Sartre - Lacan - Good Faith - the Symbolic - Theology
This article presents a critical Lacanian reading of Sartre's work. This reading takes its bearings from Sartre's autobiography, Les Mots, where Sartre's later, more qualified bearing towards psychoanalysis is evident. The article is constructed around an analysis of the letters of Sartre's chapter on "Bad Faith" in Being and Nothingness, and a series of symptomatic slips around the (im)possibility of 'good faith'. The author argues that Sartre's earlier dismissal of the unconscious is itself symptomatic of a foreclosure of the symbolic order (the order exactly of 'les mots'), conceived in Lacanian terms as the order of the social pact, founded upon inter-subjective relations 'in good faith'. What is foreclosed from the terms of Sartre's existential analyses then returns in the 'metaphysical' or 'theological' terms in which Being and Nothingness is framed, despite itself, and the bleak appreciation of inter-subjectivity at the heart of the work.
"To be an atheist, my God, is a very difficult thing", Slavoj Zizek
"Car la véritable formule de l'athéisme n'est pas que Dieu est mort - même en formulant l'origine de la fonction du père sur son meurtre, Freud protège le père - la véritable formule de l'athéisme, c'est que Dieu est inconscient". Lacan, Séminaire XI.
This essay addresses Jean-Paul Sartre and Jacques Lacan. Beyond being an exercise in the "history of ideas", it is intended as an intervention at the peak of what each of those two theorists tried to theoretically accomplish. At stake will be questions concerning the nature of the subject, the limits of phenomenology, and the claim to extra-historical Truth staked by both Lacanian psychoanalysis and Sartre's existential ontology.
Sartre's "official" view on psychoanalysis is well known. According to Sartre 1957, the hypothesis of the unconscious is both unnecessary and unsustainable as an explanation either of neurotic illness, or the self-deceit characteristic of ordinary unhappiness. (Sartre 1957, pp. 50-54 [see anon]) In Words, Sartre-again-is as clear, in the beginning:
The rule is that there are no good fathers; it is not the men who are at fault but the paternal bond which is rotten. There is nothing better than to produce children, but what a sin to have some! If he had lived, my father would have lain down on me and crushed me. Fortunately, he died young ...Was it a good or a bad thing? I do not know; but I am happy to subscribe to the judgment of an eminent psychoanalyst: I have no Superego. (Sartre 1967, pp. 14-15, p. 19)
Lacan's "official" view of Sartre, in its turn, involves very nearly as ringing a 'disendorsement' of existentialism. Sartre remains unnamed in Lacan's famous article on "The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I", but "existential negativity" is impugned for grasping the "negativity" of human being "only within the limits of a self-sufficiency of consciousness which, being one of its premises, ties the illusion of autonomy in which it puts its faith in the ego's constitutive misrecognitions". (Lacan 2002, p. 8) By its fruits, Lacan suggests, we should tell the tree:
... a freedom that is never so authentically affirmed as when it is within the walls of a prison; a demand for commitment that expresses the inability of pure consciousness to overcome any situation; a voyeuristic-sadistic idealisation of sexual relationships; a personality that achieves self-realisation only in suicide; and a consciousness of the other that can only be satisfied by Hegelian murder. (Lacan 2002, p. 8)
In "For the Love of Lacan", however, Derrida has noted a greater proximity between Lacan and Sartre than either might have cared to admit. (Derrida 1998, p. 56)
If Sartre's first statement on Freud and psychoanalysis in BN is dismissive, certainly, Sartre advocates "taking the psychoanalytic method as our inspiration" in his reflection on action in "Being and Doing: Freedom". (Sartre 1957, pp. 458-60) In the final chapter of Being and Nothingness (BN), "Doing and Having", Sartre advances his own "existential psychoanalysis", grounded in subjects' fundamental "choice of being" (Sartre 1957, p. 602). This chapter, and the body of BN as a whole, concludes with a notorious set of reflections on the "hole" as a metonymy of nothingness (Sartre 1957, p. 613), and "the tendency to fill" as "one of the most fundamental tendencies of human reality". (Sartre 1957, p. 613) Sartre's later writings, moreover, significantly qualify the polemical statements of his first philosophical works. One feature of his work after 1956 - the year Sartre began a film script on Freud's life-is his increasing interest in biography, that literary genre most simply comparable to the field and practice of psychoanalysis. The magnus opus of Sartre's later 'biographical turn' is of course L'idiot de la famille, on Flaubert, published in 1971. In 1964, however, Sartre published an autobiography, Words (Les Mots). As well as earning Sartre a Nobel Prize (which he refused), this work itself constitutes a kind of pitiless psychoanalytic self-analysis or mea culpa.
Psychoanalysis, it has been said, lives by posing a kind of short-circuit between the level of singular or individual cases, and universal theory. In what follows, I want to proceed similarly, by reading Sartre's existentialist philosophy - and its ambivalence towards psychoanalysis-in the light of his autobiography, Les Mots. There is no need, in pursuing such an intention, to posit any reductive "determination" of Sartre's thought by one or other biographical event-his relation to his mother, grandfather, etc. We have already commented how Sartre 1967' biography begins-no less than Freud's phylogenetic narrative in Totem and Taboo-with the death of the father, and Sartre's disavowal of a superego. It is nevertheless a striking thing that the self-analysis of Les Mots takes as its object, if not the Freudian Oedipus complex (see Sartre 1957, p. 51), Sartre's own individual illusion, "a long, bitter-sweet madness". (Sartre 1967, p. 157) "I loathe my childhood and all that remains of it ...', Sartre declares in Words, like most of us. Yet Les Mots documents nothing if not how this "childhood", and the unwavering faith in his "star" which Sartre took with him from it, effectively lasted until nearly his fiftieth year. Only through writing the book Sartre 1967 - a sure case of "the hair of the dog ..." - can Sartre envisage, at its end, being "a whole man ... worth all [men], and any one of them worth him". (Sartre 1967, p. 158) We will return to this to close.
