Jean-Paul Sartre and Radical Freedom Essay

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Jean-Paul Sartre claims that there can be no human nature, or essence, without a God to conceive of it. This claim leads Sartre to formulate the idea of radical freedom, which is the idea that man exists before he can be defined by any concept and is afterwards solely defined by his choices. Sartre presupposes this radical freedom as a fact but fails to address what is necessary to possess the type of freedom which would allow man to define himself. If it can be established that this freedom and the ability to make choices is contingent upon something else, then freedom cannot be the starting point from which man defines himself. This leaves open the possibility of an essence that is not necessarily dependent upon a God to conceive it. Several inconsistencies in Sartre’s philosophy undermine the plausibility of his concept of human nature. The type of freedom essential for the ability to define oneself is in fact contingent upon something else. It is contingent upon community, and the capacity for empathy, autonomy, rationality, and responsibility.
The key belief of existentialists is that existence precedes essence. In order to understand that claim we must first understand what Jean- Paul Sartre means by the term “essence.” He gives an example of a person forging a paper-cutter. When an individual sets out to make any object, he/she has a purpose for it in mind and an idea of what the object will look like before beginning the actual production of it, so this object has an essence, or purpose, before it ever has an existence. The individual, as its creator, has given the paper-cutter its essence. Using the paper cutter example, Sartre argues that human beings cannot have an essence (or purpose) before their “production,” becaus...

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...pose then it follows that the actions we perform in the world would have to subscribe to determinism. However, when God is taken out of the picture when it comes to defining nature/essence then free-will abounds. Contriving our purpose, or essence, from our community still allows us to exercise free will; because to be a community consists of a few conditions that must be met and beyond that can take many different forms it presents the ability of choice and adaptation based upon those choices.

Works Cited

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. New York: Washington Square Press , 1956.
—. Existentialism is a Humanism. New York: Kensington Publishing Corp. , 1985.
Taylor, Charles. Philosophy and the Human Sciences. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
—. Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989.

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