“What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards. If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself… Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism. ” (Sartre, Existentialism and Humanism, p. 28)
Throughout my essay, I intend to examine this statement by Jean Paul Sartre and look in depth at the connotations of the statement. Furthermore, I will analyse the difference between the idea that there is no pre set essence that defines humankind and the idea that humankind and human beings must define themselves. I shall also examine which of the thesis’ Sartre offers I agree with more. The principle of the thesis of existentialism is that essence comes before existence in the sense that a reason or objective exists before the object to carry out that objective does.
However, Sartre claims that for human beings this is in the wrong order completely. This is because in the case of humans, existence comes before essence. A new born baby is born before a reason for its existence is created. Sartre’s claims that existence comes before essence involves two arguments, one negative and one positive argument. The negative aspects of Sartre’s arguments are encapsulated in his analogy involving the paper knife. In this example, Sartre offers the opinion that he believes man starts off with no essence and evolves an essence as life goes on.
In comparison, an artisan will manufacture a paper knife with the objective of cutting things. Moreover, Sartre claims that this is proof that there is no god or divine creator and the fact that human beings are created with no predetermined essence . Sartre believes that as we go through life we create an essence for ourselves and at the end of our lives we can be defined. In comparison, a paper knife is created with a reason for its existence before it’s creation and can also be defined before its use has expired. The positive aspect of Sartre’s argument involves the essence that humans create when living their life.
Sartre puts across the very legitimate observation that human beings are free and have the ability, conscience and thought process to chose or create their own essence in life. Every day matters are not pre destined and humans have the chance to choose what they do throughout that day. Also, it is not only day to day and basic matters that human beings have the ability to determine themselves. Unlike the paper knife or any other inanimate object, we have the ability and conscience to lay out clear and defined objectives for how to spend our lives.
To an extent, Sartre makes a valid claim with the comparison involving the paper knife. The existentialistic view on the essence and existence of human beings makes more logical sense than sheer blind faith afforded to a wide variety of different religions by the vast majority of the worlds populations. However, in contrast there are several arguments put forward to contrast the views offered by Sartre. The main objection is put forth by British philosopher Mary Warnock. Warnock makes strong criticism of the comparison Sartre makes between a human being and a paper knife.
For obvious reasons, it is hard to compare the attributes and capabilities of a living human being with a basic inanimate object. Moreover, Warnock goes on to make the accurate claim that human beings are limited in their choices due to physiological, mental and emotional constraints. Quite obviously, human beings are limited to goals and aspirations that are humanly possible and, on a general scale, human beings cannot enhance their abilities to an extent where they can perform acts that are not humanly possible and therefore cannot decide on absolutely any goal. Warnock goes on to further ament Sartre’s views on human capabilities. Warnock claims that Sartre put emphasis on characteristics shared by humans but that does not necessarily constitute an essence in Sartre’s sense because they don’t define us as what we are or determine our individual purposes in life. Sartre responds to this by claiming that can whatever psychological or biological factors influence our choices, each one of us retains the capacity to determine what value should be placed on those factors in our individual choice-making. Furthermore, Sartre comments that simply man is responsible for whom he is. He offers that as there is no pre etermined essence or pre existing values then the responsibility for our existence falls upon our own shoulders. Also, another argument against Sartre’s views is that of people who are born into traditions or strict religious families. Many people all over the world, over a period of hundreds of years have had lives of stringent regimes foisted upon them from birth. As mentioned, this may be a religious family or the need to work from a very young age. Many have argued that these are clear examples of human beings who do not have the freedom of choice. Sartre simply responds to this by saying that these people do still ave a choice. In these cases the choice may not be very good, i. e. death or alienating friends and family members for life, but humans still have the choice none the less.
In addition to the opposition put forth already to Sartre’s view’s, there is also the much debated view of determinism. Determinism essentially revolves around the idea that human beings do not have the choices that they think they have, merely the illusion of choices. This is the view that within human beings bodies and minds, the decisions they make every day are pre determined by previous events that have taken place. In very asic terms, one person has the choice of chicken or fish for dinner and ultimately will choose chicken. The view of someone who believes in determinism would say that this decision was already made for you. The thought is that through previous experiences, perhaps even sub conscience ones, lead to a reaction within a person’s body that meant that person was always going to choose chicken. Again, this example is a very basic one but this can be transferable to decisions on a much larger scale and the resulting permutations of this thesis has an enormous impact on the majority of Jean Paul Sartre’s rguments on the freedom of choice human beings eventually have. Based upon this view, the freedom that mankind enjoys when deciding upon which path to direct their lives down will ultimately be very limited. In one sense, it could be viewed that if human beings lives follow down the line of determinism then there is potentially no freedom of choice and their life has technically already been mapped out for them. When looking at existentialism and essence and all of the arguments, views and debates that surround the issues, it is hard to fall on either side of the fence when it comes to which to believe in.
Whilst Sartre does put over many persuasive and logical points, there are also a variety of arguments which have been put forth to dispute the thesis of Jean Paul Sartre. Throughout my essay, I have tried to analyse all of the arguments that surround existentialism and how Sartre responds to them. I have looked at the views of Sartre himself and how he enforces these views and examples he gives. Moreover, I have looked at all of the views opposing his arguments. I have looked specifically at Baroness Mary Warnock’s objection and the idea of determinism.