07 March 2009

Sartre: Bad Faith

We start on Sartre's Being and Nothingness on Wednesday. So far, I like Heidegger better. Yes, he's more difficult to read, but he also makes more sense. Every so often, I got a sense of depth from Sartre, but mostly it seemed extraordinarily shallow. I also found it irritating that it wasn't always clear when his examples were supposed to be general and when they were specifically intended to illustrate his understanding of "Bad Faith." I'm currently working on the assumption that they were all specific to Bad Faith, as otherwise I have to conclude that Sartre is an idiot.

For the record, my preferences thus far are (1) Heidegger, (2) Husserl, (3+) Sartre. I felt less of an urge to write on Heidegger because I agreed with 90% of the parts that made sense to me. Another 5% I reservedly agreed with, and the other 5% made me uneasy, as it seemed to presage his slide into fascism. Anyway, my journal entry for this bit of Sartre is below the fold. (FYI: I'm not going to hunt through and fix all the italics that got formatted out in the pasting.)

Sartre’s “Bad Faith”

I liked the first few paragraphs and the last section. The rest… left me puzzled, irritated, and somewhat amused.

“In irony a man annihilates what he posits within one and the same act; he leads us to believe in order not to be believed; he affirms to deny and denies to affirm; he creates a positive object but it has no being other than its nothingness.”

I like the concept of an ironic statement annihilating itself even as it is uttered. I’m not sure this is how I would characterize irony, but I can’t think of anything better at the moment.

“Take the example of a woman who has consented to go out with a particular man for the first time. She knows very well the intentions which the man who is speaking to her cherishes regarding her.” … “If he says to her, ‘I find you so attractive!’ she disarms this phrase of its sexual background.”

I find this entire discussion very strange, as I cannot conceive of not analyzing both my behavior and the behavior of the “Other” as it transpired. The passage reads as if Sartre is generalizing this encounter to all such encounters, yet later (S. III) he backtracks and indicates that there is a chance for Authentic behavior as well as behavior in Bad Faith. (picking up Heideggerian habits of capitalization…) And I’m not entirely sure what Sartre means by “transcendence” throughout this selection. It seems to have negative connotations.

“To prove that I am right would be to recognize that I can be wrong.”

Of course! That’s the whole point! If it were impossible to be wrong, no proofs, or even discussion, would be needed.

“Being sad means first to make oneself sad” … “There is no inertia in consciousness.”

I disagree completely and utterly (unless he is referring solely to the case of Bad Faith; this is unclear in the passage). Sadness arises. Sometimes it stays awhile. Sometimes it can be persuaded to leave. Sometimes it persists despite all efforts to convince it to leave, and I would call that inertia.

“But how do we distinguish my consciousness (of) being sad from sadness? Is it not all one?”

Sartre never provides a clear answer to this question, instead veering off into a discussion of Husserl and the Other. But it is possible to be sad without being conscious that one is sad. Sadness can arise, color everything in perception, and not be perceived until some time after it has arisen. Then one realizes why everything has seemed flat and stale.

“as soon as we posit ourselves as a certain being, by a legitimate judgment, based on inner experience or correctly deduced from a priori or empirical premises, then by that very positing we surpass this being—and that not toward another being but toward emptiness, toward nothing.” … “In introspection I try to determine exactly what I am, to make up my mind to be my true self without delay—even though it means consequently to set about searching for ways to change myself.”

I have a feeling that Sartre has a negative view of “nothing” in mind, rather than the more positive “wu wei” of Chinese thought. And what of the process of merely observing identity unfold without seeking to influence it or force it? If I assume Sartre is only referring to Bad Faith, I can make sense of this passage. Otherwise…

“The man who confesses that he is evil has exchanged his disturbing ‘freedom-for-evil’ for an inanimate character of evil”

This sounds like Heidegger’s notion of “idle talk”. That is, by naming what he is, the evildoer tries to lessen its import, turn it into something “average” and of no significance.

“In truth, I have not persuaded myself; to the extent that I could be so persuaded, I have always been so.”

Er, didn’t Sartre just say that there was no inertia in consciousness? And isn’t this inertia?

“To believe is to know that one believes, and to know that one believes is no longer to believe. Thus to believe is not to believe any longer because that is only to believe”

It is possible to believe something without realizing that you believe it. For example, I believe that there are no invisible giant spiders hanging over my head, though I didn’t know that I believed it until I formulated the thought. And, yes, I am now considering the possibility that there are invisible giant spiders hanging over my head, and I still don’t believe that this is the case (though, in fact, I can’t prove it; a la Quine, I could modify my description of the invisible giant spiders to justify any lack of empirical evidence, if I was so-minded, to preserve the possibility that they were there).

“Thus belief is a being which questions its own being, which can realize itself only in its destruction, which can manifest itself to itself only by denying itself.” … “one never wholly believes what one believes.”

Here, I think he’s trying to get at the notion that to assert, “I believe X” is to implicitly acknowledge the possibility of “not X”. However, I think Sartre’s characterization goes farther than this. (once again, unless he is specifically referring only to Bad Faith, which he never really makes clear)

“But the first act of bad faith is to flee what it cannot flee, to flee what it is.”

And finally something I can agree with without reservation. Denying-what-is is the first step away from that-which-is.

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