The Question of Being – Lecture 4

Being and Time opens with a quotation from the Sophist:

For manifestly you have long been aware of what you mean when you use the expression ‘being’. We, however, who used to think we understood it, have now become perplexed [Sophist 244a].

We must understand this to mean that we cannot gain access to the question of the meaning of being unless we are perplexed. If we think that we know what the answer to the question is, then the route will be bared to us. Yet Heidegger adds that our situation is even worse that the stranger of the Sophist. For we are not only not perplexed about the question of being, but we think that it is not even a question worth asking, for everyone knows what the word ‘being’ means Surely things just are? What is philosophically interesting about that? What can we say about this being at all? Isn’t it a nonsensical question?

And yet the more we think about this word are we really sure that we know what it means? What does it mean for something to be? Do all things, trees, universes and humans ‘be’ in the same way? Why has it come about that the question of meaning is no longer a serious philosophical question? The answer to this, Heidegger would argue, must come from the history of philosophy. He tells us that there are three definitions of being, which appear mutually exclusive, and yet explain our indifference to renewing the question of being:

  1. That being is the most general concept
  2. That the concept of being is indefinable
  3. That the meaning of being is obvious.

That the meaning of being is most general comes from Greek metaphysics. It has its most classical form in Aristotle’s ontology. Aristotle divides reality into individuals and species. Thus Gary is an individual and he belongs to the species ‘human being’. Species themselves belong to different genera. Human beings belong to the genus animal. The generality of being, however, is not the same as the generality of genera. We cannot define it through a single meaning. There are different ways in which things are. Aristotle’s solution to this problem, in Metaphysics book 4, is to argue that the generality of being is to be thought through analogy. Although we speak of being in different ways, such that we speak of privations, attributes or qualities, these different meanings nonetheless have an analogous sense in that they all relate to the meaning of being as substance. Thus I can say of something that it is potentially or actual, or that it is relative to another being, or that it its being is accidental, or that it is true. These different ways of talking about being in general all have their focal point in the meaning of being as substance. Thus, it is substance that is accidental, potential or actual, true, relative and so on. The example that Aristotle gives is that of the word ‘healthy’ (1103b35) in which the word is meant in different ways, but each different meaning goes back to a ‘core’ meaning of the word ‘healthy’. Something can be healthy because it preserves health, or because it produces, indicates or possesses it, for example.[1]

Heidegger’s response to Aristotle’s treatment is both positive and negative. Positive in the sense that is opens the question of the meaning of Being in general, but negative in that Aristotle’s answer leaves everything as much in the dark as before. ‘Being is the most universal concept,’ Heidegger writes, ‘this cannot mean that it is the one which is the clearest or that it needs no further discussion. It is rather the darkest of all’ [BT 23]. At this stage, we do not know what is incorrect about Aristotle’s definition of being, and why it cannot be the route into the meaning of being in general. We shall have to wait for the answer later in the text.

The very generality of the meaning of being would lead some thinkers, and Heidegger uses the example of Pascal [BT 23], to say that being is indefinable. We can say what Gary is because he belongs to a species, and belonging to a species is part of what it means to be able to give a definition of something, but because being in general does not belong to a species, we can say nothing about it. We cannot even say that being is, for there are only individual beings that are. Despite these philosophical difficulties in defining being, some would even argue the opposite that that the meaning of being is obvious since we make use of the expression in our everyday discourse. Thus, it is not a serious philosophical topic at all, but only a linguistic usage that everyone knows about.  Thus analytic philosophy will talk about existence as an ‘existential quantifier’ and denote it with a special logical symbol, ∃, which just means ‘there exists something’.[2] Yet this very obviousness of the word ‘being’ will be a clue for Heidegger. For it means, to some extent, that we all already have a grasp of the meaning of being, even though we might not at first be able to make clear this understanding to ourselves.

Even though these definitions of being that come from out of our philosophical traditions have made the question of being a non-question, Heidegger will say that each of them, if we look at them closely, offer us a positive way into the question. In Aristotle, being is seen as something different from individual beings, and is this difference that will force Pascal to say that being is indefinable. The obviousness of the word, however, shows that all of us live in an understanding of being, even though we might not be able to bring into to philosophical clarity. It is the last clue, which will be for Heidegger, the way into the question, but before he sets off in this direction he first of all will ask what is questioning itself, and will this help us retrieve the meaning of being?

