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An Introduction for Anti-Modernists, Part 1

Martin Heidegger

3,208 words

Part 1 of 4

1. What is Metaphysics?

The term “metaphysics” has been appropriated in recent years to function as a synonym for “new age” or “occult.” I still vividly remember the two older women in my college metaphysics course who kept asking questions about crystals and astral projection, and who grumbled outside class that the professor was not covering any “real-world metaphysics.”

As a branch of philosophy, metaphysics could be defined as the study of the fundamental nature of reality. It asks such questions as “what is real?” – and, as Heidegger will shortly tell us, “what is being?” Metaphysics asks the most fundamental questions in philosophy – and thus it asks the most fundamental questions possible for human beings.

What Heidegger teaches, however, is that metaphysics should be thought of less as a timeless, perennial area of human inquiry and more as a “project” that began with certain assumptions that were very much rooted in a particular time and place. The project of Western metaphysics then changed and developed and played out the consequences of those assumptions, until it reached a climax and, for all intents and purposes, came to an end. For Heidegger, what has driven the Western metaphysical project is the desire to give expression to what being is. Curiously, however, Western metaphysicians have not only seldom actually identified this as their aim, they have systematically obscured the question of being itself.

Metaphysics begins with the pre-Socratic philosophers, some of whom speculated about a primal and eternal “stuff” from which all things came. Others, like the Pythagoreans, believed in objective ideas after which the material world was fashioned. Plato’s “theory of forms” developed out of such speculations. Aristotle took up that theory, revising it and arguing for the existence of a God that causes worldly change and transformation through the unrequited love all things feel for him.

Modern metaphysics makes mind and subjectivity central, and reality for modern metaphysicians becomes increasing “mind-like.” The paradigm case is Leibniz, who takes up Aristotle’s doctrine of substance (true being) and argues that the only true beings are minds and that everything else is an idea in those minds. Kant argued against the possibility of metaphysics itself (especially the kind represented by Leibniz). But there is an implicit metaphysics in Kant: “what truly is” is the thing-in-itself, which lies forever beyond our ken. The metaphysical tradition culminates in Hegel (1770–1831), who makes “what truly is” equivalent to the whole of reality considered as an organic system (the Absolute), which completes itself through human beings coming to consciousness of it. One can see in Hegel’s philosophy all previous metaphysical ideas dialectically integrated into a new metaphysical system – which is why Heidegger described Hegel as the climax of western metaphysics.

2. The Ontological Difference and Forgottenness of Being

Although the history of Western metaphysics exhibits rich variety, according to Heidegger all the great metaphysicians have “forgotten being,” because they have all confused being with a being; i.e., some particular thing that has being. In short, they have violated what Heidegger calls “the ontological difference.” Those first coming to Heidegger always find this extremely difficult to understand, but it is absolutely crucial for comprehending his thought.

For Heidegger, the central question of metaphysics is “what is being?” Things, like the keyboard in front of me are beings: things that have being, things that are. But metaphysics is concerned not with beings or things themselves, but with the being that beings have. What do we mean when we say that this keyboard is? We say that it “has being.” What does this mean exactly? It can’t mean that it’s physically present to me. I also say that ideas are, that memories are, that history is – but these are not physically present to me. The meaning of “being” is the greatest mystery there is – and it is extraordinarily difficult to talk about. Especially in English.

In English “being” does double duty and we are forced to say that the keyboard is a being, because it has being. Matters are a little less confusing in German, where the being that a being has (being-as-such) is das Sein, which is a noun constructed from the infinitive of the verb “to be” (sein). Beings, the things that have being, Heidegger calls das Seiende. This is actually a singular noun, and it is probably best translated “what is” or “that which is,” but this is understood to refer to beings, the things that are (or that, again, have being). In order to avoid completely confusing ourselves in English, many Heidegger commentators have adopted the convention of referring to Being, capitalizing the initial letter of the word that denotes being-as such, the Being that a being or beings (small b) have.

