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Existence and Essence

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  • Herman B. Triplegood
    What is the hook into existentialism? Perhaps it is the position on existence and essence. I have heard this mentioned here a few times, but it has not
    Message 1 of 5 , Jun 17, 2005
      What is the hook into existentialism?

      Perhaps it is the position on existence and essence. I have heard this
      mentioned here a few times, but it has not recently been elaborated upon by
      list members. When we say, "existence precedes essence," are we asserting a
      first principle? Is this something like an axiom? Is this like the
      divination that Descartes is accused of doing? Descartes' discourse is
      axiomatic discourse. But so is Spinoza's "Ethics" and "Kant's "Critique,"
      for that matter. Is the proposition, "existence precedes essence," the
      beginning of the existential statement? or, is it the end?

      Is this not a conclusion that we draw from an "exact analysis of the
      matter"? Is it not an existential analytic, a phenomenology of human
      existence, that leads us to this assertion, not as an axiom, but as a
      conclusion? In other words, we arrive at this conclusion by close
      examination (existential analytic), careful description (phenomenology), and
      a certain degree of interpretation (hermeneutic), do we not? How can we
      conclude that existence precedes essence if we are not at the end of our
      existential project? Certainly, future history might offer profound and even
      redefining understandings and insights into existentialism, as it has done
      in science. So, how can we say this is the last word?

      Either way, I would like to hear some unpacking of this proposition. What is
      the standard academic take on this statement? Where did this formulation
      come from? It sounds like an Aquinas-Aristotle line of development to me. Do
      fellow list participants believe this is an axiom, a given, a first
      principle? Or do they believe it is a conclusion? Is it a certain
      conclusion? Is it a provisional conclusion, based only upon what we now
      know?

      I am personally inclined to believe that the proposition is not an axiom. It
      is not laid down, as a given, as a first principle. It is discovered,
      through the methods of discourse characteristic of existentialism (whatever
      these might be -- an intriguing question in itself). Yet, it is in a sense a
      necessary statement. The proposition carries a kind of finality to it.
      Further discovery will not seem to change it. Also, the manner in which
      existence precedes essence must be characteristically human. When we speak,
      objectively, of entities, things like things, this statement is nonsense.
      Why? Because the essence of the entity IS its existence. The entity IS the
      totality of its attributes. This is, almost tautologically, its essence. But
      the essence embraces all of the entity's attributes, not just the convenient
      defining ones that we pick out. This is what Rand believes.

      But this is not entirely so for the human being. We are something like an
      entity. We are embodied. This is where Ayn Rand seems to miss the point of
      existentialism. The human being is not quite like just any other entity. It
      is the entity, for which, a proposition like "existence precedes essence,"
      can even make sense (epistemological take), or can even apply (ontological
      take). It applies uniquely to human existence, more so than to the existence
      of just things. For the human being, the existence "outstrips" the essence.
      We find this in philosophically guided introspection. We find it in
      psychoanalysis and transpersonal psychology. What we grasp as the essence of
      the human being, never quite grasps it all. Some existence slips by this
      essence, and surprises us, time and time again. Sometimes, we do not even
      know our own ostensibly conscious motives. We are perplexed by the things
      that we ourselves do.

      We can ask: What are the underlying presuppositions of existential
      philosophy? But perhaps it would be more constructive to frame the question
      in this non-axiomatic way: What are the things that existential philosophy,
      as a thinking culture in philosophy, believes that it has discovered? So, do
      we agree that, essentially, existential philosophy is all about the human
      being, that is, human being, or, being human? Then, what has existential
      philosophy discovered to be true about being human?

      My two (or three) cents:

      The human essence, the human identity, is not pre-given; it is accomplished.
      Human nature in general, and character, specifically, is always a work in
      progress. That seems to be one of the discoveries. This is the "existence
      precedes the essence" idea.

      The human essence is not eternal, but it is transcendental. The human being
      has a consciousness of the absolute, of things like infinity and
      immortality, of freedom and beauty. These are all, in a sense,
      transcendences. Yet, they take place within a context of finitude. The human
      being is mortal, and given to error, inauthenticity, and bad faith. But it
      is the human being that either invents or discovers these transcendental
      concepts.

      Non-existence is an issue for the human being. However this may be treated,
      either negatively, based on a mood of angst, or positively, based on a mood
      of ekstasis, or in any other way, the prospect of non-existence, in its
      various modalities, from death to de-personalization, is a lively issue for
      the human being. It matters.

