Critique of Sartres Concept of Existence Precedes Essence Essay

Published: 2020-04-22 08:27:31
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Existentialism evolved as an attempt to come up with an authentic response to the existential angst of modern man in search of his identity and place in existence. Perhaps the very first existentialist thinker and philosopher in history, Socrates, put fundamental stress on the enquiry of the question Who am I? On the other hand, the twentieth century philosopher with whom the movement of existentialism is most commonly associated with, Sartre, says that with man, existence precedes essence. That is to say, there is no essence as such which man can discover inside his being.

He has to create it, as it were, from nothing, through his efforts and choices. This is the central tenet of Sartres brand of existentialism. In a way, it sounds very pessimistic, but at the same time, such an observation can lead us to realize the freedom of mans being, inspiring us to attain greater meaning in our lives. Sartres stance seems to be very heroic, and his attitude can fill us with new energy to act and create. However, as we shall see, considered purely on a logical and philosophical basis, his theory rings completely hollow, indeed as hollow as the nothingness he talks about.

In his essay Existentialism as Humanism Sartre most eloquently sets out to clarify what exactly is meant by existentialism in the proper sense of the word. This he does with amazing simplicity, putting the essence of the philosophical system of which he is one of foremost proponents just in three words: existence precedes essence. 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. (p. 349)

Sartre proceeds to explain us the meaning of these two concepts essence and existence and the two view points based on them, namely essence precedes existence and existence precedes essence, in a very lucid style. Sartre gives the example of a simple object, a paper cutter, to illustrate how in the case of this object essence precedes existence, and how it is the other way around in humans. To enter into a conversation with Sartre, however, I would like to provide the example of a simple machine here, a typewriter, to illustrate the same point.

Like a paper cutter, a typewriter too is mass-produced, according to a predetermined model. Therefore, a typewriter is clearly an instance of essence preceding existence. Now let us take a very high power computer. This computer is as much mass-produced and made according to a preexisting model as a simple typewriter, here too essence precedes existence. However, whereas a typewriter can do only one thing in a fairly rigid manner, a computer can do a million things in an absolutely flexible style. A typewriter is like an animal, a one-dimensional creature.

A powerful computer, on the other hand, is more like a human being, a multidimensional entity. An existentialist like Sartre could easily make a claim that in the case of typewriter, essence precedes existence, and in the case of the computer, existence precedes essence. But this is patently wrong. A computer is also made on a pre-existing model, as much as a typewriter is. The existence of a computer is also based on the premise of essence preceding existence as much as that of any manufactured object.

Only, the specific nature of tasks it is going to perform depends on the software loaded unto it, and other ways it is programmed. The computer cannot just do absolutely anything, it has its limitations. Human beings too have their limitations, but within these limitations they have an immense choice and freedom to determine what they are going to do and what they are going to be. The statement that Man is nothing but what he makes of himself may sound very good in pep talk, campaign speech or inspirational poetry. But it could be plain absurd, when we consider its philosophical implications.

Man has a given nature his freedom, limitations and identity are defined by it. For instance, what can man think, achieve, or create without the enormous intelligence endowed to him. Man is intelligent, by nature there is nothing man has done about it. He can further sharpen his intelligence and use it to the best of his ability, or stop using it and become stupid ” only this much freedom and scope exists with man. Simply because such scope and freedom exists, one cannot claim that in human beings existence precedes essence.

Existence preceding essence would imply that humans are nothing by themselves, that whatever they want to make of themselves they have to strive to become that. Sartre and other existentialists seem to be completely unfamiliar with any basic concepts of psychology. In fact if existentialism were true, there cannot exist any subject called human psychology. Because, according to Sartre, there is nothing like pre-existing human nature. Thus, there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of it.

Man simply is. Not that he is simply what he conceives himself to be, but he is what he wills and as he conceives himself after already existing as he wills to be after that leap towards existence. Man is nothing else but that which he makes himself. That is the first principle of existentialism. And this is what people call its subjectivity using the word as a reproach against us. (p. 349) The assertion that Man simply is is simply delusional. I would not call this viewpoint by the term subjectivity, whatever it means.

I would call it plain nonsense. If there is no human nature, then what are all psychologists studying and exploring? In fact, by the time of Sartre, there already was a William James, a Freud, and a Jung not to speak of Pavlov, Watson and other behaviorists who equate man to an animal; the study of human psychology was very much diversified and in a rather mature stage. Yet, here comes Sartre and declares that man is free, that he can make absolutely anything out of himself just as he wills almost magically, as it were!

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