Chapter 2: Authenticity, the Self, and Philosophy as Reflection

Much of the tension Sartre and de Beauvoir face as they work through their understanding of love and freedom involves the question of authenticity. In particular, de Beauvoir and Sartre work through the conflicting conceptions of authenticity as a property of the pre-reflective consciousness or as a reflective philosophical project. In a letter to de Beauvoir, Sartre defines “authenticity” as “being the same, a single projection through all situations” (QMIAW 176). This definition closely resembles Sartre’s earlier description of consciousness, in The Transcendence of the Ego (published in 1937, before the war), which he claims must unify itself as “the perpetual syntheses of past consciousnesses and present consciousness” (39). Such a synthetic unity of consciousness requires reflection, as consciousness constantly posits itself as an object for consciousness. Here, the objectification involved in this reflective qualification for selfhood raises many problems for Sartre and de Beauvoir in their attempt to understand authenticity and, accordingly, to achieve such authenticity.

In this chapter, I will reveal these tensions de Beauvoir and Sartre faced with regard to authenticity in their letters and their philosophies, primarily exposing the precise manner in which the complications within their dialogue on the subject led to Sartre’s formulation of unavoidable “bad faith” in self-creation. To this end, I will first render Sartre’s views on the self as he formulated them before the war in The Transcendence of the Ego, published in 1937. I will then show how his bracketing of this view, while away from de Beauvoir and open to his epistolary dialogue with her, facilitated the growth of his thought to his eventual position in Being and Nothingness, begun during his imprisonment at war in 1940 and published, after the completion of his military service, in 1943. Fundamental to this later formulation is Sartre’s understanding of bad faith, which I will argue that Sartre arrives at as a result of the complications he faced in his own project for authenticity with de Beauvoir. Sartre’s position on bad faith, and how he arrived at this position, will become increasingly significant in my analysis of authenticity in subsequent chapters. In the latter portion of this chapter, I will introduce the ways in which bad faith and the project of authenticity will figure in my discussion of love and freedom in chapter 3, a discussion upon which my analysis of de Beauvoir’s addition of situation for the “woman in love” in chapter 4 will rest.

Beginning The Transcendence of the Ego with what he calls “the essential principle of phenomenology,” Husserl’s claim that “all consciousness is consciousness of something,” Sartre proceeds to critique the conclusion Husserl later reaches concerning the nature of consciousness (TOE 44). Though Husserl had initially determined “that the me is a synthetic and transcendent production of consciousness,” Sartre notices that he then later reverted

to the classic position of a transcendental I. This I would be, so to speak, behind each consciousness, a necessary structure of consciousness whose rays would light upon each phenomenon presenting itself in the field of attention (TOE 37).

Suggesting that such a conclusion is not “compatible with the definition of consciousness given by Husserl,” Sartre focuses on the intentionality of consciousness and the importance of reflection in the forming of consciousness (TOE 37).

Since consciousness requires an object for it to be consciousness of, Sartre points out that “consciousness is defined by intentionality,” positing itself as an object for consciousness (TOE 38). Thus, any appeal to a transcendental I would be both unnecessary and misguided. The ego (I) does not exist before, or stand behind, the consciousness which apprehends it. Rather, consciousness must exist in the same way as everything else exists in the world, a relative existent which itself is an object for consciousness. Thus, we can see that the ego “is an object apprehended, but also an object constituted, by reflective consciousness” (TOE 80-81). Consciousness unifies itself in time through this process of constant reflection and creation. The ego, as an object of consciousness’ reflection (rather than as a transcendental foundation for the self), “maintains its qualities through a genuine, continuous creation” (TOE 78). Consciousness is created and continued by the project of consciousness, becoming a synthetic unity in time, a non-positional temporal flux, projecting itself constantly and consistently through all situations.

When explaining, in a letter from November of 1939, that a strong relationship “comes from the fact that you indicate yourselves together in the future,” de Beauvoir adds to this concept of a reflective consciousness by focusing on its projection into the future (LTS 183). This projection into the future must come after reflection on the self of the past and the present and act as a continuation and constant creation of the authentic self. De Beauvoir points this out in The Ethics of Ambiguity, writing, “When I envisage my future, I consider that movement which, prolonging my existence of today, will fulfill my present projects and will surpass them to new ends” (EOA 115-116). In this way, consciousness transcends itself by positing something outside of consciousness as an object for reflection.

