What is essence and existence

Jean-Paul Sartre

Jean-Paul Sartre (* 1905, † 1980) was a French philosopher and writer.

Teaching material

Sartre's theory briefly explained in relation to this question, applied to the Heinz dilemma.
"Transformation of philosophical methods in teaching using the example of Jean-Paul Sartre"
  • Part 1 - Information on existential philosophy and especially on existentialism
  • Part 2 - Transformation of philosophical methods (practically explained using the example of Sartre)
  • Part 3 - Sartre course, course of a weekend seminar


  • "Existence precedes the essence" (Sartre)
  • essentia - beings
  • existentia - existence
  • Since for Sartre there is no god who prescribes his essence for man, he determines his own existence:
“What does it mean here that existence precedes essence? It means that man first exists, meets, appears in the world and then defines himself. "

-> Man in general is indefinable because his existence has to be decided again and again - through actions

Being a thing Being human
To be in oneselfTo be for oneself
  • Inability to relate to oneself
  • being of things independent of consciousness
  • refers neither to itself nor to anything else
  • it is what it is
  • pure positivity
  • Identity with yourself
  • changeless, indiscriminate, pure being
  • -> Being-in-yourself already has a being (pencil) / function when it is created
  • being of man determined by consciousness
  • can be different from others
  • Distance to yourself
  • negativity
  • Non-identity
  • the ability to differentiate, to change, to negate arises: the NO / NOTHING

-> human Existence has its negation within itself, i.e. it is contradictory: Being-for-yourself does not have this

  • Man is neither part of nature nor a member in the whole of mankind, nor a creature of God, man is actually NOTHING

-> nothing is the nucleus of all existence. Existing from NOTHING means: DESIGNING them

  • man is there first and then chooses his being, his essence
  • People therefore have to choose themselves and make a design according to which they base their individual decisions (the design can, however, be changed at any time)
  • Closed society, p. 56: "You are what you want."
  • A being, "that is what it is not and that is not what it is"
  • DESIGN: Man projects himself beyond himself into the future, with this design he is always beyond himself, he is what he is not yet
  • Man cannot reduce himself to what is factually given: he is not only what he is, but what he makes himself up to
  • Constitution of the human being:

-> FREEDOM, because he cannot help but have to realize himself - he is condemned to freedom

  • Human freedom is always freedom in a situation, different situations arise only through freedom ... because I always have the choice of this or that.
  • Freedom is the annihilation of the in-itself through design
  • Freedom is not abolished by what is actually given (e.g. resistance of things, fellow human beings, corporeality), because only freedom reveals this as a limit; it is a limitation only within a concrete life plan.
  • Man is thrown into full RESPONSIBILITY for himself. But he also has the possibility of untruthfulness towards himself. The interplay of factuality and free design is reinterpreted and handled in such a way that one can evade responsibility for one's own being.
  • Closed society, p. 57:
Garcin: I died too early. I have not been given the time to carry out my deeds.
Inés: You always die too early or too late. And now life is there, closed; the line is drawn, all that's missing is the sum. You are nothing other than your life.

Quotes from Sartre

  • "Existence precedes essence." / "L'existence précède l'essence." (L'existentialisme est un humanisme)
  • "Man is condemned to freedom." / "L'homme est condamné à être libre" (L'existentialisme est un humanisme)
  • "We have never been as free as under the German occupation." (Situations, III)
  • "Hell is the others." / "L'enfer, c'est les autres"(Huis-clos)
  • "You are nothing but what you live." (Huis-clos)
  • "Oreste: Strange to myself, I know. Beyond nature, against nature, without justification, without any other guarantee than within myself. But I will not return under your law: there are a thousand paths drawn that lead to you, but I only want to follow my path. Because I am a person, Jupiter, and every person has to find his or her way. Nature feels horror at man, and you, you, Most High of Gods, you too regard men with horror." (Les Mouches)
  • "Whoever has the fools against him deserves trust."(Au fil de mes lectures)
  • (Via Ernesto "Che" Guevara) "I believe that this man was not only an intellectual, but the most perfect person of our time."
  • "Today I would define the term freedom as follows: Freedom is that little movement that turns a completely socially conditioned being into a person who does not represent in everything that comes from being conditioned." (Sartre on Sartre, interview with Perry Anderson, Ronald Fraser and Quintin Hoare, 1969)
Compiled in Jean-Paul Sartre

Background information

"(...) Under the conditions of the philosophical movements of the first half of the 20th century, S. tried to follow the path from Hegel to Marx in his thinking. The early S. placed the for-itself to the being-in-itself of things The fullness of being determines the former positively and as identical with itself, the latter, however, is determined negatively by the lack of being as indeterminate in its essence. There is no nature of man, his existence precedes his essence. Man is not, but relates to being and to himself. As such he is not identical with himself as things are, and he suffers from this inner dichotomy. Because man is not, but has to be, his existence is a design that must always be realized which is never permanent. Concrete existence is decided in free choice through commitment. History and morality are the results of the creative process of human decision-making: man is self scale. Existence is freedom, freedom with it a task and human dignity; but this is limited by the freedom of the other. In the early S. history only has the meaning given to it by man; the later Marxist S., on the other hand, advocates a conception of history that corresponds to this worldview. Giving meaning in the meaningless, this is how the absurdity of human existence, against which it rebels, could be formulated. This ambivalence of the world has to be endured for humans. (...) "

Sartre turned down the Nobel Prize in Literature because prizes spoil independence. With that he was with Boris Pasternak, who, under pressure from his government, did not accept the prize, which was the only one to reject the Nobel Prize for Literature.


  • Jean-Paul Sartre: Being and nothing, attempt of a phenomenological ontology, Rowohlt-Verlag
  • Jean-Paul Sartre: The closed society, Rowohlt-Verlag
  • Jean-Paul Sartre: Is existentialism a humanism ?, Rowohlt-Verlag
  • Christa Hackenesch: Jean-Paul Sartre, Rowohlt-Verlag (biography, pretty well written / the close connection between life and philosophy becomes clear)
  • Martin Suhr: Jean-Paul Sartre for an introduction, (only philosophy, very complex introduction)

See also