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Paul Meakin

'I am Condemned to be free': Sartre, Freedom and Bad faith

This paper will consider the concept of freedom. Freedom is viewed as a positive term with regards to the human condition and associated with the notions of freewill, agency and autonomy. However, rather than assuming a socio-political perspective, this piece of work will examine the concept of freedom on an existential level; particularly the work of Jean Paul Sartre who asserted that 'Man is condemned to be free', inferring a darker, more negative aspect of freedom. Hence, I intend to highlight the illusion, that although through the existential lens I actually possess freedom, this realisation produces the experience of anxiety within me; as a result the inevitable consequence is the adoption of bad faith through which I ultimately deny my freedom. Furthermore, even when endeavouring to act in good faith, this becomes a paradox in that it also appears to be classed as an act of bad faith, so ultimately through the eyes of Sartre, bad faith is an inescapable consequence of the human condition.

According to Sartre, I am condemned to be free due to the nature of my ontological being. Sartre proposes two primary modes of being; being-in-itself (en soi) and being-for-itself (pour soi). Being-in-itself is exactly that, the being of things or objects for consciousness, being-in-itself is full of itself and without lack; it is changeless. This mode of being is trans-phenomenal or beyond our experience as we can never describe it directly only as phenomenon; what something is in-itself always remains hidden. Being-for-itself is essentially the mode of human being; it is aware of itself, thinks about itself and ultimately has a relation with itself.[1]

Reversing the traditional ontology of being, Sartre posits consciousness as being nothingness, and that which consciousness is conscious of, having being.[2] Sartre's philosophy is heavily influenced by Husserl preferring the concept of the phenomenological approach with human consciousness at its foundation. Husserl posited that a fundamental property of consciousness is intentionality; intentionality relates to the movement of consciousness which moves out of itself resulting in it being conscious 'of' something. Therefore for Sartre, consciousness (for-itself) is an active and dynamic energy which directs itself outwards into the world at large in an attempt to become something.[3]

Sartre asserts that man is fundamentally free; freedom[4] lies in the permanent possibility that things might be different. As documented consciousness is always conscious of something and by itself is nothing, thus, it maintains the ability to negate the world by making plans and envisioning other possibilities. Sartre believed that an individual is forever seeking to discover explanations and reasons for their existence within the world in effect searching for an a priori meaning; however, one is not available as the for-itself generates meaning via its intentional consciousness, there is no such thing as human nature or a fixed sense of self encompassed within the axiom by Sartre that 'existence precedes essence'.

However, when employing the term 'freedom', Sartre does not proclaim total or absolute freedom, as in reality there are certain aspects of human existence which are beyond our realm of control. Therefore, allowing for this Sartre envisions a dual nature of freedom encompassing the co-existence of facticity and transcendence. Facticity describes the given facts of one's situation; this includes one's past which has shaped who and what one is in the present moment. Facticity ultimately defines oneself up to that particular point in time. There is no rhyme or reason to one's facticity and for Sartre we have to accept responsibility for this and as a result are then free to make choices against the distinct background which we find ourselves with; ultimately this cannot be changed so should therefore be realised.

Conversely, transcendence[5] relates to the various possibilities available to us within the given limits of our facticity. As established the for-itself is based upon intentional consciousness directing itself outwards in order to become something; therefore it is constantly engaged in the process of transcendence. The for-itself is in essence free and this allows it to re-create itself on a continuous basis. One's acts define them; an object (being-in-itself) simply 'is' whereas 'I' (being-for-itself) exist by constantly defining myself during every moment in time. Consciousness projects itself forward at all times towards the future therefore can never become a static entity (being-in-itself).[6] Hence, for Sartre I am a project with the freedom and ability to constantly relinquish my past and recreate it through actions: 'transcend itself.'[7]

However; anxiety is the basic experience of affective expression which accompanies any increase in existential awareness.[8] Through the existential perspective there is no rationale for one to exist, with one's being continually in need of justification: neither is there a fixed sense of self to fall back on. Ultimately, existential anxiety and angst appear to be a side effect of the development of consciousness.[9] The concept of freedom triggers anxiety because it incorporates ultimate responsibility for oneself regarding being-in-the-world, along with varying degrees of uncertainty associated with the act of choosing. In being free to choose I am at the same time renouncing choice, for every yes there must be a no. Each and every decision eliminates options, hence the possibility that the choice I make may be the wrong one.[10] The necessity for an individual to make choices is at the centre of existence and being. The existentialist realises that as well as making these choices; more anxiety provoking is the fact that any decision made can only be considered temporary or provisional.[11] Therefore, in order to alleviate angst and anxiety which are experienced by an individual, Sartre posits the concept of mauvaise foi or bad faith; a form of self-deception[12] considered to be the deliberate and motivated aversion of particular facts by an individual, due to the experience of angst and anxiety associated with acknowledging the reality of a particular situation or experience.[13]