Since the endurance of an unified consciousness in time requires constant reflection of consciousness upon consciousness, Sartre must distinguish between the consciousness which reflects and the consciousness which is reflected upon. As consciousness takes itself for an object, the consciousness which reflects is indeed different from what Sartre calls “consciousness of the first degree, or unreflective consciousness” (TOE 41). To illustrate this difference, Sartre refers to the Cartesian Cogito, which both Descartes and Husserl understand as the “factual necessity” of the I think (43). “But it must be remembered,” Sartre insists, “that all the writers who have described the Cogito have dealt with it as a reflective operation, that is to say, as an operation of the second degree” (44). This is to say that the consciousness which performs the Cogito is a consciousness directed upon consciousness, taking consciousness as an object.

Thus, while Sartre can affirm that “the certitude of the Cogito is absolute, for, as Husserl said, there is an indissoluble unity of the reflecting consciousness and the reflected consciousness,” he still emphasizes the synthetic nature of consciousness as two consciousnesses, “one of which is consciousness of the other” (44). Sartre must then conclude that the consciousness which says the I think is not the same consciousness which thinks. Rather, it is “precisely the reflective act which gives birth to the me in the reflected consciousness” (45). This positing of consciousness as an object for consciousness, and the difference created within the unity of a single consciousness is crucial to the understanding of an authentic self, an authentic relationship, and an authentic philosophy. However, such a distinction also creates a tension within Sartre’s and de Beauvoir’s dialogue with regard to exactly what it means for a self, a relationship, or a philosophy to be truly “authentic.”

Sartre would later expand upon this theory of consciousness in his philosophical treatise Being and Nothingness, begun during his imprisonment during the war. Using the more developed language of existentialism, Sartre reminds us, “In an article in Recherches Philosophiques [The Transcendence of the Ego] I attempted to show that the Ego does not belong to the domain of the for-itself” (BN 101). Rather, “as a unifying pole of Erlebnisse [experience] the Ego is in-itself, not for-itself,” since if “it were of the nature of consciousness, in fact, it would be to itself its own foundation in the translucency of the immediate” (BN 102-103). Consciousness appears as a transcendent in-itself, a bare facticity which is a nothingness rather than a foundation or a nature of consciousness. It is only after reflection that an I or a self is created.

Sartre writes of reflection as the creation of self by substituting a presence in the natural absence of consciousness:

Now this first reflective movement involves in addition a second or selfness. In selfness my possible is reflected on my consciousness and determines it as what it is. Selfness represents a degree of nihilation carried further than the pure presence to itself of the pre-reflective cogito–in the sense that the possible which I am is not pure presence to the for itself as reflection to reflecting, but that it is absent-presence (BN 103).

In the reflection of selfness, the possible becomes determined as what it is. Though the creation of selfness is necessary, it denies the original negation of consciousness, thus standing in obvious opposition with the existential understanding that “consciousness is not what it is” (BN 62). Such a determination of what it is, imposed on a consciousness which is pure negation or facticity (what is not what it is), is an example of a consciousness exhibiting bad faith.

In Being and Nothingness, Sartre presents this view of consciousness in the formula, “Consciousness is a being, the nature of which is to be conscious of the nothingness of its being” (BN 47). De Beauvoir, in her development of an existential ethics, would use this formula as a starting point, paraphrasing, “Sartre, in Being and Nothingness, fundamentally defined man, that being whose being is not to be” (EOA 10). But when consciousness reflects upon consciousness, consciousness posits consciousness as an object for consciousness. Thus, consciousness appears as an object rather than a nothingness, a determined thing rather than a possibility. Since the nature of consciousness is to be conscious of its own nothingness, the very act of objectifying itself through reflection is in bad faith, which Sartre describes as “a lie to oneself” within “the unity of a single consciousness” (BN 48,49). In bad faith, consciousness seeks to escape the nothingness of the in-itself, denying its unavoidable facticity.

