Levinas and Heidegger Lecture 2

December 9, 2018

Levinas told his students, and everyone else, that you really need to read Heidegger, and especially, Being and Time, and he also tells us that he would have written a book on this work, after his book on Husserl, if the events of the war, and Heidegger’s complicity in them, had not intervened.[1] Indeed, without reading Heidegger, and especially Being and Time, much of what Levinas writes is incomprehensible, since Levinas’s own philosophy is written in dialogue with him. He simply takes it for granted that his readers have read Being and Time and know this text intimately. This does not mean that Levinas is a scholar of Heidegger, for then he would not be an original thinker in his own right. If you are looking for a detailed, nuanced, and even sympathetic reading of Heidegger, then you would not come to Levinas. But is that no true of any philosopher who has anything interesting to say. She only creates her own thought by misunderstanding or even caricaturing those who have preceded her, otherwise she would be, no matter how important they are to the dissemination of knowledge, only a scholar herself.[2] This lecture will mostly be about Heidegger’s argument in Being and Time, and will end with a few brief remarks about Levinas’s disagreement with it. In next lecture on Levinas’s ethics, we will speak in more depth about his own philosophy.

Levinas’s writings, precisely because of the war, where he ceases really to engage with Heidegger’s later philosophy, are predominately focused on Being and Time. When Levinas’s speaks or writes of Heidegger’s concept of being, then he is, for the most part, referring to question of being in Being and Time.[3] It 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].

The situation is worse for us than it is for the stranger. For at least he was perplexed by the question of being, but we do not even hear it as a serious question at all. We don’t even know what someone means by the question of being. The reason, Heidegger, tells us, is because the history of philosophy has obscured this question. Either we think know the answer to it, being is the most general and obvious concept, or we think it is indefinable, and it is not a serious philosophical question at all.

Against this indifference, how will we renew the question of being? Heidegger’s answer to this question is that we must focus on that being whose being, whose existence, is an everyday concern for them, and that is us. Heidegger does not use the term ‘human being’ to designate us, because he thinks that it is too overloaded with metaphysical and scientific connotations that have concealed the question of being from us in the first place. Rather he describes us by the expression Dasein. Most translators leave this word untranslated, which gives it a kind of mysterious air, but Heidegger wants us to read it literally. In German, Dasein means ‘being-there’, rather than just the technical meaning ‘existence’ that we might find in a dictionary. What is unique to us, Heidegger will argue, is that our ‘being there’ matters to us, and it matters to us in a specific way that could be a clue to the meaning of being in general.

Science, and we do live in a scientific age, so we generally think that science has all the answers, investigates the meaning beings. Chemistry analyses and studies molecular structures, physics, matter, and biology, life. In each case, the being of these things, is not a serious question for them. If they worried about the being of these things, then they would not be doing science but philosophy. To do science, you must accept that these things exist to even get started. It is only when science goes into a crisis that it might start doubting the fundamental reality of the basic components of its scientific paradigm.

We can also think of ourselves as objects of scientific investigation. We can be studied biologically, psychologically, or even anthropologically. In each case, the human being is analysed as certain kind of being, as life, mind, or culture. Philosophy, however, for Heidegger, does not take for granted what kind of being we are, but asks a rather different question. It asks what kind of understanding of being already exists such that a being is taken to be in certain way. The first kind of study, the obviously scientific one, Heidegger calls ontic. It is the study of things as things without questioning their fundamental nature. If we were going to use a Kuhnian vocabulary, we might call it ‘normal science’.[4] The second kind of question is ontological.

The difference between us and things is that we already relate to our being, even if for the most part we do so in an unthinking way. A stone does not ask itself what it is to be a stone, nor does super nova, or dolphin. It is perfectly possible for me, at any stage of my life, or at any moment of the day, to wonder who I am. What is ontically distinctive about us, is that we are 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].

