Making Sense of Heidegger: A Paradigm Shift

Making Sense of Heidegger: A Paradigm Shift

by Sheehan


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783481194
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 11/16/2014
Series: New Heidegger Research Series
Pages: 370
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Thomas Sheehan is professor of religious studies at Stanford University and professor emeritus of philosophy at Loyola University Chicago. His many publications include Becoming Heidegger (2011) and translations of Heidegger's Logic: The Question of Truth (2010) and Husserl's Psychological and Transcendental Phenomenology, and the Confronataion with Heidegger (1997).

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Making Sense of Heidegger

A Paradigm Shift

By Thomas Sheehan

Rowman & Littlefield International, Ltd.

Copyright © 2015 Thomas Sheehan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78348-120-0


Getting to the Topic


What, after all, was Heidegger's philosophy about? The usual answer has been "being" (das Sein), at least since the early 1960s when William J. Richardson and Otto Pöggeler crafted their brilliant and still dominant paradigms for understanding Heidegger. But the uncertainty of Heidegger scholarship is nowhere more evident than with that key term. What, in fact, does Martin Heidegger mean by "being"? This is the first question we must take up.

To show that the problem of being has troubled Western philosophers from ancient times, Heidegger opens his major work, Being and Time, by citing a passage from Plato's Sophist, where the Eleatic Stranger asks his dialogue partners Theaetetus and Theodorus:

How are we to understand this being ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) of yours? ... We are at an impasse, so explain to us what you mean when you say "being" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). It's obvious that you have long known what you mean by these things, whereas we who formerly imagined we knew are now baffled.

Much the same thing might be said about Heidegger. He may have known what he meant by "Sein," but he did not always make that clear to the rest of us. In fact, we might well make our own the plea that the Eleatic Stranger expresses in the next sentence of The Sophist: "So first teach us this very thing so that we won't seem to know what you told us when in fact we do not." Heidegger's remark on Heraclitus' fragment 72 articulates that same problem in yet other terms. Without naming who the "they" might be, he says, "They say 'is' without knowing what 'is' really means."

This puzzlement goes to the heart of Heidegger's project. So, as Aristotle advises, "Let us make some distinctions." Was Heidegger's central and final topic "being"? In his later years he said it was not. When it comes down to "the thing itself" (die Sache selbst) of his work, he declared "there is no longer room even for the word 'being.'" Then was his topic something "being-er than being" (wesender als das Sein)? And could that perhaps be "being itself," das Sein selbst, understood as "something that exists for itself, whose independence is the true essence of 'being'"? And if so, how exactly does "being itself" differ (if it differs at all) from "being" as the being-of-beings (das Sein des Seienden) or being as the beingness-of-beings (die Seiendheit des Seienden)? Or was his topic not Sein but perhaps Seyn? Or was it rather Seyn qua — and if so, what might that mean?

Or was his topic not "being" in any of its instances or spellings but rather the meaning of being (der Sinn vom Sein)? But according to Heidegger we already know what the meaning of being is. From the ancient Greeks onward, the terms [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (and so on) have all meant the "constant, steadfast presence" of things. And whereas the theme of presence occupies much of Heidegger's thought, it was not his final focus. In that case, was he after the essence of being (das Wesen des Seins)? Or was it, rather, the essencing of the truth of being, die Wesung der Wahrheit des Seins? Or was it the truth of the essencing of being, die Wahrheit der Wesung des Seyns? Or was Heidegger's topic none of the above but, instead, the clearing (die Lichtung)? Or "appropriation" (Ereignis)? Or [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] Or perhaps the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] that lurks within [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] Or was it the ontological difference?

There is, in fact, considerable confusion at the heart of the Heideggerian enterprise, and it may not be the fault of Heidegger scholars. Heidegger himself said that "it remains unclear what we are supposed to think under the name 'being.'" In the partly fictitious "Dialogue on Language," based on a 1953–1954 conversation, Heidegger's interlocutor, Professor Tomio Tezuka of the Imperial University of Tokyo, lays most of the blame for the muddle at Heidegger's own doorstep.

