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What is existentialism? An easy to understand introduction to the basic idea that drives this philosophical system.

Updated on November 1, 2014

It's not as hard to understand as you think.

I remember that while growing up as a teenager I asked several different people what existentialism was, a term I heard tossed around quite a bit. The most common answer I got was, "It's too difficult to explain." Then I went off to college, majored in philosophy, and discovered that actually it wasn't that hard to understand at all. Some of the most prominent philosophers of existentialism, like Jean-Paul Sartre, for example, wrote essays and books on the subject that are, in all fairness, remarkably difficult to understand. But the basics of existentialism itself are actually quite easy to follow.

The essential idea of existentialism.

Existence precedes essence. That's the absolute basic principle behind existentialism, and Jean-Paul Sartre says just this in his essay "What is existentialism?" (don't worry, I won't be making a copy of his much more obtuse explanation of what exactly that means, though if you find the subject interesting and want to know more, that's the book with which you'll want to start). By itself, that statement doesn't really clarify much, so, let's get to the heart of this article and explain what existence preceding essence really means.

First, let's explain the terms being used. Existence is a pretty heady word with a simple definition. It means something exists. Something is. "Is what?" you may ask. Well, anything. If it has an attribute, it exists. The core of the definition of something that exists is that it is. If that isn't clear, just think about it for a few moments. Take a moment to understand what you really mean when you say, "to be." To be is to exist.

The second word we're playing with is a little trickier, and that is essence. What is the meaning of essence? An essence is the absolute core of what makes something what it is. When we want to sum up a subject, we use the phrase, "what it is, essentially, is this." To use a philosophically debatable example, let's take a look at an object created with an intended use. A pen is, essentially, a tool used for making markings with ink. Those marking can be words, pictures, dots, scribbles, or whatever; that doesn't matter. What matters is that the essence of what it is to be a pen is to be an object used to make markings with ink. But, you might say, if I dip a paintbrush in ink and make markings with that, it doesn't make it a pen, right? Well, that's why the example is debatable. On one hand, you could say, no, while you can use a paintbrush in this fashion, a paintbrush has a different essence, and that essence includes its ability to mark things with ink. Perhaps the essence of a paintbrush is to be an object that can transfer a variety of mediums, such as paint or ink, to make markings. In this sense, the paintbrush and pen do not share their essence, though some of the attributes of their essences overlap. On the other hand, you could say, yes, when you use a paintbrush to mark things with ink, you've actually turned it, at least for the moment, into a pen, and you could could call it a pen if you wanted to do so.

Debatable or not, that argument really helps to illustrate what existentialism is. It's hard enough to define the essence of a pen versus the essence of a paintbrush, but it's infinitely harder to define the essence of a person, especially the essence of one individual versus the essence of another. Before we get into that, let's go back to the pen and paintbrush problem for a moment. No matter which side of that argument we take, we can all agree on one thing. The pen and the paintbrush exist. To make this easier to understand, let's imagine we're talking about a specific pen and a specific paintbrush sitting next to each other on top of a desk. What it means to be a pen isn't the point of this article, and this will help us keep from getting side tracked. So we agree we have a pen and a paintbrush, and we can agree that each has something essential about it that makes it a pen or a paintbrush, or possibly both. The issue that existentialism tries to address is which came first, the essence of what it is to be a pen, or the pen itself.

Existence first!

In order to understand existence preceding essence, let's try to understand essence preceding existence first, which is actually a little easier. Imagine that we're in a world that doesn't have pens, or anything that can use ink to make markings (since that's the essence of the pen, after all). In this world, someone sees ink, and thinks to himself, "This ink would be great for making various markings. Perhaps we could use it to write, or draw pictures. What we need is something that can use ink to make markings. I shall invent such a thing, and call it a pen." What happened there was that the essence of what it is to be a pen was conceived before the pen itself existed. The essence can give rise to a wide variety of types of pens, but in every case, the essential nature of what it is to be a pen existed before the pen itself.

Existence before essence is when the reverse is true. It's when something exists but doesn't have an essential something that defines it first. It exists, but it hasn't arisen from an all ready existing essence. Some would say that this is impossible, for if something exists, it has to have some sort of essence. Otherwise we're saying something exists without being something, and that just doesn't work. Well, that's true. Pens aren't very existential in their nature, but people are a whole different story. See, people change over time, and yet, despite these changes, maintain they are the same person. As I said earlier, the essence of a person is much more difficult to define then the essence of a pen.

So when it comes to people, you can look at it two ways. The non-existential way is that there is something essential about every person, static and unchanging, that covers everything they think, do, and say over the course of their life. This essence somehow contains everything they've ever been and everything they will be. That essence preceded the existence of the person, and that essence does not change. Every change we see in ourselves was all ready written in our essence. A lot of people like to believe this, and there is some appeal to the idea, even though existentialism would say it robs us of our freedom. What existentialism doesn't like about this idea is that it says we don't really make choices about who we are or who we become. Everything we've chosen to be and will choose to be isn't a choice at all, but simply an expression of our essence, which existed and then gave rise to us.

Existentialism says no, that's not right at all. We don't choose who we are because our essence dictates that's what we will become. It's the exact opposite. The essence of who and what we are changes based on our existence. If we choose to become an artist, then our essence as an artist follows from that, instead of us choosing to become an artist because it was in our essence. Now, don't confuse skill with essence in this example. A person can choose to be an artist and be remarkably bad at it, but existentialism says they didn't lack the essence of an artist, they just choose for their own essence to be that of an artist, albeit a bad one. Another person could have the capacity and talent to be a brilliant artist but instead chooses to never do art. This isn't because they had the essence of an artist and the essence of someone who doesn't want to be an artist. Instead, the essence of what they are, which includes them not being an artist, followed from their choice not to be an artist. So, instead of saying we all have an essence that dictates what we are, existentialism says we all exist, and the choices we make and the things we do form the essence of who and what we are.

While it's not the easiest thing in the world to understand, it's not nearly as difficult as people seem to think. There are all sorts of false conclusions drawn about existentialism that further complicate the subject, like the idea that existentialists must be atheist or not believe in souls, which Sartre believed. But another famous existentialist philosopher, Kierkigaard, very much believed in a God and a soul. The trick to understanding what it means is to put all the conclusions one can draw aside and remember the basic idea. Our essence follows our existence. We as people exist, and how we choose to live dictates who and what we essentially are.

That last sentence is the real heart and soul of what existentialism wants us to think about. If nothing else in this entire article made any sense at all, but you understand that one sentence, you know what existentialism is. So I'll say it one more time. Existentialism is the belief that we as people exist, and how we choose to live dictates who and what we essentially are.

Existence before essence. It's as simple as that.


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      Davood Bava 14 months ago

      Beautifully explained. I searched several sites and reached nowhere. By far, this is the simplest and the best explanation i have come across. Thanks a lot matt. :)

    • profile image 2 years ago

      Well done !! Thanks. As an artist and writer I much enjoyed your paper and canvas platforms - however invisibly existent ! (I think)

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      pranjal goswami 2 years ago

      perfectly explained..the pen analogy has a lot of ingenuity.

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      silpi patnaik 2 years ago

      very clearly explained

    • WingofCyrus profile image

      WingofCyrus 3 years ago

      well put; I enjoyed your article. I particularly liked your Pen analogy. Paralleling the ''pen'' with human worked perfectly for me especially because I value the pen so much as it can be represented as a symbol of the writers choice. His/her essence.

      Thank you for posting this piece.