Accessible Inquiries Into the Nature of Being: An Introduction

“Being is found in thatness and whatness, reality, the objective presence of things, subsistence, validity, existence (Dasein), and in the ‘there is’ ”

(Martin Heidegger)

How often do you ever stop to think about what it means to be? When was the last time you took a look at the world around you, and all the things within it, and really thought about why we might be here? Have you ever stopped to think about what here actually is? Or what it means to be a human being? These questions, and many others like them, form the nature of the direction of this series – Accessible Inquiries Into the Nature of Being. Over the course of seven blogs I aim to explore key terminology and ideas from Martin Heidegger’s ontological masterpiece Being and Time, examine the notion of being itself, explore an appreciation of our sense of self and investigate the problematic proliferation of the existential crisis.

I will delve into the areas of time and temporality and take a closer look at the Heideggerian concept of care in relation to what I might jokingly label the ‘vulgar concept of care!’ I also kept a diary of my thoughts when working my way through Being and Time, and so I plan to share that with you, too. As you will soon find out, I am no expert in either philosophy or Heidegger, and so I apologise in advance if I misinterpret anything, fail to explain something properly or just plain get Heidegger wrong. As ever, I have done my best with the abilities at my disposal.

An almighty error

I am aware that some readers will take umbrage with the idea of devoting so much time to a philosopher who has such unfortunate links to the Nazis from his time as the rector of Freiburg University. While I have nothing but contempt for such leanings, Heidegger eventually renounced all ties to the party and national socialism, and plenty of great thinkers have since cited the importance of Heidegger’s work irrespective of his dubious life choices. Hannah Arendt famously labelled Heidegger’s Nazi association as an “error”, and I stand with those philosophers who insist that those past mistakes shouldn’t overshadow the brilliant work he did in the field of metaphysical inquiry.

You might have noted that in the title of this series of blogs I have taken care (as one must when referencing Heidegger!) to make it clear that I hope my work will be accessible to a wide range of readers. This is partly a nod to the fact that Heidegger’s Being and Time is not always (ever) a particularly easy read, partly because I could never hope to match an intellect like his and partly because I wish to make philosophy and its grandest ideas approachable for all.

And so I hope you find some of what you read interesting and informative, and that I can do a decent job of making it accessible for all, but most of all I hope you begin to appreciate the wonder of being again – especially if you feel like you have lost that awe. It is time for us to rediscover the primacy of being and resurrect ‘being forgotten’; it’s time to reflect on what we have; and it’s time to resume our role as existents with responsibility – for each other and for our world.

Being and Time in a nutshell

This is probably going to be a total mess, but I’ll now attempt to distill as many of the key concepts and ideas in the book as quickly as possible – using notes taken directly from reading it, notes taken from other books explaining it and the support of an excellent Times Literary Supplement article by David E. Cooper, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Durham University.

Heidegger wanted to get to the root of the meaning of being – he wanted to see if he could use his brand of ontology and existentialism to explain existence, particularly as he felt that Western philosophy had essentially ‘forgotten being’ in its various pursuits and lines of inquiry. Heidegger wanted to investigate what is is, and he did so by adopting and implementing a raft of his own terminology and expansive ideas – many of which were more suited to Taoism and other incarnations of Eastern philosophy than what we are used to in the West.

Heidegger was a student of the father of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl, and so there is a strong phenomenological underpinning to the way Heidegger unpacks and forensically examines different areas of being. For Heidegger, phenomenology is the science of the being of beings – the branch of metaphysics which deals with being is ontology. Here are my interpretations of some of his key terms – I hope that, in their totality, you get a flavour of the kind of ideas Heidegger was exploring in Being and Time.

DASEIN

“Life has its own kind of being – but it is essentially accessible only in Dasein,” writes Heidegger. “Dasein is a being which I myself am, its being is in each case mine.” Probably the key concept at the heart of Heidegger’s philosophy, Dasein (German for being = Sein, and there = Da – and so, ‘being there’) is a human being’s individual existence. He explains it as ‘being there’ in terms of what he calls its thrownness into the world. Dasein is essentially a replacement for consciousness and mind. The place of the human being – the ‘there’ where human beings are. Heidegger suggests the Dasein is primordial – and it is certainly difficult to think about anything that might precede our human being, other than perhaps this realm we currently reside in and any other that we perhaps came from initially of which we are unaware.

