Born in 1905, Jean Paul Sartre was the son Jean Batiste, a naval officer. He got his education in Paris. He attracted to the philosophy by reading Henri Bergson. He spent the year 1934-35 learning the Husserl’s phenomenology. Sartre wrote his “Transcendental ego” in 1936 while he was in Berlin and also started work on his famous novel Nausea. During Second World War Sartre was active in the French resistance and became a German war prisoner. In prison he read Heidegger’s philosophy and was influenced from that.
Observation of that time then came in the form of “Being and nothingness” in 1943. He wrote another important work named “Critique of Dialectical reason” in 1960. His last book was three volume work named “Idiot of the family”. He was impressed from Marxism as well. He was awarded Nobel Prize in Literature in 1964, but he refused on the ground that he didn’t want be “transformed into an institution.” During his student life he met a fellow student, Simone de Beauvoir, a re-known feminist, with whom he enjoyed a lifelong companionship. Sartre died on April 15, 1980 at the age of seventy four.
What does it means that existence precedes essence and how does this formula bear upon our understanding of human nature? Sartre argues that we can’t explain the nature of man in the same way that we describe an article of manufacture. When we consider, for example, a knife, we know that it has been made by someone who has in his mind a conception of it, including what it would be used for and how it would be made. Thus, even before it is made, the knife is already conceived of as having a definite purpose and as being the product of a definite process. If by essence of the knife we mean the procedure by which it was made and the purpose for which it was produced, the knife’s essence can be said to precede its existence. To look upon a knife is to understand exactly what its useful purpose is. When we think about man’s nature, we tend to describe him also as the product of a maker, a creator or God. We think of God most of the time, says Sartre, as a “supernatural artisan,” implying that when God creates, He knows precisely what He is creating. This mean that in the mind of the God the conception of man is same as the conception of Knife in the mind of the artisan creating it. Each individual, in this view, is the fulfillment or realization of a definite conception, which resides in the God’s understanding.
Although it is true that some of the philosophers of the eighteenth century, including Diderot, Voltaire and Kant, were either atheist or else suppressed the idea of God, they however retained the notion, distinctive of the theist, that man possesses a “human nature,” a nature that is found in every man. Each man, they said, is a particular example of the universal conception of the Man. whatever may be the level of the development to which various men have attained, whether they are primitive natives, men in the state of nature, or cultured bourgeois, they all have the same fundamental qualities and are therefore all contained in the same definition or conception of Man. In short, they all possess the same essence, and their essence precedes their concrete or historic existence, which they confront in experience.
Sartre turned all this around by taking atheism seriously. He believed that if there is no God, there is no given essence or human nature precisely because there is no God to have a conception of it. Human nature cannot be defined in advance in advance because it is not completely thought out in advance. Man as such merely exists and only later becomes his essential self. To say that existence precedes essence means, says Sartre, that first of all man exists, confronts himself, emerges in the world and define himself afterwards. At first, man simply is. Whether it follows that man doesn’t have a basic and given nature simply because there is no God who stands in relation to man the way the artisan stands in relation with knife is questionable. But what Sartre wants particularly to argue is that man is simply that which he makes of himself.
One’s first reaction to this formulation of the first principle of Sartre’s existentialism is that it is highly subjective, that each man can presumably set out to make himself anything he wishes. Sartre’s chief point here is that man has a great dignity than a stone or a table. What gives him dignity is his possession of a subjective life, meaning that man is something which moves itself towards a future and is conscious that it is doing so. Sartre wants to call attention to different modes of being, which he calls “being-in itself” and “being-for-itself”. Being-in itself is way like the stone or a knife is. While Being-for-itself indicates that man is a conscious subject which differentiate from a stone. To be a conscious subject is to stand constantly before future. The most important consequence of placing existence before essence in human nature is not only that man creates himself but man’s responsibility for his existence rests directly upon each man. A stone can’t be responsible. And if man’s essential nature were already given and fixed, he could not be responsible for what he is.
Sartre argues that because the “nature” of every human being is dependent upon that person, this radical freedom is accompanied by an equally radical responsibility. No one can simply say “it was in my nature” as an excuse for some behavior of theirs. Whatever a person is or does is wholly dependent upon their own choices and commitments — there is nothing else to fall back upon. People have no one to blame (or praise) but themselves.
Just at this moment of extreme individualism, however, Sartre steps back and reminds us that we aren’t isolated individuals but rather members of communities and of the human race. There may not be a universal human nature, but there is certainly a common human condition — we are all in this together, we all living in human society, and we are all faced with the same sorts of decisions.
Whenever we make choices about what to do and make commitments about how to live our lives, we are also making the statement that this behavior and this commitment is something that is of value and important to human beings — in other words, despite the fact that there is no objective authority telling us how to behave, this is still something that others should choose as well.
Thus, our choices not only affect ourselves, they also affect others. This means, in turn, that we are not only responsible for ourselves but also bear some responsibility for others — for what they choose and what they do. It would be an act of self-deception to make a choice and then at the same time wish that others would not make the same choice. Accepting some responsibility for others following our lead is the only alternative.