Wednesday, September 27, 2006

How to Do Good Philosophy, With Help from Dogbert

Something to always keep in mind when discussing philosophy:

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Friday, September 08, 2006

¶1. The Necessity for Explicitly Restating the Question of Being

This was my first (and last) post at this summer's Being and Time reading group. I don't think we had a clear enough plan on who was posting what and when, which slowed down the blog and lead to its (generally) quick demise. As I've been wanting to closely work through B&T, I thought I'd place it here as a beginning of a set of entries that summarize that important text.

Throughout I will be using mostly Macquarrie and Robinson's translation. I do have electronic access to Stambaugh's translation, but do not think that I will use it much. So, unless indicated otherwise, the translation that I am working with will be Macquarrie and Robinson. All in-text references will begin with the page number in the translation followed by the page number in the German text, designated by an "H" (e.g. 81/H55). Today I will finally purchase Sein und Zeit (I've been trying to find a way to get a copy without paying outrageous international shipping costs for a few years), which I hope to utilize throughout. Feel free to ask questions, give non-B&T references, etc.

Heidegger begins with his infamous claim that "[The Question of being1] has today been forgotten" (M&R 21/H2). This should be strange to us as this question is not just any question, but the one that motivated Plato and Aristotle as the primary question of philosophy. Since then the question has gone through many "alterations" and "retouchings" after which "what [Plato and Aristotle] wrested with the utmost intellectual effort from the phenomena, fragmentary and incipient though it was, has long since become trivialized" (21/H2). Heidegger believes that there are three "dogmas" about being that have contributed to this decline:

  1. Being is thought to the "most universal concept."
  2. Being is thought to be indefinable.
  3. Being is thought to be self-evident.
For the first, quoting Aquinas: "An understanding of being is already included in conceiving anything which one apprehends in entities" (Summa Theologica 11:1 Q.94 Art.2; 22/H3).2 Thus being applies in some sense to everything. But here the universality is not thought in the sense of a class or genus, but transcends any genus. Aristotle himself saw the 'universality' of being to be analogous to the universality of a genus/class, but not reducible to one. This "put the problem of being on what was, in principle, a new basis" (22/H3). This, as Heidegger will later put it, is the "ontological difference"--the difference between being and beings, or, rather, the claim that being is not a being and should not be treated as one. This idea continued , though in an imprecise way, in philosophy through the Thomists, the Scotists (probably the two greatest early influences in Heidegger's thought), and even in Hegel, "except that he no longer pays heed to Aristotle's problem of the unity of beings as over against the multiplicity of 'categories' applicable to things" (23/H3).
So if it is said that 'being' is the most universal concept, this cannot mean that it is the one which is clearest or that it needs no further discussion. It is rather the darkest of all. (23/H3)
For the second, if it is the case that being is not the same thing as beings, then it cannot be defined or understood as beings are. Furthermore, as the most universal concept, we cannot understand being in terms of anything else; it is the ground of things and, thus, should not be thought of in terms of them. I think Heidegger puts it best:
We can infer only that 'being' cannot have the character of an entity. Thus we cannot apply to being the concept of 'definition' as presented in traditional logic [i.e. in terms of properties], which itself has its foundations in ancient ontology and which, within certain limits, provides a justifiable way of characterizing "entities". The indefinability of being does not eliminate the question of its meaning; it demands that we look that question in the face. (23/H4)
Here is the first intimation that we must move beyond logic and the traditional metaphysic in asking the question of being: it must transcend our usual ways of discussing things. As the Western tradition has focused so exclusively on beings instead of being, we cannot depend on its formulations. This does not make it useless, by any means, but we cannot simply refer to the usual formulations and constructions as if they were self-evidently true.

For the third, it is readily recognized that we constantly use the copula (i.e. "is") in our interactions with and discussions about beings: it pervades our language and we cannot help but use it. Thus we start this investigation with some understanding of being, but this understanding is "an average kind of intelligibility, which merely demonstrates that this is unintelligible" (23/H4). This demonstrates an "a priori...enigma"--that we understand being but view it as unintelligible.

The very fact that we already live in an understanding of being and that the meaning of being is still veiled in darkness proves that it is necessary in principle to raise this question again. (23/H4)
From the above we see that appealing to the self-evident nature of being is "a dubious procedure" since that which is self-evident is to become "the sole explicit and abiding theme for one's analytic--'the business of philosophers' (23-24/H4). Because of this we cannot simply let the matter lay where it is in its self-evident obscurity and calling it self-evident does not negate this obscurity. Simply looking at these three common conceptions of being demonstrates that the question of being has remained unanswered. If we are to revive it, "we must first work out an adequate way of formulating it" (24/H4), as the traditional formulations are obviously lacking.


  1. I will not follow M&R's pension to capitalize "Being." There is a danger in using the title case for being in that one might then think of it in terms of beings (perhaps as the greatest being--God, Nature, etc.), which is one of the central mistakes in Western thought according to Heidegger. Regardless, it should be obvious when I am referring to "beings" and when I am speaking of "being."
  2. M&R quote an alternative translation: "For that which, before aught else, falls under apprehension, is being, the notion of which is included in all things whatsoever a man apprehends" (Thomas Baker, trans.; see here for the full reference). Aquinas, in the same reference, states, "'being' is the first thing that falls under the apprehension simply."

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