This is not hair-splitting on Heidegger’s part: it is an absolutely crucial and valid distinction. The keyboard, the lamp next to it, the chair I’m sitting in, and I myself are all beings. We are called that because we are said to have Being. But what is this mysterious Being that we all have? One thing is certain: it cannot be a being. If Being were a being it wouldn’t be Being: it would simply be yet another thing that has being. To draw an analogy, you could say that what I have in common with my neighbor is that we both possess the characteristic of manness. But what is that? I’m not certain, but I do know that manness can’t be a man. If it were, it would be something that has manness, not the quality of manness as such.

This distinction between Being and beings is “the ontological difference.” And it leads to some peculiar consequences. First of all, if we recognize that Being can’t be a being then that means that Being isn’t. A being is something that is; something that has Being. But if Being is not a being then we cannot say that Being is. And so Being is not. This seems exceedingly strange, because if Being is not, then how can Heidegger or anyone else talk about it? But the logic here is airtight: Being-as-such cannot be a being (again, a thing that has Being). As I will discuss in a moment, Heidegger points out that not only do we speak of Being, we deal with it all the time in a whole host of different ways. Therefore, the fact that we cannot treat it as a being does not mean that it cannot be talked about at all. We just have to find a new way to talk about it, which is what Heidegger tries to do (and this is the reason that reading him is so difficult).

All the philosophers prior to Heidegger failed in the task of thinking Being, because in one way or another they sidestepped the question “what is Being?” and talked instead about some being or other – usually a very special or exalted being, but a being (a thing) nonetheless. Whether philosophers have spoken of a primal matter, or eternal numbers, or the Form of the Good, or God, or the One, or mind, or the thing-in-itself, or the Absolute Ego, or the Absolute, or Will, or Will to Power, Western metaphysicians have spoken only of some special, exalted, or supreme thing that has Being. But they have forgotten Being itself, Heidegger says.

3. Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics

These are difficult ideas, and those wishing to tackle them – and to see exactly how Heidegger proposes to speak about Being – can do no better than to read his Introduction to Metaphysics (Einführung in die Metaphysik). And the remainder of this essay will be devoted to an exposition of this important and readable text, which was originally a lecture course given by Heidegger at Freiburg University in the Summer of 1935. It had special significance for him. In the preface to the seventh edition of his magnum opus Being and Time, Heidegger suggested that readers seeking an accessible account of the question of Being should consult Einführung in die Metaphysik. The lecture series was published that same year, 1953. In fact, it was the first of his lecture series that Heidegger chose to publish, clearly indicating that he regarded it as particularly important. It was also the very first book by Heidegger to be translated into English (by Ralph Manheim, in 1959; a more authoritative translation was produced by Gregory Fried and Richard Polt, and published in 2000). Being and Time would not be translated until 1962.

Heidegger’s high estimation of Introduction to Metaphysics no doubt was due not just to the book’s profound elaboration of the question of Being, but also to the fact that it is one of Heidegger’s clearest and most accessible works. But it is also a work fraught with controversy. Heidegger joined the National Socialist German Workers’ Party in May of 1933, less than four months after Hitler came to power. Introduction to Metaphysics is, in fact, the work by Heidegger most closely associated with his Nazism. It was in the pages of this book that, as we shall see, Heidegger referred to National Socialism’s “inner truth and greatness.”

At the beginning of Chapter One of Introduction to Metaphysics Heidegger asks the question “why are there beings at all instead of nothing?” And he tells us that this is the most fundamental metaphysical question that can be asked. It is with this question that we can perhaps find some way to encounter Being.

4. Being and Human Beings

Heidegger tells us that the question “why are there beings at all instead of nothing?” is not one raised exclusively in philosophy seminars. It actually occurs to us in states of despair and depression, or boredom. In these states, we are being moved by an original, philosophical impulse. The question becomes something real and vital to us — it is not an “abstract” philosophical concern. But what exactly does Heidegger mean?