In Sartre's theoretical language from Sartre 1957, that is, Words documents Sartre's own personal or biographical bad faith.(Sartre 1957, p. 48) Read philosophically, it thereby stands as an extended reflection upon, and singular testament to, the intractability of bad faith per se, even in those who might be the first to decry it sincerely in the Other(s). Towards the end of Words, Sartre thus writes in words which invoke both Camus' La Chute and even the New Testament:
Later on, I cheerfully demonstrated that man is impossible; impossible myself, I differed from others only in this one mandate: I had to illustrate this impossibility which, suddenly, was transfigured and became my most intimate potentiality, the object of my mission and the springboard of my glory ... mystified and a fraud to my very bones, I cheerfully wrote about our wretched lot. In my dogmatism, I doubted everything, except that I had been chosen by doubt; I was restoring with one hand what I destroyed with the other and I took anxiety as a proof of my safety; I was happy. (Sartre 1967, p. 156)
The young Marx once opined that all criticism begins with the criticism of religion. Sartre had argued in 1943, echoing Martin Luther, that the meaning of human beings' desire is that we cannot bear not to desire to be God, as we shall remark (Sartre 1957, pp. 620-626) By the end of Sartre's Les Mots, certain it is that Sartre himself-one of the more renowned atheists of the twentieth century-has stridently denounced himself as a "true believer", if an unorthodox one, all along:
This was my beginning: I was running away; external forces shaped my flight and made me. Religion showed through an outmoded concept of culture and served as a model; because it is childish, nothing touches a child more closely. I was taught Bible history, the Gospel and the catechism without being given the means of believing; the result was a disorder which became my private disorder. There were some puckers and a considerable shift; levied on Catholicism, the sacred settled into Belles-Lettres and the writer appeared, an ersatz of the Christian I could not be: his only concern was salvation, the one aim of his stay here below was to earn for himself posthumous bliss through trials endured worthily... (Sartre 1967, pp. 155)
In the light of Sartre's Sartre 1967, then, I would propose that the place to conduct a critical engagement of psychoanalysis "with" Sartre is not where we might first think it. Any such critical engagement must take as its object the unlikely, if not explicitly 'theological', topic of faith, in its relation to human desire. "Atheism is a cruel, long-term business", as Sartre avows in Words. (Sartre 1967, p. 157) The true formula of atheism is not 'god is dead', Lacan rejoins in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. (Lacan 1963, p. 59) It is 'god is unconscious'. Significantly, Sartre first raised psychoanalysis in Sartre 1957 in the context of his second chapter on "Bad Faith", the same topic that lies at the heart of his later autobiography or "confession". This chapter of BN, also, ends with a too-often-overlooked reflection on "The 'Faith' of Bad Faith", in a way which recalls something Søren Kierkegaard might have written. (Sartre 1957, pp. 68ff.)
In "The 'Faith' of Bad Faith", Sartre cheerfully denies the "metastable" impossibility of all belief or faith. (Sartre 1957, p. 69) One consequence of Sartre's denial, as his analysis of "sincerity" in the more famous previous section had indicated, is then that good faith-what we might have supposed would deliver us from self-deceit-turns out to share "the essential structure" of the bad faith it would apparently decry. (Sartre 1957, p. 65) In Les Mots in 1964, comparing himself directly to the type of "frigid woman" whose willed "distraction" BN had cited against Freudianism, Sartre writes that:
I was always in front of or behind the impossible vision which would have revealed me to myself and ... gained nothing but a good deal of nervous irritation. (Sartre 1967, p. 130)
If we take Sartre's 'faithful' analysis in Sartre 1957 twenty years earlier on its own terms, however, this impossibility would be constitutive to subjectivity as such. Like the hare which Lacan tells us can catch up with the tortoise only too easily, but must always run past it when it does, that is, for the Sartre of Sartre 1957 as much as for Lacan "the very structure at the basis of human desire lends a note of impossibility to the object of human desire". (Lacan 1977, p. 36)
In what follows, I will argue that it is this "impossibility" attending "good" and/or "bad faith" that allows us best to locate both the proximity and the decisive difference between Jean-Paul Sartre and Jacques Lacan. Both the most apparent and the most fundamental dimension of this difference, of course, turns upon Sartre's theoretical disavowal of the Freudian unconscious. The unconscious forms the first premise of all of Lacan's theoretical endeavours. But if there is one place, beyond the explicit dismissal of psychoanalysis in BN, where the problematic of the Freudian unconscious comes closest -exactly-o the letters of Sartre's texts, I will argue, it is in the questions raised by the possibility and asserted impossibility of "good faith".
I. Bad Faith and Its Vicissitudes
Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you".
