The Problem of World, 1

Martin Heidegger

This first study in a series of four takes as its impetus a claim made by French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty regarding his two titanic influences, the German progenitors of the phenomenological school, Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. In the preface to his Phenomenology of Perception (1945), Merleau-Ponty argues that “all of Sein und Zeit emerges from Husserl’s suggestion, and in the end is nothing more than a making explicit of the “natürlichen Weltbegriff” [natural concept of the world] or the “Lebenswelt” [life-world] that Husserl, toward the end of his life, presented as the fundamental theme of phenomenology” (lxx-lxxi, translator’s insertions).1 This “suggestion” of Husserl’s to which Merleau-Ponty refers originated as the suggestion of a “philosophy that aspires to be an “exact science,”” but “also an account of “lived” space,” a double project which, Merleau-Ponty notes, brings about a contradiction in terms (lxx). But in fact, as Merleau-Ponty will go on to demonstrate, and as this series of studies intends to pursue through a comparative analysis of the thought of four different phenomenologists, this contradiction only exists for those perspectives that privilege either pole of the relation between “man and the world” (lxx). Phenomenology begins with “existence,” and thus begins with the “facticity” of man and world, their togetherness, their indissoluble belonging with each other. This factical union of man and world was described by Husserl (following Franz Brentano) as intentionality, a concept essential to all those who followed him.

The concept of intentionality has been usefully formalized by contemporary American phenomenologist Don Ihde as “I-world” in his Technology and the Lifeworld (1990, 45), a simple lexical schema that will aid us in the following inquiry. The profound insight of the intentional relation is that “I” and “world” stand in a hyphenated bond with one another, rather than standing over against each other (which we might formalize analogously to Ihde as I | world). The hyphen indicates a tensile interdependence between the two terms of the relation, whereas the bar indicates a schism, an absolute divide only surmountable through great feats of mental gymnastics.2 If “I” and “world” are originally distinct, barred from each other, theories of correspondence or representation are required for perception, knowledge, judgment, and the like, to be intelligible. But such theories can never banish the spectre of doubt that haunts experience, and indeed, only intensify our intimations of uncertainty. However, if “I” and “world” are originally hyphenated, distinct entities to be sure but joined by an original tension, perception, knowledge, and judgment become analyzable. Thus, for Merleau-Ponty, looking to the genesis of the phenomenological tradition, it is the world that most powerfully indicates to him the stakes of this new “movement” (lxxi); in turning to the world, in taking up our place within it, we discover the “fact that everything resides within the world” (204), that the positing of an “I” that might stand apart from, outside of, external to it, is the positing of an illusion. We must, therefore, respond to “the problem of the world” (lxxv). This is not to privilege the term “world” in a mode of sterile objectivity, nor to reduce the term “I” to a cozy delusion; rather, in responding to the problem of world, we follow Heidegger in his existential explosion of Husserl’s project, and it is to Heidegger that we now must turn.

In the first pages of Being and Time (1927), Heidegger remarks that “”[p]resupposing” being ... belongs to the essential constitution of Dasein itself” (“Dasein” being us, the beings “who question[]”) (7, 6). Dasein, the human being for Heidegger, is the being who, in its make-up, has already taken “a preliminary look at being in such a way that on the basis of this look beings that are already given are tentatively articulated in their being” (7). In taking up the “question of the meaning of being,” the task proclaimed in the prescript to the entire work (xxix), and returned to repeatedly throughout, we must turn to Dasein, the “exemplary being,” who is “exemplary” precisely because (as Heidegger clarifies in a marginal notation) Dasein is “the co-player [das Bei-spiel] that in its essence as Da-sein (perduring [wahrend] the truth of being) plays to and with being—brings it into the play of resonance” (6, translator’s insertions). Heidegger emphasizes that Dasein is not exemplary insofar as it is some supreme or absolute being, but because being is made “transparent in its being” (6). Dasein is in being, but insofar as it is in being, being is taken up in its being—this is the perdurance and play of which Heidegger writes. Being echoes in the being of Dasein; it resonates within us. Thus, the “guiding look at being,” that “preliminary look” already mentioned, “grows out of the average understanding of being in which we are always already involved” (7). The echo or resonance of being in Dasein is that preliminary, average understanding that, in play, in undergoing the truth of being, allows that average or general understanding to be articulated. Dasein and being, I and world, are articulated together, in play, in tension.3