Through reflection, Sartre believes, “consciousness affects itself with bad faith” (BN 49). Moreover, it is an unavoidable risk of the human existential condition. Bad faith “is an immediate, permanent threat to every project of the human being” (BN 70). How then, can a consciousness hope to be “authentic,” when the very nature of reflecting upon itself objectifies the self in an inevitable lie? What does it mean to be “authentic,” if consciousness cannot help but be corrupted by bad faith? In a footnote to Being and Nothingness, Sartre adds that the possibility to radically escape bad faith “presupposes a self-recovery of being which was previously corrupted. This self-recovery we shall call authenticity, the description of which has no place here” (BN 70). If authenticity is a self-recovery after bad faith, does this mean it returns the self to an “authentic” pre-reflective state? Or is the act of self-recovery itself reflective, making authenticity a reflective act which somehow avoids the project of bad faith?

These questions constantly occupied the horizon of understanding under which Sartre’s and de Beauvoir’s dialogue progressed, through the complexities and complications in their theories and experience, without their ever coming to a clear, definitive position on authenticity in terms of reflection. As a result, I argue, Sartre developed his theory of bad faith as the unavoidable result of a necessary objectification of the self through reflection. But their inconclusiveness on such a crucial issue and an increasing problem of bad faith, as I will show in later chapters, hurts their own project of authenticity, both as individual selves and as a couple, working to undermine their philosophies of authentic relationships.

Away at war, Sartre informs de Beauvoir of a negative critique he had received of The Transcendence of the Ego:

Just a note from Kanapa criticizing my article on the Transcendental Self. My God, but that seems from far away and long ago! Not because it was written in peacetime, but because my view on all that has changed. Without my gaining a definitive one (WTML 372).

By admitting this to de Beauvoir, Sartre brackets his formulation in The Transcendence of the Ego, opening up the possibilities of his thought to the question, through his correspondence with de Beauvoir. By not limiting himself by the ideas he had developed before the war (which would treat his own previous work as dogma), Sartre is able to pursue the questions he and de Beauvoir are attempting to work through without the hindrance of weighted preconceptions.

In another letter, Sartre describes how his engagement away at war, communicating philosophically almost exclusively with de Beauvoir, has

allowed me to go forward without ever being preoccupied with finding out whether or not I was in agreement with my earlier ideas–nor even whether from one day to the next I was in agreement with myself. This way of thinking pays off well and, eventually, you find yourself agreeing with yourself, and it has the merit of not being forced (QMIAW 39-40).

Here, Sartre describes his authentic philosophical development. Though he does not treat his previous work as an object, he still remains a unified projection in time, “agreeing” with himself. However, this authenticity is not without reflection. Sartre must recognize how every new idea must evolve from reflection upon his previous ideas and how the very nature of referring to his previous work is in itself an act of reflection. However, he does not hold himself to a “standard” such as the text of The Transcendence of the Ego or ideas in his notebook written on the previous day. Rather, he leaves himself open to the possibilities of understanding, which he and de Beauvoir addressed and worked through in their relationship. When they were together, their dialogue took the form of genuine conversation. When separated, as they were during the war, their letters were crucial to this mutual, reflective, and dialogical project.

Following a brief leave of absence, when Sartre was able to visit de Beauvoir in Paris, Sartre writes to de Beauvoir, “I worked on the notebook this morning and cashed in on a few little ideas we had in Paris, you and I, notably that the desire for authenticity was either entirely inauthentic or else was authenticity itself” (QMIAW 64). In this statement, we can clearly see the importance of authenticity within their dialogue, while noticing at the same time the wide range of possibilities which lay before them as they remained open to the question. However, this lack of definition significantly hurts their own project for authenticity. Since, upon reflection, they clearly desired authenticity, they would indeed be authentic. But the other possible definition remains, making authenticity a pre-reflective state of truth achieved without conscious willing. If this were the case, their very attempt at authenticity would have kept them from achieving authenticity. Here, their lack of clarity in their working through of the above dichotomy inevitably disturbs the project for authenticity which they desired and understood as so pivotal in their philosophies.

