What does Sartre mean by “Existence precedes essence?” What is essence and existence? What makes him conclude this? What further effect does this have on meaning, value, and freedom?

Essence in this case refers to the ancient philosophical idea (most closely associated with Plato) that all things have a predefined, ideal set of characteristics. For instance, the Essence of a chair is that it has four legs, a back, and people sit on it.

However, not everything matches its Essence. You might have a chair with three legs, or a broken back, or that no one sits on. The actual details of a particular chair make up its Existence.

The idea that Existence precedes Essence is that –for human beings –there is no predefined pattern that we must fit into. We live our lives, and that in turn defines what we truly are, not any idealized set of characteristics. This idea is the heart of Sartre’s version of Existentialism.

The implications are that we must create our own meaning, place our own value on our acts, and that our individual freedom is absolute and unbounded.

As a side note, Sartre, although an atheist, gave what I consider to be one of the best ever descriptions of God, as the “Union of Existence and Essence”, meaning that God is the full Existential realization of every perfect, ideal or Essential attribute of God. Sartre, of course, described that as an impossibility, but it is also a good description of what a believer believes God to be.

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15 thoughts on “What does Sartre mean by “Existence precedes essence?” What is essence and existence? What makes him conclude this? What further effect does this have on meaning, value, and freedom?”

  1. One could argue that the existence of GOD and His essence have eternally coexisted. This would then imply that neither came first.

  2. I know the answer to the question, “Where did God come from?” The answer is…
    It’s the wrong question! We think in temporal and spatial existence and cannot ask questions of eternal existence using those terms. God said, “I Am” That is enough in terms of existential as well.

  3. We imagine that we have an essence therefore we do. We change and then die therefore it is transient and temporary but limitless. The more others believe in our essence the more real it is imagined.

  4. Human is an idea and conceptualization has no author.
    Existence cannot be conceptualized because it is prior to thought. If existence cannot be conceptualized, it is not and object. If not object, then not subject to time.
    What is considered real is the unreal. Like a cartoon. Flip the pages, the cat changes positions, but nothing is actually happening. No thing is doing anything.
    What is meant by the subject statement: I am prior to concept. Essence may be defined as the experience of the apparent world of object and object do not exist because they come and go. Yet I remain I am existence trapped in object. The ultimate paradox.

  5. I believe firmly believe that Energy is God. Thereby, we are not all made BY God, but made OF God. And so is every being, object, and power in this amazing universe. All the rules that bind us physically and metaphysically, are a design of the same force, one that cannot be created, or destroyed, but only transforms from one state to the next. It exists, It is real, It is beyond us and within us, and It is universal. The most amazing, beautiful, dangerous, and powerful opportunity is given to us, as conscious beings, to shape the continuum of God’s transformation within our individual utilization of the energy we have been delegated. Our ultimate obligation is to respect existence, or expect resistance. How we react to this empowerment will define our essence.

  6. Well, this page really helped my paper for a Philosophy of Religion class. As much as it is interesting, I completely disagree with Sartre. It’s more of a feeling than concrete proof, but I just don’t like the idea of everything being subjective. If there were a definite right/wrong to live by, that means that I can be sure of how I’m living my life. I don’t know. Obviously, this requires more research to make a fully informed decision.

  7. The comment means that ‘human’ is an idea. Existence is PRIOR to any idea, for how can any idea be experienced?
    ‘Things’ have essence and things are ideas, they do not exist.
    So, I AM is the only thing that can exist and that is not an object. Objects come and go yet “I remain.

  8. Sartre, ( the existentialist’s freedom), and Spinoza,(relative freedom for the rational and reflective man) , are compatible if it is presumed , as is reasonable, that no existentialist is perfectly free.

  9. going by Sartre’s view concerning Plato’s form and matter, it is clear according to the positivist view that essence of an object is embedded in it meaning.

  10. a chair is a subjective meaning and not the true nature of the material. Existence is of an essence .did existence precede the material coming into existence? Everything has an essence. Even if everything that exists is arbitrarily there and mindless at essence.

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