Consider depression. This is a psychological state in which we often feel a profound sense of meaninglessness. Things which normally seem significant to us or which give us pleasure suddenly seem pointless and empty. But it is not as if other, different things suddenly seem more meaningful. No, depression is a condition in which existence as such loses its meaning. The smallest, most innocuous object or event may fill us with a gnawing sense of dread (this is the state that Sartre – whose thought was heavily derivative of Heidegger’s – called “nausea”). And we may feel the sense that existence as a whole is absurd. It may occur to us to wonder why any of this should exist at all. In other words, in such a state we are asking “why are there beings at all instead of nothing?” Those exact words may never go through our minds – but we feel this question none the less. Even simple boredom can occasion this feeling.

Now, what is really going on in these states is that we are preoccupied with Being. We are preoccupied with the Being that all of this around us has, and we are asking “Why?” And so we realize, Heidegger says, that there is a deeper question underlying “why are there beings at all instead of nothing?” and that is: “How does it stand with Being?”[1] In German, wie steht es um das Sein? – which might be translated more simply as “What about Being?”

Our ability to confront Being in states like depression and boredom gives us an answer to any who might think at this point in our discussion that the “Being” that Heidegger is preoccupied with is merely an empty word. As human beings, we find ourselves from time to time preoccupied with Being – and we find it disturbing and uncanny. Oddly, however, Heidegger never refers to us as “human beings.” Instead he calls us Dasein, and this word is normally left untranslated in English editions of Heidegger’s work. Da means “there” and sein, as we already know, means “to be.” This term is found in ordinary German, where it can be a separable verb (e.g. ist jemand da? Is anybody there?), or a noun meaning “existence” (e.g., ein angenehmes Dasein, a pleasant existence). (Existenz is the term more often used, however.) One finds this term used by earlier philosophers; it’s a category in Hegel’s Logic, for instance.

Dasein has a special, technical meaning in Heidegger’s philosophy. We are the only creatures who are not absorbed by the moment, and by preoccupation with particular things. We also have the ability to stand outside the moment and, as described earlier, register Being. In short, we ex-ist, where “ex” means outside and “ist” means to stand or abide. We are Da-sein because we are the only creatures who have an experience of being there, and registering Being. For Heidegger, what chiefly characterizes us and distinguishes us from all other living things is our preoccupation with Being.

5. The Fall of Dasein

But how Dasein has oriented itself toward Being – in philosophical reflection and in daily life – has changed over the course of time. Heidegger’s position, in fact, is that Dasein has fallen away from a primal openness to Being enjoyed by the ancient Greeks. He views modern Dasein as thoroughly degenerate, though he never announces this in such strong terms. At all times, Heidegger maintains a position of objectivity, seldom seeming to pass judgment on the times. He positions himself as a kind of detached “historian of Being.” It is clear, however, that Heidegger regards modern Dasein as defective, and that he seeks some way to bring about an orientation toward Being that would approximate that of our ancient ancestors. Introduction to Metaphysics is a particularly valuable text, among other reasons, because it is here that Heidegger makes some of his strongest and most explicit anti-modern statements.

As a model for a healthy, pre-modern Dasein Heidegger looks continually – and exclusively — to the Greeks (a problematic move, as I will discuss later). He tells us that for the Greeks Being was essentially phusis (sometimes also transliterated physis; we get “physics” from this). This word is normally translated “nature” but Heidegger takes the position that our cultural falling away from the “originary” Greek confrontation with Being has been facilitated by the translation of Greek words into Latin ones. And “nature” comes from the Latin natura – so we must be cautious in understanding phusis as “nature” and leaving the matter at that.

The basic difference between phusis and natura is that the latter basically connotes a kind of static collection of entities that surround humanity – the non-human world of animals, plants, minerals, elements, etc. The concept of phusis, on the other hand, suggests something dynamic and moving. Heidegger points out that the noun phusis is derived from the verb phuein, which means “to generate or grow.” Thus, “nature” for the Greeks was not simply the set of non-human-built things around us; rather it was a dynamic process. Heidegger writes:

Now what does the word phusis say? It says what emerges from itself (for example, the emergence, the blossoming, of a rose), the unfolding that opens itself up, the coming-into-appearance in such unfolding, and holding itself and persisting in appearance – in short, the emerging-abiding sway. . . . Phusis is the event of standing forth. Arising from the concealed and thus enabling the concealed to take its stand for the first time.[2]