Against accusations of circularity, Heidegger contends that this interdependence of Dasein and being presents itself as a “‘relatedness backward or forward’ of what is asked about (being) [Sein] to asking as a mode of being of a being” (7, translator’s insertion). The asking and the asked of, the “questioning” and the “questioned,” are “essentially engage[d]” with (and in) each other (7). We see, then, Heidegger’s unique articulation of Husserlian intentionality, without any designation of this structure of being as such. Especially considering the inflection of these early claims by Heidegger’s subsequently added marginalia (pointing us to ideas that he develops in later works like Introduction to Metaphysics and Discourse on Thinking), this eschewal of the technical term seems fitting.4 The necessary belonging together of man and world, and indeed, the interpenetration of man and world, can hardly be expressed by the highly intellective notion of intentionality (at least so far as it had been developed at the time). The circular interrelatedness of Dasein and being is thus, for Heidegger, an ““affair” of Dasein”—a term signifying both a task and a passion (11). We cannot resort to intellectualizing analyses, but must rather turn to the labour and suffering of our being as such, taking up existence, being, what is, as “most basic” and “most concrete” (8):

We shall call the very being [Sein] to which Dasein can relate in one way or another, and somehow always does relate, existence [Existenz] ... Dasein always understands itself in terms of its existence ... We come to terms with the question of existence always only through existence itself. We call this [hierbei führende] kind of understanding of oneself existentiell understanding. The question of existence is an ontic “affair” of Dasein. (11, translator’s insertion)

This ontic, existentiell understanding is the preliminary or guiding look, the average understanding, that precedes any “existential” articulation, and is in fact what potentiates any such articulation (11). We are thus always already in the circle. We and being are always already in play.

The existential articulation of being is a structuration and an expression. We must be careful, however, not to weight this process too heavily on either side of the intentional relation (I-world). The “coherence of [the] structures” of existence that Heidegger terms “existentiality” is not attributable to either Dasein or being, I or world (11). The terms are mutually implicated in a co-articulacy, coming into voice and structure each through the other. This is the importance of those terms above, perdurance and play. Existence is something undergone or suffered by Dasein; Dasein does not stand over against existence, or survey it from some lofty vantage. Dasein is in the thick of things. But neither is existence inert or immovable, nor something insusceptible to influence; the presumption that existence, what some call the real world, can remain untouched in its objectivity, ultimately indifferent to articulation by Dasein, is not sustainable either. Dasein plays with being and being plays with it in turn. For Heidegger, “being in a world belongs essentially to Dasein,” and so “the understanding of being that belongs to Dasein just as originally implies the understanding of something like “world” and the understanding of the being of beings accessible within the world” (12). We cannot get behind this original implication; I and world emerge together. Thus, in asking the “question of the meaning of being in general,” in pursuing a “fundamental ontology,” we are led to this communion of terms, and are thereby first required to undertake an “existential analysis of Dasein” (12). The world comes into structure and expression through Dasein, and so we must look to Dasein as it comes into structure and expression through the world. Again, this is not to weight or privilege one term over another, but rather to take up our situation insofar as it opens up and opens onto the other term to which we stand in relation. We might say that we stand in a position of analytic but not ontological primacy.

