Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Blog is Back!! Essential Traits and Existentialism

This last semester was insanely busy and I took a bit of a hiatus from blogging to keep on top of everything.  But the semester is finally over and so now the blog is making a comeback.  There are several posts that I had started and never finished that will hopefully be getting revisited and prepared for posting in the near future.
This post aims to summarize some of what I have been thinking about this semester in my own studies and tie that in to some familiar themes on this blog.  Much of my work this semester has had to do, either directly or indirectly, with the school of philosophy known as existentialism.  I find this branch of philosophy fascinating because of the kinds of questions it is asking and the way it approaches these questions to posit answers for them.  Existentialism is very motivated by the kinds of epistemological limitations that I have discussed in previous posts to approach philosophy from a very different angle.  Rather than attempting to paint an objective metaphysical picture of the world, existentialism begins by noting our subjective perspective on the world and attempts to describe the way in which we might live "existentially" given this finite/subjective viewpoint.
A particularly famous example of this way of thinking is found in the writings of French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.  To briefly outline Sartre's claims, Sartre believes that as far as human beings are concerned, "existence precedes essence."  What Sartre means by this is that nothing "essentially" defines "me" as "me."  I simply exist as "me" and however I define or understand myself determines what the essence, or core being, of "me" really is.  To illustrate with a simple example:  If I cut my hair (which I should probably do, though I was just informed that I look like Gary Lightbody from Snow Patrol…), have I become a different person?  Most people would easily say "no."  What if I dyed it blonde?  My girlfriend might be pissed at me, but I don't think this would constitute me being someone else.  These are relatively simple examples.  What if I do something more complicated- I get plastic surgery and replace my chin and my nose.  I am now unrecognizable.  Am I a different person?  I think most people would still say that it is "me" beneath these changes, not someone else.  Let's get really complicated- what if I underwent surgery to have my gender changed?  My gut is still to say that I would be the same person, even if in a very different physical manifestation (without getting into a discussion about transgendered persons, we are assuming in this example that it is me, a male who has no doubts about being a male, that is our subject).
So far we have only discussed potential physical changes.  Let's talk more abstractly.  What if I woke up one morning and decided I would no longer hold any religious beliefs.  I became an abject atheist and quit all associations with Christianity.  Would I be someone new?  What if I became convinced of solipsism- that I am the only person that exists?  Would that make me someone new?  What if I underwent therapy and radically changed my personality to become extremely extroverted and aggressive?  Would that make me a different person?  What if I lost my memory and could not recall who my friends and family were?  Would I still be "me"?
The point of this lengthy list of questions is simply this:  I don't think that any of these questions presents us with a "change" which would actually result in a new person coming into existence (at least not on most accounts of personhood that I am aware of).  So if I can change almost everything about me, from my personality to my appearance to my beliefs to my memories, and still be "me" what is it that is essentially "me"?  Sartre claims such an "essence," such an underlying core being, simply doesn't exist on its own.  Instead, that core being is whatever I make it to be.  I exist, how I exist is up to me to decide.
Now, I think Sartre might be willing to push this a little bit farther than I have thus far.  So far we have only talked about individual persons and their "essence" or core being.  What happens, however, if we broaden this to talk about the human race as a whole?  Is there anything that is "essentially" human-- anything that to lack would make us "un-human"?  The predominant philosophical tradition has been that rationality defines the essence of humanity-- the ability to think and reason is what makes us "people."  But what about the person born with a severe mental handicap?  It is possible to conceive of someone who was born without the cerebral capacity for reason even if their basic biological functions were intact.  Would such an individual, with their human DNA and human appearance but without any higher reasoning capacities actually be a person?  My sense is that most philosophers would be quick to say "yes" and seek some explanation for this seeming exception to the rule.  We could make similar cases, I think, about many other things- two arms are not required to be human.  Nor two legs.  Nor two eyes.  Nor any other physical feature, really.  DNA might mark off the human species, but everyone has slightly different DNA and human DNA is remarkably similar to the DNA of other species.  So does that minuscule difference from other species while accounting for variations within our species actually separate people from "not-people"?
In then end, we might come to a similar point: Nothing in particular defines the "essence" of humanity.  Humanity determines its own essence through the way it constitutes itself.  Now, however, I want to push this point farther than Sartre takes it, at least in my knowledge of Sartre.  Can we define the essence of anything?  Pick an object or a creature, any one, and see if we can find an underlying "core" that must be present for it to be what it is.  I think a case can be made that no such core exists for any object, that the meaning of things is defined by the one bestowing meaning on it.  That final statement is certainly a very radical one, and that is something we will have to explore in a bit more depth in other posts.  In particular, I want to address down the line three related questions:
1.  What does it mean for someone to bestow meaning?
2.  How is bestowing meaning related to determining our own essence in the way Sartre describes?
3.  What happens when we bestow different meanings on things?


  1. Hey, bud, I think you are making some good points. I might make a few observations.

    First, I think you are right to point out that one must distinguish between accidental and essential qualities when discussing personal identity. If any of your physical or intellectual qualities were changed, you would not cease to be you. In the same way, an apple with the stem removed or engineered to grow without a core would remain an apple. These accidental qualities are not essential by definition: an apple can exist without them.

    However, I wonder whether the methodology behind your inquiry (the accidental-essential distinction) does not necessarily result in an overly simplistic view of these objects in the world. Without taking over your blog, by this I simply mean that even if one could discover the essential quality of "appleness" or "humanness," I think all you might have accomplished would be to point out differences between objects.

    Essentially (pun intended), objects in the world are more complex than their respective essential qualities. If you could state the essence of humanity, you would still not have a human: it takes the larger complex of essential and accidental properties for a human being to exist in the world. In other words, the "essential" properties are necessary but not sufficient.

    I like where you're going. For what it's worth, I moved this way some a couple of semesters ago when I took a class in the history of hermeneutics. I think you're getting at some important points about the way language works and away from the world of Plato's pre-existent "forms." I have biblical-theologcal ideas about how to answer your question of "essential humanity" but those are for another day.

    Have a good one, bud! Keep up the good work.

  2. Hey Ryan! Great to hear from you, thanks for the great comment!

    I am very intrigued by your idea about essential qualities being "necessary but not sufficient" and useful for differentiation but not completion. I will be puzzling over that for a bit.

    Hope all is well with you!

  3. How can you determine who someone is, or rather who you believe them to be, without relying on the way they act and the various ideas’ they believe? Isn't a person defined by these characteristics? However, on a different note I suppose the body could just be a shell, able to be molded and crafted to the core's desire.


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