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Heidegger without Being

2,101 words

The following brief introduction to Martin Heidegger’s philosophy does not discuss the concept of Being (Sein), simply because there’s no need to.

When understanding Heidegger, everything flows from the distinction between acts of consciousness and objects of consciousness. Acts of consciousness are what we do to know things. Objects of consciousness are the things we know. I see food and utensils on the kitchen counter, feel the knife in my hand, hear the sound of chopping, smell onions and rosemary, and taste the broth to see if it needs salt. I wonder when the guests will start arriving, glance at the clock to see the time, and ruefully recall the one with a history of lateness.

Every act of consciousness is directed toward an object of consciousness. This relationship is called intentionality, and specific acts of consciousness are called intentions. Intentionality does not mean “doing things on purpose,” and in this context, intentions don’t mean the motives or goals of action. Intentionality is the object-directedness of consciousness.

There are two basic kinds of intentions: filled and empty. An intention is filled when its object is present. When I turn for a knife, my intention is filled by the knife itself. By contrast, an empty intention is not filled by the presence of its object. Instead, it encounters the absence of its object. I open a drawer to find the vegetable peeler and discover its absence.

Our consciousness is a complex interplay of filled and empty intentions, of presence and absence.

You can buy Greg Johnson’s Graduate School with Heidegger here

But there’s more to showing up than just being present. Even present objects are partially absent. When I look at the knife on the counter, the top side is present, and the underside is absent. But I see the same knife in its presence and absence. If I flip the knife over, the present side becomes absent, and the absent side becomes present. But the knife remains the same. Things show up through an interplay of presence and absence. We encounter them through an interplay of empty and filled intentions.

If the things in the world are never fully present, what about the self? There is nothing closer than our selves. Surely our selves are fully present.

Let’s think this through. When I look at the knife, hear and smell butter sizzling in the pan, and rummage around for the vegetable peeler, these objects are present or absent. But I am not present. I am not focused on myself. I am focused on things other than myself. Moreover, if I were focused on myself, I would not be focused on the things around me. They would still be happening, of course. Smells and sounds and sights would still be bombarding me. But my attention would be focused inward, on myself. When I make myself present, the things around me become—relatively speaking, at least—absent, or I become absent-minded toward them. I could, of course, focus back outward at any time, and I might be jolted into doing so, for instance if the pan began smoking and the fire alarm went off.

To understand what is going on here, we need to make a distinction between focal awareness and marginal awareness. When we are focally aware of an object, we retain a marginal awareness of other objects. We can also switch our focus, making the margin the new center of our attention, while the former center becomes the new margin. Because we are simultaneously focally and marginally aware, the mind can be in many places at the same time. But the mind cannot be focally in two places at the same time. In order to focus on the world around us, we must not focus on ourselves. For the world to be present, the self must be absent.

But what if we set the world aside entirely and just focus on the self? Can the self be fully present to itself, fully transparent to itself?

You can buy Jef Costello’s Heidegger in Chicago here

Let’s think this through. When we reflect on ourselves, we are taking the distinction between acts of consciousness and objects of consciousness “indoors,” into the realm of consciousness itself. When I reflect on what happens when I find the vegetable peeler absent, I am turning an act of consciousness into an object of consciousness. But an act of consciousness can be objectified only by another act of consciousness. Consciousness can split itself in two, into an inner act and an inner object. And the inner act of consciousness can only do its job by being an act, which means that it will remain absent to us. We look through our acts of consciousness to their objects. When the act itself becomes present, the object becomes absent. Acts of consciousness can only do their jobs by not getting in the way—i.e., not becoming objects—by remaining as unobtrusive and undistracting as possible.

If reflection splits consciousness into an inner act and an inner object, then reflecting upon reflection itself requires a similar split. We have moved from cooking, to reflecting upon our awareness of cooking, to reflecting upon reflection itself. But reflection can be the object of a meta-reflection only if that act itself remains absent. This process can be repeated again and again—reflection upon reflection upon reflection, ad infinitum—but the distinction between act and object will always remain, and every act qua act will always remain absent. Thus consciousness can never be fully present to itself.