As already stated above, existential articulation (the structuration and expression of being through the interplay of I and world), whose study requires existential analysis, is potentiated by existentiell understanding. This level of understanding is the “first priority” of Dasein, that which marks it out among beings as an “exemplary” being (12). The level of existentiell understanding is the level of the “ontic,” the level of existence. The “second priority” of Dasein, its second level of understanding, is, on the contrary, the “ontological” (12). This is the level at which the average understanding of the first level is articulated existentially, invested with the coherence of structure. This is the level of “[s]ciences and disciplines,” and indeed “all other ontologies,” the level at which Dasein “relates to beings that it need not itself be” (12); it is also the level at which the (I-world) relation can become distorted into the (I | world) relation, the fundamental belonging together of the terms at the ontic or existentiell level covered over by an ontological or existential determination. It should be emphasized that the possibility of such a distortion is not unique to certain individuals or groups but is an essential possibility of Dasein; not only does Dasein “pre-ontological[ly]” understand being, but Dasein is “in itself ‘ontological’” (12). So, the third and final priority of Dasein, and its third level of understanding, is that of the “ontic-ontological,” which is the “condition of the possibility of all ontologies” (12). Due to this third level, Dasein is “that which, before all other beings, is ontologically the primary being to be interrogated” (12).5 Before any ontology, any science, or any discipline can be analyzed, that through which every ontology, science, and discipline is articulated must be analyzed. It is also this third level, which is in fact an interpenetration of the first and second levels, that will (albeit in different words) come to play a role of great importance in Heidegger’s thought post-Being and Time. At the first level, Dasein understands the world because Dasein and the world belong together; as such, the world, in a way, understands Dasein—the terms exist together through a play of mutual interbeing. But, through this play of terms, Dasein also understands the world as not itself; this distinction is the first, or perhaps infantile, ontology (which is not to say the fundamental ontology). As such, in finding and understanding itself as in the world but not the world, Dasein comes to ontologize its ontical condition, thereby modifying its own standing, its own structure and expression, its own existentiality—a modification which elides itself in its very movement.

Herein lies for Heidegger the import of the question of the meaning of being. In the interpenetration of the ontic and the ontological, the existentiell and existential, the question of being as such becomes obscured by questions of this or that being, the general covered over by its determinations. Our “philosophical research” must therefore first be “grasped in an existentiell way” if we are to see clearly this “existentiality of existence,” if we are to comprehend its articulation as not a given but a process. The “roots of the existential analysis ... are ultimately existentiell; i.e. they are ontic,” grounded in a fundamental “possibility of being of each existing Dasein” (12). Our determinations are real and valid, but they are not primary; a more basic possibility undergirds them. It is here, then, that Heidegger embarks on his “Destruction of the History of Ontology” (19, Heidegger’s emphasis). Because the “being of Dasein finds its meaning in temporality,” and because this meaning is taken up by Dasein in the “mode” of “historicity,” the history of ontology is in fact the history of the very covering over of the question of being here discussed:

In its manner of existing at any given time, and thus also with the understanding of being that belongs to it, Dasein grows into a customary interpretation of itself and grows up on that interpretation. It understands itself initially in terms of this interpretation and, within a certain range, constantly does so ... Its own past ... does not follow after Dasein but rather always already goes ahead of it. (19)

To draw on a later term employed by Heidegger in “The Question Concerning Technology,” this phenomenon is that of “destining” (24). Dasein, in its preontological (existentiell) comprehension of its being, takes up its being ontologically (existentially), thereby articulating its perdurance as this being. I have always been this, I am this, I will be this. Dasein destines itself to be this being, setting itself “upon a way” (24). In the process, Dasein forgets, or perhaps merely becomes accustomed to, the resonance of being within this being that it has destined itself to be, a resonance that continually, irremediably threatens the stability of Dasein with the play in which it is always involved.

So we are brought to Heidegger’s elucidation of the “Phenomenological Method of the Investigation,” and though we have yet to even leave his introduction, the importance of these preliminary remarks cannot be underestimated (26). In his treatment of the “phenomenological” we find a kernel that, holographically, contains the whole of his thought within its limited frame. Having thoroughly established the “thematic object” of Being and Time, the “being of beings” or the “meaning of being in general,” Heidegger now sets about presenting the “method” of his inquiry (26). Phenomenology is “itself neither a ‘standpoint’ nor a ‘direction’”—that is, it is not subject to the destining or historicizing of other philosophical methods (26). It does not posit “the what of the object of philosophical research ... but the how of such research” (26). If the ontic-ontological level is the condition of possibility for all ontologies, phenomenology, then, is concerned with the function or operation of that level. This can be discerned through a particular “confrontation with the things themselves,” a dictum which Heidegger draws from Husserl, but which he takes in his own unique direction. Such a dictum refuses “all free-floating constructions,” which is to say, it refuses speculation without roots, shattering the imperialism of the “I” and restoring it to its place in the world.