A being with Dasein is a being that has the capability to be concerned about and reflect on the nature of its own being. As David E. Cooper says: “Creatures with our kind of being (Dasein) are not only “absorbed” in everyday practices, but are able to regard their lives as an “issue” for them – to take stock of these lives and make them “their own”, by giving them sense and direction.” Just by reading and understanding this (hopefully!), you are demonstrating the capacity of your Dasein to think about your existence – whereas, say, your dog cannot (unless it’s Lassie or one of the Paw Patrol). Heidegger describes the meaning of Dasein as care – this is a term I will go on to explore in more detail later but, in a Heideggerian sense, it means to essentially take note of all the things around us, our world and other Daseins. Care allows us to encounter the useful things around us – it helps us to ’see’ the world and its contents, appreciate them and thus understand and become attuned to them.

CARE

This isn’t where I go into much more detail – that’s for another blog! To me, care in Heidegger-speak feels like a familiarity and acknowledging of the world and its contents around us, including those other beings with Dasein. But, most importantly for me anyway, I think it is a part of our being linked to our nurturing instinct; our will to ‘look after’ – the same part of our being which comes to the fore when we produce offspring or feel the desire to look after others or things which matter to us.

Dasein orients itself in the world based on the things within it – and it is care and concern that helps us to discover them; it discloses them to us. Care is primordial – it’s a priori; it takes precedence and Dasein understands itself in terms of what it takes care of. And care is grounded in temporality – care needs “time” and reckons with time. With care, there is always potentiality and possibilities which keep Dasein ahead of itself and never whole; Dasein has a “constant unfinished quality”, according to Heidegger.

BEING-IN-THE-WORLD

Humans have an environment – Dasein orients itself according to the things around it and the world itself; this being-in. Only human beings, through Dasein, can touch, feel and sense each other, by being together with each other, in the world. Dasein, as an innerworldly being, understands its destiny which it encounters within its world. It is then made visible by care – its being toward the world is, essentially, taking care. Beings can only ‘meet up’ with Dasein because they are able to show themselves of their own accord within a world.

“Knowing is a form of Dasein which is founded in being-in-the-world,” writes Heidegger. “Thus, being-in-the-world, as a fundamental constitution, requires a prior interpretation.” In space, Kant suggests that all orientation needs a subjective principle – subjective in this case means a priori. Our sense of directionality, in terms of left and right, is grounded in this subjective a priori of being-in-the-world. Dasein orients itself and its place in space – which is determined by being-in-the-world. Dasein is, as being-in-the-world, a being concerned about itself. Being-in-the-world is centred in disclosedness – and revealed as care. Dasein is contained in care, and existence is the essence of Dasein. And let’s not forget time – because care is of course grounded in temporality. Or as Heidegger puts it: “Measurement of time is constitutive for being-in-the-world.” We cannot operate without an appreciation of time – or, rather, Heidegger’s ecstasies of temporality. Something I’ll elaborate on later (sort of a time gag…)

USEFUL THINGS AT HAND & INNERWORLDLY BEINGS

A major part of our being concerns the useful things that we take care of in the world. I’ve written a ridiculous ode to some three-quarter-length trousers I had to throw away recently here, which covers care and useful-things-at-hand (or ready-at-hand) in a bit more detail. The idea is that we attach sentiment to things in a way which might seem ludicrous at times, but this is just the way Dasein operates. Heidegger sought to define the “worldliness of the world” by describing the world (and all its beings) as phenomenon.

To describe the world phenomenologically is to ‘show it’ and to “conceptually and categorically” determine the being of beings present in it. Beings in the world are things – natural things and things with value; the kind of being of these beings is ‘handiness’. “Handiness is the ontological categorial definition of beings as they are in themselves,” he writes. These useful things that we encounter by taking care are made useful by their ‘utility’ and ‘relevance’; the “simplest handling of a useful thing”. For Heidegger, the world is not an innerworldly being – yet it determines innerworldly beings. He describes nature as an innerworldly being, though it shows neither the kind of being of handiness or objective presence as natural things.

