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Scholars have often taken Foucault by his words and insisted that his philosophy is completely at odds and opposed to Sartre’s—and Beauvoir’s—existentialism. However, it is my contention that Foucault’s own appreciation and intense critique of existentialist philosophy stems from a series of misunderstandings with regards to the notions of the subject, freedom, and historicity. The purpose of my essay will be to explore affinities between Foucauldian and existentialist philosophy as found in Sartre and Beauvoir’s works, focusing particularly on the ethical notions of authenticity and distantiation from oneself. Indeed, if the existentialist ideal of authenticity as offered by Sartre and Beauvoir aims at a fluctuating self that “is what it is not and is not what it is,” it stands close to the Foucauldian subject of the aesthetics of existence who cares for itself as a subject that is none other than the subject of its own desubjectivation (to pick up on Giorgio Agamben’s analysis).1 The aporia is that of a subject that must care for oneself, yet must distantiate oneself from oneself. Tackling this aporia and explaining its mechanism, my essay will show how the existentialist analysis of authenticity can help articulate the ethical and the political in Foucault, given that the caring self is always an ethico-political agent. The subject that emerges from these processes of individuation/un-individuation is an ambiguous fluctuating subject—the only possible actor in an ever-evolving and morphing political arena.

Existential authenticity2

One of the most important ethical questions driving existentialist thinkers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir is that of authenticity. Authenticity is posited as the good to be pursued by individuals, but what must the human being do or be in order to be authentic? Sartre grounds this ethical ideal in the ontological and phenomenological. Indeed, it is essential for him to be clear on what kind of being the human being is and how it experiences itself in order to tackle the problem of authentic becoming. Sartre conceives of the human being as an embodied, situated, and intentional consciousness. This being for-itself3 is also a being for-others as it encounters other human beings in the world. Being [End Page 55] and Nothingness presents a complex analysis of the different relations the for-itself engages in, with itself as the only being that is self-conscious, with being in-itself, with others, and with the world and its objects.

Sartre’s first dealings with the issue of authenticity are articulated on the ontological plane, in a manner reminiscent of Heidegger.4 He wishes to evacuate all ethical implications from his discussion. In the chapter on bad faith in Being and Nothingness, Sartre uses the terms “bad faith” and “good faith.” However, Sartre is clear: “good faith” is not the same as authenticity. He says: “If it is indifferent whether one is in good or in bad faith, because bad faith re-apprehends good faith and creeps to the very origin of the project of good faith, that does not mean that we can not radically escape bad faith. But this supposes a self-recovery of being which was previously corrupted. This self-recovery we shall call authenticity, the description of which has no place here” (94). In fact, Sartre’s analysis shows that, fundamentally, good faith amounts to the same as bad faith. Authenticity is an ethical concept while bad faith is a phenomenological-existential concept. When one denies one’s being for-itself, i.e., the fact that one is a being that makes itself and that does not have a fixed nature, one is in bad faith. Thus, the waiter of Sartre’s famous example is in bad faith because he fancies he is a waiter in the strong ontological sense of “is.” To conceive of oneself at odds with one’s ontological being is to be in bad faith. However, bad faith is not an ontological concept although it points to the failure of one’s existential being to correspond to one’s ontological being. Bad faith is a phenomenological-existential concept that extends into an ethical one. In fact, and despite Sartre’s best wishes, bad faith can be read as always having an ethical dimension since there is an underlying claim operating in the very notion of bad faith, namely: that one ought to be what one is, that is, a being that is what it is not and is not what it is. Here, there is an indication that authenticity for the Sartrean individual will require an active distantiation from oneself that will entail the embrace of one’s self as a non-fixed being.

In his War Diaries, Sartre had already tackled the thorny question of authenticity—at that time under the influence of Heidegger. In this context, and probably also influenced by his experience of being at war, he explains that authenticity is tied to historicity. Thus, authenticity is one way—the best way? —to experience oneself as a situated being. He says: “Authenticity is a duty […] To be authentic, is to fully realize one’s situated being, whatever that situation may be…” (244, my emphasis).5 The individual who assumes oneself as free, situated and historical will be authentic. However, Sartre explains that authenticity must constantly be regained as one continues in one’s life as a free project. This perpetual regaining must happen for fear of lapsing in inauthenticity. Sartre’s explanation [End Page 56] of responsibility in Being and Nothingness is reminiscent of his definition of authenticity in the War Diaries. He says:

The one who realizes in anguish his condition as being thrown into a responsibility which extends to his very abandonment has no longer either remorse or regret or excuse; he is no longer anything but a freedom which perfectly reveals itself and whose being resides in this very revelation. But as we pointed out at the beginning of this work, most of the time we flee anguish in bad faith.