T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland, lines 359-363
Great examples have a way of determining how philosophical texts are received, often in ways that upset the author's best intentions. Sartre's second example in "Patterns of Bad Faith" is probably the most famous example in Sartre 1957. "Let us consider the waiter in the café", Sartre writes:
His movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid. He comes towards the patrons with a step a little too quick. He bends forward a little too eagerly, his nose, his eyes express an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the customer. Finally there he returns, tyring to imitate in his walk the inflexible stiffness of some kind of automaton while carrying the tray with the stiffness of a tight rope walker ... (Sartre 1957, p. 59)
What is awry here? Sartre provides the following analysis:
... all his behaviour seems to us a game. He applies himself to chaining his movements as if they were mechanisms, the one regulating the other; his gestures and even his voice seem to be mechanisms; he gives himself the quickness and pitiless rapidity of things. He is playing, he is amusing himself. But what is he playing? We need not wait long before we can explain it: he is playing at being a waiter in a café ... (Sartre 1957, p. 59)
The motives for such "role playing" might be strong, Sartre acknowledges. Just as children play under the watchful eyes of their elders, in order to "realise" who they are and what their bodies can do, so "society" demands that each of us limit ourselves from time to time to one or other "social role". (Sartre 1957, p. 59) "There are indeed many precautions to imprison a man in what he is," Sartre comments, "as if we lived in perpetual fear that he might escape from it, that he might break away and suddenly elude it". The problem is that "the waiter in the café cannot be immediately a café waiter in the sense that this inkwell is an inkwell". Of course, there is a sense in which the waiter really is a waiter, and not a doctor or a diplomat-otherwise Sartre may never have received his order. (Sartre 1957, p. 60) Yet, at the same time, as Sartre explains, he "transcends [being a waiter] in every direction". It is "by no means" clear, for instance, that the waiter "cannot form reflective judgments or concepts concerning his condition" in a way far beyond the imaginative capacities of an inkwell. (Sartre 1957, p. 59) If I take on this role, Sartre writes:
... it is not that I do not wish to be ['the waiter'] or that I want [this person with this role] to be different [from me]. But rather there is no common measure between his being and mine. It [being a 'waiter'] is a 'representation' for others and for myself, which means that I can only be he in representation. But if I represent myself as he, I am not he; I am separated from him as the object from the subject, separated by nothing, but this nothing isolates me from him. (Sartre 1957, p. 60 [my italics])
Sartre's analysis thus draws closely on the terms, and something of the pathos, of his earlier analysis of "anguish". Heidegger had of course distinguished in section 40 of Being and Time between fear and "anguish". In fear, the individual Dasein is faced with some particular thing (eg: the raging dog). In anxiety, there is by contrast no particular object at stake. (Heidegger, 1927, #40) In it, the person rather encounters the possibility of her own impossibility, which means, ultimately, her own death. (Heidegger, 1927, #45-54) At this juncture, the possibility of new self-realisation and a resolute freedom-towards-death emerges. In Sartrean anguish, by contrast, it is one's freedom that one would "flee" from, as the "origin of negation", from the start. The woman who walks alongside the cliff might hence fear that the wind will cast her off. (Sartre 1957, p. 30) If she looks over the edge, she may suffer vertigo, picturing in a dizzying moment the possibility of her own death. Yet it is no such anticipation that that brings her "anguish", according to Sartre. What brings her anguish is her own freedom, and the possibility that it brings-namely, that she might at any moment choose to cast herself off, without realising herself or anything else. (Sartre 1957, p. 31) Again: the Sartrean subject may well, in fear, reach around to secure herself, by clasping a guardrail readily to hand. But what gives her anguish is the absence of any comparable metaphysical "guardrail" (Sartre 1957, p. 39) that could free her from the weight of "the constantly renewed obligation to remake the Self which designates the free being" (Sartre 1957, p. 35)-a responsibility to which she is "condemned" ultimately on grounds of her consciousness alone. (Sartre 1957, pp. 37-38)
If we read Sartre's waiter example in the light of his analysis of anguish, then, "bad faith" appears as flight from the "radical freedom" fabled to the young Sartre. Faced with the burden of having always to freely choose their own values and actions, subjects do seek out their own chains, BN argues. This is one part of the truth of bad faith. The gambler who must face anew the gambling hall, tries to flee from his choices by treating yesterday's resolution as a law, as if there were no "nothingness" that separated him from the person he was (Sartre 1957, pp. 32-33). The addict, unable to quit, hopes to assuage his conscience by pleading physiological addiction (Sartre 1957, pp. 33-34), with all the lasting prospects of success of Kant's moral subject, faced with the "you ought, therefore you can!" of moral conscience. (Sartre 1957, p. 62) The "bourgeois who call themselves 'respectable citizens'", again, seek to "reassure" themselves by inhabiting the world as "a world of values", as if such "values" were "sown on our path as thousands of little real diamonds, like the signs which order us to keep off the grass".(Sartre 1957, p. 38)
Closer analysis of Sartre's less well known "patterns of bad faith" in chapter 2 of BN, however, compels us to complicate our analysis. In the first of Sartre's examples of bad faith, we are made privy to the equivocations of a desirable young woman who has accepted a suitor's invitation to go on a first date, and must decide what to make of his advances. (Sartre 1957, pp. 55-56) Sartre's third example is a young gay man, wrestling with guilt at his contravention of social norms, who Sartre does not hesitate to tell us "one will readily see ... is in bad faith". (Sartre 1957, p. 63) What unites these cases, however, is not a fleeing from one's freedom by recourse to one's "social responsibilities" or "being-for-others" (as with the waiter), nor to the subjects' embodiment, history or "facticity" (as with a gambler or addict). When the amorous suitor takes the girl's hand, to cite Sartre's colourful description:
... this act of her companion risks changing the situation by calling for an immediate decision. To leave the hand there is to consent in herself to flirt, to engage herself. To withdraw it is to break the troubled and unstable harmony that gives the hour its charm ... we know what happens next: the young woman leaves her hand there, but she does not notice that she is leaving it. She does not notice because it happens by chance that she is at this moment all intellect. She draws her companion up to the most lofty regions of sentimental speculation, she speaks of life, she shows herself in her essential aspect - a personality, a consciousness ... (Sartre 1957, pp. 55-56)
In one sense, Sartre explains, the girl can hence be said to have fled into her "transcendence" as a free being, rather than to have sought out "guard rails" against it. (Sartre 1957, p. 56) Similarly, the young man of Sartre's third example "plays" on his own freedom with respect to his own actions and past, Sartre says:
While recognising his homosexual inclination, while avowing each and every particular misdeed which he has committed, refuses with all his strength to consider himself 'a pederast'. His case is always 'different', peculiar, there enters into it something of a game, of chance, of bad luck; the mistakes are all in the past; they are explained by a conception of the beautiful which women cannot satisfy; we should see in them the product of a restless search, rather than the manifestations of a deeply rooted tendency, etc., etc. (Sartre 1957, p. 63)
There are then "various procedures" of bad faith, as Sartre states. (Sartre 1957, p. 56) What unites them is not the proverbial "fear of freedom". Things are not so simple. What is in play in bad faith is rather what Sartre qualifies as the "double property of human being, who is at once a facticity [elsewhere, a being-in-itself and/or being-for-others] and a transcendence [or being-for-itself]". (Sartre 1957, p. 56) Humans are never wholly what they are, Sartre clarifies: since, no more than the waiter, we can never be, as a thing, any role we take on. But, at the same time, we are what we are not: since, although free, we do have, and bear responsibility for, our past, our body, and our "ego" or "being-for-others". (Sartre 1957, p. 58)
These aspects of human being "are and ought to be capable of a valid coordination", Sartre stipulates at p.56 of BN. (see anon) Good faith, it would thus seem at this point (but see anon), is nothing else than what the Law has always demanded: the truth, but the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. What bad faith does, by contrast-and here is where it enters precisely into the orbit of "faith" as such, Sartre argues-is deal instead in half truths, or shades of grey, only. (Sartre 1957, p. 67) Bad faith, Sartre contends in "The 'Faith' of Bad Faith", is a project in "faith" above all because it decides to make use of the real complexity of human-being-"that being is what it is not, and is not what it is"-in order to elide the difficulties of subjective responsibility. (Sartre 1957, p. 68) The project of bad faith, Sartre argues, is predicated on a choice in advance to make itself "humble and modest". (Sartre 1957, p. 68) No less than an early Christian, the person in bad faith will not ask too hard for reasons why: bad faith "stands forth in the firm resolution not to demand too much". (Sartre 1957, p. 68) The girl whose being-for-others as desired woman is causing her discomfort seizes on her real transcendence qua free subject, in order to keep the "metastable" charm of the night alive. (Sartre 1957, p. 55) The worker, comparably, always chooses to get out of bed to go to work, rather than ignoring the early morning sounding of the alarm clock. (Sartre 1957, pp. 37-39) But no sooner has he chosen than this choice itself has been forgotten, by appeal to the real "facts" of his being-for-others, as a social subject. As Sartre puts it, "he knows well what it 'means', the obligation of getting up at 5 o'clock, of sweeping the floor of the shop before the restaurant opens, of starting the coffee pot going, etc." (Sartre 1957, pp. 59-60)
There is much that a Lacanian reading might say about Sartre's choice of examples. Camus once protested his distance from Sartrean existentialism, citing Sartre's penchant for characters who suffer from one or other form of social or sexual pathology. If it will always be necessary to talk of the "social exchange", that is, we can say that Sartre's heroes and heroines are typically "damaged goods". The libidinal and other parameters of Sartre's specific examples in Being and Nothingness chapter 2 are certainly notable enough. There is not only the explicit question of sexuality and its vicissitudes, in two of the three examples. The young girl, by fortuitously embracing her freedom at the decisive moment, flees not only her own embodiment. She also flees what Lacan would call the big Other (grand Autre), in whose "treasury of signifiers" a stray hand on a first date is never just a stray hand on a first date. The homosexual, meanwhile, flees from his own past, and in particular what Lacan might call the exceptional or "occluded chapters" of his history which he cannot readily accommodate, but which do not fail to haunt him.
Sticking closer to the letters of Sartre's texts, though, I want to pick up on something different here. For there is something exceptional in Sartre's third example in Sartre 1957. The homosexual man has a friend. This friend, "who is his most severe critic," is not there in Sartre 1957 simply to put the man's bad faith on stage, either. Or if he is, something more is involved in Sartre's account:
The critic asks only one thing - and perhaps then he will show himself indulgent: that the guilty one recognise himself as guilty, that the homosexual declare himself frankly-whether humbly or boastfully matters little - 'I am a pederast'.(Sartre 1957, p. 63)
Sartre's initial analysis of the bad faith of the homosexual man, in this final example, is thus almost immediately doubled or qualified by the presence and the question of this Other: "We ask here: who is in bad faith? The homosexual or the champion of sincerity?" (Sartre 1957, p. 63) At the start of the section on "The 'Faith' of Bad Faith", Sartre still presented us with what might be called a "positive" appraisal of "good faith", which he aligns both with critical rationality, and the possibility of ethical self-reflection. "Bad faith", he writes, "does not hold to the norms and criteria of truth as they are accepted by the critical thought of good faith". (Sartre 1957, p. 68) Yet, in his analysis of the friend in "Patterns of Bad Faith", Sartre's position changes. If "good faith" is not there by name, the "sincerity" of the homosexual man's friend, Sartre certainly argues, represents its own form of bad faith, and or in the denial of the transcendence of the other:
Who cannot see that the sincere man constitutes himself as a thing in order to escape the condition of a thing by the same act of sincerity? The man who confesses himself that he is evil has exchanged his disturbing 'freedom-for-evil' for an inanimate character of evil; he is evil, he clings to himself, he is what he is. (Sartre 1957, p. 65)
As Sartre rejoins, in his own voice, in Les Mots:
... others harbour resentments against the dead of would fight rather than admit to some trivial mistake they made twenty years before. I bear no resentment and I obligingly confess everything; I have a flair for self-criticism, provided it is not foisted upon me ... An old friend meets me; a long tale of bitterness. It is a cheerful massacre: I am delighted with my lucidity; to recognise my mistakes with such good grace is to prove to myself that I could never make them again. Would you believe it? My loyalty, my generous confession merely irritate him ... He has foiled me, but he knows I am using him; he resents me, the living one, present or past, the same person he has always known, and I am leaving him with a cast off slough for the pleasure of feeling that I am a new-born babe.(Sartre 1967, p. 149 [my italics])
The "ideal" of "good faith", Sartre writes at p.69 in "The 'Faith' of Bad Faith", "is, like that of sincerity (to be what one is), an ideal of being-in-itself". As it were "between the lines" of the second and third pages of this section, that is, any positive critical or ethical connotation Sartre had assigned to the term "good faith" (at p.56 and p.68 of BN) has disappeared. What has changed?
