An Introduction for Anti-Modernists, Part 3

[1]2,707 words

Part 3 of 4

8. The Question of the Essence of Being

Heidegger concludes his etymological investigations by saying that they have clearly shown that the originary sense of Being has been occluded. For us, Being has become an empty word. Now, someone might say that we should acknowledge that Being has become, for us, an empty word and that we should concern ourselves with beings alone. (This is, of course, exactly what Heidegger thinks has happened in the West – even in the history of Western metaphysics.)

But an obvious question arises: how do we know that each of these is “a being”? Or, put another way, in virtue of what do we declare things – tools, trees, lakes, otters, clouds, planets, etc. – “beings”? It seems that we both know and don’t know what Being is. It has become an empty word for us, but don’t we in some tacit way know what Being is? (Else how could we refer to “beings”?) For us, Being is definite – and indefinite. Heidegger says that as human beings – as Dasein – we are living in the midst of this contradiction.

Being is definite and indefinite – and in this it is utterly unique. Beings can be compared to other beings, but Being can be compared to nothing. And Heidegger means this literally. No two concepts could be more opposed than Being and nothing. But if we understand the “ontological difference” – that Being is not a being – then we must acknowledge that Being is no thing. And from our earlier discussion we know that one implication of the ontological difference is that we cannot say that “Being is” (only a being – a thing that has being – is). And so Being isn’t. What is the difference, then, between Being and nothing, or Being and non-being?

For some, it will tempting at this point to dismiss Heidegger’s ontology as a lot of empty talk, leading to insuperable conceptual “confusions” and contradictions. This is essentially the standpoint of the “analytic philosophers,” who have dominated Anglo-American philosophy for decades. Analytic philosophers have often dismissed Heidegger’s thought as illogical. What is important to understand, however, is that the “logic” they rely upon is actually a kind of rigid, two-dimensional thinking that is fundamentally unphilosophical. Hegel argued that ordinary, non-philosophical thought is characterized by a rigid inability to think beyond “either-or” oppositions. Philosophy, however, begins precisely when we think beyond these categories. This is just what Heidegger is doing, making us re-think our naïve and ill-considered preconceptions about Being and nothing, Being and non-being, etc.

In order to demonstrate why talk of Being is not empty talk, Heidegger asks us to consider what would happen if we had no word for Being and no understanding of it at all. Would there simply be one less word in our language? Heidegger says that in fact there would be no language at all.

In a later essay Heidegger famously states that “language is the house of Being.” What does he mean by this, and how does language somehow depend upon our having an understanding of Being?

Keep in mind that he has argued that the originary, authentic Greek sense of Being is
“presentation.” However, something only becomes present to something else if that latter thing can register or be aware of its presence. Presence is not only correlative to absence, both are correlative to a being that can be aware of the interplay between presence and absence. The keyboard in front of me is present to me. There is coffee cup beside it, but the keyboard is not “present” to the cup because the cup has no consciousness. If Being is presentation, this means then that the Being of beings is something that can only be registered by us – by Dasein.

What makes us unique among all other beings is that we are the beings to whom Being becomes present, and we “register” Being in all sorts of ways – but preeminently through language. Heidegger says that “to be human means to be a sayer.”[1] We are the beings that reflect upon beings, and register their Being in language. If I set my coffee cup on the floor, it may arouse my dog’s curiosity. He may sniff it, then knock it over and roll it around. But he cannot say “That’s a coffee cup.” He cannot register what it is in language. Language, as it were, crystallizes our awareness of the Being of things. To use Heidegger’s phenomenological jargon, the object cannot presence itself to my dog as a cup, as a thing with a certain Being. Being is presentation, but this means that things presence themselves to us as what they are; we take them as displaying a certain sort of Being. And we are the only beings capable of doing this: we are the beings who give voice to the Being of things through language. If we were not open to Being, there would be no language. And, in truth, if we were not open to Being we would be no different from dogs.

At first glance, however, all of the above seems to have a troubling implication. If Being is presentation, and presentation only “happens” for a being that can register that presentation – and register it in language (the “house of Being”) – then something about this seems disturbingly “subjective.” It is at this point that many approaching Heidegger for the first time become confused and try to turn him into some sort of idealist who believes that “to be is to be perceived.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Although many Heideggereans would greet the following statement with apoplectic rage, essentially Heidegger’s standpoint is Kantian: he believes there really is a world out there – but that our capacity to register Being, and beings as beings, is one that is conditioned by our unique form of awareness; our unique way of “being in the world.”

