Cats and Theories
a blog by coticheque
a blog by coticheque

Why we should all read Heidegger

I know it’s a blasphemy to claim that you understand even a bit of Heidegger. However, let me express a cursed opinion today and claim that Heidegger is relevant to our every-day life, and his ‘Being and Time’ is a great source of ideas on how to interpret the stuff happening around. If you’re a professional philosopher, please don’t read the stuff from below, I clearly got it all wrong.

First of all, it’s puzzling how the vast majority of people don’t find anything odd about the human existence. Like the fact that your mind appeared in some random place and time out of sheer nothingness, and is given a limited time to contemplate this odd situation until the nothingness takes it back into its realm. The fact that ‘you’ is nothing else but a point of view mounted on the shoulders of a strange body with a certain number of limbs – it’s unclear to me why people don’t find this whole set-up weird. So that’s the first point why Heidegger is relevant. He simply states that the phenomenon of a plain sheer existence has never deserved a proper attention throughout the history of Western philosophy. Existence is problematic.

Heidegger calls the act of realization of uncanniness of existence ‘Angst’ – the feeling of existential dread. It comes as a shiver down your spine and makes you feel not at home. I don’t know about you, but I experienced this dreadful feeling for the first time in the childhood – the feeling that existence is an uncanny condition, and what’s even more dreadful – it might last forever. A thought so dreadful that even the idea of death seemed like a nice option for a release. Existence, what’s more – an infinite one, is much more horrifying than death itself. In short: I’m giving existential Angst the rating of 10/10 – that’s the best way to get rid of the fear of death!

Anyway, what Heidegger is actually preoccupied with in ‘Being and Time’ is ‘the philosophical anthropology’, the study of human being. The fundamental thought of Heidegger is that a human being cannot be separated from the world, it cannot exist independently in isolation – it’s ‘worldlish’ by nature. Thus, he calls human being ‘Da-sein’ – a ‘here-being’, worldish and localized. After establishing the ground, he comes up with a very interesting categorization of human condition, that I think is very useful in comprehending everyday life. He calls it ‘the structure of being-in-the-world’ and makes it comprised of three parts.

The first idea is the ‘Forwardness’ or the ‘Fore-throw’ of the human being (‘Entwurf’). It’s a uniquely human way of being – existing in the state of embracing potential possibilities and opportunities. The ability to choose a course for the future out of numerous options. For instance, animals don’t have a luxury of having such choice – they lack the ability to contemplate the future, and inhabit a forever ‘now’. Heidegger call this unique human feature ‘Forwardness’ or ‘Projection’.

A real-world relevance of this idea is especially evident when it comes to… judging people. How can a man be judged? By the life path he has pursued insofar, or is currently pursuing, by the opportunities he has brought into existence, or by all the future options potentially available to him? Here comes the problem of finiteness. The fact that a human can only exercise one option at a time, out of myriads of possibilities, brings difficulty into the understanding of being. In our world, in our society, it usually doesn’t matter how many ideas and plans for the future you have – you will inevitably be judged by such tangible things like your profession, and results of your other choices exercised in the past. People judge others as ‘what’ they are, while you judge yourself by the freedom of your possibilities, what you can be. According to Heidegger, this is a wrong understanding of being. The task is to understand others in the same way as you would understand or judge yourself. Human being is not like other beings occupying the physical world – to understand Da-sein is to ‘forethrow the possibilities in which it reveals itself’.

Two other unique features typical to human condition are ‘Thrownness’ and ‘Fallenness’.

‘Thrownness’ (‘Geworrfenheit’) signifies the fact that a man is thrown into the world, both physical and cultural, that existed long before himself. The world has undergone centuries of development, millions of thoughts have been thought, thousands of theories debated. We’re thrown into the world of unfamiliar objects. A human doesn’t have a freedom to start from scratch, preserve his mind as a ‘tabula rasa’ – he has to get educated and adjust himself to the world order that has been in place for many decades. He’s thrown into the place he hasn’t chosen: whether it’s geographical location of a birthplace, socio-economical background of the family of origin, or the historical timeline.

The final feature of Da-sein is ‘Fallenness’ (‘Verfallen’). It represents a man’s propensity to ‘fall’ into worldlish things, losing himself, scattering himself, attaching himself too much to the society or everyday matters of common life, forgetting about the fact of his being. That’s a ‘forgetful’, ‘inauthentic’ existence, in which most of the human lifetime is spent. Regardless of man’s will, a vast share of life is spent this way.