"We should not look for sincerity in the relation of the mitsein [or being-with-others], but rather where it is pure - in the relations of a person with himself", Sartre had initially advised, at p.65. (Sartre 1957, p. 65) Nevertheless, as with the homosexual's friend and in Les Mots, Sartre's analysis of "good faith" in the final section of chapter 2 violates this prescription or proscription. In ordinary language, of course, "good faith" does refer to something that is only possible entre nous, between subjects. Similarly, at pp.68-69, Sartre speaks of "good faith" as though it pivotally turns around the individual's relation with an Other, and his reciprocal trust in them:
I believe my friend Pierre has friendship for me. I believe it in good faith. ... I believe it, that is ... I decide to believe in it, and to maintain myself in that decision; I conduct myself, finally, as if I were certain of it ... That which I call good faith is what Hegel would call the immediate. It is simple faith. (Sartre 1957, pp. 68-69)
The strange thing is that, having made this analysis, Sartre then immediately recoils from any reference to inter-subjectivity and to the Other, and seeks out the meaning of "good faith" in the terms of his analysis of a "pure" consciousness, taken in isolation. No less than Hegel or Kant, Sartre has argued in his "Introduction" to BN that all consciousness is at the same time the possibility of its own self-consciousness. [see anon] It follows, as Sartre now rejoins, that "to believe is not to believe". Why or why not? There is as it were no immovable rock (or pierre) here upon which one could put one's trust, since belief is not knowledge:
... if I know I believe, the belief appears to me as pure subjective determination without any external correlative ... the nature of consciousness is such that in it the mediate and the immediate are one and the same thing. To believe is to know one believes, and to know that one believes is no longer to believe. Thus to believe is not to believe because that is only to believe ... (Sartre 1957, p. 69)
It is this "pure subjective determination", then, that Sartre's analysis in chapter 3 ends by referring to, in order to explain the ineradicable impossibility or "disintegration" at the heart of all faith. In this "purely subjective" way, too, the final coincidence of good faith as one form of bad faith in Sartre 1957 chapter 2 is also secured. As Sartre repeats at p.70: "Good faith wishes to flee the 'not-believing-what-one-believes' by finding refuge in being", like the homosexual man's friend, eager to confess or to take confession; "Good faith seeks to flee the inner disintegration of my being in the direction of the in-itself which it should be and is not". (Sartre 1957, p. 70)
It is the question of the Other which haunts Sartre's text-and who in the case of the gay man's friend recalls the psychoanalyst-that I will pursue in what follows.
II. Cartesian Meditations:
Of the Censor, the 'PRC', Deception, and God
".. whatever minds satisfied with appearances... might think, the simple fact that you live at this precise moment in the evolution of human thought does not exonerate you from what was openly and rigorously formulated in Descartes' meditation about God ..." Lacan, Seminar III
In the beginning of chapter 2 of Sartre 1957, again, the possibility of a "redeemed" "good faith" is at least implicitly present. Section 1 of the chapter is that which includes Sartre's critique of Freudian psychoanalysis. It bears the Cartesian title: "Bad Faith and Deception". Every deception presupposes a deceiver and a deceived agent, Sartre notes. But the deceiver can trade on nothing unless it is the belief, or-as we might say-the "good faith" of the Other, in the sincerity of what the liar has to say. (Sartre 1957, p. 49) Because of this, the case of self-deception, which is the case of bad faith, will seemingly involve a paradox, if not an impossibility. Psychoanalytic metapsychology, Sartre argues, avoids any such paradoxes, because "by the distinction between the 'id' and the 'ego', Freud has cut the psychic whole in two". Given this hypothesis: "I am the ego but I am not the id. [And] I hold no privileged position in relation to my unconscious psyche", as Sartre writes. (Sartre 1957, p. 50) As ego, he continues, I am in fact put in a position vis-à-vis the id directly comparable to the deceived person before their deceiver. It is as if, as ego, I was an Other. This is why, as Sartre acknowledges at p.51, according to Freudian psychoanalysis the whole truth of one's subjectivity is never something a person can discover all by him/herself:
... the discovery of the truth will necessitate the cooperation of the psychoanalyst, who appears as the mediator between my unconscious drives and my conscious life. The Other appears as being able to effect the synthesis between the unconscious thesis and the conscious antithesis. (Sartre 1957, p. 51)
In Part III of Being and Nothingness, Sartre later presents the "look" of the Other as a phenomenological event that breaks open the "reef of solipsism", in a way that might allow a rapprochement with psychoanalysis' primordial inter-subjectivity. In his chapter on "bad faith", however, Freud's "introduction into my subjectivity of the deepest structures of the mitsein [or being-with-others]" (as Sartre puts it) most certainly does not satisfy Sartre. (Sartre 1957, p. 51) Psychoanalysis turns upon the hypothesis or the possibility of a "censor", which would in some way stand between the instinctual id and the "rational" ego, Sartre notes. Freudian metapsychology thus sets up what might be termed a veritable politeia in the soul, complete with "customs, passport division, currency control, etc.", as Sartre writes. (Sartre 1957, p. 50) If this is the Freudian hypothesis, however, Sartre retorts that a psuche divided against itself could hardly even exist, let alone stand. No subject can serve two masters.(1)
The technical shortcomings of Sartre's analysis, if presented as grounds for a more or less total discrediting of Freudian psychoanalysis, cannot concern us here.(2) What is more fundamental is how Sartre's critique of psychoanalysis, like his entire reflection on bad faith, is predicated upon Sartre's defence, in the beginning of BN as a whole, of what he terms "pre-reflective consciousness" (or "prc"). It is in the light of this postulate that Sartre effectively takes it as established when he comes to Freud that the idea of a censor that wields a "knowledge" of which drives are to be permitted or repressed, without being aware of what it was doing, is off the wall. All consciousness, Sartre 1957's "Introduction: The Pursuit of Being" purports to show, is immediately and "pre-reflectively" self-conscious. This is why, Sartre contends, when some Other asks us, we are always capable of justifying what we are doing-I am reading, you are counting, etc. If this hypothesis holds, as Sartre argues, it follows that consciousness can be spoken of both as "absolute" (it need depend phenomenologically on nothing else [Sartre 1957, xxxi]) and absolutely self-transparent: "Every conscious existence exists as consciousness of existing. ... At one stroke it determines itself as consciousness of perception and as perception." (Sartre 1957, xxx)