Once this is realized, it becomes apparent that there is actually something deeper than “ontology” (the study of Being as Being). There is what Heidegger calls “fundamental ontology,” the study of what it is that makes possible Dasein’s encounter with Being. What is it about us that allows Being to disclose itself to us? We could put the question in Kantian language: what are the a priori conditions for the disclosure of Being? But we could put it still more radically. Kant viewed space and time as phenomenal; as structures the mind brings to any possible experience, not as objectively existing entities. Space and time, therefore, really exist only for us. (But for Kant the things that appear “within” the a priori structures of space and time do exist objectively.) Similarly, Being is no object in the world, no “thing.” And it presences itself only for us. So, let’s put the Kantian question in more radical terms: what are the a priori conditions for Being? This is, in effect, the question asked by Heidegger’s fundamental ontology.

9. The Restriction of Being

In the final chapter of Introduction to Metaphysics, Heidegger deals with how Being is “restricted” or delimited by its opposition to four other categories. Heidegger discusses the following conceptual dyads:

In each case, our understanding of Being is shaped by Being’s relation to something else. And in each case, Heidegger argues, in effect, that there is an intimate tie between Being and this other thing, but that this tie has become unraveled and Being set in opposition to this other. These oppositions are to be found in the unfolding philosophical treatment of Being by the Greeks. They become calcified later on, and pervade our thinking to this day.

Being and becoming

Already in Parmenides we seem to find Being opposed to becoming. Indeed, most of the ancient philosophers claim that what is does not and cannot become or change. Heraclitus is glossed in superficial histories as Parmenides’s opposite; as the philosopher who asserted becoming over Being and affirmed “the flux.” Heidegger correctly points out that in fact Heraclitus says nothing different from Parmenides. Heraclitus tells us in one of his fragments that “changing, it rests.” Being (the eternal logos) is eternally coming into being, disclosing itself. Indeed, the originary sense of Being Heidegger has recovered suggests that it is a Being in becoming: a continual presencing, coming forth, coming to stand, out of concealment. A dynamic becoming-Being. (Hegel, many centuries later, will make precisely this point, that becoming is in fact a more satisfactory understanding of Being.) But throughout most of the history of Western metaphysics, Being and becoming have been disjoined and held up as absolute opposites.

Being and seeming

Here we have the traditional juxtaposition of what truly is, versus what merely seems to be: reality vs. appearance. This is also a disjunction that runs throughout the history of Western metaphysics. The Platonic version is the most famous, wherein the sensible world is merely a deceptive, constantly shifting copy of the “true world” of the Forms. But Heidegger says, oddly, that the fact that Being and seeming can be disjoined suggests an original “belonging-together.”

The German Heidegger is using for “seeming” is Schein (cognate with English “shine”). This can mean appearance in the sense of mere, deceptive appearance (e.g., “he seems like a nice fellow but he’s not”). But it can also mean appearance in the sense of the showing forth of what something is, as when the mild-mannered fellow next door shows he’s got guts when faced with a crisis; he shows us (at last) what he truly is. Or when the bud opens and the blossom emerges. Here we have the real tie between Being and seeming.

Remember that from the Indo-European “being” root bhu are derived both phusis and phainesthai, “to appear.” The originary sense of Being we have recovered understands Being as presentation: as things disclosing themselves to us, showing forth what they are, coming to stand and abiding. Being, we can say — and Heidegger says this explicitly — is appearing. Being is Schein. It is only in Plato that Being and seeming are sharply disjoined, and Being becomes that which does not and cannot appear. This creates a “two-worlds ontology” which negates this world, in which all appearing is “deception,” and erects another, “true” world which is concealed from us and never appears. And recall that truth itself, aletheia is connected to appearing: truth is unconcealing; the absent coming to presence. Thus, Heidegger argues that not only is there no necessary disjunction between Being and seeming, the two concepts are intimately related.

Heidegger goes on to argue for a close connection between the dyads “Being and becoming” and “Being and seeming.” Becoming is not-yet-Being: when the caterpillar is in its cocoon, becoming a butterfly, it is not yet a butterfly. And yet the Being it can be said to have is a kind of Being derived from its future state. What is it? It is a future butterfly. And so in its state of becoming it is a kind of semblance of Being, of what it truly is (which has not yet emerged). Thus, becoming is a kind of seeming.

