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Continental Philosophy

Heidegger And The Phenomenology Of Being

Heidegger studied Scholastic philosophy and theology at the University of Freiburg, where he became acquainted with Husserl's new phenomenological movement. In 1927 he published his most famous work, Sein und Zeit (Being and Time). In 1933 he served briefly as the rector of the University of Freiburg but was stripped of his professorship in 1945 because of his personal involvement with the national socialist movement and his membership in the Nazi Party. After the war, his stubborn silence about Nazi atrocities and the Holocaust cast a dark shadow over his otherwise brilliant career. He died in 1976, and in accordance with his wishes, he had a Catholic funeral.

In his student days, when he read Brentano's On the Manifold Meaning of Being since Aristotle (1862), Heidegger became absorbed with the question of time as experienced by human beings and with the question of the meaning of being (Seinsfrage); that is, what it means "to be." He gradually came to the conclusion that all Western philosophy, beginning with Plato's theory of suprasensible Forms, had conceived being and time as opposites, mutually exclusive of each other. Even Aristotle had interpreted time as constant "presence" and as a "now," without reference to being and past and future horizons. Western metaphysics had described God too as eternal "Now" (Nunc stans), beyond all time. Heidegger called attention to this "onto-theological" character of metaphysics and maintained that the actual, unitary relationship between being and time in human existence had been "forgotten" in lieu of dualisms such as time and eternity.

In addition to Heidegger's existential interpretation of such terms as techne, phronesis, and sophia in Artistotle's Ethics, his studies of time in early Christianity, Augustin, Luther, and Kiekegaard had a great influence on Being and Time. In turn, Heidegger had a deep impact on contemporary Protestant and Catholic theology.

Reevaluating the relationship between being and time, Heidegger argued that human existence must be understood from three dimensions of "ec-static" (i.e., existential) time: past, present, and future in their intimate, ontological interdependence. He used the German word Dasein to describe the human being with his/her implicit understanding of being. The "Da" or "there" of Dasein expresses that the human being is not a thing-like "substance" (Aristotle) or an enclosed "subject" (Descartes). Rather, the human being is an open realm, a "clearing" (Lichtung) as in a forest, wherein the understanding of being, of other human beings and things, and of man's own self takes place simultaneously. Dasein is always already a "being-with-others" in a shared, communal way of life. For Heidegger, Dasein is ontologically gender neutral. Because of its temporal character, Dasein is not a static entity but a "potentiality-for-being" (Seinkonnen), a temporal movement of possible ways of being, which the individual chooses or lets others choose for him. Dasein is always a projecting of oneself into the future toward death, its "authentic" acceptance or its "inauthentic" denial.

Another related term for Dasein is existence, from the Latin ec-sistence, meaning "standing out" into the openness of being. Existence applies only to human beings and is characterized by "mineness," which can be "authentic" or "inauthentic." Still another relational word for Dasein is "being-in-the-world," which negates the subject-object dualism of Descartes and Husserl, and articulates Dasein's holistic and practical involvement with, and comportment toward, the world. Dasein is not disclosed to us through "categories" of things, but rather through its prescientific characteristics, which Heidegger called "existentials" such as disposition (Befindlichkeit), existential understanding (Verstehen), and speech (Rede).

According to Heidegger, in Identität und Differenz (1957; Identity and Difference), Western metaphysics erred in its inadequate understanding of time as pure "presence" for a subject. Furthermore, Western metaphysics forgot the primordial "ontological difference" between "being" and "beings" in favor of only "ontical differences" between beings such as God, world, and humanity. Heidegger maintained that metaphysics had to be "destructed" in order to positively unearth and retrieve its forgotten, primordial experience of being as the "unthought" in Western metaphysics. In Derrida's "deconstruction" of texts, which was originally influenced by Heidegger, the term took on a more critical, "disruptive" interpretation of literary texts. Heidegger "deconstructed" Western metaphysics by reinterpreting the texts of numerous Western thinkers from the sixth-century-B.C.E. Greek philosopher Parmenides to Nietzsche.

In his analysis of "being-in-the-world," Heidegger also distinguished between things "ready-to-hand" (Zuhanden) —objects of practical concern with a historical and/or social context—and things "present-at-hand" (Vorhanden) —things abstracted from their context and made objects of our theoretical, scientific knowledge. Heidegger demonstrated that Western philosophy overlooked the original human context of "ready-to-hand" things in favor of "present-at-hand" things, "objects" in abstract space and time, as exemplified by theoretical, scientific reasoning. In this "metaphysics of presence," being itself was described as a property or essence, constantly present in things as a "substance."

One can only enumerate a few other "existentials" in Being and Time, such as the anonymous "they" (das Man); temporality in which "care," with its threefold structure of projection, thrownness, and fallenness is rooted; existential "guilt" and "conscience"; anxiety (Angst); "death" as the ultimate disclosure of "my" finitude and mortality, the impossibility of all my possibilities. A central place in Being and Time and other writings is devoted to the distinction between "logical truth" and "ontological truth" as standing in the light of being. According to Heidegger, the Greeks already implicitly distinguished ontological truth as "unconcealment" (aletheia) emerging from the background of a deeper "concealment" (lethe) prior to any logical, propositional truth.

Heidegger's later philosophy, after his so-called turn (die Kehre), was first expressed in the Brief über den Humanismus (1947; Letter on Humanism), according to which Western "humanism," with its one-sided emphasis on "subject" and "reason," is, nevertheless, rooted in the prior but forgotten relationship of Dasein to being. As opposed to traditional "calculative" thinking, as critiqued in Beiträge zur Philosophie 1936–1938 (1989; Contributions to Philosophy), Heidegger's later, "meditative" thinking concerned itself with many new themes, such as art, language, science, and technology. In a highly speculative apocalyptic manner, the later Heidegger considered the present technological stage of the history of being as the abandonment of humankind by being itself. Yet, Heidegger's later thinking, which he understood as a "thanking" response to the call of being, is focused on an "other beginning" for humankind. Humans must "listen" and respond in a new meditative-poetic thinking, which might lead to a transformed way of life after the ages of metaphysics, a "letting-be" (Gelassenheit) of beings, a term taken from Johannes Eckehart (c. 1260–?1327) and German, medieval, mystical tradition. In a few German poets (Hölderlin, Trakl, George) Heidegger saw the hidden prophets of the future "destining" (sending) of being itself to humans.

In his growing skepticism even about the use of the word "being," Heidegger looked for new words that would mark the postmetaphysical era. He chose the term "disclosive appropriating Event" (Ereignis, from ereignen, "appropriate," and eraeugen, to see and disclose), a pure subjectless happening, from which the "fourfold" regions of the world, in their interplay between heaven, earth, mortals, and the divinities, emerge into the nearness of humanity. Heidegger's other attempts to say the "unsayable" in expressing the mystery of being (which is not in human control) include the phrases: "dif-ference" (Unterschied) of the simultaneous withholding and unfolding of being in beings; and the "fissure" (Zerklueftung) of being itself. Finally, he talked about the singular "Event" that gives and approximates being (es gibt Sein) and time by a simultaneous self-withdrawal and "expropriation" (Enteignung).

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Condensation to CoshContinental Philosophy - Wittgenstein And Analytic Philosophy, Freud And The Unconscious, Phenomenology Of Consciousness, Heidegger And The Phenomenology Of Being