On a basic level, the way Sartre views the construction and processing of consciousness and awareness in relation to the human individual is also significant to the facilitation of bad faith. Sartre proposes a duality of consciousness; pre-reflective and reflective. The pre-reflective mode of consciousness describes consciousness in its raw state which is intentional and directed outwards towards objects in the world, whereas the reflective mode represents consciousness taking for its object its own actions; in essence self-reflection. One way in which bad faith can begin to occur is evident in this dichotomy between pre-reflective and reflective consciousness, as although consciousness is always self-aware it is not always self-reflective.[14]

Hence, via cultivating a systematic bias in adopting either pre-reflective or reflective modes of consciousness when executing actions can as a result distort the true nature of an act or representation of oneself; a misinterpretation of reality. When engaging in shameful behaviour if I opt to remain in a pre-reflective mode of consciousness, I therefore direct attention outwards so as to not reflect and identify with it. Conversely, should I perform an act which may be considered noble, via the adoption of a reflective mode of consciousness I can in turn revel in the acclaim and pride allowing bad faith to enhance my personal view of my character or actions.[15]

On a deeper level, the central principle involved in the formation of bad faith is the pursuit of fundamental projects, these influence how an individual organises and interprets their experience throughout their lives. 'According to the existentialist orientation, if one peels away the layers of oneself, all that is revealed at the core of one's being is pure nothingness: one is a pro-ject.'[16] As documented the for-itself is in essence free and this allows it to project and recreate itself on a continuous basis. 'Every little project is an expression of the fundamental project. Every desire, every act and each single tendency of the subject, reveals the whole person: the project is the expression of the relationship between freedom and the world.'[17] However, for Sartre, these fundamental projects although freely chosen are not necessarily acknowledged or known by the individual concerned. The explanation of how this is possible is down to the distinction between thetic or positional awareness and non-thetic or non-positional awareness. To be aware of something positionally is to focus upon it directly. In contrast, to be aware of something non-positionally is to be aware of something, but not focus on it directly.

Therefore, Sartre argues that the underlying reasons for an individual's behaviour is not down to unconscious drives and motives, but rather the projects the individual is non-thetically aware of pursuing. As stated, to be aware of something thetically is to focus upon it directly. Furthermore, this then enables an individual to formulate beliefs and make inferences about it. Whereas, to be aware of something non-thetically is to be aware of something but not focus on it directly which then does not allow for such beliefs and inferences to be made. However, significantly, this non-thetic awareness can still guide action: For Sartre, an individual is always aware of much more than what they are thetically aware of, or in other words directly focusing on.[18] Hence, within an individual is the inevitable ambiguity involved in relation to the experience of perception. It naturally involves the selection of certain aspects in my field of attention to come to the forefront and the relegation of others to the background. This organisation is dependent on my interests and projects which, ultimately involve a bias and therefore guide my focus and behaviour.[19]

To illustrate, take a mountain. If my goal were to scale the mountain, I may focus upon the height and terrain as obstacles to practically overcome. However, if I intend to just take photos of the mountain, the height and terrain are not as important as the location and aesthetics involved for achieving a satisfactory picture. All factors are always present, however, my understanding and interpretation is determined by my freedom through its chosen project.

Therefore, the core of bad faith can be viewed as a rejection by consciousness of acceptance of responsibility for the world in which it is situated in, and as a consequence refusal to attend to and furthermore, sufficiently reflect upon, the fundamental projects of consciousness which impact upon an individual's interpretation of reality.[20] What I choose to do is never beyond my conscious responsibility; the aspects of choice, freewill and purpose are paramount. So what happens if I attempt to renounce bad faith and act in 'good faith'? Drawing upon Sartre's example of the homosexual and his friend the critic I will illustrate how even this path appears paradoxical and ultimately leads to bad faith.

Take a man who denies being homosexual despite admitting to consistent homosexual acts throughout his past. He is guilty of bad faith because although he acknowledges all the facts which are levied at him, he still refuses to draw from them the conclusion which they impose. On the other hand, his friend, the critic or as Sartre puts it 'the champion of sincerity', strives for good faith and urges the homosexual to face up to what he has been. However, the critic is also in bad faith, as he demands that his friend constitute himself as an object or thing, denying his friends freedom in order that he can judge him.[21] Hence, it is apparent that I also fall into bad faith if I adopt 'one or both of two dishonest positions about reality: If I pretend to be free in a world without facts or to be a fact in a world without freedom.'[22]

Therefore, although unavoidable, rather than viewing bad faith as a negative consequence of freedom, I propose it can be considered as an essential and necessary concept, with regard to the human condition. Arguably, much of human society is built around the concept of bad faith, in that it possesses socio and cultural norms and roles which individuals adopt or adhere to in order to successfully function on a daily basis. Furthermore, without bad faith I would forever be living in an uncertain world, enduring a permanent state of anxiety, which over a period of time would become exhausting and debilitating. Just because I may act in bad faith at one moment in time does not mean I will always continue to do so. In effect, bad faith enables me to deal with what I can cope with at that particular point in time, until a time arises when I can face an alternative interpretation of reality and act upon that instead. Ultimately, the for-itself consists of intentional consciousness possessing the capacity to choose; as such, it would be contradictory for there to be objective rules or laws governing freedom, therefore, I believe the for-itself chooses bad faith out of an act of necessity in order to survive human existence which it experiences as an embodied form.


