Heidegger’s single most famous work is Being and Time in which he undertakes a preliminary, but thorough, inquiry into the question of ‘being.’ It is generally acknowledged that his subsequent writings involve a change in direction somewhat from where he finished in Being and Time, so much so that his philosophy is typically treated as if broken into two parts, earlier and later Heidegger. However, we ought to be wary of overstating this “turn” in Heidegger’s thought. Being and Time outlines the being of the human being (as care) and attempts to found care in temporality. His subsequent writings and lectures turn from this task to Being itself (the single problem that occupied all of Heidegger’s philosophising throughout his life) as that by which beings appear. Similarly, the outline here will focus on Being and Time first before turning to investigate the direction of Heidegger’s later thought.
-------------------------------------------- Early Heidegger: Being and Time --------------------------------------------
Being and Time is a fiendishly difficult book to read. There are a couple of reasons which explain some of why this is the case though. First, Heidegger is very original. His thought carves a path through largely new and unfamiliar territory. That means that he isn’t simply taking a new perspective on familiar problems. Instead, he is addressing a question that he says has been largely ignored since Aristotle; that of ‘being.’ Second, because of the original nature of the inquiry, he has to appropriate familiar words and give them unfamiliar meanings. The lexicon that Heidegger develops requires a systematic and careful reading to understand exactly what it is he means when he uses the words he does. Third, there is something aesthetically pleasing about some of the convoluted sentences that Heidegger constructs and I can very much imagine the author taking delight in crafting some of the expressions he uses.
However, none of this completely exonerates Heidegger for making what is a very important and interesting book into a nightmare that can’t be read but must instead be slogged through with a certain amount of unavoidable ‘anguish’ (ironically, one of those words Heidegger appropriates for his own purposes). It must be noted though that Heidegger does not stand alone as a dense and obscure writer in the German philosophical tradition. It can’t be a coincidence that he was preceded in this by Kant and Hegel who both constructed similarly hard to read treatises.
Nevertheless, Being and Time stands as a book with a very important message and one that will reward the diligent (and determined) reader with many interesting and fruitful reflections on the nature of existence. What follows is the most condensed outline of the book that I could give and still do it justice.
One of the most important distinctions that runs through the entire book is that between ontological and ontic. Ontology is the study of being and Heidegger uses the word ‘ontological’ when discussing aspects of existence (or being) itself. As such, ontology is a foundational discipline that applies to every individual equally. On the other hand, aspects that apply to an individual, particular entity itself are what Heidegger means by ‘ontic.’ In a way, ontology investigates what existence is whereas ontic refers to how that existence is instantiated.
Another word that features a lot in Being and Time is phenomenology. Phenomenology is not so much a ‘what’ as it is a ‘how.’ It is a method of inquiry that rejects the idea that all we have epistemological access to are internal representations of the external world. This notion implies that we have only ‘second-hand’ knowledge gleaned through our senses and viewed from the perspective of a completely independent subject (the Cartesian mind). The central tenet of phenomenology, as formulated by Edmund Husserl, is that consciousness is always consciousness of something. This means that consciousness cannot be cleaved from the world of which it is a part and that our perspective, even though it may be conditioned by our unique sensory apparatus, is valid and accurate, as far as those words can have any meaning at all. Specifically, Heidegger treats phenomenology as an investigation based on Dasein’s capacity to allow entities to disclose themselves as they are in their being in encounters with them. This is important because Heidegger is constantly referring to the way things ‘disclose’ themselves to us or how they are ‘revealed’ and this notion really forms the lynchpin of his philosophy.
I want to introduce one final piece of lexicon before we start proper because it is important to any discussion of Being and Time. Heidegger uses the word, Dasein (literally, ‘being there’), to mean human being. He does this I think, because he wants to reinforce the fact that his philosophy is a break from most of the philosophy that came before and at the same time remove any accumulated philosophical baggage clinging to the term ‘human being.’ It also helps facilitate the stance we must adopt to fully embrace the idea that we are interested in ontology here, not individual ontic concerns. Whatever the reason, it is impossible to speak of Being and Time without talking about Dasein.