Tezuka: [The problem is due] mainly to the confusion that was created by your ambiguous use of the word "Sein."

Heidegger: You are right. [Nonetheless, my thinking] knows clearly the distinction between "Sein" as the "Sein des Seienden" and "Sein" as "Sein" with regard to its own proper sense, which is dis-closedness (clearing).

Tezuka: Then why didn't you immediately and decisively hand back the word "Sein" exclusively to the language of metaphysics? Why didn't you immediately give your own name to what you were seeking as the "meaning of Sein" on your path through the essence of time?

Heidegger: How can I give a name to what I'm still searching for? Finding it would depend on assigning to it the word that would name it.

Tezuka: Then we have to endure the confusion that has arisen.

And indeed, for some eighty years Heidegger's readers have had to endure an avalanche of confusion (needless confusion, as I hope to show) in trying to sort out exactly what Heidegger meant by Sein and its cognates. Consider the number of German terms that Heidegger himself gathers around the term "being." How are we to distinguish (if we are to distinguish) one from the other?


"das Seiend" when it is equivalent to "das Sein"

"Seiend und seiend ist nicht ohne weiteres dasselbe."

das Seiende


das Nichtseiende


das Seiendere

"Seienderes" in scare quotes in the phrase "es gibt 'Seienderes'"

das Seiendste

"Wassein als das Seiendste"

"Das Seyn ist das Seiendste"

"Gott ist ... das Seiendste"

das Seiend-seiende

das seiende Sein

das seiend-Sein

das Seiendsein

das Seiend-sein

die Seiendheit

"Seiendheit ist das Sein"

das Sein (four different meanings)

das Sein des Seienden

das Sein selbst

das Sein als solches

"Sein" in the line-up "Sein, Wahrheit, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], Ereignis"

"Sein" in scare quotes in the phrase "'das Sein' (Austrag)"

"Sein" without scare quotes in the phrase "Sein disappears in Ereignis"

"Sein" in scare quotes in the phrase "'Sein' disappears in Wahrheit"

"Sein" in scare quotes in the phrase "'Sein' als Wahrheit des Seins"


"Sein" in the phrase "Das Sein 'ist' — (nicht hat Sein)"

"Sein" and "ist" when written as: "[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]"

"Seinen" as a verbal noun

das Seyn

das Seyn as das Seyende

das Seyn as "das Seyende" in scare quotes

"sey" and "sei," both in the subjunctive

"Seyn —: Seiendes als Seiendes"

das Seyn selbst

das Seyn des Seyns

"Seyn — ein Vorname seiner selbst"

"Sein (Seyn) als Ereignis"

"Seyn" in the phrase "Das Seyn des Da — aber transitiv!"


das Wesen des

"ist ... das Ereignis"

"Seyn qua Ereignis"

"Sein ist Seyn"

Sein ≠ Seyn

"'Sein' als 'Seyn'" with both nouns in scare quotes

"Seyn als Seyn" both without scare quotes

Seyn qua "

"Seyn ist nicht "

"Seyn und Sein"

"das Seyn als die Wahrheit des Seyns"

"das Seyn" in the phrase "die Wesung der Wahrheit des Seyns"

"das Seyn" in the phrase "die Wahrheit der Wesung des Seyns"

"Das Was-sein ist das Daß-sein"


erseyn in italics in the phrase "Das Da — erseyn"

das Isten

When it comes to "being," Heidegger, like Mao, seems to have let a hundred flowers bloom. Or perhaps in the spirit of Walt Whitman: "Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)" Long ago Aristotle famously declared that "being" (the Greek word he used was the participle [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] in the sense of "the real") is an analogical term that accommodates many diverse meanings, all of which, however, refer to one principal meaning that anchors the rest. Such an analogical view may well apply to Heidegger's work. But we shall see that even when Heidegger establishes — correctly as far as it goes — that the word Sein refers to the disclosedness of something to human understanding, he still had not arrived at his goal — because Sein was not his final topic.