Consciousness is ultimately an activity, and as an activity, it can never be an object. When conscious acts are objectified, they are in effect dead. But a living act can never be an object. It is a blur, like the kingfisher in flight. You can try to grab the snake of consciousness, but it always slithers away, leaving its dead skin behind. Thus any attempt to speak about consciousness as merely an object is always inadequate.

Heidegger called the ultimate non-objectifiability of conscious life our “facticity.” But doesn’t talking about the non-objectifiable make it into an object? Yes and no. Yes, because everything we talk about is in some sense an object. No, because not everything we talk about is a well-defined, present object. Language can also point to absences and mysteries and blurs.

Heidegger invented the term “formal indication” for non-objectifying discourse about human beings. In Being and Time, he coins the term “existentials” to describe ways of speaking about human beings, reserving the Aristotelian “categories” to describe ways of speaking about things. From his earliest writings to the end of his career, Heidegger was focused on trying to find non-objectifying ways of talking about the human realm, which is one reason his work is so difficult to understand.

You can buy Greg Johnson’s From Plato to Postmodernism here

Thus far, our discussion of human consciousness has seemingly been entirely abstract and universalist, applicable to any man, anytime, anywhere. But that’s not really true. I am writing this in English, my mother tongue. You are reading this in English, but for many of you, English is not your mother tongue. As soon as we learn to speak, our consciousness is bound up with language. Although the ability to speak is a universal trait of human nature, languages are not universal and natural. There are many different human languages, which vary from time to time and place to place.

If language is not natural, is it conventional, i.e., something devised as a medium of communication, like traffic signals, in which green stands for go and red stands for stop? Language isn’t really conventional in this way, because to create conventions, we would need to talk about why we need them, what stands for what, how to implement them, etc. Which means that creating conventions presupposes the existence of a language. Therefore, language is not merely conventional.

Yet language cannot exist without mankind. We can, moreover, coin new terms and create conventions that become part of language. But for Heidegger, we cannot ultimately understand, create, or control language. Language is a practice that allows us to make things present. It is an activity of consciousness. Like all activities of consciousness, language can be reflected upon—but when it is active and alive, in the moment, it is absent. As an activity of consciousness, language is ultimately non-objectifiable.

Moreover, like all other meaningful social practices, we learn language by imitation before we are capable of self-conscious-ness and critical thinking. Languages and other social practices are traditions, passed down from time out of mind. Language may even be older than man, since we may have learned languages and other practices from our pre-human ancestors. Thus, at the core of the practices by which we make sense of the world, there is an unobjectifiable mystery that transcends each individual mind, merging us into myriad collective traditions that fade into the mists of unrecorded history.

You can buy Collin Cleary’sWhat is a Rune?, featuring extensive discussions of Heidegger, here

Heidegger uses the word “humanism” for the idea that language and other meaningful human practices can be constructed and controlled by human consciousness. Heidegger is an anti-humanist, because he thinks it is closer to the truth that language, culture, and history construct the human mind rather than the human mind constructs language, culture, and history.

This is important, because from Ancient Greece to the present day, our civilization has been in the grip of diametrically opposed views of knowledge and power. When Plato denigrated sense experience and received opinion and claimed that true reality consists of unchanging “forms,” or when Descartes discarded sense experience and tradition until he arrived at an unshakeable foundation (“I think, therefore I am”), they were defining the real as that which satisfied their desire for certitude, which was based ultimately in a desire for power. They were “humanists” because they defined reality as what satisfies human desires. This drive culminated in modern scientific and technological civilization, which defines the real as what is susceptible to scientific understanding and available for manipulation, control, and consumption.

Humanism is a profoundly self-alienating and self-destructive worldview, since it uproots us from the plurality of languages and cultures that give us meaning. It also abolishes all sense of limits to human knowledge and power—the whole dimension of absence, i.e., what escapes our knowledge and power. Humanism severs us from meaning and measure.

By destroying meaning, humanism condemns us to nihilism. By denying measure, humanism delivers us over to the unbounded pursuit of technological mastery over nature. I am going to call the complex of humanism, technology, and nihilism modernity, for short. The end result of modernity is the dehumanization of man and the devastation of the earth.

How, then, can we overcome modernity? Can we lay bare its roots, plan out an alternative, and then put that plan into action? Obviously, such a solution presupposes that we can understand and engineer human history—which is the very modernist delusion we seek to supplant. One can’t fight humanism with more humanism. One can’t fight modernity with more modernity. The solution to nihilism is not intensified nihilism. This is the lesson that Heidegger drew from his political involvement in the 1930s.