Heidegger divides the structure of questioning into four parts:

  1. Das Suchen – seeking
  2. Das Gefragtes – that which is asked about
  3. Das Befragtes – that which is interrogated
  4. Das Erfragte – that which is to be found out by asking

We can apply each of these parts to the question of being. What we are seeking after is the meaning of being. Every seeking, Heidegger, argues, is not merely a groping in the dark. To be able to seek something means that the way to the something that one seeks must already be given in advance in some way. If one did know have any experience, in some sense, of what one was seeking, then one could not even begin to search for it. In relation to the meaning of Being, we must already to some extent ‘move in an understanding of being’ otherwise we would not even know what the question means, even though we might not be able to give a clear answer to the question. In this questioning, that which is asked about (Das Gefragtes) is the meaning of Being and that which is interrogated, so as to find out the meaning of Being, is a being (Das Befragtes). Beings are everything that we speak about and intend, that are there in reality, so to speak and present to us in some way or another.

If the only way into the question of being is through the beings surrounding is, why is it not the discourses that already investigate these beings that can answer this question for us? These discourses are what we know as science.[3] Is it not the sciences which tell us what things are in their physical being, history in their historical being, and so on? Heidegger here, however, (and he follows Husserl in this regard and before him, Aristotle) would make a distinction between regional and general ontology. Even though each science investigates the specific nature of certain group of beings, they nonetheless are dependent on the general distinction between beings and Being. This distinction is not a scientific question, and therefore is not open to any kind of scientific investigation. The former, in Heidegger’s terminology, is ontical, and the latter, ontological. Science itself already exists within an understanding of being that it takes for granted, but without which it would not be able to function.[4] This understanding of being therefore has an ontological priority. Ontology, however, tells us nothing about the specific nature of any being. We should not confuse an ontological priority with an ontical one. Philosophy can no more tell us about the sub-atomic structure of atoms than common sense. This requires an ontical investigation.

The ontological difference, however, between beings and being does tell us that there is one being that has an ontical priority over all other beings, and that being is ourselves, for it is we who ask about other beings, and not beings that ask about us. But we ask about other beings, because our own being is a question for us. Our being is question for us in the sense that our existence is something that we seek to understand. And if we did not seek to understand our existence and our world, then something like a scientific investigation would not be possible. We inquire about other beings, but we ask about our own being. What is ontical distinctive about human beings (which Heidegger calls Dasein) is that ‘it is ontological’:

Dasein is an entity which does not just occur among other entities. Rather it is ontically distinguished by the fact that, in its very Being, that Being is an issue for it […]. Understanding of Being is itself a defining characteristic of Dasein’s Being. Dasein is ontically distinctive in that it is ontological [BT 12].

But how does Dasein understand its own being? It grasps its being as existence. Existence is not merely the fact of just being there, when we say that a table or a chair ‘is’ or ‘exists’; rather existence should be understood in terms of possibilities. I understand myself in terms of possibilities that I choose or do not choose: ‘to be or not to be’ to quote a famous phrase from Hamlet. How I particularly understand myself though the possibilities that are offered me, Heidegger calls existentialls (shall I read Being and Time, shall I come to the lecture, shall I take my study of philosophy seriously, shall I become a teacher, mother, and so on). The question of existence is therefore not an abstract philosophical question, but something that all of us face or avoid facing. The understanding of the structure of existence in general, however, Heidegger calls existential:

The question of existence never gets straightened out except through existing itself. The understanding of oneself which leads along this way we call existentiell. The question of existence is one of Dasein’s ontical affairs. This does not require that the ontological structure of existence should be theoretical transparent […]. The context of such structures we call existentiality. Its analytic has the character of an understanding which is not existentiell, but rather existential [BT 12].

Dasein understands itself in terms of its own being as existence (not what it is, but how it is). This is the reason for its priority, for no other being has its own being as question for itself. If we go back to Heidegger’s own division of questioning into separate elements, then Dasein is that which is interrogated in order to find out what is meant by the word being. We have thus managed to leave behind the empty sterility of the definition of being as a mere generality, or something indefinable or even something obvious that does not need to be questioned.

The description of Dasein’s existence Heidegger calls the ‘analytic of Dasein’ and it is first division of the first part of Being and Time. We should remember that it is only the preparatory opening onto the general question of being for Heidegger. It should also be noted that Heidegger never wrote the final division of the first part, where he might have advanced to the general question of Being, and nor did he write the second part of Being and Time, which would have been a deconstruction of Western ontology through this revived ontology that has its roots in the existence of Dasein. Thus Being and Time never even gets to the question of being itself, let alone gives us an answer to the question ‘What is being?’ This is because Heidegger’s thought had already moved on before he had time to complete this book. He saw being no longer in terms of the being of Dasein, but language. This would, however, require another lecture series to investigate.

