Why Philosophy?

September 25, 2016

thalesPlato famously said that the ‘unexamined life is not worth living’ (Apology 38a). But what is an examined life in contrast? Normally, I suppose, when we live our lives, we do not question our fundamental principles, values or beliefs. If we did so constantly, then we would not be able to live at all. I imagine this is what most people think philosophers are. People who can’t live proper lives, who have their heads in the skies, who aren’t reasonable, serious people. This isn’t a new insult. It does right back to when there were first philosophers (because there haven’t always been such strange people). Plato tells the story of Thales, who was one of the first philosophers, who we know off, who was so distracted by the heavens that he fell into a hole. This is the passage in full:

Why take the case of Thales. While he was studying the stars and looking upwards, he fell into a pit, and a neat, witty, Thracian girl jeered at him, they say, because he was so eager to know the things in the sky that he could not see what was there before him at his very feet. The same jest applies to all who pass their lives in philosophy.
(Theatetus, 174a)

Well I don’t suppose such a thing really happened. It has the ring of a myth just because the metaphor is so telling. Isn’t studying philosophy just like falling into a hole, and doesn’t everyone laugh at philosophers because they don’t take life seriously enough. The joke, however, in the end, is not on Thales, but those who laughed at him, because, according to Aristotle, having spent so much time staring at the heavens, he was able to predict that the next olive harvest was going to be very good and thus he made a fortune by cornering the market in olive presses (Politics 1.11 1259a5-19).[1] Perhaps it is not so useless being a philosopher at all.

I don’t think, though, that was the reason that Plato thought an examined life was better. I don’t think he was recommending philosophy as a way of making money (or getting a career as we might say nowadays). Though that might be a consequence of doing philosophy, that should not be the reason you chose to do philosophy. The reason that Plato recommended philosophy was that he thought that it would make you a better human being. In this way he saw philosophy as a spiritual task that consumed the whole person and not just a skill one could become better at. The word ‘spiritual’ has perhaps become an overused word in our culture and in that way might be redundant unless we give it a precise meaning. What I do not mean by spirituality in this context is a pseudo-religious activity or practice, as when someone might say that they are spiritual but not religious. Still less do I mean the commercial side of spiritual activity, like faith healing, crystals and reincarnation. All these are a kind of watered down mysticism that is the opposite of what Plato means by an examined life.

At the end of another dialogue, The Symposium, Plato tells us a story about how philosophy was born from Poverty and Resource (203a). Someone who has everything and desires nothing cannot be a philosopher, but equally someone who has nothing and cannot desire anything will not be able either. The philosopher is someone who exists in between the two. She knows that there is truth but that she lacks it, and it is because she lacks it that she desires it. Wisdom, the love of wisdom, which is what the word ‘philosophy’ means in Greek (φίλος meaning ‘love’ and σοφία meaning ‘wisdom’), is this continual search for the truth and Plato seems to suggest that this search is unending. The philosopher is always looking for the truth and is never certain that she has found it, whereas non-philosophers always know they have found the truth and everyone else is wrong. The fundamentalist and the philosopher, then, would be two very different people.[2]

Is all of this still too abstract? How would we apply Plato’s dictum to our own lives. Most of the time, I think, if we were to be honest we don’t think for ourselves. Rather we think like everyone else. We have the same opinions, the same likes and dislikes, and we act in the same way. It is when we question this common opinion that we begin to ask ourselves how could we really be ourselves. Now this might seem to be the easiest thing of all to do. Since aren’t we all ‘selves’ aren’t we already born a ‘somebody’, an individual? Yet this self that everyone is isn’t the self that we are after, because we want to be uniquely ourselves. This isn’t something that we born to be. Rather it is something we have to accomplish throughout our whole lives, and is something it is very possible to fail at.

The courage to be oneself, the courage to just be, is very difficult indeed. To conform, to be like everyone else, is, in comparison, very easy and what we always tempted to do instead. Philosophy isn’t about learning about philosophy just for its own sake, though it can become like that in a university sometimes, but how one faces the question of one’s own existence and how one gives meaning to one’s own life. This means being able to look inside of yourself and reflect about what is important to you, what are you values and desires and from that be able to choose the best life for yourself (which might not be the same as what other people might think is the best life for you), and once you have chosen to have the strength and commitment to carry it through.

