Tuesday, October 31, 2006

¶3. The Ontological Priority of the Question of Being

In the previous section it was argued that the question of being is peculiar because "a series of fundamental considerations is required for working it out, not to mention for solving it" (29/H8). This was seen in the circularity of dealing with "first principles"--being fundamental, they must be invoked in the questioning itself. Our motivation for raising this question deals both with its "venerable origin" within Greek thought, but also the lack of a satisfactory answer (see ¶1). But we are still tempted to ask: what is the aim in asking this question? Doesn't the question fly into the highest realm of abstraction and generality that only philosophers in their ivory towers would consider (implying that the question is empty of meaning), or is it in fact "the most basic and the most concrete" fact we can consider (29/H9)?

Heidegger's answer moves in steps: "Being is always the being of an entity" (Ibid). All entities are capable of being organized in such a way that they become the basis for a particular kind of study, such as "history, nature, space, life, Dasein, language, and the like" (Ibid). But before the sciences (used broadly) can stake out their areas of study and decide beforehand what kind of entities they are going to ask about, there is already a basic grasp of being in "our pre-scientific ways of experiencing and interpreting that domain of being in which the area of subject-matter is itself confined" (Ibid). A simple way of putting this is that mankind was related to beings (and, hence, understood being) long before any particular science (as either defined by the Greeks or us moderns) came on the scene. Not only this, but even the progress of the sciences stems not from collecting and collating facts, but when "their basic concepts undergo a more or less radical revision which is transparent to itself" (Ibid). To use an example, the major advancements in physics have not come from merely gathering facts, but in the irruption of paradoxes that made physics reexamine its founding principles. Newtonian physics in many ways breaks down on the quantum level, which fact cannot be illustrated simply by looking at the data. It is only by fundamentally reinterpreting the being of subatomic particles that the paradoxes can be meaningful and any advancement can be made. This is why a genuine science must be "capable of a crisis in its basic concepts" and why such a fact makes problematic the relationship between "positively investigative inquiry" and the "things themselves" that are its aim (Ibid).

Heidegger gives specific examples: the formalist/intuitionist debate within mathematics, relativity (and quantum mechanics) in physics, the movement beyond mechanism and vitalism in biology, historiological and literary ("humane") sciences seeing their objects of inquiry as "problems" rather than objective historical facts, and the question of man's relation to God in theology. All of these "crises" deal with the being of the objects examined in these sciences--their being can no longer be understood within the understanding of their being had by previous generations and the sciences themselves must change in relation to this difference (not the other way around). In doing fundamental ontology we are searching for the "basic concepts" that "determine the way in which we get an understanding beforehand of the area of subject-matter underlying all the objects a science takes as its theme, and all positive investigation is guided by this understanding" (30/H10). Put another way, our understanding of being is the basis on which beings can appear in their different modalities within the sciences--as Newtonian sensuous atoms or as Heisenberg's "partial differential equation in an abstract space of many dimensions."1 It is also the basis on which beings can appear different than our preconceptions--we can be 'surprised' by something only on the basis of a prior understanding that cannot 'make sense' of this new aspect. It is because of this priority of our understanding of being that "[s]uch research must run ahead of the positive sciences, and it can" (Ibid).

Heidegger's project is that of "laying the foundation," which he understands as disclosing the foundations that make possible the understanding of being within a particular world--the world of physics, of art, of literature, etc. This, in turn, will require us to examine Dasein in its historicity insofar as its historicity (or temporality) is constitutive of its mode of being. By doing so we will make clear the apriori grounds on which beings appear in their being. In Heidegger's use, however, apriori doesn't simply mean 'prior to experience,' but rather the fundamental ontological grounds on which any notion of 'prior' or 'experience' is possible, what he referred to in the previous section as "first principles" (see ¶2). In this inquiry we must be careful to not be content with simply elucidating beings--if it is not to be "naive and opaque" our inquiry must "discuss the meaning of being in general" (31/H10). Incidentally, this will prove to be a failing in B&T itself--it never moves beyond beings to being. This failure is not without its positive contributions, however, as B&T still contributes to "laying bare the grounds for [answering the question about the meaning of being] and exhibiting them" (28/H8; from ¶1).

Heidegger summarizes his aim:

The question of being aims therefore at ascertaining the apriori conditions not only for the possibility of the sciences which examine entities as entities of such and such a type, and, in so doing, already operate with an understanding of being, but also for the possibility of those ontologies themselves which are prior to the ontical sciences and which provide their foundation. (31/H11)
When a science has failed to make the being of its entities clear it can fall into all sorts of errors, like assuming that its understanding of being, as seen in the entities that it interrogates, can be generalized to other modes of inquiry. It also makes that science "blind and perverted" in that it does not properly grasp how its entities are constituted and thus it becomes incapable of "crisis" as it is thereby incapable of questioning its foundations. This is the ultimate failing of Western philosophy, on Heidegger's understanding--it has thought the question of being (ontological) answered in terms of its understanding of beings (ontical). This has been exhibited in various ways through history, but it all comes down to Heidegger's central claim--that the question of being has been forgotten. Thus, the question of being does not have priority merely because of its "venerable tradition and advancement" (see the first part of this section), but because it is foundational to all ontic understanding of beings.


