Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Presencing and Essencing

[NOTE: I have made a few modifications since the original posting, though the substance of the entry remains the same. (KW 6-30-06 11:09 AM MST)]

Man's mode of being is being-in-the-world. In its essence, this means that man is related to beings and being; not only that, but man is essentially (not contingently) related to beings/being. In Being and Time, Heidegger discusses many equiprimordial characteristics that make up man's being-in-the-world, as exemplified in the care-structure. The German term for equiprimordial is gleichursprünglich, literally translated as "equally primordial." Moving away from the tendency for 'simplicity' in earlier philosophies, Heidegger is proposing (or bringing to light) multiple grounds for man's being, each of which is equally essential in Dasein's ontological constitution.

The phenomenon of the equiprimordiality of constitutive items has often been disregarded in ontology, because of a methodologically unrestrained tendency to derive everything and anything from some simple 'primal ground'.
Being and Time, 170/H131.
I'd like to begin with the question of presencing, or making present. As a being-within-the-world, I am at or exist as a 'here' (Da-sein, "being-here"). It is by virtue of my being a 'here' that there can be a 'yonder' or a 'there.' Within so-called 'objective' space, as constituted by absolute coordinates, there cannot be a 'there' as there are no privileged points in space; there are only objective distances between points in homogenous space. But with Dasein, as the being that is concerned with being, including its own being, there is a privileged place that is Dasein's 'there.' Every being is a certain direction and distance from a given Dasein: (pointing) "It's that way (from here)," "When you reach the corner take a right (your right)," etc. Even in the case of objectified space--i.e. North, East, West, South, 30° Latitude, 145° Longitude, coordinates (3, -5)--there is still a reference to Dasein, but in a modified sense: each objectified spatiality is enveloped within Dasein's concern (Dasein's world) and each is, in some sense, arbitrary in their measurements. Because of this, they cannot be fundamental.

Dasein's spatiality is dominated by presencing, or by making beings present in its concern in the world. This making present has little to do with objective space, as that which is 10 feet away--say an approaching acquaintance--is 'closer' in Dasein's world than the glasses through which they are looking. One other way of putting it is that the acquaintance appears, is present in Dasein's concern, while the glasses are not--they are that through which I see my friend, they are not what I see. This also applies to beings that are not in sight, according to the intentionality of Dasein's activities: when I am concerned with my wife, though she is out of sight, she is more present to me than the objects in my cubicle. It is because she can be so present that I am 'in my own little world' or that I 'just didn't see' my co-worker enter my cubicle, even though they were in my visual field. When I am 'somewhere else' I am no longer actively engaged with that which is objectively closer and, thus, I do not 'see' such things, they are 'far from my mind.'1

Heidegger's later thought added an element to this notion of presencing: that every presencing is also a non-presencing. Using his later terminology, every uncovering of entities is also a covering of entities. One example I've been toying with recently is a baseball bat: when I am in a baseball game, I presence the baseball bat in a particular way. Within that context, it is something that I use to hit the ball, it is a piece of equipment used in-order-to do something else. This understanding is further embedded in the game of baseball: the purpose of hitting the ball is to give myself enough time to run bases in-order-to eventually get to home base in-order-to score a point for my team. Included in this context are also other readily understood rules: I cannot hit other players with the bat, I can only use regulated bats, etc. The bat's meaning appears in this context: because of the rules, constraints, and intended purposes inherent in the game of baseball, the bat is presenced in a certain way.

