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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