Heidegger's Realism

If you want to grasp the deep structure of Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, there is no better place to start than his 1927 lecture course at the University of Marburg, The Basic Problems of Phenomenology . I am not aware of any other of Heidegger’s texts that is so clear and insistent on problems of realism and intentionality. In this post, I’d like to briefly examine some passages from Basic Problems in an attempt to establish a clear sense of Heidegger’s realism in relation to Kantian idealism. It is my contention that Heidegger’s phenomenological ontology is founded in overcoming the Kantian critique of phenomenology (the study of “appearances”) as a possible ontology. For reference, I am using the excellent Hofstadter translation.

Realism can mean many things. For how I understand Heidegger, it simply indicates that intentional perception must be conceived as a directing-towards-the-extant-world. Such a directing is conceived in terms of a behavioral comportment, with perception being a form of doing. Moreover, in order to think this concept of perception, we must reexamine the traditional dichotomy between the subjective and objective spheres. Heidegger makes a deeply insightful point that humans think of everything in terms of “being extant”, that is, in terms of a persistence, a “reality”, an occurring. Moreover, in thinking of intentionality, we cannot discover it in terms of a relation between extant objects and therefore, we think “if it is not objective then it is something subjective” (66). However, because of our “mode of understanding” applies to even the realm of subjectivity, “the subject, again, is taken with the same ontological indeterminateness to be something extant” (ibid.); indeterminateness meaning that we have no real understanding of what we are saying when we declare “the subject” to be extant and constantly present-at-hand throughout our waking life.

On the contrary, precisely with the aid of intentionality and its peculiarity of being neither objective nor subjective, we should stop short and ask: Must not the being to which this phenomenon, neither objective nor subjective, obviously belongs be conceived differently than it thus far has been? (ibid.)


Intentionality is neither objective nor subjective in the usual sense, although it is certainly both, but in a much more original sense, since intentionality, as belonging to the Dasein’s existence, makes it possible that this being, the Dasein, comports existingly towards the extant. (65)

“Comports existingly towards the extant”. Phrases to such an effect are littered through these sections on intentionality and perception.

The statement that the comportments of the Dasein are intentional means that the mode of being of our own self, the Dasein, is essentially such that this being, so far as it is, is always already dwelling with the extant. The idea of a subject which has intentional experiences merely inside its own sphere and is not yet outside it but encapsulated within itself is an absurdity which misconstrues the basic ontological structure of the being that we ourselves are. (64)

Here we can see why Heideggerian ontology has often been adapted to underlay the theoretical structure of modern ecological – or situated – cognitive science, which is at odds with the innerpictorial sense-data theorists. Heidegger concurs with Gibson in his critique of cognitivist sense-data theories when he claims “To say that I am in the first place oriented toward sensations is all just pure theory. In conformity with its sense of direction, perception is directed toward a being that is extant. It intends this precisely as extant and knows nothing at all about sensations that it is apprehending” (63). “For the Dasein there is no outside, for which reason it is also absurd to talk about an inside” (66).

How people could read these sections and conclude that Heidegger wasn’t a direct realist or an externalist is beyond me. Can we not put to rest any such notions with the following passage?

Does the perceivedness of a being, of an existent, constitute its existence? Are existence, actuality, and perceivedness one and the same? 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. (49)

I therefore argue that Heidegger was not an antirealist who thought that our perceiving the world is what primordially constitutes the extant world. The world is extant without our perceiving it and we have a nonmediated access to it through intentional comportment. However, the intentional as-structure bestows significance upon the world, not because our perceptual systems are “constructing” it, but rather, because the as-structure filters our experience in terms of “obects” and “things” i.e. “entities”. In Being and Time, Heidegger defines “Being” as “that which determines entities as entities“. In Basic Problems, we see the same essential point:

This entity [nature] is intraworldly. But intraworldliness does not belong to nature’s being. Rather, in commerce with this entity, nature in the broadest sense, we understand that this entity is as something extant [occurrent], as an entity that we run up against, to which we are delivered over, which on its own part always already is. It is, even if we do not uncover it, i.e. without our encountering it in our world. Being within the world devolves upon this entity, nature, only when it is uncovered as an entity. (169)

I rest my case.


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