But consider the bat in another context: that of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. For example, here is Walter "Arlie" Latham's bat:

When you are at the batter's box, the bat has a peculiar presence: you can feel it in your hands, but it is not the object of concern. What is most salient is the pitcher's movements that indicate he is about to pitch and then the movement of the ball. At that point one's muscular gestalts, developed through hours upon hours of practice, kick in as you swing at the ball. Throughout this scenario the bat doesn't really appear, it isn't present in itself. In fact, you could just as well use another bat with the same general physical composition, so the bat in its particularity is inconsequential and does not need to appear. Instead, the bat is absorbed into the context that includes myself, the pitcher, the ball, and the context. Quoting Heidegger:

Equipment can genuinely show itself only in dealings cut to its own measure (hammering with a hammer, for example); but in such dealings an entity of this kind is not grasped thematically as an occurring Thing [merely objectively present], nor is the equipment-structure known as such even in the using... In dealings such as this, where something is put to use, our concern subordinates itself to the "in-order-to" which is constitutive for the equipment we are employing at the time; the less we just stare at the hammer-Thing, and the more we seize hold of it and use it, the more primordial does our relationship to it become, and the more unveiledly is it encountered as that which it is--as equipment. The hammering itself uncovers the specific 'manipulability' of the hammer.
Being and Time 98/H69.
Within a museum context, by contrast, the bat is allowed to appear in its singularity, in itself. Rather than being seen as something used in-order-to do something else (and hence not really being 'seen' at all), I notice the bat itself: I see its imperfections, the wood's grain, the way the lighting in the museum plays off its polished surface, perhaps those features that differentiate it from other bats. Within this context there are also various practices/rules: the bat is not seen, for example, as something that I can pick up and start hitting things with, which would cause screams of outrage from patrons and owners. Furthermore, in this case the bat is seen differently than the bats I could find at any sporting goods store: it has a history that is tied to various individuals and events that make it Latham's bat, it is Latham's bat. This is the same reason why we value originals in artwork: the copy, even the perfect copy, lacks a historical relation such as being the object where the moment of creation came to fruition (there are stark phenomenological differences between creation and copying).

In understanding the bat as something used to hit a ball, or understanding the bat within the baseball game context, some aspects of the bat come to presence (i.e. its utility) while others are covered over (i.e. its singularity). Beyond the above examples, other aspects of the bat are also covered over, like its utility as a weapon to protect oneself against an intruder, or as a door stop, or as a hammer, or as a trophy (which is slightly different than as a museum piece), or any other possibly limitless ways. In relation to the first case, when my life is threatened the bat has a particular salience as a weapon that is missing when I am engrossed in trying to hit the pitch. Each presencing of the bat as something in particular does reveal the being of the bat, but each also covers over other aspects, giving us an indeterminable excess of meaning that any given articulation cannot capture. This is not due to ignorance or the simple lack of information, but it is an essential aspect of every appearing/presencing.

Inherent in the above is another aspect of presencing: its circumspective character. The bat appears as an object with which to hit baseballs only within the context of the game of baseball. Without the rules, regulations, and practices inherent in the game, the baseball would lose some of its content through, Heidegger would argue, covering up aspects of its being that the context does not bring out. Another cogent example used by John Haugeland, in his Having Thought: Essays in the Metaphysics of Mind, is a Rook. Divorced from the game of chess, with its inherent rules and objectives, a Rook loses much of the meaning (or being) that it had within the game. While we may still ascribe certain movements to the Rook on a coordinate plane that mimic those found in an actual chess game, we lose other aspects of the Rook in the process: that it is useful for certain purposes and strategies, that in certain circumstances it is either wise or unwise to use the Rook, that it is weaker against some chess pieces, etc. (Wikipedia has an entry on Rooks, for those of us who are chess challenged, that mentions such matters). The Rook and bat, then, gain meaning depending on the context in which they are found. This requires a different kind of presencing.