  1. Heisenberg in 1945, quoted in Alan A. Grometstein, The Roots of Things: Topics in Quantum Mechanics (New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenium Publishers, 1999), 62.

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Thursday, October 26, 2006

¶2. The Formal Structure of the Question of Being

In the second section of the Introduction to Being and Time, Heidegger addresses the nature of the question as question. By doing so he is trying to show how the "question of being" has a particular character that it does not share with other inquiries (24/H5). Every question is a seeking and every seeking is "guided beforehand by what is sought." Thus, every question is about something, but it is also a questioning of that something which, at present, remains indeterminate. Beyond this questioning we have the goal of the questioning: "that which is to be found in the asking" (Ibid). When we ask a question in an explicit way, as we are in the question of being, the question itself does not become transparent until we become clear about these different aspects of the question as question.

As something that must be guided before, the question of being must start from the fact that "being must already be available to us in some way" (25/H5). In fact, this understanding of being is necessary for even our most everyday activities within the world--opening doors, driving cars, eating food, etc. We cannot currently say that we "know" what being means, even if we use the copula (is) every day in various circumstances (see ¶1). Furthermore, "[w]e do not even know the horizon in terms of which that meaning is to be grasped and fixed" (Ibid), hence we do not even know where to start. However, we must realize that this understanding of being, however vague and imprecise, is a fact.

The indefiniteness of our understanding of being--that we use it and understand it every day but we cannot make it transparent--is itself a positive phenomena that we need to account for. But before we can understand how it is we are to clarify this common understanding of being, we need to examine the historical understandings of being as a concept. By doing so, we can gain a preliminary understanding of what our common understanding of being is; we can also locate possible obscurations that may hinder a more illuminated understanding. We may find that our average understanding of being is partially informed by various theories and opinions that simultaneously illuminate and obscure our common understanding. It will be necessary to make these theories explicit.

"What is asked about" in our inquiry is being--"that which determines entities as entities, that on the basis of which entities are already understood, however we may discuss them in detail" (25-26/H6). Here Heidegger brings in the ontological difference (taken from Aristotle), which should be quoted in full:

The being of entities 'is' not itself an entity. If we are to understand the problem of being, our first philosophical step consists...in not 'telling a story'--that is to say, in not defining entities as entities by tracing them back in their origin to some other entities, as if being had the character of some possible entity. Hence being, as that which is asked about, must be exhibited in a way of its own, essentially different from the way in which entities are discovered. (26/H6)
Because of this, "what is to be found out by the asking"--the meaning of being--must be seen on its own, "essentially contrasting with the concepts in which entities acquire their determinate signification" (Ibid). Being, as that which "determines entities as entities," cannot itself be an entity as, for every entity we can name, the question of its being still remains. Even modern discussions of 'necessary' and 'contingent' beings (as they relate to God or mathematical propositions) still pass over this point--the being of beings, whether they are necessary or contingent, has not been addressed but merely assumed (see ¶1).

Since it is being that we are asking about and being is understood as the "being of entities," we must initially turn to entities; entities are "what [are] interrogated" (Ibid). But if we are able to use beings as our basis for interrogating being, then it must be the case that beings are accessible to us "as they are in themselves." Thus, in asking about being, we must understand how it is that we access beings. But this raises a question: what being are we to interrogate, when everything (or every thing) that we speak of is a being? In looking at every being, there is one that has priority: Dasein, that which each of us is.