So, Heidegger starts his investigation of being by asking what the being of Dasein is. What does it mean to say that human beings exist? The key insight of the first half of Being and Time is the realisation that Dasein is intrinsically and essentially (Heidegger would say “primordially”) a part of the world. There is no world-less human subject first and then the awareness of an external world that Dasein must learn to navigate and try to understand. This means that in its very being, (what it means for Dasein to exist) Dasein is being-in-the-world.
Heidegger hyphenates the expression to highlight the fact that being-in-the-world is a unified totality and not made up of separate ‘components,’ that have any meaning in isolation. Nevertheless, we can still investigate what being-in-the-world means by analysing it in parts as long as we don’t forget that it is, in fact, a unified whole.
First, we have ‘in-the-world.’ This refers to the familiar world that Dasein inhabits. However, Heidegger isn’t interested in the being of the objects that make up that world (what he calls objective presence, a kind of being decidedly different from that of Dasein), rather he is interested in them from a phenomenological approach, which remember, concerns how they reveal themselves, or appear, to us.
In this sense then, objectively present things don’t appear just as lumps of matter, isolated in space, that we then assign a function. Rather, as soon as we encounter things, they appear to us, first, as part of a referential totality, which means not isolated but as one item amongst a whole contextual field of other items, all deriving their meaning, purpose, and relevance from the integrated whole. And second, in a structural whole Heidegger calls significance which means that the individual items in the referential totality are connected by relationships characterised by an in-order-to. For example, the pen appears to us as already a part of a referential totality which includes pencils, erasers, paper, etc., and is related to other items in this relational web, e.g. paper, by the relation “in-order-to write.” The final relation in the structure of significance is always a for-the-sake-of-which which is for Dasein, i.e. the final significance of the pen is for one Dasein to communicate with another.
An important feature of this perspective is that Dasein does not encounter the world as a passive spectator, but rather by being actively engaged and using the tools (objects) she encounters around her. Heidegger calls this circumspect taking care. He goes so far as to say that Dasein could never know the world if she didn’t actively interact with it in this way. We could never understand anything about a hammer, for instance, without actually using it to hammer. It is only by using it that we find ourselves able to place it in a referential totality of significance.
The second aspect of being-in-the-world is ‘being’, by which Heidegger means the who of Dasein. First, Dasein is being-with Others which is the way Dasein is in the world with other Daseins, as opposed to being-in-the-world-with nonDasein-like things. Heidegger denotes this, concern. Second, he discusses being-a-self, which primarily features Dasein in its everydayness. By ‘everyday,’ Heidegger means the normal mode in which we live our lives. He specifically wants to address ‘typical’ Dasein because it is only by investigating Dasein in its normal state that we can get a glimpse into its being.
We need a brief detour here. Heidegger now coins a new term, “the they,” which refers to the anonymous source of the accepted norms and values of a society. Another way to think of it is to think of what we mean when we use the word “one.” We act the way “one” ought to. We say what “one” should say. Heidegger is saying that in being born into the culture we are, the family we are, and the time we are, we all have our individuality subsumed under the norms that govern that culture, family, and era. This anonymous “one” that very much determines how Dasein lives his life, is Heidegger’s “they.” It gives us our place in the world and defines who we are. However, it does so in a way that Heidegger says is inauthentic and which he terms, Dasein’s they-self, the second type of being that Dasein is.
Heidegger repeatedly cautions that inauthentic does not mean ‘bad’ or somehow less ‘real’ or ‘true’ than whatever an authentic life may be. Nor is it a “dark” side of Dasein’s existence to be avoided. Conversely, it is characterised by its unavoidability. To be born means to be a they-self. It is just a part of what it means to be at all.
The third aspect of being-in-the-world is ‘being-in,’ which is the relation between Dasein (the second aspect) and its world (the first aspect). Heidegger calls this aspect “the there” and holds that it is constituted in two ways; attunement and understanding.
Attunement is mood, although it is not to be understood psychologically. Heidegger sees mood as something whose origins are obscure and talks about it “assailing” us. Because of this, it is also more “primordial” than cognition and willing and therefore discloses Dasein to itself in a more genuine manner than our thoughts. An important feature of attunement is that Dasein is always attuned (in a mood) and that this attunement, in turn, affects the way the world is disclosed to us. It is in this sense that mood is ontological and not just an ontic or psychological concern; it strongly influences how being-in-the-world is revealed. For example, the world appears very different to an angry person than it does to a happy person. The exact same event could be interpreted in entirely different ways. This is a phenomenological difference.