To better illustrate this, consider a common literary point: inherent in every story is a context which makes the story intelligible, normally called the plot. The plot is that which unifies the otherwise disparate events within the story. These disparate events can occur in multiple stories and in various orders: the protagonist could (1) fall in love with the girl, (2) lose her to the antagonist, (3) valiantly fight to save her, and then (4) marry her; similarly, the protagonist could (2) lose the girl to the antagonist, (1) fall in love with her (3) in the process of valiantly saving her, and (4) then marry her; or the protagonist could (4) marry her, (2) lose her to the antagonist, (3) valiantly fight to save her, and then (1) fall in love with her; or the protagonist could (3) valiantly save the girl, (1) fall in love with her, (4) marry her, and then (2) lose her to the antagonist. What the plot does is organize these disparate events and (hopefully) connect them into a whole; it makes them coherent. Furthermore, it makes salient specific aspects of each event that are important for the movement of the plot itself, such as the personality quirks of those involved, how the protagonist and the girl fall in love, etc. What features are made salient within the individual telling are incredibly important, but are not determined or contained within the general events themselves.

This is what is needed in our intelligible actions: we need to gather together disparate beings according to certain purposes and motivations to make a context wherein they can become relevantly intelligible. This is Heidegger's "circumspection," or Umsicht ("looking-about"). By being receptive (or, to use another Heideggerian term, open) to what is needed in each circumstance, including how to presence beings and how to best respond to the contingencies of the situation as it unfolds, we come to understand beings in their essence. Perhaps the better way to put it is that we essence (as a verb) beings by bringing (or presencing) them into the proper contexts, which include various norms, intentions, and motivations, that make them meaningful. It is not that we somehow find essences 'out there in the world,' but we bring beings into their essence by presencing them in a context.

As a final point, this aptly indicates one of the Heideggerian problems with supposed 'objectivity'--a thing's essence, that which it is, is not found in a thing-in-itself completely separated from other beings. Rather, a thing's essence is at least partially constituted by its relations with other beings and intentions. This also requires a being that can presence the disparate beings and intentions into a context. Furthermore, every presencing simultaneously entails an excess that is covered over. Thus, every presencing will essentially be incomplete and cannot fully describe the being in question. This also implies that there is no privileged way to presence beings, whether it be through science or literature. Hence, objectivity itself becomes problematic, if not impossible, as it is traditionally understood.


  1. See, for example, Arian Mack and Irvin Rock, Inattentional Blindness (London: MIT Press, 1998); Simons, D.J., and C.F. Chabris, "Gorillas in Our Midst: Sustained Inattentional Blindness for Dynamic Events," Perception 28 (1999), 1059-1074; Lachter, Joe, Eric Ruthruff, and Kenneth I. Forster, "Forty-Five Year After Broadbent (1958): Still No Identification Without Attention," Psychological Review 111/4 (2004), 880-913; Susan Hurley, Consciousness in Action (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998); Alva Noë, Action in Perception; Steven B. Most, Brian J. Scholl, Daniel J. Simons, and Erin R. Clifford, "What You See Is What You Set: Sustained Inattentional Blindness and the Capture of Awareness," Psychological Review 112/1 (2005), 237. Maurice Merleau-Ponty argued for this when he claimed that we "polarize the world," bringing out those aspects of the environment that we set ourselves to see (see Phenomenology of Perception, Colin Smith, trans. (London and New York: Routledge & Keagan Paul, 1958), 129). Heidegger makes a similar claim with his discussion of "moods" (Stimmung) and "state-of-mind" (Befindlichkeit); see Being and Time, 29-31, 172-188 (H134-148) and The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, William McNeill and Nicholas Walker, trans. (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995), 78-167.



Blogger C Grace said...

My interest in philosophy has started fairly recently and I have not taken any actual classes-just self study, but I blip around the blogs as an introduction to different philosophers. I am totally unfamiliar with Heidegger.

I have just a couple of quick questions if you have time.

It seems that Heidegger takes an approach to philosophy that uses an intuitive, observational approach rather than a rational, logical approach. Is this right?

"a thing's essence is at least partially constituted by its relations with other beings and intentions."

I would totally agree with this. I have noticed that when I observe things essence is a unity. No one thing is separated from another, the objects that we observe are not independent of one another. We observe a differentiated unity, not distinct objects. Does this approach what Heidegger means by "pre-essential essence,”?

