Existence – Lecture 7

In the previous lecture , we examined the introduction to Being and Time. There we saw that Heidegger’s intention was to renew the question of Being. He sought to do this via inquiring about that being whose Being is question for itself, which, of course is ourselves. This being he called Dasein. This week we shall describe and think about how Heidegger understands the peculiarity of this being. Such a process, which refers back to Kant’s analytic in the Critique of Pure Reason, Heidegger calls the ‘analytic of Dasein’. We shall see that the major purpose of this analytic is that we cannot understand the Being of Dasein in the same way that we understand the Being of things, any yet this is precisely what the Western tradition has done. What differentiates this being from form things is that it has a world. Again this would mean renewing the ontological understanding of the world, and sharply differentiating it from its natural or thing-like explanation. For example, that the world is something that simply lies outside us, like the air that we breathe. Once we have understood the being of Dasein, we can understand that the being of things must be dependent on it, since it is we who make claims about the being of things, and not things that make a claim about understanding our being. Thus we reverse the traditional Western conception.

The first way that we can understand that the Being of Dasein is not the same way as the Being of the thing is through the notion of existence, which we have already introduced in the first lecture. As Heidegger remarks, Dasein’s existence must not be understood in the classical way as mere existentia; that is to say, as the mere presence of a thing (what Heidegger will call ‘present to hand’ das Vorhandensein). Rather Dasein’s existence must be understood in terms of possibility:

The essence of Dasein lies in its existence. Accordingly those characteristics which can be exhibited in this entity are not ‘properties’ present-at-hand of some entity which ‘looks’ so and so and is itself present-at-hand; they are in each case possible ways for it to be, and no more than that [BT 42].

Because Dasein’s existence is understood in terms of possibilities and not properties, then every existence is radically singular or individual. This is because everyone’s existence is an issue for them individually. Of course it can be the case that we might be faced with the same possibilities, and this is more than likely to be so, since what is possible for us is going to be determined by a given culture. But how we face these possibilities and what they might mean for us is going to be radically singular. We shall find, as we read through Being and Time, that there is one possibility that we all share in common, but we all have to face in our own individual way, which is the possibility of our deaths, because no one can die our deaths for us. The individuality of existence is, therefore, very different from the existence of things, since each thing, even if it has different properties, exists in the same general way:

We are ourselves the entities to be analysed. The Being of any such entity is in each case mine. These entities, in their Being, comport themselves towards their Being. As entities with such a Being, they are delivered over to their own Being. Being is that which is an issue for every such entity [BT 42].

Possibilities are not something that are just added to my existence, rather they make me the person I am, and they, so to speak express my being, even if these possibilities are the same as the person who is sitting next to me. This is quite different from the possibilities of thing, which are each case the same for each thing that has them. Thus it is the same possibility to be an oak tree for acorn A as it for acorn B, but unlike the possibilities of human existence, these acorns do not live these possibilities in a personal way. Of course the development of this possibility might differ from one acorn to the next, but this difference in development belongs to the possibility indifferently and not because of the relation of the acorn to this possibility. This is why the possibility of an acorn becoming an oak tree can be investigated scientifically. For human being, possibilities are something quite different, because I choose to be who I am. The acorn does not choose to be an oak tree, and if it does not become one, then this is because of some external force; it did not rain that year, or the soil in which it fell was poor. It would be absurd to say that the acorn did not choose to grow. But I choose to be who I am, whether I am a student, a lecturer or even the Vice-Chancellor of the university; and even if I do not choose these possibilities, I choose not to choose them. This does not prevent external factors from influencing who I can be, but these external factors do not prevent me from being who I am. Thus I can live my life authentically or inauthentically: I can choose to be who I am, or just live my life without choosing at all. What is important ontologically for Heidegger is that it is only human existence that can be either authentic or inauthentic. Acorns do not choose to be oak trees, and a frog cannot decide to be a dog, but you can choose to be a student. Of course you might be a student, because you didn’t really make a decision, and just ending up doing it, because everyone else is doing it. Then your existence, for Heidegger, is inauthentic. We shall have to see later why this is not a moral judgement:

Dasein is in each case essentially its own possibility, it can, in its very Being, ‘choose’ itself and win itself; it can also lose itself and never win itself; or even ‘seem’ to do so. But only in so far as it is essentially something which can be authentic – that is, something of its own – can it have lost itself and not yet won itself. As mode of Being, authenticity and inauthenticity … are both grounded in the fact that any Dasein whatsoever is characterised by mineness [BT 42-3].

