Friday, June 24, 2016

Sein and Being

So what is the being that Heidegger wants us to marvel at and what are the beings that have it? Heidegger's word Sein (being) cannot be easily defined, because what it refers to is not like other categories or qualities. It certainly is not an object of any kind. Nor is it an ordinary shared feature of
objects. You can teach someone what a 'building’ is by pointing to a lot of different structures from grass huts to skyscrapers; it may take a While but eventually they will get it. But you could go on forever pointing out huts, meals, animals, forest paths, church portals, festive atmospheres, and looming thunderclouds, saying each time, ‘Look: being!’, and your interlocutor is likely to become more and more puzzled.

Heidegger sums this up by saying that Being is not itself a being. That is, it is not a deiined or delineated entity of any kind. He distinguishes between the German word Seiende, which can refer to any individual entity, such as a mouse or a church door, and Sein, which means the Being that such particular beings have. (In English, one way of signalling the distinction is by using the capital ‘B’ for the latter.) He calls it the ‘ontological difference-from ‘ontology’, the study of what is. It is not an easy distinction to keep clear in one’s mind, but the ontological difference between Being and beings is extremely important to Heidegger. If we get confused between the two, we fall into errors-for example, settling down to study some science of particular entities, such as psychology or even cosmology, while thinking that we are studying Being itself.

Unlike beings, Being is hard to concentrate on and it is easy to forget to think about it. But one particular entity has a more noticeable Being than others, and that is myself, because, unlike clouds and portals, I am the entity who wonders about its Being. It even turns out that I have a vague, preliminary, non-philosophical understanding of Being already otherwise I would not have thought of asking about it. This makes me the best starting point for ontological inquiry I am both the being whose Being is up for question and the being who sort of already knows the answer.

I myself, then, will be the path. But Heidegger re-emphasises that this does not mean I should sign up for courses in human sciences such as biology, anthropology, psychology or sociology. These merely ‘ontical’ inquiries have nothing to contribute to an ontological investigation. Like the speculative debris cleared away by Husserl’s epoché, they are likely only to get in the way by clogging up our inquiry with irrelevant ideas. If I want to know what a human being is, it’s no good wiring one up to a EEG machine to measure brain waves, or analysing examples of behaviour. Just as Karl Jaspers had turned from psychology to phenomenology in order to practise ‘a different thinking', Heidegger felt that the question of Being must be truly philosophical or it is nothing. Moreover, it should not be philosophical in the old. fashioned way, focused narrowly on questions of what we can know. A new new beginning is needed.

For Heidegger, this means not only starting with Being but ensuring constant vigilance and care in thinking. He generously helps us to achieve this by using a frustrating kind of language.

As his readers soon notice, Heidegger tends to reject familiar philosophical terms in favour of new ones which he coins himself. He leaves the German Sein or Being more or less as it is, but when it comes to talking about the questioner for whom its Being is in question (i.e. me, a human), he strenuously avoids talk of humanity, man, mind, soul or consciousness, because of the scientific, religious or metaphysical assumptions such words conceal. Instead, he speaks of ‘Dasein’, a word normally meaning ‘existence’ in a general way, and compounded of da (there) and sein (to be). Thus, it means ‘there-being’, or 'being-there’.

The effect is at once disconcerting and intriguing. Reading Heidegger, and feeling (as one often does) that you recognise an experience he is describing, you want to say, ‘Yes, that’s me!’ But the word itself deflects you from this interpretation; it forces you to keep questioning. Just getting into the habit of saying Dasein takes you halfway into Heidegger’s world. It is so important a term that English translators tend to leave it in the original German; an early partial French translation by Henry Corbin rendered it as ‘réalité humaine’, which created another layer of confusion.

Why, one often wails, can’t Heidegger speak plainly? His tangled and unnatural terms invite parody; as in Gunter Grass’ 1963 novel Dog Years, where a character falls under the influence of an unnamed philosopher and goes around calling underdone potatoes ‘spuds forgetful of Being’, and clearing rodents out of the kitchen’s water pipes while wondering, ‘Why rats and not other essents? Why anything at all rather than nothing?’ One might think that, if Heidegger had anything worth saying, he could have communicated it in ordinary language.