However, when we think about what we have observed, this essence is broken up into objects of thought. (I would propose this happens because the essence is infintie and we are finite) When we think about these objects we cannot completely reproduce the context that they were in (ie the unity of essence) so we choose from this essence what is important for the moment. Is this what is meant by presencing here?

I am just trying to get a feel for the unfamiliar vocabulary and for Heidegger's main points to see if the ideas he has would be worth wading through the obscure writing style.

Any suggestions on good clear commentators that could provide an introduction would be welcomed.

9:10 PM  
Blogger Tim said...


I was semi-following this down to the end, where you said:

Hence, objectivity itself becomes problematic, if not impossible, as it is traditionally understood.

Here's my problem: I don't recognize "objectivity" in Heidegger's sense as having anything to do with objectivity in the sense in which that term is traditionally understood. Rather, it seems to me that Heidegger has become absorbed in the etymology of terms and then goes off chasing hares of his own making. This doesn't have to be a bad thing; but it is bad when he claims that it reveals something of significance about philosophical topics that are discussed by others using some of the same terms.

On the bit that C Grace finds attractive --

"a thing's essence is at least partially constituted by its relations with other beings and intentions"

-- this sounds paradoxical, since what many people mean by "essence" is simply "what a thing is apart from its relations with other beings and intentions." Now, Heidegger is free to say -- he may even be right to say -- that often what's important about a thing isn't just its essence but its relations with other beings and intentions. What makes my daughter's paintings precious isn't the precise, molecule-by-molecule distribution of paint over the paper surface but rather the fact that she made it, and that she made it for me. But why describe this by saying that this is the essence of the thing? That seems like kidnapping a perfectly good term just because it has positive metaphysical connotations. Why not instead say that, e.g., the value of a thing is not always determinable solely in terms of its essence? The latter statement is clear, is true, and has the virtue that it does not involve hijacking established vocabulary for the sake of making the point.

9:32 PM  
Blogger Kevin Winters said...


Exactly, Heidegger is disputing the "traditional" understanding.

The issue of Heidegger's relationship to etymology is itself quite interesting. My response to your statement is simply: Heidegger is letting words do what they do best, namely direct us to beings. Using more traditional terms, words signy a signifier. If the etymology has some elements that are not captured in our current understanding, maybe the ancients saw something that we did not that is then reflected in that terminology. What you need to demonstrate is that Heidegger's phenomenology itself is faulty.

In relation to "essence," again, Heidegger is disputing "what many people mean" by that term. The mere fact that the majority of philosophers accept a different notion that has a history demonstrates little. What Heidegger and I provided was a phenomenological description of how we understand a being's essence: by bringing into a context wherein it becomes involved with a whole slew of other beings, intentions, motivations, and skills. What you need to show is that a being does, in fact, have an "essence" apart from these involvements/disclosings/uncoverings. For example, what is the "essence" of a Rook apart from the game of chess with its norms, motivations, and other chess pieces?

10:46 PM  
Blogger Tim said...


You write:

In relation to "essence," again, Heidegger is disputing "what many people mean" by that term. The mere fact that the majority of philosophers accept a different notion that has a history demonstrates little.

Why should this be profitable? It's a bit like disputing what people mean by "spoon." You can do that, by the Humpty Dumpty principle. You can mean what you choose. But then you must not be surprised when people find your obiter dicta puzzling. And you probably shouldn't be surprised when, after you tell them that you didn't really mean what everyone else means by those words, they respond, "Oh -- if that's all you're saying, why is it interesting?"

Etymology is a real grab bag and should not, in my opinion, be called upon to deliver up a metaphysics. Sometimes verbal similarities are accidental; sometimes they are a matter of the extension of metaphors in one particular direction. I do not think there is anything very valuable to be obtained from disassembling the word "understanding" and making heavy weather about "standing under." This is the sort of thing Sallis did constantly in his job talk at Vanderbilt. It's cute once or twice, but after that it comes across as a rhetorical trope that serves as a substitute for serious thinking.