Arnold-Baker, C. (2002) What is so Bad about Bad Faith? Practical Philosophy, Autumn 2002.

Cannon, B. (1991) Sartre and Psychoanalysis: An Existential Challenge to Clinical Metatheory. In Arnold-Baker, C. (2002) What is so Bad about Bad Faith? Practical Philosophy, Autumn 2002.

Bonetto, S. (2008) No Exit from the island: A Sartrean analysis of Lost. In Kaye, S. (2008) Lost and Philosophy. Oxford: Blackwell.

Daigle, C. (2010) Routledge Critical Thinkers: Jean-Paul Sartre. Oxon: Routledge.

Detmer, D. (2009) Sartre Explained; from bad faith to authenticity. USA: Open Court.

Fingarette, H. (2000) Self-Deception. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Franchi, L. (n.d.) Sartre and Freedom.

Jakusic, D. (2011) Fundaments of Existential Psychoanalysis — Unconscious and the Fundamental Project. British Journal of Undergraduate Philosophy — Issue 4(1) Spring 2011.Popovic, N. (2002) Existential Anxiety and Existential Joy. Practical Philosophy, Autumn 2002.Sandowsky, L. (2005) Existential Psychoanalysis and Freudian Psychoanalysis. Janus Head, 8(2), 594-609.Solomon, R. (1988) Continental Philosophy since 1750. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Van Deurzen-Smith, E. (1988) Existential Counselling in Practice. London: Sage.

Webber, J. (2002) Motivated Aversion: Non-thetic awareness in bad faith. Sartre Studies International vol.8, no.1.

Webber, J. (2012) Bad Faith and the Unconscious. In LaFolette, H., & Diegh, J., & Stroud S. Eds.(2012) The International Encyclopaedia of Ethics. Wiley-Blackwell.

Webberman, D. (2011) Sartre on the authenticity, required if my choices are to be truly mine. FILOZOFIA 66, 2011, no.9, p.879.


1. Daigle, C. (2010) Routledge Critical Thinkers: Jean Paul Sartre. Oxon: Routledge.

2. Franchi, L. (n.d.) Sartre and freedom.

3. Daigle, C. (2010) Op Cit.

4. An important note to stress is that Sartre's freedom does not mean to obtain what one has wished, but, rather the ability to determine oneself to wish; success is not important to freedom.

5. An important note with regard to Sartre's concept of transcendence is that in no way does this refer to the notion of a transcendent realm beyond this world. Sartre's view is an atheist one and excludes such entities as God; the only reality is a human one.

6. In layman's terms facticity can be considered as 'what is beyond my control' and transcendence as 'what is within my control'.

7. Daigle, C. (2010) Op Cit.

8. Van Deurzen-Smith, E. (1988) Existential Counselling in Practice.London: Sage.

9. Popvic, N. (2002) Existential Anxiety and Existential joy. Practical Philosophy, Autumn 2002.

10. Popovic, N. (2002) Ibid.

11. Van Deurzen, E & Adams, M. (2011) Skills in Existential Counselling and Psychotherapy. London: Sage.

12. When using the term self-deception in these terms, this does not refer to an outright lie to oneself, but rather a misleading statement, partial truth, or method of self distraction from the whole truth.

13. Webber, J. (2012) Bad Faith and the Unconsciuos.

14. Detmer, D. (2009) Sartre Explained: From Bad Faith to Authenticity. USA: Open Court.

15. Detmer, D. (2009) Ibid.

16. Sandowsky, L. (2005) Existential Psychoanalysis and Freudian Psychoanalysis. Janus Head, 8(2), 594-609.

17. Daigle, C. (2010) Op Cit.

18. Webber, J. (2002) Motivated Aversion: Non-thetic Awareness in Bad faith. Sartre Studies International vol.8,no.1.

19. Detmer, D. (2009) Op Cit

20. Fingarette, H. (2000) Self-Deception. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

21. Arnold-Baker, C. (2002) What is so Bad about Bad Faith? Practical Philosophy, Autumn 2002.

22. Cannon, B. (1991) in Arnold-Baker, C. (2002) What is so Bad about Bad Faith? Practical Philosophy, Autumn 2002.