FALLING PREY

As a human being with Dasein in a world of other Daseins, it is only natural that we sometimes allow ourselves to be subsumed by the ‘public’ – it’s part of our make-up to ‘fall prey’ to the safety, comfort and reassurance of the they. Life can be hard – making decisions for oneself can be tough. And so, to alleviate the burden, we fall prey; we escape into the average everydayness of the they. Heidegger calls it the “who of average Dasein”.

Now, we can’t not be with others in the world – and it’s not necessarily all bad. The they helps us to suppress our unfamiliar, uncanny feelings, and thus keep anxiety at bay. But by falling prey, Heidegger felt that we level down the possibilities of our being and move towards a more inauthentic way of being. In idle talk, curiosity and ambiguity, Dasein is lost in its world and the they. It is up to us to wrest ourselves from the clutches of the they to find ‘truth’ and authenticity – we are beings who shape our own possibilities and we mustn’t allow others to do that for us.

AUTHENTICITY & INAUTHENTICITY

Which brings us on to authenticity and inauthenticity. Heidegger suggests that ‘publicness’ controls the way Dasein and the world are interpreted – and is “insensitive to every level of genuineness”. “The they disburdens Dasein in its everydayness,” he writes. “Everyone is the other and no one is himself.” Dasein is dispered in the they – and by falling prey, it becomes inauthentic. This is an “existential determination of its being”, according to Heidegger; so we cannot escape it entirely. The reassurance of the they is tranquillising and drives us to busyness (a point Heidegger would’ve found prominent in his cherished Taoism).

And this entangled being in the world is tempting and tranquillising, but also alienating. Dasein plunges into itself – into the groundlessness and nothingness of everydayness. Dasein is sucked into the turbulence of the they’s inauthenticity. And when you think about it, if you’re not making choices for yourself, do you believe you are acting authentically? By bringing itself back from the they, Dasein becomes authentic-being-one’s-self; it recognises itself as futural and as a being-toward-death – something that gets covered over in the comfort of the they. Because – let’s face it – when we’re chatting with other people, death as a topic is not exactly like talking about the weather, right?

ANTICIPATORY RESOLUTENESS & BEING-TOWARD-DEATH

Anticipatory resoluteness is a term which crops up a lot in Heidegger-speak – the notion is that Dasein is authentic in ‘resoluteness’. “As authentic being a self, resoluteness does not detach Dasein from its world, nor does it isolate it as free floating ego,” says Heidegger. “Resoluteness brings the self right into its being together with things at hand, actually taking care of them, and pushes it toward concerned being with the others.” Resoluteness is also authentic being-towards-death – one only exists authentically when they accept that death is their destiny. It is, too, a “reticent self-projecting upon one’s ownmost being-guilty” – demanding anxiety of oneself.

For Heidegger, guilt and anxiety are part of our primordial Dasein. Wanting to have a conscience, and the call of conscience from care, resolves itself for the constant primordial being-guilty of Dasein (he has a point here – I don’t know about you, but I feel guilty all the time and I’m often not even sure why!) “Conscience gives us something to understand; it discloses,” he says. We never overcome the idea of death, but by understanding the call of conscience we free death from its power over Dasein.

Dasein always has a history for Heidegger – its being is defined by care, and care is grounded in temporality. Heidegger writes about the importance of heritage, which he suggests is grounded in resoluteness. David E. Cooper explains how the “authority and traditions” of heritage can be recalled when attempting to stave off the clutches of the they and inauthenticity: “It is through heritage, the tried and tested “source” of the “possibilities” available to us – through, for example, recalling the past “heroes” of that heritage – that we obtain a “clear vision” of our historical situation and achieve distance from the conventions and diktats of the present.”

