Sartre’s Critique of the Freudian Explanation of Bad Faith

Sartre believes that a Freudian conception of consciousness is inadequate to explain the phenomenon of “bad faith” basically because of the fundamental differences between his construction of consciousness and Freud’s. Sartre believes that these differences, taken to their logical extremes, are enough to disprove Freud’s conception of consciousness.


Sigmund Freud, unlike Jean-Paul Sartre, had a divided view of consciousness. Freud divided it into three functional parts: id, ego, and superego. He saw the id as the deepest level of the unconscious, dominated by the pleasure principle, with its object the immediate gratification of instinctual drives. The superego, originating in the child through identification with parents, and in response to social pressures, functions as an internal censor to repress the urges of the id. The ego, on the other hand, is seen as a part of the id modified by contact with the external world. It is a mental agent mediating among three contending forces: the outside demands of social pressure or reality, libidinal demands for immediate satisfaction arising from the id, and the moral demands of the superego. Although considered only partly conscious, the ego constitutes the major part of what is commonly referred to as consciousness.

For simplicity’s sake and to make Freud’s conception comparable to Sartre’s, I will collapse the superego into the ego and only talk of it and the id, as Sartre does. So we have left the id, which essentially drives and determines the actions in the ego while it itself remains beneath the surface, and the ego, which is driven by the id and yet disconnected from it; basically a bifurcated view of consciousness with each part acting without the knowledge of the other; he posits consciousness, and below it, unconsciousness. To put it in Sartre’s language: “By the distinction between the “id” and the “ego,” Freud has cut the psychic whole in two.  I am the ego but I am not the id.  I hold no privileged position in relation to my unconscious psyche. … I stand in relation to my “id” in the position of the Other.”

Sartre’s major contention with Freud’s theory is the bifurcation itself. Sartre saw consciousness as one whole unit, as something inseparable, and to speak of it otherwise was ludicrous, as he attempted to show in “Bad Faith”, a chapter in his book Being and Nothingness.

Sartre begins by first marking the distinction between lying to another and lying to oneself, or committing an act of bad faith, as Sartre puts it. A lie directed outward from a person and toward another implies the fact that the liar is actually in complete possession of the truth which he is hiding. A person cannot lie about what he is ignorant of, he must know the truth. As Sartre says, “The ideal description of the liar would be a cynical consciousness, affirming truth within himself, denying it in his words, and denying that negation as such…”.

Sartre goes on to describe bad faith and the fundamental difference between it and a projected lie toward another. The difference lies in the fact that in the case of an act of bad faith the lie is directed toward the self, not the other. In the case of a projected lie there was an apparent duality, between the liar and the one to whom the lie was told. But on the other hand, in the case of bad faith, the duality has been removed; bad faith implies the unity of a single consciousness, not two, as in the case of the liar and the lied to, and pertaining to Freud, the unconscious and the conscious.

Having established this, Sartre begins to examine the psychoanalytic method, which relies on the bifurcation of consciousness, and begins to formulate some of its problematic implications. For example, Freud reports that during psychoanalysis, when he is near to approaching the truth of some repression, the patient shows defiance, may refuse to speak, exaggerate about his dreams, or even remove himself entirely from the psychoanalytic treatment. Under a divided view of consciousness this behavior doesn’t seem to make sense. The ego, as an outsider to the id, and in just the same position as the doctor, as an outsider to the id, has no privileged position. The ego cannot be the source of the resistance. In fact the ego, as analogous to the doctor, would be more apt to uncover any hidden desire, as that is the point of psychoanalysis. Sartre concludes by saying, “In this case it is no longer possible to resort to the unconscious to explain bad faith; it is there in full consciousness…”, in a single consciousness.

Though, it could be contended that the source of resistance actually comes from the complex which the psychoanalyst is trying to uncover. But Sartre discusses this too, positing the complex as a collaborator of the psychoanalyst, not an enemy, because it desires to express itself in clear consciousness and because it plays tricks on the censor (the patient as repressing the complex) and seeks to elude it. He goes on to say that the only level on which the resistance can be found is on the censor because “it alone can comprehend the questions or the revelations of the psychoanalyst as approaching more or less near to the real drives which it strives to repress-it alone because it alone knows what it is repressing”.  Here we can see that the censor must be able to be aware of the repressions. He must be able to discern the condemned drives. And by discernment of these drives, must we not infer that, instead of disparate sections of consciousness, we find it more plausible to posit a single consciousness that is capable of discernment? It seems so.

The next section begins to give further credence to Sartre’s theory that there is a single consciousness. We have seen that the discernment of the repressed drive by the censor implies unity of consciousness, but more evidence may be found in the fact that the censor must also recognize them as to be repressed; it must be aware of the information to be repressed and as to be repressed before it could actually be repressed.

Sartre summarizes well:

“All knowing is consciousness of knowing. Thus the resistance of the patient  implies on the level of the censor and awareness of the thing repressed as such, a comprehension of the end toward which the questions of the psychoanalyst are leading…These various operations in their turn imply that the censor is conscious of itself”

Now that we’ve established a unity of consciousness with respect to repressing complexes and uncovering them, we’ll return to the question of bad faith, or of one lying to oneself. This consciousness, capable of discerning and repressing complexes, is an example of this. This consciousness “must be the consciousness of being conscious of the drive to be repressed, but precisely in order to not be conscious of it. What does this mean if not that the censor is in bad faith?”. The censor is lying to himself and is therefore in bad faith, as Sartre has defined it, and is the product of a single consciousness, without which bad faith would not be possible.

Freud has rejected the unity of consciousness and in doing so he is looking for some magical casual connection between distant phenomena. Sartre likens it to sympathetic magic which, like the operation of a voodoo doll, depends on leaps across objects and space to unite two disparate objects. It could even be compared to Descartes’ problem of the soul affecting the body; how could something of such different compositions and natures be united?

To summarize, if Freud is correct in his dividing of consciousness into the ego and the id, then bad faith is not possible due to the fact that, to qualify for an act being in bad faith, one must deceive himself and to separate consciousness is to separate the self. But, as Sartre argues, bad faith is possible and does exist, as we see in the examples of the young lover, the waiter, and the homosexual. Therefore, the Freudian conception of consciousness must be incorrect and must be replaced by another, Sartre’s.


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