Heidegger's Realism in Being and Time

This is a paper I wrote this semester for Greg Schufreider’s class on Being and Time. It’s basically a condensed version of my master’s thesis. In it, I attempt to argue that Heidegger’s masterpiece Being and Time is best understood in terms of what I call ecological realism, wherein Earthly entities exist independent of human disclosure but their being depends on how we take them to be (in relation to our concerns). This claim requires a distinction between two different conceptions of “being”, ontic and ontological.


Since Descartes developed his methodology of radical skepticism in the seventeenth century, answering the “problem of the external world” has long concerned Western philosophy. In this paper I will argue that Martin Heidegger’s magnum opus Being and Time (1927/1962) should be seen as compatible with the thesis of realism concerning the existence of the Earth.[1]  Distinguishing between two different forms of realism, I will argue that Heidegger’s ontology in BT is best seen as providing a deflationary answer to the problem of the external world, particularly in respect to overcoming the classic subject/object distinction. Showing that Heidegger’s methodology in BT entails a nonrepresentational direct realism, I will use this conceptual framework to address the so-called “puzzle passages” in BT. After resolving the contradictions in BT, I will argue that Heidegger’s ontology captures the most desirable elements of both realism and idealism, without collapsing into either anthropomorphic idealism or naïve realism.

Defining Realism

In order to establish BT as compatible with the thesis of realism, we must first clarify the position of realism in respect to the philosophical tradition. Customarily, the problem of realism concerns rigorous philosophical proofs for the existence of the Earth “external” to the interiority of consciousness. Western philosophers since Descartes have long presupposed a sharp ontological boundary between interior mental life and exterior physicality, that is, between res cogitans and res extensa. Moreover, the history of Western philosophy indicates that it is difficult if not impossible to securely connect these two ontological worlds once cleaved. Indeed, Kant said that the lack of decisive proof for the existence of the external Earth was the great “scandal of philosophy”. Consequently, it was the task of philosophy to provide a “proof” that Earth did indeed exist independently of the mind and that moreover, we have good reasons for believing so (as opposed to merely animalistic intuitions regarding its existence). According to this tradition, which we can call philosophical realism, the world external to the mind is believed to exist independently of the mind but the validity of this thesis requires rational proof, of which there have been various kinds offered.

In claiming that BT is best seen in terms of a realism about the “external” Earth, we must first sharply distinguish philosophical realism from what I want to call Heidegger’s ecological realism. Both positions agree on the thesis that the physical Earth exists independently of our perceptual access to it, but they differ radically in regards to a demand for philosophical proof. Indeed, Heidegger says that

Along with Dasein as being-in-the-world, entities within-the-world have in each case already been disclosed. This existential-ontological assertion seems to accord with the thesis of realism that the external world is Really present-at-hand. In so far as this existential assertion does not deny that entities within-the-world are present-at-hand, it agrees – doxographically, as it were – with the thesis of realism in its result. But it differs in principle from every kind of realism; for realism holds that the Reality of the ‘world’ not only needs to be proved but also is capable of proof. (BT 251, emphasis added)

In order to understand ecological realism as distinct from philosophical realism then, we must come to grips with Heidegger’s conception of humans being “in-the-world” as a philosophical alternative to the classic theories of interior consciousness. Traditionally, Modern philosophy has understood perception in terms of a container schema wherein the mind acts as an internal storehouse for mental representations of the external Earth. Accordingly, the preeminent problem of Modernist epistemology was to rationally prove that what is on the “outside” corresponds to what is on the “inside”, with total skepticism about knowledge always lurking just around the corner. Heidegger finds this position problematic precisely because it begins from the presupposition of an isolated consciousness set off against the external Earth by means of an internal epistemic veil. In sharp contrast, Heidegger claims that “When [Humanity] directs itself towards something and grasps it, it does not somehow get out of an inner sphere in which it has been proximally encapsulated, but its primary kind of being is such that it is always ‘outside’ amidst entities which it encounters and which belong to a world already discovered” (BT 89).

According to my reading then, Heidegger understands perceptual access in terms of a externalist nonrepresentational direct (but nonnaïve) realism wherein the variant and invariant structures of the natural Earth are encountered directly without any sort of mediating representations “standing in for” or “re-presenting” the entities-themselves. In arguing for a direct realism, I believe that Heidegger is primarily responding to Neo-Kantian representationalism, which starts from the unquestioned premise of a Self or Mind isolated from the Earth by means of mediating representations.

Read the rest of the paper at academia.edu

[1] In how I am using the term, “Earth” includes everything that is empirically encounterable, directly or indirectly. This would include Earth as a planet, the atmosphere, and the rest of the physical universe. The Earth is thus a synonynm for Heidegger’s first definition of “world” as the totality of entities present-at-hand (BT 93). I use “Earth” rather than “world” to avoid inconsistency and preserve the special phenomenological connotations of “world” and “worldhood”.


1 Comment

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One response to “Heidegger's Realism in Being and Time

  1. simplicius

    I was just curious whether you’ve ever come across Ñanavira’s Note on Rupa.


    It seems to me that his interpretation of the Buddha’s message might resonate better with Heideggerians than with Buddhists, but unfortunately given its embeddeness in Pali terminology it has yet to gain much notice.

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