What might prevent you from doing so is always the opposite of philosophy, distraction and boredom. Most of the time we just fill our lives in with doing stuff, as though our time were endless and we could always put off making a decision. It’s a bit like how we think about our own death. We are always certain that our death is some way ahead (especially when we are young) so we don’t really have to concern ourselves with it. Of course that isn’t true, because in fact our deaths could happen at any time and we wouldn’t know at all. What would it mean to live with that realisation? It would mean that you would have to ask yourself if you were really to die in the next moment would you be wasting your time as you are doing now just drifting from one moment to the next. The American writer, Hubert Selby Jr., writes about a ‘spiritual experience’ that he had, which is close to what I am describing here.[3] He says that one day at home, he suddenly had the realisation that he was going to die, and that if he did die, he would look back upon his whole life as a waste because he hadn’t done what he wanted to do. He hadn’t become the person he wished to be. In that very moment of wishing that he could live his life again and not waste it, he would die. This realisation terrified him. It was this terror that was his spiritual experience, though at the time, he says, he didn’t realise that, he was just terrified. It was at that very moment that he became a writer. Not that he had any skill, or any idea of what being a writer was, but he wanted to do something with his life (at the time he was on the dole and in between doing dead-end jobs) and writing seemed the best thing (of course it could have been something else, but it was doing something with his life and not regretting it that was the important thing). He has learnt to become a writer by writing but it was his ‘spiritual experience’ that made he do it and also made him commit to it, not just give up because it was difficult.

I think what Plato means by philosophy, by an ‘examined life’ as opposed to an ‘unexamined one’ is what Hubert Selby Jr. means by a ‘spiritual experience’. I am not sure that you can do philosophy if you haven’t had one (though you might be very clever about philosophy). Notice that this experience hasn’t got anything to do with being intellectual or knowing a lot of stuff. It’s about facing oneself honestly and about a commitment to a life lived without knowing how it might end up.

Works Cited

White, Stephen, ‘Thales and the Stars’, in Presocratic Philosophy: Essays in Honour of Alexander Mourelatos, ed. by Victor Caston and Daniel Graham (Aldershot, Hants.: Ashgate, 2002), pp. 3–18.


[1] For a full account of what we know about Thales, which is very little, see, Stephen White, ‘Thales and the Stars’, in Presocratic Philosophy: Essays in Honour of Alexander Mourelatos, ed. by Victor Caston and Daniel Graham (Aldershot, Hants.: Ashgate, 2002), pp. 3–18.

[2] Perhaps Plato typifies the non-philosophy in the figure of Thrasymachus in the Republic, who does not like arguing or contemplating the truth from different perspectives but always wants to win. The practice of philosophy, what it means to philosophise, is as of much importance to Plato, perhaps even more so, than the content.

[3] You can watch him talk about this here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3e0O09_ZekE. He starts talking about his spiritual experience at about 8.36.


Philosophy as a Way of Life – Lecture 1

October 21, 2015

HadotNow a days we tend to think of philosophy as an academic discipline you study in university and that to be a philosopher is to be a professor of philosophy. But that is not always how it as been, according to the French philosophy and historian of ancient philosophy Pierre Hadot (Hadot 1995, pp.81–125). Thus, in ancient philosophy it was perfectly possible to be a philosopher without having written anything, for what mattered was not the discourse of philosophy in itself (being knowledgeable about philosophical theories), but living philosophically.

Living philosophy, Hadot tells us, was a spiritual exercise and he is very clear why it has to be called this, even though in our ears it might sound overtly religious, or particularly, because of Ignatius Loyola, Christian.[1] Spiritual, because it was more than merely moral or intellectual exercise, and consisted of a total transformation of one’s existence. Hadot divides these spiritual exercises into four distinctive disciplines, which we will describe in turn:

1. Learning to live

2. Learning to dialogue

3. Learning to die

4. Learning to read

Learning to Live

If the aim of philosophy is to teach one how to live one’s life better, what is it that prevents us from doing so? The answer for ancient philosophy is the passions. It is because we cannot control our passions that we end up being miserable and unhappy. The art of living well, therefore, is measured by the ability to control ones passions and this is what philosophy can teach you. One of the schools of philosophy, the Stoics, argued that there were two origins for human unhappiness: we seek satisfaction in possessions that we cannot have or can lose, and we try to avoid misfortunes that are inevitable. Philosophy teaches us is that the only matter that truly lies in our power are moral goods. The rest we should accept with indifference. I cannot control what happens to me, but what I can determine in my attitude to it. It is through the spiritual exercises of philosophy that we can free ourselves from our passions and view any misfortune that happens to us with equanimity. The most important of these exercises in Stoicism is ‘attention’ (prosoche). It is only through constant self-vigilance that I can learn how to control my passions. The fundamental rule of life is to be able to determine what depends on me and what does not, and I can only do that through permanent attention to myself and to the outside world. One of the most important aspects of the self-vigilance is attention to the present moment. Much human unhappiness is caused either by being weighed down by the past or hoping too much from the future. It is better to live in the present moment and accept reality as it, the simple joy of existing, as the other major school of ancient philosophy, Epicureanism, calls it.

