Heidegger’s question

Why is Heidegger interesting?

For Heidegger, the question that philosophy should concern itself with above all is the meaning of being. What is the meaning of being? What does it mean for something to be? Before this question, language itself begins to break down.

What is it to be? This question is not the same as “what is” or “what kinds of beings are there”? The latter would be questions about particular beings – ontical questions, in Heidegger’s words. The meaning of being itself would be an ontological question – indeed, the question that precedes all ontology. What is ontically closest is ontologically farthest: we somehow make use of the concept “being” constantly in our everyday life, but maybe for that very reason, it is very hard to theorise about it and become conscious of what it is.

Aristotle understood beings as substances with properties. This seems to lead quite directly to our western subject-verb-object languages, and to predicate logic, as we know it, for example, in computer science and mathematics. The stone is hard. hard(stone). P(x).

In Heidegger’s view, since Aristotle, the sciences have been busy constructing ontologies of this kind – enumerating categories, describing what kind of things there are and what properties they have, and how the properties can be manipulated – but always in forgetfulness of being. The very core that such ontologies are meant to illuminate was left in the dark.

Being and Time is Heidegger’s major work. It is very well worth the effort it takes to get through it (I recommend Hubert Dreyfus’ Berkeley lectures for anyone attempting this on their own). Here, Heidegger tries to relate being and time to each other in such a way that they each become each other’s horizons. Being becomes intelligible in terms of time, and time becomes intelligible in terms of being. Dasein – humans, beings such as ourselves – is the being which always already has an understanding of being, and lives in it. The questioning departs from this implicit, pre-ontological understanding.

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.

When we interrogate Dasein in order to gain an understanding of being, are we asking about humans, or about the universe? For Heidegger, the separation of the two is not possible. Any understanding of the universe that we experience – we humans, we as Dasein – is always dependent on our practices, our intellectual history, the understanding of being that we always already have. An objective, in the sense of being utterly separated, understanding of the universe is not possible (which is not to say that scientific efforts to be objective have no value – on the contrary). Inquiring about being seems to be simultaneously about the conditions for understanding ourselves and about the conditions for understanding the universe. These are not two separate domains.

Heidegger’s account is not always crystal clear, but it does open up dramatically new perspectives on the world, on science, on life. It shows us that the everyday understanding of so much that we take for granted is utterly obscure.


Jung and Heidegger

Part 2 of Heidegger’s Being and Time devotes considerable effort to building up and establishing the notion of authentic resoluteness. Heidegger’s Dasein may strive to be authentically resolute. I cannot claim to fully understand this concept, but it involves notions such as being-towards-death, maintaining openness to anxiety, and choosing to have a conscience. Somehow, through anxiety and confrontation with death or the Nothing (instead of fleeing in the face of these confrontations, as most people usually do), Dasein becomes able to exist authentically.

C G Jung’s psychology is largely about the process of individuation, which is the mind’s natural growth and progress towards becoming an integrated whole. For Jung, psychological health is largely about resolving obstacles to the individuation process. A big part of this process is the integration of the mind’s unconscious contents (such as the Self) with the conscious contents. This integration seems to not mean that they become a homogenous unity, but rather that they become interwoven and are allowed to influence each other in a natural way.

My hunch, which I cannot argue very convincingly, is that this kind of existential, phenomenological philosophy (Heidegger) and this kind of psychology (Jung) sometimes aim at the same affects, phenomena or states of mind – whichever we choose to call it. Jung makes a big point of differentiating between symbols and concepts. The Self is not a concept but a symbol: it is too large to fully grasp with the conscious mind. Heidegger’s Nothing (or even Being) sometimes looks like this kind of symbol too: something that cannot be grasped by concepts but which is essential for all concepts to be intelligible as such in the first place, a source of intelligibility, the fount from which other notions flow. Turning this around and twisting it a bit,  the unconscious can be said to be a kind of nothing, a shadow, and we only have a conscious and definite personality in so far as we also have a shadow to go with it. Our (Jungian) shadow seems to enable our definite character almost in the same way that the Nothing enables beings to stand out “as radically other with respect to the nothing” (What is Metaphysics).

This is mere speculation, but if I am right, then we are led to ask: how is it that Heidegger, who builds his castles (I think) on a kind of language craft and on labyrinthine but highly effective prose, can achieve the same thing that Jung achieves with methods such as dream analysis and active imagination? Could these methods, which seem so different at first, really be aiming at the same goal?



