Here I will offer a very brief (and so necessarily incomplete) review of the phenomenological philosophy of Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), as presented in his important work “Being and Time” (Heidegger, 1927/1962). Phenomenology is a European philosophical movement that evolved in the early and middle years of the twentieth century. Its focus of investigation begins with the most basic element of our existence: the fact that we exist, that is, that we have being, and, further, are aware of this. Phenomenology explores the structure of this primary consciousness of being, both as it enables us to navigate everyday reality and, beyond this, in its role as the experiential pathway to comprehending the fundamental nature of Being itself, in an absolute sense. In this school of thought, our theories about life – symbolic renderings of our understandings of the meaning of the fact that we have being – are critically important, as they are in any philosophical system. However, in the phenomenological method, a genuine grasp of the nature of Being is only considered possible after we have analyzed and comprehended something of the nature of consciousness itself, before the moment in which we frame it in conceptual formulas or doctrines. This is a thoughtful look into consciousness in its “raw”, unformed state, as it presents the world to us as a series of mental “phenomena”, and before we form abstract notions about their meaning; that is, before we feel we “know” the world.
I chose to address Heidegger’s ideas as a result of working on the previous posts on pragmatism, because I think he fleshes out what I believe to be the implications of the earlier writings of the original American pragmatists, Charles Sanders Pierce, William James, and John Dewey. (Readers who have not read these essays, which immediately precede this one chronologically, may benefit from doing so, as doing so may bolster understanding of general quality of the kind of thinking called phenomenological. However, one may comprehend this essay’s review of Heidegger and his particular “take” on this approach without this background information.) That is, in less evolved and systematic, what I called “plainspoken” ways, the late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century American pragmatists presaged the German Heidegger’s important contemplation upon the mind’s embeddedness in reality: what it means that we “habitate” existence, as he writes, with special attention to the implications of this for the larger issue of life lived authentically, as I will explain below.
So, while I know nothing of any direct (or indirect) line of intellectual transmission from people like Pierce, James, and Dewey to the later European phenomenologists – which include Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) who influenced Heidegger – it is the case that they all contributed to making the exploration of consciousness a central, profoundly influential part of twentieth century Western philosophy. I will hazard the guess that there was something “in the air” of the Western world, collectively, that made a return to the experiencing subject necessary, or at least inevitable: more than likely, it was the loss of shared religious values and the certainty of the presence of law-giving God in heaven upon which to look for our sense of what it means to live in contact with “the truth” of existence that provoked this inward turn. So subjectivity became the new “center” from which we hoped to fruitfully and correctly consider, interpret, and navigate the world.
Heidegger’s notion of “being there” (in German, Dasein) is his term for the way Being distinguishes itself to limited human consciousness, that is, what we call subjectivity. In a sense, we are Dasein: our phenomenal experience of existing here and now, which itself includes the context of the passage of time. Our “hereness” emerges from a past, a “was”, and is inexorably pointed toward a “will be”. So, for example, I am now situated at my kitchen table, writing this essay. I am drinking coffee, too much, really. I am at this table imbibing in caffeine because I exist in an online relationship to this website, where the essay will appear tomorrow, hopefully: so I feel an obligation to get this done, and well, if possible, and coffee provides just the boost I need prior to the deadline. The two heretofore unrelated phenomena are now linked in what is really, upon even the most minimal inspection, seen to be a nearly infinite web of relationships of people, places, and things that Dasein presents or, as Heidegger puts it, “discloses” to me.
To proceed a bit further down this experiential road. Writing this philosophical piece is a limited expression of my identity as a psychoanalyst, which extends to other dimensions and strands of the web of what Heidegger defines as the “references” in which I am embedded as a being-in-the-world: for example, I met my ex-wife in analytical training, and we practiced together for many years. I consider what she might say about Heidegger, as I write. We have two young adult daughters. My thoughts turn to them, as I follow a chain of mental associations that Dasein reveals to me. It comes to mind that I promised to call one of them later today, but told her that I will be busy with this essay, so it may be later that I ring her up. So she is now an object in my mind in terms of my existential embeddness in this writing. The two referents are “entangled”, to use Heidegger’s term. Also, here I have exercised my power to choose which of these two commitments will remain in the foreground of my experience, my Dasein. Later on the creation of this article will naturally retreat to the background of my awareness, as calling my daughter moves to a more figural place in consciousness. This order of events is a result of my having selected from among the various options disclosed from within my particular Dasein. (I could have simply ignored this writing project and called her first, but did not proceed in that direction.) In the foregoing we may detect Heidegger’s view that human existence exists in the context of the passing of time, or what he calls “temporality”. I was asked to write this essay, and now I am doing so. Later I will put it away, and then will call my daughter.