The writing of letters, by their very nature, requires reflection. Even when the most trivial of events are conveyed, the act of describing them in a letter attests to their reflective nature. De Beauvoir would note, on a day in which she reported only such trivial events, “This letter has the sole merit of reflecting my life” (LTS 178). For such a letter to “reflect her life,” de Beauvoir had to reflect upon these events and write them down. And, in returning a letter, Sartre would have to first reflect on de Beauvoir’s letter, then reflect on his own life to compose a response. Thus, the dialogical project in which Sartre and de Beauvoir engaged themselves through their relationship and fostered through their letters, was also a reflective project. And, though they faced confusion in their understanding of “authenticity,” they also referred to their relationship as authentic. As they reflected on their own relationship (and on the reflections of the other) they continually raised questions regarding authenticity in their attempt to understand, and gain, authenticity in their individual selves and in their relationship.

While the sight of a loved one is immediate, the delay of letters causes distance in correspondence, and though the letters of de Beauvoir remain an authentic dialogue, they require much more reflection to sustain this dialogue. Sartre recognizes this dependence on reflection and comments to de Beauvoir, “What and odd life without simultaneity we live. Which is truer: What I learn each day and you don’t feel–or what you’re feeling at the moment I’m thinking of you and which I don’t know? I’m neither here nor there” (QMIAW 131). Still, Sartre agrees with de Beauvoir in her belief in, and her dependence on, “a genuine correspondence to be possible,” even over distance and time (LTS 316). But it does seem to require reflection by each of them to keep their relationship successful and their correspondence authentic.

Also crucial to their reflective dialogue, Sartre and de Beauvoir each wrote extensively in notebooks written for the other, making sure that every part of their lives were recorded fort the other to read, even if things were forgotten in the letters. During a break in their correspondence, brought upon by Sartre’s stay as a prisoner of war, de Beauvoir tells Sartre, “I’ve kept a detailed diary, you know, of everything that has happened to me over the past month. It’s like a long letter addressed to you” (LTS 312). And Sartre kept up his notebook for de Beauvoir, writing out portions in his letters to her until he finished each notebook. At which point, he would sent the completed directly to her, his intended audience.

Sartre recognizes the self-conscious nature of letters and notebooks as reflection and often seems to find this reflection important in the creation of authenticity, while natural experience remains purely in the first degree of consciousness. He writes to de Beauvoir, “It’s really odd how life is more natural when there isn’t a notebook around, how incidents melt away the moment we’ve lived them and how, in a sense, authenticity is the affair of an intimate journal” (QMIAW 157). De Beauvoir also seemed to find authenticity in the reflective nature of both reading and writing philosophy and keeping a journal to involve Sartre in her reflections. She writes to Sartre, “it restored my equanimity to rediscover philosophy and books–all those things which are truly real, and so solid, and which we’ll never be without” (LTS 326). Philosophy and books, the products and subjects of reflection, are “real” and “solid,” given the authenticity which spontaneity lacks. And, when reflected upon in their notebooks and exchanged, these notebooks, as their letters, made them feel together, continuing their philosophical dialogue and influencing each other as their conversations did when they were physically together.

Responding to an observation of Sartre’s, de Beauvoir tells him, “It’s clever of you to say that, while reading your letters, I’ve been influenced by the view point of your notebooks–I think there’s much truth in that” (LTS 227). As their relationship was indeed an authentic dialogue, Sartre and de Beauvoir each influenced the other in their attempt to work through the same basic questions of authenticity, freedom, and human relationships such as love. As Sartre influence de Beauvoir, he also depended on de Beauvoir’s influence on his own thought. When together, they worked through such questions through conversation. When apart, this dialogue was sustained by, and exhibited in, the central questions discussed in their letters and their notebooks.

Continuing to question the nature of authenticity, and engaging Sartre to this end, de Beauvoir writes, “I so wish we could make a comparison between your ideas on nothingness, the in-itself, and the for-itself and Hegel. For there are many analogies” (LTS 336). She then concludes, “There you are, my sweet little one: so that I don’t forget it, a basis of present reflections for me, and for us a point of departure for future conversations” (LTS 336). Through de Beauvoir’s and Sartre’s conversations, they worked through these issues, reflecting and dialoguing and understanding their theories, as developed in their letters and in their conversations, as working-through-of-possibilities rather than completed understandings.

