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Yesterday my professor said something that seemed rather strange. Roughly, it was

According to Sartre, humans are the only beings that don't have an essence.

Now I haven't read Sartre, and I'm not in a position to do so any time soon, so I can't check this, but this statement seems very wrong. If only and all human beings lack essence, doesn't that mean our lack of essence is essential to us? That we do have an essence, and that essence is a lack of itself?

The problem is obvious, I hope. And I find it hard to believe Sartre didn't see it. So:

  1. When Sartre says essence, does he mean the same thing I do?

    (I go by the basic Aristotelian definition of essence: those qualities that are necessary for a thing to be its one specific type of thing. While it's certainly posssible (even plausible) that most divisions are artificial, even if they express real difference, it's still possible that basic types exist, and that there are some properties fundamental to being.)

  2. If this is the case, does he address the contradiction?

    Hopefully he's not a dialetheist.

  3. Are humans really the only creatures without essence?

    It seems like the more obvious approach would be to say that the concept of essence refers to nothing at all, so nothing has an essence. In fact that is how I understood the whole "Existence precedes essence" thing - first there is a thing, and then we ascribe to it its type and declare its properties essential.

  4. Does Sartre believe humans are the only beings without essence?

  • You can see Sartre on essence : "To Sartre, "existence precedes essence" means that a personality is not built over a previously designed model or a precise purpose, because it is the human being who chooses to engage in such enterprise." – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Jan 19 '17 at 10:07
  • In a nutshell, essence is the "core" of an entity, the immutable part/characteristic that defines it in an univocal manner, like rationality for human being according to the traditional (Aristotelian ?) view. This means that the essence in some way "drives" the entity with a sort of intrinsec necessity. For Sartre this is not so : there is no absolute necessity driving our life; see freedom and authenticity and Being and Nothingness. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Jan 19 '17 at 10:17
  • I find Sartre's use of the word 'essence' renders it more or less meaningless. For instance, the idea that human rationality or will is our essence. If anyone can make sense of this idea they're more clever than me. – PeterJ Aug 5 '17 at 11:28
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To understand how Sartre could ever say something like this, we need to look at an important pair of German philosophers and one Dane (actually we could probably find many more important people in this transition) and their effect on how we think.

I assume by classical definition of essence with reference to Aristotle, you're thinking that each natural kind has an essence, and that defines what the thing is. Thomas Nagel makes the point vividly in talking about giraffes in Amelie Rorty (ed.) Essays on Aristotle's Ethics. And Aristotle derives his account of human ethics in Nicomachean Ethics in part from this idea.

So far so good. But as time passes, the word essence (which of course can't be Aristotle's word since it's latinate) gets tied up in a debate about whether or not essences follow something like Plato's ideas, Aristotle's "that what it is to be" --> essence, or something that comes from our heads. (Moving through the middle ages at a very rapid clip, we have Augustine sounding Platonic about this, Aquinas sounding Aristotelian, and Ockham and Buridan sounding very "in our heads" about essences).

Then we get to modernity. The rationalists following Descartes and then Kant present what is largely a dualistic account where what it means to be human has little to do with the embodied essence that Aristotle suggests and much to do with our use of reason. Looking just at Descartes, we could say that the human essence is rationality. And For Kant (in his ethics), humanity and rationality are synonyms.

This takes us to Hegel who makes an interesting claim that the fundamental nature of humans is not just reason but also will. In other words, what makes us human is that we impose categories and distinctions on the world we encounter (and generate?).

Kierkegaard, too, emphasizes the sense in which humans are beings that relate differently to the world. In the beginning of Sickness unto Death, he suggests that what makes us different from animals is that we can despair and that we have choices about how we relate to the world.

Sartre is largely building on Hegel and Kierkegaard (there are strong reasons to believe he had read both). And the idea he's proposing is that rather than having a set pattern of life like a giraffe, we have the power to choose how we set our lives. This is what he means by "essence" and the suggestion that humans are in a unique position to pick their essence.

I will try to make that more practical.

A squirrel does not have a choice in figuring out how to live squirrely. It does not (as far as I can tell) ever have to decide "well, what does it mean to be a squirrel? what are the interests that squirrels ought to have? how well am I doing in achieving squirrelish excellence?" All of these question are truncated in the immediate mission to collect and bury nuts.

