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Exploring Heidegger's challenge to accepted modes of thinking

Tuesday, 7 Jan 2014

Martin Heidegger on Staff and Scrip, Dr John Dunn. Marx and Satre took liberalism to its utmost extent, both positing that the authentic self is to be found in conditions which facilitate a complete freedom of choice. These conditions, they believed, would be found under communism, perhaps better understood in its original Marxian intent if described as anarchism.

Only in conditions of complete freedom for the individual, thought both Marx and Satre, would the alienated subject be recovered and the historical process of individuation be completed, allowing the individual to emerge finally from the herd as a fully-rounded and fulfilled human being.

Yet the pursuit of fulfilment supposedly made possible under such conditions cannot overcome the Kierkegaardian objection that the piling up of accomplishments would be merely a distraction from despair. It could never offer a life that is either honest in the face of death nor God.

The pursuit of a fulfilled life would become a new fetish, a false god to be worshipped by the free individual. It would be a thing apart from the individual, offering a goal to be attained, yet trapping the individual in an ideology of success no less invidious than that which exists under market capitalism. A dualistic distraction would emerge, a  chasm separating the subjective self from the prospect of a fulfilled self. Firmly in the tradition of Plato and Descartes, the individual, the absolute subject would behold an absolute object which would have been abstracted out of the real world.

Commmunist freedom would be the very apotheosis of Platonism, a world in which everything is subordinated to the point of view of the individual in a subjectivism that first took flight in Renaissance Europe. It was here that the ideology of the individual as an absolute subject first began to take hold seriously. In this individualised way of thinking, the absolute subject beholds absolute objects that have been abstracted out of the real world. In this sense, objects are unworlded into an abstract space conditioned by mathematics. This is best illustrated by Renaissance art and the rise of depth perspective, in which all images are subordinated to the point of view of a single individual who, therefore,determines all the properties of the phenomena within the frame. As a result, it is not an objective view of phenomena that is offered by the artist, but one that is highly subjective. Such was the individualised view of the world that emerged in Renaissance art that, for the first time in history, artists felt able to sign their own works, claiming ownership, so to speak, over the phenomena depicted in their art.

The same perspective emerged in science, but with the self-deluding view that the subject’s beholding of the world was objective and the one and only way in which ‘reality’ could be seen and experienced. This standpoint of empiricism remains dominant in Western ideology and philosophy to this day. It is the subject in Western philosophy that dictates to phenomena how they shall be.

Whereas Kierkegaard recognised that people were living lives in a falsely subjectivised reality, it was Martin Heidegger (pictured above) who wanted to turn thesubject-object relationship upside down and put the autonomy on the objects. His philosophy sought to let things be, to let them manifest themselves, instead of making them conform to an a priori Dürer grid of transcendental mathematical presuppositions.

His method was to get rid of the concealments and distractions, the cliches and worn out forms of thinking. He would shift his analysis into the worldhood of the world and the everydayness of Dasein, the term he gave to the human mode of being in the world. Human beings are unique amongst things that be because they are conscious of being. To express this, Heidegger coined the word Dasein, literally in German meaning ‘being there’, to highlight this uniqueness. It was in the life of Dasein that Heidegger sought to mark out authenticity and began to challenge the presumptions of Western philosophy.

We, as individual Daseins, are in the world in so far as we are always doing something. We are always engaged with the world through simply living before we are ever aware that we are doing anything. Thinking about how we are engaged with the world is a secondary phenomenon. Descartes got it wrong, according to Heidegger. Thinking is made possible by already being in the world and here the subject is not apprehending an object. On the contrary, there is no chasm between subject and object in Heidegger’s thinking. He posited a non-dualistic alternative to the Platonistic tradition in Western philosophy. Dasein is totally absorbed in an environing world. Here things have an intereferentiality, an enmeshment in which everything in the world refers to something else. The only shift out of this total engagement with the world is when something breaks, becomes a problem and, therefore, conspicuous. It shifts into a theoretical mode about which Dasein has to think.

The implication is that science has been thinking about the world as a broken object, approaching it as a problem to be solved. Science divorces all phenomena from their contexts, abstracting them into a homogeneous mathematical spacial relationship. Yet, for Dasein, it is our individual concern with the world, at any one moment, that creates the importance of what is spatially near or far, an understanding of the world perhaps best exemplified in the anonymous works of pre-Renaissance artists.

The homogeneity of the spatial relationships of science’s abstract world is symbolic of of the tyrannous average everydayness that is imposed upon Dasein. This tyranny is described as the ‘They’, by Heidegger; das Man to be exact. It is the average crowd phenomenon in which everyone does as everyone else does. Indeed it is possible for Dasein to live out his whole life through this averageness. Heidegger believed that most people do just that. It is the tyranny that das Man exerts over Dasein to conform that is the main threat to the authenticity of Dasein.