What Heidegger is not interested in is the way we might think of ourselves as the ‘dust of the stars’, since these scientific pictures of ourselves, common in much popular science, already smuggle in too much metaphysics. Rather what matters to him is how we appear to ourselves in our everyday lives. Philosophy is very much about the everyday for Heidegger, and this is perhaps what excited his students about his teaching.[5] How do understand ourselves? We understand ourselves as existence. Heidegger does not mean this in a technical sense, as when some says, ‘the chair exists’ or ‘black holes exist’, because these are ontical questions, rather than ontological ones, but existence as possibility. My existence, and it is always my existence, is made up of possibilities (shall I go the lecture today, shall I do the reading, should I take my studies more seriously, will I become a teacher and so on). Most of the time the existential structure of these possibilities, how I live my possibilities, is not visible to me. I just concern myself with the daily stuff of life (I must make sure that I buy my train ticket), or maybe with bigger projects (what will I do when I finish my degree?), but I don’t think about how these possibilities are. That is a philosophical question that Heidegger hopes to answer and forms most of Being and Time, which in the end remained an unfinished project.

If our existence is the object of investigation, what then is our method? How are meant to uncover the meaning of our existence? There are two sides to Heidegger’s method in Being and Time. One is negative and the other is positive. The negative side is hermeneutical. Hermeneutics was originally the study of biblical texts, but for Heidegger it has a very specific meaning.[6] It is the ‘destruction’ of the philosophical tradition handed down to us that obscured the meaning of being that he describes in the opening pages of Being and Time. This too has its own negative and positive side. On the one hand, it has to show how the philosophical tradition from Plato onwards has prevented us from thinking about being in a meaningful way, because it takes a certain meaning of being for granted, but on the other hand, in the very same tradition, it has to show how philosophy, sometimes in the very same text or page, fights against its own self-limitation.[7] Yet if we do not know what the phenomenon is that we are attempting to save from the tradition, how do we know what has been lost? Thus, we need a positive method that is distinguished from this ‘negative’ one, if that word is not in some sense inadequate. That is function of phenomenology for Heidegger.

Heidegger’s definition of phenomenology, like the rest of the book, is very peculiar. It is not a description of a technique, but of a way of doing philosophy. Rather than go back to Husserl, who was Heidegger’s teacher, and explain phenomenology that way, he does through the etymology of the word itself. Phenomenology is made of two Greek words, φαινόμενων (phainomenon) and λόγος (logos). The meaning of the first word is:

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]

A phenomenon is therefore something that show itself or makes itself visible. On the other hand, the word λόγος originally means ‘to make manifest what one is talking about in one’s discourse [BT 32]. The primary meaning of discourse is not judgement, but to ‘letting something be seen’ [BT 32]. The meaning of phenomenology is, therefore, a combination, of the original sense of these Greek expressions:

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].

To bring to light that which shows itself is not an easy task because it lies in concealment. What is closest to Dasein is its own being, but for the most part, it is this being which it is most in the dark about. I can tell you what a look like or what I do for a living, but if you were to ask about ‘being’, I might be left speechless. The phenomenologist should uncover what is ordinarily and nearly continuously in the dark. This covering up is even more difficult to expose, because the tradition that is handed down to us prevents us from seeing what is closest to us, either because it says that it is the most obvious concept (we exist in the same way that any other object exists), or is not a serious problem at all.