The fact is that he does not want to be ordinary, and he may not even want to communicate in the usual sense. He wants to make the familiar obscure, and to vex us. George Steiner thought that Heidegger’s purpose was less to be understood than to be experienced through a ‘felt strangeness’. It is something like the 'alienation’ or estrangement effect used by Bertholt Brecht in his theatre, which is designed to block you from becoming too caught up in the story and falling for the delusion of familiarity. Heidegger’s language keeps you on edge. It is dynamic, obtrusive, sometimes ridiculous and often forceful; on a page of Heidegger, things are typically presented as surging or thrusting, as being thrown forward, lit up or broken open. Heidegger admitted that his way of writing produced some ‘awkwardness’, but he thought that a small price to pay for overturning the history of philosophy and bringing us back to Being.

For non-German readers, it should be added, some of the awkwardness is an artefact of translation. German welcomes monumental word constructions, but in English they tend to come out as long hyphenated lines, trundling along like mismatched railway carriages. The Question of Being, for example, is an elegant Seinsfrage in German. But even German cannot comfortably accommodate Sich-vorveg-schon-sein-in-(der-Welt) als Sein-bei, or ‘ahead-of-itself-already-being-in-(the-world) as beingtogether-with (beings encountered within the world)’.

One way of thinking about Heidegger is as a literary innovator, and perhaps even as a kind of modernist novelist. I was well into working on this book when, via Janet Malcolm’s study Two Lives, I came across excerpts from Gertrude Stein’s experimental novel The Making of Americans. Stein sets out as if to relate a standard family saga, but abandons conventional ways of writing in order to say things like this about her characters:

I am always feeling each kind or them as a substance darker, lighter, thinner, thicker, muddier, clearer, smoother, lumpier, granularer, mixeder, simpler. . . and always I am feeling in each one of them their kind of stuff as much in them, as little in them, as all of a piece in them, as lumps in them held together sometimes by parts of the same sometimes by other kinds of stuff in them. . . [S]ome. . . are made of little lumps of one kind of being held together or separated from each other, as one comes to feel it in them, the lumps in them from each other by other kind of being in them, sometimes by other kind of being in them that is almost the complete opposite of the lumps in them, some because, the lumps are melting always in to the surrounding being that keeps the lumps from touching, in some because the kind of being in them is spread out so thin in them, that everything that they have learned, that they like to be in living, all reaction to everything interesting, in them, has really nothing to do in them with the thin spread being in them...Some are always Whole ones though the being in them is all a mushy mass with a skin to hold them in and so make one.

The ‘being’ in them, she explains, ‘can be slimy, gelatinous, gluey, white opaquy kind of thing and it can be white and vibrant and clear and heated and this is all not very clear to me’.

Heidegger would have disliked Stein’s imprecision, but he might have appreciated the sight of a writer stretching language to its utmost to avoid the dulling effect of ordinary perceptions. He might also have recognised that her distinction between characters and the ‘being’ in them foreshadows his own notion of the ontological difference.

Thus, it can help to think of Heidegger as an experimental novelist, or a poet. Yet, even while rejecting the traditional philosophical virtue of clarity, he was adamant that he was a philosopher, and that there was nothing merely literary or playful about his language. His purpose was to overturn human thinking, destroy the history of metaphysics, and start philosophy all over again. A little violence done to language is to be expected, given an overall aim that is so extreme and so violent

The biggest overturning that Being and Time inflicts on old-school philosophy is to approach the question of Dasein and its Being in a way that Husserl had been supposed to do but did not make very evident: through everyday life.

Heidegger gives us Dasein in its weekday clothes, as it were: not in its Sunday best, but in its ‘everydayness’. Other philosophers have tended to start with a human being in an unusual state, such as sitting alone in a room staring into the embers of a fire and thinking-which was how Descartes began. They then go on to use simple, everyday terms to describe the result. Heidegger does the opposite. He takes Dasein in its most ordinary moments, then talks about it in the most innovative way he can. For Heidegger, Dasein’s everyday Being is right here: it is Being-in-the-world, or In-der-Welt-sein.

The main feature of Dasein’s everyday Being-in-the-world right here is that it is usually busy doing something. I don’t tend to contemplate things; I pick them up and act on them. If I hold a hammer, it is not normally to ‘stare at the hammer-Thing’, as Heidegger puts it. (He uses the lovely word das Hammerding.) It is to go to work hammering nails.

