impossible to reduce him to facticity.

In spite of this, the waiter likes it, to play his social role with the actions of an automaton and to convince himself that he’s a waiter and nothing more than a waiter. He acts this way because the idea, that his social role is freely chosen, would throw him into a state of anguish.

A further starting point for Bad Faith is the fact that you are able to take up the position against yourself, which you usually take up against others. You can act as if you see yourself with other people’s eyes. Because this kind of self-objectification contradicts your freedom, it leads immediately to Bad Faith. You adopt the opinion of the others as yourself-image, to avoid anguish. The duality being-for-myself and being-for-others is another ambiguity of man, which can be utilized forbad faith.

Can You Be Sincere to Yourself?

Because Bad Faith involves a type of lying towards oneself, one could mean, that the goal should be sincerity towards oneself. However, Sartre regards sincerity towards oneself as impossible.

He defines sincerity towards oneself as the ideal, to be what you are. This sounds odd at first because, isn’t the point rather the attempt, to accept, what one is? But that’s not relevant to Sartre’s argument.

If one is expected to accept, what one is, he or she has to be anything in particular. And that’s the critical point, according to Sartre: Sincerity towards yourself requires, that you are, what you are. But that’s even not the case. The non-identity of consciousness with itself means, that it is not, what it is, which leads to the conclusion, that it cannot accept, what it is, as well.

Thus, sincerity towards oneself is an unrealizable ideal. As an example for the failure of the ideal Sartre describes a man, who is saying “I’m bad!”, which seems very sincere at a first glance. But what has really happened, as this man has defined himself as “bad”?

Sartre says: he has objectificated himself and he has taken up a position against this object. And in this position he is free, even against his “being-bad”.

Somebody, who talks like this man, doesn’t want to emphasize the fixedness of his properties. If anything, he wants to emphasize his supremacy against the features, he is alleging himself. I think, this claim Sartre’s expresses a common psychological experience. Thus sincerity towards oneself is merely another variant of Bad Faith.

The term bad faith could be defined as accepting and following norms and cultural rules in order to avoid anguish, the state in which one must freely make a decision. Sartre views that the underlying motivation for action is to be found in the nature of consciousness, which is a desire for being. It is up to every individual to practice his freedom in such a way that he does not lose sight of his existence as a facticity, as well as a free human being.

In so doing, he will come to understand more about the original choice which his whole life represents, and thus about the values that are thereby projected. Such an understanding is only obtained through living this particular life and avoiding the pitfalls of strategies of self-deceit such as bad faith. This authentic option for human life represents the realization of a universal in the singularity of a human life. He aims to tell us that although our experiences are facts, they do not define us. Humans are free beings that must not avoid their freedom and act with regard to society but rather face our freedom and anguish. 

5 replies on “What it Means To Truly Exist”

Excellent piece, Carla. After all our freedom is not free. The anguish is a price we must pay to live and fulfill our existence. Plenty of opportunities for Bad Faith exist but that too is a price. Many would argue that Bad Faith is a function of survival and it is a free choice. But only oneself can tell if it is so. Thanks for sharing.


No, Carla. Bad Faith is a function of societal norm and scripting. Individual always has a choice. It’s only those who gave up on their choice are committing the Bad Faith.


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