Happy Mortal

This life, well-lived.

What is a Human Being?

What is a human being?

Let me start by saying that I don’t know. You might think that this lack of knowledge would disqualify me from pursuing this line of questioning, but you would be wrong. After all, I am a human being. Or, to say it another way, since I am the being in question, there is no one more qualified to ask.Central Park Math

This is the genius of Heidegger’s analytic. First, ontology can only ever really be the phenomenology of ontology. And second, Dasein is always and forever my own.

To put still another way, I am/you are/Dasein is the only one who can formulate the question concerning the nature of being.

So, I put it to you again–what is a human being?

The question of being is perhaps a silly question. Or maybe I just feel silly posing it. I don’t know.

What I do know is that the question is something I want to work towards, or circle around–or at least sit on for a while.

Depending on your -ology of choice (no pun intended), being functions quite differently. Is it an empty signifier? A collection of attributes? Is it fundamental laws of nature?

Traditional philosophy tried to save us from the impossibility of this question by positing a Real behind/beyond the real. Metaphysics.

Essentially, thinkers concerned themselves with the nature of stuff. The what. But what about the that? What about the fact that we exist? What is that?

Heidegger took it one step further, asking a terribly curious question: what is is? Believe it or not, this simple play on words changed everything. It was Nietzsche who proclaimed the end of metaphysics; but it was Heidegger, less than a century later, who brought it about with his silly double verbing. Silly or not, it seems that contemporary philosophy has not yet dealt with the end of metaphysics.

Contemporary thinkers have tended to return to classical ideas looking to erect a scaffolding of being somewhere exterior to the human in question. Badiou has taken up refuge in the analogy of set theory. Zizek in dialectical materialism. Baudrillard in the desert of the hyperreal. Brilliant as their thought is, I think that we have to come to it after we have dealt with Heidegger and his folly.

If we are to move forward, or circle, or sit on the question of being, it begins (as Heidegger suggests in Being and Time) with the one who is concerned with the question. Furthermore, taking into account the mine-ness of Dasien, the question of being belongs to you in the same way it belongs to me.

Putting it another way, the question of being qua being begins with the question of human being.

As we will be approaching this question–at least in part–through language, one caution. When we try to explain the existence of something, we “naturally” try to put it into words. There is a tendency then to confuse the rules of grammar with the way of being.

Ontology…really, all the -ologies have fractured our perception of the world in an effort suture names and patterns to our experience. And if it’s the wonder of experience (or the anxiety of it) that draws us to the question, we should be leery of approaches that break wonder into bits just for the sake of putting it into appropriate categories.

As I close I want to invite all of you to share some of the mine-ness of your being. Don’t bother getting too deep into the question. I’d love to hear your first thoughts and impressions on the question. The more nonsensical the better. I don’t have this all scripted out yet. It’s a little daunting to call this a first installment, or a series of blogs, but I suppose it’s something like that.

I leave you with a quote from Alan Watts:

“I cannot formulate the question that is my wonder…as soon as I open my mouth I find I’m talking nonsense…”


  1. I’ve been stumped on this blog for a whole day. I don’t know what to say about what a human being is. Any answer I can think of is either trite or has to do with the potential pitfalls of answering the question.

    But, by way of trying to add to the conversation I will share one thought. Heidegger had a healthy skepticism of “philosophical problems,” the issues that philosophers debated ad nauseum, the things that kept them in business. In his opinion, these were silly pseudo-problems. Perhaps one important consideration to the question of human being is to try and chisel out a compelling question from the block made up of both disciplinary filigree and authentic concern.

  2. Language is a bitch. For instance, can I even say “language is a bitch” without entering in to the misogynistic lexicon of American idiom? Probably not. So I take it back. Language isn’t a bitch.

    What I hear from your take on Heidegger is that a certain amount of skepticism is healthy when dealing with philosophers, because the ongoing discussion of philosophical problems keeps them in a job, i.e. the philosophical problems may not really be problems that average folk are actually concerned with.

    This is one of the reasons that the question of human being seems like such a unique problem. It’s decidedly unphilosophical. It’s not about ideas, it’s about something closer to us than even language can get–because it’s about us.

    And, if I can editorialize for a second, human beings are hopelessly unphilosophic when they are at their best.

    What does that mean? I don’t know. It would take a certain amount of effort to root around through the meaning of terms like human, and best, and when…

    In a way, I’d like to skip all that…I mean can’t, I’m enframed by language, but I’d like to skip it. I guess what I’m going on about, and the reason that I finally allowed myself to write about something so passe, is that being is decidedly unphilosophic.

    This pulls up a lot of history between us, but how on earth do you talk about something that by its very nature is pre-lexical? Something that defies the boundary that the letters and concepts of s-o-m-e-t-h-i-n-g puts on it?

    To be cheeky, and to try to wrap this up, I’ll say simply that we are what we question after. And I have a hunch that if we push a little at the bounds of language and culture, we just might find ourselves a little further off the map than we’ve been before.

  3. I can’t help but be struck by references you make in this post as you flesh out the question. You start out by asking “What is a human being?” which is a pretty broad and inviting question. Then you quickly fall into references to philosophers and ideas that seem a bit insular. I don’t know how I would answer your question, but I do know that if I’m looking for clues as to the essence of a human being, a philosopher is the last person I would ask. I’d probably start with a neuroscientist. But perhaps you don’t mean to ask such a broad question. Are you trying to get at something more specific?

  4. I like the question about specificity. Mostly because it’s a hard one for me to answer. First, let me say that I do mean to ask a broad question. And I hope that as we talk, it gets broader.

    No, I’m not looking for a specific answer in the sense of a tight and exclusive definition, as I said, I’m leery of that.

    Yes, I’m drawn to something more (specific) fleshy than the answers that philosophers have typically generated. Yet, I’m caught in the conundrum that faces social creatures. To share our experiences we have to engage in language.

    The reason I bring up Heidegger is that he breaks the tradition to make room for human being.

    I’m curious about the final lines in your comment. It brings up notions of authority for me. It also highlights the fact that we seek out an exchange of ideas/information/perspective when we question after the essence of something.

    And now you’ve put me on to a couple more questions. Whom do we put into the position of authority regarding the question of human being?

    Against what do we judge or evaluate the information we receive from authorities regarding the mine-ness of our being?

  5. Authority is an interesting issue here. When it comes down to it I don’t know if I would necessarily put anyone in the position of authority regarding the question of human being. The question has too may facets. The reason I said I’d start with a neuroscientist is that when it comes to an issue like this I prefer not to begin in the realm of speculation. I know there are some cold hard facts to be known about our physicality–our brains, how they function, why we humans process things the way we do, and how that effects the way we perceive ourselves and others. I’m not saying all the answers are in this realm, either. I’m just saying some things we have a tendency to speculate about have actual scientific explanations, and I’d rather start there and move on.

  6. This brings me back to one of the books I read when I was a kid. The Mind’s I.

    The prologue asked the question: Are you a mind, or a brain?

    I must confess, I’m not partial to either distinction. I don’t feel like I am a brain, or a mind. Though both govern my experience to a certain extent, I am not either one. And they are certainly not the only things that govern us. But governance aside, I want to hear more from you about speculation.

    Mostly, because I’m tempted to charge headlong into speculation to begin to make some sort of sense of all of this…

  7. I really resonate with what pops says about the things that make life meaningful. Check it out here.