Existentialism as a philosophy, albeit obscure in the academic world after the 70s, remains a center piece to the young adult mindset up to this day — after all, no one says “I’m having a Post-Structural crisis” when feeling antsy. And thus “Existence”, together with “Being”, are still frequent terms in the languages of millennial bloggers, influencers, and self-care advocateurs, often quite interchangeably. So one may ask, is there a difference between the two?
To answer this, let us flash back a few decades, to when Existentialism was at its height. The term “Existentialism” was coined by the French catholic philosopher Gabriel Marcel in the 1940s.¹ Among the famous “Existential” philosophers that we know of, only Sartre actually embraced the term. His contemporaries Camus and Heidegger rejected it quite vehemently, while Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, often considered the founding fathers of this school of philosophy, couldn’t have heard of it, as they lived in the previous century.
The difference between “Existence” and “Being”, in my opinion, lies in the theoretical distinction between Sartre, who was a self-identified Existentialist, and Heidegger, who was not. I single out these two because they have been the most comprehensive in defining their concepts, among all the big names.
According to he himself, the thoughts of Sartre can be summarized into one sentence: Existence precedes Essence.² This essentially means, we are first and foremost, our existence, before any meanings and identities imposed by others and the society. Here “our existence” doesn’t even mean “we are human beings”, or even less so “we are the wonderful human beings that we are”, but simply “we are je-ne-se-quoi, whatever the whatever we are.”
As a somewhat off-topic, here I want to mention Sartre’s other famous quote: Hell is Other People. Others, intentionally or not, impose “essence” on us all the time. (Think about patriotism, family value, or simply just expectations.) We are fundamentally alien to each other’s valuation of choices, and we are, at the end of the day, alone, and burdened with other people’s essence. (This doesn’t mean we should flat out reject all the values of others, but rather, make discernment with authenticity.)
On top of this existence, we are free to choose our essence, or rather, whatever our identities, whatever our actions, are seen as outcomes of our choices, and our choices only. There is simply no room to blame it on any outside force, since we, at any given point, always have a choice. (Reminds one of the “Extreme Ownership” taught by the Navy Seals, innit?)
Heidegger, the one who inspired Sartre in the first place, did not agree with the latter’s famous statement Existence precedes Essence. He claimed that “the reversal of a metaphysical statement remains a metaphysical statement”, which, in my opinion, means that, by using the word “precedes”, Sartre was presuming that one always happens before the other, and by presuming this, or presuming anything at all, it is automatically “essence”. (Every time I stumble across this, I am in awe of Heidegger’s witticism. It would be Germany 1:0 France to me. We can agree to disagree.)
So, how does Heidegger see it? The term Being (German: Dasein), as thoroughly define in his very difficult and somehow still fun to read magnum opus On Being and Time, which I haven’t finished in two years, consists of the following properties:³
- Facticity: the property that we are invariably born with some conditions that we, like it or not, cannot choose or change. Quoting my favorite Spengler “I’d rather be born in the time of Mozart.” There are many aspects of this facticity in our lives that surely require no elaboration. (Think about facticity as the “initial condition” of a differential equation.)
- Fallenness: the property that at any given time, we might lose our existence and find ourselves engaging in mundane tasks that we don’t know why. Imaging you have always been asleep until now, and you wake up to… to what? To finding yourself sitting in front of your office desk, with an Excel spreadsheet opened on your screen, secretly looking at your phone with a strange article on Medium, perhaps. This fallenness is the one thing that bars us from authenticity (more about that later), just like our ancestors falling from grace, metaphorically at least. (Again, think about fallenness as the “boundary condition” of a differential equation.)
- Existentiality: the property that no matter what, a Being always has conscious choices to make, provided that he/she reflects upon them. The anticipation of impending death frees us from the obligation of fallenness, of mundane tasks, and allows us to truly reflect on ourselves, to embrace authenticity. (Now, I can’t think of a differential equation analogy, maybe this is why we ourselves are NOT differential equations.)
As we can see “clearly” (see my air quotes?) here, Heidegger’s Being is not just the existence itself, but also its “task”, at any given point. Being = Existence + Task. Take a hammer for example. To Sartre, the hammer is first and foremost whatever-it-is, then a tool that can hit nails, which is imposed by external expectations. To Heidegger, the hammer IS that it can hit nails.
This doesn’t mean we have to be defined by our labels the same way the hammer gets defined by its hammer-ness. (As of this moment, we might as well find ourselves a hammer performing the task of a garden hose.) Being comes with its task, but the authentic task remains for ourselves to discover. And we should do whatever we can, to be authentic — on this, all the existential philosophers that existed would agree.