Tag Archives: the Turn

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