Sartre on Authenticity (1)

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

While the notion of "bad faith" remains stable in Jean-Paul Sartre's early philosophy, the notions of "pure reflection" and "good faith" undergo significant changes. In Being and Nothingness, (2) pure reflection was presented as a necessary but not sufficient condition for authenticity, (3) whereas in Notebooks for an Ethics, (4) `pure reflection' and `authenticity' seemed to refer to the same consciousness (although with different emphasis)s (NE, 12, 472-482, 515). In Being and Nothingness, the project of good faith was introduced as a corrupted mode of being, which, like bad faith, stands in contrast to authenticity (EN, 108-111; BN, 113-116), whereas in Notebooks for an Ethics, Sartre did not seem to distinguish good faith from authenticity (NE, 12).

Among the secondary literature, a popular interpretation of Sartre's authenticity (6)--most notably Thomas Anderson's--is that authenticity involves a particular kind of ontological conversion: a conversion from a project of trying to be God to a project that does not involve trying to be God at any level--a project of trying to be freedom. On the basis of this ontological conversion, it claims, we can subsequently have an ethical conversion: a conversion from a project that takes God as the ultimate value to a project takes freedom as the ultimate value.

In this paper I argue against this interpretation. Through a close look at Sartre's discussion of "play" in Being and Nothingness and his remarks on authenticity in Notebooks for an Ethics, I offer an interpretation of authenticity according to which we do not abandon the project of trying to be God in authenticity.

2. Criticism of Anderson's Account

One main thesis in Anderson's Sartre's Two Ethics is that we reject the project of trying to be God in authenticity. There is no doubt that this thesis fits well with Sartre's general project of founding ethics on the basis of ontology. Nonetheless, it has an obvious problem: since it rejects the inclusion of the project of trying to be God in authenticity, it has to downplay or find a way to qualify a well-known claim in Being and Nothingness--that the project of trying to be God is inevitable. How did Anderson do that? And did he succeed?

Anderson qualified the above claim (that the project of trying to be God is inevitable) by qualifying the entire ontology in Being and Nothingness. Anderson recognized that Sartre defined human beings as projects of trying to be God in Being and Nothingness. However, he claimed that although the structure of trying to be God is inevitable in the ontology developed in Being and Nothingness, it is not inevitable without qualification. According to him, the entire ontology in Being and Nothingness is to be rejected in authenticity. He said:

 
   Being and Nothingness made little mention of this distinction [the 
   distinction between pure and impure reflection], and, when it did, 
   it stated that it was going to leave the discussion of pure 
   reflection or conversion for ethics. In fact, Sartre stated 
   explicitly in Being and Nothingness that he was dealing there only 
   with descriptions on the level of impure, or accessory, reflection. 
   I might add that recognition of this is crucial for a proper 
   interpretation of much of that ontology, for it means that it 
   generally describes human reality, its relation to others and to the 
   world, from the perspective of impure reflection (or sometimes 
   simply on the prereflective level) but not from the perspective of 
   pure reflection or conversion. Sartre affirms this when he asserts, 
   on the fourth page of his Notebooks, "Being and Nothingness is an 
   ontology before conversion!" (7) 

Anderson thought that the ontology in Being and Nothingness is to be rejected in the case of authenticity because Being and Nothingness "generally describes human reality, its relation to others and to the world, from the perspective of impure reflection . …