Looking at something, understanding and conceiving it, choosing, access to it--all these ways of behaving are constitutive for our inquiry, and therefore are modes of being for those particular entities which we, the inquirers, are ourselves. Thus to work out the question of being adequately, we must make an entity--the inquirer--transparent in his own being. The very asking of this question is an entity's mode of being; and as such it gets its essential character from what is inquired about--namely, being. (27/H7)
It might be immediately objected that this approach is circular: we are trying to understand an entity in its being so that we can "formulate" the question of being? This supposed circularity is inescapable when we are trying to find "first principles," but the charge is equally groundless. Heidegger has two reasons for making this assertion: first, it must be accepted that "first principles" will be in effect in any endeavor we make, so we cannot even raise the question of their meaning without invoking them (in this he is quite close to Kant). Second, as argued in the first section, our understanding of being is currently deficient and, hence, cannot be used circularly. He succinctly states this:
One can determine the nature of entities in their being without necessarily having the explicit concept of the meaning of being at one's disposal. Otherwise there could have been no ontological knowledge heretofore... The 'presupposing' of being has rather the character of taking a look at it beforehand, so that in the light of it the entities presented to us get provisionally articulated in their being. (27/H7-8)
An understanding of being, no matter how provisional, is a positive constituent of Dasein's being as seen in the fact that Dasein is that being that intelligibly speaks of being. Thus, there is no "circular argument" in raising the question of being in this way: we are not assuming a concept of being and then proving it by examining Dasein; rather, we are "laying bare the grounds for [answering the question about the meaning of being] and exhibiting them" (28/H8), which ground is that being that understands being. To quickly restate the argument: Dasein is that being that has an understanding of the meaning of being, hence it is important to understand how that being comes to this understanding so that we can unearth the grounds on which its understanding rest.

We may speak of our questioning of the meaning of being as a "'relatedness backward or forward' which what we are asking about (being) bears to the inquiry itself as a mode of being of an entity [Dasein]" (Ibid). We relate "back" by examining our currently vague understanding of being; we relate "forward" by interrogating a being in its being (Dasein) in order to further clarify our current understanding. We have already seen this in Heidegger's exposition of the mode of being of questioning: it is constituted by "what is asked about," "that which is interrogated," and "that which is to be found out by the interrogation." Not only does this mode of being have an explicitly temporal character, but it also exemplifies an intentional character that will later be seen in Dasein's "care structure" (see Part I Chapter VI). But we have yet to make explicit Dasein's special relation to the question of being--why Dasein itself has a privileged position in our interrogation--though we have already spoken about it in terms of Dasein's understanding of being.

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Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Heidegger and Nazism

I will admit to being quite ignorant of the Heidegger/Nazi debate; it simply doesn't interest me. However, I was struck by a quote taken from What is Called Thinking?. In this passage, Heidegger is discussing Nietzsche's Übermensch:
Nietzsche's thinking gives expression to something that already exists but is still concealed from current views. We may assume, then, that here and there, still invisible to the public eye, the superman already exists. But we must never look for the superman's figure and nature in those characters who by a shallow and misconceived will to power are pushed to the top as the chief functionaries of the various organizations in which that will to power incorporates itself. (Ibid, 59-60)
At the end of that lecture, Heidegger asks: "Is the man of today in his metaphysical nature1 prepared to assume dominion over the earth as a whole?" His answer: "Man as he is today [being the 'last man'] is not prepared to form and assume a world government" (Ibid. 65).

What is Called Thinking was taught after World War II and was, in fact, the first course that Heidegger was allowed to teach after his involvement with the Nazi regime. While Heidegger never publicly renounced his decision to join the Nazi party, statements like these seem to imply the failure of that party's attempt to seize up its own existence in the way Heidegger had hoped. I think it also significant that, following these statements, Heidegger quotes an apparently oft-missed statement by Nietzsche:

[I]n Human, All Too Human I, 349 (1878) I already characterized modern democracy, together with its mongrel forms such as the 'German Reich,' as the form of decline of the state. If there are to be institutions there must be a kind of will, instinct, imperative, anti-liberal to the point of malice: the will to tradition, to authority, to responsibility for centuries to come, to the solidarity of chains of generations forward and backward ad infinitum. ("Twilight of the Idols," found in The Portable Nietzsche, 543)
This is a Nietzsche that most have never heard: the call to tradition, authority, and responsibility. In fact, the Nietzsche who opposed "Deutschland, Deutschland über alles" (Ibid, 506) and who despised the "brutal training, designed to prepare huge numbers of young men, with as little loss of time as possible, to become usable, abusable, in government service" (Ibid, 510) is rarely heard. Thus, I think it important that Heidegger, following his involvement with National Socialism, would quote one of Nietzsche's statements against such a regime.


  1. Here Heidegger is referring to the "last man" who is "about to assume dominion of the earth as a whole" through a "technological transformation of the earth and of human nature" (Ibid, 57 and 59). The last man, then, is technological man.

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Monday, October 02, 2006

Sein und Zeit Online

Maybe I've been blind, but every time I've looked at Ereignis' section on Written by Heidegger I did not see Sein und Zeit in PDF format. It is not the latest printing by Tübingen and it is missing Heidegger's marginal notes, but everything else seems to be there. Just out of curiosity, does anyone know how long this has been available? This will definitely speed up my work on the interlinear Being and Time/Sein und Zeit I've been slaving over.

This online delight is provided by Hudson Cress (though I don't know how he got past any copyright issues; get it while it's still available). Cress also has a decent collection of other Western Philosophy texts; check it out or simply browse through his whole online Library.


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