Heidegger sees understanding as the mode of being through which Dasein projects itself onto its possibilities. Let’s take a quick step back to see how this works. What Dasein understands is the structure of significance which discloses what a particular thing is in its relevance within a referential totality (how each (objectively present) thing in the world is related to each other and ultimately to a for-the-sake-of-which of a particular Dasein). This is a mode of being that is more ‘primordial’ than intellectualising, which we usually associate with understanding, as it involves an almost intuitive grasp of things around us and how they are related to each other. No Dasein is without understanding because one wouldn’t be able to function in the world without it. We wouldn’t be able to accomplish anything if we didn’t understand the structure of significance of the world around us.
This brings us to the notion of Dasein projecting itself onto its possibilities, which is the way Heidegger talks about Dasein choosing from the possibilities before it, according to the goals it has. Understanding is crucial to this process as choosing goals and knowing how to pursue them depends entirely on having an understanding of the world as a whole and how the parts in that whole are connected and related to each other and Dasein itself. How does Dasein convert this understanding it has of the surrounding world into possibilities and goals? Through interpretation, which is another central feature of Heidegger’s philosophy.
Interpretation refers to the way Dasein always sees the surrounding world in light of its goals and aspirations. A carpenter doesn’t see a hammer the way a scientist would, i.e. as a solid mass of x kilograms, composed of y and z materials, and so on. Rather, he sees it within a referential totality of other things that confer and obtain relevance on and from it. In addition, he sees the hammer as something ‘for’ hammering, this is the ultimate significance of the hammer. This is how the carpenter ‘understands’ the hammer (or as Heidegger would say according to phenomenology, this is how the hammer is disclosed to him) but he also goes further and interprets it as something he can use to actualise one possible goal open to him, say, that of building a table.
Heidegger calls this, ‘as,’ we saw earlier (the way the carpenter sees the hammer ‘as’ something for hammering, etc.) the hermeneutical ‘as’ of circumspect taking care, where ‘hermeneutical’ simply means interpretative, as opposed to fixed in meaning. Heidegger’s whole philosophy is hermeneutical in approach since Dasein is ‘always already’ ina world and cannot understand it without at the same time interpreting it.
Another feature of being-in is what Heidegger calls the everyday being of ‘the there,’ which we touched on earlier when we saw that one mode (an unavoidable and primordial one) of being was Dasein as they-self. Dasein is always first embroiled in the inauthentic and anonymous ‘they.’ Heidegger calls this falling prey and identifies three features of this mode of being. Idle talk is a mode of speech that doesn’t actually seek to ‘understand’ what is talked about and is a superficial way of interacting. Curiosity is a way of being that is never satisfied, always looking for the newest and latest distraction. Ambiguity is the general way this mode of being (falling prey) fails to actually disclose anything, all the while pretending that it does.
Another important aspect of the everyday being of Dasein is what Heidegger calls its having been thrown into the world, meaning that Dasein had no choice regarding coming into this world. As soon as Dasein is first aware of anything, it is always already immersed in the world in the inauthentic everyday mode of being we have called ‘being-in-the-world.’
One last thing about falling prey is that it is attuned in anxiety, which means that the specific mood associated with falling prey is anxiety. Anxiety is similar to fear except that whereas the latter is about something particular in the world (the feared thing) the former lacks any worldly object. Anxiety turns out to be anxiousness about ‘being-in-the-world’ itself. This can be understood as a kind of existential angst (a term Heidegger doesn’t actually use) in which we find ourselves thrown in a world not of our choosing or making, engaged in futural projects, all the while entangled with an anonymous ‘they,’ who overshadow our ‘selves,’ whatever these might be. Anxiety is important for the role it will play a little later when it comes to recognising our inauthentic ‘fallen-ness’ and pointing us to authentic being.
The above has outlined in some detail ‘being-in-the-world,’ which is the being of everyday Dasein. Heidegger calls this structural whole (being-in-the-world) care and combines the three articulated aspects we covered by defining care as, being-ahead-of-oneself-already-in (the world) as being-together-with (innerworldly beings encountered).
