Sartrean Claim of Existence Preceding Essence
The Sartrean claim that existence precedes essence may be interpreted as yet another philosophical contribution to the classical nature v. nurture debate. A more traditional thesis claims that essence prevails over existence. A prime example would be the notion of humans’ innate rational egoism that pushes them to always pursue their own interests even when embarking on something typically seen as noble or selfless. From a biological and sociological standpoint, the central question of the debate is whether personality traits are inheritable or shaped by the environment and life experiences.
Sartre rejects biological determinism and takes a radical position as he argues that each person is born as “tabula rasa” – a blank sheet. He or she is fully capable to take control over their own personal development and steer the course of their life in the direction that they see fit. Surely, Sartre acknowledges the existence of some constraining situations in which human rights are violated and their freedoms are infringed upon. Yet, even in this case, according to Sartre, a person has the right to choose how to perceive an unpleasant or downright traumatizing experience. No situation is inherently intolerable, but it becomes intolerable once a person decides that it is.
While Sartre offers a refreshing perspective that some may even find motivating, it is still somewhat exaggerated. There are some traits that a person cannot think into existence. For example, certain physical characteristics are primarily inheritable and, hence, determined before birth. Another problem with the existentialist approach to the human condition is the lack of clarity on where human consciousness comes from. Consciousness is needed to make independent decisions, and yet, according to Sartre, it is not an innate human trait but something developed.