What Turn? Heidegger and the Question of Being

I often hear that later Heidegger abandoned the “human centered” project of Being and Time in search of “Being itself” i.e. Big B Being (henceforth “Being”). As the story goes, early Heidegger thought he could eventually get to Being through a phenomenological reduction of human being (Da-sein). But having seen that this move can never get us “out of” human subjectivity and towards the real philosophical matter, Heidegger sought to find another way to get to Being and subsequently “reversed” the “anthropomorphic” naivety of Being and Time in his famous “Turn”. Right?

I’m not so sure. In his letter to William Richardson, Heidegger says

The thinking of the reversal [from Being and Time to Time and Being] is a change in my thought. But this change is not a consequence of altering the standpoint, much less of abandoning the fundamental issue, of Being and Time. The thinking of the reversal results from the fact that I stayed with the matter that was to be thought in Being and Time, i.e., that I inquired into that perspective which already in Being and Time (pg. 39) was designated as “Time and Being”.

Moreover, he says two paragraphs later that

Whoever is ready to see the simple fact that, in Being and Time, the starting point of subjectivity is deconstructed, that every anthropological inquiry is kept at a distance, and moreover that the sole decisive experience is that of Da-sein with a constant look ahead to the Being-question, will agree that the “Being” which Being and Time inquires into cannot remain something that the human subject posits. Rather, Being is something that matters to Da-sein as the presence determined by its timecharacter. Accordingly thought is also already called upon, in the initial steps of the Being-question of Being and Time, to undergo a change whose movement corresponds to the reversal. Yet the inquiry of Being and Time is not in any way given up thereby.

This needs unpacking.  First, what is the fundamental issue of Being and Time that Heidegger never abandoned? In order to understand the turn in his thought, we need to first understand what he “turned” from. Without understanding this, a reversal in his thought is impossible to comprehend. Moreover, by understanding how Big B Being was understood in Being and Time, we can perhaps understand in what ways Heidegger did not give up on the project of Being and Time while nevertheless reversing his emphasis.

“Being” in Being and Time

If Heidegger never abandoned the central issue in Being and Time, what then was the central issue? It goes without saying that early Heidegger was primarily concerned with the phenomenological explication of human being-in-the-world. Being-in-the-world is a catchall phrase to describe the human mode of existence within a world of significance. Moreover, when Heidegger said that he was going to utilize a phenomenological analytic of Da-sein in order to explicate the question of the meaning of Being, the “Being” referred to is entirely wrapped up with human Existenz. Accordingly, the standard reading of the Turn is problematic insofar as it claims that early Heidegger was trying to get to Big B Being through humanity. Instead, Big B Being is exactly synonymous with the significance of human worldhood! Accordingly, we can now make sense of why Being and Time was concerned with the meaning of Being rather than “Being itself”. Moreover, when Heidegger claims that he never abandoned the central issue of Being and Time, he is saying that he never abandoned the “human centered” analytic of Da-sein. With this in mind, we can now make sense of Heidegger’s definition of “Being” in Being and Time:

In the question which we are about to work out, what is asked about is Being – that which determines entities as entities, that on the basis of which entities are already understood, however we discuss them in detail. (SZ 6)

This passage is enormously enlightening given that it is one of the few places in Heidegger’s entire career where he explicitly states what he means by “Being”. However, we must be cautious of overlooking the crucial ambiguity within the definition. When he says Being is “that which determines entities as entities”, this can be interpreted in two ways. The first interpretation is based on traditional notions of ontology wherein Being is that which determines the essential nature of entities, whatever that may be. Under this interpretation, it is not surprising that Heidegger “failed” to reach Being through an analytic of humanity and subsequently “Turned” to new methodological strategies for understanding Being. This interpretation, while coherent, is nevertheless not what Heidegger meant and we would be wise to avoid it at all costs.

The second interpretation understands “entities as entities” in terms of the hermeneutic as-structure. Under this interpretation, Big B Being is synonymous with the referential structure of worldhood given through our discursive activities of coping with the ready-to-hand. The entire meaning of Heidegger’s project becomes transformed if we realize that Big B Being is wrapped up exclusively with humanity’s being-in-the-world. Accordingly, we can now make sense of Heidegger’s cryptic statements that Being is dependent on Da-sein but entities can still exist without Da-sein. By interpreting the Being of entities in terms of how we make sense of them, entities are “freed” or “cleared” to exist precisely in terms of their relevance to our concernful projects. The “Being” of the rock is different depending on whether I am looking for a projectile or a paper weight. Thus, Big B Being, the world, significance, the clearing, meaning, the as-structure,  etc. are all more or less synonymous. The Being of an entity is dependent on how I use it for instrumental action. Period.

By upsetting the traditional notions of what determines an entity as an entity, Heidegger can now be read in terms of laying out the constitutive conditions for how humans make sense of the world. By understanding entities in terms of how we take them to be, “world projection” can now be interpreted in terms of the as-structure wherein we take entities as being one way or another. Moreover, we can read Heidegger’s critique of presence-at-hand ontology in terms of how the tradition overlooked the “freedom” of entities to be disclosed differently according to our worldly projects. For example, there is no “essence” of chairs for chairs can be used in more ways than one. If you tried to say that what determines the chair as a chair is its present-at-hand objective qualities, you would overlook the way in which we can take the chair as something it is not, namely, as something I use for-the-sake-of something else. Thus, when Heidegger discusses the semblance in terms an entity “showing itself” in terms counter to what it actually is, we can read this precisely in terms of the freedom of possibility opened up through concernful circumspection. The chair shows itself to me by means a reflection of its objective properties by ambient light, but I do not take it as an objective conglomeration of physical properties; I take it as something-to-use. This is why Heidegger insists that we primarily interpret entities in terms of the semblance and live primarily in the mode of semblance. This is also why Heidegger insists that humans primordially encounter entities through the mode of untruth. The “truth” of the chair (that it has objective present-at-hand properties) is only accessible by stopping our activities and staring at the chair or investigating it scientifically.

