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Existence and Essence


Existence and essence are a theme of existentialism, but here I will examine the relationship between them from the viewpoint of linguistic philosophy.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay modified by me

1. The ambiguity of esse

Existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre often contrast existence and essence. When they assert existence precedes essence, they regard essence as an ideal nature of real existence.

The image is displayed here.
Jean-Paul Sartre (21 June 1905 ― 15 April 1980) is a philosopher known for his proposition existence precedes essence (l’existence précède l’essence). Image Source: Wikimedia.

But etymologically essence (essentia in Latin) derives from be (esse). In what respect does “exist" differ from “be"? What relation does essence bear to be?

We use “be" as an intransitive verb sometimes without a complement and sometimes with it.

1. The car is in my garage. (“be" meaning exist)

2. The car is red. (“be" as a copula)

The copula’s connection of subjects to predicates is sometimes analytic and sometimes synthetic. As not all cars are red, the second sentence is synthetic. However,

3. A car is a vehicle with three or four wheels driven by a motor.

is analytic, if it is the definition of cars.

2. Esse and Existentia

Ancient Greek philosophers asked, “What is X?" to investigate the essence of X. That is to say, the essence is expressed by the definition, “X is… . " Let’s paraphrase this sentence in “X is, and it is… ." You may be inclined to say the former “be" represents existence, while the latter “be" represents the essence of X.

But do all beings really exist? No. Not all subjects exist. For example, the subject of the sentence “Chimera is a monster made up of parts of different animals." does not exist, though Chimera is at least as an imaginary being. Nor can you say zero is not. If it were not for zero, you cannot even speak of it. The signified of some conceptions do not exist, but are ideally. So, not all beings exist.

3. Substance stands out as existence

Etymologically, existence is ex-sistere (stand out) and substance is sub-stare (stand under). Substance as an ideal essence stands under real phenomena and it exists when it stands out from ideal possibilities.