      The question of meaning, as it pertains to human existence, in
      existentialism, is the question of the meaning of life, in general. Perhaps
      that meaning is simply this: to create, or co-create, a purpose. It is all
      about the projects in which one engage -- the things we do. The purpose is
      not pre-given. Neither are the projects. We do all of the deciding here. We
      choose what is important to us, and we for the most part ignore the rest.
      Our life has meaning when the projects in which we engage, the purposes in
      which we share, are our own creations, or mutual co-creations.

      The human being's existence, with other human beings, as self and other, I
      and Thou, interlocutors, citizens, master and slave, parent and child,
      lovers, and so on, is also a part of the human essence. Man is a rational
      animal. Man is also a political, cultural, social and ethical animal. Part
      of the definition of man must include man's relation to men, in all of its
      facets.

      Yet, the acting individual is primary. The social-political relationships
      are there for the sake of individuals, not the other way around. Even if it
      is called, "The common good," the primary purpose of the social-political
      relationship is understood to involve the protection of all (or most, in
      this imperfect world and society) individuals. So, in existentialism the
      individual is primary, although the relationship to other individuals is
      still essential.

      Just my thoughts. Fishing for clues and some enlightenment.

      Hb3g
      www.ekstasis.info
    • Mary Jo Malo
      This little explanation from Wikipedia: Existence precedes essence - JPS Among the most famous and influential existentialist propositions is Sartre s
      Message 2 of 5 , Jun 18, 2005
        This little explanation from Wikipedia:

        "Existence precedes essence" - JPS

        "Among the most famous and influential existentialist propositions is
        Sartre's dictum, "existence precedes and rules essence", which is
        generally taken to mean that there is no pre-defined essence to
        humanity except that which we make for ourselves. Since Sartrean
        existentialism does not acknowledge the existence of a god or of any
        other determining principle, human beings are free to do as they
        choose.

        Since there is no predefined human nature or ultimate evaluation
        beyond that which humans project onto the world, people may only be
        judged or defined by their actions and choices, and human choices are
        the ultimate evaluator. This concept spins from Nietzsche's concept
        of eternal return—the idea that "things lose values because they
        cease to exist". If all things were to continually exist then they
        would all burden us with a tremendous level of importance, but
        because things come to pass, and no longer exist, they lose their
        value. The concept of existence preceding essence is important
        because it describes the only conceivable reality as the judge of
        good or evil. If things simply "are", without directive, purpose or
        overall truth, then truth (or essence) is only the projection of that
        which is a product of existence, or collective experiences. For truth
        to exist, existence has to exist before it, making it not only the
        predecessor but the 'ruler' of its own objectivity."

        From my own personal experience, and apparently that of many others
        who instinctively or gradually came to realize Sartre's postulation;
        since there are no given values or truth, we as must create them for
        ourselves. Indeed, it is our great privilege and responsibility as
        human beings. What does being human mean? That's something each of us
        is supposed to determine for ourselves, knowing that what we
        determine will not necessarily be the essence of someone else and
        will necessarily affect their existence and even maybe their essence.

        Existentialism should be moving along now anyday. Sartre and some of
        his contemporaries did not take the scientific view into
        consideration. I'm now convinced along with Dennett, et al, that
        there is a scientific determinism in human existence, that there are
        basic human nature(s) or essences encoded in our biology and shaped
        by our environment, but that our free will can create values and
        ethics by which we determine further essence. For me existence is a
        given which requires no further explanation, but essence is of the
        essence. It's a joyful and terrible journey, this self & others
        predicament, this essence rubbing. However, unless we're existing, we
        don't get to take the ride.