Let’s quickly break down this apparently confusing sentence. Being-ahead-of-oneself refers to the way Dasein is always engaged in understanding self-projection (using things in the world to achieve its goals). Already-in refers to the way Dasein has always already been thrown into a world (i.e. we are never ‘world-less’ subjects looking at a world of things from a perspective unaffected by that world itself). Being-together-with is the way Dasein is immersed in the referential significance of a world of things unlike Dasein (circumspect taking care of everyday objects), in a world with other Daseins (concern), and entangled in falling prey (an inauthentic mode of being a ‘they-self’).
And that is the first half…
The second half of Being and Time picks up the thread by stating that so far we have only looked at one half of Dasein’s being, the inauthentic mode of falling prey. There are two aspects that make up the authentic being of Dasein; anticipation and resoluteness.
Anticipation refers to death. Heidegger sees death as something particularly significant but at the same time completely misunderstood by everyday Dasein. To make a long story short, Heidegger treats death, not as an event that happens to us (we never experience our own death because as soon as it happens, we are no longer), but as a fundamental part of our being. Specifically, anticipation is being-toward-death.
Not only does birth come already containing the seed of its own annihilation, but every moment of Dasein’s life is a movement towards this end. Death doesn’t happen at the end of a life, but infuses that life at every juncture. Every choice Dasein projects itself into must be made in full understanding of death.
Inauthentic ‘lostness’ in the ‘they’ specifically avoids any talk of death as morbid or depressing. We each ‘know’ that we will die and ‘recognise’ that death is inevitable but we haven’t really taken to heart this certain possibility of the impossibility of every mode of behaviour of Dasein. It is covered over as something that will happen ‘sometime’ in the future (i.e. somehow less ‘definite’ for that, when in fact, death is always a present possibility) and levelled down in the way that it concerns no one in particular, but is rather something that happens to ‘people,’ i.e. not ‘me.’
Anxiety is the mood that attunes (discloses to) Dasein to the possibility of understanding death (anticipation).
Resoluteness is an authentic mode of projecting oneself into one’s possibilities defined by what Heidegger calls our being-guilty. ‘Guilt’ for Heidegger has absolutely nothing to do with having done something wrong and certainly nothing to do with Christian notions of sin. He defines ‘guilt’ existentially as being-the-ground of a nullity and identifies Dasein as ‘being the null ground of a nullity,’ hence guilty.
We had better unpack that. The ‘ground’ of something is simply the cause or reason for something. Nullity means nothingness. Dasein is a ‘null ground’ because no Dasein is the cause of their own existence, despite the fact that we act as if we are. We assume responsibility for our lives even though, ultimately, we aren’t actually responsible at all; i.e. we were ‘thrown.’ We are ‘a nullity’ because our primary engagement in the world is projecting ourselves upon our possibilities but in the very act of choosing one, we negate (nullify) countless others. Inasmuch as we are responsible for actualising one possibility, we are equally responsible for nullifying many others.
Being-guilty cashes out as recognising and accepting the reality of Dasein’s existence (as opposed to making a consoling fairy tale about eternal life, for example).
Dasein is called to its possibility of resoluteness by conscience. Now Heidegger’s conscience is not the vulgar understanding of conscience as a little voice that tells us what the right thing to do is. Conscience takes the form of a summons. It is a summons from Dasein (as ‘anxious’ being-in-the-world) to itself (as lost in the everyday mode of falling prey), summoning Dasein to its potentiality for being-guilty (resoluteness).
Combining these aspects gives us anticipatory resoluteness which is the authentic mode of being. Basically, we can’t be authentic in our lives unless we accept the nullity that infuses every moment of our being (death) and the nullities that lie at the beginning of our lives (our ‘thrownness’) and in every choice we make.
In the final section of Being and Time, Heidegger drops the dismaying bombshell that all of the preceding still hasn’t gotten us to the being of Dasein. We outlined care as the being of Dasein but now Heidegger tells us that care itself is grounded in something deeper, temporality. Temporality is what makes care possible. This, the final hundred pages or so, is undoubtedly the most difficult section of Being and Time.