The intellectual exercises of philosophy, reading and writing, listening and talking to other, were never simply for the sake of gaining more knowledge, but applying this knowledge to how one lives ones own life. Thus physics, for example, was never just about learning about the structure of the universe, but also demonstrating the scale of one’s own petty human worries. In an infinite universe, how much do my own fears and desires matter? Nature is indifferent to my unhappiness and only my own freedom should concern me, which is the freedom to be who I am.

Learning how to dialogue

Intellectual and spiritual activity is never a solitary affair. This is why the ancient philosophical schools were always communal in form. I learn to think for myself by thinking with others. It is not so much what is said that is important but that one speaks, because it is only through interacting with others that I can gain any self-knowledge. As Hadot writes:

The intimate connection between dialogue with others and dialogue with oneself is profoundly significant. Only he who is capable of a genuine encounter with the other is capable of an authentic encounter with himself, and the converse is equally true. (Hadot 1995, p.91)

What I learn is that philosophy is a journey and not an end. Wisdom is always something towards which I can only ever aim and never reach. Such a relation of authentic speech with others is always more important than writing and appearing to be knowledgeable. Again the aim of philosophy is self-transformation and not knowledge, if knowledge means here theory or discourse.

Learning to Die

Learning to die is not a morbid obsession with death. Quite the opposite, it is to learn not to fear death. For what is the most important aspect of human life is that it transcends death. Socrates, the most important philosopher for both the Stoics and the Epicureans, was willing to die for his beliefs, because he realised that what was the most important thing about him was not his body, but his ideas, and these would live on despite him. Far more important than ones individual life is truth itself. To learn to die, therefore is not to be obsessed about death in a morbid way, but to aim for a higher existence. To realise that thought is more important than the passions of the body. It is to transcend the individual existence of the sensible body (which will perish as part of the natural cause of things) for the sake of the universality and objectivity of thought. It is in thought that we find our true freedom, whereas our body, through which our passions affect us, is a kind of tyranny and prison. The fact of death highlights the insignificance of our affairs which torment and worry us. Our deaths could arrive at any time, so we shouldn’t become too attached to our possessions nor try and find meaning in what is inauthentic. To think of one’s death in one’s life is to realise what is and is not important. It is the very possibility of an authentic life.

Learning to Read

To read, to gain knowledge, is not an end in itself but for the sake of self-formation, to understand oneself.[2] This means ridding ourselves of the inessential to find what is essential beneath, and what is essential is the life of reason, for this is what expresses the true essence of the human being. Only in the practice of thought can I truly be free, the rest is the slavery of passive emotions. The aim of all spiritual exercises is therefore the same: return to the true self so as to liberate yourself from the passions that control you from the outside. For the Cynics, the third great school of ancient philosophy, this meant breaking from all social conventions and morality, since society’s rules themselves are only the result of people’s fears and desires and not a true reflection of human virtue.

Even the written masterpieces of philosophy that we still read today are not important in themselves. One reads and writes philosophy not so that one could be clever about it, but that the practice of reading and writing itself is directed towards self-mastery and control. Thus what is important is first of all is teaching (learning how to dialogue) and writing only has a function within this practice. Such then is the origin our own confusion. For us, philosophy is about systems, discourses and books. So when we go back to read ancient philosophy, we are troubled by the absence of systematic thought. But this is because we have failed to understand the context and the reasons for this writing. It was never for the sake of philosophical discourse itself, but the practice of self mastery and freedom.

Why then have we ended up with such a different conception of philosophy as an academic discipline? Hadot’s answer is that with the rise of Christianity as the sole religion of the state there was no reason to have competing philosophical schools all contesting their own interpretation of truth and so they were closed (by emperor Justin in 529 AD). More importantly than this mere historical event, however, is the relation between theology and philosophy itself in the Medieval University. If theology is the source of truth about how to live one’s life, then the only function of philosophy would be secondary. Its purpose was to rationalise the dogmas of religion, but it was religion itself, and not philosophy, that was the guide to life. In the modern age, however, with the rise of secularism and the end of the domination of theology, philosophy as a way of life can emerge once more, and there is no doubt in modern philosophers such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Heidegger (and even Foucault in more recent times), we see that philosophy again has a direct bearing on how one lives one life, rather than being an academic discourse. Of course one might wonder, if this is the authentic voice of philosophy, what academic philosophy in universities is meant to be and whether it truly can take up its spiritual vocation.