Heidegger’s understanding of phenomenology is directly linked to is conception of truth. Ordinarily we think of truth of as judgemental. There is statement about the world and this statement is either true or false if it agrees with a state of affairs in the world. I say that wall is blue, and if the wall is blue, then my statement is true. Heidegger does not disagree with this propositional idea of truth, but he asks whether that notion of truth is fundamental. Heidegger uses the example of someone who has their back turned to a wall and who makes the true assertion ‘the picture on the wall is hanging askew’. The truth of the statement is demonstrated when the person turns around and sees that the picture is indeed askew. Assertion, then, is a way of relating to the world. To be able to assert something, I must already have a relation to that thing. In other words, the thing must be already visible to me in some way or other (which goes back to the original meaning of the word ‘phenomenon’ as a kind of original self-disclosure) such that I could make an assertion about them. This disclosure comes first and is the condition of the assertion. Truth must first be defined as an ‘uncovering’ (Entdeckend), but uncovering is only possible because there is being whose relations to things in the world brings them out of their concealment. This being is ourselves. This ontological meaning of truth, as way of relation to things in the world, and bringing them to light, is the original meaning of truth expressed by the Greek word for truth as ἀλήθεια (aletheia).

‘Being-true’ (‘truth’) means Being uncovering […]. But while our definition is seemingly arbitrary, it contains only the necessary interpretation of what was primordially surmised in the oldest tradition of ancient philosophy and even understood in a pre-phenomenological manner […]. Being-true is aletheia in the manner of apophainesthai – of taking entities out of their hiddenness and letting the be seen in their unhiddenness (their uncoveredness) [BT 261-2].

If Dasein is understood as existence, and the meaning of existence is to be uncovered by the phenomenologist, how then does this existence show itself. Heidegger makes the distinction between the being of things and the being of Dasein. One, he calls categorical, which goes back to Aristotle, and the other existential. We continually misunderstand the being of Dasein because we understand its being categorically rather than existentially. We think that Dasein is a mysterious thing, which has a soul, or a thing like anything else, that is made up same stuff as the rest of matter. In the first case, we have a theological understanding of Dasein, and in the second, a scientific one, but what is common to both ways of understanding is that they both think of Dasein in a categorical way.

One way in which Heidegger thinks of the difference between categorical and existential being is the proposition ‘in’ (and propositions tell us a lot about how we are in the world). We imagine that Dasein is ‘in’ its world in the same way that water is ‘in’ a glass, but this is not the case. Such a way of thinking about Dasein in terms of the spatiality of things already requires an abstract way of thinking about the world. I am not in my world in this way. I do not live in Bristol in the way that water is in a glass. Rather I am familiar or at home in Bristol, and this ‘being at home’ is far closer to my way of being than the representation of space.

This does not mean that Dasein cannot be understood as ‘thing’, as something ‘present-to-hand’ to use Heidegger’s vocabulary, but in that way it is being treated as a thing, and not as what it is primordially speaking and in its own way of being. We take being present at hand as the general meaning of being, such that we start interpreting ourselves as present to hand like everything else, but this way of approaching things has been handed down by tradition. It is not the way our existence reveals itself to us in our everyday being in the world.

Things and other people only matter to me because I care about them. They are not first representations, concepts or categories. This relation to things comes afterwards and is already reliant on the world in which I find myself and exist. The table is something to put my cup of tea on, the house for living in, the computer for writing this lecture on. In my involvement with them, these things are not present to hand at all, but ready to hand and disappear in their use. The door that I use every day to enter my house is not visible to me when I use it, still less, like some kind of AI, do I have to represent it to myself to use it. I enter the house and walk through it. It is part of everyday world, which I am comfortable with.

This world too is not a thing that contains the things of the world. Rather than a thing, it is my way of being. The world, then, or ‘being in the world’, is not categorical, but existential. The everyday world Heidegger calls the ‘environment’ (das Umwelt). Again, like Dasein, environment can sound like a highly technical term, but he means the world that surrounds us, the world that we feel at home in, and which we can lose, for example, if we go to a foreign county, and no longer know our way about, or is something unexpected happens to us, and we no longer feel comfortable where we live. In this world we don’t encounter things as perceptual objects, which is the way that philosophy likes to talk about things since Plato, as though perception were our original access to the world. We do not first of all perceive things. They are part of world as things we use. What Heidegger calls ‘equipment’ or ‘tools’ (das Zeug). I use the bed in order to sleep in, I use the shower to wash, the toothbrush to clean my teeth, the stove to make coffee, the ticket machine to catch a train in order to get to work. One characteristic of tools is that they are part of a series of ‘in order to’s’ that point to an ultimate ‘for the sake of which’. I have described to you my working morning whose ultimate ‘for the sake of which’ is that I am a teacher of philosophy. This role is the ultimate project that orientates my existential possibilities and this chain of ‘in order to’s’ is my world. When you ask me, perhaps you encounter me in the train station, ‘how are you?’, you are asking about this world. It is this world, Heidegger says, that I live in, and it would be a profound misunderstanding of this world, to think that I live in it as water is in a glass, or that this world is place on Google maps.