Phusis is what emerges out of potentiality or out of absence (the rose blossoming, the caterpillar becoming a butterfly, the storm emerging from the heavens) and becomes present and actualized – then disappears back into wherever it is such things emerge from. Phusis is this continual unfolding, emergence, and return. And Heidegger tells us that “Phusis is Being itself, by virtue of which beings first become and remain observable.”[3]

Contrary to popular belief, Heidegger’s main objective is not to “define Being.” In these passages of Introduction to Metaphysics and elsewhere, Heidegger sets out very clearly what he thinks “Being” means, and makes it clear that he believes the standpoint of the Greeks (who equated Being with phusis) is basically correct. Heidegger’s main interest is actually in Dasein: in the being for whom Being is an issue; in how Being becomes an issue for us, how we have responded to Being, and the history of how our orientation toward Being has changed over time.

Now, Heidegger’s identification of Being with phusis allows him to make some interesting observations about physics and metaphysics. Physics deals with beings: with the things that have emerged from the abiding sway of phusis/Being (including not just “things,” but forces), and with the laws governing their interactions. Metaphysics points us beyond beings to Being itself (and indeed “metaphysics” literally means “beyond physics”). However, the entire history of Western metaphysics – really, from the Pre-Socratics on – has confused metaphysics with physics and treated Being as if it were some special kind of being (as I discussed earlier). This means that when Heidegger refers to “the Greeks” as having the proper conception of Being as phusis, he is really not thinking of the Greek philosophers. In fact, he is drawing his account of the Greek understanding of Being primarily from their poetry and drama. But that is a story too complicated to tell here.

Heidegger speaks of the “oblivion of Being,” that begins with the Greek philosophical treatment of Being as another kind of being, and has as its final consequence modern decadence. We have lost the original Greek wonder in the face of Being.[4] Even the medieval period, soaked in religious piety, was disconnected from Being. The Judeo-Christian tradition treats God as an exalted being and the world as an artifact constructed by him. And, as the Good Book says, God has given to man dominion over all the beings of this artificial world. Judeo-Christian religiosity is preoccupied with transcending this world, so as to be reunited with God – not with wonder in the face of the “emerging-abiding sway.” The formula for creating modernity out of medievalism is simple: retain the idea of our having dominion over all the earth (i.e., all this as raw material for human use) and simply remove God from the picture. The result is a life without wonder, in which we are preoccupied exclusively with this thing or that, focused on the manipulation, quantification, and acquisition of things.


1. Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. Gregory Fried and Richard Polt (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 35. The translators here use “How does it stand with Being?” (Heidegger translations tend to be highly stilted and literal, as Heidegger chooses his words very carefully and the sense of what he is trying to say can easily be lost in translation). However, in a footnote they suggest the more natural “What about Being?”

2. Introduction to Metaphysics, 15–16.

3. Introduction to Metaphysics, 15.

4. Michael Zimmerman writes, “Faced with overpowering Being, the ancient Greek mood was astonishment. Faced with the utter meaninglessness of the modern industrial wasteland, the modern German moods are horror and boredom.” Michael E. Zimmerman, “The Ontological Decline of the West,” in A Companion to Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics, ed. Richard Polt and Gregory Fried (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 189.



  1. rhondda
    Posted June 4, 2012 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    How fortuitous! Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics has been waiting for me to crack it open. Thank you for this introduction to the introduction.

  2. Sandy
    Posted June 4, 2012 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    Being of the Generation that was brought up to regard himself as a Human Being I appreciate your effort to explain all this metaphysics stuff to us mere mortals. Its strange being and actual Being in a world surrounded by Humans trying to find themselves and Human works in progress rather than just Being.

  3. Mr. Sardonicus
    Posted June 5, 2012 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    I wonder if Heidegger was familiar with the theories of Von List?

    • Collin Cleary
      Posted June 5, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

      Not likely.

  4. Lew
    Posted June 5, 2012 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

    The problem with metaphysics isn’t that it began with certain assumptions. The problem with metaphysics is that it started as a tool for explaining reality in a time when the scientific method did not exist. To understand reality now, we don’t need metaphysics; we have science. The problem with metaphysics, therefore, is that science moots all metaphysical questions.