In the History of the Concept of Time, Heidegger writes about the basic dispositions of Dasein, the moods, as he describes them. These include:


Discoveredness is the way Dasein finds himself in the world. Elsewhere, Heidegger writes of how Dasein is thrown into the world. Discoveredness is the act of disclosure of one’s state of throwness into the world, the disclosure of one’s situation in the world to oneself. Understanding is rooted in Discoveredness. The latter is the ground that makes understanding possible. In turn, understanding enacts the being of discoveredness, through questioning things and exposing what is possible. For example, once something is explained to a child, then it becomes possible for that thing to enter into the child’s environing world. Objects do not appresent themselves until we understand them. For example, understanding what a hammer does enables it to enter my environing world and become part of the intereferentiality of that world.

Fallenness includes the things which dissipate Dasein’s energies and are a drain on authenticity. (Elsewhere, Heidegger writes of how the basic tendency of Dasein is to disburse itself around the world and lose itself in its involvements with the world.) In History of the Concept of Time, Heidegger identified three aspects of fallenness.

Idle talk

Idle talk covers up phenomena in gossip, cliches and mere opinions that have not been thought through. Curiosity is the constant rushing off to the new thing, causing Dasein to be in a constant state of distraction, which disperses energy. It is all part of Dasein’s flight from itself. Ambiguity is a state of always trying to guess what other people are thinking. It entangles Dasein, further dissipating energies and inducing inauthenticity. Heidegger’s vision of Fallenness is close to the Gnostic idea that the soul is fallen into the world, a spark of light that is trapped in matter. It is the threat of Das Man, global man, that Heidegger tried to counter by developing his existentialist philosophy, alone in his cabin, deep in the Black Forest. People lose themselves in cities, in inauthenticity, they disperse themselves in crowds and do what everyone else does, for example, taking a job for the money, rather than for an authentic interest, which leads to an inauthentic life. Heidegger failed to mention that most people do not have a choice about how they earn their living, but are locked into a division of labour. It was with this in mind that Satre connected Marxism and existentialism.

Uncanniness is about the fear, horror and terror that Dasein encounters as part of the nature of being in the world. The explication of the movement of falling as a flight of Dasein from itself has led to the phenomenon of dread as a basic disposition of Dasein to itself. More particularly, the dread is the dread of death - why? Because it is only at the point of death that Dasein is exposed as what it really is. Heidegger writes, ‘there is thus the possibility, in the very moment of departing from the world, so to speak, when the world has nothing more to say to us and every other has nothing more to say, that the world and our being-in-it show themselves purely and simply.’ The flight of Dasein from itself has to end. At the point of death Dasein has no choice but to confront itself.Dasein sees itself in all its nakedness.

Care is what drives all aspects of Dasein’s nature. In care we are ahead of ourselves. There is always an orientation towards the future, making explicit the structure of temporality to Dasein’s life. Heidegger introduces time into philosophy. It was the thing that had been missing from philosophy since Plato and the divorce of being from becoming. Embedded as the subject is into the world, Dasein is always doing something. Heidegger reflected this in his writings by restoring the subject to time. In fact, for Heidegger, being is fundamentally time, flowing through time, always moving forward to accomplish something in time. This urge is rooted in time, constantly moving Dasein forward towards things which sweep it along.

At the end of the History of the Concept of Time,Heidegger moves into an exploration of death. With regard to death, Dasein achieves a type of wholeness. When a tool is finished, it becomes available for use. When a Dasein is finished, it ceases to be in the world. Heidegger believed that each individual Dasein had to come to terms with this fact of the annihilation of being by itself.

Das Man, the ‘they’, tries, during the lifetime of Dasein, to steal authenticity away by covering up death with platitudes such as, ‘well everyone dies’. ‘Everyone dies’, in this context, is about offering the delusion that no one dies. In giving in to that way of thinking, das Man covers up the authenticity of death.

The idea of not being in the world, Heidegger argues, is something that Dasein has to wrestle with before arriving at the realisation that death is always an imminent possibility, always there before Dasein, the ever-present fact that never goes away. It constitutes the totality of Dasein right from the start. It shows to Dasein its being-in-the-world purely and simply. Out of the struggle with this realisation can come the the drive for the creation of an authentic life that will differentiate Dasein from das Man, the one from the everyone.

So death is the single most important thing that motivates Dasein, just as it has been the underlying motivating factor of all the higher cultures throughout history and pre-history. Most of the achaological remains of the earliest cultures are associated with death. Be it the Egyptians with their cult of mummification, or the Hindus with their ceremonial burning of the dead, each civilisation centres on an agreed ceremonial mode of the disposal of the dead. Looking back to the Paleolithic era, it is the burial site that is associated with the very beginnings of human culture. One is tempted to say in the light of Heidegger’s work that the life led by Stone Age man was a much more authentic one than the life led by das Man.

John Dunn.

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