…continued from Dasein for Dummies part I
With the possibility of phenomenological-ontology in place, we are getting ready to better understand the general motifs of Being and Time and the underlying reason for Heidegger’s choice of “Dasein” as the central figure of his magnum opus. As we have seen, Heidegger quickly establishes in Being and Time that his project is phenomenological-ontology: the study of phenomena; that which shows itself. We must then further clarify how this “showing” unfolds; what does it mean for a world to show itself as something? First, it becomes clear as you read the text that for Heidegger it is important that this presentation of the world has to be presented to an observer for it to be considered a “showing.” Second, the totality of entities which shows itself must exist independently of our awareness or else being would be a construction, and not a presentation. A rock does not take the world to be one way or another, for a rock is only an entity amongst other entities, which “are, quite independently of the experience by which they are disclosed, the acquaintance in which they are discovered, and the grasping in which their nature is ascertained” (BT 228).
I bring up this issue of metaphysical realism in order to answer the charge that Heidegger was only concerned with the human-world relationship and had nothing pertinent to say about the real ontological question of “being qua being” – which would account for how the world is, independent of human access. In my view, this reading of Heidegger is disingenuous given that it fails to account for how he dealt with realism through his conception of “presence.” Through the development of this concept, Heidegger defends a crude form of ontic realism, wherein the occurrent (vorhanden) structure of world is independent of human disclosure. For Heideggen then, there is, in essence, some “fixed totality of mind-independent objects”. In Basic Problems of Phenomenology, he states:
This entity[the world] is intraworldly. But innerworldliness nonetheless does not belong to its being, rather in dealing with this entity, nature in the widest sense, we understand that this entity is as something occurrent, as an entity that we run up against, to which we are given over, that for its own part always already is. It is, without our uncovering it, i.e. without our encountering it in our world. Innerworldiness devolves upon this entity only when it is uncovered as an entity.
On my reading then, “being qua being” – the classic question of ontology – is already pre-reflectively understood by humans insofar as we are always running up against an ontically real world. The world is presented to us as being “there,” independent of our disclosure of it.
Entities are grasped in their being as “presence”; this means that they are understood with regard to a definite mode of time – the “Present”. (BT 47)
Those entities which show themselves in this and for it, and which are understood as entities in the most authentic sense, thus get interpreted with regard to the Present; that is, they are conceived as presence (ousia). (BT 48)
Hopefully, we can now begin to understand how Heidegger’s minimalistic defense of ontic realism helps answer the question of the meaning of being. By determining the meaning of “that which defines entities as entities, that on the basis of which entities are in each case already understood” (BT 25-26), “being qua being” comes into focus circuitously. Our understanding of the mode of being for the “mind-independent” totality of entities is presence. The German is “Anwesenheit,” which connotes the presence of someone at some place on such and such occasion. The “showing itself” of phenomenology now becomes more intelligible. While philosophers of antiquity had been focused on merely establishing the ontic configuration of that which is present, Heidegger sought to elucidate the neglected human-ontological understanding of this being – of the worlds intelligibility as being occurrent. Phenomenological-ontology is then focused on the being of entities, not on the occurrent structure itself, with being strictly understood as the disclosure-relationship between entities who understand that things are and what they are, and the world itself. In this sense, Being and Time is decidedly a human-centered enterprise that nevertheless helps shed light on the metaphysical questions of mind-independent realism.
While this might seem horribly anthropocentric, Heidegger’s reasons for keeping the question of being within an analytic of Dasein have nothing to do with denying intelligence or cognition to non-human animals or denying that they too have a unique “perspective” on the world. Nor does it have to do with denying crude ontic realism in the way his continental forebearers had. Heidegger’s basic point is that although the ontic configuration of the environment is the same for all biological organisms, by virtue of the type of creature we are, only the human-world interaction can actually be a disclosure of entities as entities, for such a phenomenon requires the powers of complex language, replete with syntactical and semantic depth. This is a subtle but crucial point. Only with creatures for whom the world is linguistically organized can the world show up as this or that entity – “something which is.” Heidegger was very impressed by the fact that humans understand what it means for something to be. “Today is windy.” “The cat is on the mat.” “I am a good person.” It is only in virtue of our linguistic constitution that the world shows up as something which “is.” By focusing on this particular sense of being – the determination of entities as entities, as being intelligible in terms of that it is, and what it is, Heidegger can avoid the complete anthropocentric idealism that is often leveled against him. Indeed, as Taylor Carman puts it:
To say that entities exist independently of us is not to assert the being or existence of anything like being or existence, as if too were a kind of entity, that is, something that is alongside or in addition to the entities themselves. It is consistent, then, to say that although being consists solely in our understanding of being, occurrent entities are independently of us and our understanding. (Carman, 2003, pp. 202-203)