Welcome to the second blog in this series. Or third, if you also count the slightly silly tribute to my late three-quarter-length Umbro jogging bottoms. If you’ve read the introductory piece then hopefully you will now be familiar with most of the key ideas and terminology in this post. And if this is the first of my Accessible Inquiries Into the Nature of Being pieces that you have encountered, I hope you can still take something from it. When I began to tackle Martin Heidegger’s ontological magnum opus Being and Time, I decided it might fun, useful and, hopefully, interesting to log my thoughts in a diary each week.
Like with the other blogs in this series, I appreciate that one may find it difficult to engage with some of the content in these pieces without having actually read Being and Time, but I have tried my best to explain what I can and keep it as interesting for as wide an audience as possible. If there are any ideas, concepts or examples of terminology in this book which you’d like to know more about, it should hopefully be covered in one of the other blogs in this series, so I encourage you to check them out, particularly if you enjoy this one. And if not, well, I’m sorry – but having put in the hard work to tussle my way through Being and Time, I feel it is my responsibility as a fellow ‘shepherd of being’ to do my bit to try to make us all think about why we’re here, what here is and how we can make the best of what this is.
This was the first significant thought I had as I began reading the book:
It is often highlighted by scholars who study Heideggerh that he was strongly influenced by Taoism – particularly in his latter days. And that does come across in his work. But I have to question at this point whether such a deep inquiry, illumination or even excavation into the meaning of being is actually Taoist at all? Is it actually anti-Nietzsche (someone he respected and admired a lot). I appreciate that Heidegger feels that being has been forgotten. I wouldn’t argue against that. And I wouldn’t argue against ontology as a worthwhile and fascinating area of study.
But does an inquiry into the nature of Being help humanity? Is this knowledge (progress in our understanding of being) actually useful to making our lives better? Shouldn’t that be the primary task of philosophy? Perhaps not – maybe there is room for such metaphysical inquiry. But isn’t such an exploration of nature, the universe and the workings of the world counter to the teachings of the Tao? Shouldn’t we instead go with the flow, accept things as they are and work with our natural surroundings? Does Being and Time benefit our appreciation of the natural order – can an investigation into the nature of being be useful? Let’s find out!
And so I ventured on. And it was tough. But also enlightening. And I found that the more I read, the more comfortable I felt about the fact I didn’t understand a word of it! In all seriousness though, the first couple of days were hard going, but once I got my head around Dasein meaning human existence and Heidegger started to refer to Husserl’s brilliant phenomenology, I began to feel less alienated by his use of Greek words and his own lexicon/terminology. It was clear that the purpose of Heidegger’s great text was to explore the meaning of Being – and that to do so would require a deep and thorough explication or the very question itself. Just take a few moments right now yourself to think about Being – existence. Think about what is it. Try to define it. Not so easy, right? I guess that’s why Heidegger’s work is so complex – because the meaning of being is not so straightforward!
Heidegger has taken aim at Descartes’ Cartesian ontology (and just general ‘primitive’ ontological explanations compared to his Dasein et al) this week – he seems pretty pissed that the French philosopher has forgotten to inquire about the nature of being itself and rather attributed our means to understand the world completely through our ego and corporeality. There’s a lot of talk of substance being key to things with Descartes – and his substance (this ‘remaining constant’) explaining the nature of being doesn’t really work for Heidegger.
He instead appears keen to get to the root of being itself via Dasein (human existence/being), and to investigate the nature of Dasein in more detail. It’s no less complicated and muddy than the previous week’s reading – in fact, there appears to be a lot more Latin creeping in, which makes it even less accessible. But, even though I really quite enjoy and appreciate Descartes’ res cognita/res extensa body-mind dualism/I think therefore I am vibes, I do understand why Heidegger takes issue with his brand of ontology (if one could even call it that). There is a being which precedes the notion of mind and body – and world and worldliness – and Heidegger wishes to get to the root of that. Whether it is even possible, I can’t confirm (I doubt it), but I understand that he wants to try. Let’s see if he gets any closer…
This was the final working week before Christmas – and also the week of my work Christmas party – so I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to read a great deal of dense ontological musings! However, the small amount I did get through led to me encountering some interesting ideas from Heidegger on the nature of being and space – in particular with reference to Immanuel Kant. Once again the major take-away was the crucial role that Dasein plays for Heidegger – it seems that this primordial sense of being precedes everything. Which actually just makes me think of Kant and his idea that we are active originators of our experience. I also had a few thoughts on being and belonging this week – not in the sense of Heidegger and worldliness, or being-in-the-world, or the handiness of tools – but in terms of what is ‘mine’ and ownership.
