The search for a sense of self is one of the most important quests in the history of Western philosophy. Notably, it has been the main preoccupation of philosophers in the past few centuries. Before, people accepted people to have a certain nature, due to them being creatures made by and for God. They were all more or less alike, acknowledging a particular human nature given by this deity.
Nevertheless, with the decline of the power of the Catholic Church and its consequences, along with the end of philosophy that G. W. F. Hegel heralded, the systems of thought became more relativistic, and the Judeo-Christian God stopped being the center of and answer to all philosophical question. This crisis led philosophers to have to reconsider the ontological foundations of their practice, leading some to believe that there really was nothing that one could point to as being common to all people.
However, people found other ways to create a sense of self. Jean Paul Sartre was one of these thinkers, and he famously stated that existence comes before essence, believing that one could make sense of one’s life without having to resort to God. In this sense, I agree that our actions and choices we define our self through deeds.
Sartre’s assertion that existence come before essence is a response to people thinking that their lives were dictated by God, a conception that was made famous in medieval times. Before, people thought that there was a certain set human nature, and that people acted according to this. For example, because a person was intelligent, he would seek to know God and the divine. Furthermore, this gave people a sense of meaning, as their life was oriented towards achieving this completion and towards loving God. When this thought system collapsed, people had to find other ways of being.
The main consequence of sustaining that existence comes before essence is that one must define one’s self. As God is not necessarily there to establish the correct way to lead a life, one has liberty to do it for one’s self. “Without a nature to define the manner, mode, and telos of our being, we are, inevitably, thrown back entirely upon ourselves when deciding how to live our lives—condemned, as Sartre would say, to be free. (Richey, 2015, p. 39). For Sartre, freedom is the intrinsic most important consequence of the human existence, one that constantly and imperative leads people to act.
According to Richy, “the central and controlling idea of his [Satre’s] philosophy, namely, a belief in the absolute freedom of man, freedom even from the constraints that would be imposed by one’s own nature” (Richey, 2015, p. 38). As one can see, freedom is the most important concept in Sartre’s philosophy. As there is nothing to dictate the way a person should lead his or her life, he or she has the choice to do it in whatever way he or she feels like.
This makes the actions that one takes mold one’s self, leading to a personal creation of essence. “In sum, here, in this version of existentialism the man who knows that to choose himself is to choose existence, and is to choose fashioning that existence according to his own will, should also understand that this is human existence choosing existence to be its own essence” (Tubbs, 2013, p. 482). The decisions that a person makes thus shape who or she is. As there is no fixed substance, people are led to craft who they are, something they achieve though the life they choose to lead.
Even though this freedom would seem to be something inevitable positive, it actually has some negative consequences as well. As one can see, each choice that a person makes leads towards the construction of him or herself, something that is extremely significant. Furthermore, it takes away the stick with which one could measure whether an action was correct or not, leading one to wonder whether one is behaving well or not.
In Vasey’s point of view, “the uncertainty and lack of proof that one is ever choosing the right thing, and yet one has to choose anyway, and even has to think of oneself as choosing for all humanity” (2010, p. 61). As humans do not have a nature, the act of free choosing carries with it important and unavoidable consequences.
This problem with the conceptualization of freedom is one of the greatest objections that people make against Sartre’s philosophy. For example, there are different manners in which people have found there to be limits to freedom. One of these is through the freedom of the Other with which the subject comes in contact. “Just as consciousness can only find its limit in consciousness, freedom can only be limited by freedom. And that is precisely what the Other’s freedom does to my own: it limits it” (Visker, 2007, p. 6). The lack of limits that freedom supposes it, is the limit. Even though it may not have boundaries, it is decidedly not infinite, and the Other’s recognition can lie outside of it.
On the other hand, some find that his negation of human nature also has intrinsic problems. For example, there are Catholic authors that believe that this is only the expression of current trends in philosophy. “Pieper seems to have considered Sartre’s denial of any human nature that might serve as a ‘natural’ limit on our freedom to be the supreme expression not merely of existentialism but of modernity itself” (Richey, 2015, p. 33). Here, with a very negative connotation, one can see that Pieper believes that this is only a characteristic of new ways to negate the truth.
Nevertheless, the most coherent problem could be that of finding meaning in a meaningless universe. According to Richey, “in a world which is entirely lacking an intelligible structure or meaning, one could not hope to ever provide a rational reason for anything whatsoever” (2015, p. 48). If there is no meaning, the possibility of finding it would be absurd. If nothing in the world makes sense, it would mean that one could not even forge individual essence, as there would be no material from which to make sense from.
The first of these objections is interesting, and Sartre could find it to be reasonable. However, it, like the last objection, suffer from a mistreatment of the Sartrean spirit. He did not believe that freedom was absolute, but that it limited itself. “He says that in The Last Chance, Mathieu will commit himself in a free commitment, which will give the world a meaning for him” (Vasey, 2010, p. 62). There must be decisions made: there is freedom, but it is the freedom to choose; one’s liberty does not give one the freedom to not choose.
Therefore, the freedom is not absolute. Furthermore, he does not say that there is nothing that makes sense in the world. On the other hand, he sustains that human existence does not have a defined essence. This does not mean that one can do whatever one wants or that everything in the world is meaningless. On the contrary, it invites people to try to obtain meaning within this world through limited liberty, leading them towards the appropriation and creation of their desired life. It is important to see this difference between the opposing side and Sartre’s statements, as the latter become illogical if not considered properly.
Even though the second objection is less coherent, it is also harder to dispel, as it is also a valid point of view. “In opposing the prejudice that essence precedes existence, Sartre argues that this posits a universal human nature, perhaps in the mind of God and prior to existence, which is taken to be the blueprint of all existence” (Tubbs, 2013, p. 481). Therefore, one can see that there are two points of view with regards to the hierarchy of essence and existence.
However, Sartre would probably see this as ratifying his point of view, as he would allot those who oppose their freedom to think this way. Therefore, one could see that this objection actually demonstrates the point of view that Sartre is trying to uphold. The fact that one can choose to lead one’s life believing that one can do it however one wishes, or to lead it thinking that one has to do it a certain way, demonstrates the former without negating the latter.
In conclusion, the decline in the power of God with respect to philosophy has led people to construct their essence through their deeds. Even though before people believed that humans had a set nature, this has dissipated, leading people to have to invent their self in another way. Jean Paul Sartre supported the notion that one could do this through one’s decisions. The manner in which one decides to lead one’s life determines one’s essence, and humanity’s as a whole. Nevertheless, this is not completely positive, as it also gives each choice great responsibility and weight.
Although there are many objections that could me made with respect to Sartre’s philosophy, most of them come from an inadequate understanding of his conceptualization of freedom, which is not absolute, but limited. It is interesting to see how every minute one is led towards self-empowerment and definition, being able to change not just who one is, but what humanity is as a whole.
Richey, L. (2015). Existentialism and Christian Humanism: Josef Pieper’s Critique of Sartre Revisited. Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, 18(3), 33-56. PDF.
Tubbs, N. (2013). Existentialism and Humanism: Humanity—Know Thyself! Studies in Philosophy and Education 32, 477-490. PDF.
Vasey, C. (2010). The Day after Existentialism Is a Humanism, and The Last Chance. Sartre Studies International, 16(1), 60-68. PDF.
Visker, R. (2007). Was Existentialism Truly a Humanism? Sartre Studies International, 13(1), 3-15. PDF.