    Aristotle’s thought provides a good illustration of this point. His logic is still pretty much up to date after 2500 years. His aesthetic ideas as expressed in the Poetics are still relevant. Many of his ethical and political ideas are still relevant, too. His ideas in these areas tap into timeless questions about the human condition.

    As long as human beings exist, people are going to need logic, aesthetics, ethics and politics, i.e understanding correct reasoning, art, drama, what constitues a meaningful human life and how to organize a just society.

    But what about his metaphysical ideas? While much of his work in logic, aesthetics, ethics and politics is still relevant after 2500 years, in metaphysics he came up with the “Unmoved Mover.” His work in metaphysics doesn’t tell us anything useful about anything. It can’t because he didn’t have science. The same is true with every other philosopher.

    • Collin Cleary
      Posted June 5, 2012 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

      Metaphysics and science have completely different concerns. And the article makes this clear. Science is concerned with explaining beings of various sorts. Metaphysics is concerned with the nature of Being as such. And this is an issue that cannot be decided by the use of the empirical, scientific method (observation and experiment). Your comment simply reflects a basic misunderstanding of what metaphysics is.

      • Lew
        Posted June 6, 2012 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

        My position is that there is no reason to believe there are “meta” aspects of existence that are closed to science. If they’re closed to science, then no one can know they’re there much less explain them. Physics is adequate for fundamental explanations (IMO). In this respect, concern with “fundamental” questions, science (especially physics) and metaphysics definitely have some overlapping concerns.

      • Collin Cleary
        Posted June 6, 2012 at 9:49 pm | Permalink

        The problem here is that you’ve failed to understand what Heidegger means by the “ontological difference.” The question “What is Being?” cannot possibly be answered by any appeals to empirical evidence. The scientific method is an approach that can answer some questions, not all. To declare that matters are “unknowable” if science cannot address them is dogmatic. And it begs the question not only against Heidegger (whose approach you have failed to come to terms with), but against the entire philosophical tradition.

      • Verlis
        Posted June 7, 2012 at 3:04 am | Permalink


        I clicked on this article prepared to scoff at it, but I think I’m going to come away from it a changed man. This isn’t the first time I’ve attempted an introduction to Heidegger. I’ve tried a few times before but always been frustrated. I didn’t have this experience with other philosophers so when I tried Heidegger and struggled I quickly yielded to the temptation to write it off as pointless metaphysical jibber-jabber. I fear it’s anything but.

        I’m far from anybody Collin Cleary would have wanted to reach with this piece so I feel a little awkward ‘thanking’ him for it, but life can sometimes work in mysterious ways (not being metaphysical here!), so may good things come to him in return.

      • Collin Cleary
        Posted June 9, 2012 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

        Dear Verlis — No need to feel awkward. I appreciate your kind words. I’m glad you got something out of the essay.

    • D. Constantin
      Posted June 6, 2012 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

      Collin Cleary is right; to assume that what is inaccessible to science in not real or unknowable is simply misguided. While I’m not really a Heideggerian, I will always agree that the dogmatic system of rationalistic-empiricist scientism is simply incompatible with deep philosophical thought. Those who follow often do so under the comfort and security of the fact that it is supported by many intellectuals in modern society. Not only that, but those who believe in it (scientism) only reveal that they are not aware of the intellectuals and philosophers who refute it or have argued against it (I don’t have anything specific in mind: anyone and everyone from Joseph de Maistre to Hans Zehrer to Ludwig Klages to Francis Parker Yockey). That aside, it should be self-evident that science does not offer much comfort as its theories always change over time. It is possible from here to slide into a nihilism which argues that there is no truth and never will be because of our human limits; this is the ultimate irony of this scientism which claims that science is a “bearer of truth and knowledge.”