Heidegger writes of the difficulty of exposing the nature of ‘I’ – and I think it’s worth a few thoughts to consider what ‘I’ means and what that entails. I’ve been watching a Netflix documentary on the John Grisham non-fiction book Innocent Man, and the mother (Peggy) of a girl murdered in the 1980s speaks of her daughter (Debbie Carter) as ‘mine’. “She was mine, she was mine” she says. And it’s obviously clear why she’s saying this and what her loving, motherly intentions are behind the statement. But it got me to thinking – is my ‘I’ mine alone? Should I share my Dasein with anyone or anything else? Am I my mother’s, my wife’s, the world’s, God’s? Or is the very nature of being a freedom – an I-ness which is mine and can never be anyone else’s – no matter how much they may try to enslave you or subjugate you? The existentialist in me would suggest that we are all free and it is in fact only ourselves who can choose to give up our freedom. But in this “falling prey” to the will of others, in the Heideggerian sense, do we ever actually belong to someone or something else?
This week we’ve been tucking into an exploration of the they and how our Dasein (human sense of self) is so easily absorbed into the (general collective?) Dasein of others. It seems that we have a propensity towards losing ourselves in the safety of publicness and averageness. Part of Dasein’s constitution of being-there and its thrownness is its potentiality for the previously mentioned falling prey – we cannot help but give in to our temptation to settle in the average everydayness of going along with the crowd. There is comfort and safety (of a kind) in the inauthentic arms of the they. It makes me consider just how often I am prepared to pass up my own authentic self in order to ‘fit in’. Sometimes this behaviour is quite unavoidable, but it does make me think about the ways I can try to ensure I stay true to myself and who I believe I am/want to be. I also came across this line and, while it loses it’s true purpose without context, it’s still a nice motto to take into the weekend: “An elevated mood can alleviate the manifest burden of being.”
This seems to have been something of a bumper week of key Heideggerian concepts. We’ve tackled his notion of care in more detail, and discussed how it is the key essence of Dasein (taking care basically seems to be the critical constitutive factor in the make-up of Dasein). It also appears to be taking care which helps to shape our reality. We recognise and appreciate things-at-hand and their handiness through care, as well as our being-in-the-world and the other beings with Dasein (who, like me, have the ability to question the nature of their own being). Heidegger unpacks some of Kant, Dilthey and Scheler’s ideas on reality (in Dilthey’s case, reality as a ‘resistance’) and contrasts them with his own. Before doing the same with truth. He delves into Kant, Aristotle and Parmenides’ ideas on truth – and judgement and agreement from subject to object. But then dispels it by seemingly suggesting that the truth is always there – it just needs to be discovered; to be unconcealed. Truth seemingly always resides in Dasein somewhere, waiting to be uncovered. We also started to think about Dasein, care and their inextricable ties to temporality this week. Heidegger is now explaining how Dasein can never be analysed in terms of its wholeness, because there is always a lack – he suggests it has a “constant unfinished quality” due to its persistent potentiality-for-being; it is always open to new possibilities (up until death).
This week I also happened to watch an episode of The Secret Life of Four Year Olds on Channel 4, and a robot that the children were playing with ‘hurt itself’. The children rallied around it and found bandages, saying they wanted to help it. The psychologists watching on suggested this was a great demonstration of a key part of the children’s humanity – taking care of something. This immediately resonated with me, having read so much by Heidegger on Dasein and taking care. While I appreciate that Heidegger’s definition of care is more broad than ‘taking care’ in the sense the children had shown here, it still made me think about how vital the notion of care is to us as human beings.
It is a part our nature to care, to protect and to nurture. It is how we survive and thrive as a species. Now, this is obviously something which relates to other animals too, and Heidegger makes it clear that Dasein is only relevant in terms of beings which can understand and reflect on their being. But, regardless, I found it interesting to consider the notion of care in this instance and how this aspect of humanity is prevalent even at such a young age. We yearn to care – it is instinctive.
We’ve gone full death mode this week – Heidegger has really got stuck into the relationship between Dasein and death, and the way Dasein always lacks a wholeness due to its impending death. This reminded me of Freud’s Thanatos quite a bit – the idea that in life, our human existence, our Dasein, we always have a constant lack driven by desire to return to that infantile state where all our needs were met by our mother/primary care figure. We’re basically never truly whole, never truly at peace, never really in our equilibrium, until we die – and are finally at rest, safe from the pressures, desires and pains of life in the symbolic realm – or Heidegger’s world of things at hand and other Daseins, etc.
Heidegger also began to explore ideas around our sense of conscience in this week’s reading – the notion that we have a “call to conscience” via care. And that by answering that call we drag ourselves back from our lostness in the they. Wanting to have a conscience becomes a readiness for anxiety. He refers a lot to the significance of anxiety and uncanniness in the make-up of our conscience, and our constant waiting for death. “The indefiniteness of death discloses itself primordially in anxiety,” he writes. And there is the pointing towards nothingness, too.
Dasein stands with its uncanniness, according to Heidegger – it brings Dasein face to face with its undisguised nullity. I know Heidegger was big into Taoism, and nothingness is a key tenet of Taoist philosophy – nothing is something in the Tao; Tao does not do but nothing is not done. I think the importance of nothingness, which was taken further by the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre later on, will continue to crop up as I go on with the book. Given the weight that the Tao Te Ching, Freud, Heidegger and Sartre all place on nothingness and peace/wholeness/completeness, it seems one might take some comfort in the idea of death and perhaps remove its taboo by appreciating that being at rest might just be less terrifying than it seems.