For the most part this world is invisible to me, which is why it is difficult, phenomenological speaking, to bring it to light. It is only when things do not work that the world can reveal itself. The bed is uncomfortable, the shower is cold, the oven does not light, the ticket machine does not work, and the train is late. Suddenly, after these disasters, my everyday existence and world can show itself to me, and I might even question my project of being a philosophy teacher that it the ultimate goal of all these activities.

In my world, I don’t just encounter things but other people. I might not buy my ticket at machine, but speak to a someone behind the ticket counter. Traces of others are there everywhere in my world, whether I pay attention to them or not. Heidegger’s describes the relation to others as ‘being with’ (Mitsein). I am not with others in the same way that I with things. We have seen that things are either ready to hand or present to hand, but other are not present in that way (that does not mean that others cannot be present in that way, but then I am precisely not relating to them as others at all, but as things). For unlike things, others have a world like me and because they have a world like me we share that world. Others, then, do not stand apart from me. I have intimacy with others that is not at all like the ‘being in’ of things.

By ‘Others’ we do not mean everyone else but me – those over against whom the ‘I’ stands out. They are rather those from whom, for the most part, one does not distinguish oneself – those among whom one is too…. [t]he world is always the one that I share with Others. The world of Dasein is a with-world (Mitwelt) [BT 118].

We must distinguish between the ontological and epistemological relation to others. It is only in the epistemological relation to others that solipsism becomes a problem where I might wonder whether they are real or not, or whether there are ‘other minds’ at all. For Heidegger, at the level of your existence, you do not have to think your way to others, since you are already involved with them and my world is already something that I share with others. Even if I choose to live in isolation, then this is already decided in relations to others (in world without others, being solitary would not make any sense at all). The philosophical problem of how I bridge my existence to the existence of others is therefore a false problem, since ontologically speaking there is no bridge to be crossed.

For the most part my relation to others is a matter of indifference. This is not a moral issue for Heidegger, but just expresses our everyday being. Most of the people that I encounter in my world are not ‘there’ for me at all.

Being for, against, or without one another, passing one another by, not ‘mattering’ to one another – these are possible ways of solicitude. And it is precisely these last named deficient and indifferent modes that characterise everyday, average Being-with-one-another [BT 121]

There are, however, two ways in which others do matter for me. One is that I seek to dominate and control them, and the other is when I liberate them for their own possibilities. In this case we are speaking about others who are present to me in one way of other. The bus driver I get angry with because I am late, or the student who I hope to inspire by writing a lecture about Heidegger. Generally, Heidegger thinks that our relation to others is one of indifference. It is in this indifferent relation that others can come to dominate me, rather than I them.

This domination is a very different from the domination of control. It is not a matter of an action or result, but the insidious stripping away of possibilities. I begin to understand myself in terms of the anonymous others, such that I can lose the very sense of my own individuality. In this indifferent relation everyone becomes the same and we talk of others as the ‘they’ (das Man).

We take pleasure and amuse ourselves as they take pleasure; we read, see and judge about literature and art as they see and judge; likewise we shrink back from the ‘great mass’ as they shrink back; we find ‘shocking’ what they find shocking. The ‘they’ which is nothing definite and which all are, though not as sum, prescribes the kind of being of everydayness [BT 126-7].