Dasein retrieves itself in history. Heidegger illuminates the notion that repetition, and the way we repeat, is grounded in anticipatory resoluteness. This is a key element of futural Dasein; repetition responds to the possibility of existence that has ‘been-there’. He speaks of Moments we experience in the present and suggests that “resoluteness has anticipated every Moment arising from it.” Authentic Dasein is futural; it exists in the resolute disclosure of a chosen possibility. To say “one has no time” is an inauthentic mode of being. One always has time. Well, until they’re dead, of course. Then your time’s up! But let’s not talk about that…

ECSTASIES OF TEMPORALITY

This is one of my favourite ideas in Being and Time – the idea that time, or temporality, is less linear, and not such a succession of nows, as it is an interplay between different horizonal ecstasies of temporality. Rather than think about our experience of “vulgar time” as static things in the past, the nows of the present and what might be of the future, Heidegger makes temporality a more fluid entity with the having-been, making-present and futural nature of time. When we come across a Roman pot, it is an antiquity from the past, but its being is not consigned to history – it still exists now, as a relic and a memory, but also a physical object which, for all intents and purposes, could actually still be used today.

This brings the past to life in a way that feels different from our usual ideas of the ‘past’. Similarly, when one considers the futural nature of Heidegger’s Dasein, it can be quite an eye-opener to how simple our vulgar understanding of past, present and future is. Constantly, in the present, we plan ahead – we visualise what we will do that day, that week, that month, that year. We anticipate what we might do; we hope certain things might happen and we make sure that others do. We essentially live in the future – we exist in the what-we-want-to-be. Now, of course, the random contingency of existence constantly intervenes; there is much in our lives that we cannot plan ahead for. But, equally, our lives don’t simply unfurl in front of us as if by accident or complete chance. We have a direct and telling influence on what occurs – and that is often based on what we anticipate happening for ourselves.

POTENTIALITY-OF-BEING

For me, this mode of being, which is basically one of the driving forces of Dasein, appears to be strongly linked to the ecstasy of temporality that I have just fleshed out, and which Heidegger termed futural. Not only does simply existing basically endow us with possibility of potentialities, we also live in a way where we anticipate and plan ahead in such a way that we enact our own potentialities. Thus, the potentiality-of-being is not just the fact being alive means we are open to living out different potential pathways, but also the fact that we can choose and decide what happens to us, to some extent, in a manner more appropriate to Kierkegaardian/Sartrean existentialism.

DISCLOSEDNESS/CONCEALMENT

As a phenomenologist (well, until he went and fell out within Husserl – classic cranky old school philosopher behaviour!), the need for things to be seen and understood is paramount for Heidegger. “Being covered up is the counterconcept to phenomenon,” he says. “Only for a being this cleared existentially do objectively present things become accessible in the light or cleared in the darkness.”

He suggests that “Dasein is its disclosedness; in its concern, it is its “there”. Seeing, not just in a literal sense, but in a wider appreciation, lets beings “accessible to it be encountered in themselves without being concealed”. Disclosedness is a basic characteristic of Dasein – it is its there, says Heidegger; it belongs to the being of Dasein. Thrownness is a constituent of its disclosedness – and through projecting, Dasein can understand itself in terms of the world. Truth becomes authenticity.

TRUTH

Speaking of truth, that slippery little bastard lies in phenomenology for Heidegger. Or, as he puts it: “Primordial and genuine truth lies in pure intuition.” He sees philosophy as the “science of truth”. For Heidegger, truth is not merely a matter of an act of judgment and its content. He asks: “When does truth become phenomenally explicit in knowing itself?” And answers: “When knowing shows itself as true.” Truth is something concealed that is waiting to be revealed – being-true is discovering.

Heidegger harks back to the ideas of Aristotle and Heraclitus by stating that truth is discoveredness or unconcealment – that which shows itself. It is not an agreement between knowing and the object in correspondence between subject to object. It is part of Dasein; the agreement between innerworldly things objectively present. Beings are only discovered when Dasein is – therefore truth resides in Dasein. “All truth is relative to the being of Dasein,” Heidegger says.

And so our journey begins…

I hope that if you stuck around long enough to get to the end of those definitions you took something from them, or at least found them interesting. The nature of Heidegger’s inquiry will now form the basis of the preceding posts in this series. By the end, I hope to have explored plenty of intriguing themes in the area of ontology, and hope that you, dear reader, enjoy reading them as much as I enjoy writing them. Now go and get your Dasein a drink – you’ve earned it!

4 thoughts on “Accessible Inquiries Into the Nature of Being: An Introduction

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read it! And for the lovely comment. I put a lot of effort and time into these posts and so it’s really gratifying when people such as yourself say nice things. Cheers 🙌🏻💜

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