We’ve really started to examine the nature of time and temporality this week. Now, as someone who wrote a whole series of blogs after reading several books by the physicist Carlo Rovelli, I’m already aware that our perception of time is essentially an illusion; time is merely a localised phenomena in the manner we experience it. General relativity shows us that time is experienced faster or slower for different people based on the conditions they’re subjected to. Heidegger seems to be getting at something similar when he talks about the “ecstasies of temporality” and how future, past and present are simply elements of it. I find it hard to get my head around the idea that time isn’t what we think it is – or at least not as an absolute.
Heidegger often refers to the ecstasies of temporality – futural, having-been and making-present – which seem to be more primordial and fluid versions of what he calls our vulgar concepts of future, past and present. I enjoyed the way Heidegger appears to suggest that these ecstasies chop and change depending on what Dasein is up to at that point – covering over, revealing, acting authentically, falling prey to the everydayness of the they and inauthenticity. And his notion that care is the critical factor in Dasein really came to the fore this week. The being of Dasein is care and its ontological meaning is temporality.
My interpretation thus far is this – if we don’t care for and about others and the everyday things at hand around us, we almost cease to exist. If we don’t do these things in a temporal existence, within our own vulgar perception of time, then we simply don’t have a platform on which to exist. We operate within time. And we recognise the world, its contents and its beings in the world. We realise them, we experience them and we care about them – both in the sense that we look after them and that we acknowledge them.
As someone whose philosophy might be described as a moralist inquiry (let’s face it, could something called Being & Niceness really be seen as anything else?!), I hope that Heidegger chose the word care purposefully. It’s a beautiful word to describe our assuming of the world around us – but the fact it also has the meaning of looking after is key. Because I know Heidegger had Taoist leanings, I believe that he knew we had responsibilities – to our own Dasein, to the Dasein of others, to our environment, to our planet, to our universe, to our world. So I don’t think it’s a coincidence Heidegger used the term care in this way – I think he wanted to illuminate the notion that not only does consciousness give us the ability to perceive, experience and make sense of the world we are in, but it endows us with the potential for Niceness.
We have the capacity for and inclination towards compassion, love and care. So in regards to the question I posed at the beginning of this diary – How can an inquiry into the nature of being help humanity? – perhaps this is it; maybe Heidegger wanted us to explore our being in a manner that would awaken in us our responsibly as shepherds of being. Could it be that by trying to prevent us from forgetting being, we actually begin to appreciate again exactly what we have, and perhaps actually take care of it and nurture it in the way we’ve perhaps been neglecting? Do we in fact need to resume our special connection with nature and actually attune ourselves to the workings of the universe again in that Taoist fashion? Perhaps we haven’t just forgotten being, we have also lost our Way?
THE FINAL WEEK
It’s only taken two months and 400 pages, but I finally feel like I’m getting in sync with Heidegger’s ideas – or, at the very least, developing my own interpretation of them, which is just as satisfying. I have previously read and written a lot about time as an illusion with my blogs based on the work of the physicist Carlo Rovelli, as mentioned. And it feels like Heidegger has not only realised this, but has constructed a rather beautiful, almost poetic, way of thinking about time as not merely linear and simply a succession of nows in a constant, infinite present. Heidegger sees Dasein’s temporality as a busy, fluid and constantly moving exchange of the ecstasies.
Heidegger repeatedly refers to Dasein being futural, and this makes sense to me a bit more now – especially when you consider the way we are always planning ahead, visualising what we are going to do, expecting and imagining – not just hour by hour or day by day, but week by week and year by year. We don’t just exist in a succession of nows – we exist in anticipation, expectation, hope and desire. Our lives don’t simply unfold in front of us by chance (well, I mean, they do but…) we also steer them. We direct ourselves. We plan ahead. We make choices and decisions about what we are ‘going to do’ and then we ‘do them’. And we do so by living in the future and our idea of potentiality-of-being as much as we do in what occurs; particularly all the myriad things we cannot plan for.
And so, what I have garnered from Heidegger’s thorough examination of being is this – we are no nearer to truly understanding the nature of either human existence or existence itself. Both remain, not a mystery, but a mode of incomprehensibility. I have no grounds to doubt Dasein as being there, in its thrownness, grounded in temporality. In fact, Heidegger’s beautifully poetic, languid approximation of both being and time is quite captivating. Particularly the notion of the fluidity of temporality. But, for me, there can never be a truly wholesome explanation for the meaning of being because that is the most unanswerable question ever posed (except perhaps the existence of a deity. Maybe Baruch Spinoza was right all along and the two are actually the same thing. I hope we get to find out one day!)
Being is – and that is all we can ever know. No matter what the terminology or level of comprehension. If a God or Gods exist, then perhaps they can give us more insight. Otherwise, simply try your best to be a good existent and take care of the beings of Dasein and the innerwordly beings, useful things and everything else to which you are indebted to protect as a shepherd of being.