“In fact, to possess spatio-temporal properties is the same as to exist.” (John Wild (2013-07-25). The Challenge of Existentialism (Kindle Locations 482-483). New Albany. Kindle Edition.)
This was John Wild’s description of the view of atomistic essentialism stemming from David Hume. In popular imagination this passed for empiricism or the scientific world view. Everything got reduced to physical existence. I see this a lot in online pronouncements of atheists. I am sure many atheists are more sophisticated than this. But idea that anything beyond physical existence is imaginary still seems obvious to some people.
Existentialism set itself over against essentialism. Existence is not the same as essence. It is not the same as possessing spatio-temporal properties. Soren Kierkegaard and the philosophers who followed his lead set about describing what existence is really like to those of us who participate in it. They described a world far richer than that of physical science or speculative, abstract philosophy. They refused to regard the world as merely a collection of objects that are there. Such a view ignores the self, which is not a fixed object, but a free person. Existentialists sought to understand the world of values and personal choices.
They also sought to understand the world of time. Physics takes time into account as a fourth dimension. But we do not experience the world as abstract dimensions. We find ourselves caught up in the flux of time so that change and duration sweep us away. We cannot look at time from any fixed position. Thus the real world is not a world of distinct objects spread out in time and space. Rather, it is a world of personal change and involvement. The existentialists analysed this world with great perception.
Wild saw existentialism as an extremely valuable reaction against the essentialism of both systematic idealists, like Hegel, and empiricists, like Hume. But as a reaction, existentialism lacked balance. He thought existentialism needed to include a more objective way of knowing so as to avoid the irrational bias that a purely subjective approach might bring. Existentialists rightly see the world from the standpoint of the individual person. They have given us a way of judging totalitarian ideologies as incompatible with human freedom (Wild wrote at the height of the Cold War). But they haven’t given us an alternative.
Wild believed there was a way to preserve the deep insights of existentialism without descending into isolated irrationalism. He spends the last part of The Challenge of Existentialism trying to keep the appeal of existentialism while bringing it into a coherent synthesis with a kind of realism (realism as the philosophical opposite of idealism).
The criticism of essentialism is important. You can’t really see the essence of something from the outside. This gets forgotten in human communication. If I try to tell you what you should be based on your outer qualities (sex, background, age, etc.), you are quite right to say that I don’t get you. I am only looking at you from the standpoint of my existence. Things might look quite different if I could see you from the standpoint of your existence.
Yet there must be some commonality and communication so that we are not each isolated in our own standpoint where no one else can understand us at all. So after you tell me to shut up and mind my own business, is there a way for us to access a common human standpoint and work together? This is the issue at stake, it seems to me, in essentialism vs existentialism.