To be authentic is to be anguished. For Sartre, authenticity is the discovery of oneself as this being that seeks to be God, yet fails to be it. As said earlier in the book, “the being toward which human reality surpasses itself is not a transcendent God; it is at the heart of human reality; it is only human reality itself as totality” (Being 114). But this totality is one that is what it is not and is not what it is. It is a project that constantly aims to be one with itself, to be a for-itself-in-itself. The final word of Being and Nothingness is that the for-itself is a being that desires to be God and that flees anguish in bad faith.

Given these descriptions, authenticity as an ideal seems to be dramatically out of reach for the human being. I believe, however, that it is possible—even though extremely demanding—to be authentic. To be such, one must re-apprehend oneself reflectively. This reflective movement within the self is one of losing oneself in order to recuperate it—a reprise first necessitated by a déprise. In his Notebooks for an Ethics, Sartre explains that the

authentic man never loses sight of the absolute goals of the human condition. He is the pure choice of his absolute goals. These goals are: to save the world (in making being be), to make freedom the ground of the world, to take up creation for his own use, and to make the origin of the world absolute through freedom taking hold of itself.


This project can only be embraced reflectively. The for-itself’s project is gratuitous at its heart. But if the for-itself wills it as an expression of his freedom, the project is justified: “It is this double simultaneous aspect of the human project, gratuitous at its core and consecrated by a reflective reprise, that makes it into authentic existence” (Notebooks 481). Through this process, one accepts responsibility for oneself and for the world that one has created. One must also—and as part of the same process—embrace oneself as a being that is not what it is and is what it is not. Further, one must also convert to the Other, accepting responsibility for one’s being for-others. Thus, authenticity requires a three-pronged reflective reprise.

The conversion to the Other and to one’s intersubjective being that Sartre presents as the condition for authenticity in his Notebooks for an Ethics is problematic in view of the picture that he has drawn of interpersonal relationships in Being and Nothingness. His complex analyses lead him to [End Page 57] the famous damning statement: “The essence of the relations between consciousnesses is not the Mitsein; it is conflict” (Being 451). If authenticity requires that one re-apprehend oneself reflectively, it also entails embracing one’s world and one’s relations with others in that world. One must convert to the other. Sartre explains that the relation to the Other cannot remain conflictual. However, it is quite legitimate to ask how one may convert to the Other if this conversion is to happen solely on the basis of the ontology of Being and Nothingness. A fruitful strategy is to consider how Beauvoir’s understanding of being for-itself as being with-others—rather than being for-others—complements Sartre’s views and actually allows for the conversion to happen. Her emphasis on the Heideggerian Mitsein does not disregard the ontological conflict between consciousnesses but makes it only one moment of the relation. It is thus thanks to Beauvoir’s thinking on interpersonal relations that Sartrean authenticity is made more realistically accessible. Beauvoir’s views allow for losing oneself in the relation with the Other but not to such an extent where the reprise of oneself as being for-others is impossible. The distantiation from oneself that occurs in my relation with others is not conceived of as entirely alienating and conflictual. Rather, I only lose myself in order to recuperate myself as this enriched being that I have been made through experiencing myself as being with-others. In fact, engaging in such relations becomes essential to the process of distantiation that is at the key of authentic becoming.