Dasein and Moral Choice
Heidegger’s view of temporality is particularly central to his perspective on living authentically, that is, from a position of moral self-responsibility for one’s decisions. Put simply, authenticity resides in one’s capacity to affirm that it is oneself, “I”, that chooses to navigate reality by following one of many possible paths across time. Hence, to return to the previous example, I am inauthentic if I say to my daughter that she must wait until later for my call because, as I (and most of us) often exclaim, “I have to get this done”. But, in fact, there is no “have to” forcing my hand in this case. Rather, what is occurring is my affirmation of one element of my awareness as figural, and a purposeful moving of other elements of Dasein to the background. We will consider other aspects of Heidegger’s ethics in the final section.
The primal experience of Dasein dawns on us in its most undisguised, directly apprehended forms in childhood, but it is also a constant feature throughout our lives, until death. The singular awe of our earliest contact with the fact that we have being naturally becomes obscured as we mature and incorporate a growing array of ideas about how best to live. These enable us to become increasingly skilled at shutting out this rudimentary, unscreened form of encounter with Being by imposing our preformed values and goals on new experiences. Hence, as we grow older, moments of genuine, more or less mentally unelaborated – or what Husserl calls “naive” – openness to life’s self-manifestation become possibilities rather than irresistible experiences to which we cannot say “no”. And herein we have the experience of our existential freedom: we may stand in relation to Being with an attitude of what Heidegger calls “openness” to the “clearing” that opens up in our Dasein when we put mental predispositions and prejudices to the side and merely look. Here is seen Heidegger’s critical assertion that our existence as limited creatures, experiencing the minutiae of innumerable small details and forming responses to them in the course of what he calls “everydayness”, is in fact the proper and, actually, only path that we have to engage the Absolute dimension of Being itself. So, he said, it is a fatal error to assume that we can know the “truth” of Being by first imposing even he most reasonable or profound ideas upon it. These a priori (“before the fact”) systems can be derived from philosophy, science, religion, our social class, consumer capitalism, what our parents preferred…anything, really. All act to supply the fragile illusion of “knowing”, when in fact they are akin to the person who asks a question in such a way as to restrict the possible answers that can be offered in response, such as “When did you stop beating your dog?”. Hence, they are autistic, self-justifying modes of engaging life.
Dasein and Truth
Like the earlier American pragmatists, Heidegger insists that we must not impose performed assumptions on Dasein, at least as much as possible, for what we might call bare or mentally unelaborated awareness of life is not at all in opposition to the act of engaging with, and experiencing the truth of Being itself. That is, while we are limited in our capacity to assess Being, this limitedness is itself a facet of Being; we are intimately involved in the”big picture” at all times, and in the act of perceiving Being via Dasein we call forth actual qualities of its nature. This doesn’t mean that whatever we think is therefore a truth. What we encounter as a phenomenal reality did not simply spring from our minds as a fancy. Hence, to be accurate, our interpretation of phenomena must conform itself to the contours of other finite entities. Yet in the act of encountering them from our own standpoint, which is shot through with the referants of our Dasein, we actively elicit or disclose certain qualities of those entities that otherwise would never exist, for want of a human particpant-observer whose consciousness brings them to light.
An example: my brother hunts Elk. Elk exist apart from what he thinks of them. He does not wish them into existence, and did not invent the existential category of “Elkness”. But his manner of approach to Elk from Dasein calls out and creates “Elkness” in a specific, parochial context. So, in this interface of Dasein and greater life, the Elk’s potential being-in-the-world as food, a vital challenge to exert competence and perhaps demonstrate manhood, and/or a signifier of nature’s wonder and sublimity, among a vast number of possibilities, is disclosed. These disclosures are actual revelations of “Elkness”, Heidegger would argue, and would never come into existence apart from this lived, emotionally-charged circumstance of Dasein construed and elaborated as “hunter-hunted”. This example illustrates Heidegger’s rejection of dualism, the idea that mind and world are separate, and that only by ignoring daily consciousness – what most people assume is the way that “subjectivity” distorts reality, as when something is said to be “only an opinion” – can we proceed to genuine contact with things Absolute and eternally true. Says Heidegger, it is exactly the opposite: as a Zen Buddhist saying goes, “Little mind is Big Mind”.
