In my previous post of this series on William Barrett’s Irrational Man, I explored some of Nietzsche’s philosophy in more detail. Now we’ll be taking a look at the work of Martin Heidegger.
Heidegger was perhaps the most complex of the existentialist philosophers, as his work is often interpreted in a number of different ways and he develops a lot of terminology and concepts that can sometimes be difficult to grasp; and there’s also a fundamental limitation of fully engaging with the concepts he uses unless one is fluent in the German language, due to what is otherwise lost in translation to English.
Phenomenology, or the study of the structures of our conscious experience, was a big part of Heidegger’s work and had a big influence on his distinguishing between what he called “calculating thought” and “meditating thought”, and Barrett alludes to this distinction when he first mentions Heidegger’s feelings on thought and reason. Heidegger says:
“Thinking only begins at the point where we have come to know that Reason, glorified for centuries, is the most obstinate adversary of thinking.”
Now at first one might be confused with the assertion that reason is somehow against thinking, but if one understands that Heidegger is only making reference to one of the two types of thinking outlined above, then we can begin to make sense of what he’s saying. Calculating thought is what he has in mind here, which is the kind of thinking that we use all the time for planning and investigating in order to accomplish some specific purpose and achieve our goals. Meditative thought, on the other hand, involves opening up one’s mind such that they aren’t consumed by a single perspective of an idea; it requires us to not limit our thinking to only one category of ideas, and requires us to at least temporarily free our thinking from the kind of unity that makes everything seemingly fit together.
Meaning is more or less hidden behind calculating thought, and thus meditative thought is needed to help uncover that meaning. Calculative thinking also involves a lot of external input from society and the cultural or technological constructs that our lives are embedded in, whereas meditative thinking is internal, prioritizing the self over the collective and creating a self-derived form of truth and meaning rather than one that is externally imposed on us. By thinking about reason’s relation to what Heidegger is calling meditative thought in particular, we can understand why Heidegger would treat reason as an adversary to what he sees as a far more valuable form of “thinking”.
It would be mistaken however to interpret this as Heidegger being some kind of an irrationalist, because Heidegger still values thinking even though he redefines what kinds of thinking exist:
“Heidegger is not a rationalist, because reason operates by means of concepts, mental representations, and our existence eludes these. But he is not an irrationalist either. Irrationalism holds that feeling, or will, or instinct are more valuable and indeed more truthful than reason-as in fact, from the point of view of life itself, they are. But irrationalism surrenders the field of thinking to rationalism and thereby secretly comes to share the assumptions of its enemy. What is needed is a more fundamental kind of thinking that will cut under both opposites.”
Heidegger’s intention seems to involve carving out a space for thinking that connects to the most basic elements of our experience, and which connects to the grounding for all of our experience. He thinks that we’ve almost completely submerged our lives in reason or calculative thinking and that this has caused us to lose our connection with what he calls Being, and this is analogous to Kierkegaard’s claim of reason having estranged us from faith:
“Both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche point up a profound dissociation, or split, that has taken place in the being of Western man, which is basically the conflict of reason with the whole man. According to Kierkegaard, reason threatens to swallow up faith; Western man now stands at a crossroads forced to choose either to be religious or to fall into despair…Now, the estrangement from Being itself is Heidegger’s central theme.”
Where or when did this estrangement from our roots first come to be? Many may be tempted to say it was coincident with the onset of modernity, but perhaps it happened long before that:
“Granted that modern man has torn himself up by his roots, might not the cause of this lie farther back in his past than he thinks? Might it not, in fact, lie in the way in which he thinks about the most fundamental of all things, Being itself?”
At this point, it’s worth looking at Heidegger’s overall view of man, and see how it might be colored by his own upbringing in southern Germany:
“The picture of man that emerges from Heidegger’s pages is of an earth-bound, time-bound, radically finite creature-precisely the image of man we should expect from a peasant, in this case a peasant who has the whole history of Western philosophy at his fingertips.”
So Heidegger was in an interesting position by wanting to go back to one of the most basic questions ever asked in philosophy, but to do so with the knowledge of the philosophy that had been developed ever since, hopefully giving him a useful outline of what went wrong in that development.
“He has never ceased from that single task, the “repetition” of the problem of Being: the standing face to face with Being as did the earliest Greeks. And on the very first pages of Being and Time he tells us that this task involves nothing less than the destruction of the whole history of Western ontology-that is, of the way the West has thought about Being.”
Sometimes the only way to make progress in philosophy is through a paradigm shift of some kind, where the most basic assumptions underlying our theories of the world and our existence are called into question; and we may end up having to completely discard what we thought we knew and start over, in order to follow a new path and discover a new way of looking at the problem we first began with.
For Heidegger, the problem all comes down to how we look at beings versus being (or Being), and in particular how little attention we’ve given the latter:
“Now, it is Heidegger’s contention that the whole history of Western thought has shown an exclusive preoccupation with the first member of these pairs, with the thing-which-is, and has let the second, the to-be of what is, fall into oblivion. Thus that part of philosophy which is supposed to deal with Being is traditionally called ontology-the science of the thing-which-is-and not einai-logy, which would be the study of the to-be of Being as opposed to beings…What it means is nothing less than this: that from the beginning the thought of Western man has been bound to things, to objects.”