How, though, does Sartre make a case for this veritable rock upon which his whole edifice is established? A close analysis in fact reveals its profoundly paradoxical nature. In order to epistemologically guarantee any "positional" consciousness of the world, Sartre notes, it would seem necessary that we could reflectively look at this consciousness, and ask things like: 'is he mad?, 'does what he say applies really apply?', etc. If this seems sound, Sartre nevertheless continues, how are we to guarantee in its turn this second, reflecting consciousness, which would takes as its "known" object exactly the first "knowing" consciousness? To quote BN:
If we accept the knower-known dyad, then a third term will be necessary in order for the knower to become known in turn, and we will be faced with this dilemma: either we stop at any one term of the series-the known, the knower known, the knower known by the knower, etc. ... or else we affirm the necessity of an infinite regress (idea, ideae, ideae, etc.). (Sartre 1957, xxviii)
Sartre's position at this point is clear. In a way that redoubles exactly the logic of St Thomas Aquinas' cosmological arguments for the existence of God in the Summa Theologica, Sartre immediately dismisses the possibility of infinite regress as "absurd". From this reductio, the contrary must follow, even if we directly know nothing about it. As Sartre writes: "If we wish to avoid an infinite regress, there must be an immediate, non-cognitive relation of the self to the self".(xxviii [my italics]) In order to accommodate the position, Sartre confesses, we will need to distort accepted syntax:
The necessity of syntax has compelled us hitherto to speak of 'non-positional consciousness of self'. But we can no longer use this expression in which the 'of self' still evokes the idea of knowledge. (Henceforth we must put the 'of' inside parentheses to show that it merely satisfies as grammatical requirement). (Sartre 1957, xxx)
The reason is that, if the "pre-reflective consciousness" allows us to maintain consciousness' self-determining transparency, it can only do this-in Sartre's words-by itself being "a non-self-conscious reflection and a final term". (Sartre 1957, xxviii) In other words, the "prc" is itself a sovereign exception to the rule it would found. The ground of all phenomenological self-consciousness, it can yet itself only be, as Sartre states, a point where "the totality of the phenomenon falls into the unknown", no less mysterious, in this way at least, than Thomas' creator God.
So, back to psychoanalysis: we have seen how Sartre would dismiss the Freudian hypothesis of the unconscious, because of its theoretical leaning on the "censor", which would implausibly at once know and not know itself. We can now add: the ground upon which Sartre yet does this is recourse to the hypothesis of a "pre-reflective consciousness". But this "pre-reflective consciousness" turns out itself to be, if not an unknowing knower, then a knowledge that can itself not be known, but only presupposed, given its apparent fruits.
Now: critical or polemical commentators have long noted BN's debt to Cartesian philosophy. This is avowed by Sartre, in his open references to the cogito to describe the subject grounded on the self-grounding, pre-reflective consciousness.(3) We would seem, with this hypothesis, to be as far as possible from the Freudian venture. Sartre talks of the "pre-reflective cogito" in BN as the ground or non-ground given which a subject could never coincide with any being or sum, including any "unconscious". This, exactly, would be the dream of the "champion of sincerity" or of "good faith", as it is construed by the end of chapter II, if it would not be the delusion of the psychoanalyst. Yet Lacan argued in Seminars XI and XIII, in a way that uncannily recalls Sartre, that Descartes committed a 'mistake' when he added his 'therefore I am' to the 'cogito' in his famed cogito ergo sum. As _i_ek comments, Lacan's position on the unconscious turns on how he:
... breaks up the unity of the cogito ergo sum'; against Descartes, he asserts that there is a necessary or structural non-coincidence between the two terms, thinking and being, that Descartes famous statement binds together. Where I am thinking [as a subject], Lacan specifies, I cannot say that I am [as an object]. Equally, there where I am [as an object], I do not think. [_i_ek 1993, p. 59]
The Lacanian subject no less than the Sartrean cogito, that is, is always too early or too late to coincide with any substance it might wish to be. If this is the meaning of "good faith", then Lacan also decries it. The difference between Sartre and Lacan is only that, for the latter, this very structural non-coincidence between the cogito and the sum is the first condition of the Freudian unconscious, and not the "futile passion" of being human as such. (Sartre 1957, p. 613) At its most basic level, the content of the unconscious would be the beliefs that subjects accrue throughout their biography concerning the sum they take themselves to have lost, in order to conceal how (pace Sartre) they could never have been or had "it" in the first place. The second and central thing that must be said here, however, is that what governs the "split" of the subject into cogito and sum in Lacan is something about which Sartre says almost not one word, except between the lines: namely, the dimension of the social Law.
Topically enough, Lacan's position can be approached by his reflections-if not on deception and bad faith-then on the liar's paradox. If someone says to you: "I am lying", Lacan observes, the non-coincidence of the speaking subject (or subject of the enunciation) and the object enunciated within the statement is brought pointedly to the fore. If we try to understand the "I" objectified in the utterance as the "I" who is speaking, unavoidable inconsistency must follow (if the sentence is true, the sentence can only be false, and visa versa ad infinitum). The paradox is however resolved if we see that the subject of any enunciation (as intimated by the shifter 'I') is always tied to an appeal-exactly-to what we usually, and Sartre still sometimes, calls the "good faith" of the Other. The person who confides to you that "I am lying", unless he is in a philosophy course or entertaining bad faith, is saying something like "It is true that I am lying" or "believe me when I say to you: 'I am lying'". This is why, although his disclosure may not thrill us, it doesn't scuttle the mechanism of discourse altogether.