Works Cited

Hadot, P., 1995. Philosophy as a Way of Life : Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, Oxford: Blackwell.


[1] Worse than this it might even sound stupid as much of the industry around spirituality is.

[2] This conception of education is entirely absent from our current society which tends to believe that that the only function of education is to earn more money. See for example Lord Browne’s report on the funding of Higher Education in the England (the basis of the privatisation of universities), which can only conceive of education as a private economic benefit. See, http://goo.gl/CrRYl.


Why Philosophy?

February 19, 2015

Hubert_Selby,_JrPlato famously said that the ‘unexamined life is not worth living’ (Apology 38a). But what is an examined life in contrast? Normally, I suppose, when we live our lives we do not question our fundamental principles, values or beliefs. If we did so constantly, then we would not be able to live our lives at all. I imagine this is what most people think philosophers are. People who can’t live proper lives, who have their heads in the skies, who aren’t reasonable, serious people. This isn’t a new insult. It does right back to when there were first philosophers (because there haven’t always been such strange people). Plato tells the story of Thales, who was one of the first philosophers, who we know off, who was so distracted by the heavens that he fell into a hole. This is the passage in full:

Why take the case of Thales. While he was studying the stars and looking upwards, he fell into a pit, and a neat, witty, Thracian girl jeered at him, they say, because he was so eager to know the things in the sky that he could not see what was there before him at his very feet. The same jest applies to all who pass their lives in philosophy.
(Theatetus, 174a)

Well I don’t suppose such a thing really happened. It has the ring of a myth just because the metaphor is so telling. Isn’t studying philosophy just like falling into a hole, and doesn’t everyone laugh at philosophers because they don’t take life seriously enough. The joke, however, in the end is Thales’, because having spent so much time staring at the heavens, he was able to predict that the next olive harvest was going to be very good and thus he made a fortune. Perhaps it is not so useless being a philosopher at all.

I don’t think, though, that was the reason that Plato thought an examined life was better. I don’t think he was recommending philosophy as a way of making money (or getting a career as we might say nowadays). Though that might be a consequence of doing philosophy, that should not be the reason you chose to do philosophy. The reason that Plato recommended philosophy was that he thought that it would make you a better human being.

In this way he saw philosophy as a spiritual task that consumed the whole person and not just a skill one could become better at. The word ‘spiritual’ has perhaps become an overused word in our culture and in that way might be redundant unless we give it a precise meaning. What I do not mean by spirituality in this context is a pseudo-religious activity or practice, as when someone might say that they are spiritual but not religious. Still less do I mean the commercial side of spiritual activity, like faith healing, crystals and reincarnation. All these are a kind of watered down mysticism that is the opposite of what Plato means by an examined life.

At the end of another dialogue, The Symposium, Plato tells us a story about how philosophy was born from Poverty and Resource (203a). Someone who has everything and desires nothing cannot be a philosopher, but equally someone who has nothing and cannot desire anything will not be able either. The philosopher is someone who exists in between the two. She knows that there is truth but that she lacks it, and it is because she lacks it that she desires it. Wisdom, the love of wisdom, which is what philosophy means, is this continual search for the truth and Plato seems to suggest that this search is unending. The philosopher is always looking for the truth and is never certain that she has found it, whereas the non-philosophers are always those who know that they have found the truth and it everyone else that is wrong. The fundamentalist and the philosopher, then, would be two very different people.

Is all of this still too abstract? How would we apply Plato’s dictum to our own lives. Most of the time, I think, if we were to be honest we don’t think for ourselves. Rather we think like everyone else. We have the same opinions, the same likes and dislikes, and we act in the same way. It is when we question this common opinion that we begin to ask ourselves how could we really be ourselves. Now this might seem to be the easiest thing of all to do. Since aren’t we all ‘selves’ aren’t we already born a ‘somebody’, an individual? Yet this self that everyone is isn’t the self that we are after, because we want to be uniquely ourselves. This isn’t something that we born to be. Rather it is something we have to accomplish throughout our whole lives, something it is very possible to fail at.