Being and thinking

Heidegger’s treatment of this conceptual pair is long and difficult, because for him “thinking” has to do with the very essence of Dasein and its relation to Being.

Let’s examine the concept of “thinking.” We associate it with reason and logic. The Greek word from which “logic” is derived is logos, which can mean account or speech. Logos, in turn, is derived from legein, which means “to discourse or talk.” But the root meaning of this word is actually “to gather” or “to collect.” What is “gathered” in thinking, in logos? Heidegger tells us: “Being-human, according to its historical, history-opening essence, is logos, the gathering and apprehending of the Being of beings.”[2] The root precondition of thinking or saying (language) is openness to the Being of beings.

The Greek word that is normally translated “to think” is noein. Let’s consider what Parmenides has to say about it. Famously, he wrote to gar auto noein estin te kai einai. This can be literally translated as “for to think and to be are the same.” Though Heidegger advises us to understand auto as “belonging together.” Thinking and Being belong together. How? Well, again we must understand what “thinking” means. Heidegger understands noein (related to nous, “intellect”) to mean “apprehension”: the “receptive bringing-to-a-stand of that which appears.”

In other words, Heidegger links apprehension to presentation. Apprehension (thinking) is simply another way of talking about openness to Being. Heidegger writes, “What Parmenides’s saying expresses is a determination of the human essence on the basis of the essence of Being itself”[3] To be Dasein is to apprehend, to think, to be open to the Being of beings. This is not simply one human function among many others – it is our very essence. Heidegger tells us that “Apprehension is not a way of behaving that the human being has as a property; to the contrary, apprehension is the happening that has the human being.”[4] Apprehension (thinking) has us – we do not have it. Again, we are the beings who are preoccupied with Being, who are seized by it and give it voice in language, art, philosophy, and religion.

“To be human,” Heidegger tells us, “means to gather and apprehend the Being of beings, to take over the knowing setting-into-work of appearance and thus to govern unconcealment [i.e., to bring things into the light of aletheia, truth], to preserve it against unconcealment and covering up.”[5]

With the Platonic turn in Western metaphysics, not only is Being cut off from becoming and from seeming, but the relation of Being to thinking is radically transformed as well. For Plato, Being becomes the transcendent idea (form), and idea is accessible only through thinking. But thinking is reconfigured to mean an abstract form of logical thought divorced from seeming — divorced, in short, from the disclosure of Being on this earth. Ironically, from Heidegger’s perspective, in identifying Being with the transcendent idea, Plato – and all else that is “Platonic” in the history of Western thought – has actually cut us off from Being!

Being and “the ought”

Heidegger states that “the ought” arises in opposition to Being as soon as Being is determined, in Platonic fashion, as idea. The result is that “Being” as idea becomes a standard or ideal standing opposed to what is (to beings here on earth). Consider Plato’s Republic, in which the Good (to agathon) is said to be “beyond Being” (epekeina tēs ousias). Plato sets up a Good which stands above what is, damning it and telling us that what is “ought to be” something else entirely.

In the modern period, this distinction between Being and “the ought” is transformed into the notorious distinction between “ought” and “is.” You cannot derive ought from is, we are told by Hume. In Kant, “the ought” becomes a transcendent reality, and the “moral law” an influx from the unknowable noumenal realm. Heidegger points ought that Fichte makes the is-ought dichotomy the whole basis for his philosophy, since he argues that it is the “vocation of man” to transform this imperfect world into an image of the human ideal.

Nietzsche takes up his hammer, however, and smashes all of this at the close of the nineteenth century, relativizing “the ought” through his corrosive “perspectivism.” But Nietzsche merely gave voice to the spirit of the times. As the twentieth century unfolded, it became impossible for the rootless, urbanized, industrialized denizens of the West to believe any longer in transcendent ideals. And so the “is-ought” dichotomy transformed into the “fact-value” dichotomy. There are no more oughts, only “values.” But no value has the status of a fact, as an absolute, since people have different all sorts of different values. One great, big rainbow of values. Not only is there no longer any openness to Being, there is no longer even the vaguest idea of objective truth.


1. Introduction to Metaphysics, 86.

2. Introduction to Metaphysics, 182.

3. Introduction to Metaphysics, 153.

4. Introduction to Metaphysics, 150.

5. Introduction to Metaphysics, 186. The bracketed interpolation is my own.