And it’s the priority we’ve given to positing and categorizing various types of beings that has distracted us from really contemplating the grounding for any and all beings, Being itself. It’s more or less been taken for granted or seen as too tenuous or insubstantial to give any attention to. We can certainly blame our lack of attention toward Being, at least in part, as a result of how we’ve understood it as contingent on the existence of particular objects:
“Once Being has been understood solely in terms of beings, things, it becomes the most general and empty of concepts: ‘The first object of the understanding,’ says St. Thomas Aquinas, ‘that which the intellect conceives when it conceives of anything.’ “
Aquinas seems to have pointed out the obvious here: we can’t easily think of the concept of Being without thinking of beings, and once we’ve thought of beings, we tend to think of its fact of being as not adding anything useful to our conception of the beings themselves (similar to Kant’s claim about existence as a superfluous or useless concept). Heidegger wants to turn this common assumption on its head:
“Being is not an empty abstraction but something in which all of us are immersed up to our necks, and indeed over our heads. We all understand the meaning in ordinary life of the word ‘is,’ though we are not called upon to give a conceptual explanation of it. Our ordinary human life moves within a preconceptual understanding of Being, and it is this everyday understanding of Being in which we live, move, and have our Being that Heidegger wants to get at as a philosopher.”
Since we live our lives with an implicit understanding of Being and its permeating everything in our experience, it seems reasonable that we can turn our attention toward it and build up a more explicit conceptualization or understanding of it. To do this carefully, without building in too many abstract assumptions or uncertain inferences, we need to make special use of phenomenology in this task. Heidegger turns to Edmund Husserl’s work to take this project off the ground.
2. Phenomenology and Human Existence
“Instead of making intellectual speculations about the whole of reality, philosophy must turn, Husserl declared, to a pure description of what is…Heidegger accepts Husserl’s definition of phenomenology: he will attempt to describe, he says, and without any obscuring preconceptions, what human existence is.”
And this means that we need to try and analyze our experience without importing the plethora of assumptions and ideas that we’ve been taught about our existence. We have to try and do a kind of phenomenological reduction, where we suspend our judgment about the way the world works which will include leaving aside (at least temporarily) most if not all of science and its various theories pertaining to how reality is structured.
Heidegger also makes many references to language in his work and, perhaps sharing a common thread with Wittgenstein’s views, dissects language to get at what we really mean by certain words, revealing important nuances that are taken for granted and how our words and concepts constrain our thinking to some degree:
“Heidegger’s perpetual digging at words to get at their hidden nuggets of meaning is one of his most exciting facets…(The thing for itself) will reveal itself to us, he says, only if we do not attempt to coerce it into one of our ready-made conceptual strait jackets.”
Truth is another concept that needs to be reformulated for Heidegger, and he first points out how the Greek word for truth, aletheia, means “un-hiddenness or “revelation”, and so he believes that truth lies in finding out what has been hidden from us; and this goes against our usual views of what is meant by “truth”, where we most often think of it as a status ascribed to propositions that correspond to actual facts about the world. Since propositions can’t exist without minds, then modern conceptions of truth are limited in a number of ways, which Heidegger wants to find a way around:
“…truth is therefore, in modern usage, to be found in the mind when it has a correct judgment about what is the case. The trouble with this view is that it cannot take account of other manifestations of truth. For example, we speak of the “truth” of a work of art. A work of art in which we find truth may actually have in it no propositions that are true in this literal sense. The truth of a work of art is in its being a revelation, but that revelation does not consist in a statement or group of statements that are intellectually correct. The momentous assertion that Heidegger makes is that truth does not reside primarily in the intellect, but that, on the contrary, intellectual truth is in fact a derivative of a more basic sense of truth.”
This more basic sense of truth will be explored more later on, but the important takeaway is that truth for Heidegger seems to involve the structure of our experience and of the beings within that experience; and it lends itself toward a kind of epistemological relativism, depending on how a human being interprets the world they’re interacting with.
On the other hand, if we think about truth as a matter of deciding what we should trust or doubt in terms of what we’re experiencing, we may wind up in a position of solipsism similar to Descartes’, where we come to doubt the “external world” altogether:
“…Descartes’ cogito ergo sum moment, is the point at which modern philosophy, and with it the modern epoch, begins: man is locked up in his own ego. Outside him is the doubtful world of things, which his science has not taught him are really not the least like their familiar appearances. Descartes got the external world back through a belief in God, who in his goodness would not deceive us into believing that this external world existed if it really did not. But the ghost of subjectivism (and solipsism too) is there and haunts the whole of modern philosophy.”
While Descartes pulled himself out of solipsism through the added assumption of another (benevolent) mind existing that was responsible for any and all experience, I think there’s a far easier and less ad hoc solution to this problem. First, we need to realize that we wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between an experience of an artificial or illusory external reality and one that was truly real independent of our conscious experience, and this means that solipsism is entirely indeterminable and so it’s almost pointless to worry about; and second, we don’t feel that we are the sole authors of every aspect of our experience anyway, otherwise there would be nothing unpredictable or uncertain with respect to any part of our experience, and therefore we’d know everything that will ever happen before it happens with not so much as an inkling of surprise or confusion.
