All About Care (Part 1)


The notion of care is central to my way to flourishing. I found it among my forays into philosophy while trying to understand more about just about everything. The notion of care or concern is central to Heidegger’s ontology of human Being. Like most people, I have struggled hard to get what Heidegger is saying and a clear sense of how he got there. Understanding what it is to exist as a human being is necessary and prior to fully appreciate what flourishing is. So before I get to care, a preface about Being. In my use of the term, flourishing, I not only mean possessing the minimal means to survive biologically and culturally, but also to have a consciousness of fully realizing the possibilities that human existence is and entails. Flourishing clearly is more than the mere possession of things or some psychological state, as is the measure of human well-being in our economically constituted world.

I have been helped in slowly understanding what Heidegger was talking about by reading a number of books about existentialism, and the philosophers and others who have come to be discussed under this rubric. Heidegger’s work on Being was a key stepping stone for Sartre and other existentialist scholars even though Heidegger refused to be labeled as such. I will attempt to recap Heidegger’s arrival at “care” as the innermost aspect of human Being in but a few words. Human beings exist in a different mode than all other beings, animate or not. Heidegger started with the point that humans, alone, reflect on and have questions about their existence in the world. He also deflected the claim that he was dealing, not with philosophy, but anthropology. I find the distinction mostly irrelevant, as I am about to enter into an anthropological thought experiment that will arrive at the same position about the centrality of care to human existence.

My imaginative story starts back about a couple of hundred thousand years ago when language first appeared. As I read the literature, it is still arguable which came first: language capability as a genetic mutation or social evolution. (See note at the bottom) It makes no different to my argument. What matters is only that Homo sapiens is unique among all living creatures in possessing a complex language. It seems essential to me that language evolved along with consciousness of the world that formed the context for existence. It is clear from early cave paintings and other symbolic representation of early humans that they were conscious of the world around them and saw meaning out there. That they represented the world in some form of medium signifies that they “cared” about their conscious milieu. The act of representation illustrates an intentional stance toward the world; world appeared in their consciousness as a collection of distinct beings that showed up through their actions—reducing them to paintings was one way to do this.

It is not a big step to move from painting to the spoken word. Like painting, it was an experiment using the intimate connection between the cognitive system and the body. Some human, intent upon the world and with some project “in mind,” uttered an intelligible sound and pointed to the object of her attention. Probably only after repeated tries did the other “get” the meaning of the object as something that was to be cared for, that is, acted upon in a particular way. Before spoken language, humans almost certainly communicated through gesture which, as a form of language, expressed intention. Spoken language, then, was an innovation of immense importance since the possibilities for conveying meaning or intention were almost without limit.

The world in which action was taking place was always prior to whatever means of communicating was to be used. The words most probably first only referred to objects in the world and later to the spatial orientation of and to descriptions of intended actions involving these objects. The concept of the self with feelings and other inner states likely developed only much later. Language grew as human culture became more sophisticated and took in more of the world in the domain of intention, that is, caring about different things and different actions. Human existence, or Being, was captured in language, not in the words, per se, but in the medium of language. That is perhaps why Heidegger called language the house of Being. Human existence was experienced in the context of care. The essence of being human was care. In the language of existentialism—existence precedes essence. Except for some obvious instincts, like fear, the meaning of human Being is not to be found in some inner essence as the Greeks and others thought. Humans create meaning in the process of existing which meaning has come down to us through the language we use to transform our perceptions into meaningful statements that others can relate to. As I will discuss in later posts, the direct concrete connection between language and Being has become diffuse and even hidden from us.

It is not hard to take this very simple model of the origin of our species and derive an ethic of responsibility from the raw meaning of care as intentionally interacting with the world. Intentionality entails picking out a specific set of phenomena and acting within their context. There is a pragmatic sense to this form of intentionality; the actor had a future state in mind and acts to bring it into the present. Heidegger described this characteristic as the fundamental temporality of Being, and deliberately named his classic work, Being and Time. If he or she was successful, then the language used in creating the action would take on a specific meaning related to the intention. If not, the actors would have to invent or use other language. As an aside, it seems to me that early humans were basically pragmatic as the formality of reason was unavailable to them.

The ontological context of care as the primal way of Being in the world through the medium of language became, over time, a set of explicit instructions about the tasks at hand. As specific situations became sedimented in the language, the actors would have developed a sort of proto-ethics. See a large four-legged thing that moves, kill it for food. Early people knew what a bison was as it appears in their painting, but they would not have had a specific word for it. Some implicit “should” is involved here, but “should” is a word that would have arose much later. Care and a sense of ethical responsibility evolved together.

The most important aspect here is that the overall context for the way human beings existed in the world was care. They had the capacity to provide meaning to distinct objects that rose out of their perceptions of the world in which they were totally immersed. That capacity was manifest in language, spoken or otherwise. What needs they had were fundamental to their biological survival. The idea of need, even without the word to describe it, might have emerged along the way when one person saw another using a primitive tool to take care of something and thought it would be a good idea if she also had one too.

Other living creatures also had the same sort of instinctual “needs” for survival. What made human beings unique was their ability to intentionally pick out and focus their attention and actions on particular objects. Given the humans’ large cognitive powers and particular musculoskeletal endowment, language followed. Humans departed from the rest of the world, from being merely a material or transcendental presence. In Heidegger’s words: “The being that exists is man. Man alone exists. Rocks are, but they do not exist. Trees are, but they do not exist. Horses are, but they do not exist. Angels are, but they do not exist. God is, but does not exist.” Existence is a special kind of “isness,” recognizable by care.

So what has happened to care as our basic understanding of what is it to exist as human beings? That’s the subject of anthropology and sociology, both of which subjects I have little formal background, but, as you all know, that has not stopped me from noodling about them. Does it matter? That’s a subject that is very important to consider in thinking about and acting toward flourishing. I will continue this thread in the next few posts.

Note: The capacity for complex language was a part of the hominid adaptation for a very long time. Differences in the use of complex language and its relative importance for the construction of social life as discernible in the paleoanthropological record have changed over the course of evolution, but the actual capacity for both the external and internal aspects of complex language cannot be used to make distinctions between species of the genus Homo. (L.A. Schepartz (1993) “Language And Modern Human Origins,” Yearbook of Physical Anthropology, 36:91-126.)