In Pyrrhus and Cinéas, Beauvoir tackles the notion of authenticity as part of her inquiry into the question of meaning and related ethical problems. At that time, she is still very close to Sartre and is embracing his ontology. Thus she discusses the human being in terms of project, a being that is what it is not and is not what it is, a being that transcends itself, etc. However, she insists, to a much greater extent than Sartre, on the notion that the human being is the one that unveils being. The way she deals with this brings her very close to Heidegger. This ontological fact (of the unveiling nature of the human being) grounds an ethical duty for the individual to actually unveil being as well as to generate the conditions for unveiling to happen. As a situated embodied consciousness, the individual is thrown into the world and unveils it. To be authentic for Beauvoir will entail recognizing that one is that situated being-in-the-world and to undertake to act as the creator of the world and of values. In Beauvoir, the individual does not desire to be God as Sartre would have it.6 Rather, the individual desires to unveil being. But, this cannot happen in isolation. Beauvoir closes the first part of her essay by claiming, “A man alone in the world would be paralyzed by the manifest vision of the vanity of all his goals. He would undoubtedly not be able to stand living. But man is not alone in the world” (115). The second part of the essay explains how [End Page 58] it is necessary to appeal to the freedom of the Other in order to ground and justify my unveiling of being. This is what appears to be missing in Sartre’s analysis of the being for-itself as a being for-others.

As a free situated embodied consciousness that is conceived in terms of intentionality, I unveil being. My intending the world creates the world. I am the being thanks to whom there is a world. However, I would remain trapped in my own subjectivity if there was not an Other who could acknowledge this process. I need the Other so that my unveiling is not lost in the solipsistic trap. For that to happen, the Other must be free. It thus becomes my duty to maximize freedom in the world so that the unveiling of being can proceed and be acknowledged among free consciousnesses. Beauvoir explains: “I can concretely appeal only to the men who exist for me, and they exist for me only if I have created ties with them or if I have made them into my peers” (135, translation altered).7 This reciprocal relation will allow for the mutual recognition of consciousnesses as unveiling projects.8 In her second essay on ethics, The Ethics of Ambiguity from 1947, the emphasis is placed on the being with-others of the human being.

In authenticity, one affirms oneself as an unveiling being and this is equivalent to affirming oneself as free, for to be free is to unveil being. According to Beauvoir, to be free — to unveil — is the same movement of existing for the human being. The unveiling, which is the activity of the free being, is done as a Mitsein and never in isolation. It requires that one be in a transcending, self-overcoming movement. That is the ontological, phenomenological, and existential reality of the human being: to transcend toward a project but also to transcend toward another. This entails a constant distantiation from oneself as a past self as the grounds for one’s present striving. Authenticity is a correspondence to oneself precisely as this being that is in constant flux and constantly making itself through its interactions with the world and with others — a being for whom existence precedes essence. A being that embraces oneself not as a pretended reified self but as a self that exists and unfolds through its relations to itself, to the world, and with others. Beauvoir refers to this state of being as ambiguity. One must embrace ambiguity, one must live as an ambiguous being, and this entails always being at a distance from oneself. Beauvoir says: “In order to attain his truth [that is, to be authentic], man must not try to dispel the ambiguity of his being but, on the contrary, accept to realize it. He rejoins himself only insofar as he consents to remain at a distance from himself” (293).

This position is reminiscent of Sartre’s.9 The human being is a being in constant flux, projecting itself, self-overcoming, transcending, distantiating. To be authentic is to embrace one’s being as this being that is what it [End Page 59] is not and is not what it is. To correspond to oneself in a static sense is to ossify and let oneself be entangled in the in-itself. The imperative is thus to escape this ossification, to exist as the being one is. The ontological thereby offers the ground for the ethical prescription to live as an authentic being. This, however, is the most difficult path to take. The temptation of the last man—the person in bad faith—will always be great. Authenticity is what one should aim for but it is certainly difficult and fraught with anguish.

The ethical imperative of becoming authentic requires that one be oneself as a being that is what it is not and is not what it is. The existential imperative of becoming what one is can only be attained if one recognizes and comes to terms with every aspect of one’s being. Some of the difficulties of the ideal of authenticity might lie precisely here. Understanding the being one is requires the reflective apprehension of oneself as an embodied and situated consciousness. As such, it requires that one conceive of oneself as the being that shapes—but also as the being that is shaped by—the world and others. The fact that consciousness is intentional is what allows for this distantiation to happen. In fact, ontologically, the human being is always at a distance from oneself, being shaped and molded through what it is conscious of. The intentional interaction with oneself, with objects, with the world, and with others, entails that my being shifts and changes through the interactions. There is no such thing as a fixed self, aside from a snapshot of human being. But such a snapshot would not be an accurate rendition of what it is to be a human self since the human being is a historically unfolding and situated being. A snapshot that freezes temporal/historical unfolding and plucks the individual from its situation would only offer a distorted view of the human being.

