Understanding The Difference Between Existentialism and Essentialism
Essentialism is the idea that everything has an essence (something that “makes it, it”). Existentialism says there is no essence (no intrinsic meaning that can be confirmed by the senses or reason).
More specifically, there are a few types of existentialism:
- There is the idea that there may be an essence, but we can’t prove it (Pascal’s Wager and Kierkegaard’s Christian Existentialism for example).
- The idea that existence precedes essence, and we must give our lives meaning; it’s bad faith to try to find meaning in the meaningless (Sartre and arguably Camus).
- The idea that there is no essence or meaning, but we can find comfort in pushing the stone up the hill anyway (Camus and arguably Nietzsche).
- The idea that there is truly no essence (or at least none that can be confirmed empirically), and neither we nor anyone else can give our lives meaning (Nietzsche and to some extent Kafka).
BOTTOMLINE: Essentialism says things have intrinsic meaning. Existentialism says things don’t. Looking for meaning where there is no meaning (looking for meaning in “bad faith“) is absurd and gives us a type of anxiety one can call angst. It is the feeling of alienation that arises from this that Marx and Camus thought to be the secret sauce of rebellion and revolution. With that in mind, as noted above, there are a number of different types of essentialist and existentialist theories that range from theological, to moralist, to ethical, to nihilist, to left, to right.Existentialism: Crash Course Philosophy #16.
TIP: Neither essentialism or existentialism is inherently religious or non-religious. Some existentialists are religious, like Pascal or Kierkegaard, others like the father of essentialism himself Plato, were not. Plato was a heathen who made it a focal point to convince the existentialists of his day (the sophists) of his essentialist theories (see Plato’s theory of forms for an example of Plato’s essentialist idealism and use of metaphor). Sure, Aquinas and Nietzsche fit the religious essentialist vs. atheist existentialist nihilist mold, but that is just one instance and not the rule. Below, when I say “God” and “Soul” it should be interpreted very loosely and in some cases almost metaphorically.
TIP: Kierkegaard’s Absurdity and Angst, Marx’s Alienation, Surrealism, Existentialism, Post Modernism, and more are all closely related concepts, in that each is a statement on the absurdity of modern life, classism, inequality, and war in liberal western democracies. These are all separate ideas with unique stories, but these “revolutionary” concepts share common themes. For more see a page on Commodity Fetishism, Consumerism, the Society of the Spectacle, Alienation, and More.
Defining Existentialism and Essentialism With Examples
We can define essentialism and existentialism by these examples:
Essentialism: We have an essence, which is sometimes understood as a soul, and sometimes as something more ethereal. There is a God who is a bestower of the essence, and thus things have meaning. We are not purely “free agents.” We needn’t assign meaning to things; we must have faith in a higher power. While some aspects of “the Eternal” can never be known, our faith can be reasoned via empirical and rational means. Just ask Aristotle, Plato, Descartes, or Thomas Aquinas who all knew there were things they didn’t know, but attempted to show there was an essence anyway. This can be extended to one’s feelings about their job, a white picket fence, or cultural norms, etc. In all these instances the concept is that “our daily grind has meaning.” There are a few ways to “know” things have an essence. We can use faith with no proof of specifics, pure reason with logic and reason, or positivism. By this I mean a type of Humean empiricism that says “information derived from sensory experience, interpreted through reason and logic, forms the exclusive source of all authoritative knowledge”, here we “know” things have an essence based on sensory data). Many would argue this is an idealist philosophy.
TIP: Aristotle believed that everything had an essence, and a related property an “excellence” or “Areté“. Plato agreed, but Aristotle saw this from an empirical lens and Plato from a lens of pure reason.PHILOSOPHY – Thomas Aquinas. Everything has an essence, but while we can know the Divine law, we can never know the Eternal. That is “why faith.”
