The defining tenant of existentialism is the belief that existence, the being of a person, precedes the essence or nature of a person. In other words, there is no human nature. This sounds like the blank slate interpretation of human nature.
Is this proposition really true; can it be verified; or is this just another attempt to escape the firm clutches of determinism?
I think what is being very much lost in this conversation is the fact that existentialism, as articulated by existentialist philosophers, was in large part a moral philosophical position, particularly in response to the question of why people can discriminate against one another. It's a philosophy more about the existence vs essence of people than of things.
I agree with Kennethamy, but I don't know if this view was 'Cartesian'. Decartes was Catholic, and believed in the existence of the soul; and presumably 'the soul' was both essential, and precedes 'existence'. The 'existence precedes essence' argument is based on the denial of the soul (or anything covertly or overtly religious) - it is a reversal of the traditional idea that the 'essence' of something or someone is more fundamental than their existence.
It would seem to me that the 'nature vs nurture' argument should have some bearing on this view. Studies of twins seperated at birth show that in many uncanny respects, their lives, attitudes, actions, tastes and so on are very similar, even if they have lived apart of all of their lives. So this would seem to me to support the 'essence' view.
But then you can interpret 'essence' to refer to 'collective memory', cultural and genetic inheritance, and the like, rather than being something immutable or eternally fixed. In this sense, the 'essential' aspects of a personality could still be seen to be something that one is born with. So again, 'essence precedes existence', even if 'essence' is not something immutable or eternal.
---------- Post added 01-01-2010 at 05:36 PM ----------
Incidentally in regards to Pirsig, it has been about 3 decades since I read 'Zen and...' and can't recall much of it.
It wasn't just in the interest of people making themselves that Sartre denied essence. It was a specific philosophical counter to prejudice. He's extremely explicit about this in Portrait of the Antisemite, which is perhaps the most important work of existentialist ethics.
only in the realm of human purpose and human morality?
What else is there?
Question: is 'human nature' related to the idea of 'essence'? I am reading The Blank Slate by Steve Pinker which argues against the idea that humans are born..well..'a blank slate'. The 'existence precedes essence' idea would seem to me to be related to this argument. But then again, maybe it is a different idea.
That is a bit of an anthrocentric view isn't it?
There is the entirety of non human existence for starters?
The BULK of philosophy in general has to do with human perceptions and human obligations, and philosophical prescriptions about the world are always made from a human point of view so that is natural.
And again the PRINCIPAL concerns of the existentialists were anthrocentric anyway: morality, meaning, freedom, crisis... existentialism is an extremely human-centered philosophy.
I have to differ...The vast majority of philosophy has all been about ethics