Heidegger: An Introductionby Richard Polt
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Heidegger is a classic introduction to Heidegger's notoriously difficult work. Truly accessible, it combines clarity of exposition with an authoritative handling of the subject-matter. Richard Polt has written a work that will become the standard text for students looking to understand one of the century's greatest minds.
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Celebration ... is self-restraint, is attentiveness, is questioning, is meditating, is awaiting, is the step over into the more wakeful glimpse of the wonder -- the wonder that a world is worlding around us at all, that there are beings rather than nothing, that things are and we ourselves are in their midst, that we ourselves are and yet barely know who we are, and barely know that we do not know all this.
Why is there something rather than nothing? Strange as this question is, it seems oddly familiar. Puzzling though it is, it has a certain unique simplicity.
This is not to say that it can be answered in the way we might answer the question, "Why do birds migrate to the same place every winter?" or "Why is there more crime in the United States than in Japan?" These questions stand a chance of being resolved by scientific research. But no scientific investigation can tell us why there is something rather than nothing. Science describes the things we find around us, and it explains how some of these things are caused by others, but it cannot say why the whole exists. The Big Bang theory may be correct -- but it does not answer why there was a Big Bang rather than' nothing. We might say that God made the Big Bang. But then, why is there God? Perhaps God exists by necessity. However, few thinkers these days accept the idea of a necessary being whose existence we can know and prove. Most would agree that whatever we may propose as the cause of everything is itself something whose existence stands in need of explanation. It looks very much as if our question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" reaches beyond the power of human reason. It is beginning to seem that our question simply cannot be answered at all.
Does this imply that it is meaningless? Some philosophers think so. We can construct arguments to show that the question never signified anything to begin with. We can argue that the word "nothing" in our question means precisely that -- it means nothing at all. But when the arguments are done, the question sneaks back and seems significant after all. As cosmologist Stephen Hawking writes, once science has described how everything works, we will still want to ask: "What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe ... Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?"
For Heidegger, our question is deeply meaningful. He ends his 1929 essay "What is Metaphysics?" with it, and it opens his lecture course Introduction to Metaphysics (1935). More precisely, Heidegger asks: "Why are there beings at all, and not rather nothing?"
The term "beings" translates das Seiende, more literally "that which is". "Beings", and its synonym "entities", refer to anything at all that has existence of some sort. Clearly atoms and molecules are beings. Humans and dogs are beings, as are their properties and activities. Mathematical objects -- hexagons, numbers, equations -- are beings of some kind, although philosophers disagree on whether these beings exist apart from human thought or behavior. Even dragons are connected to beings -- they themselves do not exist, but we can talk about dragons only because myths, images and concepts of dragons do exist, as do dragonlike animals, such as lizards. In fact, it seems that anything we can think about, speak about, or deal with involves beings in some way.
But if the question of why there are beings rather than nothing cannot be answered by pointing to any particular being as a cause, then how can it have any meaning? Maybe its meaning comes from the special character of its "why". Maybe the "why" in this question is not a search for a cause, but an act of celebration. When we ask the question, we celebrate the fact that anything exists at all. We notice this amazing fact. Normally the existence of things is so familiar to us that we take it for granted. But at certain moments, this most familiar of facts can become surprising. Ludwig Wittgenstein describes the experience this way: "I wonder at the existence of the world. And I am then inclined to use such phrases as `how extraordinary that anything should exist' or `how extraordinary that the world should exist'."
Once we have noticed and celebrated the fact that beings are, we can take a step further -- and everything depends on this step. We can ask: what does this "are" mean? What is it to be? Now we are asking what makes a being count as a being, instead of as nothing: on what basis do we understand beings as beings? Now we are asking not about beings, but about Being.
"Being" is our counterpart to the German expression das Sein, literally "the to-be". In English, the word being can refer either to something that is (an entity) or to the to-be (what it means for entities to exist). So, like many translators of Heidegger, I will capitalize "Being" in order to distinguish Being clearly from a being. (This is not Heidegger's practice, for in German, all nouns are capitalized -- and one should beware of confusing Being with the supreme being, God.)
Being is not a being at all; it is what marks beings out as beings rather than nonbeings -- what makes the difference, so to speak, between something and nothing. Another, similar phrase may serve just as well: Being is the difference it makes that there is something rather than nothing. Even if we cannot find a cause for the totality of beings, we can investigate the meaning of Being, for it does make a difference that there are beings rather than nothing. We can pay attention to this difference and describe it.
However, this question of the meaning of Being looks deceptively simple: to say that something "is" just seems to mean that it is there, given, on hand. In short, it is present instead of absent. Being is simply presence. Presence appears to be a very straightforward fact, so it may seem that the Being of a thing has next to no content, and is quite uninteresting.