This then is where, according to Lacan's striking reading, a further part of Descartes' thought which Sartre doesn't address-namely, his theology-comes into play. For what God does, once he is proven in Descartes' Meditations, is precisely stand as an indubitable locus of good faith, something like the one rock or pierre that Descartes can build his way back out to the external world upon. To quote Seminar XI:
For Descartes, in the initial cogito ... what the I think is directed towards, insofar as it lurches into the I am, is a real. But the true remains so much outside that Descartes then has to reassure himself, of what, if not of an Other that is not deceptive, and which shall, into the bargain, guarantee by its very existence the bases of truth, guarantee him that there is in his own objective reason the necessary foundations ... to find the dimension of truth ... [Lacan 1978, p. 36]
What is indicated to us by Descartes' theology, according to Lacan, is the irreducibility of a moment of "good faith", or of "giving one's word", to anything like subjectivity and discursive meaning. What one is doing when one speaks at all, Lacan argues, is precisely delivering over one's "signifiers' to such an Other, from whence one will get back one's message in its true form. Now: this does not mean, precisely, that one could ever know what the Other is thinking. For Lacan no less than for Sartre, the friendship of Pierre is a matter of "faith" for which, as Sartre says, "I do not have ... any adequate intuition, for the nature of the object does not lend itself to intuition". (Sartre 1957, p. 69) One can always be betrayed thrice before the cock crows. As Lacan explains his own telling distortion of syntax, the famous capitalisation of the 'A' in 'Autre':
And why [write 'Autre'] with a capital 'A'? For a no doubt mad reason, in the same way that it is a madness every time we are obliged to bring in signs supplementary to those given by language. Here the mad reason is the following: [I say to you] you are my wife - [but] after all, what do you know about it? [I say to you] You are my master - [but] in reality are you so sure of that? What creates the founding value of these words is that what is aimed at in the message is that the Other is there qua absolute Other. Absolute, that is to say he is recognised, but is not known ... (Lacan 1997, p. 49)
In Part I and above I have suggested that Sartre, like everyone else, butts his head up against this transcendental instance of the Other whom we cannot know, only fight or trust. Sartre does so, I have argued, in particular in the possibility of "good faith", a word or a possibility which haunts his analysis in Sartre 1957, in spite of his "official" dismissal in chapter 2 of what it would refer to.
But consider now also the very examples that Sartre cites in "The 'Faith' of Bad Faith" in order to demonstrate how "the very words 'to believe'" are primordially ambivalent, indicating - as he argues-both "the unwavering firmness of belief ('My God, I believe in you') and its character as disarmed and strictly subjective ('Is Pierre my friend? I do not know; I believe so')" (Sartre 1957, p. 69) In both cases, it is clear, what is fundamentally at stake in the words in question is precisely their "founding value", to use Lacan's words above. Both examples, notably-like the example of the homosexual and his enigmatic friend-involve or invoke an Other. But both, equally clearly, invoke the dimension of an inter-subjective pact that would be a matter of trust, if not of Law. In Sartre's first example, God is even there in person, as he is in Descartes' third 'Meditation'-"My God, I believe in you". (Sartre 1957, p. 69)
The Lacanian problem with Sartre would be that, given his attempt to ground his analysis, in its beginning, on the paradoxical "bedrock" of the "pre-reflective cogito" rather than the Freudian bedrock of the Law, his position can only be closed to this founding dimension of the word. The "my God, I believe in you" of Sartre's example thus can not be registered or read by him as a pledge or a promise, whose founding message would be something like the following: "come what may, and I do not know what will come, as I do not know what you will make of this, but I give you my word." It is instead there in BN to show how belief is finally "disarmed and strictly subjective". In the invocation of "my God" here-and Sartre could as well have said "on my honour", "in the name of everything I hold sacred", "in my father's name", or "on my mother's grave"-Sartre again can hear no token of a subject's existential or symbolic commitment. Instead, Words registers only an "unwavering firmness" set futilely against the inner "disintegration" of belief, since-it is true-belief is never certain knowledge, just as words are never solely descriptions of states of affairs.
Conclusion: Metaphysical Implications?
"In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God",
The Gospel of John
It is surely a telling thing that, if Sartre's autobiography was to be called "words", the nature of words is virtually unconsidered for over half of Sartre 1957. When language is considered, it is considered as one more, always-conflictual "attitude towards others", alongside of love, masochism, indifference, hatred and sadism. (Sartre 1957, pp. 372-4) According to Lacan's refiguring of Freud's famous "the repressed always returns", though, what is repressed from the symbolic returns in the Real. This means - at the very least - that it returns in ways we might not expect. When Lacan claims in Seminar XI that the formula of atheism is God is unconscious, one register of his claim is to point out the subject's founding or constitutive faith in the big Other of social norms: the order of pacts and founding pledges. This is the order, as I have argued, which frames and haunts the words of BN chapter 2 on "bad faith". More widely, it is that order of human experience wherein - if one is not a waiter as an inkwell is an inkwell, and one's husband is indeed never just a thing-one nevertheless has "given one's word", and it is this that is decisive. It is only the psychotic who, when someone hails them with the force of law ("You will be the one who will play this role", etc.), responds like a rabbit caught in the headlights, saying "But my God, how did you know?" (see Lacan 1997b, pp. 279-284) Arguably, then, it should not surprise us that-in what we might think would be the most unlikely outcome of all-when Sartre comes to his "Conclusion" in BN, the most famous "metaphysical implication" he draws from his atheistic ontology is that the meaning of human desire is the desire to be God. "Consciousness is in fact the project of founding itself", Sartre means. Like the dupe of "good faith" or the champion of sincerity, Sartre 1957 asserts that we all - constitutively - secretly dream of attaining to the dignity of "the in-itself-for-itself or in-itself-as-self cause" (Sartre 1957, p. 620) which Sartre has told us that the positing of a pre-reflective consciousness gives us some intimation of. As Sartre 1957 reads:
Everything happens as if the world, man, and man-in-the-world succeeded in realising only a missing God ... (Sartre 1957, p. 623)
