The Instigator
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The Contender
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3 Points

Existence Precedes Essence

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Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 7/21/2011 Category: Philosophy
Updated: 7 years ago Status: Post Voting Period
Viewed: 7,979 times Debate No: 17600
Debate Rounds (4)
Comments (13)
Votes (1)




R1 is for acceptance and clarification of noteworthy concepts/terms.

Credit to Jean-Paul Sartre for the quote 'existence precedes essence'.

Essence: the human experience; everything that we identify as being part of our nature

My stance essentially means the following:

Everything that we identify as being important is something that we've invented for ourselves. I intend to lead my part of it towards a nturalistic explanation and I welcome an opponent that is willing to argue that God has drawn us a blueprint from which were destined to grow into.



I'm looking forward to this interesting, philosophical and hopefully fun debate. Best of luck to my opponent.
Debate Round No. 1


It is my responsibility to put forth an argument for the above resolution. My opponent only has to cast reasonable doubt upon my argument and does not need to provide an alternate explanation for our essence’s origin. I will welcome any such counter-argument but it isn’t necessary for the purposes of this debate. I look forward to this opportunity to learn and hope that my opponent shares my enthusiasm.

This topic naturally requires an understanding of epistemology. I am going forth on the empirical system, meaning that our knowledge cannot be known without sense data. Let me be clear: we can know nothing without first observing it within our surroundings. An exception may be Descartes’s famous ‘I think therefore I am’ but that’s a discussion for another debate.

Though I have introduced the topic via Jean-Paul Sartre’s words I should make mention that I do not agree with some of his extensions on the matter. For example, JP Sartre also said that “man is nothing else but what he makes of himself.” This is not entirely true. Neither you nor I can choose our inspirations—they happen without our sanction. But this does not dispel the ‘essence after existence’ claim since our inspirations are crafted after our existence has come into effect. It is therefore my task to provide a logical argument to convince our audience (and hopefully my opponent as well) that no concept of the individual exists until after he/she defines it for him/herself.

The only way to know is through observation. As we age and mature we come to accept some absolutes of the human character, most of which are handed down to us through our parents. We learn that we should share with others, that we shouldn’t steal, that we shouldn’t hit others, and so on and so forth. But where do these lessons come from originally? Do they exist prior to our existence? Are we capable of knowing these absolutes because some higher power has deemed to be worthy? I would like to argue that they do not, and that it is indeed a rational process of evolutionary selection of desirable self-seeking behaviour that teaches us to behave amongst one another.

Apart from the lessons of behaviour towards others also exists the highly important lesson of knowing that thyself is an end upon itself. Sadly, this is exclusive to many and remains a mystery to most. But that they do not know it does not mean that it is not true of all humans. That we are our own starting points is a crucial component of our existence and is the defining standard of our essence. One can easily rationalize that this understanding comes from the basic need for survival and that there is nothing more important than preserving our life. From this point we have accumulated lessons of self-preservation and they have been handed down through the centuries from generation to generation. Everything that we know today of our own importance is because the knowledge of our individuality has been fostered through the years and shaped into what we know of it today.

Recall from above that I have claimed that our essence is defined by ourselves after we exist. But have I not contradicted this by saying that part of our essence is inherited from past generations? Of course not. Who man "is" is entirely up to him. Even after decades of indoctrination by parents there is never a human mind that cannot will itself to believe that he is something that he has not been taught. The individual, though influenced by his teachings, is a clay that he can forever mold into whatever shape he desires.

Because my opponent welcomes a philosophical discussion I would like to provide a morsel of thought that I have thought to be useful for his/her purposes. Naturalism depends on the first and foremost clause of needing to survive. For what purpose? Where has man learned this? I do not care for the score of this debate--I am here to broaden the horizons of my knowledge and I believe that discussing the uncertain is the most certain of way of doing so.


My opponent has decided to go with the empirical argument for knowledge and from this standpoint fleshes his argument into the idea that existence precedes essence.

One of the most famous empiricists is John Locke who proposed the idea of the clean slate. That experiences shape that we are. My opponent is arguing something similar when he says "no concept of the individual exists until after he/she defines it for him/herself."

However if we have no essences, if we are in fact a blank slate how are we to define ourselves? From a philosophical perspective if we acknowledge that everything is simply a construct of either a society or an individual than nothing has value. "If nothing is true, everything is permitted." This is however false reasoning. Morality and laws in themselves provide guidelines for how to live your life. If there are none then there is no set way in which I can live that is "better". Even being nihilistic towards values is no better than living with false values. "If nothing is true, nothing is permitted."

For us to redefine our value systems or our nature there must be something upon which to build because you cannot build upon nothing. If there is no ground I cannot build a house. Existentialism relies upon the idea that human beings can decide for themselves what they are. But that process requires an essence on which to build on. For somebody to define him or herself they must first find what they are.
Debate Round No. 2


My opponent throws the word ‘value’ around as if it itself had none. He believes that value on has merit if it assigned by an external source, otherwise he would be okay with the idea that it is ourselves that assign value. He is uncomfortable with the idea that our fates rest in our hands, and wishes for an overarching dogma to provide answers to unanswerable questions.

“However if we have no essences, if we are in fact a blank slate how are we to define ourselves?” It’s completely up to you. Make it up as you go or borrow it from else. I can make up a god on the spot with whatever characteristics I desire and use that as a definition for our essence. Nothing stops you nor me from drawing our own tapestry.

“If nothing is true then everything is permitted” are not my words. They are my opponent’s interpretation of a similar and yet obstructive opinion from other individuals. I have not claimed that there are no absolutes. We live—that is something that cannot be false. We die—that is something that cannot be false. But this isn’t what our ‘essence’ entails. Recall my earlier word: “Everything that we identify as being important is something that we've invented for ourselves.” You live, and yet you do not have to care for your own life. This is your essence, your sense of existence. No one can claim an absolute essence for anyone else. If essence is a blueprint, why does everyone differ?

