This week’s featured archive: The distinctive questioning being

As human beings we are not alone in resolutely engaging with the world.  A variety of animals, in the sea and on land, interact recursively with their environment using aspects of their environment to manipulate other aspects. Chimpanzees, our closest living relatives, sharpen long stakes in order to hunt other primates for meat. Bottlenose dolphins carry marine sponges in their beaks to stir ocean-bottom sand and uncover prey. Wild gorillas select branches as sticks to test water depth. Humans have in fact learned from animals, methods and resources that they have rationalised as tools for use.

Only the human being however is the questioning being. The human engages with its environment in similar fashion to animals but, critical of its success or the success of others, will adapt its tools and amend its strategies. It can ask ‘Why does this no longer work as it did?’ ‘What is the secret of your success?’ Uniquely perhaps, we evaluate through questioning, ‘how best to proceed?’

The questioning being interrogates the world it is tethered to

The questioning being interrogates the world it is tethered to

The human being comports itself towards its existence, for existence is that which is an issue for it[1]. The world of things is an extension of me, and concernfully interrogated whether tacitly or explicitly, in such a way that its entities emerge from the background of what is as ‘ready-to-hand’ for me.

As Heidegger has shown most notably, our questions are not merely questions of practicality. When the questioning being investigates its existence it finds that it has a purposive capacity. It is directed towards the world in a functional way and undertakes extended projects thereby. This living towards future realisation in collaboration with others is a human capacity for purpose of which the questioning being is uniquely aware. Of course a pack of wolves may have a sense of common purpose and the individual’s role within it and ants in their complex society may suggest an instinctual purposeful collaboration.

This unique human awareness of purposiveness, does not presuppose that the questioning being’s ontological character, or existence awareness, is necessarily theoretically explicit[2]. The questioning being understands itself with singular focus but this particular ‘question of existence’, ‘never gets straightened out except through existing itself’[3].

As the questioning being interrogates its purposive capacity it asks, ‘what it this for?’ ‘What is the ultimate point of knowing how to do things?’, ‘Is there value in learning for its own sake?’ Ultimately this interrogation of the human purposive capacity discloses a desire for significance; ‘What significance does this purpose lend to my life?’ For humans successful manipulation of the world is not enough… this success must matter. ‘I do this for the children, for the money, for the party, for revenge, for a better future, for God, for my community’ and so on.

Be this as it may, the questioning being’s desire for significance is not solely derivative of purposefulness; the desire for significance, like the human capacity for purpose is a primitive too. This never-completed, never-consummated ‘self’-comprehension as purposive and desirous of significance consumes human living and encrypts much of human history. Consequently, when the questioning being interrogates its desire for significance it asks ‘Am I just another thing that functions?‘, ‘I exist but how then should I live?’, ‘How am I to become more than what I do?’. Even then purposiveness is present and the questioning being asks, ‘What is all this meaning for?’

My contention in this blog consequently is that the human being is uniquely and essentially the questioning being and the distinguishing feature of its identity is the fact of, and the manner of, this purposive and concernful questioning. A human person is essentially a human-animal-endowed-with-the-capacity-to-question-being; embodiment, intersubjectivity, intentionality and embededness in the world are necessary but not sufficient features of human identity therefore. Only the desire for significance and capacity for purpose are sufficient descriptors of what is essential to identity, that which renders humans distinct from other animals and renders every human singular. These descriptors are however themselves interrogated for the questioning being is prompted to transcend, and so to believe that it can transcend that which it discloses in interrogation as it finds a means to proceed with life. One profound and recurring question that arises in the questioning being is ‘Who am I?

[1] Heidegger, M. Being and Time, 2006, Malden, Blackwell, 2006, §9, 67

[2] Heidegger, ibid, §4, 32

[3] Ibid, §4, 33


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