What does it mean to be human?

What does it mean to be a human? What is being? What is the difference between the being of humans and the being of non-humans?

These are all important and difficult to answer questions. Martin Heidegger was one philosopher who took it upon himself to attempt to answer some of these questions. His aim was to work out the general meaning of being and to do so concretely. Did he succeed? Some would say yes, others no. In this post, I’d like to sketch out a part of his answer, focusing on the the last question: the difference between the being of humans and the being of non-human animals i.e. the ontological difference.

The distinction between being and beings is there, latent in [humans] and [their] existence, even if not in explicit awareness. The distinction is there; that is to say, it has the mode of being of [humans]: it belongs to existence. Existence means, as it were, “to be in the performance of this distinction.” Only a soul that can make this distinction has the aptitude, going beyond the animal’s soul, to become the soul of a human being…we call the distinction between being and beings, when it is carried out explicitly, the ontological difference.

I’d like to concentrate on the part I made bold. This is crucial to his definition of what it means to be a human being[Dasein]. Essentially, humans comport themselves toward their own being. Another way of putting this awkward phrase is that humans take a stand on their own being. This is what “being in the performance of [the ontological difference]” means. Through the particular ways in which humans act within the world, we make this ontological difference a part of our existential mode of being. This means we always perceive/conceive and act in the world in terms of the difference between being and beings, between the the ontological being of ourselves and the entities which make up the physical world. There is something-it-is-like to be us, and that something has to do with how we already pre-ontologically make a distinction between being and beings.

Whether or not you think of all this is useless metaphysical mumbo-jumbo or an historical attempt to answer one of the most important questions in philosophy is up to you, but hopefully I made it clear that Heidegger was at least an original thinker.

edit: I have updated the original post to fix the inconsistencies pointed out by Roman.

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14 Comments

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14 responses to “What does it mean to be human?

  1. Everything exists, Not just humans. We are not some how elevated, unless you want to make the “soul” construct.

  2. You don’t need to be “elevated” to be different. Does not having the capacity for language, self-reflection, and culture make us different from just about every animal known to man? Different doesn’t mean better, but to deny that there is something special to humans is ludicrous. As far as we know humans are the only creatures that have an ontological stand on their being, because to some extent this requires language.

  3. Nice post. Just a couple of comments:

    1. I don’t think anyone, Heidegger included, would say that he succeeded in working out the meaning of being. He planned to do this in the part of Being and Time that he never published.

    2. The ontological difference is the difference between beings, and the being of beings (i.e., being as such), not the being of human beings.

    3. The being of beings, roughly, is the meaningfulness that beings have. Beings are meaningful, for Heidegger, through their relations to us. These relations depend, in turn, on our activities. So in acting in the world, we necessarily contribute to the meaning that that beings have for us. So, the beings are there for us to interact with, but the being of beings (their meaning) appears to us in those interactions. Acting, then, involves an implicit awareness and constitution of the relation between beings and their being.

  4. Roman, I think the ontological difference is definitely wrapped up in what it means to be a human. In Basic Problems of Phen., Heidegger says:

    “This explicit accomplishment[the distinction] and the development of the ontological difference is therefore also, since it is founded on the Dasein’s existence, not arbitrary and incidental but a basic comportment of the Dasein in which ontology, that is, philosophy, constitutes itself as a science.”

  5. Hi Gary, sure, the ontological difference is wrapped up in what it means to be human. But in your post you said that “the ontological difference is the difference between the being of humans and beings in general.” That can’t be right, because of both of the quotes you’ve cited. First, from the post: “we call the distinction between being and beings, when it is carried out explicitly, the ontological difference.” So it’s the distinction between being (not the being of humans, but just being) and beings (i.e., entities, including human beings). Now, look at the quote you just gave: it says that the ontological difference is “founded on Dasein’s existence.” Right. Dasein’s existence is the foundation of the difference between being and beings, for the simple reason that it is only through Dasein’s comportment that this difference can appear.

    So this means that the ontological difference is definitely wrapped up in what it means to be human–if not for human beings, the difference wouldn’t exist. I was just making the simple point that the being of human beings is not one of the terms in the difference. It is being in general, or being as such. If human beings did not exist, there would be no ontological difference, but this is only because human beings are the (only) beings through which the ontological difference becomes manifest.

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  9. To be human means in Ray Bradbury’s words to be “Too Soon from the Cave, Too Far from the Stars…” It means to be a ghost in the machine. It means to be aware of the own mortality. And it means to write love songs that combine the deepest drives with the highest culture:

    Every night’s a lonely night since you went away
    But you come back to haunt my memory
    I lie awake and think of you and how it used to be
    Oh my love don’t give up on me.

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  11. Evan

    I know this seems a bit stupid but i came across this as I was researching what it means to be human on account of the fact my grade 12 philosophy class is having a debate on whether or not being human is a mental, or physical concept. I am definitely not a prize philo. student so to speak, which is why i was asking if anyone could make this exert a bit clearer for me. And feel free to give me tips on how I can improve my reading and writing of philosophy.

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