John Paul Satre

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Essence and Existentialism

"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...
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