To discuss the phenomenological method, Heidegger breaks the term into its components: “phenomenon” and “logos” (26). The phenomenon is “what shows itself, the self-showing, the manifest” (27). Heidegger is certain to make clear that there are not certain beings “to be addressed as phenomena” and others that are not (29). A phenomenon is not “a particular being” but the very “being of beings” (29). Similarly, “logos” in its “basic meaning” is “discourse,” but not in the common sense of conversation or dialogue; rather, logos as discourse is “to make manifest ‘what is being talked about’ in discourse,” to “let[] something be seen” (30-31). From this basic “mode of making manifest” other modes are derived, but Heidegger does not concern himself with those here. Rather, he is interested in the discursive function of logos as apophansis, declaration—“There is!”—whereby a “synthesis” occurs between logos and phenomenon, a synthesis Heidegger phrases as “letting something be seen by indicating it” (31). The phenomenon, then, that which show itself, is synthetically joined with a declaration in discourse. Heidegger therefore does away with “any concept of truth construed in the sense of ‘correspondence,’” wherein “representations” or “psychical occurrences” must be made to “connect” with “what is external and physical” (as seen above in the distortion of the intentional relation into the I | world relation) (31). Instead, the syn- of “synthesis” is that which “let[s] something be seen in its togetherness with something”—precisely, the declaration and the phenomenon—and therefore is that which “let[s] something be seen as something” (31). Put simply, word and thing do not correspond to but belong with each other—they are originally hyphenated, originally articulated.

What this synthesis, hyphenation, or articulation affords is a new understanding of truth, one that does not locate the “primary ‘place’ of truth” in the logos, which is to say, in the psyche or subject (31). The Greek word for truth, aletheia, means “to take beings that are being talked about ... out of their concealment; to let them be seen as something unconcealed ... to discover them” (31). This is the “‘being true’” of the logos, which is precisely its synthetic union, its articulation, with phenomena (31). Truth is in no way a “judgment,” but is instead a matter of perception: “What is in the purest and most original sense ‘true’ [is] ... straightforwardly observant apprehension of the simplest determinations of the being of beings as such” (32). The originally true is the perception of being-articulated, of being-structured, of being-expressed. One must not understand Heidegger to be saying here that a perceiving subject stands over against a perceptible object and that by some determinate causal reaction the perceiving subject receives a sense of the perceptible object. Such is the fallacy of truth as representation. For Heidegger, Dasein understands the being of beings existentielly, before any articulation, any ontology; then, at the second level of Dasein’s understanding, the being of beings is determined, expressed as this being, and, consequently, this being is destined, set on a way, comprehended in its existential perdurance. In this way, the perception of phenomena is also an attendance to their truth, an apprehension of their self-showing in the historically interdetermining play of I and world. Heidegger is now prepared to define phenomenology: “to let what shows itself be seen from itself, just as it shows itself from itself” (32). The “being of beings” is “self-showing” in all of its “modifications” and “derivatives,” none of which are “arbitrary”; as such, the letting be of beings in discourse is similarly not arbitrary (33). As above, there can be no presumption of a “free-floating” ontology; all ontologies, and the possibility of all ontologies, arise from the essential “relation” of Dasein and being (32). Beginning from this point of relation, then, we see that ontology “is possible only as phenomenology,” because only in phenomenology do we find the necessary being-together of questioner and questioned, perceiver and perceived, I and world, for truth to be a discovering of the two in the unity of perception (33).

If we recall that the project of a fundamental ontology (a study of the being of beings, of being as such) must take place through an existential analysis of the being of Dasein, we will now see that we are sufficiently prepared to consider the existentiality of Dasein (its structure and expression) insofar as it finds itself always already within the world. Because we have seen that logos and phenomenon belong together in an original synthesis, we can also conclude that the logos—word, idea, concept, reason; all that is traditionally ontologized as “psychical”—is also always already within the world. Perception is not a subjective process (in the pejorative sense) but a world process, a consequence of the interpenetration and interdependence of Dasein and being. To this end, the existential analysis of Dasein is a “hermeneutics” (35), a project of the interpretation of being as it has been destined through Dasein. Being shows itself to Dasein in a way, with a particular structure and expression; it is being-articulated, being as _____. A hermeneutics of Dasein allows for both the structure and the process of structuration to be made explicit, for the movement of destining which obscures itself to be uncovered, indeed, for the very function of self-showing to show itself as itself. Existential analysis is not, therefore, merely a matter of opinion; the interpretation of being arrived at through the analysis reveals Dasein and being in their interdetermination.