This is most certainly not the case, which means we can be confident that we are not the sole authors of our experience and therefore there really is a reality or a causal structure that is independent of our own will and expectations. So it’s conceptually simpler to simply define reality in the most broadest sense of the term, as nothing more or less than what we experience at any point in time. And because we experience what appear to be other beings that are just like ourselves, each appearing to have their own experiences of reality, it’s going to be more natural and intuitive to treat them as such regardless of whether or not they’re really figments of our imagination or products of some unknown higher level reality like The Matrix.
Heidegger does something similar here, where he views our being in the “external” world as essential to who we are, and thus he doesn’t think we can separate ourselves from the world, like Descartes himself did as a result of his methodological skepticism:
“Heidegger destroys the Cartesian picture at one blow: what characterizes man essentially, he says, is that he is Being-in-the-world. Leibniz had said that the monad has no windows; and Heidegger’s reply is that man does not look out upon an external world through windows, from the isolation of his ego: he is already out-of-doors. He is in the world because, existing, he is involved in it totally.”
This is fundamentally different from the traditional conception of an ego or self that may or may not exist in a world; within this conception of human beings, one can’t treat the ego as separable from the world that it’s embedded in. One way to look at this is to imagine that we were separated from the world forever, and then ask ourselves if the mode of living that remains (if any) in the absence of any world is still fundamentally human. It’s an interesting thought experiment to imagine us somehow as a disembodied mind “residing” within an infinite void of nothingness, but if this were really done for eternity and not simply for a short while where we knew we could later return to the world we left behind, then we’d have no more interactions or relations with any objects or other beings and no mode of living at all. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to conclude in this case that we would have lost something that we need in order to truly be a human being. If one fails to realize this, then they’ve simply failed to truly grasp the conditions called for in the thought experiment.
Heidegger drives this point further by describing existence or more appropriately our Being as analogous to a non-localized field as in theoretical physics:
“Existence itself, according to Heidegger, means to stand outside oneself, to be beyond oneself. My Being is not something that takes place inside my skin (or inside an immaterial substance inside that skin); my Being, rather, is spread over a field or region which is the world of its care and concern. Heidegger’s theory of man (and of Being) might be called the Field Theory of Man (or the Field Theory of Being) in analogy with Einstein’s Field Theory of Matter, provided we take this purely as an analogy; for Heidegger would hold it a spurious and inauthentic way to philosophize to derive one’s philosophic conclusions from the highly abstract theories of physics. But in the way that Einstein took matter to be a field (a magnetic field, say)- in opposition to the Newtonian conception of a body as existing inside its surface boundaries-so Heidegger takes man to be a field or region of Being…Heidegger calls this field of Being Dasein. Dasein (which in German means Being-there) is his name for man.”
So we can see our state of Being (which Heidegger calls Dasein) as one that’s spread out over a number of different interactions and relations we have with other beings in the world. In some sense we can think of the sum total of all the actions, goals, and beings that we concern ourselves with as constituting our entire field of Being. And each being, especially each human being, shares this general property of Being even though each of those beings will be embedded within their own particular region of Being with their own set of concerns (even if these sets overlap in some ways).
What I find really fascinating is Heidegger’s dissolution of the subject-object distinction:
“That Heidegger can say everything he wants to say about human existence without using either “man” or “consciousness” means that the gulf between subject and object, or between mind and body, that has been dug by modern philosophy need not exist if we do not make it.”
I mentioned Wittgenstein earlier, because I think Heidegger’s philosophy has a few parallels. For instance, Wittgenstein treats language and meaning as inherently connected to how we use words and concepts and thus is dependent on the contextual relations between how or what we communicate and what our goals are, as opposed to treating words like categorical objects with strict definitions and well-defined semantic boundaries. For Wittgenstein, language can’t be separated from our use of it in the world even though we often treat it as if we can (and assuming we can is what often creates problems in philosophy), and this is similar to how Heidegger describes us human beings as inherently inseparable from our extension in the world as manifested in our many relations and concerns within that world.
Heidegger’s reference to Being as some kind of field or region of concern can be illustrated well by considering how a child comes to learn their own name (or to respond to it anyway):
“He comes promptly enough at being called by name; but if asked to point out the person to whom the name belongs, he is just as likely to point to Mommy or Daddy as to himself-to the frustration of both eager parents. Some months later, asked the same question, the child will point to himself. But before he has reached that stage, he has heard his name as naming a field or region of Being with which he is concerned, and to which he responds, whether the call is to come to food, to mother, or whatever. And the child is right. His name is not the name of an existence that takes place within the envelope of his skin: that is merely the awfully abstract social convention that has imposed itself not only on his parents but on the history of philosophy. The basic meaning the child’s name has for him does not disappear as he grows older; it only becomes covered over by the more abstract social convention. He secretly hears his own name called whenever he hears any region of Being named with which he is vitally involved.”
