The Method of Being and Time – Lecture 5

If the Being of Dasein is the clue for Heidegger, at this stage, for the general meaning of being, then what method can give us access to being? The problem is that although we all exist in a pre-ontological, pre-theoretical or pre-philosophical understanding of being, this understanding is not something that we have explicitly:

Ontically Dasein is not only close to us – even that which is closest: we are it each of us. In spite of this, or rather for just this reason, it is ontologically that which is furthest away [BT 15].

Precisely because this average understanding of being is not available to us, we cannot use it straight away as the way into the question. It is precisely this understanding that needs to be interrogated and we need to find a way in which to investigate it. This is not an epistemological problem, whereby we have to find access to some object that lies external to us, because we already exist in this understanding. Our problem, therefore, is not like Descartes’ as to how we can prove whether world already exists or not, because even before we ask this question we already exist in the understanding of our being and always so exist. This is why access to this everyday understanding cannot be by some kind of arbitrary idea of being. Rather we have to follow the meaning of this everydayness itself. Nonetheless the same problem remains. How are to gain access to it, when it is that which is ontologically furthest away from us? To some extent Heidegger answers this question by saying that even in this understanding there is something that is made visible to us and that is every understanding of being is temporally formed or structured:

Whenever Dasein tacitly understands itself and interprets something like Being, it does so with time as its standpoint. Time must be brought to light – and genuinely conceived – as the horizon for all understanding of Being and for any way of interpreting it [BT 18]

But even this notion that time is the ultimate horizon of the understanding of being is still something that is not clear to us unless we have worked through the history of philosophy as such. This is because history is not something that lies outside of Dasein’s being, but expresses the very way that Dasein is. Thus we never come to any investigation empty handed, but already have preconceived ideas about what is true or false. The idea of presuppositionless beginning is itself a presupposition that needs to be investigated. Our inability to ask the question of being itself, as we have seen, has it source in our history, but equally if we are going to attempt to retrieve this question by analysing our average understanding of being, then we will have to be aware that this history will affect our way of understanding. Indeed it might be this history that stands in the way of grasping our everyday understanding of being. We have already seen this to be the case in the opening pages of Being and Time.

When tradition thus becomes master, it does so in such a way that what it ‘transmits’ is made so inaccessible, proximally and for the most part, that it rather becomes concealed [BT 21].

This does not mean that we reject our own history, but we have to free up possibilities of questioning so as to get back to object in question, in the case the everydayness of Dasein, that we are interrogating so as to find out about the meaning of being. It is Heidegger’s thesis, as we shall see, that Western philosophy since Plato has overlooked this everydayness, or interpreted it as something not worthy of philosophical attention, in its fascination with the theoretical relation to things. Thus it has been the being of things, rather than Dasein’s being that has determined the general concept of being in the West. But such a concept, as we have seen, only leads to banal, meaningless and sterile concept of being, as the mere empty fact that everything exists. To get back to phenomenon of everydayness requires what Heidegger calls a ‘destruction’ of the Western tradition of philosophy. This must be understood in a positive way not as a dismantling of the tradition for its own sake, but to find within this tradition the possibility of a genuine interrogation of everydayness:

If the question of being is to have its own history made transparent, then this hardened tradition must be loosened up, and the concealments, which it has brought about must be dissolved. We understand task as one in which by taking the question of Being as our clue, we are destroy the traditional content of ancient ontology until we arrive at those primordial experiences in which we achieved our first ways of determining the nature of Being – the ways which have guided us ever since [BT 22].

This does not mean getting rid of tradition, but finding that which in the tradition helps us to gain a better understanding of being. Thus the positive sense of tradition, with the clue given to us by our preliminary description of the everyday understanding of being, is to see in what way traditional ontology has treated the theme of time. In this case, despite all the ways that he also concealed this problem, the most important philosopher for Heidegger is Kant, who made time central to The Critique of Pure Reason. Prior to Kant, the most fundamental notion of time in Greek philosophy is the present and the most important philosopher here is Aristotle. This understanding of being in terms of the present also comes out the everyday understanding of being, even though it is now a block on our understanding of it. It is only in the destruction of this tradition that the everyday understanding of being can be revealed, but this destruction of the tradition is also its renewal, since the possibility of making the everyday understanding of being visible is something that this tradition itself grants. For it’s only from the past that we can find resources to engage the present by opening it out to future possibilities that remain hidden there.

