Existentialism and Essentialism



Existentialism and Essentialism


The existentialist credo is: Existence precedes essence.[1] This stands opposed to the dictum: Essence precedes existence. It’s Sartre versus the Scholastics, supposedly. Sartre’s existentialism, deriving from Kierkegaard and Heidegger, is said to invert traditional metaphysics, which takes the nature of a thing to be prior to its existence—or at any rate to be coeval with it. There can’t be existence without a corresponding constitutive nature—a set of defining properties. The existentialists apply the contrary doctrine to human psychology: the mind is initially a vacuity that is subsequently filled by radically free acts of will. Sartre’s says it is Nothingness: an empty potentiality, a mere receptacle, with no internal content or structure. This result is said to derive from the structure of intentionality, which is conceived as pure directedness to an object. In particular, the mind contains neither a moral sense nor a personality that determines what the agent will do—not until such things are freely chosen. A thesis about human psychology is thus held to derive from a metaphysical principle—the principle that in the case of the human mind existence (being) precedes essence (nature). Whether animal minds also conform to this principle we are not told (how could they not given the biological continuity?); at any rate, the human animal has no definition or nature qua psychological subject—except the absence of a definition or nature. We are “condemned to freedom”, as Sartre says, because our existence is metaphysically prior to our essence—we exist as pure possibility.

            I don’t intend to discuss the details of the existentialist account of human reality; I want to note its affinity with other doctrines of similar metaphysical stamp. I am concerned with the underlying metaphysics of existence and essence (which is not to be understood modally but as meaning something like “constitutive nature”): for there is a striking analogy to other doctrines seemingly at some remove from the concerns of the existentialists. First, empiricism: the theory that the mind is initially a tabula rasa, a blank, slate, or an empty cabinet. There is no innate knowledge, nothing cognitively given at the outset. The existence of the knowing mind precedes its having any substantive nature, save that of its constitutive blankness (even a sheet of blank paper has some nature—just nothing worth reading). The mind acquires knowledge by interacting with the world, both personal and impersonal—just as Sartre thinks that we acquire a moral sense and a personality by interacting with the world outside the mind, particularly other people (also initially empty receptacles condemned to freedom). The mind is free to acquire whatever comes its way without any prior determination from inside, whether cognitive or moral. The nativist, by contrast, views the mind as initially richly structured, full of content, but limited in its possibilities—rather like the body. Similarly the essentialist about the self thinks that human personality and moral sense are fixed by factors outside of our control—genes or upbringing or God’s benevolent design. Action is the result of these not their cause, as innate knowledge is held to enable the later acquisition of knowledge (in conjunction with input from outside). The dialectical picture is the same in both cases: either the mind is empty potentiality or it comes already equipped with a nontrivial nature, understood as a type of knowledge or a type of character. Traditionally, God is supposed to be the author of the innate essence of the human soul: it is he that gives us a moral sense, a particular psychological makeup, and a set of innate ideas. So mental essentialism goes with theism in traditional thinking: how else is human nature determined? As against this conception, the existentialist has no need of God to explain the installation of a mental essence, since there is no such thing. The atheist therefore has no theoretical need of God to confer an essence on the human soul; and indeed to suppose there is such a thing is to court theism as a theory of how such an essence comes to exist. We don’t need God to explain how the human mind has this or that in it at birth since it has nothing in it: blank slates need no contribution from God. In an atheistic world a lack of design and determination is only to be expected—or so it is supposed. Thus existentialism and empiricism make natural partners, as do essentialism and nativism. And just as empiricism liberates us from a scholastic and theistic past, so existentialism is supposed to liberate us from an outdated metaphysics and reliance on God as an explanatory crutch. Sartre could have cited Locke as his enlightened forerunner—his epistemological existentialist (epistemic existence precedes epistemic essence).

