Being vs. Doing

“Go out there and be someone.”  This is a line you often hear from parents, teachers, and other peers.  But what does it mean?  People usually mean that you must achieve something in your life and that your very being is at stake if you don’t achieve that goal.  Going with philosophy, here’s a list of what people are after:

  • Confucius says we should aim to become the Chun-Tzu (the superior man), otherwise we’ll be the hsiao-jen (the vulgar man).
  • Socrates says we should examine our lives because “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
  • Aristotle says we should achieve eudaimonia, otherwise we’re living the life of cattle.
  • Kant says we should strive to become wise by using reason, because we are essentially rational creatures, otherwise we aren’t being rational.
  • Marx says we should get rid of our alienated lives and achieve a species-life.
  • Nietzsche aims for the Übermensch (the Overman), otherwise you are the untermensch (the Underman).
  • Heidegger wants us to focus on the fact of our Dasein (our “being-there”), otherwise you’re being inauthentic.

The list could go one but one thing’s for certain, you aren’t your full self, your true self, unless you’ve achieved what these philosophers above have recommended.  You aren’t fully human, perhaps if you don’t achieve this state of being, then you haven’t reached your full potential.  You are basically living a life where life is drifting by, you are the ultimate couch potato, your are the person who has “less being” than someone who’s acheived “more being.”  So live out your life and reach your full potential, which is to “be all you can be.”

However, the question often comes back: how you start living a life with full being?  Most of these philosophers reply by saying that you have start doing something, either some activity or something where you are engaged in life.  By doing that, you are fully aware of your being.  But notice that advice, you must be doing something.  Thus, in order to be, you must first do.

Thus, the advice we often hear is “why don’t you do something with your life?”  The focus, here, is on the actions, the activities of your life and that is what your focus should be.  However, most of the philosophers who focus on your doings in life ignore or even disregard the being.  Examples include:

  • The Buddha said that in order to achieve Englightenment, one must follow (in other words, do) the Eightfold Path.
  • The Hedonists said that we must try to gain as much pleasure as we can.  Thus, your actions must focus on pleasure.
  • The Cynics said that we must get away from society as much as we can.
  • The Empiricists said that in order to gain knowledge, we must experience the world.  In other words, our actions in life gains us knowledge.
  • The Utilitarians focus on acting to promote the most amount of utility to the most.
  • Kierkegaard has said “what am I to do?” rather than what kind of life should I be.
  • The pragmatists focus on the pragmatic life which includes acting and getting engaged in the world.
  • Sartre has said that who you are is exactly what you do.  Your choices (which means your actions) defines who you are.

These “doing-oriented” philosophers focus on the activities which defines who you are.  Thus, the primary thing is to act in the world.  It’s only after that, you’ll figure out who you are.  But the question that is often replied back is what actions should I do?  What actions can I do?  Of the doings in my life, which “doing” defines me?  In other words, what activity brings out my most full potential?  In order to answer this question, one must first figure out who one is.  In other words, what type of person are you to be.  Thus, we must figure out who you are first in order to see what you can and should do.

But we’re back to the beginning.  Now, these philosophers in the past bring in both the being and the doing of our lives.  However, they focus or emphasize on either being or doing.  The “being people” say that we must first figure out who we are first, only then, can we figure out what to do.  The “doing people” say that we are first thrown into the world and we just simply act out.  After we act in the world, it’s only then that we can figure out what our being is.

Many questions can come out from this: is being first, or is doing first?  Does it matter?  Can we get along in the world by ignoring the other?  This may go back to the old age question of rationalism and empiricism but I think it comes down to something more fundamentally: being vs. doing.

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
This entry was posted in Empiricism, Epistemology, Paper Topic, Rationalism. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Being vs. Doing

  1. Jules says:

    My very being is at stake…if I don’t see Star Trek.

  2. thekillerj says:

    Sartre resonates the most with me on this topic. I feel that what I do defines my being. I define myself by what I do: husband, psychotherapist, jiu-jitsu player, and Killer J. Seriously though, awesome post. This is a short response, but I had to think quite a bit to figure out which philosopher I feel is in tune with my belief on this. The Empiricists were a close second.

  3. Pingback: Being vs. Doing Again: Application in Ethics « Shaun Miller’s Weblog

  4. Pingback: What I’ve Learned this Past Year — 2009 Edition « Shaun Miller’s Weblog

  5. julzay bazey says:

    I am confused. Please clarify being vs. doing. Is this the same with essence precedes existence vs. existence precedes essence, or being vs. becoming, or simply essence vs. existence?

    • shaunmiller says:

      I think one could interpret this in various fashion. One could certainly say that this is the same as existence precedes essence or essence preceding existence. One could also interpret this as being vs. becoming. What I wanted to do is focus on how to live one’s life? Do you start by acting, by doing things so that you can figure out who you are? Or do you start out by figuring out how you are, and then after you act that out?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s