This closing down of possibilities to lowest common denominator Heidegger calls the ‘public’ (die Öffentlichkeit), and, if we are honest, for the most part, this is what our everyday existence is. Rather than authenticity, or individuality, being the way that we exist, we live lives that are similar or identical to the lives of everyone else, even though none of us are really sure when this way of life first began or originated. Being-with, then, is a kind of conformity. Yet if authenticity was not possible, then Being and Time would not have been written, since the authenticity necessary to writing philosophy, requires to some extent or other that the question of Dasein’s being becomes an issue to them, and this is precisely what is not an issue in everyday being. What matter there is merely what everyone else understands and takes for granted. This is the purpose of the famous analysis of ‘being-towards-death’ (Sein-Zum-Tode) in Being and Time. It shows how authenticity is possible.

The task of Being and Time, as we know, is to reawaken the question of being. But this question can only be formulated by that being whose being is an issue for it, which is ourselves. Yet for most of the time, as the description of the everyday being of Dasein shows, our being is not an issue for us. We are so involved with the world of things and others that our own being does not become a question at all. It can do so only if Dasein has an authentic relation to its being, but all that we have described, which Dasein for the most part is, is the inauthentic being of the everyday. We must show, then, how authentic being can rise out of inauthentic being as a modification of the latter. This is the purpose of the description of ‘being-towards-death’.

We have already shown that Heidegger understands the existence of Dasein as possibilities. My existence is nothing but my possibilities. Death too is one possibility amongst others, but how are we to think this possibility as way of uncovering Dasein’s authenticity? Death as a possibility is not an event like any other. In that way you are not thinking of death as a possibility at all, but an actuality. Death is a fact of life like other facts of life, one that is more extreme and frightening perhaps, but still nonetheless a fact. Every day when I read news, I hear of countless deaths as facts or actualities. This is not how Heidegger is thinking about death. He is not describing death as the end of a process that is still outstanding, but as a possibility. This is the meaning of ‘towards’ in the expression of ‘being-towards-death’. Rather than imagining death as fact that comes at the end of your life, you should be aware of it a permanent possibility that surrounds your life at any moment. In this sense, Heidegger says, my death is a peculiar possibility that is the possibility of the absolute impossibility of Dasein’ [BT 250].

What is revealed in this relation to death is nothing factual, but only the existence of Dasein as a whole. It is not death as fact that makes me anxious, this is rather an object of fear, but my existence that is revealed to me in ‘being-toward-death’. It rips me from the tranquillity of everyday existence and forces me to stand in front of my life as a whole. If I were to die now, in this instance, would my whole life have been a failure and a waste? It is this recognition that we flee from when we avoid death as a possibility. We can see that death as an actuality, something that happens at the end of my life and about which I do not have to concern myself now, is in fact a way of resisting and avoiding death as a possibility. Only through death as a possibility can I discover the courage to authentically be myself by seizing the possibilities that have been given to me.