            But that is not the end of the analogies: we also have the bare particular, the featureless substance, and the indeterminate substrate—matter without form. That is, we have the metaphysical doctrine that corporeal existence precedes physical essence. Here the picture is that the physical world is based on a kind of undifferentiated mass or stuff that is shaped into actual objects of determinate kinds by imposed forces. Call this stuff “matter” with no commitments about how it is articulated: then matter in this sense is the counterpart to the blank slate of Locke and the empty consciousness of Sartre. It is what physical reality is before form gets to work on it (maybe what preceded the big bang). It is bare matter, matter without determinate properties: pure potentiality not definite actuality. Some people (e.g. Heisenberg) describe the quantum world this way, suggesting that we must liberate ourselves from the old picture of a fixed determinate reality. Maybe so-called matter is really energy, conceived as an amorphous field of potential action—not particles occupying specific locations and moving in determinate ways. In any case, it is supposed that we have an idea of a non-individuated physical reality that precedes formation into natural kinds and determinate objects (“All is formless gunk”, as a pre-Socratic might say). This is physical existentialism (did quantum physics influence Sartre?). Once such a view has been taken on board, we can envisage a grand metaphysics of generalized existentialism: all of existence precedes essence—everything is initially a malleable Nothingness, pure potentiality.[2] All reality is in the first instance a blank slate: it needs input from outside in order to possess a nature (free action, sensory stimuli, or quantum measurement). Without these external influences it would remain at the level of empty potentiality, a void, a vacuum, an absence. That is the new metaphysics that is to replace the old mythology of a cleanly defined, divinely ordained, cut-and-dried world of delineated objects—the world of primordial essences. Not orderly civilized essence but raw wild existence rules the world. No God in his right mind would create a world of the latter kind, but that’s okay because God is dead—or so the existentialist believes. The global existentialist views the world as consisting fundamentally of two kinds of formless material, mental and physical; such form as it may possess is the outcome of extraneous forces. Intrinsically, reality is made of Nothingness.

            How good is this metaphysics? Is it intelligible? What exactly is existence without essence? How can something exist and yet have no nature? Various metaphors and analogies have been ventured, some used already by me in an attempt at exposition: blank slate, empty cabinet, undifferentiated stuff (or lump), bare particular, vacuum, void, absence, Nothingness, emptiness, plastic, putty, mathematical point, etc. But these all fall short of aptness and clarity, mainly because they are never blank enough—they always have too much structure, too many properties. And the idea that something could exist—really exist—and yet have no nature seems to make no sense. Existence and essence go hand in hand—you can’t have one without the other. Even the empty set is a set and is empty! In the case of the human mind there are clearly many natural properties that a mind possesses the moment it begins to exist, even if these are just a general ability to learn by mimicry and conditioning (and we know there is much more to it than that). Human beings have instinctual needs and desires, innate emotional responses, and inborn cognitive capacities: there is nothing blank about them. Nor is the pure potentiality view of quantum phenomena compulsory (Bohm’s hidden variables, etc.). I won’t go into the details, but there are well-known empirical and conceptual objections to the “existence precedes essence” mantra. I suspect a powerful motivator here is the feeling that essentialism requires God: how else are we to explain why the world is naturally arranged one way rather than another? But we can surely make room for an atheistic acceptance of the actualities of existence: we have evolutionary explanations of inborn human traits as well as alternative accounts of quantum phenomena. The natural and simple view is that everything that exists has a nature, more or less intricate, with which it confronts the world outside. It is true that you can say that a thing exists without incurring any commitments as to its properties, but it doesn’t follow that a thing can actually exist and have no properties: one point is linguistic, the other ontological (does the metaphysics behind existentialism rest on a use-mention mistake?). The idea that existence could characterize an object and yet the object has no further properties is surely incoherent (what kind of object would that be?). Sartre’s description of consciousness as Nothingness is clearly an exaggeration even according to him, since consciousness is held to have intentionality as its essence—a pretty substantive property. And Locke’s blank tablet is precisely a tablet with the power to receive inscriptions and preserve them. Nothing could have only the property of existence. I take it this is crushingly obvious and hardly worth stating, but the charm of the (alleged) idea of property-less existence is apparently so strong that common sense has trouble stifling it. It seems to be one of those romantic semi-ideas that irresistibly surface in the human mind despite its hazy credentials—like the idea of immaterial spirits, ghosts, and suchlike. Maybe the womb was experienced as a kind of bland nothingness—the null environment? The idea is essentially mystical, evoking images of mists and magic. That is the reason for its appeal: the charm of the supernatural in the shape of shapelessness (the “holy spirit”). In the state of Nothingness we can free ourselves of the body, perhaps even achieve immortality (how can you kill Nothing?). Whatever the source of the notion is, it hardly makes for a coherent metaphysics. Things necessarily have a nature and this nature limits (and enables) them—bodies, minds, and elementary particles. Existence can’t precede essence; it can only manifest it. If so, existentialism is false.

[1] This formulation comes from Sartre’s 1945 “Existentialism is a Humanism”. It sounds like a piece of analytical philosophy that might be found in Kripke’s Naming and Necessity (1972).

[2] Mathematical objects would be the exception, since the idea of mathematical stuff makes no sense. In the realm of numbers existence does not precede essence, even for the staunchest existentialist (though I suppose we can envisage an anti-essentialist willing to go even this far). On the contrary, it is the idea of an existence beyond essence that seems to have no application to numbers—they have no being but essence.

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