What did arguably existentialism‘s most well-known proponent Jean-Paul Sartre (d. 1980) mean when he said that “existence precedes essence”?
Ever since the time of the ancients, humans have wondered about the meaning of life. This led many to speculate about human nature and posit an essence to what it meant to be a human being. The assumption was that this essence is universal and that it remains unchanged throughout time. All people that will ever exist will possess some fundamental qualities and values. Sartre was critical of this view of human nature because he thought it undermined human freedom. This motivated him to present some philosophical ideas regarding human nature.
Sartre uses the example of a paper-knife that one can use to open an envelope. This paper-knife has been created by its maker for a purpose, which is to open envelopes. The object’s purpose requires that it be sharp enough to cut through paper yet not quite robust enough to be used as a sword or a weapon. The paper-knife has also been formed from the appropriate matter or substance, such as from wood or metal, and not from inappropriate matter like clothe or toilet paper. To Sartre, this paper-knife has an essence (its purpose) that is explained by what it has been created for (its existence). Applying this logic to the human being, Sartre claims that persons were not created for any purpose or reason. Human beings exist, but they do not exist for a purpose because they do not have an essence.
Sartre’s view that existence precedes essence is thus thoroughly atheistic. Unlike the paper-knife that was created by its maker for a unique purpose, there is no God who created persons for any purpose. The religious view that essence precedes existence that says humans were created for a purpose by a God is false. There is also no fixed human nature because humans were not created with one. However, as an existentialist, Sartre believed that this belief allowed humans the needed space to manufacture meaning for themselves. This is underpinned by humanity’s strong need to ascribe meaning to life, and because there is no God or source to give this meaning, people need to define purpose for themselves. For Sartre, defining purpose requires that one shapes himself and this provides one with freedom. Freedom emerges when the person realizes that he has the ability to choose whatever he wants to become. Freedom is also what separates people from other objects and animals: rocks, tables, cats, and mice do not have the ability to realize this freedom to shape themselves; they just are what they are.
Freedom, however, has its limitations and must be understood within reason. For instance, no amount of wishing for oneself to become a unicorn or a fairy will be sufficient to make this happen. Sartre’s freedom is thus not absolute freedom, but one that is indeed very free but has limitations. A final point that Sartre emphasized with regards to freedom is that of responsibility. Sartre maintains for people freedom is the greatest of all their responsibilities. Every person is responsible for his or her decisions, behaviours, and actions. Humans are fully responsible and “condemned to be free.”
Sartre’s notion of existence precedes essence is similar to Friedrich Nietzsche’s existentialist concept of the Ubermensch. For Nietzsche, the Ubermensch is that person who, having come to terms with the meaninglessness and purposelessness of his existence, realizes he has the freedom to create meaning for himself and to do it well.
Buckingham, Will., Burnham, Douglas., Hill, Clive., King, Peter., Marenbon, John., and Weeks, Marcus. 2018. The Little Book of Philosophy. Penguin Random House. p. 172-175.
Garvey, James., and Stangroom, Jeremy. 2012. The Story of Philosophy: A History of Western Thought. London: Hachette UK.