But is the difference between presence and absence so trivial? If my house burns down, its absence is overwhelming. At the death of those we love, their absence attacks and gnaws at us. Are these just "subjective" responses that have nothing to do with the "objective" question of Being -- or are they moments in which we realize that there are, in fact, crucial and rich distinctions between something and nothing?
We can also ask whether all the sorts of beings we have mentioned exist in the same way. Is a dog present in the same way as the dog's act of running is present? Is a myth present just as an atom is present, or a number is present? The particular difference it makes that there is a being rather than nothing may depend on what sort of being is in question. Presence begins to look complex -- and puzzling.
And maybe some beings are not present at all. For instance, we constantly relate to possibilities -- whenever we think of what we might do, consider what may happen to us or see where we can go. A possibility is something in the future, something that is not yet present and may never be present. However, we would hardly want to say that a possibility is nothing, since surely we are considering something when we consider possibilities. Similarly, we remember and investigate the past. The past is not present either. But if it were nothing whatsoever, it would make no sense for us to describe it, argue about it, reject it or long for it.
It turns out, then, that the meaning of Being is unclear, and it is very hard to define the boundary between beings and nothing. It also seems that in order to think about Being, we will have to think about temporality -- for beings make a difference to us not only when they are present in the present, but also when they are in the past and future dimensions of the mysterious phenomenon called time.
Our initial question -- why is there something rather than nothing? -- has taken us to a second question: what does it mean to be? Now we can ask a third question: what is it about our condition that lets Being have a meaning for us? In other words, why does it make a difference to us that there is something rather than nothing? This is a crucial question about ourselves -- for if we were indifferent to the difference between something and nothing, we would be sunk in oblivion. We constantly distinguish between something and nothing, by recognizing countless things as real while rejecting falsehoods and illusions. The process is at work not only in philosophy, but in the simplest everyday tasks: I recognize a pitcher as a being simply by reaching for its handle. It is clear that without our sensitivity to Being, we would not be human at all. Even for the most apathetic or shellshocked individual, Being means something -- although it is hard to put this meaning into words.
We are now traveling the path of Heidegger's thought. For Heidegger, these three questions belong together in such a way that they can be called the question of Being: he wants to notice the wonder that there is something rather than nothing, to ask what difference this makes, and to ask how it can make a difference to us.
How does Heidegger answer the question of Being, then? What is his philosophy? He replies, "I have no philosophy at all." But he is a philosopher nonetheless -- because philosophy, for him, is not something one has, but something one does. It is not a theory or a set of principles, but the relentless and passionate devotion to a question. In a Heideggerian formula: "questioning is the piety of thought". For Heidegger, providing an answer to the question of Being is less important than awakening us to it, and using it to bring us face to face with the riddles of our own history: "My essential intention is to first pose the problem and work it out in such a way that the essentials of the entire Western tradition will be concentrated in the simplicity of a basic problem." Heidegger is remarkable not for his consistent answers, but for his persistent inquiry.
Having said this, we must add that he does try to respond to the question of Being in a particular direction. His thought develops throughout his life, but early in his philosophical career he seizes on some enduring guidelines.
First, as we implied above, Heidegger holds that presence is a rich and complex phenomenon -- and even so, the meaning of Being is not exhausted by presence, or at least by any traditional understanding of presence. Roughly speaking, for ancient and medieval philosophy, to be is to be an enduringly present substance, or one of the attributes of such a substance. The most real being is an eternal substance -- God. For much of modern philosophy, to be is to be either an object present in space and time as measured by quantitative natural science, or a subject, a mind, that is capable of self-consciousness, or self-presence. According to Heidegger, these traditional approaches may be appropriate to some beings, but they misinterpret others. In particular, they fail to describe our own Being. We are neither present substances, nor present objects, nor present subjects: we are beings whose past and future collaborate to let us deal with all the other beings we encounter around us. (Readers of Heidegger have come to use the expression "metaphysics of presence" to describe the philosophical tradition that Heidegger is criticizing.)
But if Being is not presence, what is it? Being and Time, which was supposed to answer this question, faltered and was left unfinished. Later, Heidegger increasingly stressed that the meaning of Being evolves in the course of history. Furthermore, Being is intrinsically mysterious and self-concealing. For these reasons, he does not provide us with a straightforward answer to the question of the meaning of Being.
He does, however, believe that we must call into question the metaphysics of presence -- for this tradition has pernicious consequences. It dulls us to the depth of experience and restricts us to impoverished ways of thinking and acting. In particular, if we identify Being with presence, we can become obsessed with getting beings to present themselves to us perfectly and in a definitive way -- with representing beings accurately and effectively. We try, by means of philosophy, science or technology, to achieve complete insight into things and thereby gain complete control over them. According to Heidegger, this ideal is incompatible with the nature of understanding; understanding is always a finite, historically situated interpretation. Heidegger does affirm that there is truth, and he does hold that some interpretations (including his own) are better than others -- but no interpretation is final. Heidegger is a relentless enemy of ahistorical, absolutist concepts of truth.