Heidegger’s later philosophy is essentially a theory of historical change. As an anti-humanist, Heidegger does not think that human minds create history. Instead, history creates human minds. Modernity was not thought up by Plato, Descartes, and Nietzsche. Philosophers are not the hidden legislators of mankind. But they often offer the earliest and deepest articulations of fundamental changes in the Zeitgeist. To express the idea of historical change without an agent behind it, Heidegger uses the word “event” (Ereignis). The event refers specifically to fundamental transformations of the meaning of everything, such as the emergence of modernity—or its replacement with something else.

Modernists think they can understand and control history, but they can’t even understand or control the emergence of modernity, which remains a mystery. Modernity wasn’t thought up by modernists. Modernity wasn’t imposed by modernists. Modernity is simply an event in the Zeitgeist that emerged from the inscrutable wellspring of meaning and has enthralled us.

But if modernity was not created and imposed by humans, then an alternative to modernity cannot emerge that way either. Anti-modernists need not despair, however, for if Heidegger is right about historical change, then our discontent with modernity is not merely subjective. We too are responding to a change in the Zeitgeist. There’s nothing to prevent us from unplugging as much as we can from modernity, but we don’t have to do the impossible to create a better world, for the change that we dream of is, in a sense, already real, and it is coming to meet us.

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  1. Right_On
    Posted April 2, 2020 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

    Re “Consciousness is ultimately an activity, and as an activity, it can never be an object” :
    Indeed. And some thinkers (contra Sartre and Jung) argue that pure consciousness – consciousness without an object – is also possible.
    Of course one couldn’t be self-aware that one was actually in a state of pure consciousness. It wouldn’t be “pure”! But one could become aware that 15 minutes had passed since your last thought or sensory impression and yet you clearly hadn’t just awakened from sleep. It is a common theme in Advaita-Vedanta and other non-dual systems that utilize meditation techniques.
    What would Heidegger have to say?

  2. Ed in Salt Lake
    Posted April 2, 2020 at 10:48 pm | Permalink


    Heidegger’s onto-theology is some of the most difficult terrain to go through in philosophy. If for any reason, because Heidegger doesn’t always translate well into English. Whole pages can be devoted to addressing such concepts as ‘care’ or ‘intentionality’ so that when I’m reading Heidegger or some secondary literature on his ideas, I always have my ‘Heidegger Dictionary’ with me.

    I’ve been asked by some, ‘Which Heidegger book should I start with?’ I will tell them that if they want to understand Heidegger, they should read Aristotle and Plato for a few years and simultaneously develop some craft like woodwork or gardening where working with your hands is prominent. Heidegger is to be found in ‘phronesis’ or practical wisdom which was the union of ‘praxis’ and ‘theoria.’

    For Heidegger, praxis was more important since it involved existential engagement with the world. Theory was another kind of praxis, another kind of ‘seeing.’ Heidegger is shifting sight from the ‘eyes’ to the hands through tool usage. This is a pre-predictive ‘looking around’ or knowing. The hands could not use the tools if they did not have this ‘sight.’

    This short analysis of Heidegger is insufficient. Heidegger is difficult and should be. Some see Heidegger’s thinking as just ‘jargon,’ but those who penetrate deep into Heidegger’s thinking will be rewarded with one of the most fascinating minds in the History of Being.

    Greg, if you haven’t watched the 2010 ‘Being in the World’ by Tao Ruspoli, here it is:

    Then there is the problem of Heidegger 1 and Heidegger 2 which William Richardson outlined and many Heidegger junkies will be familiar with. One thing Heidegger is is the thinker for the 21st century. I believe he wanted his ‘Schwarze Hefte’ published posthumously for a reason

  3. Ed in Salt Lake
    Posted April 2, 2020 at 11:01 pm | Permalink

    One other thing Greg!

    I know your mostly busy, but if you get a chance, get together with Keith Woods on a podcast over the next couple of months and you two discuss Heidegger and his relevancy to our time. Keith just started his podcasts 3 weeks ago and I tried to email him about this Heidegger suggestion with you, but I don’t think I have his right email address. Maybe even you, Keith, and Morgoth’s Review?