The courage to be oneself, the courage to just be, is very difficult indeed. To conform, to be like everyone else, is, in comparison, very easy and what we always tempted to do instead. Philosophy isn’t about learning about philosophy just for its own sake, though it can become like that in a university sometimes, but how one faces the question of one’s own existence and how one gives meaning to one’s own life. This means being able to look inside of yourself and reflect about what is important to you, what are you values and desires and from that be able to choose the best life for yourself (which might not be the same as what other people might think is the best life for you), and once you have chosen to have the strength and commitment to carry it through.

What might prevent you from doing so is always the opposite of philosophy, distraction and boredom. Most of the time we just fill our lives in with doing stuff, as though are time were endless and we could always put off making a decision. It’s a bit like how we think about our own deaths. We are always certain that our death is some way ahead (especially when we are young) so we don’t really have to concern ourselves with it. Of course that isn’t true, because in fact our deaths could happen at any time and we wouldn’t know at all. What would it mean to live with that realisation? It would mean that you would have to ask yourself if you were really to die in the next moment would you be wasting your time as you are doing now just drifting from one moment to the next. The American writer, Hubert Selby Jr., speaks about a ‘spiritual experience’ that he had, which is close to what I am describing here. He says that one day at home, he suddenly had the realisation that he was going to die, and that if he did die, he would look back upon his whole life as a waste because he hadn’t done what he wanted to do. He hadn’t become the person he wished to be. In that very moment of wishing that he could live his life again and not waste it, he would die. This realisation terrified him. It was this terror that was his spiritual experience, though at the time, he says, he didn’t realise that, he was just terrified. It was at that very moment that he became a writer. Not that he had any skill, or any idea of what being a writer was, but he wanted to do something with his life (at the time he was on the dole and in between doing dead-end jobs) and writing seemed the best thing (of course it could have been something else, but it was doing something with his life and not regretting it that was the important thing). He has learnt to become a writer by writing but it was his ‘spiritual experience’ that made he do it and also made him commit to it, not just give up because it was difficult.

I think what Plato means by philosophy, by an ‘examined life’ as opposed to an ‘unexamined one’ is what Hubert Selby Jr. means by a ‘spiritual experience’. I am not sure that you can do philosophy if you haven’t had one (though you might be very clever about philosophy). Notice that this experience hasn’t got anything to do with being intellectual or knowing a lot of stuff. It’s about facing oneself honestly and about a commitment to a life without knowing how it might end up.


Existence – Lecture 7

April 25, 2013

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.


The Method of Being and Time – Lecture 5

March 20, 2013

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.


The Question of Being – Lecture 4

March 15, 2013

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).


Why Philosophy?

February 24, 2013

Plato famously said that the ‘unexamined life is not worth living’ (Apology 38a). But what is an examined life in contrast? Normally, I suppose, when we live our lives we do not question our principles, values or beliefs. If we did so constantly, then we would not be able to live our lives at all. I imagine that this what most people think philosophers are. People who can’t live proper lives, who have their heads in the skies, who aren’t reasonable, serious people. This isn’t a new insult. It does right back to when there were first philosophers (because there haven’t always been such strange people). Plato tells the story of Thales, who was one of the first philosophers, who we know off, who was so distracted by the heavens that he fell into a hole. This is the passage in full:

Why take the case of Thales. While he was studying the stars and looking upwards, he fell into a pit, and a neat, witty, Thracian girl jeered at him, they say, because he was so eager to know the things in the sky that he could not see what was there before him at his very feet. The same jest applies to all who pass their lives in philosophy.
(Theatetus, 174a)

Well I don’t suppose such a thing really happened. It has the ring of a myth just because the metaphor is so telling. Isn’t studying philosophy just like falling into a hole, and doesn’t everyone laugh at philosophers because they don’t take life seriously enough. The joke, however, in the end is Thales’, because having spent so much time staring at the heavens, he was able to predict that the next olive harvest was going to be very good and thus he made a fortune. Perhaps it is not so useless being a philosopher at all.

I don’t think, though, that was the reason that Plato thought an examined life was better. I don’t think he was recommending philosophy as a way of making money (or getting a career as we might say nowadays). Though that might be a consequence of doing philosophy, that would be the reason that you chose to do philosophy. The reason that Plato recommended philosophy was that he thought that it would make you a better human being.