        Mary


        --- In existlist@yahoogroups.com, "Herman B. Triplegood" <hb3g@c...>
        wrote:
        > What is the hook into existentialism?
        >
        > Perhaps it is the position on existence and essence. I have heard
        this
        > mentioned here a few times, but it has not recently been elaborated
        upon by
        > list members. When we say, "existence precedes essence," are we
        asserting a
        > first principle? Is this something like an axiom? Is this like the
        > divination that Descartes is accused of doing? Descartes' discourse
        is
        > axiomatic discourse. But so is Spinoza's "Ethics"
        and "Kant's "Critique,"
        > for that matter. Is the proposition, "existence precedes essence,"
        the
        > beginning of the existential statement? or, is it the end?
        >
        > Is this not a conclusion that we draw from an "exact analysis of the
        > matter"? Is it not an existential analytic, a phenomenology of human
        > existence, that leads us to this assertion, not as an axiom, but as
        a
        > conclusion? In other words, we arrive at this conclusion by close
        > examination (existential analytic), careful description
        (phenomenology), and
        > a certain degree of interpretation (hermeneutic), do we not? How
        can we
        > conclude that existence precedes essence if we are not at the end
        of our
        > existential project? Certainly, future history might offer profound
        and even
        > redefining understandings and insights into existentialism, as it
        has done
        > in science. So, how can we say this is the last word?
        >
        > Either way, I would like to hear some unpacking of this
        proposition. What is
        > the standard academic take on this statement? Where did this
        formulation
        > come from? It sounds like an Aquinas-Aristotle line of development
        to me. Do
        > fellow list participants believe this is an axiom, a given, a first
        > principle? Or do they believe it is a conclusion? Is it a certain
        > conclusion? Is it a provisional conclusion, based only upon what we
        now
        > know?
        >
        > I am personally inclined to believe that the proposition is not an
        axiom. It
        > is not laid down, as a given, as a first principle. It is
        discovered,
        > through the methods of discourse characteristic of existentialism
        (whatever
        > these might be -- an intriguing question in itself). Yet, it is in
        a sense a
        > necessary statement. The proposition carries a kind of finality to
        it.
        > Further discovery will not seem to change it. Also, the manner in
        which
        > existence precedes essence must be characteristically human. When
        we speak,
        > objectively, of entities, things like things, this statement is
        nonsense.
        > Why? Because the essence of the entity IS its existence. The entity
        IS the
        > totality of its attributes. This is, almost tautologically, its
        essence. But
        > the essence embraces all of the entity's attributes, not just the
        convenient
        > defining ones that we pick out. This is what Rand believes.
        >
        > But this is not entirely so for the human being. We are something
        like an
        > entity. We are embodied. This is where Ayn Rand seems to miss the
        point of
        > existentialism. The human being is not quite like just any other
        entity. It
        > is the entity, for which, a proposition like "existence precedes
        essence,"
        > can even make sense (epistemological take), or can even apply
        (ontological
        > take). It applies uniquely to human existence, more so than to the
        existence
        > of just things. For the human being, the existence "outstrips" the
        essence.
        > We find this in philosophically guided introspection. We find it in
        > psychoanalysis and transpersonal psychology. What we grasp as the
        essence of
        > the human being, never quite grasps it all. Some existence slips by
        this
        > essence, and surprises us, time and time again. Sometimes, we do
        not even
        > know our own ostensibly conscious motives. We are perplexed by the
        things
        > that we ourselves do.
        >
        > We can ask: What are the underlying presuppositions of existential
        > philosophy? But perhaps it would be more constructive to frame the
        question
        > in this non-axiomatic way: What are the things that existential
        philosophy,
        > as a thinking culture in philosophy, believes that it has
        discovered? So, do
        > we agree that, essentially, existential philosophy is all about the
        human
        > being, that is, human being, or, being human? Then, what has
        existential
        > philosophy discovered to be true about being human?
        >
        > My two (or three) cents:
        >
        > The human essence, the human identity, is not pre-given; it is
        accomplished.
        > Human nature in general, and character, specifically, is always a
        work in
        > progress. That seems to be one of the discoveries. This is
        the "existence
        > precedes the essence" idea.
        >
        > The human essence is not eternal, but it is transcendental. The
        human being
        > has a consciousness of the absolute, of things like infinity and
        > immortality, of freedom and beauty. These are all, in a sense,
        > transcendences. Yet, they take place within a context of finitude.
        The human
        > being is mortal, and given to error, inauthenticity, and bad faith.
        But it
        > is the human being that either invents or discovers these
        transcendental
        > concepts.
        >
        > Non-existence is an issue for the human being. However this may be
        treated,
        > either negatively, based on a mood of angst, or positively, based
        on a mood
        > of ekstasis, or in any other way, the prospect of non-existence, in
        its
        > various modalities, from death to de-personalization, is a lively
        issue for
        > the human being. It matters.
        >
        > The question of meaning, as it pertains to human existence, in
        > existentialism, is the question of the meaning of life, in general.
        Perhaps
        > that meaning is simply this: to create, or co-create, a purpose. It
        is all
        > about the projects in which one engage -- the things we do. The
        purpose is
        > not pre-given. Neither are the projects. We do all of the deciding
        here. We
        > choose what is important to us, and we for the most part ignore the
        rest.
        > Our life has meaning when the projects in which we engage, the
        purposes in
        > which we share, are our own creations, or mutual co-creations.
        >
        > The human being's existence, with other human beings, as self and
        other, I
        > and Thou, interlocutors, citizens, master and slave, parent and
        child,
        > lovers, and so on, is also a part of the human essence. Man is a
        rational
        > animal. Man is also a political, cultural, social and ethical
        animal. Part
        > of the definition of man must include man's relation to men, in all
        of its
        > facets.
        >
        > Yet, the acting individual is primary. The social-political
        relationships
        > are there for the sake of individuals, not the other way around.
        Even if it
        > is called, "The common good," the primary purpose of the social-
        political
        > relationship is understood to involve the protection of all (or
        most, in
        > this imperfect world and society) individuals. So, in
        existentialism the
        > individual is primary, although the relationship to other
        individuals is
        > still essential.
        >
        > Just my thoughts. Fishing for clues and some enlightenment.
        >
        > Hb3g
        > www.ekstasis.info
      • trop_de_simones
        Absence disembodies—so does Death Absence disembodies—so does Death Hiding individuals from the Earth Superposition helps, as well as love— Tenderness
        Message 3 of 5 , Sep 7, 2005
          Absence disembodies—so does Death