Conversely, humans do have a choice about their vision of ideal humanity. Thus, we can debate whether it makes sense to be monogamous and form marriages, to be heterosexual, to be obese or at an "ideal weight," to pursue higher goods and intellectual achievements, to pursue justice. In other words, I could decide my ideal life is just like the squirrels and try to live that out -- living in a tree, hopping around, collecting nuts, eating them raw with my teeth. Both other squirrels and other humans might find it odd, but it's within my power to try to choose my essence.

This is not to say that there cannot be answer, but in part that we have a further task of rightly picking that answer (it also does not rule out that there is no answer). (The squirrelish life doesn't seem well suited to us, because we don't have teeth that regenerate, there aren't tree holes the right size for us, etc. etc.)

tl;dr - when Sartre says we pick our "essence", we can reword that as him believing we have a choice in selecting what we believe our essence to be. And in the absence of this choice, we don't have an essence that we know about ourselves.

The above serves as an answer to your question. You can source a lot of it to Existenialism is a Humanism, but you can find a much more robust and difficult to read account that handles objections better in Being and Nothingness. The latter account is largely parallel to Hegel's but skeptical in places where Hegel is hopeful about our capacity for really comprehending things.

Regarding question 2, I think Sartre is using the term in a way that's different from Aristotle and by reason of the history of the term doesn't find himself to be committed to a contradiction. In large part, this is because the Hegelian frame emphasizes that we are the ones putting categories that we decide into the world.

Regarding questions 3 and 4, Sartre's argument (granting it the most leeway) would apply to creatures who create and manage their own concepts of world. This needn't just be humans, but it would not apply to the sort of animals and plants that don't frame and dice their world according to their own concepts. To use, Heidegger's language, many animals are world-poor. Sticking with our squirrel, he doesn't ever seem to contemplate whether life is all about nuts and chasing female squirrels. That's just life, so his essence is set. (at least as far as I can perceive). If there's a being that asks, "what am I here for?" and can make choices about that, then the "existence precedes essence" dictum would apply.

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According to Sartre, humans are the only beings that don't have an essence

It is an imprecise, maybe wrong statement, Sartre never said that. For Sartre, humans are devoid of (contact with) Being, not of essence.

Being (= the being-in-itself) and Consciousness (= the being-for-itself) can never touch/affect each other, because the former is the complete fullness while the latter is the exact nihil. A man can feel Being in the form of the "phenomenon of Being" which is nausea, but Being itself is never given clean because consciousness is what eludes it by definition. We can only see through the lens of our pre-reflective project of being (how to become in-for-itself), and through that lens Being is represented by our accidence here, or facticity. In every situation and every moment, we are always here for something, but we are deserted here.

Essence is the quality of reflective consciousness; actually, essence is Ego in wide sense. It starts where Cartesian cogito begins. My essence is my knowledge/awareness of myself. For Sartre (as it was for Hegel), knowledge is always in the past. Thus, my present essence is just my immediate past. It can never influence me because while I contemplate it I project pre-reflectively further to future; that is, I make myself existing or dynamic. Existence always precedes essence a step ahead.

So, pure Being is never given to a man, but his essence is always given to him (as outdated and inert self).

But past is a mode of being-in-itself (like future is a mode of being-for-itself), and therefore despite I'm aware of my essence or Ego, it is contaminated with Being. Or, rather, I can see the Being in that above facticity. My essence is that facticity seen from the "side" of my preceding intentions rather than from the "side" of one's objective desertion here.

If I'm a card gambler and I've vowed myself not to play anymore, and I'm standing at the card table (itching already) then my essence or self is that dead/helpless still "my" and "making me" decision to quit the risky habit; and my objective position is the feeling of happening in this reality "by chance", entangled with the necessity to decide from scratch. And I feel - at the same time - both obliged to decide again (which produces Anxiety to re-do my self) and facticity (which produces Nausea due to the alien settings: cards and table do not need me, nor they can advise me, they just are).

This how I understand Sartre (maybe incorrectly). It then turns out that human essence is a psychologic, ontic category whereas Being is an ontologic category. Human essence is one of the ways being-in-itself can appear to me, but that being itself (pure) cannot be caught.

Note also that from Sartre's phenomenologic ontology point of view things (other than human, me) do not have essence. Sartre does not oppose phenomenon to essence like older philosophy did. There's nothing sensible "behind" a phenomenon, no any mystery in it. Except pure being. Only humans have "essence" - which is opposite to the citation put in the question.

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