Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) was a renowned philosopher, novelist, playwright and political activist. Sartre is one of the key figures in the philosophical school of existentialism. He lived his life pushing against social convention, including being in an open relationship with fellow philosopher Simone de Beauvoir.
Sartre's magnum opus is his 1943 Being and Nothingness. This book lays the foundation for his existentialist philosophy. His book Existentialism is a Humanism, originally a lecture, serves as a response to his critics and a type of summary of his larger project.
In this blog, I'd like to highlight a few important concepts from his writings and offer some thoughts on how his existentialism might be applied in the therapy office.
I'm not a professional philosopher so you'll have to forgive me if my analysis is a bit simplistic. That said, I think there's great value in clarity and applying big ideas in various realms of life. I also follow Kate Kirkpatrick and Betty Cannon in highlighting the more optimistic strands of Sartre's philosophy.
Key Sartrean Concepts
Being in-itself vs. Being for-itself
Being in-itself refers to the existence of ordinary objects. This is an existence that is self-contained and fully realized. This is a mode of existence that simply is. This is an existence that is not conscious and so has no potential to realize transcendence. This is the mode of existence characteristic of inanimate objects and cannot be applied to the human person.
Being for-itself is the being of consciousness. This is the mode of existence characteristic of humans. If being in-itself is what it is, then being for-itself, "is not what it is, and is what it is not". Being for-itself is thus connected to human freedom and Sartre's conception of nothingness.
Nothingness and Human Freedom
The human is being for-itself. This means the human is not a static and essential something. The human is suspended in the midst of a profound nothingness. This nothingness is the potential and possibility of being other than what one is. In Sartre's philosophy, existence precedes essence. This means there is no fixed definition of what a human is. That would be being in-itself. Humans are condemned to freedom. Their essence is not set beforehand but rather unfolds through their freedom in the world.
Bad faith is Sartre's term for the inevitable self-deception involved in being human. To be more specific, bad faith refers to our tendency to avoid facing the truth that we have freedom and that our choices have real consequences in the world.
According to Neel Burton,
By sticking with the safe, easy, default "choice" and failing to recognize the multitude of other options that are available to her, a person places herself at the mercy of the circumstances in which she happens to find herself. Thus, the person is more akin to an object than to a conscious human being, or, in Sartrean terms, more akin to a "being-in-itself" than a "being-for-itself".
Sartre pointed out that people tend to act in bad faith when they stick with rigid social roles, conventions, and value systems. People fall into these as a way to evade the freedom and responsibility inherent with making risky but potentially rewarding decisions for one's life.
Sartre's famous example is the waiter at the Parisian café. The waiter does his best to conform to his role as waiter. According to Sartre, the waiter's seriousness in performing his part is evidence that he's play-acting; the waiter is falling into the trap of imagining that his essence is fixed as a waiter.
The waiter is acting in bad faith because to try so hard to conform to the role as waiter he must know that he is in fact not a waiter but a conscious human who is deceiving himself that he is a waiter.
Sartre challenges us to see that even our bad faith is a choice. It is a choice to avoid consciousness of our infinite freedom and a choice to identify with an identity we are not.
Bringing Sartre to the Therapy Office
Betty Cannon begins her essay on Sartre and Gestalt therapy with a quote from Being and Nothingness:
Nothingness lies coiled at the heart of being - like a worm.
What is Sartre trying to communicate with this cryptic line? According to Cannon, Sartre is highlighting how the human (being for-itself) radically alters the world (being in-itself) through its nothingness or freedom. As Cannon states, "though the material world exists first and is not dependent on consciousness to be, it does depend on consciousness to be this or that."
In a certain sense, nothingness and freedom create what we deem as the value and meaning of the world. If this is true, why would so many people resist this and live in bad faith?
We all resist our freedom because we recognize that embracing our freedom would entail that we are responsible for our own lives. Sartre's philosophy makes it impossible to adopt a victim mindset. Freedom entails the possibility of risk, failure and disaster. Because of this most of us act in bad faith, denying our ability to choose and/or looking for solid ground to stand on.
