Jean-Paul Sartre Breaks Down the Bad Faith of Intellectuals

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.

Vis­it the Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life web page, get the episodes on iTunes, and sub­scribe to the PEL blog feed.

Mark Lin­sen­may­er hosts The Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life and fronts a band called New Peo­ple.

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Comments (3)
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  • Thorn daCosta says:

    The con­ve­nience of our col­lec­tive excus­es makes for uncom­fort­able view­ing. His argu­ment here expands on his mus­ings — in my opin­ion — not just in the con­cept of the war but gen­er­al themes that run through­out all our lives. Espe­cial­ly true in an infor­ma­tion age that makes igno­rance an more non-viable excuse for wil­ful refusal of social and the more dif­fi­cult per­son­al respon­si­bil­i­ty for life in gen­er­al.

  • Mushtaq Mirani says:

    Want to con­nect with you

  • Laurie Colson says:

    Sure­ly addic­tion involves Bad Faith.

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