This is the beginning of a new paper I have started to work on. I think it will be helpful in settling some of the fascinating realism debates taking place in the philosophy blog world right now, especially in regard to Heidegger’s position on the matter, which, I think, has been greatly distorted. I think this field guide to Being and Time will be highly illuminating for those wanting to get a better understanding of Lee Braver’s A Thing of This World: A History of Continental Anti-Realism, for which an online reading group is about to form. One of Braver’s key theses involves an assimilation of early Heidegger into a Kantian framework. In this post, I attempt to explain why this reading of Being and Time is misleading. Enjoy.
[Updated with latest draft 9-21-09)
In reading what people have been proclaiming over the years about Martin Heidegger’s 1927 magnum opus Being and Time (BT), it has become apparent to me that there are several rampant and thoroughly ingrained interpretations concerning central concepts within Heideggerian philosophy that do much to obfuscate several key phenomenological features of human existence. The first problematic interpretation I will address in this paper concerns the translation of Dasein. I will argue that the most consistent interpretation of this term is simply as a neologism (with special connotations) for “human being”. Dasein can thus be used in a double sense as either “a human being” or “human being”. The second problematic interpretation deals with the question of whether Heidegger was a metaphysical anti-realist a la the Kantian paradigm. A key thesis of this paradigm is the complete mind-dependence of phenomenal reality i.e. the being of all phenomena (tables, chairs, etc.) – even phenomena which we understand to be independent of us (stars, fossils, etc.) – are dependent in their being on Dasein. Following Taylor Carman, I will argue that this anti-realist reading is largely overblown.
Lost in Translation: Dasein as a Concept
That people have gotten off on the wrong foot with the whole concept of Dasein is obvious if one takes even a cursory glance at contemporary Anglo-American scholarship. The meaning and significance that Heideggerian intended for the term has become lost in a lack of translation. By this I mean it seems that few people have taken the time to map the term Dasein onto a coherent conceptual framework so that BT can actually become intelligible as a philosophical system. Some scholars instead choose to bury their heads in the sand and insist we should leave Dasein untranslated or at best, translate it literally as “being-there” or simply replace it with “being-in-the-world” or some such metaphorical mapping in Heideggerese. It is no surprise then that there has been a massive mystification and misunderstanding surrounding the whole project of Being and Time, with scholars arguing amongst themselves about what kind of transcendentalist Heidegger was, whether he “eliminated” the self, or to what extent he had failed to overcome Cartesian subjectivity through his contradictory usage of Dasein. Indeed, we have some like Tugendhat going so far as to say:
I cannot see how the introduction of the term Dasein has had any positive sense. It is only a stylistic device that has unfortunate consequences, and we can better appropriate Heidegger’s contribution to our complex of problems if we refrain as far as possible from the use of this term (Tugendhat, 1986, pp. 152).
With Dasein translated literally, left untranslated, or simply abandoned as a concept, we become unable to read Heidegger on the deeper level he deserves and remain locked into a parochial reading of Being and Time. In linguistic terms, we have no source to guide us in our understanding of the target. Many Heideggerian scholars seem content to simply ascribe to Heidegger the very philosophical baggage he tried to shuck off in their strict assimilation of Dasein to “human existence” or a Kantian sort of “structured awareness” or more confusedly, as something that “is neither people nor their being, but rather a way of life shared by the members of some community” . These definitions generally represent the two extremes of the secondary literature on Heideggerian thought: transcendentalism and normative pragmatism, respectively. The one side argues that Heidegger was a transcendental idealist in the tradition of Kant, re-asserting the priority of the subject in the determination of phenomenal reality. The other side argues against this reading, claiming that Heidegger was an arch-pragmatist, doing away with all notions of subjective individuality in favor of an “institutionalized” group-think in the form of Das Man and the authenticity/inauthenticity distinction. We seem to have then an oscillation between seeing Being and Time as a transcendental enterprise spelling out the essence of human existence (the literal translation of Dasein) and a social-pragmatist manifesto that is supposed to redefine the human subject solely in terms of “average” public institutions and linguistic practices. I hope to show in this brief field guide to Being and Time that both readings are decidedly misleading and worse yet, prevent the contemporary philosopher from making sense of Heidegger in such a way so as to allow the assimilation of his thought, finally, into a progressive augmentation of Descartes, Locke and Kant.
The Obscurity and Meaning of Dasein
In this paper I want to argue that both the transcendental and social-pragmatist reading of Heidegger unwittingly overlooks the most crucial distinction in Being and Time: the simple but profound difference between being and entities. I want to argue that for Heidegger, a Dasein is an individual entity with a rare kind of being. On my reading then, Dasein is a term Heidegger coined to refer to average individual humans capable of normal cognitive activities such as introspection (including a conceptualization of past and future),advanced object-recognition, intrasubjective communication, and natural fluency of language. Throughout the entirety of Being and Time we see a distinction being made between the individual entity Dasein and the being of that entity. The text is practically saturated with descriptive accounts concerning the being of the entity that is Dasein.