Finally, we can step beyond Heidegger’s introduction. Though the complexities of Being and Time far exceed the scope of this paper, there remains one final component of the text to be discussed here: the “being-in-the-world [In-der-Welt-sein]” of Dasein, and within that, the first moment of the structure, the “world in its worldliness” (39, translator’s insertion). For Heidegger, Dasein is not an “objective presence” but a being that, in its being, “is related to its being,” and so also “concerned about” its being (41, Heidegger’s emphasis). As such, Dasein cannot be determined by “present ‘attributes’” of its being, but by “possible ways for it to be”—possibilities of mode that can only be discerned in the relation of I and world (41). There are many nuanced points which Heidegger emphasizes here, but the most important among them for this study is that the “person is not a thinglike substantial being” (47). There can be no “psychical objectification” of Dasein; the “person is given as the agent of intentional acts which are connected by the unity of a meaning,” and an act can in no way be reduced to an attribute (47). An act is something done, something that happens. And insofar as acts are always oriented to and carried out in the world, the actor can only be interpreted through his relational unity with the world in the happening of the act. The world is therefore “constitutive of Dasein,” and the “conceptual development of the phenomenon of world requires an insight into the fundamental structures of Dasein” (51). Dasein and world are co-players, and so also co-structured and co-expressed, indissolubly joined in interdetermining relation.

The “worldliness of the world” should therefore be the point of departure for an existential analysis. The “worldliness” of the world is its existentiality, its articulation or structuration through the mutual, reciprocal destining of Dasein and being. Because, as we have seen, the being of Dasein is such that it covers over this process of destining, the “average everydayness” of Dasein is an existence in “indifference” to the “existentiality” that it co-produced and in which it participates (66, 43). In this “everydayness,” the world is thus what shows itself to be “nearest” to Dasein, implicit in every act, every intention, every concern (66). Dasein is thus first revealed to understanding and inquiry by its “dealings in [Umgang in] the world with innerworldy beings” (66, translator’s insertion). The dealings of Dasein are “dispersed in manifold ways of taking care,” in a practical framework or ensemble of “handling” and “using” (67). Dasein is indifferent to this existential structuration of the world, accepting the destining of things to be handled and used in certain ways as given, inasmuch as Dasein is the being that in its being is concerned about its being and is related in its being to its being as this being that acts in this way. Heidegger thus says that the worldliness of the world is its self-showing in the “structure of “in order to” [“um-zu”]” a structure which contains a “reference” of “something to something” (68, translator’s insertion)—all of which is covered over in the unity of the act.

But again, these instrumental references cannot be treated as isolated atoms: a “totality of useful things is always already discovered before the individual useful things” (68). When we find ourselves in the world, we find ourselves within a “manifold of references of the ‘in-order-to,’” in the mutual interdetermination of my person and my place (69). This way of being toward and in the midst of things, in careful consideration of a world in which I am myself concerned about my being in it, Heidegger terms “circumspection [Umsicht]” (69, translator’s insertion). The instrument that is thus circumspectly taken up, existentielly understood as “handy,” is “not grasped theoretically at all” (i.e., Dasein is indifferent to its existentiality, while making use of this articulation in act) (69). The instrument “withdraws” in the “work” of Dasein, covered over in the “what-for [Wozu]” of its instrumental reference, and so it is the “work that bears the totality of references in which useful things are encountered,” and it is only in this totality that these references can be grasped (69, translator’s insertion). Furthermore, the work includes in this totality a reference to the “whereof [Woraus] of which [the what-for] consists,” a “constitutive reference” that indicates both the “average” usefulness of the instrument beyond the individual person’s uses, as something that exists there for anyone, and the user himself as a condition of the useful. In sum, the worldliness of the world, its existentiality, is the totality of references of things in-order-to, together with the what-for (the reasons or ends) of those instrumental references and the whereof of instruments and ends, the actor who “‘is’ there as the work emerges,” constituting with it a unity of meaning (70). In the purview of the existential analysis, the thing can thus be ascribed the existential or “ontological categorial definition” of “handiness,” and the world in which this instrument and its implied user have “always already been dwelling” the complementary definition of “workshop” (71, 74). Heidegger’s definition of this first moment of being-in-the-world follows: “the unthematic, circumspect absorption in the references constitutive for the handiness of the totality of useful things” (75). Hinging upon this definition are two facts of the existence of Dasein: 1) “Taking care of things always already occurs on the basis of a familiarity with the world,” and 2) “In this familiarity Dasein can lose itself in what it encounters within the world and be numbed to it” (75). Dasein is always already circumspectly absorbed in but indifferent to the existentiality of the workshop of its concerns.

