Being Truly Free – An essay on Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism philosophy (2016)

Module: Existentialism (Nanyang Technological University)

Book: Marino, G. (2004). Basic Writings of Existentialism. USA: Modern Library.

Man is “always in the making” (p.366), and is an incomplete being. In Being and Time, Martin Heidegger claims that this incompleteness comes from Care – Da­sein, “is a being ahead of itself” (p.300). This is similar to Jean­ Paul Sartre’s view in, Being and Nothingness. Sartre views man as “the being who hurls himself toward a future and who is conscious of imagining himself as being in the future” (p.345). This care or impulse drives men to act and pursue goals. It is a drive to seek meaning. For Sartre, it is in “pursuing transcendent goals that (man) is able to exist” (p.366). The incompleteness of being can only be fulfilled by an active pursuit of something outside of oneself. No a priori approach can give or construct meaning to life because existence precedes essence. Man first exists and then defines himself. He has the freedom to decide who he wants to be. This freedom is intrinsically valuable and is the ultimate meaning of life that is pursued for its own sake, always. However, Sartre claims that bad faith can arise and inhibit this freedom. In this essay, I will attempt to explicate what Sartre meant by bad faith and compare it to its antithesis, sincerity, which is an authentic position of being. Following this, I will attempt to make a case for the unconsciousness of our being. Sartre dismisses Sigmund Freud’s notion of the unconscious self given that it fails to account for bad faith. I will argue that Sartre was mistaken in his dismissal of the unconscious, and given its possibility of existence and hence, affecting our being, we should learn more about it. This is significant because the unconscious could be driving us in some manner. What we want is to be in maximal control over ourselves, so that we are truly free.

Freedom is inhibited when one is in bad faith. “Bad faith is a lie to oneself,” and is synonymous with self­ deception. It refers to one’s attempt to hide or disguise the truth from oneself. It can take many forms such as avoidance, denial and distraction. For instance, a woman is in bad faith when she denies that her husband is cheating on her despite having seen several intimate conversation threads between him and the other woman on his phone. According to Sartre, bad faith arises when one denies either their facticity or transcendence. Facticity is what or who one is, and transcendence is the possibilities that one has. Conversely, sincerity is recognising both facticity and transcendence. To illustrate the point, Sartre uses an example of a waiter. The waiter’s current position is his facticity. However, his transcendence includes the possibilities of his being a waiter, a painter etc. Bad faith is to hold either the belief that one is only a waiter, or, one is not a waiter but many other things. For Sartre, what counts is total involvement, and “dishonesty is obviously a falsehood because it belies the complete freedom of involvement” (p.363). The authentic position requires that “man be for himself only what he is,” and “human reality must be necessarily what it is but must (also) be able to be what it is not” (p.385). Thus, sincerity is to recognise that one is a waiter, and one is not only a waiter, but also other possibilities one could choose to be. By acknowledging both facticity and transcendence, “when a person apprehends the one, he can find himself abruptly faced with the other” (p.382). This sincere position ensures that one does not avoid or deny who one is, and simultaneously, recognises their freedom of transcending this position. If we inhibit freedom by holding on to falsehood, we would be denying ourselves the very meaning of life. “Man is nothing else than his plan; he exists only to the extent that he fulfills himself; he is therefore nothing else than the ensemble of his acts, nothing else than his life” (p.355). Bad faith denies oneself of the freedom one possesses. It causes one to lead an inauthentic life because one has hidden from himself the limitless possibilities he has, and resigned to a fate that was not his. In doing so, he shirks the responsibility over his life to something else. Sartre believes that this inauthentic position is often “the source of an infinity of excuses for (one’s) failure or weaknesses” (p.384). One blames the situation and everything else but themselves for not having been otherwise.

