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.


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