    There aren’t many out there who can discuss the Black Forest hermit, but you three have and can. I think it would make a great podcast. series of 2 or 3 podcasts are almost necessary with Heidegger’s thought.

    If you have Keith’s email, send it to me and I’ll bring it up with him again or you can just contact him and broach the idea with him. Either way, thanks!

  4. cecil1
    Posted April 2, 2020 at 11:47 pm | Permalink

    I’d never quite thought of humanism and its relation to technology and science in quite those terms.

    Very interesting.

    But all cultures aren’t equal, and truth isn’t relative, so it seems inconsistent to image correcting error leads to nihilism.

  5. D.M.
    Posted April 3, 2020 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    Beautiful essay.

    I was schooled more in the analytic tradition than the phenomenological, but to me, from my limited exposure to the latter, this account of intentionality sounds more Sartrean (in The Transcendence of the Ego and Being and Nothingness) than Heideggerian, even though Being and Time came first. I thought that Heidegger, in Being and Time, emphasized practical activities including our relatedness to tools above the traditional, mentalistic view that stressed perception and consciousness.

    I always found Heidegger’s, and his followers’, elevation of language above the category of the natural a kind linguistic idealism that is incompatible with scientific and even metaphysical realism.

    But it’s great to see how 20th century Continental philosophy, most often used in the academy for leftist purposes, can be turned to WN ends.

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted April 3, 2020 at 9:32 am | Permalink


      Heidegger does stress the primacy of practical comportments — as do all my examples — but that does not change the basic nature of intentionality.

      Heidegger is not a linguistic idealist. Heidegger does not think that language is some sort of inner object that stands between us and the world. Language is a medium of intentionality. But different languages do reveal different aspects of teh world and conceal others.

  6. Regg Edieh
    Posted April 3, 2020 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    I can’t help but thinking that the dissident right keeps stumbling in it’s own reductionisms. This soft fatalism presented here is an example of the type of thinking that hinders political organization.

    Perhaps the act of activism is itself an acceptance of constructivism, and so the only way forward for a political movement on the right would be to give up on it’s own principles.

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted April 4, 2020 at 11:34 am | Permalink

      I don’t think it is soft fatalism to acknowledge that there are limits to human power, even when it comes to changing human things.

      As I put it above, the fact that we can’t understand or control history is a problem only if you think that is necessary. But if you believe that dissenting thoughts are actually expressions of larger changes in the Zeitgeist, then even though we can’t control history, if we do what we can, history might be coming to meet us halfway.

  7. HungarianFashionista
    Posted April 3, 2020 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    Is this a summary of Heidegger’s philosophy? Or just an introduction? Does his vegetable peeler exist when no one is looking at/for it?

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted April 4, 2020 at 8:59 am | Permalink

      It is an introduction and a summary.

      Yes, the peeler exists even when we are not looking at/for it.

  8. Arnar Styr Björnsson
    Posted April 3, 2020 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this wonderful essay. How Heidegger expains one’s awarenes of one’s own self reminds me of Immanuel Kant’s philosophy of mind. The following is from Critique of Pure Reason:

    “But how the I that I think is to differ from the I that intuits itself (for I can represent other kinds of intuition as at least possible) and yet be identical with the latter as the same subject, how therefore I can say that I as intelligence and thinking subject cognize my self as an object that is thought, insofar as I am
    also given to myself in intuition, only, like other phenomena, not as I am for the understanding but rather as I appear to myself, this is no more and no less difficult than how I can be an object for myself in general and indeed one of intuition and inner perceptions.”

    I don’t know much about Heidegger, but I know that he read part two of Schleiermacher’s Speeches on Religion. The premises Schleiermacher’s philosophy of mind also necessitate ethno-nationalism, “and those who think it is not for them are like guests or aliens.”

    It would be interesting to know about Heidegger’s relation to, and view of, the German idealist movement.

  9. inq
    Posted April 4, 2020 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    “When understanding Heidegger, everything flows from the distinction between acts of consciousness and objects of consciousness.”
    “Every act of consciousness (…) of presence and absence.”

    What if my consciousness makes me open a drawer to see what’s inside, without specific object in mind ? Is that act of consciousness an intention ?
    Furthermore, what if there is nothing in the drawer ?

