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Heidegger's Hermeneutics Of Existence

Seizing upon this idea that life is intrinsically interpretative, the early Heidegger spoke of a "hermeneutical intuition" as early as 1919. His teacher Edmund Husserl (1859–1938) had reinstated the urgency and legitimacy of primal "intuition" in philosophy. But Heidegger revealed himself a reader of Dilthey when he stressed that every intuition is hermeneutical. Understanding is not a cognitive inquiry that the human sciences would methodically refine, it is our primary means of orientation in the world. Our factual life is involved in this world ("being there": Dasein, as he would later put it) by ways of understanding. Relying here on the German expression sich auf etwas verstehen, which means "to know one's way about," "to be able," Heidegger puts a new twist on the notion of understanding by viewing it less as an intellectual undertaking than as an ability. It is more akin to a "know-how." Understanding is not primarily the reconstruction of the meaning of an expression (as in classical hermeneutics and Dilthey); it always entails the projecting, and self-projecting, of a possibility of my own existence. There is no understanding without projection or anticipations.

We are factually (faktisch) thrown into existence as finite beings, in a world that we will never fully master. This anxiety for one's own being is for Heidegger the source of understanding. Because we are overwhelmed by existence and confronted with our mortality, we project ourselves in ways of intelligibility and reason that help us keep things in check for a while. Every mode of understanding is related to this "being there" (Dasein) in this overwhelming world. A momentous shift in the focus of hermeneutics has silently taken place in the work of Heidegger from texts or a certain type of science to existence itself and its quest of understanding.

This rising program was carried over in Heidegger's main work Being and Time (1927), but with some slight modifications (Grondin, 2003). While it remained obvious that human facticity is forgetful of itself and its interpretatory nature, and possibilities, the focus shifted to the question of Being as such. The primary theme of hermeneutics was less the immediate facticity of our Being in this world than the fact that the presuppositions of the understanding of Being remain hidden in a tradition that needs to be reopened (or "destroyed," as Heidegger puts it). Such a hermeneutics still aims at a self-awakening of existence, but it does so by promising to sort out the fundamental structures of our understanding of being.

These structures are temporal in nature (hence the title Being and Time) and have everything to do with the inauthentic or authentic carrying through of our existence. Heidegger's later philosophy, while relinquishing the notion of hermeneutics as such, nevertheless radicalized this idea by claiming that our understanding of Being is brought about by the event of an overbearing history of Being that commands all our interpretations. Postmodern readings of Heidegger (Michel Foucault, Gianni Vattimo, Richard Rorty, Jacques Derrida) drew relativistic conclusions out of this shift of hermeneutics toward the history of Being. Hence, the tendency in recent debates to amalgamate hermeneutics and postmodernism, a tendency that the hermeneutics of Gadamer seems both to encourage and to combat.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Habit memory: to HeterodontHermeneutics - The Art Of Interpretation Of Sacred Texts, Hermeneutics As The Methodological Basis Of The Human Sciences