Heidegger and the Question of Being


Photograph by Ezer Pamintuan

Being – it is a notion so simple and ubiquitous that we cannot express ourselves for long without using it. The verb “to be” shows up in some form in all of these sentences: “My brother is upstairs.” “I wish I were in New York City.” “There are infinitely many prime numbers.” These sentences are simple enough to understand, but when we inquire into the meaning of “to be”, we are quickly puzzled. What do we mean by “Being”? This is the question which Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) seeks to answer in his 1927 treatise, Being and Time (Heidegger 19).

But before I proceed any further, I must forestall a possible confusion. The way I have presented this question might make it seem as if Heidegger is primarily concerned with a puzzle of language, one that can be solved by analyzing our concepts. But Heidegger’s question is no mere linguistic puzzle. Rather, it is a problem one can be struck with through one’s own familiar experiences. Perhaps one is simply contemplating the trees, the mountains, and the stars and planets above, when suddenly one’s mind turns away from what these things are, and one is simply amazed that they are. This is not a cosmological concern with the origin of things; one is not seeking some “first cause” in the distant past. Rather, one is amazed that now, at this moment, these things are. One is struck with sheer wonder at their Being. But what are we referring to when we refer to “their Being?” What is the Being of entities which draws our amazement? Heidegger offers a preliminary definition of Being as “that which determines entities as entities” (25). Taylor Carman somewhat more clearly defines Being as “that in virtue of which entities are entities. It is what makes (in a noncausal sense of ‘makes’) entities entities” (xiv). It is this – not the mere definition of some linguistic term, but Being itself – that Heidegger seeks to uncover in his treatise. To this project Heidegger gives the name “fundamental ontology” (“ontology” literally means “study of being”) (34).

If this line of questioning strikes the reader as bizarre or obscure, Heidegger would not be surprised. He laments that Western philosophy no longer experiences wonder at Being – it no longer poses the question of the meaning of Being. Instead, Western philosophy and science has become content with investigating particular kinds of entities, and delineating the various categories under which entities may fall (21, 29-31). In other words, in its preoccupation with beings, Western thought has forgotten about Being. This forgetfulness is understandable, since for the most part Being “does not show itself”, but instead remains “hidden” (59). The reason for this is that Being is not itself a being – Being is not an entity alongside other entities (26). Thus, it is all too easy for Being to be “covered up” amidst our preoccupation with concrete entities (59).

So how can we gain access to Being? Here, the problem gestures toward its own solution. Although Being for the most part does not show itself, but instead remains covered up and hidden, it nonetheless constitutes the ground for those which for the most part do show themselves: entities (59). This is because Being is always the Being of an entity (61). Therefore, if we wish to uncover Being, and thereby answer the question of the meaning of Being, we must “wrest” Being from some entity, by “interrogating” the Being of that entity (61). The question then becomes what entity is most appropriate for this investigation.

Heidegger selects us ourselves as the entities to be investigated – it is our own Being which is to be wrested and uncovered (67-68). We are the appropriate kind of entity because we already possess a “primordial”, “preconceptual” understanding of Being; otherwise, we would not be able to ask the question of the meaning of Being in the first place (27-28). Furthermore, we are unique creatures in that our own Being is an “issue” for us (32). We are not mere creatures of instinct who unconsciously move about in the world. Rather, we direct our attention – we “comport” ourselves – to our own Being, and we tend to it. We survey the future, and in our decisions we select from among our possibilities (67-68). The fact that our own Being is an issue for us is further evidence that we already possess an average understanding of Being (32). Heidegger’s task, then, is to dig into this average understanding, in the hope that Being itself may be uncovered.

But if “[w]e are ourselves the entities to be analyzed” (67), what is the proper method for this analysis? Biology and physiology perhaps? Or maybe sociology and psychology? None of these are appropriate. Noble and necessary disciplines though they are, they nevertheless do not dig deep enough to grasp our own Being which is an issue for us, and so they cannot serve as the method of fundamental ontology (71-75). Heidegger is not interested in us as biological animals or as psychological subjects. This is reflected in the fact that he does not use traditional terms such as “human being” or “person” to name that kind of entity which we ourselves are. Instead, Heidegger designates us with the term “Dasein”, which in German literally means “being-there” (32). This term points to the fact that we are essentially embedded in the world, caught up in a web of projects and involvements, and that it is in virtue of our essential Being-in-the-world that our own Being is an issue for us (78).

Therefore, the appropriate method of fundamental ontology is one that analyzes Dasein’s Being-in-the-world (34-35, 78). For Heidegger, it is the method of hermeneutical phenomenology which is able to fulfill this task (60, 62). In an upcoming post, I will articulate Heidegger’s method of hermeneutical phenomenology and demonstrate why it is the appropriate method for conducting fundamental ontology. Much of that work will be to simply define hermeneutical phenomenology. Following Heidegger, I will go about this by breaking this complex term into its component parts – “phenomenon”, “logos”, and “hermeneutic” – analyzing them separately, and then bringing them back together in order to grasp the meaning of the whole term. This definitional analysis will in turn cast light on precisely how hermeneutical phenomenology is to serve as the method of fundamental ontology.





_Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. John Macquarrie and Edward S. Robinson. New York, NY: HarperPerennial/Modern Thought, 2008. Print.

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