Thoughts on Kant, Heidegger, and Existence – part I


Right now I am working my way through Heidegger’s 1927 lecture course published in English as “Basic Problems of Phenomenology” (BP). I am drawn to the text because it seems to be written in a more pedagogical and less scholastic tone than Being and Time. Moreover, the text is exciting for me to read because the lecture course was given right around the time that Being and Time was published and the course provides a nice window into the mind of Heidegger around that very important phase of his career. In this post, I want to begin to sketch (and only sketch) some of my thoughts in relation to one of the grand theses of Heideggerian thought: [B]eing is not itself a being i.e. being is not itself an entity.

As Heidegger is not shy to admit, this great thought comes almost directly from Kant, who – attempting to clarify and discredit the ontological argument for God’s existence – famously said that being is not a real predicate, and as such, can not be “added” to the essence of any thing, including God, which invalidates the ontological argument. What is a real predicate? Heidegger says that for Kant this realm of the “real” corresponds to Sachheit, thingness, or whatness.  For example, the real predicates or whatness of a coffee mug corresponds with the physical properties and relations necessary to keep coffee from spilling out of the top of the mug. This is the “essence” of the coffee mug. But as Kant points out, utilizing the example of the 100 thalers, the mere thought or potential of a coffee mug is the same as an actual coffee mug in terms of its “whatness”. What “makes” a coffee mug a coffee mug is not the fact that it exists or doesn’t exist – “a hundred thalers do not differ in their what-contents whether they be a hundred possible or a hundred actual thalers. Actuality does not affect the what, the reality, but the how of the [entity], whether possible or actual” (BP 43).

Okay, so this is the heart of Kant’s claim that being is not a real predicate. To get at the “essence” of the coffee mug, we need not discuss whether it is actually physically extant in the world. We do not need to “add” existence to the mug in order to get “coffee mug”. Following from this line of thought, of all the “real predicates” of “things” and “objects”, “being” is not itself one of those predicates. We can say “the coffee mug is black” and we are then adding a predicate to the mug, but when we say “the coffee mug exists” we are saying something different. “Being” itself must then be different from the actual extant-structure of the coffee mug, thus Heidegger’s mantra: being is not itself an entity.

So what is going on when we say “the coffee mug exists”? If we are not adding a real predicate, what then are we “adding” to the essence of the coffee mug if we say “it exists”? Heidegger points out that Kant said “being [in general] equals position, existence equals absolute position.” Heidegger then asks, what is this position? What does absolute position mean? Heidegger quotes Kant’s rather vague answer to this question: “The perception, however, which supplies the material to the concept is the sole character of actuality.” “[Actuality, possibility, necessity] add to the concept of a thing (of something real)…the faculty of knowledge.” As Heidegger succinctly puts it,  “the predicate of actuality adds perception to the concept of a thing. Kant thus says in short: actuality, existence, equals absolute position equals perception.”

As I am not a Kant scholar, I can not say whether Heidegger’s reading of Kant is fair or accurate, but it doesn’t matter for our purposes here given that such questions concerning existence are only a vantage point from which to start (Ways not works). How does Heidegger clarify Kant’s statement regarding actuality and perception? What is the relationship between “perceiving, perceived, and perceivedness”? It should be first clear that, as Heidegger points out, “Perception as perceiving cannot be equated with existence. Perception is not existence; it is what perceives the existent, the extant, and relates itself to what is perceived.” With that said, how then can we make sense of Kant’s formula concerning perception and actuality?

Existence cannot be equated with the perceived existent, but it can quite well, perhaps, be equated with the being-perceived of the perceived, its perceivedness. It is not the existent, extant, window that is existence, extantness, but perhaps the window’s being-extant is expressed in the factor of being-perceived, in consequence of which the thing is encountered by us as perceived, as uncovered, and so is accessible to us as extant by way of the perceiving. Perception in Kant’s language would then mean the same thing as perceivedness, uncoveredness in perception.

We are beginning to see here in Heidegger’s interpretation of Kant a phenomenological starting place for ontic realism, the idea that “occurrent entities exist independently of the conditions constitutive of our interpretation of them as occurrent” (Taylor, 2003). Such a realism helps answer the question which follows naturally from Kant’s formula: is the coffee mug’s existence constituted by my perception of it? Here, Heidegger answers sharply:

The window, however, surely does not receive existence from my perceiving it, but just the reverse: I can perceive it only if it exists and because it exists. (BP 49)

In Being and Time, we can see a similarly realist response to such questions: “Entities 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 will further elaborate on this idea of ontic structure being defined in terms of “that which can be perceived” in another post. I will further elucidate this concept by taking a close look at section 9, part B of Basic Problems: “The ontological constitution of perception. Intentionality and transcendence”.


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6 responses to “Thoughts on Kant, Heidegger, and Existence – part I

  1. It is indeed an excellent book to read alongside Being and Time especially when we consider that Heidegger often talks of Being and Time as a kind of radical development upon Kant.

    In fact the entire Kantian legacy haunts Heidegger at this time whether it is the dying embers of neo-Kantianism that surround him academically (and we must remember the famous debate at Davos) and not to forgot Husserl’s quasi-Kantianism that he adopts around this time.

  2. Gary Williams

    Yeah, in my opinion, Kant’s system isn’t that far from the insights of Heidegger. The major difference is really Heidegger’s insistence that we are epistemically open to the extant world, whereas Kant would deny that with his distinction between phenomena and noumena.

    I am not really familiar though with the debate at Davos. It sounds interesting, I’ll have to look it up.

  3. Paul Ennis

    This is the book you need for the neo-Kantian background: It gives a nice overview of the general academic ‘vibe’ at the time. If you take a look at Heidegger’s habilitation on Scotus you can’t help but notice how strong Rickert’s neo-Kantianism looms (and how Heidegger could easily have ended up doing for scholasticism what the South-West school was trying to do for Plato & co.). If you feel up for it you can find almost all of Ernst Cassirer, Rickert and so on online in German.

    However I would warn that I spent a massive amount of time researching these guys for about 10 pages of my dissertation so it is a bit of a black hole. You start noticing just how murky things are and perhaps the sheen on Heidegger’s originality wears off a bit.

    Anyway I look forward, as always, to the next post.

  4. Pingback: Thoughts on Kant, Heidegger, and Existence – part II | Minds and Brains

  5. Pingback: Philosophy Carnival XCV | Minds and Brains

  6. Thanks for this exposition.

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