The Essence of Existentialism: Existence Precedes Essence—or Does it?
One benefit of being an old teacher of philosophy is that you come back to the same texts many, many times. You read them; you teach them; perhaps you write about them; and you rethink them. It is so for Jean-Paul Sartre and me. The book in question is his summary of Existentialism called Existentialism and Human Emotions. Sartre must have known that few humans could make their way through the hundreds of torturous pages that are Being and Nothingness. I taught basic atheistic existentialism as a young teacher in a secular setting, as an older teacher in a Christian setting, and, more recently, as an aging codger at a secular university. Existentialism’s heyday was in the 1950s through about the early 1970s. However, it is seeing a bit of resurgence, as indicated by Gary Cox, a follower of Sartre, in his popular books, How to be an Existentialist (2011) and The Existentialist’s Guide to Death, the Universe and Nothingness (2012), as well as in some articles in philosophical magazines. (I reviewed How to be an Existentialist in The Denver Journal.) So that familiar old sentence presented itself once again as Sartre tries to encapsulate his philosophy:
Existence precedes essence.
To set up this philosophically-stoked phrase, Sartre argues that without God and a “heaven of ideas,” we cannot ground the idea of a set human nature. This is simply because there is no God to create us according to his design plan or blueprint. No, for Sartre, human beings appear on the scene for no reason and cannot appeal to anything above them to give their lives meaning or direction. (He gets more technical in Being and Nothingness (1943) by saying that humans occupy the ontological category of “the for-itself.” That is, they have consciousness and goals. This distinguished them from the “in-itself” which is the world of things and impersonal laws—the world without mind, consciousness, and agency. A tree is a tree and lives out its nature without problems or crises of meaning. But man has no nature.) Therefore, unlike many atheists, Sartre denies any essential human substance or form. Humans are “mysterious upsurges of freedom” in an otherwise materialistically conditioned world (that of the “in-itself”). Sartre cannot even begin to explain this “upsurge,” since it is absurd, not being grounded in a Creator and Designer. Sartre makes his case without confusion:
[Existentialism] states that if God does not exist, there is at least one being in whom existence precedes essence, a being who exists before he can be defined by any concept, and that this being is man, or, as Heidegger says, human reality. What is meant here by saying that existence precedes essence? It means that, first of all, man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and, only afterwards, defines himself. If man, as the existentialist conceives him, is indefinable, it is because at first he is nothing. Only afterward will he be something, and he himself will have made what he will be. Thus, there is no human nature, since there is no God to conceive it. Not only is man what he conceives himself to be, but he is also only what he wills himself to be after this thrust toward existence.
Because of their undesigned status, each human being creates itself. Hence that odd utterance, “Existence precedes essence.” This is a radical reversal of nearly the entire history of philosophy, which has affirmed that humanity qua humanity has and displays kind-essential properties. That means that a certain cluster of properties is native to and constitutive of humans. It is not simply by convention that we refer to certain creatures as human; it is, rather, that there are things that make humans to be humans. They do not determine their own essence. On the contrary, whatever humans are, they must act out of their essence, for there is nothing else available from which to act.
But Sartre will have none of this. Sartre takes it to be “bad faith” to seek guidance or solace in some “heaven of ideas,” since it does not exist and would, supposedly, deny man’s radical freedom to create his own identity. It is also inauthentic to appeal to any set of conditions that would determine who a human being is or what a human being does. One cannot blame one’s heredity or cultural surroundings for one’s actions or attitudes. In order to defend his notion of freedom, Sartre must reject human nature, since it would constrain humans and deny their autonomy.
Although Sartre agrees with Dostoevsky’s character from The Brothers Karamazov who says, “If God does not exist, then everything is permitted,” he tries to pull back from nihilism by saying that each human must act “for all humanity” and before the audience of all of humanity. But this is blowing smoke, since “humanity” is not a category allowed by his ontology. There is only the mysterious upsurge of freedom (the for-itself) in its different manifestations, all of which must lack essence. If our existence precedes essence, then we define and create ourselves with no cosmic game plan or human blueprint available.
However, “existence precedes essence” makes no sense; it is utterly illogical. Consider the metaphysics of the statement—let alone the morality of total relativism that Sartre embraced (and also tried to escape).
First is the problem of reference. Sartre affirms that human beings lack a nature, something that holds them together individually (personal identity) and collectively (kind identity). If they lack a nature, then the term “human being” has no reference range at all; it refers to nothing. But “human being” is a descriptive term that applies to something with inherent qualities and to what can be identified on the basis of those qualities. This is akin (but not identical) to the kind of nominalism that G. K. Chesterton summarily defeated in Orthodoxy (1908).