To understand Levinas, and we will do so positively in the next lecture, rather than negatively in comparison to Heidegger, is to see how far he breaks with this ontological analysis of Dasein as it is presented in Being and Time. In one sense he agrees with Heidegger’s break with Husserl’s too cognitive understanding of consciousness, as though the only relation to the world were one of knowledge and representation, and he says so in his thesis on Husserl.[8] Yet he argues, in Totality and Infinity, whether this analysis goes far enough. The world that is described in Being and Time is the world of work where I have projects and outcomes, but is this really the first world in which I exist? Before I relate to the world as one of accomplishments, I enjoy the elements, the warmth of the sun against my face, the wind in my air. This world is not the world of my personal being as described in Being and Time, but the impersonal world of nature, where my happiness can be snatched away in an instant by floods and earthquakes. The house I build, which is described in Being and Time, as the example of the ready-to-hand’, is built against this world. It is second not first. Moreover, Levinas claims, this house depends on a radically different relation to others than the one described in Being and Time. Not one that is determined by me in relation to my own being, whether others matter or to do matter to me in terms of my own existential drama, but an ethical encounter where the other radically calls into question my existence and my place on this earth. This ethical other is not a being at all, in any ordinary sense, whether we mean by that categorically or existential being, but beyond being, what Levinas will call ‘transcendence’. If the other is not ontological but ethical, then my relation to death is not merely one of actuality or possibility. Why should it be the case that the death of other is merely a ‘fact’ for me of no more significance than any other fact in the world, and why should my relation to death be only one of authentically choosing my own possibilities. If death is the possibility of impossibility, it is not also the impossibility of possibility, where dying, through illness and suffering, strips me of the power to be, and where the discussion of being authentic makes no sense whatsoever (what would authentic being-towards-death be in a concentration camp)?

Levinas wants us to consider, whether ontology must have the last word and whether we can only speak in the language of ontology. If ethics does appear in Being and Time, then it does so only in marginal way and subordinated to the ontological question. This is even the case in Heidegger’s later work, when he says that until we know what it means to be a human being, then we cannot even begin to understand what ethics could be. Yet what if ethics were not an ontological category at all, and the other were not a being, neither present-to-hand, or ready-to-hand, and rather than appearing within my world, where to completely call this world into question, even beyond my death.

Works Cited

Derrida, J., 1978. Violence and Metaphysics, in: Bass, A. (Tran.), Writing and Difference. Routledge, London, pp. 97–192.

Gadamer, H.G., 1994. Heidegger’s Ways. SUNY Press.

Glazebrook, T., 2000. Heidegger’s philosophy of science. Fordham University Press, New York.

Grondin, J., 1997. Introduction to Philosophical Hermeneutics. Yale University Press.

Heidegger, M., 1962. Being and Time. Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford.

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

Levinas, E., 2012. Signature, in: Hand, S. (Tran.), Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, pp. 291–5.

Lévinas, E., 2000. God, death, and time. Stanford University Press, Stanford, Calif.

Lévinas, E., 1973. The theory of intuition in Husserl’s phenomenology. Northwestern University Press, Evanston [Ill.


[1] For Levinas’s own autobiography of his intellectual journey, see (Levinas, 2012).

[2] The classic account of Levinas’s creative misreading of Heidegger, and other philosophers, like Husserl and Hegel, is still Derrida’s first, and highly detailed and complex, extended essay on Levinas’s work, ‘Violence and Metaphysics’ (Derrida, 1978). It too would be a misunderstanding of this essay to think that it was a mere critique.

[3] Levinas’s own lectures on Heidegger concern the arguments of Being and Time (Lévinas, 2000).

[4] In The Structure of Scientific Revolution, Kuhn makes a distinction between ‘normal’ and ‘revolutionary science’, which echoes Heidegger’s differentiation of the ontic and ontological basis of science in Being and Time (Kuhn, 2012). For a detailed account of Heidegger’s philosophy of science, see (Glazebrook, 2000).

[5] Gadamer, perhaps one of his most famous students, bears witness to the effect of Heidegger’s teaching, in his book on Heidegger, Heidegger’s Ways (Gadamer, 1994).

[6] For an good introduction to the history and meaning of hermeneutics from a Heideggerian perspective, see (Grondin, 1997).

[7] Some of the missing divisions and parts of Being and Time were meant to include these ‘destructions’, but we find them in many of the lectures that were published afterwards.

[8] ‘One can reproach Husserl,’ Levinas writes, ‘for his intellectualism. Even though the attains the profound idea that, in the ontological order, the world of science if posterior to and depends on the vague and concrete world of perception, he may have been wrong in seeing the concrete world as a world of objects that primarily perceived’ (Lévinas, 1973, p. 119).