    • D. Constantin
      Posted June 7, 2012 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

      I found a good quote for Lew:

      ” The alleged lack of bias in those who ‘search for truth’ is a pious deception concocted by a superficial mentality that is overawed by the mere title of ‘science.’ ” – Ludwig Klages, (from Sämtliche Werke 1 p. 130)

  5. John Taratuta
    Posted June 7, 2012 at 6:28 am | Permalink

    I’ve found RG Collingwood’s “An Essay on Metaphysics” (Oxford Press) to be a good start, perhaps, before jumping directly into Heidegger.

    All the best.

  6. Greg
    Posted June 7, 2012 at 4:26 pm | Permalink


    I have read and reread this essay now a few times. I still find Dasein’a meaning incomprehensible. Can we just substitute God as Bowden said for Dasein to make sense of it?

    • Lew
      Posted June 9, 2012 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

      I greatly respect Collin Cleary’s deep and advanced learning, but this essay has reinforced my view that Heidegger’s metaphysical ideas are unintelligible, and not because of anything I’m failing to understand but because Heidegger is not a clear writer.

      Even very smart and learned people can’t seem to make this man’s ideas clear. And when a piece of the writing is unclear, it means the thinking that went into the writing was unclear. Anything not clearly written must not have been clearly thought in the first place.

      The more basic problem is that he is attempting non-empirical inquiry into nature under the rubric of philosophy. Conclusions about nature that founded on non-empirical inquiry into nature rightly belong under the rubric of supernatural religion where people accept things based on faith (without evidence) not philosophy. I’m not surprised at all Jonathan Bowden proposed bringing “God” into Heidegger discussion.

      • Collin Cleary
        Posted June 9, 2012 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

        Dear Lew,
        Heidegger is hard to read, but his ideas are far from “unintelligible.” When someone labels a philosopher as “unintelligible” it usually means they find him hard to read, OR that they are approaching his thought with certain fixed conceptions that they can’t (or won’t) think outside of. Your last comment holds, I think, one key to the problem you are having with Heidegger. You seem to think (indeed you explicitly state) that Heidegger is making some sort of inquiry into “nature.” But that’s not right. He is inquiring into the meaning of Being, and into the being that asks the question of the meaning of Being (Dasein: us). Being is not “nature” (Heidegger identifies Being with phusis, but makes it clear that phusis is mistranslated as “nature”). Nature is a collection of beings and, yes, observation and experiment help us to understand those beings. But science cannot disclose Being to us, since Being is not a being — not something that can appear to us and be measured or examined in the way that a being can. Science is exclusively concerned with individual beings. But if we ask the question “what does it mean to be?” or “what is Being-as-such?” science has nothing to say. You are approaching Heidegger with a lot of pre-conceived notions which he challenges you to question.

      • Fisherman
        Posted June 9, 2012 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

        Bowden makes the claim that what Heidegger is really talking about is God at this point in the video.

    • Collin Cleary
      Posted June 9, 2012 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

      Dasein simply means us: the being that asks the question of Being. Or: the being to whom Being is disclosed. I’m not sure what Bowden means by calling this “God.” Perhaps he’s suggesting that somehow Heidegger makes man into God. I don’t see this. And certainly any attempt to straightforwardly identify Dasein with God is way off the mark.

  7. Lew
    Posted June 7, 2012 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

    Just to add on and elucidate a bit, I’m not hostile to Heidegger, nor am I suggesting there is nothing of value in his work. But, I don’t believe things without evidence.
    This doesn’t make me a dogmatist. Call me a metaphysical skeptic. Give me evidence and a good argument, and I’ll believe it. Otherwise, rationality dictates disbelief. Simple as that.

    I agree that sometimes science is relevant and sometimes it isn’t. It depends on the type and nature of the philosphical question.

    With ethical claims, you can give an argument and leave it at that. With metaphysical claims, you need argument and evidence. With ethics, you deal with oughts – what people ought to do or not do. Science, measurement, observation and empirical evidence are not usually relevant here. The fact that a man is mass of molecules doesn’t tell us anything about what people ought to do.

    Metaphysical claims are fundamentally and obviously different. Metaphysical claims are claims about what is. It doesn’t matter if it’s God, the Unmoved Mover, or the form of the Good. To make a metaphysical claim is to claim that something is real, that it exists. And if you’re going to claim that something is, that it’s real, that it’s part of nature, that it exists, you have to point to something in nature to prove it.

