PURPLE PATCH: The core of existentialism
What existentialists have in common is simply the fact that they believe that existence comes before essence — or, if you will, that we must begin from the subjective. What exactly do we mean by that?
If one considers an article of manufacture as, for example, a book or a paper-knife — one sees that it has been made by an artisan who had a conception of it; and he has paid attention, equally, to the conception of a paper-knife and to the pre-existent technique of production which is a part of that conception and is, at bottom, a formula. Thus the paperknife is at the same time an article producible in a certain manner and one which, on the other hand, serves a definite purpose, for one cannot suppose that a man would produce a paper-knife without knowing what it was for. Let us say, then, of the paperknife that its essence, that is to say the sum of the formulae and the qualities which made its production and its definition possible — precedes its existence. The presence of such and such a paperknife or book is thus determined before my eyes. Here, then, we are viewing the world from a technical standpoint, and we can say that production precedes existence.
When we think of God as the creator, we are thinking of Him, most of the time, as a supernal artisan [...] Thus, the conception of man in the mind of God is comparable to that of the paper-knife in the mind of the artisan: God makes man according to a procedure and a conception, exactly as the artisan manufactures a paperknife, following a definition and a formula. Thus each individual man is the realisation of a certain conception which dwells in the divine understanding [....]
Atheistic existentialism, of which I am a representative, declares with greater consistency that if God does not exist there is at least one being whose existence comes before its essence, a being which exists before it can be defined by any conception of it. That being is man or, as Heidegger has it, the human reality. 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. Not, however, what he may wish to be. For what we usually understand by wishing or willing is a conscious decision taken — much more often than not — after we have made ourselves what we are. I may wish to join a party, to write a book or to marry — but in such a case what is usually called my will is probably a manifestation of a prior and more spontaneous decision. If, however, it is true that existence is prior to essence, man is responsible for what he is. Thus, the first effect of existentialism is that it puts every man in possession of himself as he is, and places the entire responsibility for his existence squarely upon his own shoulders. And, when we say that man is responsible for himself, we do not mean that he is responsible only for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for all men.
Existentialism is a slippery term; indeed, those that are commonly called existentialists denied the label for themselves. The celebrated French philosopher and author Jean-Paul Sartre is a noble exception to this rule. He wrote the seminal existentialist novel ‘Nauea’ and the treatise ‘Being and nothingness’. Wholeheartedly embracing the term ‘existentialism’, Sartre took it upon himself to clarify its meaning and answer its critics. This extract is taken from a lecture he gave in 1946 entitled ‘Existentialism is a humanism’. In it he attempts to make clear the core of existentialism and I have taken the liberty of titling the extract in accordance with this intent.
—Contributed by Jude Heaton