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Notes on Philosophical Dialectic, Part 2


Martin Heidegger

2,441 words

Part 2 of 2

3. The Hermeneutic Circle in Heidegger’s Being and Time

Heidegger’s purpose in Being and Time[1] is to explore the question of the sense (Sinn) of Being (Sein). By “Being” Heidegger means the meaningful presence of beings to a knower. By the “sense of Being,” Heidegger refers to the meaningful presence of meaning itself. The “sense” of Being has nothing to do with sense perception, but rather sense and nonsense, the whole realm of meaning. The sense of Being is what makes it possible for us to think about the meaningful presence of beings, the fact that we experience a world of meaning rather than a meaningless assemblage of mere things. So for Heidegger, there are things (beings), the meaningful presence of beings (Being), and the meaningful presence of meaning itself (the sense of Being).

Meaning is not just the meaning of things, it is also meaning to a knower, which Heidegger calls Dasein. Dasein is a German word for existence, but Heidegger hears it as a compound of da (here and there, in the sense of location) and Sein (Being). Thus Heidegger does not speak of the human subject or consciousness. Instead, he speaks of Dasein, the “place” or “location” where beings become meaningful.

For Heidegger, Dasein and Sein, man and meaning, have a reciprocal relationship. There cannot be man without meaning, or meaning without man. Because man and meaning, Dasein and Being, belong together, it is natural to employ our knowledge of who we are in order to understand the sense of Being:

Thus to work out the question of Being adequately, we must make a being—the enquirer—transparent in his own Being. . . . The explicit and transparent formulation of the question of the meaning of Being requires a proper explication of a being (Dasein) with regard to its Being. (SZ 7, BT 27, BW 48)

As in Hegel and Plato, so too in Heidegger, philosophical investigation is ultimately a matter of self-knowledge and self-explication. This gives rise to the hermeneutic method of Being and Time:

Inquiry, as a kind of seeking, must be guided beforehand by what is sought. So the sense of Being must already be available to us in some way. As we have intimated, we always conduct activities in an understanding of Being. . . . We do not know what “Being” means. But even if we ask, “What is Being?,” we keep within an understanding of the “is,” though we are unable to fix conceptually what that “is” signifies. We do not even know the horizon in terms of which that sense is to be grasped and fixed. But this vague average understanding of Being is still a fact. (SZ 6, BT 25, BW 45–46).

Heidegger claims that “What we seek when we inquire into Being is not something entirely unfamiliar, even if at first we cannot grasp it at all” (SZ 6, BT 25, BW 46).  Heidegger then asks, “But does not this undertaking fall into an obvious circle?’’ (SZ 7, BT 27, BW 48).

If we must first define a being (Dasein) in its Being, and if we want to formulate the question of Being only on this basis, what is this but going in a circle? In working out our question, have we not “presupposed” something which only the answer can bring? (SZ 7, BT 27, BW 48)

The logical fallacy of circular argument, or begging the question, means making the conclusion one seeks to establish one of the premises of the argument. If we have to presuppose that we know the sense of Being in any attempt to elucidate it, is this not a circular argument? Having raised this problem, Heidegger then goes on to answer it:

Factically though there is no [vicious] circle at all in formulating our question as we have described. One can determine the nature of beings in their Being without necessarily having the explicit concept of the sense of Being at one’s disposal. . . . This “presupposing” of Being has rather the character of taking a look at it beforehand, so that in the light of it the entities presented to us get provisionally articulated in their being. . . . Such “presupposing” has nothing to do with laying down an axiom from which a sequence of propositions is deductively derived. It is quite impossible for there to be any “circular argument” in formulating the question about the sense of Being; for in answering this question, the issue is not one of grounding something by such a derivation; it is rather one of laying bare the grounds for it and exhibiting them. (SZ 7-8, BT 27-28, BW 49)

The Heideggerian solution to this problem is that we always-already know the sense of Being, but in a vague and tacit way. This makes inquiry possible. But we wish to know clearly and explicitly. Thus the vagueness and tacitness of our knowledge makes inquiry necessary. Thus inquiry is a process of explication or interpretation (Auslegung) in which an implicit, tacit knowledge is made explicit and articulate. This is not a vicious circle, for we are not deducing a conclusion from a ground, but rather descriptively laying bare the ground from which a deduction can proceed. It is, loosely speaking, an “inductive” not a deductive process.


