The driving observation behind Sartre’s existentialism is his notion that “existence precedes essence.” For Sartre, there is no preexisting human essence, set by God or nature, that determines what people should or will do. As a result, each individual must define their own essence, and their essence is merely the sum of their actions.
Essence, broadly, refers to the necessary properties that make a thing what it is. For at least two thousand years before Sartre, philosophers looked for a human essence by asking about characteristics common to all people. Generally, debates over the human essence concentrated on a problem inherited from Plato and Aristotle: did humans’ distinctive nature come from their form (an immaterial soul or mind) or their substance (biological matter)? Either way, determining the “essence” of humankind meant defining human nature in terms of its relationship to historical, biological, divine, and/or social forces. The resulting picture of the human essence promised not only to define humanity and predict human behavior, but also allow a framework for human morality to emerge. Sartre gives two examples of normal cases where essence would precede existence: the paper knife and the conventional picture of God. The paper knife’s essence is present in the mind of its human creator (who designs it for the particular purpose of cutting paper) before the knife actually exists. Similarly, under the conventional Christian picture, God creates humans from the mental blueprint of his own image. In this view, the “idea” of someone exists before that person is born, and the person’s life consists of growing to fulfill the destiny already set out for them in that idea.
Sartre responds to the problem of determining the human essence by throwing out the accepted wisdom that such an essence is universal at all. Although he was not the first to do so, and although he by no means denies the biological or behavioral similarities among people, Sartre nevertheless thinks that the essence of who any individual really is has nothing to do with humans’ universal traits. He argues that people do not live out predefined lives, but rather define themselves by living; people are not born with a readymade essence that determines who they are, but rather they choose their own essence through their commitments and actions. This is what he means when he says that, for humans, “existence precedes essence.”
Because existence precedes essence, Sartre argues that living a human life means having a projection and a project. These are the defining features of human subjectivity. Human life includes a projection in the sense that everyone imagines themselves: what they are like, what they will be like, and what they want to be like. This conscious projection of the self into the future constitutes each person’s developing sense of their own identity, meaning, or essence. The human project is acting to become what one projects oneself to be. Sartre compares a human life to an art project: both are capable of creating meaning through creativity and circumstance, even though there is no preset goal for either at the outset and there are no objective criteria for making the “best” piece of art or living the “best” human life. Instead, Sartre says that the measure of success in life is authenticity, or whether a person “is what he projects himself to be”—whether that person’s beliefs, actions, and self-image are consistent, or—in other words—whether their project matches their projection.
Sartre calls this state of living as a subject in the world the human condition. He argues that the true human universal is not a shared human nature, but rather this shared human condition. In other words, he thinks that there is no collective set of inherent traits that “define” human beings, besides the fact that each person necessarily has “to be in the world, to work in it, to live out his life in it among others, and, eventually, to die in it.” Existentialism, then, is a “humanism” in the sense that it starts from this universal human condition, but not in the sense that it believes human beings all share an inherent nature or value.
Existence, Essence and the Human Condition ThemeTracker
Existence, Essence and the Human Condition Quotes in Existentialism Is a Humanism
Many will be surprised by what l have to say here about humanism. We shall attempt to discover in what sense we understand it. In any case, let us begin by saying that what we mean by “existentialism” is a doctrine that makes human life possible and also affirms that every truth and every action imply an environment and a human subjectivity.
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.
What do we mean here by “existence precedes essence”? We mean that man first exists: he materializes in the world, encounters himself, and only afterward defines himself. If man as existentialists conceive of him cannot be defined, 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.
Man is indeed a project that has a subjective existence, rather unlike that of a patch of moss, a spreading fungus, or a cauliflower. Prior to that projection of the self, nothing exists, not even in divine intelligence, and man shall attain existence only when he is what he projects himself to be—not what he would like to be.
Man is condemned to be free: condemned, because he did not create himself, yet nonetheless free, because once cast into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.
People would prefer to be born a coward or be born a hero.
Contrary to the philosophy of Descartes, or of Kant, when we say “I think,” we each attain ourselves in the presence of the other, and we are just as certain of the other as we are of ourselves. Therefore, the man who becomes aware of himself directly in the cogito also perceives all others, and he does so as the condition of his own existence. He realizes that he cannot be anything (in the sense in which we say someone is spiritual, or cruel, or jealous) unless others acknowledge him as such.
Historical situations vary; a man may be born a slave in a pagan society or a feudal lord or a member of the proletariat. What never varies is the necessity for him to be in the world, to work in it, to live out his life in it among others, and, eventually, to die in it. These limitations are neither subjective nor objective; rather they have an objective as well as a subjective dimension: objective, because they affect everyone and are evident everywhere; subjective because they are experienced and are meaningless if man does not experience them—that is to say, if man does not freely determine himself and his existence in relation to them. And, as diverse as man’s projects may be, at least none of them seem wholly foreign to me since each presents itself as an attempt to surpass such limitations, to postpone, deny, or come to terms with them.
There is another meaning to the word “humanism.” It is basically this: man is always outside of himself, and it is in projecting and losing himself beyond himself that man is realized; and, on the other hand, it is in pursuing transcendent goals that he is able to exist. Since man is this transcendence, and grasps objects only in relation to such transcendence, he is himself the core and focus of this transcendence. The only universe that exists is the human one—the universe of human subjectivity.