What’s also interesting is that Heidegger attaches a serious meaning to the idea of mood – as it directly affects the way we perceive the world and regard existence at any particular moment. He calls mood a ‘Befindlichkeit’ or ‘Attunement’. The world looks like a doomed place and life seems like a burden, when you’re depressed. When you’re inspired, existence seems like rather a wonderful opportunity.

In general, Heidegger places emphasis on this ordinary everyday life, not a concept of an ideal life envisaged by philosophers. I think Heidegger would be actually closely comparable and relatable to many contemporary pop-psychology gurus, who claim that you have to ‘live here and now’, be ‘mindful’, bla bla bla. Stripped down of all complex vocabulary, Heidegger is manifesting kind of the same thing. He praises the everyday world, or ‘Umwelt’. He thinks it was unjustifiably overlooked by philosophy. He says that the conceptual legacy produced by Greek / Western philosophers (starting from Plato) who manifest existence of transcendent ideas, categories and other ideal things and that we take as a granted approach to philosophy is just wrong and deceptive. The truth is that the world is ‘worldlish’, not ideal. Idealistic philosophy thus ‘falls out from the world’, it becomes purely theoretical, vastly indifferent and ‘unworldled’. Heidegger thinks that our common everyday approach to the ordinary world is superior: at least it grants an ability to relate to things and interact with the world directly, not just contemplate it via mental philosophical inquiries. So his background in phenomenology is quite visible here.

So what’s the ontology of Heidegger? What’s his stance on reality and being, on space and time?

Well, he gives two ultimate statements. First, ‘the being is grounded in the finiteness of the lifetime’. Second, a man can only exist through understanding, ‘man’s way to be is to understand’. But what does it all mean?

First, let’s start by looking at how a man shouldn’t be.

A fascinating idea very applicable to the modern life is Heidegger’s famous concept of ‘Das Man’ or ‘they-self’. He claims that people tend to spend a vast share of their lives existing as ‘Das Man’ – some sort of inauthentic collective being, where any authentic features of one’s personality are averaged out by the multiplicity of others. Like, calibrating one’s own aspirations and pursuits to what ‘others’ do, or how they would judge an act of one’s own. ‘Reduction to uniformity’. The true scope of all genuine possibilities available to an authentic self is overshadowed by the limits prevailing in one’s immediate social context.

Another awful feature of existing in a society, according to Heidegger, is the never-ending chatter and idle talk (‘Gerede’) that people constantly engage in. It’s not only useless, but actually harmful. In everyday chatter there’s no room for truth, for genuine discovery. People find explanation for everything. Idle talk leaves nothing unexplained. If you share an exciting discovery with others, they most likely will present it as something banal and already known by everyone. Idle talk is the killer of genuine aspirations.

On the opposite, the whole function of genuine talk is discovering and understanding. Idle talk is therefore a falsification of speech!

This lack of discovery is closely connected to Heidegger’s concept of truth. He thinks that truth is purely subjective, if I may call it this way. Repeating and reinstating universally known things without giving them a thought doesn’t bring any value. Only something that you conclude yourself as a result of long contemplations can be considered a genuine discovery of truth. So that’s the explanation of the first statement that ‘man’s being is understanding’.

On the opposite, while existing in society, a man finds tranquility in the idea that ‘they’ hold the secret of the true life. A man therefore ‘disowns’ himself, giving up on understanding and fulfilment of his own possibilities. Action and achievement of something lose any meaning to him.

So how to revert it and live authentically?

Fortunately, a unique feature of Heidegger is that he’s a great motivational speaker! Take for instance his view on possibilities. Humans always exist in the context of a myriad of possibilities available to them, where life is just making a choice which opportunity to bring into being. Heidegger calls this ‘Care’ (‘Sorge’) – always being ahead and beyond yourself. Perception of possibilities is revealed through moods: such as hopelessness, disillusionment and despair. Striving to become what you can become – that’s the only way to appropriate your existence and make it solely your own. Like a fruit comes to ripeness, maturity of a man comes as a realization and fulfilment of his possibilities!

But why should someone aspire to fulfil his possibilities?

Heidegger simply says it’s something natural to human beings: in fact, the phenomenon of ‘Conscience’ (‘Gewissen’) – an internal voice of moral obligation, is something that tells us what we should do and what we should strive to become. In fact – it’s a ‘call for Care’. A call to get back from the ‘scatteredness into a they-self’, from the lostness to things. In other words, you sort of owe to take over your being and appropriate it as your own. Thus, distinguishing between authentic and inauthentic ways of being is easy: if one hears the call of conscience, it means the life is not being lived as it’s supposed to be lived.