Heidegger does, however, call it a hermeneutical circle. A hermeneutical circle is a process in which each part of a text being interpreted is understood in the context of the whole, while at the same time our understanding of the whole is being slowly constructed out of the parts. Heidegger’s process wherein the inarticulate is rendered articulate could be interpreted as a hermeneutical circle as follows. First, one advances a tentative articulation of one’s subject matter. Then one circles back, testing this account against one’s inarticulate grasp of the matter to be articulated, progressively supplementing each new account to accord better with the matter to be articulated.

But this is precisely what both Hegel and Plato—as I have construed them—are doing. Hegelian and Platonic dialectic both are a process whereby tacit, inarticulate knowledge is rendered explicit and articulate. Hegelian-Platonic dialectic moves with in a hermeneutical circle.

But if Plato and Hegel can be read as hermeneutical thinkers, does this mean that Heidegger is a dialectical thinker? The answer is yes. Heidegger does not, of course, describe himself as a dialectical thinker. The early Heidegger calls his activity phenomenology (which is couched in the language of reflection and description), and the later Heidegger calls it simply thinking. But, as we shall see in our discussion of Husserl on parts and wholes, there is a sense in which phenomenology is dialectical as well as reflective and descriptive. To put it paradoxically, “dialectic” is a better description of the activity of phenomenology than description itself. Beyond that, Heidegger’s “thinking” is always attuned to what is missing from the standard positions in the history of philosophy, the larger hidden contexts in which these ideas make sense, and this is essentially the activity of dialectic.

4. Parts and Wholes in Husserl’s Third Logical Investigation

[3]Edmund Husserl’s treatment of the logic of parts and wholes in the Logical Investigations,[2] Investigation Three, “On the Theory of Parts and Wholes,” offers resources for a fairly rigorous account of the structure of dialectic as it plays itself out within the hermeneutic circle.[3] Husserl articulates the a priori laws governing the modes of givenness of various kinds of parts and wholes. I shall focus only on his key distinction between two kinds of parts: pieces and moments.

Pieces are those parts which can be given in separation from their wholes. Examples would be a horse’s head or a human hand. (Husserl notes that although these can be given apart from their proper wholes, they cannot be given in complete separation.   They must, at the very least, be given as figures against a background.) Moments are those parts which cannot be given separate from their proper wholes. For instance, a physical body—say a soccer ball—may show up as a self-sufficient whole against the backdrop of the soccer field. But the ball is given through a number of non-independent moments: extension, surface, color, texture, etc. Texture cannot be given apart from a surface, and surface cannot be given apart from some texture. Surface and texture are interpenetrated with one another, and in virtue of this, they cannot be given in separation.

But what if one were to attempt to give a moment in separation? What if, for instance, an Italian futurist such as Balla were to decide to give a painted or plastic representation of brightness, sound, or speed? Take brightness. Let us begin at the stage of the creative process in which the artist merely considers his object hypothetically, turning it over and over in his imagination, trying to picture it in his head. In considering the attempt to represent brightness alone he would discover, by the inexorable a priori laws governing the givenness of brightness, that brightness can be given concretely only along with color. Brightness is the brightness of a color. (Let us limit the example to pigment, rather than to light.)

Brightness, in short, demands the supplementation or horizon of color if it is to be given. But color itself demands a certain supplementary horizon if it itself is to be given: surface. Color is the color of a surface. Surface itself, however, demands its own supplementation: an extended body. Surfaces are the surfaces of a body. And an extended body in turn requires a background if it is to be given. Finally, to give an extended body against a background requires demands the ultimate supplementation: a subject to whom it can be given. But with an extended body given against a background to a subject we have arrived at a self-sufficient whole.

The pattern is as follows. Each moment, when considered in terms of the concrete conditions necessary to actualize and give it, reveals with in itself an essential “demand for supplementation” (Ergänzungsbedürftigkeit)—a demand for an appropriate horizon—if it is to be given. The process of supplementation continues, each incomplete moment tendering its demand for its proper supplements, until one has ascended to a self-sufficient whole, a whole which can be given without further supplementation.