This is certainly an interesting interpretation of this facet of child development, and we might presume that the current social conventions which eventually attach our name to our body arise out of a number of pragmatic considerations such as wanting to provide a label for each conscious agent that makes decisions and behaves in ways that affect other conscious agents, and because our regions of Being overlap in some ways but not in others (i.e. some of my concerns, though not all of them, are your concerns too), it also makes sense to differentiate between all the different “sets of concerns” that comprise each human being we interact with. But the way we tend to do this is by abstracting the sets of concerns, localizing them in time and space as “mine” and “yours” rather than the way they truly exist in the world.
Nevertheless, we could (in principle anyway) use an entirely different convention where a person’s name is treated as a representation of a non-localized set of causal structures and concerns, almost as if their body extended in some sense to include all of this, where each concern or facet of their life is like a dynamic appendage emanating out from their most concentrated region of Being (the body itself). Doing so would markedly change the way we see one another, the way we see objects, etc.
Perhaps our state of consciousness can mislead us into forgetting about the non-locality of our field of Being, because our consciousness is spatially constrained to one locus of experience; and perhaps this is the reason why philosophers going all the way back to the Greeks have linked existence directly with our propensity to reflect in solitude. But this solitary reflection also misleads us into forgetting the average “everydayness” of our existence, where we are intertwined with our community like a sheep directed by the rest of the herd:
“…none of us is a private Self confronting a world of external objects. None of us is yet even a Self. We are each simply one among many; a name among the names of our schoolfellows, our fellow citizens, our community. This everyday public quality of our existence Heidegger calls “the One.” The One is the impersonal and public creature whom each of us is even before he is an I, a real I. One has such-and-such a position in life, one is expected to behave in such-and-such a manner, one does this, one does not do that, etc. We exist thus in a state of “fallen-ness”, according to Heidegger, in the sense that we are as yet below the level of existence to which it is possible for us to rise. So long as we remain in the womb of this externalized and public existence, we are spared the terror and the dignity of becoming a Self.”
Heidegger’s concept of fallen-ness illustrates our primary mode of living; sometimes we think of ourselves as individuals striving toward our personal self-authored goals but most of the time we’re succumbing to society’s expectations of who we are, what we should become, and how we ought to judge the value of our own lives. We shouldn’t be surprised by this fact as we’ve evolved as a social species, which means our inclination toward a herd mentality is in some sense instinctual and therefore becomes the path of least resistance. But because of our complex cognitive and behavioral versatility, we can also consciously rise above this collective limitation; and even if we don’t strive to, in other cases our position within the safety of the collective is torn away from us as a result of the chaos that reigns in on us from life’s many contingencies:
“But…death and anxiety (and such) intrude upon this fallen state, destroy our sheltered position of simply being one among many, and reveal to us our own existence as fearfully and irremediably our own. Because it is less fearful to be “the One” than to be a Self, the modern world has wonderfully multiplied all the devices of self-evasion.”
It is only by rising out of this state of fallenness, that is, by our rescuing some measure of true individuality, that Heidegger thinks we can live authentically. But in any case:
“Whether it be fallen or risen, inauthentic or authentic, counterfeit copy or genuine original, human existence is marked by three general traits: 1) mood or feeling; 2) understanding; 3) speech. Heidegger calls these existentialia and intends them as basic categories of existence (as opposed to more common ones like quantity, quality, space, time, etc.).”
Heidegger’s use of these traits in describing our existence shouldn’t be confused with some set of internal mental states but rather we need to include them within a conception of Being or Dasein as a field that permeates the totality of our existence. So when we consider the first trait, mood or feeling, we should think of each human being as being a mood rather than simply having a mood. According to Heidegger, it is through moods that we feel a sense of belonging to the world, and thus, if we didn’t have any mood at all, then we wouldn’t find ourselves in a world at all.
It’s also important to understand that he doesn’t see moods as some kind of state of mind as we would typically take them to be, but rather that all states of mind presuppose this sense of belonging to a world in the first place; they presuppose a mood in order to have the possibilities for any of those states of mind. And as Barrett mentions, not all moods are equally important for Heidegger:
“The fundamental mood, according to Heidegger, is anxiety (Angst); he does not choose this as primary out of any morbidity of temperament, however, but simply because in anxiety this here-and-now of our existence arises before us in all its precarious and porous contingency.”
It seems that he finds anxiety to be fundamental in part because it is a mood that opens us up to see Being for what it really is: a field of existence centered around the individual rather than society and its norms and expectations; and this perspective largely results from the fact that when we’re in anxiety all practical significance melts away and the world as it was no longer seems to be relevant. Things that we took for granted now become salient and there’s a kind of breakdown in our sense of everyday familiarity. If what used to be significant and insignificant reverse roles in this mood, then we can no longer misinterpret ourselves as some kind of entity within the world (the world of “Them”; the world of externally imposed identity and essence); instead, we finally see ourselves as within, or identical with, our own world.
Heidegger also seems to see anxiety as always there even though it may be covered up (so to speak). Perhaps it’s hiding most of the time because the fear of being a true Self and facing our individuality with the finitude, contingency, and responsibility that goes along with it is often too much for one to bear, so we blind ourselves by shifting into a number of other, less fundamental moods which enhance the significance of the usual day-to-day world, even if the possibility for Being to “reveal itself” to us, is just below the surface.