So, to revisit an earlier point, while Being’s “thereness” can be ignored as we grow older and compile life experiences, it cannot be wished away. It continually reveals its structure to consciousness, though we do not (and cannot) experience its self-disclosure within Dasein apart from the minutia of our daily lives: temporal, maybe seemingly trivial facets of life that present themselves as figural elements – as “standing out” – in awareness for limited periods of time, and then recede into the background of subjectivity. Such phenomena as children heard playing outside, looking for one’s keys, a pot of water boiling on the stove, and so forth. Except in rare moments, we do not think of these experiences as expressions of Being, but merely as the small details of life in the here-and-now that they self-evidently appear to be. Yet this does not alter the fact that these humble daily occurrences are in fact the venues in which we continually interface with the Absolute structure of existence.
So Being is always unfolding and revealing itself to us, despite our usual unconsciousness of its presence and activity. It perpetually “addresses” us, so to speak, and in doing so constantly forces decisions on us (here we might infer a secularized version of the Judeo-Christian notion of God’s moral address to humanity surfacing in Heidegger’s thought). Put perhaps a bit too simply, Being confronts us in one of two ways. First, throughout our moment-to-moment journey along life’s trajectory, it reveals to our awareness hard, unalterable facts over which we can have no influence, although because we “inhabit” all dimensions of the world around us, in a certain sense, we are still compelled to decide what our response may be to our helplessness in these moments. Second, it also foregrounds circumstances to subjectivity that call upon us to choose from among a number of possible responses.
It is here that we experience Dasein as a more vital, positive vehicle of possibility. And, again, because we inhabit Being in the meaning-laden context of our immediate being-in-the-world, by choosing from among different options and intentionally acting on these, we not only define our personal identities, that is, the forward-going nature of our being-in-the-world, but the very structure and direction of Being itself. To explain: one may choose to divorce rather stay married; walk to work rather than take the subway; or, even less dramatic but no less an existential decision-point, order salad rather than meat when eating out. In all of this one implicitly affirms a certain existential status as a co-creator of Being, inasmuch as across time one alters some aspect of its unfolding in the “hereness” of this limited temporal realm. This occurs because humans are emanations of the Being, not merged with it, but embodying and teasing out the Absolute nature of its qualities in the modified, relative context of their personal ideas, feelings, and choices.
This underlying identity between the two makes each of us a conduit through which Being expresses itself; and any change in the structure of the conduit necessarily influences and alters the nature if the “thing” (not really the best word) that is manifested through it, the way a trombone player’s judgement as to if, how far, and in which direction to move his or her instrument’s slide alters the sound that it emits. Or as Richard Polt (1999) puts it in his very readable “Heidegger: an Introduction”, “…we are the site that Being requires in order (literally) to take place” (p. 30, italics his).
To return for a moment to the question of Heidegger’s ethics, this means that we are each personally responsible for defining the relative moral “goodness” or “badness” of the world, since all of our choices resonate to the overarching structure of Being, our existential “home”, and pitch its forward progress across time in certain directions. Hence, to look back on a prior example, after a period of reflection about a difficult
marriage one may choose to remain married rather than divorce. This decision and its shaping of one’s being-in-the-world then becomes woven into Being’s architecture. The specific meanings latent within Dasein that have been elicited and “foregrounded” in consciousness form the energic dynamism behind this choice, and vary according to an individual’s unique situatedness. Perhaps the decision to stay in the marriage is an affirmation of, say, the essential value of tolerance, a religious principle, financial reasons, a belief in the therapeutic value of learning about oneself through disappointment, and/or the placement of a moral premium on avoiding the disruption to the lives of immediate family created by splitting up. Other people existing in relation to the individual who affirms this course, such as friends, coworkers, and anyone else observing this decision come into being, integrate their perceptions of the action and the one who makes it into their phenomenal worlds, each foregrounding and considering an array of interpretations and judgments appearing in Dasein; and, in doing so, their own positions as transmitters of Being change accordingly. And, with that, Being changes too.
Heidegger, Martin (1927). Being and Time. New York: Harper & Row, 1962.
Polt, Richard (1999). Heidegger: an Introduction. Ithaca: Cornell