Existence Precedes Essence: Existentialist Thought

Jean Paul Sartre in Paris
Jean Paul Sartre, the Father of Existentialism, in Paris. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Originated by Jean-Paul Sartre, the phrase "existence precedes essence" has come to be regarded as a classic, even defining, formulation of the heart of existentialist philosophy. It's an idea that turns traditional metaphysics on its head.

Western philosophical thought posits that the "essence" or "nature" of a thing is more fundamental and eternal than its mere “existence.” Thus, if you want to understand a thing, what you must do is learn more about its “essence.” Sartre disagrees, although it should be said that he does not apply his principle universally, but only to humanity.

Fixed vs. Dependent Nature

Sartre argued that there are two kinds of being. The first is "being-in-itself" (l’en-soi), which is characterized as something that is fixed, complete, and having no reason for its being—it just is. This describes the world of external objects. When we consider, for example, a hammer, we can understand its nature by listing its properties and examining the purpose for which it was created. Hammers are made by people for certain reasons—in a sense, the “essence” or “nature” of a hammer exists in the mind of the creator before the actual hammer exists in the world. Thus, one can say that when it comes to things like hammers, essence precedes existence—which is classic metaphysics.

The second type of existence according to Sartre is "being-for-itself" (le pour-soi), which is characterized as something dependent upon the former for its existence. It has no absolute, fixed, or eternal nature. To Sartre, this describes the state of humanity perfectly.

Humans as Dependents

Sartre's beliefs flew in the face of traditional metaphysics—or, rather, metaphysics as influenced by Christianity—which treats humans as hammers. This is because, according to theists, humans were created by God as a deliberate act of will and with specific ideas or purposes in mind—God knew what was to be made before humans ever existed. Thus, in the context of Christianity, humans are like hammers because the nature and characteristics—the "essence"—of humanity existed in the eternal mind of God before any actual humans existed in the world.

Even many atheists retain this basic premise despite the fact that they dispense with the accompanying premise of God. They assume that human beings possess some special “human nature,” which constrains what a person can or cannot be—basically, that we all possess some “essence” that precedes our “existence.”

Sartre believed that it was an error to treat human beings in the same way we treat external objects. The nature of humans is instead both self-defined and dependent upon the existence of others. Thus, for human beings, their existence precedes their essence.

There Is No God

Sartre's belief challenges the tenets of atheism that concur with traditional metaphysics. It isn’t enough to simply abandon the concept of God, he stated, but one has also to abandon any concepts which derived from and were dependent upon the idea of God, no matter how comfortable and familiar they might have become over the centuries.

Sartre draws two important conclusions from this. First, he argues that there is no given human nature common to everyone because there is no God to give it in the first place. Human beings exist, that much is clear, but it is only after they exist that some “essence” that can be called "human" may develop. Human beings must develop, define, and decide what their “nature” will be through an engagement with themselves, their society, and the natural world around them.

Individual yet Responsible

Furthermore, Sartre argues, although the “nature” of every human being is dependent upon that person defining themselves, this radical freedom is accompanied by an equally radical responsibility. No one can simply say "it was in my nature" as an excuse for their behavior. Whatever a person is or does is wholly dependent upon their own choices and commitments—there is nothing else to fall back upon. People have no one to blame (or praise) but themselves.

Sartre then reminds us that we aren't isolated individuals but, rather, members of communities and the human race. There may not be a universal human nature, but there is certainly a common human condition—we are all in this together, we are all living in human society, and we are all faced with the same sorts of decisions.

Whenever we make choices about what to do and make commitments about how to live, we are also making the statement that this behavior and this commitment is something that is of value and importance to human beings. In other words, despite the fact that there is no objective authority telling us how to behave, we should still strive to be aware of how our choices affect others. Far from being lone individualists, humans, Sartre contends, are responsible for themselves, yes, but they also bear some responsibility for what others choose and what they do. It would be an act of self-deception to make a choice and then at the same time wish that others would not make the same choice. Accepting some responsibility for others following our lead is the only alternative.