Since care is articulated (in-the-world, being, and being-in) then the structure that underpins it must also be similarly articulated. Heidegger finds the articulated nature of temporality through the concept of anticipatory resoluteness just outlined. Anticipatory resoluteness:
1. Is being-toward death. This is the future.
2. Understands Dasein in its being-guilty. This requires that Dasein be the thrown ground of a nullity. This means it’s having-been.
3. Discloses the actual situation of the there through circumspect taking care. This is a making present.
The important point to understand here is that this is different from the “vulgar” notion of time. Heidegger is not saying that Dasein exists in time, but that Dasein exists as temporality. To treat care as having the meaning of time would make care a being that occurs and elapses in time. This would make the being of a being like Dasein (as care) the same as the being of some merely objectively present object in the world.
Future is not something that is not yet present but which constantly draws nearer and will become present at some future time. As temporality, the future is the way Dasein comes toward its potential ways of being. It therefore only makes sense in the context of a being, like Dasein, capable of projecting itself into various endeavours.
Having-been is similarly not a reference to something that is past (only things with a being unlike Dasein can be past), rather it is always already something thrown. Dasein always is as having-been. ‘Earlier’ events are never left behind for Dasein, rather she always carries them with her as a fundamental part of her being.
Making present is also not simply a ‘now’ that we can count off as it comes from the future and fades into an ever distant past. Rather it is the basis for Dasein’s falling prey and circumspectly taking care of things in the world.
Every aspect of Dasein’s being that Heidegger has raised (which taken as a whole we have called ‘care’) now needs to be revisited and repositioned in this temporal framework. Although each aspect of the being of Dasein is primarily disclosed in one temporal mode (called an ecstasy), since the being of Dasein is temporal as a whole, each aspect must be disclosed through all ecstatic modes at once. I won’t go through each point in detail here. Instead, I will just briefly outline what this looks like in the case of understanding:
Understanding primarily discloses itself in the ecstatic mode of future. Authentic understanding is disclosed as anticipation (being-toward-death) while inauthentic understanding is disclosed as awaiting, which basically means Dasein doesn’t project itself in full awareness and with full acceptance into its death, but rather awaits it as something that will happen to it.
The Moment is an authentic way for Dasein to encounter the world whereas simple making present is the way Dasein understands the world in its inauthentic mode of falling prey.
Finally, since authentic understanding always acknowledges its thrown beginnings, authentic projecting is always a kind of re-experiencing of that initial act of thrownness, which Heidegger calls repetition. Conversely, in inauthentic understanding Dasein forgets that it is a thrown being and therefore can’t relate to its projecting into its goals authentically. This ‘forgetting’ is not a failure to remember, but rather refers to the way Dasein actively backs away from the truth of its own thrownness.
There are two more aspects of temporality that Heidegger looks at. The first is temporality and what he calls, historicity. Up until now we have been excessively focused on the future (projecting onto possibilities and being-toward-death) but Heidegger now wants to include the ‘other direction’ more and also the way Dasein exists in between the beginning (birth) and the end (death), what he calls our stretching along or occurrence.
‘Historicity’ is a mode of being of Dasein, a mode of being that makes Dasein’s ‘in-between birth and death’ (occurrence) possible. Historicity should be thought of as a phenomenological aspect of Dasein, that is to say, a way Dasein is (i.e. a part of its being) in which events that are past are constantly disclosed to it, even in the present. In short, Dasein’s past is never dead and gone; we are all shaped and continually affected by things that have happened to us. Historicity is basically the opposite of anticipation.
Because of Dasein’s historicity, its life does not progress from one discrete moment to the next with clean breaks in between. Instead, Dasein’s life should be thought of as being stretched out, with the past constantly impacting the present and therefore influencing the future as well. The past that shapes and indeed, restricts us in certain ways is our heritage and the way it influences the future, Heidegger calls our fate. This is nothing to do with anything like specific future events we are ‘destined’ to experience.
Historicity also makes the history (as in the subject we study at school) possible. The reasoning behind this turns on the idea of world that we first came across back at the beginning of Being and Time; being-in-the-world. What does it mean for ‘things’ to be historical, an antique chair, for instance? Heidegger says it is only because those ‘things’ (objectively present ‘things’) belonged to a ‘world’ that is no longer. Even though the chair still exists today, it is historical because the referential totality, within which it was the useful thing it was, no longer exists. But a ‘world’ can only exist for a something with a being like the being of Dasein, i.e. ‘care’ or ‘being-in-the-world.’ So, history is grounded in historicity, which is grounded in the being of Dasein, which is grounded in care, which is grounded in temporality.