If we think of moods as a way of our feeling a sense of belonging within a world, where they effectively constitute the total range of ways that things can have significance for us, then we can see how our moods ultimately affect and constrain our view of the possibilities that our world affords us. And this is a good segue to consider Heidegger’s second trait of Dasein or human Being, namely that of understanding.
“The “understanding” Heidegger refers to here is not abstract or theoretical; it is the understanding of Being in which our existence is rooted, and without which we could not make propositions or theories that can claim to be “true”. Whence comes this understanding? It is the understanding that I have by virtue of being rooted in existence.”
I think Heidegger’s concept of understanding (verstehen) is more or less an intuitive sense of knowing how to manipulate the world in order to make use of it for some goal or other. By having certain goals, we see the world and the entities in that world colored by the context of those goals. What we desire then will no doubt change the way the world appears to us in terms of what functionality we can make the most use of, what tools are available to us, and whether we see something as a tool or not. And even though our moods may structure the space of possibilities that we see the world present to us, it is our realizing what these possibilities are that seems to underlie this form of understanding that Heidegger’s referring to.
We also have no choice but to use our past experience to interpret the world, determine what we find significant and meaningful, and to further drive the evolution of our understanding; and of course this process feeds back in on itself by changing our interpretation of the world which changes our dynamic understanding yet again. And here we might make the distinction between an understanding of the possible uses for various objects and processes, and the specific interpretation of which possibilities are relevant to the task at hand thereby making use of that understanding.
If I’m sitting at my desk with a cup of coffee and a stack of papers in front of me that need to be sorted, my understanding of these entities affords me a number of possibilities depending on my specific mode of Being or what my current concerns are at the present moment. If I’m tired or thirsty or what-have-you I may want to make use of that cup of coffee to drink from it, but if the window is open and the wind is starting to blow the stack of papers off my desk, I may decide to use my cup of coffee as a paper weight instead of a vessel to drink from. And if a fly begins buzzing about while I’m sorting my papers and starts to get on my nerves, distracting me from the task at hand, I may decide to temporarily roll up my stack of papers and use it as a fly swatter. My understanding of all of these objects in terms of their possibilities allows me to interpret an object as a particular possibility that fits within the context of my immediate wants and needs.
I like to think of understanding and interpretation, whether in the traditional sense or in Heidegger’s terms, as ultimately based on our propensity to make predictions about the world and its causal structure. As a proponent of the predictive processing framework of brain function, I see the ultimate purpose of brains as being prediction generators, where the brain serves to organize information in order to predict the causal structure of the world we interact with; and this is done at many different levels of abstraction, so we can think of us as making use of many smaller-scale modules of understanding as well as various larger-scale assemblies of those individual modules. In some cases, the larger-scale assemblies constrain which smaller-scale modules can be used and in other cases, the smaller-scale modules are prioritized which constrain or direct the shape of the larger-scale assemblies.
Another way to say this is to say that our brains make use of a number of lower level and higher level predictions (any of which may change over time based on new experiences or desires) and depending on the context we find ourselves in, one level may have more or less influence on another level. My lowest level predictions may include things like what each “pixel” in my visual field is going to be from moment to moment, and a slightly higher level prediction may include things like what a specific coffee cup looks like, it’s shape, weight, etc., and slightly higher level predictions may include things like what coffee cups in general look like, their range of shapes, weights, etc., and eventually we get to higher levels of predictions that may include what we expect an object can be used for.
All of these predictions taken as a whole constitute our understanding of the world and the specific sets of predictions that come into play at any point in time, depending on our immediate concerns and where our attention is directed, constitute our interpretation of what we’re presently experiencing. Barrett points to the fact that what we consider to be truth in the most primitive sense is this intuitive sense of understanding:
“Truth and Being are thus inseparable, given always together, in the simple sense that a world with things in it opens up around man the moment he exists. Most of the time, however, man does not let himself see what really happens in seeing.”
This process of the world opening itself up to us, such that we have an immediate sense of familiarity with it, is a very natural and automated process and so unless we consciously pull ourselves out of it to try and externally reflect on this situation, we’re just going to take our understanding and interpretation for granted. But regardless of whether we reflect on it or not, this process of understanding and interpretation is fundamental to how we exist in the world, and thus it is fundamental to our Being in the world.
Speech is the last trait of Dasein that Heidegger mentions, and it is intimately connected with the other two traits, mood and understanding. So what exactly is he referring to by speech?
“Speech: Language, for Heidegger, is not primarily a system of sounds or of marks on paper symbolizing those sounds. Sounds and marks upon paper can become language only because man, insofar as he exists, stands within language.”
This is extremely reminiscent of Wittgenstein once again, since Wittgenstein views language in terms of how it permeates our day-to-day lives within a community or social group of some kind. Language isn’t some discrete set of symbols with fixed meanings, but rather is a much more dynamic, context-dependent communication tool. We primarily use language to accomplish some specific goal or another in our day-to-day lives, and this is a fundamental aspect of how we exist as human beings. Because language is attached to its use, the meaning of any word or utterance (if any) is derived from its use as well. Sounds and marks on paper are meaningless, unless we first ascribe a meaning to it based on how its been used in the past and how its being used in the present.
