Sartre and Self-Deception
Robleh Wais 9/2/2009
I rediscovered an old book by Jean-Paul Sartre while rearranging my library collection, after buying a new set of bookcases. It was the chapter on self-deception that caught my attention. The book is Existential Psychoanalysis, published in 1953 by The Philosophical Library. He wrote it in the course of solidifying the then nascent school of Existentialism. In the chapter entitled: Self-Deception, Sartre gives us a good view of who we really are. If you've not encountered Sartre and his atheistic Existentialist philosophy this will be a new look at life for you.
In our lives we are a unified consciousness that is aware of those outside our personal minds. Sartre calls them the Other. To ourselves we are a unified self-conscious being. We can practice a strange form of interpretation of ourselves called self-deception. This is when we treat ourselves as if we are outside ourselves and not a part of our own perceptual states of being. When a person is drunk he does things he would never do, then wakes up the next day and says: I couldn't have done that! This is classic self-deception. However, we don't have to be in a state of inebriation to behave this way.
A personal example is illustrative. I had an adulterous affair with a Filipina woman some years ago. All during this time, I knew that our affair could not continue forever and that it was destined to perhaps discovery and a bad ending. Yet, I behaved, and believed all during it, that we were life-long lovers. I had deceived myself into treating myself as if I were not myself. That is to say: I acted as if I were not an adulterer having an affair with a married woman, but just a man in love with a woman. Another example might be with what Sartre posed: death. We don't day to day believe we are going to die. Yet in the general we are conscious that is state of being won't last forever, we know death is inevitable.But, we separate this knowledge from our state of being: We treat this future inevitable event as if it doesn't exist and won't come to pass. In short we practice self-deception.
But what is self-deception but a lie? It is a lie we perpetrate upon ourselves. How strange this is. We know a lie is when the perpetrator knows the truth and conceals it from his/her intended deceived party. When we apply this notion ourselves it seems odd, nutty, and unfounded. Yet it happens all the time. Sartre defined it well. We deceive ourselves when we choose to forget our mortality, and act as if we will live forever. WE know we're going to die, but we consciously never consider this eventuality. It is only when we are near our ends that this sense of seeing ourselves as not that Other person, that we stop this self-deception. He charged that self-deception was a wrong way to live. So, to go back to my personal case, during my illicit relations with this woman, I lived in denial is the populist phrase. I felt that it would never end, that I wasn't doing any wrong to her husband, yet these were not conscious considerations on my part. I only thought of having her, touching her, needing her and that she needed me. The moment I did look at the moral picture, I dismissed it with an argument about evolution and male species gaining control over female species. I was deceiving myself as to who I was and she was too. Self-deception is everywhere. I feel now the math proof I am working on is important and must be that way. I feel as if all that I feel is the only way I could feel. But, to truly understand our existence, we must let go of our self-importance and sense of being in the world purposefully and at the center of this world. This is too hard for most and near impossible for me. After all, this is how we exist in the world. We are by necessity the center of all things in our individual existences.All things appear to be happening to the individual and must be interpreted from the individual standpoint. Thus, we all deceive ourselves continually until our pointless deaths.
This is why to be an Existentialist is so hard! You have to live without hope and self-deception. You have to not expect to live on and be a sentient being in this world.But, evolutionary heritage won't let us do this.
Yes, we deceive ourselves all the time. Therein, we are not ourselves. We know only our illusory images of ourselves. Is there a way out of this maze? Sartre claimed by embracing others and having them judge you by your actions not your thoughts, you could achieve some modicum of truth in living. But this can only be done after our deaths. To be a true Existentialist is not impossible but, existing in a state of being blocks knowing ourselves as if we weren't ourselves. We can be truthful to ourselves when we consider those outside ourselves. This is easy, we consider them (the Other) as the objective third person would. We can see their flaws and advantages. We can sum up their lives in reflective moments. But, applying this reasoning to ourselves becomes irresolvable. We are destined to be self-centered and deceptive unto ourselves. Worst of all we can't simply stop being reflective and introspective, it's a part of being! Unfortunately, there is no way out of self-deception while we exist. This is why so many consider Existentialism a philosophy of negative concepts.