Thematic Distinction Between Essence and Existence

Essay 2009 10 Pages

Philosophy - Miscellaneous



The terms essence and existence have dominated philosophical discussions for centuries, at least from the era of Plato up to the contemporary times. The central issue at the heart of this discourse in the preliminary stage had to do with the question of what actually makes an essence of an existing entity. For example, if you say God, philosophers will probe further to ask: what is the essence of God? In other words, ‘what are those characteristics that are truly exclusive to God? If, again, you say a Satsuma (a type of orange) exists, then one will be prompted to ask as to what features distinguish it from a tangerine. That is, what are those distinctive qualities ¾ essentially immaterial¾ that will not make me call an existential Satsuma a tangerine? What the inquirer is demanding is simply something more than mere the Satsuma or any of the accidental features like colour, taste, etc. Questions have also been raised in terms of what actually exists as against what is believed to exist. The discourse quickly like wild fire moved from the level of mere conceptualizing the terms to the level of philosophers trying to find out which of essence and existence precedes each other. In other words, granted, at least, at level of assumption that both human and objects exist, philosophers are asking whether their essence precedes their existence. The battle to resolve this crisis of concepts pitted modern Christian philosophers like Bishop George Berkeley and Immanuel Kant against contemporary existentialists like Jean Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger. The former school, led by Berkeley in its submission had argued that essence precedes existence, while the latter, championed by extensively by Sartre disagrees, saying existence precedes essence. However, there are other variations to the discourse but it is sufficient for the scope of this paper to limit discussion to these two, with more emphasis on Sartre.

On the traditional understanding of essence and existence

The concepts of essence and existence predate contemporary philosophical discourses. They were though not used in this actual sense; they appeared in that light in a technical or representational sense within earlier thought epochs. While Aristotle would differentiate between ‘ form’ and ‘ matter’, with the former standing for ‘essence’, and the latter for ‘existence,’ Plato would prefer the use of the terms ‘ universals’ (essence) and particulars (existence); Kantian ontology adopted the choice of ‘ noumena’ (essence) and ‘ phenomena’ (existence); medieval (Christian) thinkers like Aquinas makes the distinction between essence and existence using concepts like ‘ potentiality’ and ‘ actuality’. For him, ‘essence accounts for what a thing is.’[1] Essence, regarded as the nature of a being differs from the fact that it exists. ‘ Substance’ and ‘ accident’ are also concepts that have interchangeably been used for essence and existence respectively. All of these concepts are technical instances of conceptualizing both essence and existence. But the use of the terms became prominent in contemporary era, especially with the rise of existentialism school of thought. The likes of Sartre, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Marcel, and Jaspers are figures who in one way or the other played around with the concepts in their respective attempt to unraveling the mysteries of human nature.

Traditionally, the term ‘essence’ has its instances in words like redness (the essence of colour red), humanness (the essence of humans), oneness (the essence of unity), or what Professor Panteleon Iroegbu would call the ‘Kpim’ of being or an entity. The essence of a thing is indestructible and is a natural property. So, a single instance of an essence is one and the same in every other instance of essence. In other words, the essence (redness) of colour red on, say, a shirt, applies to every other instance of the red anywhere. In his translation of one of Sartre’s works, Philip Maieret states that essence of a thing is the ‘what’ or quiddity[2] of that thing.

On the other hand, in that similar traditional fashion, ‘existence’ could be classified as the accidental elements belonging to an entity, a being or an object. It consists of terms like weakness, sickness, defects, brilliance, dullness, all belonging to the domain of existence. Existence consists in its being contingent, dispensable, temporary, accidental, destructible, and artificial.

Essence and Existence: Idealist vs Existentialist

So, we are tempted to ask: What is essence? And, what is existence? Asking this sort of question presupposes a distinction between two, a separation of conceptions across different schools of thought in philosophy, placing the duo as two sides of a coin. But it is still very elusive whether the two concepts play conflicting or complementary role to each other. Question like whether or not every instance of essence has existence and vice versa crops up in discussing these two terms. The views of idealism and existentialism will play a very a great role here. In the conceptualization of the idealist school of thought, prominently championed by Berkeley, a being exists only in relation to a perceiving mind. So, for them existence is only in the mind of an essential being and does not have an independence of its own. Berkeley, for instance, had held that existence is only real to the extent that it can be perceived by the human mind and nothing else exists if it cannot be perceived as such. Existence, for Berkeley, is a product of perception of the human mind. The conclusion for the idealist is that essence precedes existence.

For the existentialist, this approach is not only contra humanes (against humans) but also has a tendency to render man and destiny a pre-determined being who has no answer to his absurdities. Existence for the existentialist precedes essence.

On the Topos of the Paper

In his skeptical inquiry into human nature, Sartre seeks to upturn existing order provoked by Berkeley’s assertion that essence precedes existence. In his work, “Existentialism is a Humanism” published in 1946, Sartre asserts that man first encounters himself and the reality of his existence before he realizes what he is intended for:

“Man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world- and defines himself afterwards”[3]

Understanding Sartre’s ontology, that is, his views on the nature of being and its distinction from existentialism, which leads him to conclude unequivocally that ‘existence precedes essence,’ this paper will attempt a three-fold clarification process. One, the paper will explain what the term essence means in Sartre’s understanding. Two, the paper will do an expose of Sartre’s two types of existence. Three, the paper will conclude on an appraisal of Sartre and philosopher’s claims vis-à-vis essence and existence.

The paper seeks to juxtapose the positions of theistic philosophers and atheistic existentialists as it were using the standpoint of Berkeley and Sartre as basis and eventually posits that the question of precedence between essence and existence is mere duplicity of terms and playing on words, as neither precedes the other. Essence and existence are two words that cannot be separated, and a being realizes both its essence and existence only in conceiving them. In other words, essence and existence are not two sides of a coin but properties that cannot just but be in any being, whether animate or inanimate, artificially manufactured or divinely created, other-made or self-made.


[1] Lawhead, W.F. 2002. Voyage of Discovery: An Introduction to Philosophy. Belmont: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning . 173.

[2] Jean Paul Sartre, 1946. Existentialism and Humanism, Mairet, P. Ed., Trans. London: Methuen and Co Ltd,

[3] Jean Paul Sartre, (1956) ‘L’existentialisme est un humanisme’, Existentialism fromDostoevskytoSartre, Ed., Trans., W. Kaufmann , New York: Meridian Books, Inc. Chapter 9: 222-312


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Essence Existence Plato Beeing Heidegger Satre Kant



Title: Thematic Distinction Between Essence and Existence