And as soon as we pick up language during our child development, it becomes automatically associated with our thought processes where we begin to think in our native language, and both real perceptions and figments of our imagination are instantly attached to some linguistic label in our heads. If I showed you a picture of an elephant, the word elephant would no doubt enter your stream of consciousness, even without my saying the word or asking you what animal you saw in the picture. Whether our thinking linguistically comes about as a result of having learned a specific language, or if its an innate feature of our how our brains function, language permeates our thought as well as our interactions with others in the world.
While we tend to think of language as involving words, sounds, and so forth, Heidegger has an interesting take on what else falls under the umbrella of language:
“Two people are talking together. They understand each other, and they fall silent-a long silence. This silence is language; it may speak more eloquently than any words. In their mood they are attuned to each other; they may even reach down into that understanding which, as we have seen above, lies below the level of articulation. The three-mood, understanding, and speech (a speech here that is silence)-thus interweave and are one.”
I’m not sure if Heidegger is only referring to silence itself here or if he’s also including body language, which often continues even after we’ve stopped talking and which sometimes speaks better than verbal language ever could. In silence, we often get a chance to simply read another person in a much more basic and instinctual way, ascertaining their mood, and allowing any language that may have recently transpired to be interpreted differently than if a long silence had never occurred. Heidegger refers to what happens in silence as an attunement between fellow human beings:
“…Nor is this silence merely a gap in our chatter; it is, rather, the primordial attunement of one existent to another, out of which all language-as sounds, marks, and counters-comes. It is only because man is capable of such silence that he is capable of authentic speech. If he ceases to be rooted in that silence all his talk becomes chatter.”
We may however also want to consider silence when it is accompanied with action, as our actions speak louder than words and we gain information primarily in this way anyway, by simply watching another do something in the world. And language can only work within the context of mutual understanding, which necessarily involves action (at some point) and so perhaps we could say that action at least partially constitutes the “silence” that Heidegger refers to.
Heidegger’s entire “Field Theory” of Being relies on context, and Barrett mentions this as well:
“…we might just as well call it a contextual theory of Being. Being is the context in which all beings come to light-and this means those beings as well that are sounds or marks on paper…Men exist “within language” prior to their uttering sounds because they exist within a mutual context of understanding, which in the end is nothing but Being itself.”
I think that we could interpret this as saying that in order for us to be able to interact with one another and with the world, there’s a prerequisite context of meaning and of what matters to us, already in play in order for those interactions to be possible in the first place. In other words, whether we’re talking to somebody or simply trying to cook our breakfast, all of our actions presuppose some background of understanding and a sense of what’s significant to us.
3. Death, Anxiety, Finitude
Heidegger views the concept of death as an important one especially as it relates to a proper understanding of the concept of Being, and he also sees the most common understanding of death as fundamentally misguided:
“The authentic meaning of death-“I am to die”-is not as an external and public fact within the world, but as an internal possibility of my own Being. Nor is it a possibility like a point at the end of a road, which I will in time reach. So long as I think in this way, I still hold death at a distance outside myself. The point is that I may die at any moment, and therefore death is my possibility now…Hence, death is the most personal and intimate of possibilities, since it is what I must suffer for myself: nobody else can die for me.”
I definitely see the merit in viewing death as an imminent possibility in order to fully grasp the implications it has on how we should be living our lives. But most people tend to consider death in very abstract terms where it’s only thought about in the periphery as something that will happen “some day” in the future; and I think we owe this abstraction and partial repression of death to our own fear of death. In many other cases, this fear of death manifests itself into supernatural beliefs that posit life after death, the resurrection of the dead, immortality, and other forms of magic; and importantly, all of these psychologically motivated tactics prevent one from actually accepting the truth about death as an integral part of our existence as human beings. By denying the truth about death, one is denying the true value of the life they actually have. On the other hand, by accepting it as an extremely personal and intimate attribute of ourselves, we can live more authentically.
We can also see that by viewing death in more personal terms, we are pulled out the world of “Them”, the collective world of social norms and externalized identities, and able to better connect with our sense of being a Self:
“Only by taking my death into myself, according to Heidegger, does an authentic existence become possible for me. Touched by this interior angel of death, I cease to be the impersonal and social One among many…and I am free to become myself.”
Thinking about death may make us uncomfortable, but if I know I’m going to die and could die at any moment, then shouldn’t I prioritize my personal endeavors to reflect this radical contingency? It’s hard to argue with that conclusion but even if we should be doing this it’s understandably easy to get lost in our mindless day-to-day routines and superficial concerns, and then we simply lose sight of what we ought to be doing with our limited time. It’s important to break out of this pattern, or at least to strive to, and in doing so we can begin to center our lives around truly personal goals and projects:
“Though terrifying, the taking of death into ourselves is also liberating: It frees us from servitude to the petty cares that threaten to engulf our daily life and thereby opens us to the essential projects by which we can make our lives personally and significantly our own. Heidegger calls this the condition of “freedom-toward-death” or “resoluteness.”