This brings us to his most important guideline of all: it is our own temporality that makes us sensitive to Being. "Temporal" in Heidegger does not mean "temporary". He is not interested in the fact that we are impermanent so much as in the fact that we are historical: we are rooted in a past and thrust into a future. We inherit a past tradition that we share with others, and we pursue future possibilities that define us as individuals. As we do so, the world opens up for us, and beings get understood; it makes a difference to us that there is something rather than nothing. Our historicity, then, does not cut us off from reality -- to the contrary, it opens us up to the meaning of Being.
But according to Heidegger, many of the philosophical errors he combats are rooted in a tendency we have to ignore our historicity. It can be difficult and disturbing to face our own temporality and to experience the mystery of Being. It is easier to slip back into an everyday state of complacency and routine. Rather than wrestling with who we are and what it means to be, we would prefer to concentrate on manipulating and measuring present beings. In philosophy, this self-deceptive absorption in the present leads to a metaphysics of presence, which only encourages the self-deception. Heidegger consistently points to the difference between this everyday state of oblivion and a state in which we genuinely face up to our condition. In Being and Time, he calls this the difference between inauthenticity and authenticity.
We have now touched on Heidegger's basic question, the question of Being, and on some of the enduring guidelines that orient his response to that question. But no less distinctive than his questions and answers is his style of philosophizing.
Heidegger is steeped in the Western philosophical tradition and is capable of erudite textual and conceptual analysis. But he also recognizes that real life may elude traditional concepts. Like Pascal, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, or Unamuno, Heidegger senses that the philosophical tradition is out of touch with life as it is lived. These other thinkers, however, have tended to make wholesale attacks on the tradition without descending to a detailed and thorough critique of it. They have been deliberately unsystematic, in an attempt to break free of the dead weight of traditional concepts. Heidegger shares these thinkers' desire to capture the concrete textures and tensions of experience -- but he also respects the tradition with which he is struggling. He is willing and able to carry out painstaking, close readings of Aristotle or Kant, for example. In Being and Time he weaves an intricate conceptual web in order to address what may be the oldest philosophical topic of all -- Being. Heidegger is convinced that matters of vital importance are at stake in the tradition. If we think tenaciously until we uncover the roots of traditional problems and concepts, we can bring philosophy back to the basic and urgent realities of our human condition.
In this way, Heidegger unites historical research with original thinking. In English-speaking countries, doing "history of philosophy" is often distinguished from working on "problems". The first involves reconstructing the arguments that philosophers have made in the past; the second involves developing one's own arguments and responding to the arguments of one's contemporaries. Heidegger undercuts this opposition in two ways.
First, he insists that in order to understand the history of philosophy properly, we have to philosophize. For instance, when interpreting a Platonic dialogue, he explains that his goal is to "see the content that is genuinely and ultimately at issue, so that from it as from a unitary source the understanding of every single sentence will be nourished". Understanding what a text is about requires us to think for ourselves about the topic under discussion. In fact, it may mean that we have to think farther than the original author did. Heidegger's goal is to discover what lies "unsaid" and "unthought" in the background of what an author says and thinks.
Conversely, he holds that in order to philosophize properly, we have to understand the history of philosophy. Otherwise, we will just reproduce hackneyed, traditional patterns of thought. In philosophy, it is especially true that to be ignorant of history is to be condemned to repeat it. When we return to the historical sources of our concepts and our concerns, we become aware of the motivations behind these concepts and the alternatives to them. We become more, not less, capable of original thinking.
Heidegger titles one collection of his essays Holzwege (Woodpaths). In German, to be on a Holzweg is to be on a dead-end trail. But dead ends are not worthless. If we follow a path to its end and are forced to return, we are different, even wiser, than we were before we took this path. We have come to know the lay of the land and our own capacities. We know much more about the woods, even if we have never gotten out of them.
One may disagree with every claim found in Heidegger's writings. They may all be dead ends. But they are still worth reading, because they have the potential to reveal a host of fundamental, interconnected problems. As Heidegger likes to put it, the task of a philosopher is to alert us to what is worthy of questioning. That he certainly does.
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The purpose of Heidegger: An Introduction is to help Heidegger's readers, especially new ones, to read him with more confidence and insight. Although my main focus is his masterwork, Being and Time, I cite a wide variety of his writings and lectures, many of which have been published only recently. Heidegger frequently explains his ideas by giving real-life examples and exploring everyday turns of phrase. His purpose in this, as I write in my book, is to "awaken us to the mysterious, questionable character of our everyday experience....We then enter the unfamiliar territory that lies within the familiar." I follow in Heidegger's footsteps by taking every opportunity to make connections between his thought and widely shared human situations. I present not only his theories, but also the experiences, philosophical questions, and personal struggles that lie behind them. Both beginning and advanced readers of my book have found that it is accessible without being reductive.
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