In his preface to the seventh German edition of Being and Time, Heidegger makes clear his intent in writing: to “raise anew the question of the meaning of being [Sein]” (xxix, original emphasis). It will be his task, over the course of the introduction, to “reawaken an understanding for the meaning of this question” (xxix). Indeed, the overarching project of Being and Time is to wrest the question of the meaning of being from “obscurity” (2), and to restore it to primacy as the philosophical task. To do so, the givenness of being, which Heidegger sees as a consequence of the historical degeneration of Greek thought, must be questioned. As the quotation in the note preceding the introduction reads: “For manifestly you have been long aware of what you mean when you use the expression ‘being’ [‘seiend’]. We, however, who use to think we understood it, have now become perplexed” (xxix). The being of being perplexes; it must be analyzed, questioned, so that the ontological might be rescued from the obscure obviousness of the metaphysical. From section one to section thirteen, Heidegger attempts precisely such a rescue. In these opening pages of Being and Time, Heidegger effectively dismantles classical metaphysics and its modern appropriations, so that the question of the meaning of being might once again be the driving force of philosophy.
The question of the meaning of being was not always obscured by metaphysical givenness. In Plato and Aristotle, it was “wrested from phenomena by the highest exertion of thought,” but by the time of Hegel’s Logic, it had been “trivialized” (1). Heidegger laments the fact that being had come to be considered “the most universal and the emptiest concept,” and that it was, therefore, “obvious” (2). But if Plato and Aristotle understood the import of the question, how did this degeneration occur? Heidegger’s identifies three “prejudices” which, in their historical transmission and development from the Greeks to his present, contributed to the trivialization of the question of being: first, “”[b]eing” is the most “universal” concept,” second, “[t]he concept of “being” is indefinable,” and third,” “[b]eing” is the self-evident concept” (2-3). Though Aristotle himself understood that “being is not a genus,” with the medievals being became the “transcendens” (2), a shift which effectively reified being, reducing it to the originary thing (albeit a transcendent thing). With Hegel, then, being became even more obscure, the “indeterminate immediate” (2), losing its distinctness as the being of beings. Because being can neither be “derived” nor “represented,” it is therefore taken as “self-evident,” and consequently, as the “indeterminate immediate,” it is “shrouded in darkness” (3). The understanding of the question is lost.
The first step to a recovery of the question of the meaning of being is the recognition that “we live already in an understanding of being” (3), and that the question of the meaning of the being in which we live is itself bound up in the being it questions. Heidegger proceeds to “discuss what belongs to a question in general,” so as to demonstrate this inner relation of being, understanding, and questioning (4). He asserts that, when “we ask, ‘what is ‘being’ [‘Sein’]?’ we stand in an understanding of the ‘is’ without being able to determine conceptually what the ‘is’ means.” We always already have an “average and vague understanding of being” (4, original emphasis). Thus, to ask the question of the meaning of being is already to enter into the meaning which is sought; the questioning draws out the being (Sein) in which the “being [Seienden], the questioner,” is understandingly involved (4).
What is the question, then? Heidegger discusses three “structural moments” that will provide us with insight: first, “[w]hat is to be asked about,” second, “what is to be ascertained,” and third, “what is interrogated” (5). With the question of the meaning of being, what is asked about is “that in terms of which beings have always been understood,” what is to be ascertained is the “meaning” of this being as it is “essentially distinct from the concepts in which beings receive their determination,” and what is to be interrogated is beings “with regard to their being” (5). Thus, in turning the question back upon its structure, the “thatness and whatness” of the being of beings—that after which all questioning seeks—is drawn into the light (4). Because the being of beings is only ascertained through the interrogation of beings, it therefore becomes necessary for “a being—one who questions” to be made “transparent in its being” (6). In questioning the question of the meaning of being, Heidegger not only draws out the being of beings, but the being of the questioner who seeks the meaning of being. That being is Dasein.