    Does the above prove the lack of existence of Heidegger’s “Being” ?
    Does the above prove the existence of Sartre’s “Nothingness” ?

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted April 4, 2020 at 11:27 am | Permalink

      You don’t need a specific object to have an intentional object. You are looking for “What’s inside.” If there is nothing inside, then your intention is unfilled/your object is absent.

      For Heidegger, Being = presence/absence of beings to a knower.

      For Sartre, Nothingness = absence, human facticity, & the power to say no.

  10. Greg Johnson
    Posted April 4, 2020 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, this is a good idea.

  11. Cotard
    Posted April 4, 2020 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    As for Dragomir himself, Biemel confirmed for me that he enjoyed Heidegger’s especial appreciation. He was in any case one of the leading figures of the seminar.

    When a prolonged silence reigned in the room after a difficult question had been addressed to the participants, Heidegger would turn his head in Dragomir’s direction and say: ‘Na! Was sagen die Lateiner?’ (‘Well, what do the Latins say?’) And ‘Dragomir the Latin’ loved to provoke Heidegger, and, whenever he got the chance, to contradict him. When, for example, the master affirmed, along the lines of the paragraphs on Zeughaftigkeit in Being and Time, that there are no such things as pure objects, but only objects given signif i cance in a context of use—a chair, for example, is ‘something for sitting on’—, Dragomir retorted: ‘How can you explain then, Herr Professor, that there are chairs in the museum with the inscription “Please do not sit here”?’

    “The world we live in” This book contains twelve engaging philosophical lectures given by Alexandru Dragomir, most of them given during Romania’s Communist regime. The lectures deal with a diverse range of topics, such as the function of the question, self-deception, banalities with a metaphysical dimension, and how the world we live in has been shaped by the intellect. Among the thinkers discussed in these lectures are Anaxagoras, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, and Nietzsche.

    Alexandru Dragomir was a Romanian philosopher born in 1916. After studying law and philosophy at the University of Bucharest (1933–1939), he left Romania to study for a doctorate in philosophy in Freiburg, Germany, under Martin Heidegger. He stayed in Freiburg for two years (1941–1943), but before defending his dissertation he was called back to Romania for military service and sent to the front. After 1948, historical circumstances forced him to become a clandestine philosopher: he was known only within a very limited circle. He died in 2002 without ever publishing anything. It was only after his death that Dragomir’s notebooks came to light. His work has been published posthumously in five volumes by Humanitas, Bucharest; the present volume is the first to appear in English translation. In 2009, the Alexandru Dragomir Institute for Philosophy was founded in Bucharest as an independent research institute under the auspices of the Romanian Society for Phenomenology.

  12. Posted April 5, 2020 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    What needs to be understood is that conscious human acts and conventions cannot influence such mega-entities as language, but distributed, decentralized human action and convention can and do influence the developments of language. However, this is not planned and executed action, but more of a physiological process of the human group understood as a more-or-less unified body, which process’ individual steps are acts undertaken by individual humans, i. e. a thinker coining a word, other humans accepting this new word of their own accord, an official authority inserting this word in a dictionary etc, or as I said in my last article, society isn’t a car.

    Similarly, while the fight against modernity will not be a great battle of all antimoderns against all moderns, it will nevertheless consist of human distributed acts. Every time an individual human rejects what Heidegger calls humanism and engages in an act which results in meaning, each time a man accepts the limitations to his power to enact radical changes, this is one small victory against modernity and eventually the consensus is anti-modern and hopefully post-modern (in the sense of transcending modernity rather than atavistically rejecting it and “returning” to something that we imagine was).

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted April 5, 2020 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

      This is well-put, and I agree with it.

      Beyond the categories of nature and convention, Heidegger thinks there is a third category, the historical. Historical life is primarily a set of practices that we live through. Conventions can be absorbed by historical life. But conventions are manufactured, controlled, objects placed in front of us, whereas historical life is not manufactured but inherited, not controlled but rather something that enthralls us, not an object before us but rather the background of meanings and intentional acts through which objects are given.

      Every time we choose the local over the global, the unique over the manufactured, the beautiful and the good over the practical, earth over plastic, we resist modernity and bring an alternative to birth.

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