The Struggle For Existence: Essentialism or Existentialism

Marina's picture

Marina Morrison

Professor Dalke



The Struggle for Existence: Essentialism or Existentialism

The sciences and humanities are often considered to be two completely separate, even competing disciplines. Sciences such as biology are often thought of as subjects dealing in truths, experimentation and concrete facts. Literature, on the other hand, is seen as more subjective and open to varied interpretation. Despite the seemingly stark separation between these two disciplines it is necessary to also recognize the numerous similarities and parallels that exist among them. Biology is the organization and interpretation of life through storylines and observations based on empirical data. Similarly, literature is the organization and interpretation of life through storylines and observations based on human experience and culture. The two disciplines even give birth to similar concepts: essentialism and existentialism. The biological concept of essentialism is highly comparable to the existentialist movement that was so influential in the realm of literature. These concepts also bring unique perspectives when applied to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution as proposed in On the Origin of Species.

The similarities between biology and literature can be exemplified through the concepts of essentialism and existentialism which similarly state that something or someone’s existence is contingent upon its respective properties or actions. Essentialism claims existence is determined by a set of characteristics and properties that make something what it is. According to essentialism, things are defined by their “essences” and that “essence” is necessary, even required for their existence. Existentialism, on the other hand, is similar to this because in the same way that a set of characteristics renders existence, existentialism proposes that a person’s actions and free will determine their development and meaning to exist. For existentialists, a set of individual actions determines existence. So, in the same way that essentialists believe a set of properties render existance, existentialists believe a set of actions render existence. In this way, the concepts of essentialism and existentialism help to bridge the gap between science and humanities because they propose such similar views. However, there are not only similarities between these two concepts, as many differences exist between them.

            Although these notions of essentialism and existentialism seem to parallel in many ways, there are still serious differences regarding core ideologies. First, essentialism claims that all things are born with a fixed, absolute property or “essence” that defines them.  Existentialists, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, go completely against this notion as they claim that people are born with no purpose or definition and must act through choice and free will to bring meaning to an intrinsically purposeless life. Essentialists also believe that life has an intrinsic meaning and purpose, but it is up to the individual to find that purpose. Existentialism is the complete opposite. Existentialists claim life is intrinsically meaningless and the individual must work to bring meaning or purpose into their lives.  To further the differences between these two concepts is to examine what they are calling for. Essentialism calls for introspection and finding your “essence” that already exists, while existentialism is more of a call to action that demands the individual to seek purpose in an otherwise meaningless life. In other words, existentialist thought prescribes the notion “existence precedes essence” while essentialism makes the claim “essence precedes existence.” Clearly, these two thoughts could not be any more different, but what do they mean? The existentialist thought that “existence precedes essence” refers to how the individual is able to exist without any preconceived meaning or “essence” in their life. This contrasts with the essentialist thought that “essence precedes existence” which means the individual cannot exist without the preconceived intrinsic meaning or “essence” of that individual’s life. There must be a fixed, absolute trait that the individual has within him or herself to exist. This “essence” enables there to be a single purpose in the individual’s life. Thus, essentialism ultimately claims that there is an essential meaning to life that must be discovered while existentialism renders life meaningless and only potentially meaningful through individual acts of free will.

When applied to Darwin’s theory of evolution, essentialism and existentialism bring opposing views to the theory. The notion of essentialism existed prior to evolution and opposed many of Darwin’s theories. Essentialists claimed that the “essence” of a species was fixed, absolute, and unalterable which of course went against Darwin’s belief that species change slowly over time to adapt to their environment. Also, essentialism determines the set of properties as significant in defining what something is whereas the theory of evolution points, not to properties, but to common ancestors as the defining trait of a species. Even though Darwin’s theory seems to contrast with the core beliefs of essentialism, it is strongly relevant and relatable to existentialist thought. Darwin’s belief that there existed a “struggle for existence” goes along the same vein as the existentialist’s thought that there is a struggle for finding meaning and a purpose to exist. Darwin himself recognizes the need for a struggle to render existence. He writes, “I should premise that I use the term struggle in a large and metaphorical sense, including dependence of one being on another, and including (which is more important) not only the life of the individual, but success in leaving progeny” (Darwin 133). Here, Darwin recognizes the need for struggle and existence to be contingent upon one another. Existence is dependent upon the struggle for life and competition among species for the availability of resources and ultimately survival. Conversely, the struggle and competition for survival among species is what defines existence. Darwin also states that this struggle not only applies to the individual’s existence but to the legacy they leave as a result of their existence. To me, this could easily translate into existential thought, as it requires the individual to act in order to exist. Darwin’s theory proposes a life that is random, purposeless, and having no distinct plan, which is similar to existential thought that condemns life as meaningless.

The concepts of essentialism and existentialism both have comparable and opposing views toward life and it’s meaning but if examined closely one can find the similarities between the two. These two concepts also work to bridge the gap between science and literature as essentialism, a largely biological view, and existentialism, a view mostly applied to literature, can come together with ease to find a common ground. In this case, essentialism and existentialism both rely on s set of properties or actions to render meaning or existence in life. Yet, when applied to the biological theory of evolution the more biological and essentialist viewpoint contradicts the theory while existentialism, the more literary of the two, actually works to support the claim with its similar notions towards life. Therefore, science and literature are both necessary when attempting to observe the meaning of life. Perhaps one cannot exist without the other when it comes to understanding existence.


Serendip Vistitor's picture

I was wondering...

Maybe I was even wondering about these difference because I'M A READER! Extremely informative and interesting!

Anne Dalke's picture

Essentially speaking

You’ve taken an off-hand comment from one of our small group discussions—“hm, I think existentialism might be relevant here”—and really run w/ it; what I appreciate in your essay is your bringing together existentialism and essentialism, as two contrastive ways of thinking about the world.

I appreciate your attempt to be thorough—attempting to catalogue both likenesses and differences. And/but I find myself w/ lots of confusions and questions about the former. These two ways of describing the world strike me as fundamentally opposed: essentialism seems (in the language of this course) a foundationalist narrative that defines organisms a priori; that makes a sharp contrast to existentialism, in which the human organism (only; in that way it’s a far more limited theory) defines itself, w/out any pre-determined script or way to be. I agree that Darwin’s narrative was a challenge to essentialism, and seems to accord w/ existentialism; it might be useful to set those comparisons in historical time (i.e. essentialism→ Darwinism→ existentialism) and to do some research about the degree to which each of those ideologies referenced one another. Did Sartre study Darwin, for example? Is his language in any way like that of The Origin of the Species? You say frequently that you see one line of thinking “going along the same vein” as another,” or “coming together with ease for finding a common ground” in your own mind, but I’d be curious to know if the authors of these ideas also saw the similarities and differences you trace.

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