I have said above that it is crucial to understand the kind of being the human being is in order to articulate what authenticity would be for such a being. Sartre and Beauvoir view the human being as an embodied consciousness that is a being-in-the-world and a being-with-others. This individual is an ontologically free yet situated being. The world it is in shapes it as much as it shapes the world. The subject is thus permeated by the world and by others in that world. In her essay on Sartre and Foucault, Phyllis Sutton Morris remarks that “The constructed self, for Sartre [and, I would add, for Beauvoir], is for the most part really enacted in the public world” (541). The self makes itself and thus is never fixed. Morris adds: “in his later work Foucault not only shares with the early Sartre the view that there is no fixed essence of an individual, but also shares the view that instead of seeking to discover a nonexistent, original, true self, one might engage in actively forming the self as a work of art” (544). I now turn to Foucault’s views on the subject in order to verify Sutton Morris’ claim and to inquire into what appears to be a fruitful encounter between [End Page 60] the existentialist-phenomenological understanding of authenticity and the Foucauldian notion of an aesthetics of existence.

Foucault’s subject

It ought to be noted that Foucault has been very critical of existentialist thinkers and of Sartre in particular. He considers the notion of authenticity to be dubious. For example, he says,

through the moral notion of authenticity, he [Sartre] turns back to the idea that we have to be ourselves—to be truly our true self. I think that the only acceptable practical consequence of what Sartre has said is to link his theoretical insight to the practice of creativity – and not of authenticity. From the idea that the self is not given to us, I think that there is only one practical consequence: we have to create ourselves as a work of art.”


But, as Sutton Morris has suggested above, there are a lot of affinities between the idea that one ought to create oneself as a work of art and the existentialist view—as expressed by Sartre and Beauvoir—that one must make oneself authentic. Foucault also appears to misconceive the Sartrean subject. In fact, and despite some of their irreducible differences, they are all—Sartre, Beauvoir, and Foucault—concerned with ethics as a “reflective practice of freedom.”10 Before drawing parallels between Foucault’s views and those of Sartre and Beauvoir, it is important to clearly delineate the notion of the human being as a subject put forth by Foucault.

In the essay “The Subject and Power,” Foucault declares that the general theme of his research is the notion of the subject and not that of power (209). From a genealogical point of view, it is important for Foucault that we gain “a historical awareness of our present circumstance” (209). It is imperative to look into the constitution of the subject and this necessarily leads us to an uncovering of the workings of power both on and within the subject. Foucault offers the following: “It is a form of power which makes individuals subjects. There are two meanings of the word subject: subject to someone else by control and dependence, and ties to his own identity by a conscience or self-knowledge. Both meanings suggest a form of power which subjugates and makes subject to” (212). Here, Foucault indicates two ways in which the subject is constituted (the “two meanings” he has in mind): while human beings are constituted by relations of power (subject to those forces), they are also engaged in a relation to themselves that makes them subject of their existence. This is the process of subjectivation that Foucault talks about in his writings. Christopher Cordner explains, “Everyone is enmeshed in networks of power […] In his later work Foucault highlighted the contingency of these determinations of ‘who we are.’ Rapport à soi is the way in which contingency and history are recapitulated into the free expression of who we are” (595). What this is [End Page 61] pointing to is a distancing from oneself that is crucial to the subjectivation process. One must, through the relation to oneself, take a distance from oneself, and reflectively re-apprehend oneself. As Frédéric Gros would have it, to talk about a process of subjectivation is to presuppose that there is no such thing as a subject that is already there and given to the self; we must construct it.11 Indeed, there is a subject that is the result of the action of power but this subject is not the moral subject. That situated, worldly, and embodied subject will be consolidated as a moral subject only after the free consciousness has exercised its reflective practice on it.