But if Dasein is to be understood as existence and existence as possibility, then what type of existence best typifies what it means to be Dasein? We might be tempted to pick some kind of existence that we think would be most authentic, a poet, philosopher or artist for example, and use this as example of what it truly it means to be a human being, but this would be a mistake for Heidegger. For a possibility is only has a proper existential meaning in the sense that it is chosen my someone, we cannot abstract it from a life and then make it an objective property, when we say for example that the best acorn, the one that most expresses the essence of what it means to be an acorn, is that one which has the shiniest and healthiest brown skin. This is what Heidegger means when he writes that ‘In determining itself as an entity, Dasein always does so in the light of a possibility which it is itself and which, in its very Being, it somehow understands’ [BT 43]. To avoid choosing one possibility above any other as being somehow more authentic than any other possibility, Heidegger says we must choose what is most undifferentiated about Dasein. This undifferentiated character of Dasein Heidegger calls averageness or average everydayness, and this averageness is what for the most part how Dasein is, no matter what Dasein we are speaking about:

We call this everyday undifferentiated character of ‘averageness’. […] And because this average everydayness makes up what is ontically proximal for this entity, it has again and again been passed over in explicating Dasein. That which is ontically closest and well known, is ontologically the farthest and not known at all; and its ontological signification is constantly overlooked [BT 43-4].

The way that Heidegger makes the distinction between the Being of things and the Being of Dasein is to distinguish between two different ways of thinking about Being. One, he calls categorical, and which goes back to Aristotle and the other he calls existential. He wants to show throughout the analytic of Dasein that we continually misunderstand the being of Dasein because we understand its being categorically, rather than existentially. This is what has happened in the history of Western philosophy, and why retrieving the real meaning of Dasein’s Being means deconstructing the tradition that has been handed down to us:

All explicata to which the analytic of Dasein gives rise are obtained by considering Dasein’s existence-structure. Because Dasein’s characters of Being are defined in terms of existentiality, we call them ‘existentialia’. These are to be sharply distinguished from what we call ‘categories’ – characteristic of Being for entities whose character is not that of Dasein…. The entities which correspond to them require different kinds of primary interrogation respectively: any entity is either a ‘who’ (existence) or a ‘what’ (presence-at-hand in the broadest sense) [BT 44-5].

One of the fundamental ways of thinking about the difference between an existential and categorical meaning of Being is to think about the simple preposition ‘in’ (in a certain sense these little words hide the whole meaning of our Being). There is a great difference, Heidegger would argue, between the categorical ‘in’ and the existential ‘in’. Categorical speaking, the water is in the glass, and existentially speaking Dasein is in the world, but it would be quite wrong to say that Dasein is in a world in the same way that water is in a glass:

What is meant by Being in? We are inclined to understand this Being in as ‘Being in something’. This latter term designates the kind of Being which an entity has when it is ‘in’ another one, as the water is ‘in’ the glass [BT 53-4].

In the latter case, ‘in’ is merely understood in the sense of the space of things (that is to say categorically), when we think of the water being in the glass, and glass being in the room and the room being in the building and so on till we get to the universe as a whole. Dasein, however, is not just in the world in the sense; rather it is ‘in’ the world in the sense of being at home or familiar to a place. I am ‘in’ Cheltenham, therefore, can have two senses: one, that I am physically inside the town, and the other, that I feel part of or accustomed to it. ‘In’ in the second case expresses a way of Being, rather than a spatial relation, the ‘in’ of ‘intimacy’, rather than the ‘in’ of ‘inside’:

Being-in […] is a state of Dasein’s Being; it is an existentiale. So one cannot think of it as the Being-present-at-hand of some corporeal Thing. […] In is derived from innan – ‘to reside’… to dwell [BT 54].

Existentially speaking this ‘Being-in’ a world can be understood as being near or being alongside the world. This being near or being alongside should again not be understood in the same way that we talk of one thing being next to another. We can describe the chair as touching the wall, but what is meant by touching in this case? Is it not true to say that chair and the wall never touch, not because there is always a space between them, but because the wall cannot reach out to encounter the chair and the chair cannot reach out and encounter the wall. We must, therefore, sharply distinguish between existentially space and categorical space, and if we think of things touching this is only a metaphorical extension from our own ‘lived’ space.

The chair touches the wall. Taken strictly, touching is never what we are talking about in such cases, not because accurate re-examination will always eventually establish that there is a space between the wall, but because in principle the chair can never touch the wall, even if the space between them should be equal to zero. If the chair could touch the wall, this would presuppose that the wall is the sort of thing ‘for’ which a chair would be encounterable [BT 55].

This does not mean that Dasein cannot be understood as thing – as something merely present to hand, as ‘a what’. We do so, for example, when we say that a human being is merely a ‘rational animal’ or, to give such definition a more modern ring, a ‘gene carrier’. But such definitions completely miss the essential way of Being of Dasein as existence. Indeed, the very possibility of treating Dasein as thing must arise from the particular way that it relates to things from out of its own Being. If I understand myself as a thing, then this understanding comes from the way that I encounter things in my world. A stone cannot conceive of itself as a fact.


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