In an earlier post, I tried to get at a Heideggarian “definition” of the being of humans. I don’t think I did a very good job, so I am going to try again, taking some cues from William Blattner’s excellent reader’s guide on Being and Time.
Proximally and for the most part we are immersed in the word. The importance of this observation is hidden from the philosophical tradition, because it has been focused on the self-consciousness and moral accountability, in which we experiences ourselves as distinct from the world and others. Heidegger’s phenomenological approach to the self focuses first on a basic form of self-disclosure: I am what matters to me. Seen thus, I cannot disentangle myself from those around me and the world in which I live. In a phrase, we are being-in-the-world.
Thus, according to Heidegger, the philosophical tradition since Descartes has been fundamentally misguided on what it means to be a human. We are not res cogitans, locked behind the theater of our head, looking out at the world from behind a subjective veil, but rather, we are fundamentally familiar with the world. This familiarity is the basic constitution of being-in-the-world, and thus, the basic constitution of humans. If I understand Heidegger right, self-consciousness, intentionality, and all those phenomena of modern philosophy are, if anything at all, residual and derivative from the more basic familiarity with the world. They result when we are in a reflective mood, stepped away from the world, utilizing the modern cognitive faculties evolution has given us. Otherwise, we “reside amidst” the world.
This might all sound like phenomenological mumbo-jumbo, and I agree that it can sound kind of arbitrary, but if you understand Heidegger’s reaction to the western “History of being”, as he calls it, you will realize that this mumbo-jumbo is really a sophisticated methodology for getting at the root phenomena of human activity. By dismissing the subject-object paradigm as irrelevant for phenomenology, Heidegger recasts the subject matter of philosophical inquiry and sets the stage for fruitful hermeneutic interpretation. And that is all Heidegger essentially is, an interpretation. He didn’t really “get at” the phenomena in any systematic way, due to the circular constraints of interpretation, but I feel like that merely makes his philosophical project open and dynamic, as opposed to stale and rigid. He acknowledged the circularity involved in trying to uncover the ontology of being, but this is no matter, because humans already have a “pre-ontological” understanding of being. It is the goal of phenomenology to articulate this pre-ontological understanding into a conceptual form in order to uncover the salient features of the phenomena of being.
Heidegger is satisfied with mere “descriptive phenomenology” for a simple reason: to look for anything else, would be to presuppose a form of psychologism, which states that the structure of meaning is a real, causal property of minds and/or the world. However, if this isn’t the case, and meaning isn’t going to be uncovered in any “deep structures”, or combinatory semantics, then all that can be done with meaning is description. To do otherwise, would be to try and complete some form of constructive theorizing. Meaning isn’t something “produced” by minds, which can be understood by general theorization, but rather, meaning-structures are latent in experience, and the only proper way to get at their ontology is through some sort of interpretation. That interpretation doesn’t necessarily have to be Heideggerian, but Heidegger did a pretty good job of laying down the essential phenomena of being, at least when it comes to human Daseins. And for that I am grateful.