My opponent has rightfully pointed out that without a ground one cannot build a house. But the fact that we exist, like I’ve already said, is not our essence. It is an incorruptible absolute that lies outside our powers. Our essence is what define as important, what we define as humanity.



My opponent seems to have forgotten one simple fact, a glaring weakness in not only his but every existentialist system out there. The claim that we have no essence and therefore can decide for ourselves what to believe, that our "fate rests in our hands" is contradictory in itself. The ability to decide for oneself is a form of free will, something my opponent claims that we as the human race have. We must have it our else we would not be able to invent something for ourselves in the first place. But isn't that an essence in itself? Let us note here that essence does not mean that it existed before us, but that it is an essential part of what makes us human

I ask my opponent to really think hard about this. If we claim that everything is simply a construction wouldn't free will and the ability to decide be part of that? What then? How would we then make decisions? Could we make decisions? It would be impossible. We would have no reason to do one thing versus the next.
Debate Round No. 3


Our essence is what we define ourselves as being. We cannot define ourselves as a volitional species--it is our nature. Much like we cannot deny that humans (typically) have two legs and two arms, we cannot say that we are not free to choose. Our faculty of volition is a biological phenomenon. Poking around in the brain can inhibit its function, which proves it to be a physical process.

Essence means identity. Could you identify yourself before you were born? Were you able to acknowledge that we have free wll? The logical answer is no, and for good reason. Until we exist, there is nothing to identify, and no identifier. Where did the term essence come from? Man invented it. Man invented everything about himself, because he's the only being that can recognize it. It's his own interpretation that makes up what we call truth. You could believe that you were an octopus if you wanted to. You could believe that we don't have free will (which I think you would agree is a funny statement in itself). You can believe anything in the world because essence is whatever we dictate it to be.

We have free will, and it certainly is part of our nature, but to call it part of our essence is like going in circles. You're using what gives you the right to define essence to argue that there's a prior understanding of essence. No knowledge exists outside of our own perceptions. There is no knowledge that isn't fallible by the human condition because we are subject to believing whatever we want. There's no other conclusion but to say that existence precedes essence, because essence will only ever exist once existence has been established.

I'd like to thank my opponent for his insight. His objection truly made me think and it is the sole reason for why I'm here.


My opponent mistakenly puts that free will can not be an essence and gives no reasoning behind it. He waves it aside and dismisses it as if it were a pesky fly. Unfortunately for him, his argument rests upon the very foundation that free will is in our nature and thus part of our essence. This is even contestable, Nietzsche for one talks about not free will but freeDOM of will. An example he uses is that we can not blame birds of prey for their predatory behavior since it is in their nature. My opponent, however, fails to see the significance in this problem which has been debated for centuries.

My opponent also accuses me of circular reasoning, however I am simply pointing out that the ability to choose an action, free will, if it existed would in fact define us. Actions do not alone define people, but also their intentions. To do otherwise is foolish.

I urge people to vote con simply on the fact that I have refuted my opponent, which is all that I need to do it win. My opponent has not adequately responded to my rebuttals.
Debate Round No. 4
13 comments have been posted on this debate. Showing 1 through 10 records.
Posted by KristophKP 7 years ago
Were we able to sit down and talk about this I don't think we'd be so divided. Think about a conversation in real life. You start talking about one thing with the intention of making an argument for something else, but before you get to that your conversation partner asks for clarification of your first point. This is what this debate set-up desperately lacks, which can never be had.

What you're describing is our nature, which I would argue to be very different from our essence. In essence *pun*, our essence is our concept of what it means to be man. That we exist is part of our nature and not susceptible to human definition. That we have free will is much the same. You can't cross nature with essence. Animals don't have an essence, they only have their nature. Free will is what allows our essence, but itself isn't what we define for ourselves.
Posted by Priceless29 7 years ago
Your missing the point, there must be basic fundamental things that make a person human before they can define them self. There is a difference between saying that I am Priceless and that I am Human. Actions and intentions define as a person, but it does not define us as a human. I am a human because I have certain features.

Your statement about the senses actually helps me, if we didn't have any senses we could not experience anything. We are automatically born with senses. It is part of our "nature" to have senses.
Posted by KristophKP 7 years ago
How so? Imagine a child born without any senses. What would it ever know about itself?
Posted by Priceless29 7 years ago
Just because we exist before we find out our essence does not mean that we don't have any.
Posted by KristophKP 7 years ago
If man didn't exist, would he have an essence? For all your accusations of my dismissive arguing, this is the one point that you failed to address.

Thank you for the debate.
Posted by Priceless29 7 years ago
Sorry I didn't post this one the debate, was in a rush to put out my acceptance. Mistake on my part. I accept the current definition as existence precedes essence means that we have designed our own nature.
Posted by joze14rock 7 years ago
I'm the same as waylon.fairbanks
Sartre is my hero!
Posted by KristophKP 7 years ago
There's nothing wrong with not being interested in one of the most philosophical inquiries.

I agree that it is a bit obscure and I'll add some information in order to avoid a nagging semantic problem.
Posted by RoyLatham 7 years ago
I don't see why the topic interesting. The challenge apparently supposes that an opponent knows what it is about, but it's more likely you'll end up with a semantic argument about what the resolution means. With something this obscure, you should start by providing links to background information and your interpretation of what the resolution means.
Posted by KristophKP 7 years ago
I'm glad you think so RogueAngel. Good luck in your debate.
1 votes has been placed for this debate.
Vote Placed by ReformedArsenal 7 years ago
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Total points awarded:03 
Reasons for voting decision: Con adequately refutes the argument.