Does Existence Precede Essence? The Existential View The avocado view of Greek rationalism, modern philosophy, and some major monotheistic world religions is based upon the idea that human nature is characterized by a fixed essence such as reason. One way of expressing this view is to say that our essence determines our existence. On the other hand, existentialists like Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir argue that existence determines essence. In other words, human beings create their essence through their actions. This freedom of self-creation is not wholly unambiguous, however, because human beings are also embodied/situated, inter-subjective, historical beings. This corporeal, historical, and cultural context means that we are both free and not free at the same time. In other words, our ability to determine our essence through our existence is ambiguous. For example, I may be free to be a philosophy professor, a parent, and/or a yoga instructor, but I cannot be the King of France in the 17th century or a cat because of the specific temporal and physical situation in which I find myself. This ambiguity causes humans to experience their freedom with a kind of anguish/anxiety. Freedom is both absolute and limited by the freedom of others. Furthermore, humans are both self-determining (like God) and determined by forces beyond their control (other people, factual realities, etc.). Sartre and Beauvoir explain this ambiguity in terms of a human being as both a being-in-itself (insofar as we find ourselves and a body and a world over which we do not have complete control) and a being-for-itself (insofar as we are conscious). A Being in-itself is an object that is not free and cannot determine its essence, like a cup or a fruit-fly. Being for-itself is free and self-determining, like our idea of how God might be if such a being exists. For Sartre, the intent of consciousness is unambiguous, rooted in the unambiguous desire to be, in the sense of to be, like “God,” that impossible synthesis of the for-itself and the in—itself. However, our attempts to be God are in bad faith-that is, the longing to be purely “in-itself” beings, to have an essence, is to evade reality, as is our desire to be purely “for-itself” beings (which is an evasion of reality insofar as it ignores our facility). For Beauvoir, the intentionality of consciousness is ambiguous, the site of a two-folded relationship to Being and a doubled desire—that is to say, it is our desire to be God which makes us human. This desire meets not with failure but with joy: the joy of discovering the ever-changing world around and within us. Human beings are both part of the world and the mere consciousness of the world, both individuals and dependent on the collectivity. Existentialists like Sartre and Beauvoir call this dependence on the affirmation of other people the gaze. We are all capable of gazing upon other people and experiencing them as objects of our gaze, yet when I experience the gaze of an Other on me I experience myself as an Object as well. Thus, the gaze of the Other threatens the security of my self-determined existence. This insecurity causes me anxiety, but can be overcome with authentic attempts to define myself. There are thus a variety of possible responses to this anguish, some of which are more authentic than others. Inauthentic responses to the ambiguity of the human situation are those made in bad faith, whereas authentic responses will be confirmed by other authentic beings and will acknowledge both my factical reality and the responsibility I have to create myself. While human consciousness is largely being for-itself, our facticity limits our freedom and, thus, our ability to be self-determining. Other people also limit our ability to be completely self-defining. For instance, I may think I have great athletic prowess, but if I try out for the NBA and am laughed off of the court by the coaches and players, I am not going to be able to sustain my view of myself as an NBA superstar. In short, facticity is the self as perceived by the world, along with my own self-perception as informed by my engagement with other people’s view of me. It is contrasted with transcendence, which is the ability of human beings to go beyond our facticity and be somewhat self-creating. In a sense, human life can be thought of as an ongoing exchange of facticity and transcendence. Since freedom is realized only in its expression, it cannot be said to be the core essence of human beings.
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