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The Second Aporia: What is Man? (The Abyss) III

What is man in the infinite?


Man is something to be overcome.


Sartre: The Existential Turn

To be sure, philsophers before and since Kant have tried to ask and answer the question on man. Yet what perhaps has proven to be the difficulty of properly answering the question has been the dialectical tension between man in general and man in particular. If I am to answer what man is, I would have a lot to say in the same way that philosophers have repeatedly albeit redundantly tried to figure out or trace the figure of man in a thousand and one ways: that he is the sojourner in a foreign land (Plato), the animal rationale (Aristotle), the grande profundum (Augustine), "the horizon and the dividing line of spiritual and physical nature" (Aquinas), the subject (Descartes), the transcendental ego (Kant), and Spirit (Hegel).

Yet what suffers from the generality of such concepts about man -- even if they be true or at least be relevant -- is that they can never exhaust my essence or my peculiarities. That I am what Aristotle says can never be disputed or proven to be false; however, if a child asks me one day the question what he is, I doubt that I'd answer him that he is a rational animal. Even more, during those times when I feel myself to be a stranger in a foreign place, when the world suddenly becomes alien to me, and when the answer to the question what I am begins to carry weight -- as if everything depended on it -- I cannot imagine myself being content to be only what he said I am, what this book said I should be. The concepts may be true -- that is not in question here; but they may not matter to this man who asks with fear and trembling what he truly is.

The problem of truly answering the question on man is that in wanting to be general so as to be applicable to all men, it immediately loses its hold on me, its truth for me. Yet the inverse is also true: if I insist that man be as immediate to my experiences of it for it to have a truth for me, what I lose is its efficacy on others, its truth for my brothers. Perhaps this is why men, like Kant, evade of the question of man: for if I speak, how am I to be certain that what I say, since it comes from just myself, would have a certain generality -- to at least be understood -- and a certain efficacy -- to at least be relevant to others.

* * *

It is in this same line that Jean-Paul Sartre also addressed the question on man from a different perspective. Instead of exhausting ourselves to be comprehensive yet effective in our answering of the question, what he encourages us to do is to drop the question altogether and consider it a dead-end. Why? Because what man is -- man's essence -- is not given a priori to be known. In other words, what I am is not something readily given -- the object -- to be known and circumscribed by my intellect. He claims in the widely-known essay "Existentialism is a Humanism" that man's existence precedes his essence. As he says of his position (atheistic existentialism):

It states that if God does not exist, there is at least one being in whom existence precedes essence, a being who exists before he can be defined by any concept, and that being is man, or as Heidegger says, human reality. What is meant here by saying that existence precedes essence? It means that, first of all, man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and, only afterwards, defines himself. If man, as the existentialist conceives him, is indefinable, it is because at first he is nothing.

The difficulty then, according to Sartre, of seeking what man is is that to begin with, he is nothing. Existence precedes essence in the sense that man first exists before he is defined to be this or that. Man is nothing originally -- and perhaps for the most part. And man is a special case.

Sartre uses the example of a paper-cutter as an object which is produced by a manufacturer to show how it is with other beings in the world. The artisan first designs and prepares the materials for making a paper-cutter. Then he goes on with actually producing the paper-cutter. The actual, existing paper-cutter would not be if the artisan did not first conceive it to be and finally make it to be. In this example, the essence of the paper-cutter comes before its existence. That is the way every being in this world comes to be: essence precedes existence. However, it is a different story with man because man first exists before he asks, knows or becomes his essence. For Sartre, as you may have already seen, there is no God to design or conceive man to be this or that before man actually exists. Man is already there, or better, man is just there.

When we were born into this world, no one told us we were human beings to begin with. It was also not evident for us, as we were growing up, that we were this or that. To be sure, we would have learned from others and from the world some basic truths about ourselves, about our humanity; but that is merely that: hearsay, common opinion, unthought scientific explanations as to what we are. We go on with this ignorance originally and for the most part. But it is only in moments of weaknesses and loneliness that we question our own selves what we in fact are. As Buber says, "In the ice of solitude man becomes most inexorably a question to himself, and just because the question pitilessly summons and draws into play his most secret life he becomes an experience to himself."

And what Sartre along with Heidegger says is that the uncanny feeling as to what we are in that "ice of solitude" reveals the reality that we are really nothing. "Nothing" in the doubles sense of not-a-thing (neither this or that) and also in the strict sense that, as Pascal said with trembling heart, we are nothing against the infinite.

Yet this is not the last word. What Sartre argues for is that precisely because there is no human essence that precedes his existence, what man is is something to be made. As he continues:
Only afterward will he be something, and he himself will have made what he will be. Thus, there is no human nature, since there is no God to conceive it. Not only is man what he conceives himself to be, but he is also what he wills himself to be after his thrust toward existence.

With neither a creator to turn to nor a design to follow, man finds himself alone to build for himself who he is with the materials given to him in the world and with his own life as a blank canvass to paint on. Man is the tabula rasa on which a story of one's making can be written. It is also in this sense that Nietzsche said that man becomes the Ubermensch or overman if through his sheer will, he empowers himself to become what he can truly be.

Thus the first principle of existentialism according to Sartre is that "man is nothing else but what he makes of himself." This means that what I am is of my own making. It is up to the individual -- you, me -- and not up to the generality of men to define what I am to become.

To be continued


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