The Project of Being God
At one point Sartre states that our escape from freedom is, "ultimately the project of being God." This idea is so central to Sartre's anthropology that he writes:
To be man means to reach toward being God. Or if you prefer, man fundamentally is the desire to be God.
What exactly does Sartre mean by this?
According to Kirkpatrick, Sartre is saying that we are all pulled toward rejecting our freedom and congealing into a version of our selves that is unburdened by the risk of choice and consequence.
Instead of facing the nothingness of potential and possibility, we'd rather petrify into a self that is stable and secure.
As an atheist, Sartre does not believe that we literally are trying to become God. God is used by Sartre as a metaphor to describe a being that does not face the risk and terror of nothingness or freedom.
Self-Loathing as Bad Faith
In my therapy, I often see people who are stuck in the throes of self-loathing. Self-loathing is a type of self-hatred where the person feels they are not enough. Self-loathing is characterized by intense negative-self talk and self-defeating behavior. Here are some of the comments I hear from people who struggle with self-loathing:
I'm a loser
No one likes me
I'm so ugly
I'll never amount to anything
I'm always screwing up
I knew I would fail
I hate myself
In addition to extreme negative self-talk, people stuck in self-loathing may also struggle with the following:
Depression and anxiety
Slouched or poor posture
Neglecting personal hygiene
Self-sabotoge /self-destructive behavior
As counterintuitive as this sounds, I think Sartre would diagnose self-loathing as a pernicious form of bad faith or an escape from freedom.
People stuck in self-loathing are basically adopting a fixed, negative identity for themselves. They are admitting this is their unalterable fate and there's nothing they can do to ameliorate their position. This move into bad faith, as much suffering as it causes, is less terrifying than embracing the responsibility for one's radical freedom.
Here is Sartre on our fundamental human position:
Freedom coincides at its roots with the non-being which is at the heart of man. For a human being, to be is to choose himself; nothing comes to him either from without or from within himself that he can receive or accept. He is wholly and helplessly at the mercy of the unendurable necessity to make himself be, even in the smallest details of his existence. Thus freedom is not a being, it is the being of man, that is to say his non-being. If we begin by conceiving of man as a fullness it becomes absurd to look in him for psychic moments or regions of freedom; we might as well look for an empty space in a vessel which we have filled to the brim. Man cannot be at times free and at other times a slave: either he is always and entirely free or he is not free at all.
If we are condemned to freedom, then believing we are losers or victims is also a choice. There may be a lot about our lives that is out of our control. I know how much my clients suffer from their developmental disabilities or the effects of late-stage capitalism or just the randomness of existence that wreaks havoc in their life (e.g., cancer, natural disasters, etc.).
With so much out of our control, I still agree with Sartre that we can always exercise our freedom, even if this means adopting a different perspective or mindset in the midst of hellish circumstances.
Again, Sartre is clear that we are always free. This is what it means to be conscious humans. Will you choose the path of bad faith, or will you choose the path of self-acceptance and take responsibility for what that entails?
From Seriousness to Play
Near the end of Being and Nothingness, Sartre associates the move away from bad faith and the reification of our identity with the move from seriousness to play. In fact, Sartre argues the aim of his version of existential psychoanalysis would be the repudiation of a "spirit of seriousness"
I think this is exactly correct. Using different language than Sartre, I've come to believe the core of psychological suffering is what Tom Cheetham calls the fundamentalism of the heart. In the face of our existential freedom, we have a tendency toward reification and inflexibility. We double down and cling to a fixed egoic identity.
Sartre challenges us to move away from this bad faith or spirit of seriousness. For my clients who cling so tightly to a version of themselves that are so negative and pitiful, Sartre would challenge them to loosen their grip and playfully experiment with different ways of being in the world.
We have to give up all strategies that blame anything outside ourselves for our deepest maladies. Embracing our "fundamental project of being" means risking the courage to create a self and a life that exists fluidly in play and spontaneity.