April 22, 2010

Being and Time (Part 1)


Martin Heidegger

Web of Being and beings

What is “being”? What does it mean to be? What does differentiate your being from nothing? What does mark off your being from an entity such as a rock? What is the meaning of being—not just your being in specific, but being in general? Ostensibly, these are simple questions that any sensible human should be able to answer. But are they really that simple and effortless to answer?

The preceding questions were painstakingly considered by German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) in his monumental work Being and Time. However, before I begin, I would like to make some prefatory comments. Given the way we are accustomed to think, understanding Heidegger’s thoughts, in my estimation, are quite exacting, although they may sometimes seem basic, or even ridiculous, at the first glance. Comprehending his thoughts entails copious toil at learning and re-familiarizing ourselves with “being”. None of the philosophers that were previously discussed here (i.e., Søren KierkegaardHerbert Marcuse, Jürgen Habermas, Michel Foucault, and Jean Baudrillard) wrestled with the ontological question of being in the remarkably unprecedented way Heidegger did.

In his Being and Time, Heidegger attempts to snap us out of our disposition to take “being” for granted, and he tries to awaken us to the question of the meaning of being. On the surface, being refers to anything that exists in some way, such as physical objects, humans, moods, emotions, memories, dreams, activities, events, stories, mermaids, qualities, conditions, symbols, abstractions, ideas, or theories. But, what does make a being count as being instead of nothing? What is the difference between being and nothing? On what basis do we understand a being as being?

Heidegger seems to tell us that a sheer property such as weight, shape, size, texture, color, emotion, feeling, or thought, just to name a few, does not render a being as being. (For instance, shape, size, color, taste, smell, and texture of an apple do not qualify it as being.) On the contrary, Heidegger seems to imply that “Being” (with capital “B”) is that which renders these attributes as existing properties of beings. (That is, Being qualifies the shape, size, color, taste, smell, and texture of an apple as its existing properties, not the other way around.) Heidegger makes a distinction between an entity and its Being—which is spelled with capital “B” in order to distinguish “Being” from a being. Asking about Being is not like asking about an object—because it is not a question about any entity at all. According to Heidegger:

“[Being is] . . . that which determines entities as entities, that on the basis of which entities are already understood. . . . The Being of entities is not itself an entity.” (Being and Time; 26:6; translated by John Macquarie & Edward Robinson; Harper Collins 1962)

We are asking about a thing that is no thing at all. Heidegger seems to warn us that we must not make the mistake of confusing Being with any entity such as a rock, plant, animal, the universe, or even God. Being is deemed as a condition of the possibility of our experience of entities. Whenever we experience an entity in any way, we must already have an understanding, however vague and distorted, of Being that makes this experience possible. Insofar as Being of humans is concerned, Heidegger is not necessarily asking who we are—yet he seems to imply that who we are is contingent on our Being.

Having thus far stipulated Being in this manner, it seems that Being of a thing, apart from the thing itself, is empty: absence of all content. Yet, there is a significant difference between Being and absence. If one’s house burns down or one’s loved one passes away, suddenly the absence of the house or the loved one overwhelms the person with pain. At such moments we realize that there are, in fact, significant differences between Being and absence. Being matters. Yet, the question remains: What is Being?

Heidegger proposes that in order to clarify Being in general, we must first clarify our own Being in particular. Sciences such as psychology, anthropology, or sociology ultimately view human Being as a thing while discriminating it from the rest of things. However, for Heidegger, human Being is not a thing at all. Things are “whats”, and their Being is “presence-at-hand” (objective presence), lacking temporal dimensions and significances of their own Being. Their existence is not an issue for them, and their ontological characteristics are “categories” such as causality. Things formulate no purposes of their own. In terms of non-human animals, they have short-term, immediate goals, such as escaping from danger, finding safety, or procuring food. In contrast, a human is a “who” whose Being, in addition to Being of things, matters to her or him. Her or his existence is an issue to be reckoned with. Our Being is “existence”, not presence-at-hand, that finds significances and purposes in terms of a past, present, and future. Our ontological characteristics are what Heidegger refers to as “existentialia” (existentials).

Heidegger suggests that Being tends to lie hidden. We are normally and habitually so absorbed in entities or things, which display themselves so obviously to us, that it takes tremendous effort to unconceal Being. In thinking about Being, either that of our own or that of other things, we tend to fall into superficial and misguided ways of thinking. Describing a human as an entity is a relatively easy challenge: we document her or his capacities, functions, behaviors, shape, size, and other properties. But describing the Being of a human is far more difficult. In this sense, Being transcends beings.