At the end of this section, Heidegger summaries the threefold priority of Dasein:

The first priority if an ontical one: Dasein is an entity whose Being has the determinate character of existence. The second priority is an ontological one: Dasein is in itself ‘ontological’, because existence is thus determinative for it. But with equally primordiality Dasein also possesses – as constitutive for its understanding of existence – an understanding of the Being of all entities of a character other than its own. Dasein, therefore as a third priority as providing the ontic-ontological condition for the possibility of any ontology [BT 13].

What does Heidegger mean by these three priorities of Dasein? First of all he means that Dasein is different from any being in terms of its own existence. It is true to say that other things exist. Stones, plants and animals do exist. Yet Dasein’s existence is not the same as theirs. Stones and plants exist simply in the sense of being present, and whereas we might think that animals have a more complicated existence than stones and plants, nonetheless their existence is constrained by a behaviour that has not changed (unless of course it has been changed by human beings, who are precisely the question we are faced with). Human existence, on the other hand, is a question of being of oneself, and even if physiology and biology might constrain this (one cannot chose to fly without some kind of machine), one still nonetheless chooses oneself through these constraints, and every culture and person must do so. But the very ontical distinctiveness of human being, that is different from any other being, means that it also ontologically distinctive. Just because it stands towards its existence as something that matters to it, an understanding of being belongs necessarily to it. As Mulhall describes it, ‘an understanding of its own Being is itself a definite characteristic of Dasein’s Being.’(1996, p.17) From both these priorities, lies the condition for the third. Since it is only Dasein whose being is issue for it, and therefore it already exists in an understanding of being, the being of every other entity, or being that exists, such as stones, plants, and animals, can only be comprehended through its being. This does not mean that Dasein creates or produces these beings, and that without them they would literally cease to exist, but their ‘intelligibility’, to use Dreyfus’ expression from the lectures, is wholly dependent on the understanding of Being of Dasein (Dreyfus n.d.). It is only because Dasein understands itself, that plants, stones and animals can be understood. We can see now why the Being of Dasein is the clue to the meaning of being, and that the analytic of Dasein is the basis of ‘fundamental ontology’.

Works Cited

Dreyfus, H.L., Heidegger by Hubert L. Dreyfus – Free Podcast Download. Learn Out Loud. Available at: http://www.learnoutloud.com/Podcast-Directory/Philosophy/Philosophers/Heidegger-Podcast/24272 [Accessed January 26, 2012].

Hanley, C., 2000. Being and God in Aristotle and Heidegger : the Role of Method in Thinking the Infinite, Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Hausman, A., Kahane, H. & Tidman, P., 2010. Logic and philosophy : a modern introduction, Australia; Boston, MA: Thomson Wadsworth/Cengage learning.

Kuhn, T.S., 2012. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mulhall, S., 1996. Heidegger and “Being and Time”, London; New York: Routledge.


[1] For a good explanation of analogy in Aristotle and its See C. Hanley, ‘The Science of First Principles and Grounds’ in Being and God in Aristotle and Heidegger (2000, p.47).

[2] ‘The existential quantifier (∃x) is used to assert that some entities (at least one) have a given property. Thus to symbolise the sentence “Something is heavy” or the sentence “At least one thing is heavy,” start with the sentence form Hx and prefix an existential quantifier to it. The result is the sentence (∃x)Hx, read “for some x, x is heavy,” or “There is an x such that x is heavy,” or just “Some x is heavy.”’  (Hausman et al. 2010, p.177)

[3] ‘Science’ has a much broader meaning in the context in which Heidegger uses it. It includes not just what we think as science, such as biology and physics, but also what we would call the ‘humanities’, history and literature, for example. Science means here every kind of investigation that researches certain kinds of beings, such that chemistry studies the elements, physics matter and nature, and literature, novels and poetry, for example. ‘Elements’, ‘matter’, ‘nature’, ‘novels’ and ‘poetry’ are types of beings.

[4] We need to make it clear here that Heidegger is not saying that science is not ontological, but to function normally it has to keep its ontological presuppositions in the background or its daily tasks would never begin. When science is in crisis, then this ontological presuppositions (what is ‘matter’, what is a ‘book’) might come to the foreground. Then a science might become ontological, but it if is ever going to answer these questions in a fundamental way, it would also have to become philosophical. Heidegger’s distinction between ontic and ontological science, is very similar to Kuhn’s between normal and revolutionary science, though these is no evidence that the latter read the former (Kuhn 2012).

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