Sartre observes, “one always falls short of the thoughts one has created. Because one believes them. Which doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in mine, ordinarily, but ultimately I know full well that they’re the product of my freedom” (QMIAW 6). Accordingly, Sartre reflects upon these ideas and exchanges ideas with de Beauvoir to develop these ideas more–not using them as a foundation for an entire system upon their incipience. But again, Sartre has difficulty with this distinction between philosophy as reflection or authenticity as a pre-reflective nature. In another letter, Sartre writes, “yesterday, I had a concept of the world as completely closed in on me, and dark. Ordinarily I’m a bit above my theories, but then, no: I was right in them” (WTML 433). Here, Sartre is deep in his theories, feeling them deeply without the distance of reflection.

As a complex concept with many possibilities, Sartre and de Beauvoir worked through the idea of authenticity thoroughly throughout their dialogue. Authenticity seems, in many interpretations, to be a trait only possible in the pre-reflective consciousness. But unreflected, spontaneous thought, cannot project itself uniformly through all situations, because it fails to achieve the self-consciousness which is necessary for projection of consciousness into the future. It is a difficult distinction for Sartre and de Beauvoir, and just when the latter option seems so clear, their letters betray such an easy solution. For example, in January of 1940 Sartre writes to de Beauvoir of his personal relationship with his philosophy as immediate, on a pre-reflective level, rather than reflective, as we have come to understand philosophy under his terms:

I was just writing in my notebook today that the philosophy I’m writing must be rather moving for others because it’s personal. It plays a role in my life, protecting me against the melancholy, gloom, and sadness of the war, though by now I’m trying neither to protect my life after the fact with my philosophy, which would be sleazy, nor make my life conform to my philosophy, which would be pedantic, instead now philosophy and life have really become one (QMIAW 29).

Now, when Sartre writes this one cannot help but question how this could be possible, considering the reflective qualifications for the development of philosophy. Life exists as pure spontaneity, as unreflected experience. Philosophy, on the other hand, requires reflection upon such experience.

Sartre and de Beauvoir, in their relationship as they lived it together, as well as within their own consciousnesses, felt complications which raised questions and required working through. At one point, De Beauvoir writes of her understanding of their love,

I’ve always thought that you truly loved me, of course, but at such moments there was your love and me to whom it was addressed. When I say we’re as one, however, it means we’re beneath reflection: our love is realized through our every action and our every word (LTS 106).

Such an understanding of a love “beneath reflection” implies a relationship which functions entirely in the pre-reflective consciousness, or consciousness of the first degree. Though obviously felt as a legitimate emotion, it does represent some complications for an existential theory of consciousness. How can a relationship be viewed as a pre-reflective operation without being recognized as a feeling in bad faith? As the other always exists as the other, it requires the reflective operation to recognize it as a separate consciousness and to remain in good faith.

Sartre himself finds these problems with his own authenticity. He writes to de Beauvoir,

My little one, yes, I would so love to kiss your ‘old beaten-path’ cheeks, which please me more than anything else in the world. I love you. You know, these days, try as I will to hoist myself up to authenticity, there are times when my courage fails shamefully from being away from you (QMIAW 61).

Here, Sartre affirms the aid, if not the necessity, of de Beauvoir in his own project of authenticity, rather than accept his own possibility for authenticity as an independent self. When Sartre characterizes de Beauvoir as an “old beaten-path,” he refers, as de Beauvoir tells us in her editor’s footnote, to “a woman whom Sartre had rejected” who “reproached him for preferring Beauvoir, an ‘old well-trod path,’ to herself” (QMIAW 47). She is so well known that Sartre almost views her as necessary, and though he would theorize differently, he feels difficulty achieving authenticity without her.

So, this problem with authenticity experienced by Sartre and de Beauvoir becomes increasingly problematic when extended beyond the self to the relations of the self with others, especially in the relationship of love. In the following chapter, I will further examine the tensions of authenticity with regard to love and the ultimate freedom of the for-itself. While the present chapter has shown the unavoidable problem for consciousness in achieving authenticity with relation to itself, and only briefly discussed the question of the other, I will now focus my attention on the difficulty Sartre and de Beauvoir face, as a couple in love, in achieving authenticity in their relationship with each other.