Dasein for Dummies: A Concise Field Guide to Being and Time, or "Why Kant was (almost) right"

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



Filed under Philosophy

11 responses to “Dasein for Dummies: A Concise Field Guide to Being and Time, or "Why Kant was (almost) right"

  1. I agree with you (and Graham Harman! and the Gibsonian tradition) that Heidegger as anti-representational realist is philosophically essential. The fact that he has so much useful stuff to say in that context is the reason I’m so excited about him.

    But philosophical humility dictates that it’s much better to go with Harman (and I really strongly recommend his “Tool Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects”) and not try to say that this Heidegger is *the* Heidegger, but instead just one of the possible very fruitful non-transcendental idealist readings of Being and Time.

    If you are interested in what Heidegger took himself to be up to (which is a historical question) you have to put it in context with all the other stuff besides “Being and Time.” And people like Theodore Kisiel have dedicated their lives to figuring this out. Even if your reading has Being and Time making more philosophical sense, the people you are dismissing can discourse about every lecture in the Gesamausgabe and tell you for each section of Being and Time where the ideas first appeared and what happened to them later on.

    When you read an allusive and difficult thinker like Heidegger it always helps to keep in mind the purpose of the reading. Your purpose is to further non-representationalist philosophies of Mind. Great! Run with it.

    My current purpose (and the Speculative Realists) overlaps with this to some extent, but is much more driven by metaphysical issues coming out of anti-realism/realism debates in analytic and continental philosophy that have flowered in the detritus of transcendental idealism. Braver’s done the incredibly difficult work of making sense of this dialectic and situating “Being and Time” in terms of it in a way that does justice both to the text and the way the text influenced influenced later Heidegger, Foucault, and Derrida.

    That doesn’t preclude non-standard readings like Harman’s and yours, but I don’t see the philosophical cash value in framing the debates in terms of “the real Heidegger.” With “The Genesis of Heidegger’s Being and Time” Kisiel has won that debate anyhow.

    Please correct me if I’m misunderstanding your posts. Again, I think the reading is a good one. I just don’t think it’s in competition with what Braver’s done. And I don’t think it needs to be in competition with what Kisiel’s done either.

  2. Gary Williams

    But philosophical humility dictates that it’s much better to go with Harman (and I really strongly recommend his “Tool Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects”) and not try to say that this Heidegger is *the* Heidegger, but instead just one of the possible very fruitful non-transcendental idealist readings of Being and Time.

    Dr. Cogburn,

    Thank you for the insightful comment. I agree with what you said in the quote above and I should perhaps tone down my rhetoric in regards to saying this is “the” interpretation of Heidegger, although I don’t recall saying that explicitly. But you are right. My purpose in writing about Heidegger is to further my agenda regarding non-representational accounts of visual perception and embodied/embedded cognition. I am not ashamed to admit this.

    That I have an agenda to push within philosophy of mind separates me though from a lot of my Heideggerian colleagues, who might simply want to understand what Heidegger meant and to place this within a proper historical context. This is an admirable project, and one for which I have much respect. In this regard, Braver is excellent and I find his discussion of Heidegger (early and later) invaluable overall. The problem I have with Braver is not that he is greatly misrepresenting the general Heideggerian paradigm, it is that his discussion of Heidegger makes it difficult to assemble a coherent Heideggerian philosophy of mind that can be used as ammunition against the dogmas of cognitive science. For this reason I have in the paper I sent you on externalism, used the term “Heideggerian philosophy” rather than “the philosophy of Martin Heidegger” because I am more interested in gathering allies for my agenda than separating “true Heidegger” from “wrong Heidegger.” As you note, I am not merely interested in getting Heidegger straight, but rather, working Heidegger into a coherent and plausible theoretical foundation to ground the new paradigms of embodied/embedded cognition.

    Braver is an excellent scholar, and his interpretation of Heidegger is astute on most accounts, especially in regards to later Heidegger and his general project against Cartesian subjectivity. However, it worries me that Braver seems to overlook(or maybe I have missed it in his book) the anti-representational argument against transcendental idealism in the introduction of BT. For me, this is so central to his entire system. But as you point out, that is probably stemming from my phil. of mind bent. So yes, I agree that my arguments here don’t run counter to the entirety of A Thing of This World, but I do believe that a more adequate account of how Heidegger attempted to overcome the noumena/phenomenon distinction seems highly warranted in contemporary discussions of Heidegger, especially in regard to the realism debates.

    Also, I will make one remark about Heidegger’s Gesamtausgabe. I am of the opinion that Being and Time was Heidegger’s magnum opus – his big splash in the academic world – (and he knew it) and for this reason should not be discounted when he says something more freewheeling in his surrounding lectures. Lectures and academic publications are very different and for that reason I am skeptical of claims that Heidegger “abandoned” the project of Being and Time because of internal inconsistencies. I think it is more probable that he did so simply because few people understood what he was trying to say.