Moreover, I do my hammering in service of some purpose, such as building a bookcase for my philosophy tomes. The hammer in my hand summons up a whole network of purposes and contexts. It reveals Dasein’s involvement with things: its ‘concern’. He cites examples: producing something, using something, looking after something, and letting something go, as well as negative involvements such as neglecting something, or leaving it undone. These are what he calls "deficient’ forms, but they are still forms of concern. They show that Dasein’s Being in general is one of ‘care’. The distinction between 'care’ and 'concern’ (Besorgen and Sorge) is confusing, but both mean Dasein is in the world up to the elbows, and it is busy. We are not far from Kierkegaard and his point that I don’t just exist, but have an interest or an investment in my existence.
My involvements, Heidegger continues, lead me to deploy 'useful things’ or 'equipment’ -items such as the hammer. These have a par. ticular Being which Heidegger calls Zuhandenheit: ‘readiness-to~hand’ or 'handiness’. While I am hammering, the hammer has that kind of Being for me. If, for some reason, I lay down the hammer and gawp at it as a Hammerding, then it has a different kind: Vorhandenheit or 'presence-at-hand’.

For Heidegger, the philosophers’ second-biggest mistake (after forgetfulness of Being) has been to talk about everything as though it was present-at-hand. But that is to separate things from the everyday ‘concernful’ way in which we encounter them most of the time. It turns them into objects for contemplation by an unconcerned subject who has nothing to do all day but gaze at stuff. And then we ask why philosophers seem cut off rom everyday life!

By making this error, philosophers allow the whole structure of worldly Being to fall apart, and then have immense difficulty in getting it back together to resemble anything like the daily existence we recognise. Instead, in Heidegger’s Being-in-the-world, everything comes already linked together. If the structure falls to pieces, that is a ‘deficient’ or secondary state. This is why a smoothly integrated world can be revealed by the simplest actions. A pen conjures up a network of ink, paper, desk and lamp, and ultimately also a network of other people for whom or to whom I am writing, each one with his or her own purposes in the world. As Heidegger wrote elsewhere, 2 table is not just a table: it is a family table, where ‘the boys like to busy themselves’, or perhaps the table where ‘that decision was made with a friend that time, where that work was written that time, where that holiday was celebrated that time’. We are socially as well as equipmentally involved. Thus, for Heidegger, all Being-in-the-world is also a ‘Being-with’ or Mitsein. We cohabit with others in a ‘with-world’, or Mitwelt.

The old philosophical problem of how we prove the existence of other minds has now vanished. Dasein swims in the with-world long before it wonders about other minds. Others are those 'from whom, for the most part, one does not distinguish oneself -those among whom one is too’. Mitsei'n remains characteristic even of a Dasein that is shipwrecked on a desert island or trying to get away from everyone by living on the top of a pillar, since those situations are defined mainly by reference to the missing fellow Daseins. The Dasein of a stylite is still a Being-with, but it is (Heidegger loves this word) a ‘delicient’ mode of Being-with.

Heidegger gives an example that brings everything together. I am out for a walk, and I iind a boat by the shore. What Being does the boat have for me? It is unlikely to be ‘just’ an object, a boat-thing which I contemplate from some abstract vantage point. Instead, I encounter the boat as (1) a potentially useful thing, in (2) a world which is a network of such things, and (3) in a situation where the boat is clearly useful for someone else, if not for me. The boat lights up equipment, world and Mitsein all at once. If I want to consider it a mere ‘object’, I can, but this does violence to everyday Being.

The surprising thing is that philosophy had to wait so long for someone to say these things. American pragmatists such as Charles Sanders Peirce, John Dewey and William James had explored human life as a practical, active affair, but they did not share Heidegger’s grand philosophical vision, and were more inclined to use pragmatism to bring philosophy down to earth rather than to remind it of its greatest tasks and questions. Husserl did share Heidegger’s scale of ambition, but he had relocated everything in his idealist cavern. For Heidegger, that was a fatal mistake: Husserl had bracketed out the wrong thing. He had bracketed out Being, the one thing that is indispensable.

Heidegger is philosophy’s great reverser. In Being and Time, it is everyday Being rather than the far reaches of cosmology or mathematics that is most ‘ontological’. Practical care and concern are more primordial than reflection. Usefulness comes before contemplation, the ready-to-hand before the present-at-hand, Being-in-the-world and Being~with-others before Being-alone. We do not hover above the great rich tangle of the world, gazing down from on high. We are already in the world and involved in it-we are ‘thrown’ here. And 'thrownness’ must be our starting point.

from S Bakewell

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