Creative Misunderstandings of Existentialism
Jean-Paul Sartre was not a trained philosopher but a brilliant writer; he created philosophical literature but never a rigorous philosophy. He actually never studied philosophy academically, but he was under the influence of the phenomenological movement and its methods.
Sartre’s existentialism is a misunderstanding of phenomenology and its tenets, for phenomenology by no means implies existentialism, whether logically or ontologically. However, Sartre’s misunderstanding of phenomenology contains genuine philosophical insights of which he himself was unaware.
The motto of existentialism which is a statement regarding human condition is “existence precedes essence.”
According to existentialism though other beings are established and grounded in their essence, in their essential being and their whatness, the human person is not so grounded in its essence; the existence of man always comes before what he/she makes of him/herself. As a result, the question of existence always arises for man, and he/she is the only being who has to carry the burden of freedom and choice with regard to what he/she makes of him/herself.
But contrary to Sartre’s supposition man, too, is grounded in its essence, and he is grounded in such a way that he/she can’t escape that essence or choose to be otherwise. It is not that man’s existence precedes his essence; rather, man’s existence is his essence: Man’s essence is not a formal essence like that of other beings, determined by whatness. Man’s essence is existence. Man is not a being: Man is Being itself. The humanity of this existential essence is merely a formal manifestation of the essence.
The essence of man is pure existence.
That man can never find lasting happiness in anything that he makes of himself in this world is because he can never truly be or become that which he makes of himself and he knows this by existential instinct. He/she knows in a pre-reflective manner of knowing that his essence is detached from the form in which it is manifested.
Insofar as man struggles to be something in this world he is never truly himself, for he is fighting his essence, the Absolute and the Infinite. Man is not destined for happiness but for peace and bliss which come only when he embraces his essence and renounces the impulse to become something by constantly negating himself as pure existence.
What constitutes human condition is man’s refusal to be himself in order to be something in the world. However, man is the ground of the world; he is by necessity transcendent to this world, for existence is presupposed in existent. Man doesn’t belong in the world; he is not of mundane origin. In order to be himself once again, in order to win back the lost paradise, man must transcend the world.
The Fall of man consists in the fall from the transcendent into the mundane; thus, his salvation requires a leap of faith over the world in which he transcends the mundane toward pure existence. But can he handle the truth?!
The infinitude of the pure existence that constitutes the essence of man doesn’t let man be satisfied by any amount of finite projection into mundane forms. Man’s true salvation lies in his accepting of his existential essence and his essential infinitude: Man must see and accept that he can never truly become anything, because man is essentially the very becoming of everything that is.
Absolute identification with form constitutes the end of Being, and hence the death of man.
Man is not an existent; man is essentially nothing whatsoever: Man is existence itself.
Man is pure Being.