The second aspect is temporality and within-timeness. Dasein primarily understands time as it pertains to its everyday activities (in circumspectly taking care of things in the world). That means that time is perceived as having horizons that correspond to the ecstasies we talked about earlier (future, past, present). These ‘horizons’ situate Dasein with respect to time and disclose it (to Dasein) in the way we say things like, “later on…” (future), “today…” (present), and “earlier…” (past).
In a way, what Heidegger is saying is that we ‘use’ time as a structuring feature in our circumspect taking care of things. In the same way that ‘world’ derived meaning from the structure of significance bound up in a referential totality which culminated in a ‘for-the-sake-of-which,’ i.e. for a Dasein engaged in taking care, it seems to me that ‘within-timeness’ is a similar concept applied to time. Each object in the world cannot be considered isolated and independent but ‘always already’ appears in a context among other things. Time, likewise, cannot be considered to be made up of discrete ‘nows’ that appear from the future and then fade into the past. Rather, each moment is contextual and always appears bound up as a part of Dasein’s projects.
It is only when we focus on time as a discrete object that it loses this character of ‘within-timeness’ and instead becomes something objectively present; a succession of ‘nows’ that we can engage with the same way we engage with other objectively present objects, e.g. we can ‘have time’ and ‘lose time.’ This is the way people typically view time when they think about it (the “vulgar” conception of time) and Heidegger’s point is that this kind of time is actually founded in temporality, and, of course, Dasein is temporality.
-------------------------------------------- Late Heidegger: Post Being and Time --------------------------------------------
Having explicated Dasein’s mode of being as care, which was in turn grounded in temporality, Heidegger now looks to the primary goal driving him forward, Being itself. Naturally, because it is Heidegger, but also because he is making some genuinely original insights, the neologisms and redefining of old, familiar terms that we saw fill the pages of Being and Time continues in his later essays and lectures.
Truth, Comportment, Freedom, and Ek-sistence
Let’s begin with an expanded account of a concept Heidegger already analysed in B&T (and which I didn’t mention above); truth. Truth is typically taken to be the correspondence of a statement with some situation or thing in the world. This doesn’t work for Heidegger because it fails to account for how phenomena as dissimilar as statements and things can possibly be said to correspond to each other. You might want to argue that statements are symbols for thoughts which are representations of things. The problem is that this whole way of understanding Dasein’s mode of existence in the world has already fallen prey to the Cartesian idea that we are separate, independent Minds gazing out on things that bear no essential connection to us. This is false, as Heidegger’s whole discussion of “being-in-the-world” sought to overcome.
The connection between the statement and the thing is something Heidegger calls comportment, which he describes as a “stand[ing] open to beings”, or the way in which beings become beings for us in the first place. This turns on a more detailed examination of language which we will come to later but the basic idea is that it is only through language that things (the world) come to exist for us at all. The way language achieves this is what Heidegger calls comportment. And since it is only through the openness of comportment that a statement can be correct (or incorrect) in the first place, comportment (rather than correspondence) is the more original essence of truth.
In connection with this discussion, Heidegger also updates our definition of freedom. We typically think of freedom as the capacity to act without coercion but this is too shallow for Heidegger because to act without coercion already presupposes the world and so hasn’t reached the essence of freedom. In a way, Heidegger is after an ontological definition of freedom. He finds it by saying that freedom means to “let beings be as the beings which they are”. This interpretation, like the one for truth, ties freedom in with the disclosing of beings, that is to say, Being itself.
Now, since freedom goes outside itself to the things themselves (beings), Heidegger calls this manner of existing, ek-sistence, a reference to “ekstasis” which means “outside of oneself”. So, Dasein is free to let beings be as they are through an ek-sistent comportment that lets us stand open to beings. At the risk of over-simplification, ek-sistent comportment is essentially Being itself (that by which beings appear), the central theme Heidegger will circle around throughout all of his philosophy after B&T.