I realize that you think otherwise. So: where's the argument?

On the example of the Rook: I don't think it's useful to speak of Rooks as having essences. It's certainly important to understand that Rooks move in certain ways and not in others, that one may castle under certain well-defined circumstances, etc. But what's the point of pressing the word "essence" into service here? (I speak as a fairly experienced tournament chess player, teacher, and author; you can look me up online in this regard if you like.)

It does not seem impossible to me that one might try to explore the essences of things by putting them in relations to other things. Their behavior in various contexts might well be a clue to their intrinsic nature. Millikan's oil-drop experiment comes to mind here. It just seems perverse to hijack a term with a stable existing meaning and to insist that what it really means, despite its established meaning in philosophical parlance, is something entirely different.

7:17 AM  
Blogger Kevin Winters said...

Yes, it does seem strange when the majority of metaphysics for the last 1500 years has defined it in the classical sense. But, then again, at least up until Descartes the notions of 'subjective' and 'objective' were the exact opposite of what they are now in our post-Kantian world.

On etymology, I can simply repeat myself: if the etymology does point to something that has been missed, then we should follow where it points, yes? What you need to do, then, is show that it is accidental, that the basic metaphor is faulty, etc. Merely saying that etymology ca be a "grab bag" does not demonstrate that, in this particular case, it is.

If a Rook is a bad example, then let's speak about something else. I'll let you pick and we'll see what comes of it. I fail to see why it is not a relevant example: surely as a what that we can speak about, a Rook has an essence as much as a horse or stone.

All that you have done so far is say that Heidegger is going against the majority of philosophers in history (which is true) and that his use of etymology might be wrong (which is indeterminate). Now you need to demonstrate it: give a counter-description and we'll see how well it works.

10:03 AM  
Blogger Tim said...


No, you mistake my meaning. It's not a matter of whether Heidegger wants to go against most of the philosophers in history -- that's no problem at all. It's that he's deliberately misusing language.

Suppose Heidegger had said this:

"I know what you guys mean by 'essence,' which is the intrinsic, non-relational properties that make a thing the kind of thing it is. But you have also adopted the position that what is, in this sense, essential is all that is important. And that latter claim is what I want to dispute."

Then we'd all be on the same page and we could get into an interesting discussion. And a lot of analytic philosophers would be lining up on both sides.

I don't see the force of your attempting to shift the burden of proof on etymology. From where I'm sitting, it has as much credibility as a method for revealing metaphysical truth as, say, reading tea leaves. Even if sometimes by chance the etymology encodes an important truth, we'd still have to conclude that from other means. By themselves, the tea leaves are only accidentally connected with the truth.

5:59 PM  
Blogger Kevin Winters said...


I'm not "attempting to shift the burden of proof on etymology." The etymology is simply one waypoint to an adequate phenomenological description of entities (the signifier that points us to the signified). Heidegger is not giving arguments, but descriptions of how beings appear. I'm certain we both agree that beings must first appear before any adequate argument can be given, yes? Therefore, as prior to all argumentation, Heidegger is describing how beings appear, which is at odds with the 'traditional' account.

If you feel that Heidegger's descriptions are wrong, then give me a counter-phenomenology; describe how beings appear in a way that is consistent with the traditional metaphysic. At the moment the traditional metaphysic of essences is ungrounded phenomenologically: it is assumed to be there, but not much else is done (much like the concept of 'substance,' which Heidegger also disputes). You can find similar accounts in much of the modern work on concept/category formation and use (e.g., Rosch, Lakoff, Johnson, Fauconnier, etc.): we do not 'find' essences 'out there,' but create and maintain them within our dynamic interactions within the world and with beings.

12:04 PM  
Blogger Tim said...


You write:

I'm certain we both agree that beings must first appear before any adequate argument can be given, yes?