Mr. H. G. Wells…insists that every separate thing is “unique,” and there are no categories at all. This also is merely destructive. Thinking means connecting things, and stops if they cannot be connected. It need hardly be said that this scepticism forbidding thought necessarily forbids speech; a man cannot open his mouth without contradicting it. Thus when Mr. Wells says (as he did somewhere), “All chairs are quite different,” he utters not merely a misstatement, but a contradiction in terms. If all chairs were quite different, you could not call them “all chairs.”
Mutatis mutandis, when Sartre claims that all humans have no nature or essence, he disqualifies himself from calling them “all humans .” “All what?” we should ask. To which Sartre has nothing convincing to say.
The second problem is one of identity. If “existence precedes essence” in the case of human beings (who, as we noted, cannot be so referenced), then something comes out of nothing. This is absurd. Let us see why. By “essence” Sartre means one’s unique identity formed by owning one’s freedom and by refusing “bad faith”—the denial of freedom by appealing to forces beyond one’s conscious control. An essence is something solid and enduring; it is not a mere collection of parts or factors or events. But an essence is something in which qualities inhere. An essence also governs what qualities may appear. Consider the humble triangle. Part of its essence is to be a planed figure. That is a necessary condition for being a triangle. A triangle just is a planed figure. It is a sufficient condition for being a triangle that X be a three-sided, planed figure. But a triangle cannot be spherical—no matter how hard it tries. That would contradict its essence and its definition. But triangles may be large or small, red or green, carved or drawn, and so on.
Sartre would have us believe that an unformed collection of states (“existence”) can form itself or create itself into an essence. This is akin to water rising above its source or creating a perpetual motion machine. An essence cannot be created by that which takes an essence. This is precisely because there would be nothing there to do the creating. You cannot get blood from a turnip, even an existentialist turnip—not even from one wearing a French beret and with a cigarette hanging out of its mouth.
One could claim, notwithstanding, that some humans actualize an essence through the projects (a good Sartrean term) of their lives. Thus, the essence of Picasso was that of a painter. But even here, it was evident that Picasso was natively gifted as a painter (surpassing his artist father’s ability while he was still a child) and acted out of these human and distinctively individual propensities. If so, Picasso did not create his own essence (since, as we say, that is impossible), but, rather, formed an identity over time by acting on his abilities and making certain kinds of choices in light of them.
Third, Sartre betrays his maxim by ascribing universal propensities and qualities to human beings. Later in Existentialism and Human Emotions (1957), Sartre claims that “man is the desire to be God.”
The best way to conceive of the fundamental project of human reality is to say that man is the being whose project is to be God. . . .To be man means to reach toward being God. Or if you prefer, man fundamentally is the desire to be God.
By this, Sartre means that humans impossibly desire to be both free and perfectly stable beings. That is, we desire to have existence as our essence, just as God’s essence is to exist. But as finite beings, we can neither possess nor attain any such thing. In fact, we are “doomed to be free,” since our freedom never finds fulfillment in any objective meaning.
Sartre is right in that fallen humans desire to be independent of the one true God and so labor vainly to be gods themselves. This was the heart of the serpent’s temptation made to our first parents (Genesis 3:1-7; see also Ezekiel 28:1-10). However, inasmuch as Sartre claims that humans are defined as the desire to be God, he is affirming that we have a nature after all. Our essence or nature is to strive for the impossible. But if all humans strive for the impossible, then they all have something in common—something that makes us who we are, however different they may be. If so, essence is found at the most basic level. It is not attained individually by each person, but exists fundamentally to make humans what they are: godless gods.
Sartre’s catchy phrase “existence precedes essence” was a rallying cry for atheistic existentialists and may be making a comeback. We have argued, however, that the very idea is illogical for three main reasons. First, Sartre cannot say anything about “human beings” if all human beings are different because they lack an essence. Call it referential failure. If Sartre fails here, nothing else he says about humans can be true. But there is more. Second, Sartre to the contrary, essence cannot be summoned from brute existence, since something cannot come from nothing. An essence is not the kind of thing that can be willed into existence from something that lacks essence. In other words, essence is ontologically prior to any quality or property that a thing may possess. Third, Sartre contradicts himself by claiming (1) man has no essence and (2) the essence of man is to attempt to be God. But, of course, you cannot have it both ways, even if you are an existentialist with plenty of angst-ridden charisma.
Douglas Groothuis is Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary, where he heads the Apologetics and Ethics program as well as The Gordon Lewis Center for Christian Thought and Culture. He is the author of Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (InterVarsity Press, 2011) and is not an Existentialist.