Another important idea that crops up is that of the nothing; an idea Sartre will later adopt and build a whole philosophy around. Heidegger defines nothing as the “complete negation of the totality of beings”, in other words, absolutely nothing. Anxiety, which we already encountered in B&T, gives us a presentiment of the nothing because in anxiety, the entire world sinks into indifference; it is nihilated. Heidegger verbalises this event by saying that the nothing nihilates.
What is curious about this nihilating of the nothing is that, while it is a repelling force that pushes beings into the distance (nihilating, not annihilating, them), in doing so it also discloses beings as beings, that is, as not nothing. Without the nothing and its nihilating there couldn’t be beings at all. If this is the first time you have encountered this idea, it probably seems strange, but the more you dwell on it, the clearer it will become. How can nothing reveal beings? Nothing is… well, nothing. At least part of the problem is that this attitude is approaching the discussion with a mind conditioned by science and logic. What’s wrong with that? Nothing (no pun intended)… if you are doing science or mathematics. When it comes to Being itself and Dasein, a being for whom its own being is in question and who stands outside of itself, open to beings, the neat, tidy, ordered world of mathematical equations and formulae proves insufficient. This doesn’t mean we must resort to irrationality and superstition but we it does require an acknowledgement that we are dealing with things that fall outside the realm of science and can’t be quantified in formulae, under a microscope, or in an fMRI scanner. So how does the nothing disclose being? It creates the space necessary for being to be disclosed by showing that certain beings are not the nothing which has, in anxiety, receded beings (considered as a whole) into indifference. Think of the nothing as basically the apprehension of no beings, and what this does is create a background upon which individual beings can then appear in contrast to. Without that contrast, that nihilating act that pushes beings as a whole into indifference, no individual being can stand out from the rest of being.
This revelatory aspect of the nothing happens through Dasein and Heidegger calls this the way Dasein is beyond being as a whole, it’s “holding itself out into the nothing”, or “transcendence.” This seems to dovetail nicely into the idea of ek-sistent comportment we just looked at. Again, at the risk of oversimplifying, it doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to imagine that the nothing is the specific way ek-sistent comportment works its magic and lets us “stand open to beings”.
Presencing, Bringing-forth, and Technology as Enframing
When Heidegger asks what technology is, he means that he is searching for its essence. Now, the essence of a thing will not be that thing, so the essence of technology won’t be technological. So what is the essence of technology? Well, of course technology is instrumental, it is a means for an end, but this doesn’t fully explicate the essence of technology because we haven’t yet inquired into what ‘instrumental’ means.
Instrumentality is based on causality, causing something to be, or to “bring something into appearance”. Heidegger expresses this idea by saying that causes let a thing “come forth into presencing”, which is to say they are a bringing-forth or revealing. This is the meaning of instrumentality. It won’t have escaped your attention that the terms presencing, bringing-forth, and revealing are very similar to what we have already seen in ek-sistent comportment.
Technology however, isn’t a bringing-forth in the sense of revealing; rather it is a challenging-forth which sets upon nature. This challenging-forth orders everything to be on standby precisely so that it is ready for us to use. It is no longer an object for us; rather, it has become standing-reserve.
What is particularly disturbing is that it isn’t only things which become set upon in this way; human beings are also challenged and ordered in the same way as the natural world is (although we never become standing-reserve). Heidegger’s example is the forester who, in discharging his duties, appears to be doing the same thing his grandfather did, but in reality has become “ordered by the industry that produces commercial woods”. Heidegger calls this challenging-forth, Ge-stell, or enframing. This is the essence of technology.
Enframing is the “supreme danger” for two reasons. First, humans will eventually be reduced to something like standing-reserve and second, we will come to see the things around us as existing only inasmuch as we create them. They will become nothing more than what we have deemed they be as standing-reserve. This means that everywhere we turn, we will only encounter ourselves; a true solipsistic existence.
As I have already noted, language for Heidegger is not just a set of symbols that stand in for, or represent, real things. So what is it? Like everything, language is a phenomenon, that is, a being which shows itself. How does it show itself? As speech. And what does speech do? It brings something to the fore in language whenever something is said. What is brought forth in speech Heidegger calls the saying. Saying is different from speaking. The latter is a vocal utterance while the former is a “mutual showing of something”, ‘mutual’ because saying is always communication with another human. The saying is, in fact, the essence of language.