Another crucial thing is death, and the realization of life’s finiteness. The already discussed feeling of Angst, or existential dread, is the first step on the way to the owned life. By realizing how finite, weird and uncanny our existence is, a man can truly start to care. As Heidegger constantly reinstates, death is the ‘contraction of all possibilities’ – at its point everything is definite and no potential possibilities are present any longer. And since having possibilities is the essence of human being, upon death being is no longer possible, thus it ceases to be. In some sense, death is also a way of being. Every day we age and the number of our possibilities gets smaller and smaller. That adds the urgency to care

Heidegger says that ‘being-unto-death is grounded in the temporal structure of here-being’s coming-to-himself in his utmost possibility’. In other words, death is always a starting point of an authentic life. Fleeing from death is the most obvious sign of a disowned being. You should embrace your finite temporality. The true care is structured as a ‘being-to-an-end’ or a ‘being-unto-death’.

In order to remind yourself of your unique being, Heidegger recommends visiting cemeteries. I cannot agree more! Cemeteries are the best refuge from the irritating worldlishness of the world, its things, irrelevant stuff that intrudes the mind.

So, never forget that only the owned existence is the highest and worthiest way of being, since this is how a man can fulfil his essence, his destiny, and stand to his truth!

Finally, let’s proceed to the primary question of ‘Being and Time’: how can a man understand being?

The short answer is: through repulsion of the nothing. The famous phrase of Heidegger that ‘Nothing negates’ (‘Das Nicht nichtet’) means exactly that. The nothingness is too repulsive to humans, therefore they rather prefer to stick to familiarity of the ordinary being as a safe and firm ground. Same way, the word ‘never’ repels us and turns us back to the ‘factical, measurable and finite’ staying in the world. So the man can only understand being if he understands the nothing, if he comes face-to-face with it.

Same way as the truth is discovery, the being is disclosedness. The reality can only be disclosed to a man through inquiry. Questions like: Why? Why this and not that? Why so and not otherwise? Why anything at all and not rather nothing? are disclosing being to a man, like the truth is being disclosed to the mind. To exist is to ‘stand out into the truth of being’. This is called ‘the disclosing function of existential understanding’. And this is one of the most important ideas in Heidegger’s ontology.

So back to the ontology. The fundamental ontological questions are: What is the world? What’s the reality? What’s space and time? In the 21st century, these questions don’t excite us anymore. We’re too used to the well-known concepts of the ‘objective world’ of science and the ‘subjective world’ of one’s mind. On the one hand, you can get a false impression that being a phenomenologist, Heidegger is purely subjective. However, Heidegger is beyond the narrative of objective/ subjective. In fact, his own ontology is very original. First, he says the existence of the world and the reality of it is undeniable. As already mentioned in the beginning, the man is thrown into a physical world full of things. However, this existence is nothing without understanding. And only a man has a superior ability to bring the world of things into being by understanding it and ‘disclosing its truth’. Only through a man can objects come into being. Only a man can glimpse into their unique being. For instance, in case the humankind ceases to exist, trees and stars will of course keep existing. However, they will be undisclosed, unnamed objects not understood by anyone. Nobody will disclose them, discover them, give them a name. And according to Heidegger, it means they won’t ‘truly be’.

Done with the being. What about the time?

Heidegger says we shouldn’t live ‘in a moment’. The idea of time that’s constituted of a succession, never-ending string of ‘nows’ is meaningless. Only the time that constitutes a coherent story of one’s truthful being bears sense. The string of nows implies the endlessness of time. However, no authentic being is possible this way. As already discussed, only the finiteness of being reveals the possibility of authentic life. Endless, passing, irreversible flow of nows is only characteristical of ‘Das Man’, a mode of common existence, where death is not disclosed and everyone is thus replaceable.

The truth of space is grounded in time, or more like in temporality. Life would not even be possible without death! Being-toward-an-end is the only true way of being.

So where does the journey start from? It starts from the shiver down the spine. The feeling of uncanniness, of not being at home. It starts with dread. Then comes the death. Then comes the true life.

The journey starts from the future, from the end. The revelation of death throws the man back into his world, and ultimately makes him come towards himself in his possibilities. The end becomes the ground. The ‘not’ revealed in the end of life enables man to understand being and ‘bring him into the dignity and uniqueness of a finitely free existence’.

How motivational, huh?

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