If hermeneutics somehow helps to circumvent the tradition that has prevented us from asking the question of the meaning of being, but also, to some extent, if we keep this question in mind, can also help us to renew this question, then we are still left with the problem of a positive method. How are we to actually investigate the Being we have discovered initially by dismantling the tradition that has concealed it? ‘The task of ontology is to explain,’ Heidegger writes, ‘Being itself and to make the Being of entities stand out in full relief’ [BT 27]. But how are we to make Being ‘stand out’? The answer to this question, for Heidegger, is phenomenology. This is because the basic tenant of phenomenology is to describe beings as they manifest themselves. ‘The term “phenomenology”’, Heidegger explains, ‘expresses a maxim which can be formulated as “To the things themselves”’ [BT 27-8].

Rather enigmatically, however, rather than go back to Husserl, the inventor of the phenomenological method, and Heidegger’s teacher, Heidegger explains phenomenology through its Greek etymology. The word ‘phenomenology’, he explains, is made of the two Greek words φαινόμενον (phainomenon) and λόγος (logos). Therefore, to understand the true significance of this word, we need to go back true meaning of the Greek. Why would Heidegger think that investigating the Greek meaning of words would help us to formulate the true significance of phenomenology? This is because, for Heidegger, the Greeks, at least before Plato and Aristotle, still had an understanding of the question of the meaning of being that had not been distorted by the tradition (though paradoxically, of course, they are the originators of this tradition), and thus if we ourselves are going to be able to ask this question again, let alone answer it, we shall need to retrieve this tradition. We again can see the connection between Heidegger’s hermeneutical and phenomenological method:

The meaning of the Greek word φαινόμενον is as follows:

Phenomenon signifies that which shows itself in itself, the manifest. Accordingly the phainomena or ‘phenomena’ are the totality of what lies in the light of day or can be brought to light [BT 28]

Heidegger makes it clear that we should not confuse this notion of phenomenon with appearance, for an appearance suggests that there is something behind what appears, which itself is not an appearance, just as symptom is an appearance of an underlying disease, which is itself not visible [BT 28]. Rather, appearance is derivative of the more fundamental notion of phenomenon as a ‘self-showing’, even if what is most important, the meaning of being is hidden in this showing.[1] On the other side, the meaning of λόγος is: ‘discourse’ means […] to make manifest what one is talking about in one’s discourse [BT 32]. Again, just as with the word φαινόμενον, we have to retrieve its authentic Greek meaning, as opposed to its continual re-interpretation through the tradition. λόγος does not originally mean, for Heidegger, some kind of logical or conceptual judgement, but rather it means ‘letting something be seen’ [BT 32]. The true significance of the work ‘phenomenology’ is, therefore, a combination of the original sense of these Greek words:

Thus ‘phenomenology’ means […] to let that which shows itself be seen from itself in the very way in which it shows itself from itself […]. But here we are expressing nothing else than the maxim formulated above: ‘To the things themselves!’[BT 34].

This notion of directly grasping something should not be confused with naivety, for the way in which things conceal themselves belongs to their very essence as phenomenon. The task is to bring this concealment to presence rather than simply annul it. In relation to the particular object Dasein, phenomenology is to be understood as hermeneutics. This is not just because the investigation is historical, as described above, but that the phenomenological investigation is interpretative. This we return to the start of our investigation. My being is what is closest to me, but at the same time, in terms of my understanding, it what is furthest away. What makes it difficult to understand it is that the tradition handed down to me distorts my experience of being. At least now, however, I have a method, phenomenology, which allows me to being to approach it as its shows itself in my experience of my self, the world and other people, rather than how I think I ought to interpret it through metaphysics and the history of philosophy. The rest of Being and Time, will be Heidegger’s attempt to do precisely that, to describe Dasein’s being as it shows itself, and in so doing he will turn around the whole course of Western philosophy.


[1] Heidegger’s long discussion here of the various meanings of appearance, and why they are derivative of the original meaning of phenomenon, is aimed at neo-Kantians.

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