Understanding Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) is no easy task. That statement is not only about his philosophy but about him as a person. He was Edmund Husserl’s other most notable student, working as Husserl’s assistant after Edith Stein had moved on. When Husserl retired in 1929, he recommended Heidegger be his successor to the chair of philosophy in Freiburg, Germany, a recommendation the university accepted. When the Nazis came to power and seized control of all universities, Heidegger joined the Nazi Party. He was then appointed rector of the University of Freiburg, but he resigned a few months later for reasons he never made clear. Scholars have ever since debated how much Heidegger agreed with Nazi ideology. The position that he did is buttressed by statements in his written papers and the fact that even though he lived and lectured for more than 30 years after the war, he never formally condemned the Nazis. We will talk about Heidegger’s ideas, just as, for example, we talked about Aristotle’s ideas even though Aristotle supported the abhorrent idea that certain people are natural-born slaves. Being involved in the quest for understanding means being able to consider ideas and take what is valuable and leave behind what is not.
A Phenomenology of Being
Heidegger is described as either a phenomenologist or an existentialist. Each description is true, to an extent, but it is more accurate to say Heidegger presents a unique hybrid of the two. His philosophy captures the spirit of Husserl’s study of phenomena by focusing on the phenomena in experience, but Heidegger’s epoché (bracketing off of presumptions) led him to focus on the science of Being. That’s “Being” with a capital “B.” All objects are beings (small “b”), and all objects have Being (capital “B”). Particular beings pass in and out of existence, but Being remains. One can try to study Being in and of itself. Some Roman era and medieval philosophers did, some associating Being with God. Heidegger rejects this idea, pointing out that God is simply the highest being among all others.
When Heidegger brackets off the world and all assumptions about it, what he finds left is Being — the fundamental phenomenon in which all experience is grounded and from which all experiences derive meaning. Every object that we encounter in the world is a manifestation of Being. Heidegger finds one particular manifestation: our existence.
We exist. But that is a qualitatively different statement for us than “that tree exists.” To describe the distinctive character of our existence, Heidegger used the concept that we are Dasein. The term “Dasein” could be literally translated as “being there,” but typical of Heidegger’s thought, it means “being there” and other concepts implied by it. That we are Dasein, in essence, means that we are beings in the world, not separate from it, and we are beings for whom our Being is a central concern for us. The biggest misunderstanding that one can have about this concept of being concerned about our existence is that it is simply a concern about whether we are alive. That is only a small part of it. We are also concerned about the quality and meaning of our life. For Heidegger, it is not enough for us merely to live — we also want to live meaningfully. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves.
Dasein is not one object among the many objects in the world. Heidegger describes Dasein as a clearing in the midst of a dense forest of Being. It is a clearing in the sense that Dasein is a region where Being is fully revealed to us. It is from the vantage point of this clearing that we can analyze the meaning of Being. Looking at Dasein, we are aware, first and foremost, of our existence and that we exist within a world. Our essence as beings is that Being is an issue for us. What happens to us matters more than what happens to other things, and all that we experience we relate to ourselves in one way or another. From that perspective, from our clearing, we can relate to the world. It is not an objective understanding, but such an understanding is not possible. We work with what we have and what we are.
So far, so good. Quickly after that, Heidegger’s study of Dasein and Being becomes very complex. He invents multiple terms to describe deep and sophisticated concepts that philosophers have spent thousands of pages trying to define and explain what they mean. We don’t have that much space, so let’s try to break it down as simply as possible.
“Dasein” means “being there,” and the “there” is the world. One of Heidegger’s most significant ideas is that we are not detached from the world. We are not a consciousness trying to understand a world that is separate from us. Instead, Heidegger said we are Being-in-the-World (German: In-der-Welt-sein). The hyphenation in this word expresses that our Being and the world cannot be separated. The best way to think about Being-in-the-World is that you are a consciousness embedded in the world. “Embedded” means that we are inextricably in the world. Heidegger says we dwell in the world; we fully exist within it, are absorbed in it, and are taken up with it. All of our thinking and acting is not about the world, or at the world, but an inextricable part of the world in which we are embedded. I use “we” in these sentences, but with reason; Heidegger uses only “Dasein.” That’s because he is trying to capture in Dasein the uniqueness of the type of beings we are beyond the fact that we are embedded in the world.
Heidegger’s most famous book is Being and Time (1927). He used that title because Dasein has two unique characteristics that make it distinct from all other beings (animals, plants, rocks, and so on): awareness of its own existence and awareness of time. Dasein exists, and it is aware that it exists — and Heidegger refers to Dasein as an “it.” Dasein can question why it exists in ways that all other worldly objects cannot. Dasein can also question why it is situated in the world the way that it is and what its possibilities are in the world. We are beings who can ask — not so much in an intellectual way as in a practical, worldly way — what we can do in the world. Considering possibilities entails an awareness of time. Dasein is oriented not only to the present; Dasein can also remember its past and project itself into the future. Heidegger saw this as a crucial element of Dasein. It is always living-ahead; its here and now is always oriented toward future possibilities. That Dasein is aware of time means it is Being-ahead-of-itself, which affects Dasein’s everyday actions and its anxiety. First, we need to discuss the everyday.
Regions, Involvements, and the Everyday
Ultimately, Dasein’s situatedness is not the world itself but its set of relations to the world. Because Dasein is Being-in-the-world, it necessarily has an understanding of its place and possibilities in the world, even if that understanding is without reflective intellectual content. Most individuals think of themselves in terms of their social acceptance or their material comforts while they are immersed in the everydayness of life. We can take a detached view from life, considering the world and ourselves as a philosopher or scientist might, but that is not how we live. We live in our everyday Being-in-the-world.
The “everyday” is an often neglected key aspect of Heidegger’s philosophy. To understand it, we also need to understand two other important concepts in Heidegger: regions and involvements. We are embedded in the world, but, more accurately, we are embedded in very small regions of that world. Where you live, where you work, who you interact with, what information you take in — these are small regions of the wider world. You, as Dasein, are embedded in a number of regions: home, work, school, friends, and so on. What makes regions important is that they are modes of Dasein’s existence where Dasein works out its involvements. All of our actions and relations are tempered by and structured by our involvements. Husserl said that every one of our experiences is structured by our past experiences. Heidegger accepts that and adds the idea of involvements — which is a concept similar to goals, but because they are related to Dasein and Being-in-the-world, involvements have meaning for us beyond simple goals. Objects in the world are matters of concern for us. We care about what happens, and we are concerned that our actions work for us. Each of us has our own projects that we care about — for example, passing a course. We want equipment to work for us, like our computers, cars, and phones. We act on projects and use equipment to fulfill our involvements.
An important insight for Heidegger that is revealed in the phenomenological analysis of Dasein is that, contrary to almost all previous philosophy, we do not experience a world of objects. Instead, we engage with equipment that we use to fulfill our involvements. When all is going well — the equipment works and people behave as we expect them to — all is fine, and these objects become invisible to us; they recede into the everyday. For example, we never think about what our computer mouse does until it doesn’t work. It’s transparent to us. You don’t think, “I am moving the mouse and the mouse is helping me do my work.” No, you think about the tasks you are performing. The intentionality of your consciousness is on the work that you are doing. The mouse is invisible equipment. This is the case as long as everything is going according to plan and your intentions and your concerns are lined up and you’re getting the results that you want. As soon as something interrupts that flow, that’s when you start to think of equipment in a different way. Only then do you consider the mouse as an object of inspection. Your intention then shifts to how to get the object to work to fulfill your involvements. You are constantly thinking or not thinking about things, but you’re always involved in the world in which you are embedded through your concerns. You are Being-in-the-world, and you are involved in the world and the regions in which you are embedded.
Heidegger’s concept of involvement has deeper meaning than having goals; it also includes the question of who we are. Dasein’s identity exists as Dasein’s own first-person evaluation of its place in the world that reflects its involvements. As Dasein, we cannot disentangle our sense of who we are from our relations with what is around us. Who we are is a matter of concern to us. Heidegger said that it is not enough for us simply to survive; we wish to have a series of relations with our regions and the people and things in our regions, and even in relation with our life itself. It is not enough simply to live; one must live meaningfully. If this reminds you of Kierkegaard, good! You are paying attention, because that is where Heidegger got it from. But while Kierkegaard was very emotional about the meaning of our life, Heidegger is eerily dispassionate about the meaning of a person’s life. There is nothing warm and personal about Heidegger (Dasein is an “it,” remember), even though his philosophy is perhaps the most personal of all.
Thrownness, Authenticity, and Anxiety
The cold aspect of Heidegger’s thought is found most vividly in what he calls the “thrownness” of our existence. We are beings who are thrown into the world. We’re born. We didn’t choose where; we didn’t choose when; we didn’t choose our parents; we didn’t choose our siblings. We were thrown into a region of the world, and because we are thrown into these choiceless realities of our life, our life is a matter of constant tension. Now this is where Heidegger probably goes a little off the deep end because when he tries to talk about authentic versus inauthentic existence he gets into difficulties. What being authentic means for Heidegger he never quite makes clear, but his discussion centers on being aware. We need to be aware that we are Dasein, that we are embedded in a world as Being-in-the-world, and that we are continually in time as Dasein Being-ahead-of-itself. Above and beyond our everyday involvements, we constantly have to think about our place in the world and who we are now, have been in the past, and could be in the future. If you’re not thinking of these things, that seems to be what Heidegger means by an inauthentic existence. If we are lost in the everydayness of life, we are fallen. When we don’t deal with the fact that we are thrown into a world that we did not choose, we have nothing but anxiety. Not that we never do not have anxiety. Influenced by Nietzsche, Heidegger thought that part of our thrownness is that we realize that our system of social meanings has no ultimate ground; those meanings are simply what has developed over time. Influenced by Kierkegaard, Heidegger accepts that we are beings who must choose and act; therefore, Being-in-the-world means being forced to act despite having no absolute values or directions on which to base our actions. To be Dasein is to be finite and full of anxiety. We simply exist in the world into which we’ve been thrown.
What any of this has to do with Nazism no one can explain. It is true that, when Hitler came to power, Heidegger was slightly friendly to the Nazis, but then he mysteriously resigned the university position the Nazis gave him and never spoke of it again. Maybe Heidegger saw himself as being thrown into that world and convinced himself that he didn’t choose to be a German in the 1930s and shouldn’t concern himself with the everydayness of politics. Plus, after all, he thought that there is no ultimate ground for moral values. That would certainly be a grotesque denial of moral responsibility, especially since Heidegger writes about the importance of a moral conscience, but it’s a possible explanation because, again, there’s no sense in Heidegger of a warm and personal relationship with the world or people. His discussion of “care” is not related to love, family, or community but is about resolving one’s own anxiety. He says some things about obedience to your society and the law as part of being authentic, but his discussion of conscience is about Dasein being called to make itself aware of its potential. That’s the big, big paradox and irony of Heidegger. His philosophy deals with that fundamental questions of who are we and what we want from life, but the closest he comes to an answer is letting-be: being open to Dasein returning to its potentiality-for-Being-its-Self.