Valérie Daoust explains this process of subjectivation in the following way. She points out that it is impossible for the individual to free oneself from power and that the best one may do is to articulate strategies for exercising one’s freedom within power. Whatever liberation there is would not be one “from an exterior that oppresses me but rather a liberation of the self by the self and through practices of freedom.” Thus, she says, “The transformation of subjectivity is not to discover ‘who I am,’ but to reject first ‘who I am’ in resisting power and knowledge.”12 Clearly, then, the subject must engage in this process of discovering who one is, taking a distance from oneself and, having gained an understanding of one’s passive subjectivation through the effect of power, to engage in a creative process of subjectivation, appropriating oneself through practices of freedom. This would constitute what Daoust refers to as “authentic identity” (“authenticité identitaire”) (14).

Human beings are worldly social beings. As such, they are subject to power relations and the subject of their own relation to themselves. Not merely puppets of those plays of forces, they are able to reflectively re-apprehend themselves. Foucault thus suggests that the subject is no longer individual but collective or trans-individual.13 Being permeated by power relations, we are social beings; we are being with-others. Therefore, for Foucault, individual existence always has an ethical and a political dimension. As Gros indicates, “what interests Foucault in the care of the self, is the manner by which it is integrated in the social fabric and constitutes a motor for political action” (701). Judith Revel has also clearly shown that the aesthetics of existence, insofar as it constitutes in part a resistance to the effects of power on oneself as subject, constitutes an eminently political act.14

In his later writings, Foucault grew increasingly interested in the notion of “souci de soi” or care of the self.15 While this caring for oneself might be conceived as a solitary—and even solipsistic—exercise, this is not what Foucault has in mind. In fact, as Frédéric Gros puts it, the “care of the self, far from excluding the other, rather presupposes him or her. […] On the [End Page 62] other hand, care of the self also intensifies the relation to political action rather than hindering it” (Souci 702).16 The techniques of the self that will be employed by the free subject to care for oneself through a process of distantiation are varied. I do not wish to expand on this, however, since I am interested in the notion of the care of the self only insofar as it poses an ethico-political problem and points to another instance of the process of distantiation that I have been talking about.

Distantiation from Oneself: Existential authenticity as Foucauldian caring for oneself

If it is true that the first point of rupture between Foucault and Sartre is the notion of the subject, as Judith Revel has suggested,17 then a reconciliation seems to be in order. Indeed, I have shown that the notion of the subject as always at a distance from oneself and caught in a process of individuation/un-individuation that we find at play in Foucault is also the existential subject as delineated by both Sartre and Beauvoir. It is not the case that the existential subject is a fixed entity underlying existence toward which one is aiming while striving for authenticity.18 As Philip Knee puts it, “Far from being a ‘founding subject,’ the Sartrean subject is fragmented in a multiplicity of discontinued conscious acts, and is only identifiable through concrete objects of the world” (114).19 Phyllis Sutton Morris’ description of the creating self applies equally to Sartre’s, Beauvoir’s, and Foucault’s notion of the self:

the self which does the creating is not the same as the created self. Rather, the creating self is the conscious bodily agent, persisting in time, interacting with people and things in his or her world. The constructed self has the status of an ideal complex pattern or essence formed by the bodily agent through a series of actions and utterances, unified in part by a fundamental choice of a long-range project, identifiable and reidentifiable by others, recognizable to ourselves in reflection, through the mediation of others who have observed us acting through time, and sometimes – although rarely – replaced by a radically altered pattern or essence.


In the views of the subject offered by Sartre, Beauvoir, and Foucault, the self is engaged in this process of creating oneself. In each case, the subject aims toward one’s self as a quasi-essence—the “ideal complex pattern” identified by Sutton Morris above. That movement toward oneself—constantly at work, always renewed because the subject is never fixed, and always unfolding through its own relations—is called authenticity in Sartre and Beauvoir and caring for oneself in Foucault.20 The distantiation process that is at the heart of each instances of moral striving is the same. It is therefore safe to conclude that there is no difference between these [End Page 63] views and that Foucault’s offhand rejection of the existential concept of authenticity was ill-founded.21

