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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