  3. Pingback: Dasein for Dummies part II - Being as disclosure: the understanding of being | Minds and Brains

  4. Gary,

    I’ve had a look at the blog, your initial entry, a reply and your response to it. I hope it continues. Perhaps you’ve had a chance to look at my TRANSLATING HEIDEGGER on the key words from SZ. But let me say a bit about the blog entry. (This is not directed at your comments as such or to Cogburn’s reply, but to the “matter” at hand.) First, I must say I don’t know Braver’s work. I haven’t followed much recent scholarship on Heidegger since I believe it has lost its center. Since its co-optation by the postmoderns and the American trend following in its wake, Heidegger scholarship has lost track of Heidegger, as you suggest. But “philosophy of mind” did not mean anything to MH. He abandoned philosophy, as you know, for thinking (THE END OF PHILOSOPHY AND THE TASK OF THINKING). He also found the realism/idealism duality meaningless, as you see in the lecture courses beginning with FUNDAMENTAL PROBLEMS OF PHENOMENOLOGY. So that leaves us with just the question of the referent of the word DASEIN. One can speak of the the Dasein of God in German, so clearly this is terminus technicus in Heidegger’s fundamental ontology, the preliminary moment of SZ. Since he distinguishes DASEIN from EXISTENZ, the translation of the former with ‘existence’ and not the latter is pivotal. Sartre seized on the word EXISTENZ in his war camp reading of SZ. He read in French as exstence. But that was the mistake that Heidegger’s rescue by the French in more ways than one has led to the difficulties with DASEIN, especially the cultish tendency not to translate it. As I mentioned in my first reply to your kind email, the central word (and Heidegger distinguished words and terms) in SZ for understanding the other basic words is SEIENDE. Given its illumination of the ontological difference, the example of DA-SEIN then comes front and center. Here the meaning of EXISTENZ is crucial. It is not existence, but a way of life of DA-SEIN, the sort of being that is a WHO, that is, for whom its SEIN is at issue. DASEIN always plays itself out as an EXISTENZ of one sort or another. In the end, then, DASEIN is archetype (to borrow a Jungian notion) of any way of life. I think this is the best way to understand it. Heidegger continued to think about DASEIN through the period of the BEITRÄGE, but unlike the Heideggerians (–Heidegger denied that there could be “Heideggerians”–), I do not believe these notes and sketches are a work at all. What he says there about DASEIN does little to elucidate it. To have the coherent reading of SZ in translation that you aspire to depends on seeing the ensemble of words that cluster around SEIENDE. The North Star is DASEIN. For me, this is best rendered as existence (not human existence, which only wants to differentiate it from other sorts of existence, as in existence of God), understood as a technical term in a path-breaking attempt to raise the question about the meaning of the “be” (SEIN) in any and all “be-ing” (SEIENDE), understood transitively.

  5. Gary Williams

    Dr. Groth,

    Thank you so much for your detailed reply. I agree with you wholeheartedly that “recent Heideggerian scholarship has lost its center,” but I am not sure that anything other than an assimilation of Heideggerian terms into another theoretical vocabulary will save him from the obscuration of his thought. For me, this theoretical framework is the embodied/embedded paradigm in cognitive science inspired by James Gibson’s theoretical work on visual perception. Andy Clark and Alva Noë are too seminal figures in this tradition, although they are still conceptual problems in their accounts that need to be worked out more fully.

    Getting back to Dasein,

    In the end, then, DASEIN is archetype (to borrow a Jungian notion) of any way of life. I think this is the best way to understand it.

    I want to challenge you on this interpretation, because it seems like such a definition of Dasein would violate the coherency of many important claims within SZ. As I mention in my post, throughout SZ Heidegger refers to Dasein as an entity. How would you paraphrase the quotations of SZ I use in my post when Heidegger says “Dasein is an entity”? Is an “archetype” of a way of life an entity? It seems like if you render “Dasein” to “existence” you would force Heidegger on numerous occasions to say “existence is an entity,” which seems wrong given the context of his important distinction between an entity and the being of that entity, which in the human-case is “[existential] existence.” In the human case, we are an entity with a special kind of existence, “being-in.” Thus, I think Heidegger chose the term “Dasein” as a formal indicator for “individual human entity” because it includes the defining feature of our being, the understanding of being, into the referent.

    So, unless you can make a convincing case that “existence” is a kind of entity amongst other entities, it seems the best way to make sense of Dasein is to say that Dasein is just a placeholder for “individual, occurent human” meant to re-orient us towards our special mode of being, Existenz.

    Thank you for your time, this is a fascinating subject for me given that I feel there is a LOT of room for improvement in contemporary Heideggerian translation. Btw, if you want to read a recent Heideggerian text which I feel is “on center,” check out Taylor Carman’s Heidegger’s Analytic. It is beyond excellent.

  6. Pingback: Thoughts on Braver and early Heidegger | Minds and Brains

  7. Hi, Super post, Need to mark it on Digg

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  10. Michael

    Many thanks for your articulate comments on Heidegger. I began an essay on the internet which led me to his “The question concerning technology” which led me to Being and Time and the hardest period of thinking i have experienced. But a little light is beginning to shine through thanks to you.

  11. Andrew

    Just wanted to say thanks a lot Gary for writing this. I’m studying French Phenomenology at my uni and was really struggling with understanding anything at all of Heidegger. Other summaries and especially BT itself seem to expect a level of familiarity with concepts that I just don’t have, not having studied much Continental philosophy before. This article was easily the most lucid and accessible I have read on Heidegger. Nice work.

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