There is a further point at which existential thought and Foucault might come together: the notion of freedom. About freedom, Foucault says, “Freedom is the ontological condition of ethics. But ethics is the reflective form that freedom takes.”22 Florence Caeymaex remarks that the undertone of this quote is definitely Sartrean. In fact—and as I have pointed out elsewhere—there is a problem with regards to Sartrean freedom. It is not clear that Sartre is able to step out of the trap he set for himself with the notion of ontological freedom. Beauvoir, however, with a more refined notion of freedom articulated in her ethical essays, is able to offer a solution. She speaks of ontological freedom, moral freedom, and concrete freedom (the actual power to act in certain specific circumstances). This articulation of the notion of freedom allows for one to always be absolutely free (ontologically) all the while not being morally free or able to act in certain circumstances. This articulation was missing in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness and generated many critiques. Indeed, how can one claim that freedom is absolute when we are so obviously constrained in our freedom at all times? How does one reconcile the view that one is absolutely free with the notion that one is a situated consciousness—one which may be at the mercy of political oppression or, more dramatically, at the mercy of the alienation caused by the look of the Other? Beauvoir’s refined view solves these issues and it is definitely Foucauldian in tone.

In fact, Beauvoir acknowledges the weight of situation—what Foucault would refer to as the interplay of power relations—to a much greater extent than Sartre does.23 The whole Second Sex is about showing how female human beings have been made into the powerless women they are due to their situatedness and its related internalization of power structures and relations. But despite this, Beauvoir believes that it is possible to attain reciprocal relations among human beings. This is only possible if one remains ontologically free. What matters is for the individual to apprehend oneself as this free being and to wish to engage in reciprocal relations, appealing to the freedom of others that one encounters. Foucault does not talk about this in terms of reciprocity and appeal. Rather—and using a Nietzschean language—he speaks of agonistic freedom. This agonistic freedom is one that provokes oneself in one’s becoming. It is freedom in relation with the other, constantly being challenged to overcome oneself and resist ossification.

Both existentialist and Foucauldian freedom requires that one exists as the being-with-others that one is. As we have seen, this is a key feature of our being. We are always embodied and situated in the world and, as [End Page 64] such, always in relation with others. Through the reflective reprise that allows the individual to re-apprehend oneself as the being it is—as a being which is what it is not and is not what it is or, in Foucauldian terms, as a being that is always at a distance from oneself—one may re-apprehend one’s self as othered—or altered—by and through the encounter with the other. This encounter, however, is always ongoing. One is never in isolation. One comes to the world in which there are others. One is shaped by this. Sartre would say: one is being made into a being for-others. This is the passive way of existing as a being in the world with others. Through reflective reprise, one may become a being-with-others—indeed one ought to. Because one is a free being and may exercise one’s freedom to re-apprehend oneself, one may avoid being fixed in one’s being at the hand of the other. In virtue of being the beings we are—situated in a world in which there are others—we will always be objectified through the look of the other—or alienated, as Sartre would have it. However, we may recuperate from this objectification and give it a positive spin by making it part of the process of individuation through which we make use of the reflective practices of freedom and ultimately become ethical beings. It is our duty to not only become more than passive subjects of power relations but to actually become the active subjects of our own lives. This requires embracing our being as in flux and acknowledging the distantiation process that is at the heart of our being. It also requires the recognition that we will always unfold historically and through our relations and experiences—that our existence will always precede and supersede essence.

The fluctuating subject that Sartre, Beauvoir and Foucault offer is the ethical and political agent that can respond to the quickly changing and evolving political world. Being ambiguous and in flux itself, it can better respond to worldly fluctuations since these fluctuations themselves form the very fabric of its being. Sartre, and to a greater extent Beauvoir and Foucault, allow us to see how we may exercise our freedom and not let ourselves be dispossessed by the action of these power relations. They permeate us and make us who we are but we are still in a position to control our ethical and political being through a free reflective reprise of ourselves. The déprise at the heart of our ontological being is also brought to us externally through our social being, as ethical agents engaged in interpersonal relations and as political agents engaged in the social world. We are dispossessed of our selves at multiple levels but this déprise can, at every moment, be re-apprehended. This is what Sartre, Beauvoir, and Foucault wish to convey and why they remained optimistic [End Page 65] ethically and politically, effectively refusing to give way to nihilism. The subject’s dispossession (déprise) can always be repossessed (reprise). The subject is thus an ambiguous being that is the movement of losing and regaining oneself—in flux, never fixed, moving and changing, itself and others—through this same process. Again, this—and only this—is the type of subject that may flourish ethically and politically in an increasingly complex ethical and political world.

Christine Daigle
Brock University
Christine Daigle

Christine Daigle is Professor of Philosophy, Chancellor’s Chair for Research Excellence, Director of the PhD in Interdisciplinary Humanities, and Director of the Posthumanism Research Institute at Brock University. She has authored and edited books and articles on the philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir. Her current research explores feminist materialism and posthumanist thinking to expand on the insights proposed by existential phenomenologists.


1. See Agamben.

2. This section draws and borrows from the more detailed analysis I have provided in “The Ethics of Authenticity” in Reading Sartre.

3. In Being and Nothingness, Sartre introduces the distinction between two modes of being: being in-itself and being for-itself. The human being is the being for-itself—that instance of being which is conscious of itself.

4. Heidegger famously discusses authentic and inauthentic Dasein in Being and Time. Much debate has surrounded these sections of the work since interpreters have wanted to read them as proposing an ethics while Heidegger insisted that this was only to be read ontologically.

5. My translation of “L’authenticité est un devoir . . . Être authentique, c’est réaliser pleinement son être-en-situation, quelle que soit par ailleurs cette situation,…” (244, my emphasis). Note the use of ‘duty’ in this instance. This suggests that there is some objective value to authenticity. We have to be authentic because there is an exigency to be such that is grounded in our being for-itself which is a being-in-situation.

6. Admittedly this unveiling of being is a “creationist” act of some sort. The human being is the one that creates the world through unveiling being. Is it possible that one may not have to desire to be God since one already is godly? One must desire to act as this unveiling of being. Even though this “desire to be God” also seeks self-justification—my life will be meaningful if I engage in the act of unveiling—it differs significantly from Sartre’s view in that the key to justifying my creative act of unveiling being lies in my encounter with and appeal to the Other. More on this below.

7. When I recognize the Other as an impotent object—when I alienate him by oppressing him or when I recognize him as an omnipotent subject that objectifies me through the look for example—there is no mutual recognition of freedom; we are not peers. In such relationships, my project and unveiling of being cannot be grounded and justified by the Other: either he is made impotent or he does not care, exercising his own potency at my expense.

8. “Our freedoms support each other like the stones in an arch, but in an arch that no pillars support. Humanity is entirely suspended in a void that it creates itself by its reflection on its plenitude” (Beauvoir, “Pyrrhus” 140). It must be noted that while Beauvoir might be more optimistic than Sartre with regards to interpersonal relations she is not naïve either. One’s appeal to the Other might very well be met with non-reciprocation and lack of recognition. However, one must take that risk since authenticity will be found only through intersubjective being.

9. And, I would like to argue, of Heidegger’s, insofar as Sein und Zeit does have ethical implications.

10. This is a point that Florence Caeymaex makes very clearly about Sartre and Foucault in her essay “Les Enjeux éthiques de l’existentialisme sartrien,” p. 31. [End Page 66]

11. Frédéric Gros says, “Parler de subjectivation suppose d’abord que le sujet ne soit pas donné à lui-même, mais qu’il se construise, s’élabore, […]” (232).

12. My translation of “La transformation de la subjectivité n,est pas de découvrir ‘qui je suis,’ mais de rejeter d’abord ‘qui je suis’ en résistance au pouvoir et au savoir” (14).

14. See her entry on “Esthétique (de l’existence)” in her Dictionnaire Foucault, p. 51.

15. This has its source in the Greek concept of epimeleia heautou.

16. Alain Beaulieu notes that the care of the self has two aspects to it: it is valuable insofar as it makes an individual a potentially good social/political agent, one who may act in a leadership role, and it is also valuable in itself (166).

17. See her entry “Jean-Paul Sartre” in her Dictionnaire Foucault, p. 166.

18. See Foucault’s critique toward the notion of authenticity at the beginning of the previous section.

19. My translation of “Loin d’être un ‘sujet fondateur,’ le sujet sartrien est éclaté en une multiplicité d’actes de conscience discontinus, et n’est identifiable qu’à travers les objets concrets du monde” (114).

20. I would argue that it is not only Foucault who is influenced by Nietzsche with regards to this notion of creating oneself but also Sartre and Beauvoir. It is interesting that Foucault would claim Nietzsche as a source while the other two, due to profound misunderstandings of Nietzsche’s fundamental concepts, reject his philosophy. Taking Sartre by his words that his philosophy takes nothing from Nietzsche, Thomas R. Flynn thus says: “Had he lived to see it, Sartre might have pondered a similar curve in Foucault’s final thought, centering, as it does, on the Nietzschean proposal to make of one’s life ‘a work of art’” (25). In fact, Sartre has been influenced by Nietzsche all along, as I have shown in previous work of mine. As well, it can be shown that there is a line of influence from Nietzsche to Beauvoir. It might thus be the case that it is the Nietzschean link—admitted in one case, and unacknowledged by the other two—that brings them all together with regards to authenticity and caring for oneself.

21. Pierre Verstraeten would agree with my reading since he concludes, coming at it from a different perspective, that whatever difference there is between Sartre and Foucault—Verstraeten is not concerned with Beauvoir—is one of emphasis and not of substance. See his essay “Sartre-Foucault (une opposition biaisée).”

22. My translation of “La liberté est la condition ontologique de l’éthique. Mais l’éthique est la forme réfléchie que prend la liberté” (Dits et écrits IV, 711–12, no. 356).

23. It has been argued—first by Sonia Kruks and then by others—that Beauvoir had a major influence on Sartre’s philosophical development, in particular, with regards to the notion of freedom. Starting with his Notebooks for an Ethics—written after Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity—Sartre revisits his views on interpersonal relationships as delineated in Being and Nothingness. There he acknowledges the limitations of conflict and speaks of conversion to the Other as being essential to ethical authenticity. For Beauvoir’s influence on Sartre regarding freedom, see Sonia Kruks’ “Simone de Beauvoir: Teaching Sartre About Freedom,” in Sartre Alive, edited by Ronald Aronson and Adrian van den Hoven, Wayne State University Press, 1991, pp. 285–300.

Works Cited

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Beaulieu, Alain. “Étude critique: Le gouvernement de soi et des autres et Le courage de la vérité.” Symposium, vol. 13, no. 2, 2009, pp. 163–175.
de Beauvoir, Simone. “Introduction to an Ethics of Ambiguity.” Philosophical Writings, edited by Margaret A. Simons, University of Illinois Press, 2004. [End Page 67]
———. “Pyrrhus and Cinéas.” Philosophical Writings, edited by Margaret A. Simons, University of Illinois Press, 2004.
Caeymaex, Florence. “Les Enjeux éthiques de l’existentialisme sartrien.” PhaenEx, no. 1, Spring/Summer 2006, pp. 14–35.
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Foucault, Michel. “Afterword: The Subject and Power.” Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, 2nd ed., edited by Dreyfus and Rabinow, University of Chicago Press, 1983.
———. Dits et écrits IV. Gallimard, 1994.
———. “On the Genealogy of Ethics: An Overview of Work in Progress” Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, 2nd ed., edited by Dreyfus and Rabinow, University of Chicago Press, 1983.
———. “Qu’est-ce qu’un auteur?” Dits et écrits I, Gallimard, 1994.
Gros, Frédéric. “Le Souci de soi chez Michel Foucault: A review of The Hermeneutics of the Subject.” Philosophy & Social Criticism, vol. 31, nos. 5–6, pp. 697–708.
———. “Sujet moral et soi éthique chez Foucault.” Archives de philosophie, no. 65, 2002, pp. 229–237.
Knee, Philip. “Le cercle et le doublet: Note sur Sartre et Foucault.” Philosophiques, vol. 17, no. 1, pp. 113–126.
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Sartre, Jean Paul. Being and Nothingness: An Essay in Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes, revised edition, Routledge, 2003.
———. Notebooks for an Ethics. Translated by David Pellauer, University of Chicago Press, 1992.
——— War Diaries: Notebooks From A Phoney War 1939–1940. Translated by Quintin Hoare, Verso, 1984.
Sutton Morris, Phyllis. “Self-Creating Selves: Sartre and Foucault.” American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, vol. LXX, no. 4, 1996, pp. 537–549.
Verstraeten, Pierre. “Sartre-Foucault (une opposition biaisée).” Daimon. Revista de Filosofia, no. 35, 2005, pp. 91–97. [End Page 68]

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