In this way he saw philosophy as a spiritual task that consumed the whole person and not just a skill that one could become better at. The word ‘spiritual’ has perhaps become an overused word in our culture and in that way might be redundant unless we give it a precise meaning. What I do not mean by spirituality is a pseudo-religious activity or practice, as when someone might say that they are spiritual but not religious. Still less do I mean the commercial side of spiritual activity, like faith healing, crystals and reincarnation. All these are a kind of watered down mysticism that is the opposite of what Plato means by an examined life.

At the end of another dialogue, The Symposium, Plato tells us a story about how philosophy was born from Poverty and Resource (203a). Someone who has everything and desires nothing cannot be a philosopher, but equally someone who has nothing and cannot desire anything will not be able either. The philosopher is someone who exists in between the two. She knows that there is truth but that she lacks it, and it is because she lacks it that she desires it. Wisdom, the love of wisdom, which is what philosophy means, is this continual search for the truth and Plato seems to suggest that this search is unending. The philosopher is always looking for the truth and is never certain that she has found it, whereas the non-philosophers are always those who know that they have found the truth and it everyone else that is wrong. The fundamentalist and the philosopher, then, would be two very different people.

Is all of this still too abstract? How would we apply Plato’s dictum to our own lives. Most of the time, I think, if we were to be honest we don’t think for ourselves. Rather we think like everyone else. We have the same opinions, the same likes and dislikes, and we act in the same way. It is when we question this common opinion that we begin to ask ourselves how could we be ourselves. Now this might seem to be the easiest thing of all to do of all. Since aren’t we all ‘selves’ aren’t we already born a ‘somebody’, an individual. Yet this self that everyone is isn’t the self that we are after, because we want to be uniquely ourselves. This isn’t something that we born to be. Rather it is something we have to accomplish throughout our whole lives, something it is very possible to fail at.

The courage to be oneself, the courage to just be, is very difficult indeed. To conform, to be like everyone else, is, in comparison, very easy and what we always tempted to do instead. Philosophy isn’t about learning about philosophy just for its own sake, though it can become like that in a university sometimes, but how one faces the question of one’s own existence and how one gives meaning to one’s own life. This means being able to look inside of yourself and reflect about what is important to you, what are you values and desires and from that be able to choose the best life for yourself (which might not be the same as what other people might think is the best life for you), and once you have chosen to have the strength and commitment to carry it through.

What might prevent you from doing so is always the opposite of philosophy, distraction and boredom. Most of the time we just fill our lives in with doing stuff, as though are time were endless and we could always put off making a decision. It’s a bit like how we think about our own deaths. We are always certain that our death is some way ahead (especially when we are young) so we don’t really have to concern ourselves with it. Of course that isn’t true, because in fact our deaths could happen at any time and we wouldn’t know at all. What would it mean to live with that realisation? It would mean that you would have to ask yourself if you were really to die in the next moment would you be wasting your time as you are doing now just drifting from one moment to the next. The American writer, Hubert Selby Jr., writes about a ‘spiritual experience’ that he had, which is close to what I am describing here. He says that one day at home, he suddenly had the realisation that he was going to die, and that if he did die, he would look back upon his whole life as a waste because he hadn’t done what he wanted to do. He hadn’t become the person he wished to be. In that very moment of wishing that he could live his life again and not waste it, he would die. This realisation terrified him. It was this terror that was his spiritual experience, though at the time, he says, he didn’t realise that, he was just terrified. It was at that very moment that he became a writer. Not that he had any skill, or any idea of what being a writer was, but he wanted to do something with his life (at the time he was on the dole and in between doing dead-end jobs) and writing seemed the best thing (of course it could have been something else, but it was doing something with his life and not regretting it that was the important thing). He has learnt to become a writer by writing but it was his ‘spiritual experience’ that made he do it and also made him commit to it, not just give up because it was difficult.[1]

I think what Plato means by philosophy, by an ‘examined life’ as opposed to an ‘unexamined one’ is what Hubert Selby Jr. means by a ‘spiritual experience’. I am not sure that you can do philosophy if you haven’t had one (though you might be very clever about philosophy). Notice that this experience hasn’t got anything to do with being intellectual or knowing a lot of stuff. It’s about facing oneself honestly and about a commitment to a life without knowing how it might end up.


[1] From an interview with Hubert Selby Jr. that you can find here http://www.cunepress.com/cunemagazine/news/articles/selby.htm. He also described pretty much the same experience in an interview with the American actress Ellen Burstyn https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y1Zcf1maJlE&feature=g-user-f&list=FLA11eaq9wA-dQezPhEv8IWQ.