          Absence disembodies—so does Death
          Hiding individuals from the Earth
          Superposition helps, as well as love—
          Tenderness decreases as we prove—

          Emily Dickinson
        • jimstuart51
          All, Let me pull together what some of you have written about existence and essence. Louise (43848): Let s see, first of all you say we were discussing
          Message 4 of 5 , Mar 4 9:49 AM
            All,

            Let me pull together what some of you have written about existence and
            essence.

            Louise (43848): Let's see, first of all you say we were discussing
            precisely Sartre, then you quote Mary's response to Joe which invokes
            existentialism in
            general. Am I missing something here, or is this not at least implying
            that Sartre is the only permitted authority regarding the
            interpretation of essence/existence? In regard to his own works, fair
            enough, but the original post referred to an existence/essence unity
            (without even mentioning Sartre) which, so far, sounds to me like an
            unexplained, unexamined article of faith. I should really like to
            understand its provenance. [end]

            Wil (43849): No, I think you're missing something here. Can you name
            another existentialist author who uses that dyad who is either not
            referring to Sartre, or who is using the dyad in some other novel way?
            And in any case, whenever such a dyad ("existence/essence") is used
            without any special proviso, wouldn't one understand those terms in
            their usual sense, especially in a philosophical list? Finally, can
            you show me another meaning to these terms that would be readily
            understandable?

            I don't think you would have an easy task with any of that. [end]

            Jim (now): Well, to take up your challenge, Wil, Heidegger writes on
            the first page of "Being and Time":

            "The essence of Dasein lies in its existence." (Macquarrie & Robinson
            trans, p. 67)

            Heidegger explains this statement in the following text:

            "Accordingly those characteristics which can be exhibited in this
            entity are not `properties' present-at-hand of some entity which
            `looks' so and so and is itself present-at-hand; they are in each case
            possible ways to be, and no more than that. …

            In each case Dasein is mine to be one way or another. Dasein has
            always made some sort of decision as to the way in which it is in each
            case mine [je meines]. That entity which in its Being has this very
            Being as an issue, comports itself towards its Being as its ownmost
            possibility. In each case Dasein is its possibility, and it `has' this
            possibility, but not just as a property [eigenschaftlich], as
            something present-at-hand would. And because Dasein is in each case
            essentially its own possibility, it can, in its very Being, `choose'
            itself and win itself; it can also lose itself and never win itself;
            or only `seem' to do so. But only in so far as it is essentially
            something which can be authentic – that is, something of its own – can
            it have lost itself and not yet won itself." (pp. 67-8)

            Heidegger's view as expressed here seems to coincide approximately
            with Sartre's view which he summarises in his slogan "existence
            precedes essence".

            So it looks like Heidegger had the original idea, and Sartre took it
            over without much modification, if any.

