A CRITICAL ANALYSIS OF PLATO’S AND SARTRE’S VIEWS ON EXISTENCE
In order to understand the meaning of existence in relation to philosophy, we need to discuss its ordinary meaning and the various levels of existence. The Chambers Concise Dictionary (1992, 362) defines ‘exist’ as having an actual being; to live; to occur; to continue to live’ and it defines existence as ‘the state of existing or being’. In other words, the Dictionary does not make a distinction between existence and living. However, philosophically there is the view that existence is different from living. What then is the meaning of existence in philosophy? In order to answer this question we shall examine how philosophers have used the term in their various works. Our attention shall focus on Plato and Sartre.
Plato’s view on existence
Plato’s view on existence can be understood by discussing his theory of Forms. The theory of Forms or Ideas is about the existence of ideas in higher form of reality, the existence of a reality inhabited by forms of all things and concepts. Plato used example of objects such as table and rock and concepts like Beauty and Justice to illustrate the notion of Forms. Plato further describes Forms as a being possessed by concepts. For example, Virtue has different characters; but they all have a common nature which makes them virtuous.
For Plato, Forms are eternal and changeless, but there is a relationship between these eternal and changeless Forms and particular things we perceive by means of our senses in the world. These particular things change in accordance to the perceiver and the perceiver’s environment and this is why Plato thought that such things do not possess real existence. For Plato, only the Forms are real and they are the only existing things. Objects that we perceive can only be said to exist as long as they reflect or exemplify the Forms. The Forms are the essences of things. Plato believes that human existence has an essence and it is this essence that comes before our existence.
In the Phaedo, (http://www.ccs.neu.edu/course/com3118/Plato.html) Plato stated that the gods give men and women their names before they were born. This means that our identity was given to us before our birth. Plato’s view then has implications for human responsibility. Thus if we are not the authors of our identity, then it becomes problematic to hold us responsible for our actions. We shall see later how this view contrasts with that of Jean Paul Sartre. For Plato, our physical body is just a shell or a cover for the soul. What really matters to Plato is the soul, since the body is a vessel which protects the soul. In relation to existence, it is the soul that really exists and the body is a mere shadow of the soul.
However, many philosophers have criticized Plato’s theory of Forms. According to Russell (1972) Plato’s belief or ideas contains a number of errors. For Russell, Plato did not have the proper...