A Critique of Existentialism

by Benjamin Studebaker

There’s a problem with existentialism, specifically Jean Paul Sartre’s concept of “existence precedes essence”. Today I’d like to talk about that concept, why it is flawed, and what implications all of this has for our wider society and political structure.

First “existence precedes essence” needs to be explained. Existence is consciousness, while essence is genetic and environmental makeup. In traditional (by which I mean non-existentialist) western philosophy, essence always precedes existence. We are defined by our genetic and environmental characteristics; they determine our behaviour. Generally shared genetic and environmental characteristics across the species are typically termed “human nature”. Existentialism rejects the existence of a common human nature by proposing that existence comes before essence, meaning that our consciousness has the opportunity to determine how we feel about the world around us independent of our basic genetic and environmental characteristics.

Of course, there are certain limitations to this that existentialists recognise–a person cannot by force of consciousness wish for different genetic characteristics or environmental background. One cannot simply will oneself into a bird or will an abusive childhood away. What the existentialists do propose, however, is that since one’s consciousness comes first, one can choose how to respond to or feel about one’s genetic background or environmental characteristics, both historically and in the present moment. Taken together, genetics and environment are typically referred to by existentialism as “facticity”, the objective facts about the external world that the consciousness can respond to in a variety of ways. Importantly, because under existentialism the consciousness has the opportunity to choose how to respond, there can be no determinism and consequently no prediction of human behaviour based on general principles. It also means that people have personal responsibility for everything that they do and are autonomous individuals, a very popular and comforting belief.

The key problem with this is that if the consciousness, the thing deciding how to respond to facticity, is not itself made up of facticity–of genetic and environmental background and structuring–what is it? Existentialism proposes that existence comes first, but how can a consciousness exist produced from no source with a fundamental facticity? Furthermore, we know scientifically that consciousness is produced by a physical implement–the brain. If you damage a person’s brain, the level of consciousness will decline. Imagine, for example, that a person is confronted with a given situation and asked how to respond to that situation–in other words, how that person’s consciousness will respond to the facticity. The answer the person would likely give would be very different if, prior to asking the question, I removed a portion of the person’s brain known to handle say, critical thinking. What this means is that existence cannot precede essence–in order to have consciousness, one must have a functional brain, and the facticity of that brain–its genetic characteristics and environmental influences, will give one a nature that will limit one’s scope of response to a given situation or stimulus. It is as if one attempts to evaluate the properties of a metal using a lens made of the very same metal–one cannot know what impact the lens is having on the analysis and on the data, but one thing is certain, and that is that, unless the metal is absolutely perfect for use in lenses, the data is going to be both inaccurate and useless.

This is not to say that a person cannot choose to view a situation differently in accordance with existentialist teaching, but it does mean that the extent to which a person can view a situation differently or take personal responsibility for behaviour is dependent upon that given person’s nature. In other words, ability to, from time to time transcend one’s nature must, inevitably, come from a nature that permits occasional self-transcendence. Existentialism is not metaphysical truth, but people can be of a nature such that they are inclined to ethically aspire to it.

This has grave implications. Because existentialism and ethic of personal responsibility appeal to some people due to their nature, those people embrace existentialism and personal responsibility and expect others to do so. Their existentialism by definition precludes them from recognising or acknowledging that non-existentialists are not of a nature such that they can embrace or practise existentialism. This leads to unrealistic expectations on the part of existentialists. Their own seeming transcendence of their nature is in fact an expression of their nature, but they nonetheless expect other people to be able to do the very same thing despite lacking natures favourable to self-transcendence. The typical existentialist response to the existence of these inherently non-existentialist individuals is one of condemnation–their unwillingness to take personal responsibility is deemed an intellectual or moral failing, when in fact it is a consequence of their nature, as immutable as the existentialist’s own ability to decide to see a situation or a fact in a different light. A person inclined to self-transcendence is every bit as locked into that behaviour as a person who is disinclined is locked into disinclination.

What is the result? The widespread belief by those with the inherent natural psychological ability to overcome difficult upbringings or unfavourable genetic backgrounds that those who don’t have failed to take responsibility and are themselves deficient. This leads to a lack of sympathy and a lack of compassion, and our political policies reflect the dominance of the existentialist ideology. Those who are poor are assumed to be lacking in virtue or initiative due to incompetence, immorality, or irresponsibility rather than a nature and upbringing that not only makes success difficult, but makes choosing to transcend said nature and upbringing difficult, if not biologically and psychologically impossible.

This existentialist belief that denies nature altogether either denies neuroscience and asserts that consciousness comes from something immaterial or requires that our brains act independently of their own structure. In either case, it is extremely unreasonable, and leads to equally unreasonable consequential beliefs that require the impossible from one’s fellow man. It is self-delusive and a philosophical dead end. It leads to a total misunderstanding of the nature of man and of man’s possibilities. It would be wise to put it aside and resume the age old discussion of what elements in man’s nature are most critical in understanding what man’s limits are and how man can best organise societies and projects in consequence of  and in accordance with those limits. It is no more sensible to reject man’s behavioural limits than it is to reject man’s inability to fly or subsist underwater. Better to recognise those limits and devise tools and structures that help us to surmount them than to jump off of cliffs and hope to will ourselves to survive the splat.