Heidegger considers Dasein to be the “exemplary being [Seiende]” because questioning is a “mode of being” of Dasein, and it is through questioning that the question of the meaning of being itself arises (6). Indeed, every question is, in its structure, haunted by this “eminent” question; therefore, it is Dasein, insofar as it exposes this question, that must be examined (4). In questioning and understanding, Dasein is a “co-player” with being”; it is that which, in its “essence ... plays to and with being—brings [being] into the play of resonance” (6). As such, Dasein is “held as relation” (7), a mode of being that Heidegger describes as a “grasping” and “choosing” of being, a mode unique to Dasein (6). In its being, Dasein is not simply itself, but is essentially related to the being that it questions, resonating and playing with being in its “average understanding” of it (7). Thus, in the being of Dasein we see the “relatedness” between
“what is asked about (being) [Sein]” and “asking as a mode of being of a being” (7). This “engagement” between questioner and questioned “belongs to the innermost meaning of the question of being” (7). It is this engagement that will distinguish Heidegger’s ontology from all other philosophical or scientific pursuits.
The question of the meaning of being is the “most basic” and “most concrete question” (8, original emphasis). It is the question that precedes all other questions. Taken in their “totality,” beings can “become the field where particular domains of knowledge are exposed and delimited,” which “can in their turn become thematized as objects of scientific investigations” (8). But the being that Heidegger interrogates “is always the being of a being” (8); that is, it is that which allows for scientific knowledge, that which comes before the delimitation of a particular domain. Though a domain of scientific investigation might have its own “fundamental structures” and “concepts,” one must be sure not to hold these fundamentals as originary (9). They emerge from “an understanding that precedes and guides all positive investigation,” from the “genuine evidence and ‘grounding’” of the “area of knowledge itself” (9). The totality of beings, marked out as the domain of the knowable, has its own constitution which must be questioned, a question that cannot be extricated from the question of the meaning of being. An area of knowledge goes astray when it ontologizes its fundamental concepts as the “basic constitution” of being (9); therefore, ontology “must precede the positive sciences” so as to avoid this error (9).
The question of ontology leads us to the distinct constitution of Dasein: it “does not simply occur among other beings. Rather it is ontically distinguished by the fact that in its being this being is concerned about its very being ... it is constitutive of the being of Dasein to have, in its very being, a relation of being to this being” (11, original emphasis). Science is possible because of this particular constitution of Dasein; indeed, science is one possible mode of being for Dasein, borne out by the “ontic distinction of Dasein” as “ontological” (11). In relating to being, Dasein always already stands in an understanding of being, which precedes even formal or sophisticated ontology as a “pre-ontological” understanding (11). This sort of understanding Heidegger describes as “existentiell understanding,” as opposed to the “structure of existence” in its “existentiality” (11). Existentiell understanding understands existence without science or analysis, without explicit ontology; in fact, it is this mode of understanding that makes existential analysis possible in the first place. To speak of Dasein, then, is to speak of the existentiality which it understandingly (existentielly) inhabits. In an “ontic” way, Dasein is “defined in its being by existence” and, in an “ontological” way, Dasein is “in itself ‘ontological’” (12). Dasein has, therefore, the “ontic-ontological condition” that affords the “possibility of all ontologies” (12). Therefore, to ask the question of the meaning of being, and to understand the meaning of the question, is to interrogate the being of Dasein that asks the question, which is to analyze the being of Dasein in the “distinctive function” of its being (13). Dasein is “the being that always already in its being is related to what is sought” in the question of the meaning of being, and it is through the being of Dasein that Heidegger will elaborate his “fundamental ontology” (13, 12, original emphasis).
Having established Dasein as the being to be interrogated, Heidegger argues that “Dasein tends to understand its own being [Sein] in terms of the being [Seienden] to which it is essentially, continually, and most closely related—the ‘world’” (15-16). In Dasein’s existentiell understanding—that is, the “average everydayness” of its understanding (16)—the “constitution of [its] being ... remains hidden” from it (16). But, through an analysis of the existential structure of Dasein and the world with which it is a “co-player,” the “horizon” of Dasein’s “most primordial interpretation of being” is “expose[d]” (17). That horizon is time. It is time “from which Dasein tacitly understands and interprets something like being at all” (17). Put otherwise, time is the existential structure that produces the everyday understanding of Dasein, the questioning, seeking, grasping, and choosing which are constitutive of its being. The unique “occurrence” of Dasein is in time, in temporality (as opposed to the occurrence of objects in their unknowing spatial continuance), and therefore Heidegger argues that “historicity” is a “temporal mode of being of Dasein itself” (19). As such, to undertake an ontological explication of Dasein, one must analyze its “ontic-ontological condition” across time and in history, a “task” which ultimately leads Heiddeger to “the destruction of the traditional content of ancient ontology” (22, original emphasis). This destruction is not a “negative” act, however, but is intended to draw out the “limits” that are in fact the “positive possibilities in that tradition” (22, original emphasis). From the tradition of Western philosophy—from Plato and Aristotle, through Descartes and Kant, to Bergson and Husserl—Heidegger works toward “explicit knowledge” of the “ontological function of time,” and the “ground of the possibility of this function,” thereby returning and reawakening us to the fundamental question of the tradition, the question of the meaning of being, and the implications of such, without being determined by the tradition’s prejudices (25).