Existentialism: There is no “essence” bestowed on man by God, and there is no intrinsic meaning, or at least we accept we can’t prove it. Thus, there is only free will. We are “free agents.” We must assign a meaning to both the mundane and spiritual. We can have faith when we can’t have knowledge, but only after we admit our shortcomings and say “I know I do not know.” For instance, Pascal’s wager (his idea that betting that there is a God is a good bet) is based on both reason and faith so he puts an essentialist spin on existentialism. Kierkegaard was deeply religious and explained religion as a sphere outside of atheistic and ethics which couldn’t be accessed by reason. It was a rung of a ladder that was higher up than earthly or intellectual pleasures. Meanwhile, Sartre thought it was “bad faith” to attempt to impose reason on the irrational. Nietzsche was extreme in his views. He got out a sledgehammer and declared “God is Dead” or obsolete, i.e. there is no essence; just Google “misunderstood philosophers.” There is more than one way to view existentialism, and the existentialists rarely fully agree on a start or end point. It’s more about the freedom of choice to believe or not to believe than about any specific dogma. This can be applied to anything from one’s day job to the 6 o’clock news. It’s a type of skepticism.
Or at least, that is the essence of existentialism.
TIP: It is “bad faith” to try to give reason to the absurd, as the absurd is by nature without reason.SARTRE ON: Bad Faith. Trying to rationalize that which has no reason is bad faith. Looking for intrinsic essence is a fools errand. Taking gospel as gosepel is a waste of time that could be spent searching for true meaning. Not to mention what some consider as the original purpose of religion, as Rousseau explains the Social Contract Book 4 Chapter 8 Civic religion.
TIP: Existentialism and Essentialism are part of a Branch of Philosophy called Metaphysics (AKA the book that comes after physics). Existentialism is specifically a philosophical movement, and not a branch, but can be filed under metaphysics.
Is Existentialism a Comment on Religion?
The debate between essentialism and existentialism isn’t purely a comment on religion, although it is related.
Even Saint Thomas Aquinas, and the good Christians Pascal and Kierkegaard separated their ontology and metaphysics from their theology in practice. This conversation often includes God as a topic, but it is purely about “essence” on a deeper level. Religion and the bestower of the essence is a secondary property of the argument, and one that each philosopher has a different take on.
FACT: Hegel and Marx both have a focus on a concept we can call alienation (with Marx especially, a type of social alienation). This is an early type of existentialist thinking related to the anxiety felt from existing in an absurd situation. It includes Economic and Social Alienation, Political Alienation, Human Alienation, and Ideological Alienation. In the concept’s most prominent use, it refers to the economic and social alienation aspect in which workers are disconnected from what they produce and why they produce. For Marx it was what made the worker fit to rebel in a capitalist system, but thoughts on the revolution aside, it is an important existential concept (as here the worker feels even their own work lacks an essence of sorts). See Marx’s theory of alienation.
What is an Existential Crisis?
If you are dealing with that concept for the first time and it is upsetting you, then you may be having a type of “existential crisis.”
An existential crisis is the uneasy feeling we get when we realize that things might have no essence. Just feeling that there is no meaning in anything is enough; one doesn’t have to believe it forever. Once we realize there is no essence, we realize there is no correct choices, no intrinsic right or wrong, no grand eternity, and no next right move. The clock is ticking while we flail around in what is likely the wrong direction knowing we can’t confirm a “right” direction.
We strive for purpose in a “Kafkaesque” way, despite knowing we can’t confirm our purpose with reason or our senses. This “absurdity” makes us feel “anxiety,” “angst” (a term coined by Kierkegaard to explain this feeling), and “negative ecstasy” (a term coined for Sartre for the same reasons).
That anxious, negative feeling over the realization that things you thought had meaning may be meaningless, that panic and one’s reaction, is an existential crisis and is called angst.What is an Existential Crisis?.
MUSING: Regarding Matrix metaphors, the question largely becomes, once you know you are in the matrix, “do you eat the steak and like it, or do you take the red pill?” <— click the link for a essay full of angst.