Now the example which I have chosen begins with a pre­given, well-known, and ordinary kind of whole: a physical object given to a subject against a backdrop. For the sake of my example, this whole was deconstructed into, and then reconstructed from, its moments.   But it is also, it seems, possible to work one’s way up from moments to a whole which has not been given “in person” beforehand—although, of course, such a process would at every step of the way be guided by a pre-intuition of the whole toward which one is ascending. One would take a hypothetical moment and consider it in terms of its requirements for concrete realization, disclosing its necessary supplementations. At each step, the progressive accretion of supplementations would allow one to revise one’s pre-intuition of the whole, in turn allowing one to tack back from the whole to its progressively accreting moments, lighting them up and allowing the further disclosure of necessary supplementations, until one has arrived at and made present—or at least asymptotically approached—the pre­intuited whole.

Two essential features of this process must be noted.

First, the process of supplementing a moment, thereby incorporating it into its proper whole, should be understood as both founding or grounding the moment, and as limiting or binding it. This limitation, however, is a special, originary form of limitation. It is not the imposition of an external limit upon a pre-given, self-sufficient phenomenon, such as slicing up a pie. Rather, it is an imposition on something which is precisely not pre-given and self-sufficient, but which is only a hypothetically ventured candidate for a phenomenon. This limitation is not, therefore, a diminishment of the hypothetical phenomenon, but rather that which lifts it from being merely hypothetical and non-given possibility to being a given actuality. By limiting or binding the hypothetical phenomenon into its proper horizon of supplementations, it becomes actual; it becomes given; it comes into existence. The originary limitation is, in short, identical to the process of founding. It is a limitation that brings that which it limits into being, rather than diminishing its being.

Consider, for instance, the drawing of any geometrical figure. It would be madness to consider the outlines of a geometric figure to be diminishments or impositions on the figure, as if the figure would be improved by abolishing its outer limits. Quite the contrary. The abolition of a figure’s limits is the abolition of the figure itself.

Second, the process by which we move from hypothetically entertained moments through supplementation to their proper wholes is not in any sense a deductive process through which pre-given meanings are simply “unpacked.” Nor, however, is it an inductive process—at least in the sense of induction as a reasoning process by which conclusions are drawn from—but strictly limited to—the enumeration and aggregation of particulars. What both induction and deduction have in common—in contradistinction to the process in question—is that in originating their conclusions they are both confined to the available evidence.

The process of ascending through supplementation from moments to their proper wholes is, by contrast, an essentially originative procedure, a process of discovery wherein the mind leaps over pregiven meanings and ahead of the enumeration and aggregation of particulars to grasp more and more adequately—and in an essentially originary insight—the nature of the whole.


1. Martin Heidegger, Sein und Zeit, 10. Auflage (Tubingen: Niemeyer, 1927), henceforth cited as SZ; Being and Time, trans. John MacQuarrie and Edward Robinson (New York: Harper and Row, 1962), henceforth cited as BT. I shall also use Joan Stambaugh’s translation of the Introduction to Being and Time in Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell (New York: Harper and Row, 1976), henceforth cited as BW.

2. Edmund Husserl, Logical Investigations, 2 vo1s., trans. J. N. Findlay (New York: Humanities Press, 1970).

3. For two very useful accounts of this investigation, see Robert Sokolowski, “The Logic of Parts and Wholes in Husserl’s Logical Investigations,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 28 (1967–68): 537–53, and Jay Lampert, “Husserl’s Theory of Parts and Wholes: The Dynamic of Individuating and Contextualizing Interpretation—Übergehen, Abheben, Ergänzungsbedürftigkeit,” Research in Phenomenology 19 (1989): 195–212. Lampert’s article is especially useful in bringing out the implications of Husserl’s account for dialectic, although he is unfair in accusing Sokolowski of being unaware of these implications. Sokolowski does demonstrate an awareness of the issue, though he does not make it a central theme of his paper. Sokolowski makes more of this issue in chapter 1 , ‘‘Parts and Wholes,’’ of his Husserlian Meditations: How Words Present Things (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1974).