Though there is much more to be said respecting the following two sections, “Reference [Verweisung] and Signs [Zeichen]” and “Relevance [Bewandtnis] and Significance,” this study will have to be satisfied with what has been only a preliminary exploration of the world as a primordially intelligible referential totality and leave a more comprehensive elaboration of this signifying structure to another work. For the time being, this study will serve as a groundwork for the following three readings of the world as it is discussed in three significant phenomenological works influenced by Heidegger’s Being and Time: Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness (1943), Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception (1945), and Emmanuel Levinas’s Totality and Infinity (1961). Each of these thinkers will distinctively nuance and challenge the essential belonging together of I and world in the intentional relation (I-world), and the primary disclosure of this relation in the existential worldliness of the world as articulated by the interdetermination of person and being, but in each the fact of the world will remain. In continuing this study via a comparative analysis, certain shortcomings of Heidegger’s thought will be exposed and reckoned with—especially with respect to the body and others—so opening our own contemporary researches to fuller and richer analyses of the existence in which we are always already involved.

Works Cited

Hall, Stuart. “Race, Articulation, and Societies Structured in Dominance.” Sociological Theories: Race and Colonialism, UNESCO, 1980, pp. 305-345.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. 1927. Translated by Joan Stambaugh, revised by Dennis. J. Schmidt, State University Press of New York, 2010.

—. The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. 1962. Translated by William Lovitt, Garland Publishing, 1977.

Ihde, Don. Technology and the Lifeworld: From Garden to Earth. Indiana University Press, 1990.

Klaskow, Tyler. ““Looking” for Intentionality with Heidegger.” Symposium: Canadian Journal of Continental Philosophy, vol. 15, no. 1, 2011, pp. 94-109.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. 1961. Translated by Alphonso Lingis, Duquesne, 1969.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. 1945. Translated by Donald A. Landes, Routledge, 2012.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. 1943. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes, Routledge, 2003.


  1. And indeed, Being and Time is dedicated to Husserl, so this connection should not be disregarded. 

  2. The bar is an important concept in Lacanian psychoanalysis, one with resonances here, but we reserve the drawing of connections and explication of contradictions for a later date. 

  3. It is useful to note with cultural theorist Stuart Hall that articulation means “both ‘joining up’ (as in the limbs of a body, or an anatomical structure) and ‘giving expression to’” (“Race, Articulation, and Societies Structured in Dominance.” Sociological Theories: Race and Colonialism, UNESCO, 1980, pp. 305-345: 328). The tensile play of Dasein and being, the resonant question of being in the being of Dasein, is such a doubly articulatory occurrence: it is that which simultaneously gives structure and gives voice

  4. See Klaskow, Tyler. “‘Looking’ for Intentionality with Heidegger.” Symposium: Canadian Journal of Continental Philosophy, vol. 15, no. 1, 2011, pp. 94-109. Klaskow provides further discussion on the absence of this important term in Heidegger’s seminal work. 

  5. That is, the being that in its being opens the question of being, thereby requiring our consideration before any other being. Again, Heidegger privileges Dasein at the level of analysis, not existence, but this point can be lost in the complexities of his language. 

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