Existence precedes essence
1 August 2009
Sartre’s skepticism regarding human nature (discussed in Human Nature) is not arbitrary and nihilistic skepticism, but has a theoretical basis in Sartre’s pure philosophical work. And while Being and Nothingness is a daunting and difficult work, in the same famous lecture we have quoted in which Sartre expressed his skepticism regarding human nature, Sartre also summarized many of his technical doctrines, and even reduced them to aphoristic sententiousness, as with existence precedes essence.
What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards. If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself. 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 of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism. And this is what people call its “subjectivity,” using the word as a reproach against us. But what do we mean to say by this, but that man is of a greater dignity than a stone or a table? For we mean to say that man primarily exists – that man is, before all else, something which propels itself towards a future and is aware that it is doing so. Man is, indeed, a project which possesses a subjective life, instead of being a kind of moss, or a fungus or a cauliflower. Before that projection of the self nothing exists; not even in the heaven of intelligence: man will only attain existence when he is what he purposes to be.
Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existentialism is a Humanism” 1946, translated by Philip Mairet
In what sense are we to take “precedes”: in a temporal sense, or an ontological sense, or both? One could well maintain that the relation is one of deductive precedence, so that once given the extant, such as it is, the essential can be systematically derived. This is one form of ontological precedence, but it seems to be almost the negation of what Sartre was suggesting. The obvious interpretation, though not the only possible interpretation (or even the only plausible interpretation), is that the precedence of existence before essence is a temporal precedence: first there are existing things, and then there are the essences of existing things. This alone doesn’t tell us anything about the nature of essence. It does not even imply the derivative character of essence (in contradistinction to the non-derivative character of existence) as does an interpretation of “existence precedes essence” in terms of deductive (or ontological) precedence, as mentioned above.
To make the point that essence is derivative while existence is primary (that is to say, primitive, non-derivative), and to retain a naturalistic interpretation of the world, one must insist that the slogan “existence precedes essence” must be interpreted both in terms of deductive and temporal precedence. But in so doing, it becomes obvious that a great many other considerations have been imported into the formula: not least the imperative to maintain a naturalistic understanding of the world, however grossly nature is undervalued. But expressing an ontological doctrine in the space of an aphorism is likely to result in a certain degree of compression and thus ambiguity, so we ought not to fix too much on this simple formula, as Sartre’s longer treatment is readily available elsewhere.
Given a formulation of a philosophical principle as clear and as simple as existence precedes essence, it would seem obvious that Sartre’s principle can easily be confronted with its opposite by inverting the formula: essence precedes existence. How are we to interpret this? We must travel rather beyond the bounds of popularized philosophy to find an adequate philosophical embodiment of this, and we can find it, to a certain extent, in Alexius von Meinong.
Meinong’s principle of independence—that being is independent of being-so—may be contrasted to Sartre’s dictum that existence precedes essence, which is a principle of both ontological and temporal dependence. For Meinong, in other words, the way a thing is, or how a thing is (its “being-so”), is independent of the fact that a thing is. Meinong’s principle of independence would appear to be more strictly and purely ontological than Sartre’s principle. We know for a fact that with human manufactures essence precedes existence, and therefore for at least one class of existents – the class of manufactures – that Meinong’s principle holds: the being-so of what it is to be an article of manufacture is independent of its being. A design may or may not be put into production; there is, with the principle of independence, a recognition of the disconnect between idea and reality. An architect can design a building that is never in fact built, as with Étienne-Louis Boullée’s Cenotaph for Newton. Thus also Meinong’s principle of independence does not hold for the complement of the class of entities for which Sartre’s principle holds.
A doctrine of relative degrees of independence could be readily formulated, (i.e., being might be dependent to a greater or lesser extent upon being-so), as could a doctrine of relative independence analogous to relative identity, (i.e., some individual aspects—properties—of an object might possess independence while others did not). Independence, like identity, is a concept that invites interpretation in terms of totality and absolutization, as exemplified by the implied tertium non datur : either being is independent of being-so (Meinong’s principle) or being is not independent of being-so (the negation of Meinong’s principle). If being is not independent of being-so, there are many ways in which it might be dependent, but if being is independent of being-so, then it is independent and there is nothing more to say.
One way in which being might be dependent upon being-so, or vice versa, is if existence always precedes being-so, that is to say, if existence precedes essence. So we see that Meinong’s principle of independence is somewhat more general that Sartre’s principle of existentialism. As we have seen, there are many ways for existence to precede essence, any many ways for being to be dependent upon being-so (and there is at least once sense in which the two coincide), but the independence of being and being-so (or, if you like, the independence of being and essence) seems to be of a more general character – a more sweeping principle, as it were.
There is not a perfect symmetry between Sartre’s principle and Meinong’s principle, although the two are sufficiently interrelated to be suggestive. But if we go beyond the realm of pure philosophy we can find a doctrine more perfectly in symmetrical opposition to Sartre. The inversion of Sartre’s principle – the principle that essence precedes existence – is clearly a teleological principle, and as such it could be considered a central principle of theism. Existentialism, under this interpretation, is not opposed to any other philosophical doctrine as much as it stands in opposition to theism.
But even here we run into trouble. In the same lecture of Sartre’s quoted above, Sartre makes a distinction between act and potential not unlike that promulgated by the schoolmen, and, again like the schoolmen, gives action priority over potential (this is a doctrine especially associated with St. Thomas Aquinas). Indeed, it could fairly be said that Sartre rejects potential as invidious to the understanding of human action.
…in reality and for the existentialist, there is no love apart from the deeds of love; no potentiality of love other than that which is manifested in loving; there is no genius other than that which is expressed in works of art. The genius of Proust is the totality of the works of Proust; the genius of Racine is the series of his tragedies, outside of which there is nothing. Why should we attribute to Racine the capacity to write yet another tragedy when that is precisely what he did not write? In life, a man commits himself, draws his own portrait and there is nothing but that portrait. No doubt this thought may seem comfortless to one who has not made a success of his life. On the other hand, it puts everyone in a position to understand that reality alone is reliable; that dreams, expectations and hopes serve to define a man only as deceptive dreams, abortive hopes, expectations unfulfilled; that is to say, they define him negatively, not positively.
Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existentialism is a Humanism” 1946, translated by Philip Mairet
This is a radical doctrine. And there is a sense in which it is astonishing that there should be any commonality between Sartre and the scholastics, not merely because Sartre was an explicit atheist, but rather because Sartre’s atheism runs deep, at a primordial level, and, though felt profoundly, was expressed in abstract and theoretical terms.
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