* * *

So we repeat the sentence with which we began: What, after all, was Heidegger's philosophy about? In his Four Seminars we read at 6 September 1973, "The only question that has ever moved Heidegger is the question of Sein: what does Sein mean?" But right there we run into a major problem. The word Sein or "being" comes from the lexicon of traditional realist metaphysics, where it usually refers to the "substance" — the essence and/or existence — of anything insofar as it is understood to be real. However, Heidegger's own work takes two major steps away from metaphysics and its traditional concern with "being."

In the first place, Heidegger's philosophy was not in pursuit of Sein at all. Rather, he was after das Woher des Seins, the "whence" of being, "that from which and through which ... being occurs." (We note the frustrating ambiguity in the meaning of "Sein" in this case. It could refer either to the clearing or to the being of things. Here I take it in the second sense.) Originally Heidegger called this "whence" the intelligibility of being (= der Sinn von Sein). Over the years he reformulated that as the "disclosedness" or "place" or "clearing" or "openness" or "thrown-open realm" for the being of things, all ex aequo. His endeavors were to bring to light this intrinsically hidden "whence" that classical ontology had overlooked and forgotten. Being (Sein) in all its incarnations is the topic of metaphysics. Heidegger, on the other hand, is after the essence or source of being and thus the ground of metaphysics.

In the second place, long before Being and Time, Heidegger had carried out a Copernican Revolution under the banner of phenomenology. He took a decisive step away from the naïve realism of the Aristotelian-Thomistic ontology in which he had been steeped as a young man, in order to focus instead on the correlativity of man and being in what he would eventually call a "phenomenological ontology." This means that the only entrance into Heidegger's work is through the phenomenological reduction. Over the door of his Academy is engraved [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], which translates roughly as follows: "No phenomenological reduction? Don't even try to get in."

The material object of traditional metaphysics is the real insofar as it lies [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]: "outside of thinking and separated from it [= independent of it]." Phenomenology, on the other hand, regards things only insofar as they are meaningfully present to us within our concerns and performances — that is, insofar as they are "present to mind" in the broadest sense. Years ago Professor Aron Gurwitsch pointed out that once one has carried out the phenomenological reduction (the sine qua non of phenomenological work) "there are no other philosophical problems except those of sense, meaning, and signification." To the degree that Heidegger's work is phenomenological (and to the end of his life he insisted it was), it was solely and exclusively about meaningfulness and its source. Heidegger interprets the essence of "mind" in terms of what he calls "being-in-the-world," where "world" means the meaning-giving context opened up by and as ex-sistence. Why, then, as Professor Tezuka asked, did Heidegger continue to employ, in his own phenomenological work, the ontological vocabulary of a surpassed metaphysics? For example, when Heidegger declares that "das Sein lets things be present," is he claiming that Sein "presences" amoebas during the Proterozoic era, two billion years before Homo sapiens? Or is he referring to the arrival of things in the realm of human apprehension — that is, "insofar as things can be encountered [by human beings] at all"? Clearly it is the latter.

It is with us human beings that Sein comes into play.

Das Sein: that which appears only and specifically in man.

There can be no Sein des Seienden without man.

Or again: When Heidegger claims that in the modern world "things, to be sure, are still given ... but Sein has deserted them," this "desertion" does not mean the disappearance of the "out-there-ness" of things (their existentia or Vorhandensein) but refers, rather, to the loss of the understanding of how things become meaningfully present at all: "Where struggle [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]] ceases, things certainly do not disappear, but world [i.e., the meaning-giving clearing] disappears."