Man makes himself man in order to be God ... but precisely because there is no common measure between human reality and the self-cause which it wants to be, one could just as well say that man loses himself in order that the self-cause may exist. We will consider then that all human existence is a passion ... (Sartre 1957, p. 626)
In Sartre 1967, twenty one years later, however, Sartre's position - or his passion - has changed. If the universe invoked by Sartre 1957 ends by recalling Weber's famous "pluriverse of warring Gods", with each to their own, an ironic warmth pervades Sartre 1967' autobiography. The older Sartre tells us how, on one clear morning at La Rochelle in 1917, God the Father disappeared into the blue without explanation. (Sartre 1967, p. 155, p. 65) Equally, he is able to avow now, in his own name, that matters of faith are truly every bit as complex as his analysis of Being and Nothingness might have suggested, if only "between the lines":
As I was both Protestant and Catholic, my double religious affiliation kept me from believing in the Saints, the Virgin, and finally in God Himself as long as they were called by their names... But the Other One remained, the Invisible One, the Holy Ghost, the one who guaranteed my mandate and who ran my life with his great anonymous and sacred powers. (Sartre 1967, pp. 155-156)
Who or what, however, could this great Other be, in the absence of God the Father? If Sartre still does not talk in terms of an unconscious, his Words does invoke very closely what Lacanians call the "discourse of the Other":
My truth, my character, and my name were in the hands of adults. I had learned to see myself through their eyes. I was a child, that monster which they fabricated with their regrets. When they were not present, they left their gaze behind, and it mingled with the light. I would run and jump across that gaze, which preserved my nature as a model grandson, which continued to give me my toys and the universe. [Sartre 1967, p. 53; pp. 45-46, pp. 22-23, pp. 27-28]
The child Sartre, that is, was a true believer. But his belief, independent of or set against any "metaphysical implications", was bestowed safely in the bosom of the symbolic order of the "Sartre" famille, whose terms also assigned him his own "role" as an author, which we know he faithfully was to fulfil. As Sartre writes, beautifully, towards the end of his autobiography:
The grown-ups, established in my soul, pointed a finger at my star; I did not see it but I saw their fingers; I believed in those people who pretended to believe in me. (Sartre 1967, p. 130)
If we are to ask what the meaning of Sartre's autobiography Words involves, we should perhaps say that it is a putting into words of his own intransigent faith in the Others. The paradox or the irony is that it is only by avowing his own lasting faith - one that gave birth to that "metaphysical" or theological masterpiece called Sartre 1957 - that Sartre can attain to anything like a wholly human freedom. As Sartre's mother would say: "glissez, mortels, n'appuyez pas". (Sartre 1967, p. 157) Or, in Jean-Paul Sartre's own name and closing words:
Now at last my unadulterated choice did not set me above anyone ... If I put away Salvation among the stage properties as impossible, what is left? A whole man, made of all men, worth all of them, and any one of them worth him. (Sartre 1967, p. 157)
Derrida, J. (1998) Resistances of Psychoanalysis (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press).
Heidegger, M. (1927) Being and Time (New York: Harper and Row, 1962).
- (1973) Le séminaire, livre XI, Les quatre concepts fondamentaux de la psychanalyse (Paris : Seuil).
- (1977) "Desire in Hamlet", Yale French Studies, 55/56.
- (1978). Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, transl. by A Sheridan (New York : W.W. Norton).
- (1997) The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book III. The Psychoses, 1955-1956, translated by R. Grigg. (London: WW Norton and Company).
- (2002) Ecrits, translated by A. Sheridan (London: Routledge).
- (1957) Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Existential Ontology, transl. by H. E. Barnes (London: Methuen).
- (1967) Words, translated by I. Clephans (London: Penguin).
Matthew Sharpe lectures in philosophy and psychoanalytic studies at Deakin University. He is the
author of Slavoj Zizek: A Little Piece of the Real (London: Ashgate 2004), coeditor of Traversing the Fantasy: Critical Responses to Slavoj Zizek [coedited with Jason Glynos and Geoff Boucher]
(London: Ashgate, 2005), and co-author of Understanding Psychoanalysis [coauthored with Joanne
Faulkner, and currently being prepared] (UK, Acumen Press: 2007). He is the author of
articles on political philosophy, Lacanian psychoanalysis and critical theory. His current
research interests centre on new forms of political conservatism, the coincidence of theoretical doxai across the political divide, and the return of the religious in the contemporary world.
1 How, Sartre presses, are we to explain the famed "resistance to analysis" posited by Freud, in terms of the psychoanalytic framework? From whence, according to this framework, could such resistance arise? The repressed libidinal drives or "complexes" in some way want to be revealed, and avail themselves of the opportunity provide by analysis to make their voices heard, Sartre notes. (Sartre 1957, p. 52) But then it cannot be the ego that resists, Sartre reasons, since - even if we admit that an analysand might consciously see the probability of an analytic interpretation - "most of the time it is he who by a conscious decision is in pursuit of the psychoanalytic therapy". (Sartre 1957, p. 52) If someone was to maintain that it is the ego that resists, Sartre continues, we would hardly have need to refer to a supposedly unconscious resistance in order to describe what is at stake.(Sartre 1957, p. 52) Again: if the censor, by contrast, is held up theoretically as responsible for "repression" and/or "resistance", and is thereby separated from the conscious ego, no less intractable problems emerge. First of all, how are we to suppose that the ego and the censor could relate, as two more or less separate psychic agencies, beyond a bad "magical" faith in the "materialistic mythology" of Freudianism? (Sartre 1957, p. 52, pp. 53-4) More than this, how would the censor, if separate from consciousness, know what it does? Must it not put into practice a certain knowledge, such that it can distinguish between permitted and illicit drives?[(see anon)] But then is not all knowledge also, immediately, the consciousness of knowing? (Sartre 1957, p. 53) Must we, if we would spare the ego, not then be forced to impugn the censor with a "bad faith" no less acute?
2 These would include its virtual silence concerning the later metapsychology and the superego (Sartre 1957, p. 53), central to any Freudian thought about the censor. They would also include Sartre's cavalier dismissal of Freud's mechanistic understanding of the unconscious thinking, and the account of the "good faith" of the ego towards the analyst, and in the analytic process. (Sartre 1957, p. 53)
3 Sartre's descriptions of the temporality of anguish, again - wherein one is "condemned" to reaffirm at each moment what one is to be - surely recall nothing more in the history of ideas than the staid temporality of Descartes' cogito in "Meditation III", which - without God-can only make sure that it exists each time it repeats the self-guaranteeing cogito ergo sum.