Existentialism and Essentialism


Existentialism is a philosophical term which posits that individuals create the meaning and essence of their lives. Existentialism asserts that “existence precedes essence,” which is in opposition to the classical doctrine that “essence precedes existence.” The claim “existence precedes essence” is a rejection of the idea that human nature has an end or goal. In this sense, humans are free to choose their own destiny.

In the existentialist view, the problem of being must take precedence over that knowledge in philosophical investigations. Being cannot be made a subject of objective enquiry; it is revealed to individual by reflection on his own unique concrete existence in time and space. Existence is basic: it is the fact of the individual’s presence and participation in a changing and potentially dangerous world. Each self- aware individual understands his own existence in terms of his experience of himself and his situation. The self of which he is aware is a thinking being which has beliefs, hopes, fears, desires, the need to find a purpose, and a will that can determine his actions.


Essentialism is a philosophical term which asserts that there is a distinction between essential and non-essential (contingent or accidental) characteristics of an object. Essentialism assumes that objects have essences and that an object’s identity is its essence. Aristotle distinguished between an object’s essence and its existence. Its essence is “what a thing is.” Its essence is “that a thing is.” An object’s essence is the collection of all the universals that it possesses, which if it did not possess them, it would cease to be. There are other sorts of properties that an object possesses but that do not make the object what it is. Furthermore, essentialism holds that natural things do have essences.

Application: Ibn 'Arabi and Chuang-tzu

In Sufism and Taoism, Izutsu asserts that Chuang-tzu’s metaphysics is an existentialism in the same sense that is to be found in Ibn ‘Arabi. It is not that the level of essence is being denied, but rather, when it is separated from its source which is existence, itself, then essences "in the sense of hard and solid ontological cores of things" are set up against each other in a fashion that goes against the way, or ultimate ground of things.

But even if essences seduce us into seeing things incorrectly, that does not mean that essences are mere illusions, and here we return again to Izutsu’s view of the relationship between essence and existence. He argues that essences "are not ontologically groundless." They are not "sheer nothing." And he finds that his view is confirmed in Chuang-tzu’s beautiful description of the cosmic wind.

In addition, Izutsu maintains that both for Chuang-tzu and Ibn ‘Arabi, existence is moving. It is not a thing. It is an actus. No one can see the Absolute itself as ‘something’ existent, but no one can deny, either, the presence of its actus. And that actus is philosophically nothing other than Existence. For Chuang-tzu the Absolute has two faces. In its cosmic aspect the Absolute is Nature, a vital energy of Being which pervades all and makes them exist, grow, decay, and ultimately brings them back to the original source, while in its personal aspect it is God, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, the Lord of all things and events.


Catatan: Ini adalah salah satu tugas reading saya ketika belajar di Colardo State University

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