On both accounts, therefore — (1) that Sein was not his focal topic and (2) that what he did mean by Sein was the intelligibility of things — why didn't Heidegger obviate the problem at the outset (and steal a march on the obscurity and incomprehension that still haunts his philosophy) by simply surrendering the word "being" to the metaphysics that owns the term, and then go on to articulate in phenomenological terms what he was after? But for whatever reason, he did not, and he thereby opened a Pandora's Box of misclues and misunderstandings that still hamstrings his work to this day. Professor Tezuka was quite right: when it comes to the needless confusion that dogs Heidegger's philosophy (not only among analytical philosophers but among Heideggerians as well), much of the blame must be laid at Heidegger's own doorstep.

As an example, we may note how Heidegger reads Greek philosophy. Most commentators might offer Aristotle, Heidegger's favorite philosopher, as an example of traditional objectivist ontology. But when Heidegger reads Aristotle, he in fact interprets him not as a naïve realist but as a phenomenologist avant la lettre. We note that this interpretation is not yet Heidegger's "retrieval of the unsaid" (die Wiederholung des Ungesagten) in Aristotle, which would be the articulation of the ground of being that metaphysics had overlooked. Rather, this phenomenological reading is based on Heidegger's conviction, from the winter semester of 1921–1922 onward, that Aristotle's metaphysical texts are replete with unthematized examples of the proto-phenomenological correlation between things and the apprehension of them. In his famous 1939 text on [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] in Aristotle's Physics II 1, Heidegger argues that Aristotle always understands things as phenomena — that is, as what shows up within the field of human comportment and interpretation. Aristotle's phrase [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (things insofar as they are taken up in [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) refers to things insofar as we apprehend them as intelligible in this way or that. In other words, Aristotle always, if implicitly, understands things as situated in a phenomenological relation with human beings and thus — since man is the living thing that has [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] — in correlation with human intelligence. We do not merely bump up against things with our bodily senses and then add meanings to them. Rather, we always have an a priori relation not to the specific meaning of the thing but to its general intelligibility, its ability to have a specific meaning within a specific context. Thus Heidegger boldly declares that Aristotle was as much an idealist as was Kant.

If the meaning of "idealism" amounts to understanding that being [i.e., the meaningful presence of entities] can never be explained by way of those entities but is already "transcendental" with regard to each of those entities, then idealism affords the only correct possibility for a philosophical problematic. If so, Aristotle was no less an idealist than Kant.

Heidegger's interpretations of Aristotle are always imbued with the phenomenological way of seeing that he had learned in the 1920s from his mentor Edmund Husserl. The keystone of that phenomenological vision is the ineluctable fact of meaningfulness. Yes, Heidegger does use the language of Aristotelian ontology, but he uses it with a phenomenological valence that has not been sufficiently thematized in the scholarship. Heidegger always philosophizes within a phenomenological view of things as ad hominem ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) — that is, in correlation with human concerns and interests. This entails that whatever we encounter is a priori meaningful. In fact, when it comes to useful things in the world of everyday practice, Heidegger holds to the strictly phenomenological position that the "in-itself-ness" of such things is not located somehow "within" those things when taken as separate from human interests. Rather, the in-itselfness of a tool is precisely its status as usable in relation to the intentions of the person who is using it. For Heidegger, Sein in all its forms is always written under phenomenological erasure — that is, under the aegis of a phenomenological reduction of things to their meaningfulness to man.


Excerpted from Making Sense of Heidegger by Thomas Sheehan. Copyright © 2015 Thomas Sheehan. Excerpted by permission of Rowman & Littlefield International, Ltd..
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Table of Contents

Frequently Cited German Texts and their English Translations / Foreword / 1. Introduction: Getting to the Topic / Part I: Aristotelian Beginnings / 2. Being in Aristotle / 3. Heidegger Beyond Aristotle / Part II: The Early Heidegger / 4. Phenomenology and the Formulation of the Question / 5. Ex-sistence as Openness / 6. Becoming Our Openness / Part III: The Later Heidegger / 7. Transition: From Being and Time to the Hidden Clearing / 8. Appropriation and the Turn / 9. The History of Being / 10. Conclusion: Critical Reflections / Appendices / Bibliographies / Index

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