Sunday, April 23, 2017

Freedom and being-as-contingent-doing [4/18/17: Sartre on “Bad Faith” and Being-for-Others, Simone de Beauvoir]

            Now, I like Sartre, but I love de Beauvoir.  She’s incredibly articulate—probably my favorite author in the class.  That’s not to say, however, that I think I fully understand everything she says.  There’s nothing to do but to get cracking!
            I keep coming back to de Beauvoir’s passage on freedom (Solomon, 294), which we spent quite some time on in class, because I am utterly convinced she describes a “third way” besides futile action and empty resignation in response to barrier or adversity.  I just have trouble really understanding her description.  “[I]n order for my freedom not to risk coming to grief against the obstacle which its very engagement has raised [see the parallel to Sartre’s crag, which becomes an obstacle only when one engages in with intent that it blocks], in order that it might still pursue its movement in the face of the failure, it must, by giving itself a particular content, aim by means of it at an end which is nothing else but precisely the free movement of existence.”  I’ll try to dissect this statement to understand it better.
            The “content” to which de Beauvoir refers is particularity—“the particularity of the project . . . determines the limitation of [the actor’s] power, but . . . also . . . gives the project its content and permits it to be set up.”  Obviously, a project must have some particular context, aim, and method, which, in constituting the project in the real world, give it meaning.  An abstract project—“to open doors,” for example—does nothing unless one applies it to the particular doors one encounters.  Cool!  But that particularity, that content, must be means, not an end in itself—otherwise its failure would invalidate the effort and send the actor into despair.  No, the particularity must be means toward “the free movement of existence.”  This is the crucial phrase, and I’m really not sure what it means.
            Maybe de Beauvoir’s example will help.  For her version of Van Gogh, “painting was a personal way of life and of communication with others which in another form could be continued even in an asylum.”  This is important!  The painting is a means to a certain way of life, one which may be pursued through other means if painting is denied.  Is this the “free movement of existence” to which she refers?  The pursuit of the abstract project, whatever it may be, over emphasis on important, but replaceable, means?  It may be.  That’s my best shot, honestly.  I’d be interested to hear your reading.
            Moving on to Sartre, I’ll stick to my interpretation and maintain that “bad faith” isn’t bad, per se, nor is it truly evitable.  The waiter cannot be a waiter in the same way as a cup is a cup; doing is being, and the only way to be a waiter is to wait.  But the waiter has transcendent potential beyond his present facticity, the present state of affairs; he has agency and choice, whereas the cup will remain a cup until broken.  In waiting, the waiter wears the self of “waiter” like a glove, emphasizing the waiter’s qualities and identity over his own, and so is he constructed essentially in the observer’s mind (for, as we discussed last week, “essence” is a contingent, assigned, and incomplete reading of the world, a mental construct encompassing some, but not all, qualities of a posited thing).  The waiter is in bad faith, for he presents himself to himself and others as, is perceived as, and is (for a time) essentially constructed as something less than his whole—that is, a waiter.  And no label or posited “essence,” not even his name, can conjure up to himself or others the whole of his potential:  what he has been, can be, and will be.  Others’ ideas of him are incomplete, whether their ideas are labeled “waiter,” “friend,” “son,” “father,” or anything else; even his own self-concept can’t encompass his entirety.  This is an artifact of a mind that can see and deal with only parts of reality, organized and metaphorically represented in a posited, simplified world that we perceive; I don’t see any way to avoid it, and so I see no reason why it should be a problem.

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