Existence and Essence

October 12, 2012

There is a basic tenet held by most existentialist philosophers, that for the human being existence precedes essence. Thus the name “existentialism.” Existentialism is a label considered broad enough to umbrella the atheist Neitzche and Christian Kierkegaard into the same category, as well as a Nazi who wrote Being and Time, so among these philosophers are great differences; they do not necessarily define this tenet the same way. Despite my agreement with many of their ideas, I see a problem with the idea that “existence precedes essence” as Jean-Paul Sartre, spokesman for 20th century existentialism, defines it. In  L’existentialisme est un humanisme Sartre says “man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards.” According to Sartre, each individual has total power over her identity; as far as attributes of one’s self go, every person creates himself. This belief in a will so free it defines the self from scratch is hard to dislike. One has to take total responsibility for what he is, and with that comes pride of being one’s own author.

I know better than anyone the desire to be my own author. And if I have free will, of which I have an inseparable conviction–the determinists look absurd making an argument if they’re forced to be there and can’t change another’s mind–its evident that to an extent I as an agent shape my character, personality and perspective. By my decisions, my self transforms. But when you say that “you create your self,” you refer to two different subject yous. The second “you” is the product of the first–your self is something created by You. This means You can define what you are by what You make yourself to be, but it begs the question of the origins of the first “You”, that which made you who you are.

It may be clearer to separate “you” by agency and essence. Agency is the first “You”, essence the second. So when Sartre says you create yourself, he says that the agent, the being with capacity to act in the universe, defines its essence by its actions. But two agents cannot be identical or they would make the same choices; it must be each agent has a different nature leading it to create the essence it does. Then we can’t speak of pure agency, because the agent itself has an essence. Each self’s essence is defined by its past choices, made by past selves with their own essences. This leads backwards to the question of First Choice. It’s easy to follow that the current You who makes a decision is a sum of decisions, but as you follow back the self that created your current self, to the self who created that, to the self who created that, it’s obvious you can’t take this back ad infinitum. When You first began making choices, before having a history and an identifiable self-identity, what influenced you to make those first choices that You did? There was a self that made certain decisions before it had a history of choices to point to as the creator of itself; before You created yourself, who were You? What framework of identity did you have from this beginning, to make those decisions which set you in a certain direction of self-manifestation?

Looking to the past for a cause of the First Choice, I see three possibilities. It could be that each person starts with a default agent with a default essence–a default inclination towards this decision given this context and that decision given a different one. The default agent can’t be blank and without nature or it would have no inclination and make no choices. Or each person  begins existence with his own unique agent which would respond to the same circumstances differently than another agent. The difference between these agents, unless something arbitrary like space and time defines them, must lie in natures or essences. Ultimately you can adopt some characteristics and drop others. But the question remains: why are you the kind of person to adopt the characteristics you did and drop the ones you didn’t?

The most free possible explanation for the will is that somehow the individual rebuilds her essence, brick by brick. But this fails to account for why she builds it the way she does. This could be made possible without explaining it in cause-effect terms only if the agent self and its essence are at heart inexplicable. It could only be true by the existence of a free will that has some power to rearrange or favor the parts within itself, its desires, tendencies, the objects it directs its thoughts toward, as it holds them in the balance. The reason it does as it does would be unintelligible.

Whether a will so free exists or not, the question of First Choice remains. For the existing agent to decide what its essence will be, if its choice isn’t arbitrary,  it has a reason for choosing that choice. And what its reason is depends on the nature of that agent.


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