In a letter to de Beauvoir in December of 1939, Sartre observes, “Everything revolves naturally around ideas of liberty, life, and authenticity,” thus outlining the major issues and the nest of questions implied, which he and de Beauvoir faced, and worked through, in the experience of their relationship and in the forging of their philosophies through their dialogue (WTML 282). More specifically, the project of “authenticity” in particular, incorporating the experience of life and the absolute necessity of ultimate freedom, posed the most important issue and the most troublesome of theoretical problems for both “existentialism” and for Sartre’s and de Beauvoir’s own amorous philosophical dialogue. Authenticity involves the ultimate freedom of self-creation and transcendence possible for every individual for-itself, a knowledge of this liberty in good faith, and the complete unity of the self of the past with the self of the present as it is projected into the future, within each individual as well as in the other.

However, even understanding authenticity under their own terms, reading the letters exchanged between Sartre and de Beauvoir we find that they themselves failed to achieve authenticity in their own relationship. In this paper, I will clarify both this failure and the significance of this failure in our philosophical study of Sartre and de Beauvoir, first through a summary of their failure to achieve authenticity as a complete unity of past and present self, and second, through their failure to achieve authenticity as complete individual freedom, especially within a strong relationship. Finally, it will be asked: if de Beauvoir and Sartre themselves failed in achieving authenticity, so crucial to the philosophy of existentialism as it is lived, of what interest do their philosophies still hold for us? Why should we remain interested in a philosophy which clearly appears to be invalidated by the very experience of the creators of the philosophy? To these questions, I will answer that though, in the end, we find their philosophies insufficient or dissatisfying because of these unresolved tensions and conflicts, understood in conjunction with their love and our own experience, the process by which Sartre and de Beauvoir worked through these crucial questions in the forging of their philosophies becomes extremely interesting in itself and significant enough to warrant our philosophical attention.

It is this very process, to which we are given invaluable access in their letters, which provides me with the methodology for my present interpretation of their positions on, and experiences of, authenticity. In my first chapter, I will explain how Gadamerian hermeneutics effectively suits the purposes of my analysis. Though Gadamer’s treatment of dialogue principally involves the interpretation of Platonic texts, his method will prove invaluable in my analysis of Sartre and de Beauvoir. Emphasizing the point that Plato wrote dialogues, and not complete treatises, Gadamer shows the process of the living discussion itself, when the interlocutors are genuinely interested in the subject at hand and open to the contributions of the other, to provide an access into the text not available in a linear treatise.

We have before us, in the form of Sartre’s and de Beauvoir’s letters to each other, while Sartre was at war, not only a constructed dialogue, but an actual authentic dialogue in which understanding shines through their discussion of an important question, to which each of them remain open. In the remainder of this paper, I will show how their letters attempt to answer questions as fundamental to the development of their philosophies as they were to their relationship: what does it mean to be authentic, what does it mean to be in love, and how does this complicate the existential concept of freedom of the for-itself and the absolute contingence of the other? Such questions, rather than treat their relationship as a dogmatic example or model of existentialism, emphasizes their relationship as a collaborative success, a dialogical process which is a development rather than a result.

In the majority of the passages in their letters, Sartre and de Beauvoir remain unclear with regard to whether authenticity is an attribute of pre-reflective consciousness or whether, on the other hand, authenticity is a project of reflective consciousness. Chapter 2 of this paper will focus on this tension in their own project of authenticity and self-creation. At times, they imply authenticity in immediacy on the pre-reflective level, while at other times insisting that it depends on reflection, as when Sartre calls authenticity “the affair of an intimate journal” (QMIAW 157). On this point, Sartre spends much more time than de Beauvoir, appearing to come to a definitive conclusion in a letter to de Beauvoir in May of 1940, when he calls authenticity “being the same, a single projection through all situations,” and in Being and Nothingness, published in 1943, when he speaks of authenticity as “a self-recovery of being which was previously corrupted” by bad faith (QMIAW 176, BN 70). In these statements, taken together, we find pieces of Sartre’s eventual understanding of authenticity as the complete synthetic unity of pre-reflective consciousness and reflected consciousness. And this definition of authenticity is crucial for Sartre in his philosophical project, since philosophy as reflection must have an authentic relationship with the immediate experience upon which Sartre builds his system.

As I will argue in my second chapter, though Sartre’s synthetic unity of consciousness is indeed possible as a temporal flux, as “being the same, a single projection through all situations,” this does not give reflective consciousness the authentic access to pre-reflective consciousness necessary for the creation of an authentic philosophy. Rather, through reflection, consciousness necessarily makes itself an object for consciousness. By taking itself as an object, rather than as the nothingness which Sartre claims consciousness is, reflected consciousness is always in bad faith. Since this process is inherent and inevitable in the very act of reflection, Sartre must conclude that “consciousness conceals in its being a permanent risk of bad faith” (BN 70). Bad faith is unavoidable. So how can authenticity be possible? We have seen Sartre’s claim that authenticity is the self-recovery of being after bad faith, but he does not elaborate on what such a “self-recovery” would entail, leaving us only with the deferral of the issue: “This self-recovery we shall call authenticity, the description of which has no place here” (70). By deferring such a crucial point, Sartre dodges the question of authenticity in the creation of the self or of a philosophical system, ignoring a point within his own system which would prove his own system to be itself inauthentic.

