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
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.