Monday, April 22, 2013

Practical Benefits of Philosophy 3. Existentialism

From the 1926 to 1973, a large electric sign greeted train travelers going in and out of Chester, Pennsylvania -- a town near Philadelphia -- that simply stated “What Chester Makes Makes Chester” – a reference to the city’s former stature as a recognized manufacturing power.  I don’t know if anyone from the Philadelphia Electric Company, the outfit that erected the sign, appreciated this, but the sign suggests a new non-Aristotelian way of looking at what makes a thing be what it is.

As Jim now knows well from his DVD course, any number of centuries after Aristotle, Jean Paul Sartre challenged Aristotle’s essentialism.  Sartre attacked the notion that there are pre-existing blueprints and declared that – at least for us humans – “existence precedes essence.”  In other words, a person appears on the scene and then chooses what he or she will become. For Sartre, the first principle of existentialism is this: “Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself.”

Sartre does not deny that human beings are limited or constrained by all sorts of external or internal conditions. A paraplegic is not free to become a long distance runner (although with the advanced technology of artificial limbs, this is not always true).  Freedom exists only within specific conditions. But within such given conditions, people always have choices to make to define who they are. They are not predetermined like objects or animals; they live within a space of possible alternatives.  What Chester makes does indeed make Chester.

So, according to Sartre, no one can simply say, “it was in my nature” as an excuse for behavior.  Ultimately, whatever a person is, that existence is dependent upon his or her own choices and commitments.  People have no one to blame (or praise) but themselves.  Thus, says Sartre, the task of existentialism is to make everyone understand that they are responsible for their own existence.

Next:  The Question

1 comment:

James R said...

Your existential epigram I feel is brilliant. What makes it so brilliant is that is personal to Chester. What makes Chester is not what makes Chloe.

Existentialism has been severely mischaracterized because people wish to find its essence. I'm not sure in which direction Myk will take us, but it's going to be fun.