This entity which each of us is himself…we shall denote by the term “Dasein.” (BT 27)
[Dasein is] that entity which in its being…(BT 68)
…Dasein is as an entity…(BT 280)
In the question about the meaning of being, what is primarily interrogated is those entities which have the character of Dasein. (BT 65)
…it is possible to individualize [the question of the meaning of being] very precisely for any particular Dasein. (BT 63)
…Dasein is essentially an entity with being-in…(BT 84)
Dasein is an entity which is in each case I myself; its being is in each case mine. (BT 150)
One of Dasein’s possibilities of being is to give us ontical “information” about Dasein itself as an entity. (BT 228)
It seems obvious to me that this general distinction between the entity that Dasein is ontically and the being it has ontologically is the guiding thread running through Being and Time. I find this obvious because it is the only way I can make sense of what the text is saying. If we were to substitute “human existence” or “communal way of life” for Dasein in any of the above quotations, the philosophical coherence of the ontological difference would be obliterated. “This entity which each of us is himself…we shall denote by ‘communal way of life’.” “Existence is essentially an entity with being-in.” Etc. The immediate problem with these translations has become clear. By substituting “existence,” “awareness,” or “way of life” for Dasein, Heidegger can now be accused of repeatedly overlooking the difference between being and entities that he spent his career preaching against: “The being of entities ‘is’ not itself an entity” (BT 26).When the ontological difference between entities and the being of entities is not taken seriously, Heidegger becomes incomprehensible. No wonder so many people choose to leave Dasein untranslated!
That the above formulations are rendered nonsense as soon as one neglects the ontological difference illustrates nicely the absolute necessity of having a proper conception of Dasein for understanding Being and Time in a coherent fashion. A German dictionary will simply not help us to understand what Dasein refers to, although it points to it indirectly. Even Macquarrie and Robinson make this clear when they note on page 27, n. 1 that Heidegger goes “somewhat further [from the everyday usage of Dasein] in that he often uses it to stand for any person who has such being, and who is thus an ‘entity’ himself.” However, it must be made perfectly clear that Heidegger’s decision to coin a new synonym for “human being” from an existential etymological connection was not arbitrary. In fact, by understanding why Heidegger chose this particular term to denote a member of the profoundly embodied-embedded species of Homo sapiens, we can begin to stitch together a coherent and refined version of Cartesian and Kantian philosophy of mind.
Overcoming the “Copernican Revolution”
Why “Dasein”? What philosophical point was Heidegger trying to make with this new coinage for human entity? From my understanding, and that of others, Heidegger was making, amongst other things, a perceptual-epistemic move against the then dominant philosophical force of René Descartes, John Locke, and of course, Immanuel Kant. This trio had by Heidegger’s day instilled an unshakeable dogma concerning what the nature of visual perception entailed, namely, a fallible, mirror-like relationship between mind and world. According to Richard Rorty, this widespread consensus concerning mind and knowledge led to absurd albeit implicit claims to the interlocking theses of internalism and foundationalism. The introduction to Rorty’ Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature spells this out nicely:
Philosophy as a discipline thus sees itself as the attempt to underwrite or debunk claims to knowledge made by science, morality, art, or religion. It purports to do this on the basis of its special understanding of the nature of knowledge and of mind. Philosophy can be foundational in respect to the rest of culture because culture is the assemblage of claims to knowledge, and philosophy adjudicates such claims. It can do so because it understands the foundations of knowledge, and it finds these foundations in a study of man-as-knower, of the “mental processes” or the “activity of representation” which make knowledge possible. To know is to represent accurately what is outside the mind; so to understand the possibility and nature of knowledge is to understand the way in which the mind is able to construct such representations. Philosophy’s central concern is to be a general theory of representation, a theory which will divide culture up into the areas which represent reality well, those which represent it less well, and those which do not represent it at all (despite their pretense of doing so).
