Sartre’s PhD student

Let us consider this waiter in the cafe. His movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid. He comes toward the patrons with a step a little too quick. He bends forward a little too eagerly; his voice, his eyes express an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the customer. Finally there he returns, trying to imitate in his walk the inflexible stiffness of some kind of automaton while carrying his tray with the recklessness of a tight-rope-walker by putting it in a perpetually unstable, perpetually broken equilibrium which he perpetually re-establishes by a light movement of the arm and hand. All his behavior 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 watch long before we can explain it: he is playing at being a waiter in a cafe. – Sartre, “Bad Faith”

Is an actor pretending to be a waiter any more or less a waiter than another person who acts as a waiter?

In this excerpt from Being and Nothingness on bad faith, Sartre uses the example of a waiter to show the difference between what we are and what we appear to be. Our job or society demand certain behaviors from us, and most of us acquiesce to some degree or another. When considering the waiter, is the waiter truly happy to serve, or are they playing a part? Are they attempting to portray the ideal waiter?

The reasons why a waiter would attempt to act like a waiter are pretty clear – their job and livelihood depend on it. Sartre’s purpose here isn’t to suggest that we don’t need jobs. Rather, at some point we can forget (choose to forget?) that we are not what we pretend to be all day long. This is where bad faith comes in. The ideal waiter wouldn’t be pretending to be an ideal waiter. Thus, on some level, this waiter is motivated to believe they are a waiter – a state of existence, not merely a temporary set of behaviors. This would be the beginning of what Sartre calls bad faith.

Identity and Bad Faith

Bad faith is an interesting concept. It refers to the phenomena of identity and beliefs we have about ourselves. Our identities aren’t necessarily what or who we are now, and identities are varied and complex things. Bad faith is positing the idea that it is possible that we identify with things out of convenience, perhaps due to external pressures. It is possible that we are afraid of change, of free choice, and identify in such a way to limit that.

Sartre begins this essay by asking if such a thing were even possible, since we have access to our own truths. Philosophically this may be challenging to show, but we know from psychology that this phenomena happens. To achieve meaning, purpose, and combat cognitive dissonance we can identify with things outside of ourselves. After all, if the waiter can convince themself they are truly the perfect waiter – this is all they ever wanted, it comes naturally – the role may come easier to them. Surely this is the goal of workaholic and capitalist societies – if the workforce creates their identity around work, they will be happier, although it is not truly them.

Graduate School and Bad Faith

I think there are more than a few parallels between Sartre’s waiter and a PhD student. It is so tempting, even sold to us as necessary, that we identify with our work. Its par for the course that we are judged not only by our work, but by our free time, priorities, moralities. We are encouraged to display the most intimate parts of ourselves to show that yeah, we deserve this job or that grant; yes, I am a hard worker and I am smart. When you aren’t being pressured to hide distasteful things about yourself, you’re pressured to show them off, more often than not both simultaneously.

Many grad students struggle with what the fuck it means to be the perfect grad student. You want me to be a token minority but also not? You want me to work 24/7 but also be a shining display of outreach and mental health? I should go to conferences but like, on my own paltry stipend? Clearly the expectations put upon us by many are absurd and contradictory – which brings me to my final point.

The intended aspect of a thing is not the only thing that defines what it is. Consider functional aspects – a table could be used as a chair, and vice versa. Similarly, if humans were not created with an intended purpose, and have a dynamic functional purpose – we are nothing, but simultaneously we could be anything

Freedom and Absurdity

Existentialist philosophy posits the following question to us – if we have no ultimate, objective, predetermined meaning, and everything is absurd – are we more free? If this were true, we are able to define our own meaning and purpose. Existentialism suggests we accept that yeah, you’re not inherently the ideal waiter, you are something else – an artist, a musician, a writer, a friend – and you have to play at being a waiter to survive. That’s the absurdity of it.

Being a grad student is existing in the midst of exaggerated absurdity. There is no right answer. No perfect student. But you may still be punished for perceived failures. I acted in that absurdity until my degree was in my hand. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m going to create my own definition of what the perfect scientist looks like, and do that. And if the powers that be don’t agree, so be it. Either way it’s absurd.

If you want to read more about this concept, here is a good article focusing on the other example of bad faith, and here is a translation of an excerpt.

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