The fear of death is also unique and telling in the sense that it isn’t really directed at any object but rather it is directed at Nothingness itself. We fear that our lives will come to an end and that we’ll one day cease to be. Heidegger seems to refer to this disposition as anxiety rather than fear, since it isn’t really the fear of anything but rather the fear of nothing at all; we just treat this nothing as if it were an object:
“Anxiety is not fear, being afraid of this or that definite object, but the uncanny feeling of being afraid of nothing at all. It is precisely Nothingness that makes itself present and felt as the object of our dread.”
Accordingly, the concept of Nothingness is integral to the concept of Being, since it’s interwoven in our existence:
“In Heidegger Nothingness is a presence within our own Being, always there, in the inner quaking that goes on beneath the calm surface of our preoccupation with things. Anxiety before Nothingness has many modalities and guises: now trembling and creative, now panicky and destructive; but always it is as inseparable from ourselves as our own breathing because anxiety is our existence itself in its radical insecurity. In anxiety we both are and are not, at one and the same time, and this is our dread.”
What’s interesting about this perspective is the apparent asymmetry between existence and non-existence, at least insofar as it relates to human beings. Non-existence becomes a principal concern for us as a result of our kind of existence, but non-existence itself carries with it no concerns at all. In other words, non-existence doesn’t refer to anything at all whereas (human) existence refers to everything as well as to nothing (non-existence). And it seems to me that anxiety and our relation to Nothingness is entirely dependent on our inherent capacity of imagination, where we use imagination to simulate possibilities, and if this imagination is capable of rendering the possibility of our own existence coming to an end, then that possibility may forcefully reorganize the relative significance of all other products of our imagination.
As confusing as it may sound, death is the possibility of ending all possibilities for any extant being. If imagining such a possibility were not enough to fundamentally change one’s perspective of their own life, then I think that combining it with the knowledge of its inevitability, that this possibility is also a certainty, ought to. Another interesting feature of our existence is the fact that death isn’t the only possibility that relates to Nothingness, for anytime we imagine a possibility that has not yet been realized or even if we conceive of an actuality that has been realized, we are making reference to that which is not; we are referring to what we are not, to what some thing or other is not and ultimately to that which does not exist (at a particular time and place). I only know how to identify myself, or any object in the world for that matter, by distinguishing it from what it is not.
“Man is finite because the “not”-negation-penetrates the very core of his existence. And whence is this “not” derived? From Being itself. Man is finite because he lives and moves within a finite understanding of Being.”
As we can see, Barrett describes how within Heidegger’s philosophy negation is treated as something that we live and move within and this makes sense when we consider what identity itself is dependent on. And the mention of finitude is interesting because it’s not simply a limitation in the sense of what we aren’t capable of (e.g. omnipotence, immortality, perfection, etc.), but rather that our mode of existence entails making discriminations between what is and what isn’t, between what is possible and what is not, between what is actual and what is not.
4. Time and Temporality; History
The last section on Heidegger concerns the nature of time itself, and it begins by pointing out the relation between negation and our experience of time:
“Our finitude discloses itself essentially in time. In existing…we stand outside ourselves at once open to Being and in the open clearing of Being; and this happens temporally as well as spatially. Man, Heidegger says, is a creature of distance: he is perpetually beyond himself, his existence at every moment opening out toward the future. The future is the not-yet, and the past is the no-longer; and these two negatives-the not-yet and the no-longer-penetrate his existence. They are his finitude in its temporal manifestation.”
I suppose we could call this projection towards the future the teleological aspect of our Being. In order to do anything within our existence, we must have a goal or a number of them, and these goals refer to possible future states of existence that can only be confirmed or disconfirmed once our growing past subsumes them as actualities or lost opportunities. We might even say that the present is somewhat of an illusion (though as far as I know Heidegger doesn’t make this claim) because in a sense we’re always living in the future and in the past, since the person we see ourselves as and the person we want to be are a manifestation of both; whereas the present itself seems to be nothing more than a fleeting moment that only references what’s in front or behind itself.
In addition to this, if we look at how our brain functions from a predictive coding perspective, we can see that our brain generates predictive models based on our past experiences and the models it generates are pure attempts to predict the future; nowhere does the present come into play. The present as it is experienced by us, is nothing but a prediction of what is yet to come. I think this is integral to take into account when considering how time is experienced by us and how it should be incorporated into a concept of Being.
Heidegger’s concept of temporality is also tied to the concept of death that we explored earlier. He sees death as necessary to put our temporal existence into a true human perspective:
“We really know time, says Heidegger, because we know we are going to die. Without this passionate realization of our mortality, time would be simply a movement of the clock that we watch passively, calculating its advance-a movement devoid of human reasoning…Everything that makes up human existence has to be understood in the light of man’s temporality: of the not-yet, the no-longer, the here-and-now.”