Thus, we can see that despite Heidegger’s insistence that Big B Being is wrapped up in human affairs, there is nevertheless an extent to which the Being of entities is not a purely subjective projection in the Kantian sense. For Kant, the spatiotemporal properties of the chair are merely projections of my subjective mind. For Heidegger, the spatiotemporal properties of the chair are independent of human subjectivity: I am not free to use the chair in order to fly to the moon for that is a physical impossibility. So the Being of entities is in a sense independent of humans while nevertheless wrapped up in human disclosure. The Being of entities not something I subjectivity “posit”  in the Kantian sense, but nevertheless, the Being of entities is dependent on how I use it. Heidegger is thus a realist and an idealist. The spatiotemporal properties of entities are not ontically dependent on Da-sein (as common sense indicates), but nevertheless entities “transcend” their present-at-hand structure in virtue of being “freed” in the clearing of instrumental sense-making.

It seems that I have overrun my space constraints and failed to discuss Heidegger’s turn of emphasis, but hopefully I have laid the groundwork for understanding how Heidegger never abandoned his interest in human centered phenomenology.


Filed under Heidegger, Phenomenology

8 responses to “What Turn? Heidegger and the Question of Being

  1. Vic P

    How would you align this with the concept of meaning or we as humans interpret the subjective meaning of the item by forming learning or laws inside of us which give the chair the meaning. As when you were a child your mother taught you the chair was for sitting, not climbing.

  2. Gary Williams

    That’s a great point Vic. I think the mother teaching the child what a chair is “for” is another example of how the Being of the chair is in some sense independent of the individual human rather than something they subjectively posit. In terms of Heidegger, I think this ties into Das Man and they way in which there are socially “proper” ways to interact with the world; climbing on the chair is simply not something “one does” without raising eyebrows. Moreover, when we automatically see the chair as something-for-sitting this is a result of our primary absorbtion into Das Man and acting in accordance with our Das Man-selbst.

  3. Vic P

    I think the chair metaphor is also appropriate because as philosophers we are the Beings in the chair always thinking of ways to climb out when no one is looking.

    The anthropologist Ruth Benedict’s groundbreaking work “Patterns of Culture” of course is based in how in the study of individual native cultures, each develops its own social personality and socially proper laws of human behavior or Das Man-selbst.

  4. Pingback: Question of Being : Mormon Metaphysics

  5. Great post.

    The problem is that Heidegger never really gets into the ground of entities. Rather he’s concerned with being as truth (as it is sometimes mentioned) But that can be misleading if you don’t see how that relates to the “as” structure. So far as I can see though he just doesn’t address the deeper questions that had been the focus in philosophy for so long.

  6. Gary Williams

    >So far as I can see though he just doesn’t address the deeper questions that had been the focus in philosophy for so long.

    This is what I always hear, but I am not convinced. I think the “deeper questions” about the reality of the objects of consciousness are implicitly answered within the Heideggerian phenomenological reduction. If Heidegger’s phenomenology overcomes the Kantian distinction of phenomena/noumena (which I think it does), then the question of whether what we are perceiving is “real” (or “merely” an appearance) becomes implicitly answered insofar as we establish an open epistemic channel between us and reality through our facticity (and Heidegger’s explicit critiques of sense-data epistemology).

    With that said, I do think Heidegger is able to implicitly “ground” entities within the natural world independent of us through a “formal indication”. However, there is a sense in which you are correct because Heidegger never grounds entities *as entities* naturalistically. Entities get grounded through a naturalistic facticity of sorts, but entities as entities in their manifold being don’t get grounded because of the transcendental freedom (the being as truth that you mentioned). So, I would say that Heidegger grounds the ontic in naturalistic terms (independent of Da-sein, self-concealing, all-present, surrounding, etc.) but leaves the ontological groundless insofar as the “site” of the Being of entities is essentially open according to instrumental possibilities. So I like the motto that Heidegger was an ontic realist and an ontological idealist.

  7. That’s not what I meant by deeper questions. To say the ontic is grounded in naturalistic terms (which I fully agree Hediegger accepted) avoids the question of how nature grounds. That is Heidegger’s return to the question of why is there something rather than nothing is taken seriously in the ontological realm but not the ontic. Of course he is hardly alone in this. The same problem pops up in Aristotle’s prime matter so he’s hardly unique in this. Indeed I don’t think philosophy can answer this. So I hardly fault Heidegger for not really trying.

    At one time I thought Derrida was getting into this. I’d noted the parallel moves between Heidegger and Derrida to Plotinus. Heidegger makes the idealist move in ontology, as you note. That’s effectively the move towards an ontological Other. (I think Levinas makes the same move) Derrida, by focusing on différance goes the opposite direction. Plotinus has these interesting passages on matter as Other which parallels Derrida rather surprisingly. (I came to these passages quite late, despite Derrida quoting Plotinus in some key passages of his early work) Matter as Other (or evil) is this opposite move against idealism for Plotinus. It’s the ultimate place and of course Derrida plays with this. Most interestingly this is effectively Plotinus taking up Aristotle’s prime matter and finding the same problems Aristotle did.

    So was Derrida then moving towards the ontic ground? What Heidegger left out or marginalized? For years I thought so. Now I’m not so sure.

  8. Victor Panzica

    Das Man in the Judeo Chrisitan Tradition would be all of the laws of Torah handed down to the Jewish People. In the New Testament; reference all of the teachings of Christ concerning the law and the Jewish People.

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