Naming as metaphor

A metaphor lets us view something as something else. Thus it has creative potential: “a forest of legislation” lets us take the behaviours, meaning and ideas we normally associate with forests and apply them in a completely different context.

But if no two situations in “reality” are the same – if Heraclitus is right that everything flows, nothing stays - then merely calling a forest a forest would be something metaphorical. It would be setting up an equivalence or similarity between two things that are actually different: forests as you have seen them before, and the new forest that has just flowed to you as part of the stream of lived experience.

If this is correct, then merely naming something, calling it what we perceive it to be, is somehow in part a metaphorical or creative action. And there would also be something metaphorical about applying equipment and tools to solve apparently identical problems – in identifying situation X as a context where tool Y should be applied.


Exploring particularity


We have not yet succeeded in isolating an entity from other entities in such a way that what is isolated is utterly separate. Possibilities of mutual affect always remain. (I know of no way of shielding against the effects of gravity, for example.) Thus, it seems fair to think about every given entity as a particular perspective on the universe, a lens through which to view anything.

For some time I’ve been thinking about what it means for something to be particular. What does it mean to have a specific shape, specific qualities, and specific boundaries in space and time? Why are objects in front of me as they are, now and here, instead of being boundless and universal? What is the ultimate origin of a specific characteristic?

The concrete forms of biological life are the result of random mutations and selection, according to current theory. The shapes and concepts of geometry and mathematics more or less follow from physics. (Some take this to mean that they are given to us by the universe – I hold that they are highly anthropomorphic). Let it remain open-ended for now from where precisely particular forms originate.

Can we even experience the particular character of any given entity in full? Can we drink the well of particularity dry? It seems that most entities — human or non-human, biological or material — are not objects that can be fully described but rather loci, points of concentration of particularity, which we could always find new ways to approach. Moreover, we generally see what we expect to see. A truly novel perspective is extremely hard to construct. What we generally do is instead to slowly morph our existing perspectives into something new. Thus, an orange is initially understood as a strange kind of apple (or the other way around) and a sledge understood as a large hammer. Perspectives seem to evolve along the lines of a genealogical tree, much like species in nature.

Finally, what we see in an entity is not purely the entity itself, nor is it purely the perspective we have chosen to apply to it. Rather it would be a co-production between the perspective and the entity. Clearly this depends both on me as an observer and on the entity in the world; something that does not depend on me can be taken away, and then the experience of the orange disappears. But the particular qualities of the experience of the orange depend mostly on me.  And perhaps the most salient, most interesting qualities depend on those conflict zones where the external world clashes with the understanding I have chosen to impose on the orange. Here the understanding flickers, the veil that I have thrown over the incomprehensible noise beneath flutters seductively. Here the possibilities of novelty dwell.

The struggle over consciousness

One of the major themes of Western philosophy since Plato is the elevation and near-deification of consciousness. Conscious thought and reflection have been prized above all else. Suspicion has been directed towards everything that is dark, murky, instinctive, unclear, unreasonable. Spirit has been emphasised above body. Christianity and its penal mechanisms was in no small part the engine used for this process for many centuries.

But what can consciousness really do? Every sequence of words I produce, every line of code I write, every sketch I draw or tune I play on the piano is for the most part not a product of conscious reflection. (Some earlier, unfinished thoughts on the limitations of reason here.) These productions are given to me, just as associations, feelings or moods are given to me – by the Other in me, the unconscious, the body. Through reflection I can remix and arrange these parts, critique them, say yes and no, but I cannot generate these things through purely conscious thought and logic. So what, in fact, was Western society really doing for 2000 years?

Nietzsche heralded the beginning of a reversal of this trend. In him, consciousness turns around, questions itself and finds that in the end, it isn’t all that powerful. A new philosophical school begins: a counter-movement that aimed, and aims to, reaffirm what is unthought, unseen, unreasonable. After him, thinkers like Freud, Jung (with his elaboration of the unconscious and his idea of “individuation”, psychological development understood as a harmonious union with the unconscious), Foucault (whose “History of madness”, if not almost his entire oeuvre, is almost entirely about this theme and the technicalities of how the unreasonable was suppressed) and Heidegger (in part) progressed on this path. But this reversal has only just begun. What are, in the grand scheme of things, the 130 years since Nietzsche’s productive years in the 1880s? The battle over the value of consciousness is in full swing and might be for centuries or millennia yet. And so we find ourselves, for now, living in a schizophrenic society, perhaps on the threshold of crossing over from a value system that praises consciousness to one that gives it a much more modest role.