According to Sartre, bad faith necessarily occurs within one’s consciousness, and so man is always responsible for his own life and actions. This position is questionable if Freud is right. Freud dissected the human psyche into the conscious and unconscious. If the unconscious exists, it seems to pose a problem to Sartre because one would simply be unaware of having hidden the truth from oneself, and so, shirks responsibility. Sartre’s main contention to Freud’s theory is that it cannot account for bad faith. Freud reconciles the conscious and unconscious by introducing the censor which filters the information. To Sartre, it seems immediate that there is no relation between the two parts because the censor has to be aware of what it is hiding. If it is aware of what it is hiding, then it is conscious. In fact, it seems that the censor has to “know what the truth is exactly in order to conceal it more carefully and this not at two different moments, which at a pinch would allow us to re­establish a semblance of duality but in the unitary structure of a single project” (p.372). Therefore, Sartre believes that bad faith falsifies Freud’s theory of duality in the psyche.

However, Sartre seems to have mistaken Freud’s theory. In The Censor: Freud Versus Sartre, Alex Watson (n.d.) defends Freud by giving two objections.

Firstly, Sartre was mistaken in believing that the censor is contradictory because it knows and not knows the truth. The censor could simply be an exclusive mediator. It is separate from both psyche, and so is not both knowing and not knowing at the same time. Secondly, in order to distinguish between what needs to be concealed, Sartre believes that the censor has to be conscious. However, Segal and Block (1998) thinks that it is possible for the censor to make the distinction “by reaction just to the affect connected with the wish-­impulse in question…The censor is not capable of consciousness, not a sentient homunculus, but merely a non­conscious mechanism” that separates information using the level of pain felt by the subject. (“Segal, G. and Block, N. (1998). The Philosophy of Psychology. In Grayling, A.C. (ed), Philosophy 2: Further Through the Subject. Oxford, OUP, p. 4­71.” as cited by Watson, n.d.) The censor functions as a mechanism and is not part of the consciousness, but a ‘mediator’ on which information to release or disguise, and is thus, unlike Sartre’s belief, capable of eliciting bad faith.

Does this spell trouble for Sartre? If men are not aware of lying to themselves, then it seems that they are also not responsible for their actions. This is a very nihilistic view which I will be addressing. Just because one “hold(s) no privileged position in relation to (their) unconscious psyche” (p.374), it does not mean that one no longer has any effect on themselves. If approaching the conscious is useless, then there is no point in cognitive behavioural therapy, in which the psychologist actively gets the patient to alter their mindsets and behaviors. Additionally, as espoused by Sartre, men are only aware of their own subjectivity and consciousness. If they do not live their lives, who will? As far as one is aware, one has the freedom to pursue goals and create meaning. The unconscious is not an excuse. The reintroduction of it does not change Sartre’s philosophy significantly, and freedom is still the ultimate meaning of life. Men are still responsible for their lives and actions, and should still pursue freedom and aim to be authentic.

In fact, we should attempt to uncover these “unknowables” in the unconscious so that we can minimise its effects, and so, be free from ourselves. Sartre raises a key question of the relation between the unconscious and conscious which I would also like to address. It seems that “when the doctor is approaching the truth,” “the patient shows defiance” (p.376). In reference to the mechanistic function of the censor mentioned previously, such responses are the possible reactions to the pain felt by the subject. Sartre then asks, “what part of (oneself) can thus resist” (p.376)? It seems that the root of why one resists the doctor could be uncovered in the unconscious. For example, when one has the impulse to steal something or when one feels sad, one should examine where these feelings are coming from. By delving into the unconscious and attempting to uncover these information, one could acquire a better control of the situation, and decide how to react. By attempting to align the unconscious and conscious, one would be able to recognise the roots of the issues and deal with them better. In order to be truly free, one has to be free from oneself too.

In conclusion, Sartre did not successfully refute Freud’s theory of the unconscious. However, this is not an issue. In fact, other than bad faith, the unconscious presents itself as another area which we should investigate in order to ensure that one is authentic. In doing so, one discovers the root of issues, which gives one better control over themselves and situations. This places them in better positions to deal with things. It is only by freeing ourselves from such inhibitors, including ourselves, that we are in a better position to fulfil our being and pursue the ultimate meaning of life, freedom.

Watson, A. (n.d.). The Censor: Freud Versus Sartre. 1st ed. [PDF] Online Journal of Philosophy. Available at: [Accessed 20 Mar. 2016].


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