While chapter 2 will focus on tensions for authenticity as consciousness in relation to itself, my third chapter will expose this lingering problem of bad faith as increasingly significant and undermining with regard to authenticity as the necessity of each individual to be, as de Beauvoir describes, “free and true,” with a knowledge of this freedom and the universal possibility for the transcendence of each individual self (SS 241). As de Beauvoir and Sartre found in their own relationship, this necessity for individual freedom for the self and for the other poses a particularly difficult challenge to the couple in love. Even in The Second Sex, in which de Beauvoir breaks drastically from many of the premises of existentialism, because of the further restrictions on ultimate freedom she finds in the situation of the female gender, de Beauvoir still writes, “An authentic love should assume the contingence of the other” (SS 654). But, as I will show in chapter 3, Sartre and de Beauvoir did not assume this contingence when giving personal accounts of their love to each other. With such statements as “we are one” or “you are me,” they blurred the lines between their individual selves, fleeing the freedom of their own self into the self of the other or a single self which somehow unites the two previously free individuals. Such a flight is characteristic not of authenticity, but rather, of bad faith.

Thus, we find that in the strong relationship of love, not only is bad faith unavoidable, it becomes, at least for Sartre, the single characteristic which most accurately describes the relationship of the couple in love. How are we to interpret these experiences and personal accounts by the leaders of existentialism? While their philosophies stress ultimate freedom as the defining characteristic of every individual and the necessity for any authentic relationship, in their own love they proved not freedom, but bad faith to be more characteristic of emotions in the experience of love. In practice, bad faith turns out to be a larger problem for the project of authenticity than Sartre would have us believe. Rather than the exception, bad faith becomes the rule for the couple in love.

While Sartre relies completely on bad faith to explain these tensions as necessary, but still a lie to oneself, de Beauvoir uses bad faith in her own formulation, but eventually finds it inadequate as a complete solution to the problem of authenticity. In my fourth chapter, I will show how these tensions of authenticity she found in her own experience of her relationship with Sartre directly influenced her break with existentialism in favor of her own formulation in The Second Sex. Where both Sartre and de Beauvoir understand the way in which they surrender themselves to the uniting “we,” de Beauvoir sees an additional element in this union, a situation which even in unity keeps the male and the female unequal in the relationship. Expected to unite with a man, whether in marriage or simply in love, those who are gendered as female are taught to subordinate their own transcendence to the essential subject of the man, thus reducing their own self to pure immanence, an inessential contingency.

De Beauvoir gains insight into this situation, I will argue in chapter 4, due to a recognition of her own relationship with Sartre, a situation in which we see her, through her epistolary dialogue with Sartre, subject herself to these same conditions. As a woman, she can recognize the effects of her uniquely female situation in a way that Sartre cannot, since as a man he never experienced them in his own self. So, de Beauvoir goes where Sartre cannot, focusing on the situation of women, while Sartre remains committed to the ultimate freedom of the self and explains away tensions with his notion of bad faith.

Again, we must ask, what does this mean for the philosophy of existentialism, to which de Beauvoir continued to claim loyalty, even after her obvious departure in The Second Sex? Though de Beauvoir and Sartre never posited their own love as the quintessential example of the existential relationship, their dialogue and experience was crucial in the development of what would be existentialism, and they each viewed their relationship, unapologetically, as indeed “authentic.” Does this irreconcilable conflict invalidate their relationship? Or does it invalidate their philosophies? Many critiques of Sartre’s position in Being and Nothingness conclude with the understanding that love is not possible within such a system. This point is understandable and clearly illustrates the irreconcilable tensions inherent in the letters of de Beauvoir and Sartre. Thus, in the case of their own relationship, we must either invalidate their love, and in doing so we could go so far as to agree that love is not possible under the heading of existentialism, or we must invalidate the philosophy as not consistent with the reality of experience.

I do not intend to invalidate the love between Sartre and de Beauvoir. In reading their letters, this emotional and intellectual relationship strikes us as honest, genuine, and truly touching. Their own feelings, which I have described up to this point only in terms of “bad faith,” are more than just understandable to those of us who have also experienced love. They are even expected of us. Love does feel to us, as Sartre and de Beauvoir feel it, like a union, a necessary companionship in which the borders of the self are not quite as defined as we may otherwise think. Whether love actually does dissolve the boundaries of self, creating an essential union out of two previously free selves, is a question which I will approach in the conclusion to this paper. First, this paper will examine the accounts of love given by Sartre and de Beauvoir on their own terms, primarily in terms of authenticity and individual, existential liberty. The tensions exposed in this analysis, rather than reveal their love as “inauthentic,” will instead raise questions concerning their own experience, the effect of this experience on their developing philosophies, and the effect of their philosophies on their relationship. Rather than finding their relationship unsettling when viewed in relation with their theories, the tensions exposed in their letters illustrate the problems inherent in existentialism itself, problems which de Beauvoir attempts to move beyond in The Second Sex, and which we as readers find philosophically dissatisfying, especially when read in conjunction with their letters.

Keep reading … on to Chapter 1