The Question of Being

Dr William Large

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.

And yet the more we think about this word are we really sure that we know what it means? 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 definitions of the concept of being, which appear mutually exclusive, and yet explain our indifference to renewing the question of being:

· That being is the most general concept
· That the concept of being is indefinable
· 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 belong to the species ‘human being’. But the category of being belongs to every individual that exist and thus transcends the difference between species. It is therefore the most general concept. This very generality would lead some thinkers, and Heidegger uses the example of Pascal [BT 4], 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 does not, we can say nothing about it. We cannot even say that being is, for there are only individual beings. Despite these philosophical difficulties, some would even argue that that the meaning of Being is obvious since we make use of the expression in our everyday discourse.

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 difference 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 a 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:

Das Suchen – seeking
Das Gefragtes – that which is asked about
Das Befragtes – that which is interrogated
Das Erfragte – that which is to be found out by asking
We can apply each of these parts to the question of being. The seeking is the question of Being. But every seeking, Heidegger, argues, is not merely a groping in the dark. To be able to seek something the way to the something that one seeks must already be given in some way. In relation to the question 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. The ‘that which is asked about' in this question is Being as it is already given in the difference between being and Beings. The ‘that which is to found out by asking’ is the meaning of Being. The meaning of being is the being of beings. Thus the ‘that which is interrogated’ in the question are beings. Being are everything that we speak and intend that is there in reality, present to us. 

But if the only way into the general question of Being is via beings, why is it not the discourses that investigate being that can answer this question for us? Is it not science that tells 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) 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 and this distinction is not a scientific question. 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. This understanding of being therefore has an ontological priority. Ontology however tells us nothing about the specific nature of any thing. 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.

However, the ontological difference between beings and Being does tell us that there is one being that has an ontical priority over all other being, 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 world is something that we seek to understand. And if we did not seek to understand 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 being there (this is the literal translation of the German word Dasein) when we say that a table or a chair ‘is’; 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 understand myself though the possibilities that are offered me, Heidegger calls existentiell. 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 itself, 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 four parts, 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. It is this analytic which we will be the object of our own investigation in the next five lectures. We should remember that it is only the preparatory opening onto the general question of Being for Heidegger. It should be note that Heidegger never wrote the final division of the first part, where he might have advance 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.

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 this being? What we are is perhaps something that we all know, but how we are is something that is obscure to us:

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].
Understanding our own being is not an epistemological problem, as for example the knowledge or external objects, for we all, as we have already seen, live in this understanding because of the very beings that we are. However this understanding can either be something that stands out for us, or something that is concealed and it does so Heidegger says in its everydayness. Dasein, therefore, as something present to hand, must be understood in its everydayness. In investigating everydayness, which is the manner of being of Dasein, which shall discover that its horizon is time. Time is will therefore be the clue to the general meaning of being itself.

If the object of the analytic of Dasein is Dasein’s everydayness, then what method will allow us to investigate this object? The answer is historical phenomenology. History can be understood as merely a collection of facts about the past, but ontological speaking history belongs to the very way that Dasein understands its own being. To distinguish the latter from the former, Heidegger calls it historicity. But even the question of being must belong to Dasein’s historicity. Thus the question comes to us from the past, and shaped by the past. This means that the way of asking the question are already given to us and shape and determine the way that we might find a way to answer it. We have already seen this to be the case in the opening pages of Being and Time

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 the case the everydayness of Dasein, that we are interrogated 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 is has been the being of things, rather than the being of Dasein 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 therefore what Heidegger calls a ‘destruction’ of the tradition. 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. 

The other side of the method is phenomenology. For the attempt is to describe everydayness in its own being, and this is very aim of a phenomenological analysis to present that which shows itself in the very way that it shows itself:

Phenomenology means... to let that which shows itself be seen from itself in the very way in which it shows itself from itself [BT 34].
This notion of directly grasping something should not be with any naïvity, for the way in which things conceal themselves belongs to their very essence as phenomenon. The task is to bring this concealment to presence. In relation to the particular object Dasein, phenomenology is to be understood as hermeneutics. This is not simply because the investigation is historical, as described above, but that the phenomenological investigation is interpretative. My being is not something that stands outside of me; rather it belongs to the very way that I understand myself. This has important consequences in that the very way that I understand myself changes the way that I am. 

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