In “Existentialism and Human Freedom”, the author, Jean Paul Sartre, discusses existence and identity. The first main point is that in terms of humans, “existence precedes essence.” Essence makes a thing what it is. It is how we categorize things. It is a summation of all the qualities of an object or a person that we are able to observe. It comes after existence because, according to Sartre, we are born blank and develop our essense after coming into existence. This is because there is no specific formula for humans the way there is a formula for the production of objects. We are all different, there is no certain way a human has to be. No God who determines who we are, no predestination, no human nature that dictates how we should be.
Sartre’s denial of human nature is a point that is still being widely debated. Some argue that certain aspects of our identity are pre-determined by biological factors. Others believe that we are born blank and our identity is shaped by social factors. And others, such as Sartre, believe that our identity is shaped by neither of those two things, and that we are always in control of who we are and what we do, we have the ability to exercise free will.
Though Sartre’s advocacy of free will is compelling, I disagree with it in favor of a mixture of bio-determinism and socio-determinism. The free will model assumes that individuals are born with a tabula rasa. This is untrue, seeing as genetic makeup is proven to determine individuals’ personalities. Evidence of this was collected during multiple studies, including one where twins separated at birth still acted in a similar manner.
Socio-determinism also shapes individuals’ personalities, since social conditioning and the environment in which an individual is raised contributes directly to their temperament and disposition. This was exemplified by a series of experiments involving operant conditioning, which succeeded in dictating the behavior of mice based on a system of positive and negative reinforcement, a simplified version of the social conditioning that humans experience. All of this goes to suggest that we do not have as much control of our identity as Sartre thought we did.
Another concept that Sartre focuses on is how our actions and our opinions constitute our identity. In the excerpt from “Portrait of the Anti-Semite”, Sartre states that our opinions reflect our ability to exercise free will and chose our own identity. This implies that by having a certain opinion, we chose to be the kind of person that has those opinions, and thus we chose our identity. Sarte seems to believe that there is no other outside influence on the opinions of a person. This is an interesting assertion, seeing as most people would not consider themselves to be consciously choosing their identity as they produce opinions. To us, it seems as though opinions are simply a result of the natural flow of thought that all humans experience. If opinions come to us naturally and sometimes even without intention, does this not hint at the possibility of the existence of the human nature that Sartre has been denying?
Furthermore, it is difficult to imagine the nonexistence of a human nature altogether. It is true that we are all different and there is no specific cookie-cutter formula for a human, however, it is also true that we are all in some ways similar. Despite all the ways in which we vary, there are noticeable standardized aspects of our behavior. Therefore, it is possible that we do have an essence that comes before our existence. Before we are born, there are already some aspects of human nature that are in place in the human genome and they will dictate our appearance and some of our actions, though not all. It is because of this that I believe in the theory that some of our actions are influenced by predetermined forces while others are left to choice and free will.
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