Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Sartre: Existence Precedes Essence

After reviewing Sartre's first essay in Existentialism is a Humanism I am amazed by the amount of responsibility that Sartre assigns to man. As human beings we are not provided with a set of a priori principles as Kant believes but rather we define our own essence after we have entered into a state of existence. This existentialist theory provides man with a number of, previously predetermined, choices to be made. I am not opposed to Sartre's vision of human nature, or lack thereof, but rather I am shocked by the extremity of his departure from previous thinkers. Sartre does incorporate Kant's concept of universal maxims by suggesting that when man creates an image of himself he also creates an image of what man, generally, should be. This portion of Sartre's essay is what places such enormous responsibility in the hands of each man's choices. As a result of this idea each individual must re-evaluate their decision-making process to ensure that there is a sufficient amount of analysis and consideration put into each choice. As Sartre states this is ultimately a very optimistic view of the world because it indicates that man is prepared for this type of responsibility. I find this view very refreshing. The atheistic nature of Sartre's existentialism is also personally attractive. I find that this is one of the more convincing arguments for the impossibility of a creator. Sartre presents us with the idea that man is a freedom, and as a result has the ability to create his own essence. As a result there is no place for a creator because man creates his own essence through action and thought and does not rely on predetermined principles of an ultimate good delivered by a universal creator.
Sartre's position concerning familial love is the only idea in this essay that I truly find troubling. The passage relating to his students love for his mother presents the idea that an action is what leads to the feeling of love. This follows Sartre's explanation of existentialism but is still hard to accept. Sartre admits that this view can lead to a "vicious circle" but the importance of action and its relation to freedom and thought represses any problems that Sartre may confront with this particular idea. At one point in his essay Sartre compares man's right to free choice and its moral consequences to a painting. Throughout this passage Sartre uses existentialism to inadvertently explain why two individuals can create two entirely different realities for themselves through choice. An interesting part of this theory of choice is that inaction is also a choice and therefore not choosing is an impossibility. This portion of existentialism reinforces my admiration for Sartre's position. Because of the strict guidelines that are encapsulated in the responsibility of existential choice I can be sure that inaction and a transfer of responsibility are impossible. These two qualities make Sartre's view of freedom quite concrete. In this way Sartre's view of freedom and choice is quite simple. Despite its simplicity existentialism is highly scrutinized because of its lack of predisposed principles and the pure sense of responsibility attached to it. I find it interesting that an individual can criticize Sartre for his emphasis on responsibility as this would suggest that responsibility is a reprehensible attribute.

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