The assumption by Sartre that existence precedes essence takes back the traditional thinking of philosophers about essence and existence. In general they thought that essence precedes existence in certain ways. Sartre posits that they are right to some extent. When he observes that “Existence precedes essence” he does not mean that this is always the case, but rather that sometimes it is so. This can be explained using his example in the essay about the “paper knife”.
In this case of the paper knife, Sartre argues that essence precedes existence, “that is to say the sum of the procedures and the qualities which made its production and its definition possible – precedes its existence” (Sartre 1946). Essence is the expression created when something is given a definition. Essence sets the limits of an object and provides the basic properties of a thing; that is what it has or what it doesn’t have in order to serve its purpose of existence. In this case, essence precedes existence in the logic that before a designer manufactured the knife there was some plan for it that existed in his or her mind.
This plan is the essence (Sartre 1943). Therefore when Sartre says that essence precedes existence in this case he is simply recognizing the fact that the knife was premeditated first and later on it was produced. This means the plan to produce the knife was there first and later it was produced following that plan. From this example it is easy to track down the general principle that Sartre is trying to bring out. First for all manufactured objects or articles, essence precedes existence.
Since God lives and as he is thought to be the creator of the whole world then it follows that the whole world and everything in it can be assumed to be an artifact. God was the master planner and He created everything according to His plan. God, when He creates man he uses the same procedure just as the manufacture of the paper knife since when he creates he knows what he is creating. The idea of God was suppressed in the 18th century but the idea of essence preceding existence was universally accepted in the philosophies of Diderot, Voltaire and Kant.
Sartre observes that “In Kant, this universality goes so far that the wild man of the woods, man in the state of nature and the bourgeois are all contained in the same definition and have the same fundamental qualities. Here again, the essence of man precedes that historic existence which we confront in experience” (Sartre 1946). From this analysis we get to the next step. If God lives this means essence comes first for everything that is in world. There is a traditional explanation of this divine plan generally referred to as Providence in theological circles.
It refers to the plan that God worked in advance before he created the universe and humanity. But this plan is not just for the whole because He has also premeditated all the details since he is an all knowing God. This means we do not have the human nature in general to set boundaries on what we can do or what we cannot do. In addition there is also a divine plan for individuals. For example Socrates has his own essence that confines him within the universal plan of human nature (Zunjic 2010).
Being an atheist, Sartre observes that if God does not exists then there is one being whose existence comes before its essence and that is man or human reality as Heidegger puts it. When he says existence precedes essence Sartre provide the meaning by saying that “ this means that man first exists, he encounters himself, goes into the world and later on discovers or defines himself. When the man is not definable as the existentialist sees him it is because to start with, man is nothing” (Sartre 1946).
Man will not be anything until some times later and then he will be what he makes himself to be at the end. In other words man is responsible for his actions if existence preceded essence. “Therefore existentialism puts place every responsibility for his existence on his shoulders. This means man is not only responsible for himself but also for all men” (Sartre 1946). Sartre observation that people must create themselves and give themselves meaning meant that people have to protect themselves instead of calling on God to intervene on their behalf.
He saw people as the ones responsible for their politics and individual lives. He refused the notion that the devil was responsible for individual acts or the explanation that one was following God. He also did no accept the excuse of being only human or unloved by ones parents. It was not an excuse to follow the crowd for Sartre. He believed that people create their own moral values through the choices that they make in life. The people are the ones responsible for drawing their plans as to what they will or will not do (Sartre 1943).
The philosophers of the traditional forms of humanism thought they could keep this idea of a kind of prior nature without having God in mind. They had in mind an atheist view of nature as well as the notion of an ordered universe where things happened in a predetermined and ordered manner. According to Sartre they were all wrong. This is because if essence precedes existence in general, that is ,if the laws that sets the limits of what things are and what they are able to have been established and determined before the things came into existence, then where would they exist?
(Zunjic 2010). These philosophers have connected the concept of existence and essence in such a manner that existence signifies the instantiation of essence. If essence describes what a thing is and existence “that it is” then it follows that what is reasonable about any particular object and what can be thought about it will fit in its essence. It’s from this kind of thinking that traditional philosophy drew its description for ones way of life. To them having essence meant that people could be placed within the universe that provided the ability for the human development.
But Descartes disagreed with this type of thinking preferring a radical first person reflection of his own version of existence the “I am”. Nevertheless he later on modified the old model by incorporating his existence as that of a substance determined by an essential property “thinking”. Thus the idea of reality according to Sartre is similar to that of Descartes’, “I am, I exists, therefore I am; I am because I think, why do I think? I don’t want to think any more; I am because I think that I don’t want to be. ” (Existentialism Is Humanism. 2010).
In summary when Sartre says that existence precede essence he means that man first exists, he encounters himself, goes into the world and later on discovers or defines himself. When the man is not definable as the existentialist sees him it is because to start with, man is nothing. He will not be anything until some times later and then he will be what he makes himself to be at the end. Traditional views give priority to essence and high values for its features whereas Sartre gives priority to existence with its positive reevaluation of its contingency and temporality.
With this reversed view Sartre believed we can give full tribute to man and his self creative capabilities. References Existentialism Is Humanism. (2010). In Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved May 17, 2010, from Encyclopedia Britannica Online: http://www. britannica. com/EBchecked/topic/198165/Existentialism-Is-a-Humanism Sartre J. P. (1946), The Humanism of Existentialism. London: World Publishing Company Sartre (1943) Being and Nothingness. London: World Publishing Company Zunjic Bob (2010). The Humanism of Existentialism. Retrieved May 17, 201017th, ,from http://www. uri. edu/personal/szunjic/philos/human. htm