As a final instalment to our brief tour on existentialist terrain, I would like to consider a phenomenon that has been closely associated with existentialist thinking: the phenomenon of living in ‘bad faith’. It is commonly thought that being in ‘bad faith’ is simply the practice of lying to oneself: one knows the truth about oneself, but instead of stating it, opts for deceiving (not others, but) oneself.
Thinking of ‘bad faith’ as ‘self-deception’ is a good way to approach the phenomenon, but it might make us miss what is distinctive about the existentialist view of human beings.
According to existentialism, each person is characterised by both ‘facticity’ and ‘transcendence’. The former includes all those aspects of someone’s being which are given for him, and that cannot strictly speaking be altered at will – his physiology, his past, his biological ties, his society, his place of birth, etc.
Transcendence refers to all the mental, emotional, practical, ethical or political activities through which, at each one moment, a person moves beyond – and in that sense, ‘transcends’ – his facticity, steering his way in the midst of all the conditions, the expectations, or the opportunities that each situation sets to a person.
Bad faith arises when one attempts to present oneself as being wholly facticity, or wholly transcendence. In the former case, a person chooses to resign in thinking that everything about his life is fixed and unalterable, and that he is true to himself only if he acts in terms set by his past, or by ‘the others’, or by ‘the society at large’.
In the latter case, when someone takes himself to be wholly transcendence, he believes that everything in his life is up to him, that nothing is fixed, that even his history, his past behaviour, or the details of his social condition are not real, but are entirely a matter of how he fancies to think about them. Both attitudes are mistaken – and yet they are so attractive because they can be the only way out of taking responsibility for our choices.
What would be a genuine alternative to living in bad faith? Existentialists have proposed different answers to that question, but they all seem to converge on the importance of being authentic. Authenticity, here, is not a matter of being true to ‘human essence’ – recall that no such ‘essence’ exists apart from how each being lives out his or her existence.
Authenticity is more a matter of being ‘the author’ of your own life, while avoiding the twin errors of (i) thinking that you are nothing but an ‘actor’ in some cosmic play over which you have no say, or of (ii) thinking that you can ‘rewrite’ and ‘make up’ everything irrespective of the needs and values that inform the human experience of reality.