Existentialism Is a Humanism


Jean-Paul Sartre

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Paper Knife Symbol Analysis

Paper Knife Symbol Icon

Sartre uses the manufacture of a paper knife (or letter opener) to explain the difference between objects whose essence precedes their existence and the human subject whose existence precedes its essence. The knife is designed with a particular purpose in mind (to cut paper), and therefore it exists in essence before someone creates it physically. To Sartre, the human who makes a paper knife because they need to open a letter is analogous to the traditional picture of a God who creates people according to the blueprint he has imagined for them. Sartre believes that, in reality, humans find themselves existing in the world without any blueprint for how to live their lives; humans have no predetermined essence until they decide on their own purposes and create their own meanings through action.

Paper Knife Quotes in Existentialism Is a Humanism

The Existentialism Is a Humanism quotes below all refer to the symbol of Paper Knife. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Existence, Essence and the Human Condition Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Yale University Press edition of Existentialism Is a Humanism published in 2007.
Existentialism Is a Humanism Quotes

When God creates he knows exactly what he is creating. The concept of man, in the mind of God, is comparable to the concept of the paper knife in the mind of the manufacturer: God produces man following certain techniques and a conception, just as the craftsman, following a definition and a technique, produces a paper knife. Thus each individual man is the realization of a certain concept within this divine intelligence.

Related Characters: Jean-Paul Sartre (speaker), The Christian Critics, God
Related Symbols: Paper Knife
Page Number: 21
Explanation and Analysis:
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Paper Knife Symbol Timeline in Existentialism Is a Humanism

The timeline below shows where the symbol Paper Knife appears in Existentialism Is a Humanism. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Existentialism Is a Humanism
Existence, Essence and the Human Condition Theme Icon
Radical Freedom, Choice, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Existentialism and Its Critics Theme Icon
...existence is the opposite of the existence of a manufactured product, such as a paper knife, whose essence precedes its existence because its manufacturer creates it to fulfill a particular purpose. (full context)
Existence, Essence and the Human Condition Theme Icon
Abandonment and Atheism Theme Icon
Existentialism and Its Critics Theme Icon
Sartre likens the knife’s manufacturer to the traditional idea of God as creator: under this view, humans are the... (full context)