How many of the great philosophers have you actually heard speak? This clip comes from the 1976 documentary Sartre by Himself, which features discussions with Jean-Paul Sartre and his near-equally famous partner Simone de Beauvoir, among others. The film was released with English subtitles in 1979, a year before Sartre died.
In this clip, Sartre criticizes modern intellectuals as “specialist workers in practical knowledge,” who apply “universal notions and practices” to particular purposes determined by a political establishment. This can cause a conflict of conscience: Sartre gives the example of scientists working on the atomic bomb, but also professors whose efforts solely benefit a small group of prosperous students. Sartre thinks intellectuals use this kind of conflict to feel better about themselves–they may sign petitions, side with the working class, etc.–while still not seriously questioning themselves. Intellectuals rage against the machine but are still playing their assigned role in it. “[They are] very pleased to have an unhappy conscience, because that is what allows [them] to denounce.”
This is an example of his famous notion of “bad faith,” where we disassociate ourselves from our actions, or more commonly where we claim to have more limited choices than we actually do. Bad faith is possible because of the nature of the self, according to Sartre: there is no predetermined “human nature” or “true you,” but instead you are something built over time, by your own freely chosen actions, too often using the roles and characteristics others assign to you.
Early in his career, he constructed a theory of consciousness and the self that makes this plausible. The work in which he did this, “The Transcendence of the Ego,” is the subject of the most recent episode of The Partially Examined Life philosophy podcast, profiled in this earlier Open Culture post. The podcast has since taken off: it’s currently featured on the main podcast page in the iTunes store and has broken the top 40 in “top audio podcasts,” reaching #1 in the philosophy category.