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Bad faith: Sartre vs Freud


To: Paul M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Bad faith: Sartre vs Freud
Date: 23rd July 2010 12:29

Dear Paul,

Thank you for your email of 13 July with your essay towards the Associate Award, entitled, 'Bad faith: A Sartrean alternative to Freud and the Unconscious.'

This is a great topic and one which gives you the opportunity to home in on what is perhaps the most significant aspect of Sartre's philosophy, which has given rise to a prominent school of psychotherapy: existential psychoanalysis.

One thing which I immediately missed was any account of Freud's theory of the unconscious. You merely mention the theory to contrast it with Sartre's view of Bad Faith; but what is the theory which Sartre's view is being contrasted with? This question is, or should be, crucial to your argument because the structure of Freud's account reflects the problem which he is grappling with: how there can be aspects of the self which the self chooses to keep hidden from itself.

What I have just stated involves two ideas: first, the idea of choice, which implies freedom and, possibly, deliberation; secondly, the idea of something in the mind which is 'hidden', i.e. not accessible, or at any rate not immediately accessible to consciousness.

According to a Cartesian model of the mind, this would be impossible. There can't be active parts to the mind, defined as 'thinking substance' which are inaccessible to that very same mind. (Descartes was prepared to allow that the self somehow continues in existence inactively during sleep. But what he can't allow is that any kind of thinking or deliberation goes on of which we are not consciously aware.)

Freud's solution is to split the self into different units, which have a considerable degree of autonomy. Much philosophical discussion has been expended on the question whether Freud's solution is, in fact, coherent.

For the purposes of your essay, you need to say enough about Freud to give the reader a sense of the problem to which Sartre is offering his own unique solution.

But what is problem, exactly?

As I read your account of Sartre and his distinction between pre-reflective, reflective and self-reflective consciousness, I thought things were going pretty well until we reached the point where you actually mention the topic of Bad Faith. This is the heart of your essay, your account of Sartre's solution to a challenging philosophical problem, or as some would say, a baffling paradox. How can we ever be self-deceived? How can that notion make any sense?

We can be forgetful or inattentive. We can even make the decision to forget, and consciously pursue strategies to bring that about (for example, if you have been through a terrible ordeal and want to put it behind you). Or we can deliberately ignore something that is bothering us, such as the men drilling the road outside. But how can we be responsible for forgetfulness, or inattention which we have not consciously sought to bring about?

I was looking forward to your answer. But what I got was just two lines, on the last page where you reference Detmer. Apparently something involving 'omission and emphasis' and 'vagueness and ambiguity' is implicated. How these processes are meant to work is left completely unexplained.

What you need to do is present the problem, or paradox of self-deception in a way which is sufficiently compelling to motivate a reader's interest in its solution. Having presented Freud's theory and pointed out its weaknesses, you can then offer Sartre's alternative account. In expounding Sartre, you should anticipate possible objections and meet them.

At the risk of repeating myself: you are not merely reporting on what some philosopher has said but making a case. In order to do that you have to describe the problem in a way which is gripping, then argue for a particular solution -- either your solution, or a solution offered by the philosopher whose theories you are expounding. What I am saying applies to philosophy essays generally. There is a way in which this is done, and it is all about 'making a case'. You are doing philosophy, you are making your contribution to the subject by constructing logically persuasive arguments.

There is a book which I can recommend to you, which is on just about every reading university list for the topic of self-deception. The book is 'Self-Deception' by Herbert Fingarette (RKP 1969). If you can't get hold of the book, then I would suggest doing a Google search for the title and author in order to find material, or possibly other reading, on the topic of self-deception. There's plenty out there.

All the best,