It’s also interesting to consider what I’ve previously referred to as the illusion of persistent identity, an idea that’s been explored by a number of philosophers for centuries: we think of our past self as being the same person as our present or future self. Now whether the present is actually an illusion or not is irrelevant to this point; the point is that we think of ourselves as always being there in our memories and at any moment of time. The fact that we are all born into a society that gives us a discrete and fixed name adds to this illusion of our having an identity that is fixed as well. But we are not the same person that we were ten years ago let alone the same person we were as a five-year old child. We may share some memories with those previous selves but even those change over time and are often altered and reconstructed upon recall. Our values, our ontology, our language, our primary goals in life, are all changing to varying degrees over time and we mustn’t lose sight of this fact either. I think this “dynamic identity” is a fundamental aspect of our Being.
We might help to explain how we’re taken in by the illusion of a persistent identity by understanding once again that our identity is fundamentally projected toward the future. Since that projection changes over time (as our goals change) and since it is a process that relies on a kind of psychological continuity, we might expect to simply focus on the projection itself rather than what that projection used to be. Heidegger stresses the importance of the future in our concept of Being:
“Heidegger’s theory of time is novel, in that, unlike earlier philosophers with their “nows,” he gives priority to the future tense. The future, according to him, is primary because it is the region toward which man projects and in which he defines his own being. “Man never is, but always is to be,” to alter slightly the famous line of Pope.”
But, since we’re always relying on past experiences in order to determine our future projection, to give it a frame of reference with which we can evaluate that projected future, we end up viewing our trajectory in terms of human history:
“All these things derive their significance from a more basic fact: namely, that man is the being who, however dimly and half-consciously, always understands, and must understand, his own being historically.”
And human history, in a collective sense also plays a role, since our view of ourselves and of the world is unavoidably influenced by the cultural transmission of ideas stemming from our recent past all the way to thousands of years ago. A lot of that influence has emanated from the Greeks especially (as Barrett has mentioned throughout Irrational Man), and it’s had a substantial impact on our conceptualization of Being as well:
“By detaching the figure from the ground the object could be made to emerge into the daylight of human consciousness; but the sense of the ground, the environing background, could also be lost. The figure comes into sharper focus, that is, but the ground recedes, becomes invisible, is forgotten. The Greeks detached beings from the vast environing ground of Being. This act of detachment was accompanied by a momentous shift in the meaning of truth for the Greeks, a shift which Heidegger pinpoints as taking place in a single passage in Plato’s Republic, the celebrated allegory of the cave.”
Through the advent of reason and forced abstraction, the Greeks effectively separated the object from the context it’s normally embedded within. But if a true understanding of our Being in the world can only be known contextually, then we can see how Heidegger may see a crucial problem with this school of thought which has propagated itself in Western philosophy ever since Plato. Even the concept of truth itself had underwent a dramatic change as a result of the Greeks discovering and developing the process of reason:
“The quality of unhiddenness had been considered the mark of truth; but with Plato in that passage truth came to be defined, rather, as the correctness of an intellectual judgment.”
And this concept of unhiddenness seems to be a variation of “subjective truth” or “subjective understanding”, although it shouldn’t be confused with modern subjectivism; in this case the unhiddenness would naturally precipitate from whatever coherency and meaning is immediately revealed to us through our conscious experience. I think that the redefining of truth had less of an impact on philosophy than Heidegger may have thought; the problem wasn’t the redefining of truth per se but rather the fact that a contextual understanding and subjective experience itself lost the level of importance they once had. And I’m sure Heidegger would agree that this perceived loss of importance for both subjectivity and for a holistic understanding of human existence has led to a major shift in our view of the world, and a view that has likely resulted in some of the psychological pathologies sprouting up in our age of modernity.
Heidegger thought that allowing Being to reveal itself to us, was analogous to an artist letting the truth reveal itself naturally:
“…the artist, as well as the spectator, must submit patiently and passively to the artistic process, that he must lie in wait for the image to produce itself; that he produces false notes as soon as he tries to force anything; that, in short, he must let the truth of his art happen to him? All of these points are part of what Heidegger means by our letting Being be. Letting it be, the artist lets it speak to him and through him; and so too the thinker must let it be thought.”
He seems to be saying that modern ways of thinking are too forceful in the sense of our always prioritizing the subject-object distinction in our way of life. We’ve let the obsessive organization of our lives and the various beings within those lives drown out our appreciation of, and ability to connect to, Being itself. I think that another way we could put this is to say that we’ve split ourselves off from the sense of self that has a strong connection to nature and this has disrupted our ability to exist in a mode that’s more in tune with our evolutionary psychology, a kind of harmonious path of least resistance. We’ve become masters over manipulating our environment while simultaneously losing our innate connection to that environment. There’s certainly a lesson to be learned here even if the problem is difficult to articulate.
• • • • •
This concludes William Barrett’s chapter on Martin Heidegger. I’ve gotta say that I think Heidegger’s views are fascinating as they serve to illustrate a radically different way of viewing the world and human existence, and for those that take his philosophy seriously, it forces us to re-evaluate much of the Western philosophical thought that we’ve been taking for granted, and which has constrained a lot of our thinking. And I think it’s both refreshing and worthwhile to explore some of these novel ideas as they help us see life through an entirely new lens. We need a shift in our frame of mind; a need to think outside the box so we have a better chance of finding new solutions to many of the problems we face in today’s world. In the next post for this series on William Barrett’s Irrational Man, I’ll be looking at the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre.