What Does Existence Precede Essence?June 27, 2021
The questions of what it means to be human and what distinguishes us from other beings have been among the most preoccupying philosophers since ancient times.
Their approach to these questions assumes that there is such a thing as human nature or the essence of being human. He also tends to assume that human nature is fixed across time and space. In other words, it assumes that there is a universal nature of being human and that this essence is found in all human beings who have ever been and will ever be. According to this view, all people, regardless of their circumstances, have the same basic qualities and are guided by the same core values. But for Sartre, to think about human nature in this way is to miss the most important point about humans: our freedom. To clarify what he means by this, Sartre gives the following example:
He asks us to imagine a paper knife—the kind used to open envelopes. This knife was made by a craftsman with a thought for creating this type of tool and a clear grasp of what a paper knife requires. It should be sharp enough to cut paper, but not dangerous. It should be easy to use, made of a suitable material—metal, bamboo, or wood—and, of course, designed to be functional—no butter, wax, or lint. Sartre says that a paper knife would not exist if the manufacturer did not know what it would be used for. So the essence of the paper knife—or whatever makes it a paper knife rather than a steak knife or a paper airplane—precedes the existence of any paper knife. Humans are not paper knives, of course. According to Sartre, there is no preconceived plan that makes us the kind of beings we are. We were not created for any purpose. We exist, but not because we have purpose or an essence like that of a paper knife, but because our being precedes our essence.
The use or purpose of a tool such as scissors determines its form. For example, it has an ergonomic handle designed for a firm grip, a sharp double blade to effortlessly cut through any material, and a precision screw for a smooth turn of a pair of scissors. According to Sartre, people have no purpose, so they are free to shape themselves.
It is here that we begin to see the connection between Sartre’s thesis that “existence precedes essence” and his atheism. Sartre points out that religious approaches to human nature generally operate through analogy with human craftsmanship—that is, the analogy of human nature in God’s mind with the nature of the paper knife in the mind of the craftsman who makes the paper knife.
According to Sartre, even many non-religious theories about human nature have their roots in religious thinking because they insist that essence precedes existence or that we were created with a purpose. Arguing that existence precedes essence, Sartre believes he is more consistent with his atheism. It states that there is no universal and fixed human nature, because there is no God to design such a nature. Sartre here also makes a very original definition of human nature by defining the nature of something with its purpose.
He rejects what philosophers call teleology in human nature—something we might think of in terms of the purpose of human existence. Sartre’s theory of human nature, arguing that we are the kind of beings destined to give meaning to our lives, means that if there is no divine power to predict this purpose, we must define ourselves. But defining ourselves is not just a matter of being able to say what we are as human beings. It is also a matter of being shaped to become the being we choose to be. This makes us different from other types of beings in the world; we are a species that can be whatever we choose ourselves to do. A rock is just a rock; cauliflower is cauliflower and a mouse is just a mouse. But humans have the ability to actively shape themselves.
Sartre’s philosophy is also a philosophy of freedom, as it frees us from the preconceived constraint of human nature. Although we have to accept certain limitations, we are free to shape ourselves. As much as I wish I had wings, it will never happen. But even within the realistic choices we have, we often find ourselves constrained and make choices based on habits or the ways we are used to seeing ourselves. Sartre wants us to form these stereotypes and tells us to face the implications of living in a world where nothing is premeditated. He believes that we must constantly face the choices about how to act with courage in order to prevent us from falling into unconscious behavior patterns.
By making choices, we also create a pattern for how we think human life should be. If one