On the surface, nothing seems more obvious and self-evident than Being; nonetheless, it is seemingly an exacting task to clarify Being. It turns out that, after all, Being is not easy to know, and it is difficult to draw a line between Being and nothing. According to Heidegger, a difficulty in answering the question of Being is due to our outmoded and impoverished ways of thinking, which we have inherited from a distant past. Traditionally, we have always mistakenly identified Being as an entity or a thing, whereas Being is no thing, Heidegger insists. For instance, in thinking about a human being, we erroneously confuse the physical presence of the human with her or his Being in the present. When we identify Being with “physical presence” (i.e., with the entity that an individual is now and disregarding her or his temporality and historicity), then we can become obsessed with beings to present themselves to us unchangeably, conclusively, flawlessly, perfectly. Consequently, utter obsession with, for example, losing weight, staying young, and feeling ashamed of getting old and wrinkly are all too common in the contemporary American culture. It is not rare to see sixty-year-olds acting like and dating twenty-one-year-olds. Such instances of self-alienation (or, as Heidegger would call, “inauthenticity”) are commonplace.

It can be difficult and disturbing to face our own temporality and to experience the obscurity of our Being. It is more convenient to slip back into an everyday state of complacency and routines. Rather than wrestling with what it means to be and who we are, we would prefer to be engrossed into the world of materials and to be preoccupied with measuring and manipulating present beings. This absorption into the present leads to self-deception by objectifying or reifying our own Being. Heidegger consistently points to the difference between this everyday state of oblivion and a state in which we genuinely face up to our conditions, temporality, historicity. This is the difference between “inauthenticity” and “authenticity”. Heidegger insists that, an authentic life is one in which one does not escape from one’s destiny, but shapes it as far as possible.

Heidegger points out, “Our provisional aim is the Interpretation of time as the possible horizon [context] for any understanding whatever of Being.” (Being and Time; 19:1) He proposes that Being needs to be grasped in terms of time; our sense of what it is to be depends on temporality. He insists that it is the acknowledgement of our “temporality” (i.e., our authentic relation to our past, present, and future) that makes us sensitive to Being. We are historical beings: we are rooted in a “past” that stretches into a “present” which thrusts into a “future”. We inherit a past tradition that we share with others, and we pursue future possibilities that define us as individuals. As we do so, the world opens up for us, and beings get understood. Heidegger insists that our historicity (in which our Being is always “toward death”) does not cut us off from reality. On the contrary, it opens us up to the meaning of Being.

Consider an ahistorical being such as Mount Everest. It was there when you were born; it is still there in present as you are reading this; and it will continue to be there, if left undisturbed, by the time you pass away. The mountain is simply “there”—and it would not make a difference to it if it were elsewhere or were not at all. If the mountain is somehow removed and placed elsewhere, it will still remain the same mountain. Its “there” does not matter to it. It seemingly has no relationship to its own Being; it cannot “care” about its own Being; it cannot relate to its own Being. In contrast, a mountain climber who climbs Mount Everest is not simply “what” she is. She is not merely a type of object. She “cares” about her own Being and her “there”; her Being matters to her; her own Being is an issue to her. Her “there” is significant to her. Without her “there”, her existence would be as meaningless and obsolete as a pawn removed from the chessboard.

We have a “there” as no other entity does because for us the world is understandable and meaningful. In Being and Time, Heidegger avoids using the old, worn-out word “human” to depict us; instead, he uses the term “Being-there” (Dasein, in German) in the sense that we are in such a way as to be our “there”. Unlike Mount Everest, our Being and “there” matter to us. It is not just that we happen to be in a world, a “there”. Rather, our “there” is so essential to us that we would be nothing at all without it, like a pawn taken away from the chessboard. Conversely, our “there” would be nothing without us, as a chessboard would be meaningless without the chess pieces. Or, for instance, the world of Greece of antiquity could not be what it was without the ancient Greeks; conversely, the ancient Greeks could not be who they were without that world. Our world, our “there”, is the context in terms of which we understand ourselves, and within which we become who we are. We are the “there” of Being. In other words, we are the site that Being requires in order (literally) to take place. Without Being-there (i.e., humans), other entities could continue to be, but there would be no one to define them and relate to them as entities. Their Being would have no meaning at all.

Apparently, what it means to exist for an entity such as a mountain is very different from what it means to exist as a human. Mountains and humans have different ways of Being there. It is not just any activity that characterizes humans, but a way of Being. Our sort of Being, our mode of existing, is what marks us out. Our way of existing is qualitatively different from the way in which a mountain exists. As we go on living, we build our individual identities and define ourselves. It matters to us who we are. A mountain, in contrast, simply is what it is. It cannot have identity crisis, because it does not need to determine its own existence. We are uniquely conscious of the world in which we exist. Therefore, Heidegger reserves the term “existence” for us—for our special way of Being, a way of Being in which our own Being is an issue for us. Unlike rocks, we are not frozen in a present moment and position—we essentially reach out from ourselves. We “exist” (from Latin ex-sistere, “to stand forth”) and “project” (from Latin pro-iacere, “to throw forward”) ourselves from a past heritage into a present world toward future possibilities.

Heidegger insists that we will never understand human beings (“Dasein” or “Being-there”) adequately if we treat them as things. His thoughts on Being are quite alarming in the present age, when we almost exclusively define our Being by our appearances, jobs, how much money we make, and things that we own.


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