DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-N020-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 20, 2019, from

3. Being-in-the-world

Existentialists are deeply suspicious of the high-level, abstract theorizing about humans found in traditional philosophy and in the sciences. In their view, the concern with subsuming all particulars under concepts and building systems tends to conceal crucial features of our lives as individuals. For this reason, existentialists generally start out from a description of ourselves as agents in everyday contexts, prior to reflection and theorizing. These descriptions reveal that it is part of our ‘facticity’ that we are generally caught up in the midst of things, involved with others in trying to accomplish specific goals, and affected by moods and commitments that influence our perception and thoughts. Furthermore, we are embodied beings who encounter the world only from the standpoint of a particular bodily orientation that gives us a set on things: ‘I am my body’ Marcel wrote, and this theme of embodiment became central to the thought of Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty. We are also bound up with contexts of equipment in practical situations where we are trying to accomplish certain goals. Finally, as social beings, we always find ourselves embedded in a particular cultural and historical milieu that conditions our outlook and determines our basic orientation toward the world. To say that we are ‘factical’ beings is to say that we are always ‘being-in-a-situation’, where our being as selves is inseparable from a shared, meaningful life-world.

If we are always embedded in a situation, then all inquiry must start out from an ‘insider’s perspective’ on things, that is, from a description of the world as it appears to us – to beings who are participants in our forms of life, with our unique sort of bodily set, feelings and modes of perception. We have no choice but to begin from where we stand in the thick of our actual lives, with our local attachments and particular cares and concerns. But this means that there is no way to achieve the sort of global ‘God’s-eye view’ on ourselves and our world philosophers have sought ever since Plato. Existentialists are critical of the philosophical ideal of achieving a totally detached, disinterested, disengaged ‘view from nowhere’ that will provide us with completely objective knowledge. The attempt to step back from our ordinary concerns in order to achieve a totally detached and dispassionate standpoint – the stance Marcel calls ‘desertion’ and Merleau-Ponty calls ‘high-altitude thinking’ – will always give us a distorted view of the world, because it bleaches out our normal sense of the significance and worth of the things we encounter around us. In order to be able to gain an insight into the way reality presents itself to us at the most basic level, then, we need to start from a description of what Heidegger calls our ‘average everydayness’, our ordinary, familiar ways of being absorbed in practical affairs.

The idea that our being-in-a-situation or being-in-the-world is fundamental and inescapable gives the existentialists a way of criticizing the idea, central to philosophy since Descartes, that we are at the most basic level minds receiving sensory inputs and processing information. Sartre, for example, rejects the idea that the self can be thought of as a ‘thinking substance’ or self-encapsulated ‘field of consciousness’ distinct from the world. In my pre-reflective activities, Sartre says, I encounter myself not as a bundle of beliefs and desires in a mental container, but as being ‘out there’ with the things I am concerned about. When I am chasing a bus, I encounter my self as a ‘running-toward-the-bus’. My being is found not in my head, but with the bus. Sartre thinks that this follows from Husserl’s view that consciousness is always ‘intentional,’ always directed towards entities in the world (see Intentionality). If Husserl is right, according to Sartre, then the ‘I’ is not an object, not a ‘something’, but is instead sheer intentional activity directed towards things in the world. The totality of my intentional acts defines me; there is no residue of ‘substantial thinghood’ distinct from my acts.

The existentialist conception of our irreducible being-in-a-situation calls into question some of the dualisms that have dominated so much of Western thought. First, existentialists deny the romantic distinction between an outer self – what we do in the world – and an inner, ‘true’ self that embodies our genuine nature. If we just are what we do, as existentialists contend, then there is no basis for positing a substantive ‘real me’ distinct from the parts I play and the things I do. Second, the account of the primacy of being-in-the-world tends to undermine the traditional subject-object model of our epistemological situation. Existentialists suggest that the assumption that humans are, at the most basic level, subjects of experience trying to formulate beliefs about objects on the basis of their inner representations, distorts our situation. If it is true that we are initially and most basically already out there with things in the world, then there must be something wrong with traditional epistemological puzzles about how a knowing subject can ‘transcend’ its veil of ideas to gain knowledge of objects in the external world. Finally, the existentialist picture of our basic situation as always bound up with a practical life-world seems to raise questions about the traditional fact–value distinction. Existentialists hold that we always encounter the everyday life-world as a context of equipment bound up with our aims as agents in the world. If the things we encounter are initially and most basically functional entities tied up with our purposive activities, however, then it is an illusion to think that what is given ‘at first’ is a collection of brute objects we subsequently invest with subjective values. In our everyday lives, fact and value are inseparable.

In general, existentialists hold that traditional dualisms arise only when we try to adopt a cool, detached, theoretical stance towards things. But since such a stance is derivative from and parasitic on a more basic way of being in which we are inseparably bound up with things in practical contexts, it cannot be regarded as providing us with a privileged insight into the way things really are.

Citing this article:
Guignon, Charles B.. Being-in-the-world. Existentialism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N020-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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