    In this respect, as I’ve set up the definition here, science and metaphysics cover the same domain and the same concerns. Both scientific and metaphysical claims are claims about what is. The difference is that scientific “is” claims are linked, founded and tied to things that can be proven to exist, and metaphysical claims are not. Or, at least, the broadest, most important and influential metaphysical claims that most educated people know about are not (God, Forms, etc.). This is where science succeeds and metaphysics fails. Metaphysics makes claims about what “is” on weak or no evidence; science doesn’t.

    Maybe there is an element of dogmatism in Heidegger’s thought. If your starting point is the question, “what is Being,” you have to assume that Being exists, that it’s real, that it’s a valid concept and a useful category. To ask the question “what is Being” is to assume Being is something real, no? It’s an assumption implicit in the question, and a problematic one. You can’t start by defining something as existing and then use that as proof it exists.

    There are particular things that have being but Being itself can’t have being or it wouldn’t be Being. This is the gist of the ontological distinction.

    The problem with this distinction is that it links things that are definitely real, all the particulars that have being, to something Heidegger seems to assume is real but doesn’t prove is real (Being).

    We know the particulars exist. Why not stop there? There are particulars that exist and that have being. A lamp, a book, a galaxy, a strand of DNA, and so on.

    Why is it necessary to bring in this other nebulous idea – Being – at all?


    All the philosophers prior to Heidegger failed in the task of thinking Being, because in one way or another they sidestepped the question “what is Being?” and talked instead about some being or other – usually a very special or exalted being, but a being (a thing) nonetheless. Whether philosophers have spoken of a primal matter, or eternal numbers, or the Form of the Good, or God, or the One, or mind, or the thing-in-itself, or the Absolute Ego, or the Absolute, or Will, or Will to Power, Western metaphysicians have spoken only of some special, exalted, or supreme thing that has Being. But they have forgotten Being itself, Heidegger says.

    Another possibility is that they didn’t “forget” Being itself but rather didn’t think the Being/being distinction meaningful. Plato or Aristotle might have realized the distiction would lead to problems and metaphysical incoherence (100% conjecture obviously). But, since Heidegger seems to be at odds with everyone else on this issue, his first step should be have been proving that Being is a real entity, category, aspect of nature, or whatever it is Being is supposed to be (I’m still not entirely sure), not just posing the question “what is Being” and taking off. Does he even do this? Only after this is done, but not before, does it make sense to grapple with the significance of Being (IMO).

    The fact that Being can’t be clearly defined is almost enough IMO to justify throwing out the concept.

    It occurred to me while reading all thus material about “defining Being” that Socrates talked a lot about the importance of definition. Quality reasoning requires good definitions.

    But it seems that defining Being is an exercise in futility, the whole point after all is to figure out what it is. This is why it is necessary to “find ways” to talk about Being. Well, if you can’t define it, if the definition is so elusive and subtle you have embark on a journey into the mists of time to find ways to talk about it, you’re on slippery ground.

    D Constantin:

    to assume that what is inaccessible to science in not real or unknowable is simply misguided. While I’m not really a Heideggerian, I will always agree that the dogmatic system of rationalistic-empiricist scientism is simply incompatible with deep philosophical thought.

    I think what’s incompatible with deep thought is making a bunch of claims about fundamental reality without good evidence. There is nothing dogmatic about saying certain things can’t be known.

    Issac Newton likened humans to children playing with sand on the beach. His implication is there are vast oceans of knowledge that are closed to human beings. I can live with that.

