Any role that one might adopt does not define one as there is an eventual end to one's adoption of the role; i.e. other roles will be assigned to us, "a chef", "a mother". The self is not constant, it cannot be a thing in the world. Though one cannot assign a positive value to definitions that may apply to oneself, one remains able to say what one is not.

Is this, from wikipedia on "bad faith", accurate, esepcially the phrase I've bolded?

In particualr, can I enjoy e.g. being a chef, in addition to the chef qualities my role has? Just seems like a potential, if confusing, motivator.

  • 1
    I think you may be misconstruing the sense of "positive" being used in that WP excerpt. At least if I understand what you're getting at with your example or "enjoying" being a chef (which is "positive" in the "good thing" sense, not the "definition by inclusion as opposed to exclusion" sense).
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Jan 3, 2017 at 15:23
  • how can being a chef define me as not being something? @DanBron
    – user6917
    Commented Jan 3, 2017 at 15:29
  • The quote says you cannot define yourself as a chef, based on the argument that one's role is temporary and changes over time, and so there is no fixed, immutable "self". Therefore positive (in the "painting vs whitespace" sense) self-definition is impossible. And here I'm not defending that argument, just rephrasing it, so it's clear the passage isn't using "positive" in the "good, happy thing" sense.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Jan 3, 2017 at 15:30
  • @DanBron so they're using the term "value" to mean "definition"? the quote just seems completely garbled if they don't say "positive value" to mean "good"
    – user6917
    Commented Jan 3, 2017 at 15:55
  • anyway, the question i was asking, aside from the confusing wikipedia quote, has two components: 1. is it bad faith to define ourselves by our roles and 2. think that definition makes us better or good
    – user6917
    Commented Jan 3, 2017 at 16:04

2 Answers 2


When Satre says you cannot apply positive values to a role he does not mean positive in the sense of 'good' he means positive in the sense of affirming or concluding. He contrasts this with Negative values which one can assign to roles as negating; "I am not a chef" is allowed, "I am a chef" is not.

That being said, Satre is, as most existentialists, trying to make something mundane and obvious sound impressive by tapping into the laissez-faire Zeitgeist of his social group at the time of his writing. When one says "I'm a chef" no-one is, like Satre's Waiter, saying "all that I am is now and forever contained within the description 'Chef'", they're expressing the result of their decision "I have chosen, for the time being, to carry out the functions society assigns to the role 'Chef'". Nothing in that statement says anything about their future intentions, the degree of freedom they felt inherent in making that choice, nor constrains their actions in any way. People using the term are referring implicitly to what they are now and what they intend to be, not what the actually will be.

Furthermore, even if we were to take someone who, by virtue of circumstance assigned themselves a role outside of what they consider their free will, there remain ways in which they could do this. Firstly, by definition - if you have just served people dinner for money, you are a waiter, whilst the action is being taken you can do nothing but accept that definition (presuming we are to take a pragmatic view of what constitutes 'now', or 'the time being'). Secondly Satre admits that choices can be constrained and so the number of choices is finite. He offers no explanation, however, for why that number might not, by virtue of contrived circumstance, ever reach one. If a person's life is relatively unconstrained they may have fifty choices, Satre admits that circumstance may remove one of them. If someone is so constrained that they have only two choices, what mechanism has now sprung into existence to prevent one of them being removed?

All that we're left with is the fairly mundane statement that people often overlook one or two of the choices that they actually have, or use the expression "I had no choice" when what they really mean is "I didn't like any of the other choices". Since any rational person knows what they mean anyway, making such a linguistic turn of phrase into an entire philosophy is sophistry.


You can always assign positive values to such roles, by using a function from the set of roles to the set of positive real numbers.

You must log in to answer this question.