‘Existence Precedes Essence’

May 18, 2019 by Essay Writer

The phrase ‘existence precedes essence’ is often used in order to summarize existential thinking. However, what it means in the context of its originating work Nausea by Jean Paul Sartre is often forgotten. At face value Nausea is a story of a man named Antoine Roquentin, who is writing a history novel in the small town of Bouville. Antoine is primarily solitary, and spends a lot of time reflecting about the many facets of life. Through his diary, or technically through the first person narration in diary format, Antoine constantly explores the ‘existence precedes essence’ idea. Antione uses both implication and straight-forward language in order to develop the concepts of existence and essence, allowing for a clear image of Sartre’s philosophy on a literal level. Implications made by the claim ‘existence precedes essence’ are conferred in a similar format. Sartre allows for idea’s in regards to reasoning, freedom, human nature and the traditional Christian God to be explored throughout this work. He also makes mention as to why people commonly attempt to hide from the manner in which existence precedes essence, behavior which he terms as bad faith. The most prominent points pertaining to Sartre’s statement ‘existence precedes essence’ should be explained and understood since they are allotted so much importance.Sartre explores the idea of existence in a number of ways.The most basic facet of Sartre’s existence is that it is simply to be. Sartre does not go into complicated descriptions and definitions of ‘existence,’ but rather states that “if you exist… you [have] to exist all the way” (172). According to Sartre it is as simple as you either exist, or you do not. This makes it rather easy for a person to tell whether or not they exist, leading to another well-known phrase of Sartre’s, “I am. I exist, I think, therefore I am” (150). A person cannot deliberate about whether or not they exist unless they already exist, and hence there can be no discrepancy about it.Sartre explains existence as something that only exists in the present, or rather at a single instance all that existed in the last instance has ceased to exist. This is set out very clearly in the passage, “existence… falls from one present to the other, without a past, without a future” (235). This point is also implicated after a night where heightened consciousness is experienced by Antoine. During the night he spent long moments contemplating the existence of the things around him, for example he noted that “the heart beats, it’s a holiday, the heart exists, the legs exist, the breath exists, they exist running, breathing, beating” (139). After such elated discoveries Antoine almost invariably finds himself feeling dejected. After this specific episode he writes simply “Nothing. Existed” in his journal the next day (140). Antoine’s reveling in the existence around him is followed by the realization that the moment afterwords all of that which he had just connected with and been inspired by no longer exists.Sartre proceeds to claim that nothing exists but base existence itself, that is, there is nothing but existence and everything else is a momentary creation of that existence. Take the example of consciousness. Consciousness is considered to be a person’s perception and identity, the individual characteristic held by beings with a superior mental power often held as the most important part of being human. At one point in the novel Antoine claims that to “say ‘I’… seems hollow” and that “the only thing real left in me is existence which feels it exists… consciousness forgotten, forsaken” (227). Sartre is pointing out how nothing can define a person, as the only thing there is to a person is existence, which is not a defining characteristic.Consciousness is very similar to essence. Like consciousness, a person’s essence is considered to be a defining and limiting characteristic, though essence more strongly connotes a basic trait, or set of traits, that are necessary to define one’s personal identity. It is something that is depended on in order to allow a person to be what he is. As noted above Sartre believes that a person is not defined in any way other than that they exist, which is inconsistent with the notion of a constricting essence. Rather, Sartre holds that essence is created by human perception and language, which changes as existence does with every moment and hence has no restrictive force. For example, objects are unable to create their own essence. They do not have the mental capability to define themselves and as such the only definition they have is imposed upon them by an outside force, though surely another’s perception of the object does not limit it in anyway. It is such that Sartre separates objects and things in terms of how they exist, as an essence is only an imposed characteristic. The idea of something’s essence is created by something that must already exist, and therefore existence must precede the essence.Nothing existing other than existence itself means that essence must be created by this existence. Furthermore, the idea that existence is only momentary, and thus so are its creations, means that an essence cannot last and cannot constrict as it is traditionally implicated to do. Existence, then, is necessary for essence but an essence is something that can or cannot exist, depending upon the moment. ‘Existence precedes essence’ manages to paraphrase all of this, which undoubtedly led to its popularity.While the actual meaning of the phrase is somewhat simple, it comes attached with numerous implications of philosophical ideas. Sartre uses the ‘existence precedes essence’ concept to show that reason is inherently flawed, as is the concept of human nature, that man is free and in actuality forced to be so, and that there is no God.The concept of objective reasoning presupposes a causal link between events. Thinking of a thing or event logically involves looking at the properties of a thing, and often what attributed and caused those properties to occur, and then drawing a conclusion from it. For example, if in the past a man has always been of nasty temperament while it rained and it is raining, then it would logically follow that the man is in a nasty temperament. However, if existence precedes essence, then there can be no such logical conclusion drawn as the man’s past temperaments can have no bearing on the ones he may possess in the future. That is, if only the moment exists, in absence of both the past and the future, then the premises for this conclusion do not exist and whatever it is predicting does not exist. This means that neither have any tangible qualities and hence are unable to prove anything. This applies to all strings of logic. Since a single moment has no ties to the past or the future, meaning there can be neither premises nor conclusions, the entire institution of logic becomes irrelevant. A system cannot base non-existent conclusions