FACT: The great existentialist (who didn’t consider himself an existentialist) Albert Camus wrote a whole book on Rebellion vs. Revolution. Camus’ book “the Rebel” looks at the French revolution to see how rebellion in political spheres is an advent of the absurdity of life. This theory is similar to Marx’s theory of alienation and both relate to Kierkegaard’s theories regarding his Concept of Anxiety and the general “end of history” theory (see this pro-western end of history theory for an alternative view). Marx didn’t consider himself a Marxist, Camus didn’t consider himself an existentialist, but both clearly stated the relationship between absurdity, alienation, rebellion, revolution, and specifically the French Revolution (any philosopher worth their salt will always contemplate that revolution and its terrors when discussing these concepts). NOTE: This is a case where something, namely the cycle of oppression and rebellion, really is “Kafkaesque“. Learn more about the absurd and oppression and rebellion.
Where Does Existentialism Originate?
Existentialist philosophy is a continuation of, and response to, the moral philosophy of the Greeks, the doctrine of the Churches, and the philosophies of the Enlightenment in the Age of Reason (including idealism, realism, rationalism, empiricism, essentialism, and positivism).
Existentialism comes into its own in the sociopolitical environment of the mid-1800’s to mid-1900’s. Western society had been able to question religion for the first time. Spinoza did it earlier, but he is the most generally hated philosopher outside of Marx and Nietzsche because of this. Saying Spinoza, Marx, and Nietzsche together in a sentence is still a little anti-social or possibly anarcho-socialist.
Despite the advances made by man in this Age of Reason, the philosophers looked around and saw pointless suffering, war, poverty, religion, head-in-the-sand romanticism, and other advents of the new era (especially starting in the late 1700’s where we get revolutions, then slavery, then World Wars).
The philosophers responded to these changes by questioning the old and new belief systems, looking for meaning in a world that might be devoid of intrinsic meaning (true for early philosophers, but very true for later philosophers like Sartre and Camus).
Simply put, liberalization allowed authors like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Sartre to question the old ways, and the new socioeconomic effects of industrialization (and later the World Wars) gave them something to question.Introduction to Existentialism.
Understanding The Essence of the Existentialists and Essentialists
The essentialists included almost all philosophers up until the Age of Reason, including basically every religious philosopher and the father of modern philosophy Descartes.
Even early existentialists like Pascal and Kierkegaard were religious despite their existential views. So, as noted above, existential shouldn’t be confused with Pure Nihilism or anti-religion or spirituality.
Even though Nietzsche is Nihilistic, and takes a sledgehammer to the old belief systems, Nietzsche wasn’t without an appreciation for an essence.
Nietzsche’s idea was to admit “God is dead,” that we didn’t need God, not that he was dead. Imagine, a writer using metaphor so we could move forward and find our meaning in this new world. It wasn’t a call to give up unless that was what one wanted to do.
Kierkegaard and Pascal break us down like Nietzsche, but only to show us that their specific form of Christianity was the best way.
The idea being, “if there is no point, is morality still important?” (Not just morality, but “social justice” and ethics. i.e. can man have morals in a post-industrial capitalist society without a God or state to force their hand? Can you share with your sibling without your parents forcing you? Can there be right and wrong, or good and evil, if there is no essence?)… most existentialists conclude yes, and many existentialist works are simply the argument “why” disguised as Angsty prose.
For instance, the classic existentialist text “Either/or” by Kierkegaard begins by painting a shallow and bleak vision of man’s aestheticism. He uses stories of Don Juan and Faust, famous rakes of different kinds. First, he seeks solace in ethics and intellectualism although this too leaves us a little empty like aestheticism, and then finally leaves the reader with no other choice than turning toward “faith” or, for Kierkegaard, his religion.Kierkegaard’s Three Stages of Life.
Sartre will tell us that accepting Kierkegaard’s faith as our own would be a type of “bad faith,” and Nietzsche would certainly scoff, but despite this, it is a mistake to think that even the more nihilistic existentialists don’t have a higher purpose. They are most certainly moral philosophers in every sense. They challenge our understanding of morality and faith.
Let’s end with a video on from The School of Life. They have an excellent series on philosophers and cover key essentialists like Thomas Aquinas and existentialists like Camus and Sartre. See their playlist here.PHILOSOPHY – Soren Kierkegaard.