Since saying, as a showing (and like all showing, a self-showing), is not the same as speaking, it doesn’t depend on humans. All saying is therefore preceded by the self-showing of the thing itself. Heidegger interprets this to mean that we must hear language before we can speak. How can we listen to language? Remember that the essence of language is the saying which, as a (self-)showing, speaks by “pointing, reaching out to every region of presencing, letting what is present in each case appear in such regions or vanish from them”. I take this to mean that language is the means by which an encounter with things is possible. Heidegger is essentially reversing traditional wisdom here. We usually think we see (know) things first and then speak about them, but actually language, as saying, brings the things forth and lets them reveal themselves. Again, we have here another strand to add to the ek-sistent comportment through the nothing which discloses beings to us.
In typical Heidegger fashion, he sums up his thoughts regarding language by saying that he has brought language as language to language. What could this possibly mean? He has brought language (the essence of language) as language (the saying) to language (to the resounding word or speech). In other words, he has revealed the essence of language which lies behind the mere spoken word.
Metaphysics and the End of Philosophy
Metaphysics is going “beyond beings” to concentrate on beings as a whole, traditionally; the world, humanity, and God. This is fine, but for Heidegger’s purposes it is insufficient because he has his sights set on a deeper truth; Being itself. Metaphysics begins with the idea and this is only the outward appearance of things. The problem is that the idea already presupposes things. This is the limit of metaphysics; it can’t get behind things to think Being.
Philosophy, in turn, is metaphysics (according to Heidegger), and with metaphysics now evolving into the individual sciences, it (and philosophy) is coming to an end. Fortunately, Heidegger doesn’t advocate that we all hang up our hats and go and become scientists. There is still a task remaining for thinking, and it is to that we will turn next.
The Clearing, Aletheia, and the Task of Thinking
The task remaining for thinking after philosophy is found in the catchphrase of phenomenology; “to the things themselves”. How do “things” appear or become present? They can only reveal themselves on the ground of some “openness that grants a possible letting appear and show”. This openness Heidegger calls the clearing. This slots in nicely with the idea of the nothing creating the space for beings to appear. Indeed, it seems that the nothing can be seen as something like the way the clearing manifests.
Now, the clearing is that by which all things come to presence but it, like everything else, can only appear to us as a phenomenon, albeit the “primal phenomenon”. This means that the clearing is also the possible presencing (bringing-forth) of that presence (the clearing) itself. This absolute first unconcealment in which Being (as the clearing in which all beings come to presence) and thinking (our attempting to grasp Being) are first presenced together, Heideger calls aletheia, the Greek word for “unconcealedness”. Aletheia appears to be the final goal Heidegger searched his whole life for, Being as Being.
The problem with aletheia is that, as aletheia, we can never think, that is, grasp, it. Because every phenomenon (including aletheia) can only appear to us as already presenced in the clearing, whatever we may think of aletheia, however we may apprehend it, we are only grasping the phenomenon or appearance of aletheia as a thing already revealed in the clearing. We are never able to see aletheia naked, as it were. Thus, the final task of thinking seems to be a never-ending one, a semi-mystical contemplation of aletheia and a reflection on the way it operates in the world.
The Essence of the Human Being
So, the essence of the human being is ek-sistence or standing in the clearing of Being and this means that humans let beings “appear in the light of Being as the beings they are.” This sounds like it means Dasein produces, or is responsible for, Being in some way. Heidegger disputes this though, preferring to say that although Being reveals itself in human “ecstatic projection”, the fact that Dasein is in its essence, the clearing of Being, is “the dispensation of Being itself.” Dasein is not the “lord of beings. Man is the shepherd of Being… [He has been] called by Being itself into the preservation of Being’s truth.”
This, and other lines like it, reveal the pseudo-mystical leaning Heidegger’s conception of Being took on in his later life. He wanted to reserve for Being an absolutely foundational quality which means it cannot rely on anything, including Dasein. This may be the most difficult aspect of his later philosophy to swallow. Nevertheless, the fascinating and original insights which sparkle in every lecture he gave and every essay he wrote, ensure that Heidegger will remain perennially relevant and guarantee his slot in the history of great Western philosophers.