on non-existent premises and claim to be logical, it is such that “the world of explanations and reasons is not the world of existence” (174).Now, the essence of a person is considered to be that which is planned for him, or his nature. It is generally agreed upon that ‘human nature’ governs how people act, and in effect controls them. The concept of human nature is something that is, again, similar to that of essence. It is considered an inherent and necessary component of being a human being, which automatically limits a person, and it is generally used in a somewhat general scientific sense. This controlling force is the basis behind the theory of causality, that every event or action is caused by the culmination of previous events. Human nature allows for humans to be controlled as a species, governed by their past and their present and future actions. Yet if the past does not exist and there is no essence, then there can be no nature ingrained in man that may bind him. That is, the absence of a casual link existing between past events and the present that could determine present and future events and the loss thereby of any defining essence or nature causes the restriction of human nature and that of causality to no longer be applicable.It is along this line of thought that Sartre explains freedom. He uses the idea pf certainties. With the absence of causality and human nature, the absence of any type of constricting necessity, everything then becomes uncertain. Or rather, the only thing that is certain is that there are no certainties. “No necessary being can explain existence” claims Antoine, “contingency is not a delusion, a probability, which can be dissipated [in the name of science or causality]; it is the absolute, consequently, the perfect free gift. All is free, this park, this city, and myself” (176). A lack of restrictive forces, such as human nature or essence, existing as inherent and necessary means that humanity is unfettered in its action. It is thus that Sartre is able to make the case that man possesses freewill.This philosophical point leads to the necessity of man’s freedom, or in the form of another famous Sartrean quote from his work Being and Nothingness, that man is “condemned to be free” (567). In Nausea “the true nature of the present revealed itself” to Antoine, “it was what exists, and all that was not present did not exist. The past did not exist. Not at all. Not in things, not even in [his] thought” (130). If the only thing that exists is this exact moment, and there is nothing that is determining its outcome or even existing to govern it, then there is no choice for the action within it but to be free. It would seem that a paradox is being posed: Man is necessarily free, to exist is to be free, however he cannot choose to be constrained, or not free.By extension, the phrase ‘existence precedes essence’ denies the existence of the traditional Christian God along with that of human nature. The primary concept of Christianity that is in opposition to Sartre is that of the soul. The soul is allegedly the defined essence of man, shaped by God in his own image. This is precisely the traditional ‘essence precedes existence’ claim that Sartre finds unfounded. The doctrine of a ‘divine plan’ that governs man’s actions, or at least their outcomes, is also in opposition to Sartre. The ‘divine plan’ concept contradicts both the idea of freedom and, by extension, the idea that man has the ability to define himself. It is such that Sartre’s claim of ‘existence precedes essence’ is not compatible with Christian theology.These are some of the numerous implications provided by the simple phrase ‘existence precedes essence.’Since Sartre’s concept is so opposed to traditional thinking, he offers several explanations as to why people tend to insist that essence comes before existence. He titles this tendency ‘bad faith,’ or ‘self-deception.’Relying on the idea of an essence constructed by one’s past appears as a comfort for those who no longer see themselves as adequate. Sartre raises the example of an elderly doctor who “would like to hide out the stark reality: that he alone, without a past, with an intelligence which is clouded, a body which is disintegrating… he says he is making progress” (96-97). If one were to realize that there is nothing that defines them, Sartre seems to be saying, then it would cause life to seem hollow and depressing. Certainly Antoine seems to think so, claiming that “existence is what [he is] afraid of” (214). It seems that the long standing idea of essence preceding existence is a product of people’s tendency to deliberately deceive themselves by explaining away fears, or creating explanations to make them feel better about the world.If people are completely free then they have complete control over their actions, making them wholly responsible for those actions. This means that the freedom necessitated by the absence of an inherent essence then necessitates heavy and complete responsibility. The idea ‘self-deception’ that persists throughout Nausea heavily exemplifies the relationship between the importance of man’s responsibility and his attempt to avoid it. For example, those who make an attempt to revisit the past are said to be reveling in self-deception, as they are attempting to hide in a place with no freedom that does not exist. That is, when man tries to live in the past he is attempting to live without choice, and thus deceive himself into a cheerful irresponsibility. It is such that Antoine claims that he “might succeed – in the past, nothing but the past – in accepting [himself]” (238). Antoine himself cannot come to terms with the responsibility wrought upon him by a fundamental freedom, and practices self-deception in order to accept his own humanity.Since the concept of ‘existence precedes essence’ is different from traditional conceptions, it involves new fears and responsibilities that are easily avoided by an appeal to past values.’Existence precedes essence.’ The phrase affirms that there is nothing but raw existence that truly exists at any given moment, and hence nothing to causally govern our actions, meaning that people have freewill. In fact, we are forced to have freewill. It furthermore denies the existence of the traditional Christian God and crumbles the institution of logic. All of these things are tied up in Sartre’s work Nausea, as well as in many other facets of existentialism. However, as one may note, these are only a few of the basics for the understanding of existentialism and does not involve the many topics and writings covered in existentialist philosophy. Perhaps it would work better as a phrase used to exemplify Sartre or this particular work.Works CitedSartre, Jean- Paul. Nausea. Trans. Lloyd Alexander. New York: New Directions Publishing, 1964.Sartre, Jean- Paul. Being and Nothingness. Trans. Philosophical Library Inc. New York: Washington Square Press, 1992.

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