    • Collin Cleary
      Posted June 9, 2012 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

      There are two major things here that are problematic. The first is your conception of evidence, which is more than a bit vague. You state that metaphysics must provide arguments and evidence. But to provide an argument for a position is the same thing as providing evidence for it. Clearly, however, what you are assuming is that “evidence” means “empirical evidence.” Again, as I pointed out in an earlier comment, what seems to be at work in your thinking is a kind of dogmatic empiricism which assumes (without argument) that the only meaningful claims are empirical ones. (It is this, by the way, that is at the root of your implicit ethical relativism: you assume early in your comment that there can be no ethical truth because ethical truth cannot be empirically observed.) Second, you have still not understood Heidegger’s “ontological difference,” which is absolutely crucial to understanding his thought. You state that Being must be, if it is to be “real.” But Being cannot be. What “is” are beings. But Being is not a being. Being is what things “have” that makes us call them “beings.” But Being doesn’t have that; it IS that. I state all this in the essay. No doubt you will insist that this must mean “Being” is an empty word — but as I also discuss in the essay, it is far from that. We deal with Being all the time, and Heidegger says that Being is bound up with the “fate of the West.” Lew, I’ve got to give it to you straight my friend: you’re not really reading and understanding. You’re approaching Heidegger with the very set of fixed conceptions he challenges, and rejecting Heidegger because he’s not intelligible in terms of them.

      • Jaego Scorzne
        Posted June 10, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

        Sounds like Heidegger is trying to put into words what cannot be put into words, namely what some of the great mystics experience. Perhaps the philosophical Mystics are wiser than him by clearly defining where Philosophy ends, Theology begins, and where Theology ends, Mysticism begins. All of this was basic to Augustine, Dionysius, Aquinas, et al. Of God himself, you can only say what He isn’t. But if God is not Being per se, surely He is not apart from it or less than it either.

      • Fisherman
        Posted June 10, 2012 at 7:15 pm | Permalink


        With all due respect, this concept of Being as an entity or property possessed by beings is a little difficult to grasp. Do inanimate objects have Being as well as living ones? Does the electron have Being? How about the protoon? How about the quarks that constitute the proton? How about the massless photon which sometimes behaves like a particle and sometimes like a wave?

        And if only living things have Being, then does the cell have Being? Did it have Being even when before we were aware there was such a thing as a cell? How about nucleus of the cell and the DNA molecules? But now we are back again to atomic structures which then leaves concluding that everything in the visible, material universe has Being.

        Not trying to be difficult and not opposed to metaphysics, just finding it hard to grasp what he is talking about.

        So, what is he talking about? Some pantheistic notion of God?

      • Lew
        Posted June 10, 2012 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

        @Collin Cleary: I see a couple of people weighed in; I don’t mean to pile on here. But, a lot of Christians, theists, religious people and people who believe in Intelligent Design theory talk that way. They rely heavily on the idea that experience, sense perception, measurement, observation, and empirical evidence can’t answer the “big” questions of existence and can’t tell us what’s fundamentally real. They will pose a question like “why is there something rather than nothing” (similar to H’s question why are there beings at all?), and then claim that science and empiricism can’t answer it. From there, they invariably begin inventing explanations. The explanation is God, a designer, etc.. Invariably, they come up with explanations that can’t withstand skeptical scrutiny. I understand that empiricism and science can’t explain everything. This doesn’t create a license invent. While arguments/proofs for God are not exact parallels to the Being question, that’s what’s going on here with H’s metaphysics. He’s invented an explanation to the question what went wrong in Western civilization.

  8. Fisherman
    Posted June 9, 2012 at 7:46 pm | Permalink


    You can listen to Bowden’s lecture to New Right members here on youtube. It’s as good as any explanation I have read of Heidegger.

    • Lew
      Posted June 10, 2012 at 1:36 am | Permalink

      Thanks very much; it’s interesting Bowden begins by discussing Anglo-American versus continental thought and by drawing contrasts between them and Heidegger. You can tell from his tone he has a low opinion of the Anglo-American approach. Bowden’s tone is dismissive, yet he never gets around, at least not in that video, to saying why their criticisms are wrong. I only listened to the first two parts though. Maybe he does this later in the lecture.

  9. Mark Thibodeau
    Posted March 18, 2015 at 11:31 pm | Permalink

    What a wonderful introduction and spirited discussion. I’m glad to see that, for the most part, participants have remained civil to each other, despite obvious and serious differences. as a place where tolerance thrives! Who’d have thunk it?

  10. Greg Johnson
    Posted November 21, 2015 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    The latter one contains a few extra pages of archival material. If the cost is similar, go with the 2014 version.

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