We owe the notion of a “theory of knowledge” based on an understanding of “mental processes” to the seventeenth century, and especially to Locke. We owe the notion of “the mind” as a separate entity in which “processes” occur to the same period, and especially to Descartes. We owe the notion of philosophy as a tribunal of pure reason, upholding or denying the claims of the rest of culture, to the eighteenth century and especially to Kant, but this Kantian notion presupposed general assent to Lockean notions of mental processes and Cartesian notions of mental substance. (Rorty, 1979, pp. 3-4)
It was the entrenchment of this indirect representationalism against which Heidegger was fighting in Being and Time. Only by understanding the deficiencies Heidegger saw in these representationalist accounts of perception can we get a grasp on what an “analytic of Dasein” entails. We can see this in how Heidegger sets up the whole definition of “phenomena” and “phenomenology” – which, as we will see, is central to the entire project of phenomenological-ontology. He starts by defining what a phenomenon is. A phenomenon is that which shows itself to us. “Phenomena are the totality of what lies in the light of day or can be brought to light – what the Greeks sometimes identified simply with [entities].” But then he continues: “Now an entity can show itself from itself in many ways, depending in each case on the kind of access we have to it. Indeed it is even possible for an entity to show itself as something which in itself it is not” (BT 51). Here, he makes a crucial distinction between a “phenomenon” and a “semblance.” This is a simple but profound conceptual framework and understanding the force of Heidegger’s argument here is central to understanding his entire advance over Kantian transcendentalism.
As Heidegger defines it, a semblance is that which looks like something, but is not that thing e.g. looking at a shadow on the wall as a rabbit. The shadow (entity) is showing itself to us as something which it is not (a rabbit). However, as Heidegger points out, “Only when the meaning of something is such that it makes a pretension of showing itself –that is, of being a phenomenon – can it show itself as something which it is not; only then can it ‘merely look like so-and-so’” (BT 51). In other words, in order to conceive of a perceiver-world relationship in which there can be symbolic, representational perception as in the shadow-rabbit example, there must already be a way for the representation to show itself as a representation of something else. This in turn implies that a double-meaning can be given to the term representation, which the Kantian tradition has readily taken advantage of. The Kantian wants to say that the totality of entities – the world which is presented to us – is but a mere semblance of a noumenal reality which we can never gain access to and see as itself. Furthermore, the Kantian must also say that within the phenomenal world of transcendental representation, there is another kind of representational-activity, wherein something can show itself as something it is not, as in the case of the shadow-rabbit. However, in these mundane examples, it is not logically impossible to gain access to that which is showing itself through something else (as with a fever and the underlying disease in Heidegger’s own example). We are beginning to see the germ of an argument against Kantian transcendentalism, which attempts to places a limit on the possibility of phenomenology as ontology. From the Heideggerian perspective however, “If one says that with the [Kantian] word ‘appearance’ we allude to something wherein something appears without being itself an appearance, one has not thereby defined the conception of phenomenon: one has rather presupposed it” (BT 53). As William Blattner puts it,
The worry that phenomena are appearances and hence unsuited for use in ontology rests on the covert assumption of Indirect Representationalism, because only if we are thinking of phenomena as a surrogate for a transcendent reality will we be inclined to exclude phenomenology as a method for ontology. To charge phenomenology with studying appearances, rather than reality, is to load the concept of a phenomenon with representationalist baggage that neither Husserl nor Heidegger accepts. (Blattner, 2006, pp. 28-29)
If the Kantian transcendentalist wants to be taken seriously on the phenomenological level, he must give an account of these everyday symbolic representations (shadow-rabbit, disease symptoms, etc.) and at the same time give an account of the transcendental, phenomenon-noumenon representational relationship. Can this be done in an intelligible manner? Heidegger, for good reason, thinks that it can not.
Kant uses the term “appearance” in this twofold way. According to him “appearances” are, in the first place, the “objects of empirical intuition”: they are what shows itself in such intuition. But what thus shows itself (the “phenomenon” in the genuine primordial sense) is at the same time an “appearance” as an emanation of something which hides itself in that appearance – an emanation which announces. (BT 54)
For Heidegger, if we are to think straight about representationalism, we need to be clear that when properly understood, “phenomena are never appearances” (BT 53). Accordingly,
“Phenomenon”, the showing-itself-in-itself, signifies a distinctive way in which something can be encountered. “Appearance,” on the other hand, means a reference-relationship which is in an entity itself, and which is such that what does the referring (or the announcing) can fulfill its possible function only if it shows itself in itself and is thus a “phenomenon.” (BT 54)
With this conceptual framework in place, Heidegger is ready to finally sweep the rug from under the Kantian “revolution,” which had attempted to place a transcendental limit on the possibility of ontology. For Heidegger,
Only as phenomenology, is ontology possible. In the phenomenological conception of “phenomenon” what one has in mind as that which shows itself is the being of entities, its meaning, its modifications and derivatives. And this showing-itself is not just any showing-itself, nor is it some such thing as appearing. Least of all can the being of entities ever be anything such that “behind it” stands something else “which does not appear.” (BT 60)
to be continued
p.s. I hope it should be obvious that “Dasein for Dummies” is a joke, and not meant as an insult to the intelligence of my philosophical opponents, whom I have the utmost respect for.
UPDATE: Part II can be found here