Actually, I am not sure what this means, since it isn't clear what the scope of "beings" is in this context. Visual afterimages? Headaches? Tunes? Chairs? Apples? People? God?

I'm also having a hard time getting clear on the sense of "appear" that you're using. It's certainly possible to give arguments about things that one doesn't perceive in the ordinary sense; we do this all the time in science. But it's a measure of how difficult I find it to understand what you're saying that I cannot tell whether, in saying this, I have contradicted anything you're trying to say.

You ask:

If you feel that Heidegger's descriptions are wrong, then give me a counter-phenomenology; describe how beings appear in a way that is consistent with the traditional metaphysic.

It's not so much a matter of thinking that Heidegger's excursions in phenomenology are wrong or right as a matter of thinking that they're irrelevant. You clearly believe that there's an important connection there, as you go on:

At the moment the traditional metaphysic of essences is ungrounded phenomenologically: ...

What does this mean? Why should the "metaphysic of essences" be "grounded phenomenologically"? I'm not trying to be obtuse here -- promise -- I just can't seem to get a grip on why you think that phenomenology of the sort Heidegger is doing is of more than psychological interest.

I'm passingly familiar with Eleanor Rosch's refutation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, but I haven't read any of her other work.

2:35 PM  
Blogger Kevin Winters said...


All the things that you have mentioned would be a 'being.' It is that which is and can include the computer that you are typing on as much as the literary figure Oliver Twist. Rather than looking at mathematical entities or atoms as paradigmatic examples of being, Heidegger examines the everyday such as hammers, cars, and mugs.

On the question of 'appears,' it is a complex term. For Heidegger it could include 'seeing' things--the computer screen, your mouse, a rock, etc.--but is also included in the the phrase, "Oh, now I see" (i.e. in terms of comprehension). In fact, Heidegger (in a somewhat Kantian sense) thinks that the two are inseparable, are equiprimordial.

Here's one useful example: when people who are born blind recover from an operation, they describe what they first 'see' as a chaotic conglomeration of colors and movements. One patient of Oliver Sacks reported that he did not 'see' his doctor's face until he spoke, at which time the chaos 'solidified' (my word, not his) and he 'saw' a face. While the former chaotic perception is a kind of 'seeing,' it isn't a seeing of things. Alva Noe, in his Action in Perception, makes the distinction between perceiving and seeing, the latter including an understanding of how to comport oneself in the world. This, per my own post, includes what to make salient in terms of one's current goals and intentions, of knowing how to contextualize (hence 'essence') beings. I hope this helps to understand what I am trying to say.

Traditional metaphysics is ungrounded phenomenologically because it does not have an adequate grasp of how beings appear. It posits substances and properties, but neither of these ever appear, or at least not how they are traditionally understood. I do not experience bare properties (I don't even know what that means), beings are according to their contingent contexts (e.g., the Rook, the baseball bat, etc.), I categorize primarily in other ways than in terms of 'genus' and 'species,' etc.

Thus we are left with two choices: first, we posit that substances and properties really are the grounds of objects despite their never appearing or, second, we find another description that is coherent with the phenomena. Heidegger is proposing the second.

Let me add one more level to this: if it is indeed possible that we experience beings as they are, or we experience them truthfully, then the nature of our experience is itself relevant to our thought. As a historical example, this is the revolutionary nature of Kant's 'Copernican Revolution'--his account of the phenomena had important consequences for his thought, for science, for ethics, etc. Heidegger's thought has ramifications for AI, business ethics, metaphysics, religion, hermeneutics, education, psychology, politics, etc., etc., etc. I propose that it is your existentialist ('psychological') interpretation of Heidegger that makes it hard for you to see his relevance. Perhaps if you could see him as doing that which he proposed he was doing--opening up the question of being--then you might see where I am coming from. Perhaps you never will, and I'm more than fine with that, but thanks for at least trying.

11:51 AM  

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