            Heidegger, in fact, takes the idea over from Kierkegaard who argues
            that the subjectively existing individual is continually in the
            process of becoming.

            In fact the idea that the human individual is pure existence, without
            an essence seems to be common ground to all the four most prominent
            existentialists – Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Sartre.

            Wil is right that Sartre's slogan "existence precedes essence" is most
            well known, but as Mary originally stated in her post 43828 "the
            existence/essence unity" is one of the defining marks of
            existentialism in general.

            Jim
          • eupraxis@aol.com
            JIm, Thank you for reminding me (us) of Heidegger s influence on Sartre (possibly) in that regard. As you may know, when Sartre and Co. were imprisoned by the
            Message 5 of 5 , Mar 4 10:04 AM
              JIm,

              Thank you for reminding me (us) of Heidegger's influence on Sartre
              (possibly) in that regard. As you may know, when Sartre and Co. were
              imprisoned by the Nazis, they were permitted only German texts, which
              suited many of them as just fine (or so the story has been told). Thus
              the post-War French theorists were utterly trained in thinkers like
              Heidegger.

              But, I may not have been understood. You are actually singing my song
              here. My point was that the dyad can only have been understood in
              precisely that way. The Heidegger quotes only underscore that point.

              Wil


              -----Original Message-----
              From: jimstuart51 <jjimstuart1@...>
              To: existlist@yahoogroups.com
              Sent: Tue, 4 Mar 2008 11:49 am
              Subject: [existlist] Existence and Essence

























              All,



              Let me pull together what some of you have written about existence and

              essence.



              Louise (43848): Let's see, first of all you say we were discussing

              precisely Sartre, then you quote Mary's response to Joe which invokes

              existentialism in

              general. Am I missing something here, or is this not at least implying

              that Sartre is the only permitted authority regarding the

              interpretation of essence/existence? In regard to his own works, fair

              enough, but the original post referred to an existence/essence unity

              (without even mentioning Sartre) which, so far, sounds to me like an

              unexplained, unexamined article of faith. I should really like to

              understand its provenance. [end]



              Wil (43849): No, I think you're missing something here. Can you name

              another existentialist author who uses that dyad who is either not

              referring to Sartre, or who is using the dyad in some other novel way?

              And in any case, whenever such a dyad ("existence/essence") is used

              without any special proviso, wouldn't one understand those terms in

              their usual sense, especially in a philosophical list? Finally, can

              you show me another meaning to these terms that would be readily

              understandable?



              I don't think you would have an easy task with any of that. [end]



              Jim (now): Well, to take up your challenge, Wil, Heidegger writes on

              the first page of "Being and Time":



              "The essence of Dasein lies in its existence." (Macquarrie & Robinson

              trans, p. 67)



              Heidegger explains this statement in the following text:



              "Accordingly those characteristics which can be exhibited in this

              entity are not `properties' present-at-hand of some entity which

              `looks' so and so and is itself present-at-hand; they are in each case

              possible ways to be, and no more than that. …



              In each case Dasein is mine to be one way or another. Dasein has

              always made some sort of decision as to the way in which it is in each

              case mine [je meines]. That entity which in its Being has this very

              Being as an issue, comports itself towards its Being as its ownmost

              possibility. In each case Dasein is its possibility, and it `has' this

              possibility, but not just as a property [eigenschaftlich], as

              something present-at-hand would. And because Dasein is in each case

              essentially its own possibility, it can, in its very Being, `choose'

              itself and win itself; it can also lose itself and never win itself;

              or only `seem' to do so. But only in so far as it is essentially

              something which can be authentic – that is, something of its own – can

              it have lost itself and not yet won itself." (pp. 67-8)



              Heidegger's view as expressed here seems to coincide approximately

              with Sartre's view which he summarises in his slogan "existence

              precedes essence".



              So it looks like Heidegger had the original idea, and Sartre took it

              over without much modification, if any.



              Heidegger, in fact, takes the idea over from Kierkegaard who argues

              that the subjectively existing individual is continually in the

              process of becoming.



              In fact the idea that the human individual is pure existence, without

              an essence seems to be common ground to all the four most prominent

              existentialists – Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Sartre.



              Wil is right that Sartre's slogan "existence precedes essence" is most

              well known, but as Mary originally stated in her post 43828 "the

              existence/essence unity" is one of the defining marks of

              existentialism in general.



              Jim
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