Over the next several sections, Heidegger elaborates his phenomenological method, the two primary “characteristics” of Dasein (“the priority of “existentia” and “always-being-mine”), the distinction of “existentials” from “categories,” and their unity as the “two fundamental possibilities of the characteristics of being,” the emptiness of the “res cogitans” divorced from the question of the “sum,” a positive understanding of the “nonreified being of the subject, the soul, consciousness, the spirit, the person,” and the relation of that person to the “natural concept of world,” the “manifold” of “world images” that might be considered the domain of all knowledge (26, 42, 44, 45, 48, 50, original emphasis). Through these discussions, Heidegger cumulatively builds upon the fundamental ontology drawn out of his preparatory questioning of being and the being of Dasein, preparing the way for a discussion of the distinctive and “unified phenomenon” of “being-in-the-world,” which is Dasein’s existential posture (53, original emphasis).
It is from the phenomenon of being-in-the-world that Heidegger derives the “facticity” of Dasein, as distinct from the factual “object presence” of things: the “concept of facticity implies that an “innerworldy” being has being-in-the-world in such a way that it can understand itself as bound up in its “destiny” with the being of those beings which its encounters within its own world” (56). This is Dasein’s “existential spatiality,” its “being toward the world” as “care”—Dasein grasps the world, is this grasping, the relating “together with” in encounter (57, 56, original emphasis). In this essential mode, Dasein is finally made transparent. As Heidegger asserts, Dasein is not a “thinglike substantial being,” but the being “which is related understandingly in its being toward that being [Sein]” (47, 53). On the basis of this argument, then, Heidegger responds to the “problem of knowledge” (61). Knowledge is not merely an “object” or “content” to be acquired, but a “modality” of Dasein, Dasein’s “already-being-alongside-the-world,” its “taking care of things,” and its being “taken in by [benommen] the world” (59, 61). Knowledge is a “dwelling” of “perception” that is “always already “outside,”” because Dasein is never only “inside,” but is too “always already “outside” together with some being encountered in the world already discovered” (62). To know is to care is to perceive is to be—this is the existential structure of Dasein.
The first thirteen sections of Being and Time leave us with an entirely new position to go about our studies and researches that is, at the same time, familiar and historically aware. It is familiar in that it takes as its primary data everyday experience; it is historically aware in that it draws from the aforementioned “limits” of the tradition, rather than presume to be wholly innovative and uninfluenced. In this, too, the first thirteen sections of Being and Time are breathless, sweeping, taking us remarkably deep in only sixty or so pages. One must be careful how quickly one comes up for air. Heidegger brings us from the Greeks to Hegel in a gesture, deconstructing (to translate his “destruction” as it has been translated through the French tradition) the language of the philosophical discipline through radical etymological association and derivation. He uses words in new ways or makes up new words entirely. He circles and returns, spiraling in on himself while unfolding his argument further. He pushes us to the edge so that, when our concepts fail, we might see the truth to which he beckons us through the cracks in our thinking which we could not previously see. The method of Being and Time is an exercise in its message.
What is to be learned from this beginning? Much could be said for his interpretation of phenomenology alone as a vehicle for philosophical inquiry. But most pertinent, I think, is his assertion that Dasein is not a “thinglike substantial being,” that being is not a substance. In this assertion alone we are confronted with perhaps the greatest affront to Western metaphysics, a radical claim that cannot be ignored. It is from this assertion that inquiries into life and being and reality after Heidegger must take their cue. Any theory that begins with a substantial vision of human being—whether material or immaterial—misses the great challenge of Heidegger’s project. Our being is not to be found in some abstract entity or unobservable particle, not in mind nor reason nor soul nor identity, but in the insistence of a relation, an insistence which has always already made a claim, a demand, a call upon us, an insistence which, in its openness to response, leads us beyond the limits we inscribe for ourselves and into the embrace of the other.
Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. 1927. Translated by Joan Stambaugh, revised by Dennis J. Schmidt, State University of New York Press, 2010.