Part 1 of 4
1. What is Metaphysics?
The term “metaphysics” has been appropriated in recent years to function as a synonym for “new age” or “occult.” I still vividly remember the two older women in my college metaphysics course who kept asking questions about crystals and astral projection, and who grumbled outside class that the professor was not covering any “real-world metaphysics.”
As a branch of philosophy, metaphysics could be defined as the study of the fundamental nature of reality. It asks such questions as “what is real?” – and, as Heidegger will shortly tell us, “what is being?” Metaphysics asks the most fundamental questions in philosophy – and thus it asks the most fundamental questions possible for human beings.
What Heidegger teaches, however, is that metaphysics should be thought of less as a timeless, perennial area of human inquiry and more as a “project” that began with certain assumptions that were very much rooted in a particular time and place. The project of Western metaphysics then changed and developed and played out the consequences of those assumptions, until it reached a climax and, for all intents and purposes, came to an end. For Heidegger, what has driven the Western metaphysical project is the desire to give expression to what being is. Curiously, however, Western metaphysicians have not only seldom actually identified this as their aim, they have systematically obscured the question of being itself.
Metaphysics begins with the pre-Socratic philosophers, some of whom speculated about a primal and eternal “stuff” from which all things came. Others, like the Pythagoreans, believed in objective ideas after which the material world was fashioned. Plato’s “theory of forms” developed out of such speculations. Aristotle took up that theory, revising it and arguing for the existence of a God that causes worldly change and transformation through the unrequited love all things feel for him.
Modern metaphysics makes mind and subjectivity central, and reality for modern metaphysicians becomes increasing “mind-like.” The paradigm case is Leibniz, who takes up Aristotle’s doctrine of substance (true being) and argues that the only true beings are minds and that everything else is an idea in those minds. Kant argued against the possibility of metaphysics itself (especially the kind represented by Leibniz). But there is an implicit metaphysics in Kant: “what truly is” is the thing-in-itself, which lies forever beyond our ken. The metaphysical tradition culminates in Hegel (1770–1831), who makes “what truly is” equivalent to the whole of reality considered as an organic system (the Absolute), which completes itself through human beings coming to consciousness of it. One can see in Hegel’s philosophy all previous metaphysical ideas dialectically integrated into a new metaphysical system – which is why Heidegger described Hegel as the climax of western metaphysics.
2. The Ontological Difference and Forgottenness of Being
Although the history of Western metaphysics exhibits rich variety, according to Heidegger all the great metaphysicians have “forgotten being,” because they have all confused being with a being; i.e., some particular thing that has being. In short, they have violated what Heidegger calls “the ontological difference.” Those first coming to Heidegger always find this extremely difficult to understand, but it is absolutely crucial for comprehending his thought.
For Heidegger, the central question of metaphysics is “what is being?” Things, like the keyboard in front of me are beings: things that have being, things that are. But metaphysics is concerned not with beings or things themselves, but with the being that beings have. What do we mean when we say that this keyboard is? We say that it “has being.” What does this mean exactly? It can’t mean that it’s physically present to me. I also say that ideas are, that memories are, that history is – but these are not physically present to me. The meaning of “being” is the greatest mystery there is – and it is extraordinarily difficult to talk about. Especially in English.
In English “being” does double duty and we are forced to say that the keyboard is a being, because it has being. Matters are a little less confusing in German, where the being that a being has (being-as-such) is das Sein, which is a noun constructed from the infinitive of the verb “to be” (sein). Beings, the things that have being, Heidegger calls das Seiende. This is actually a singular noun, and it is probably best translated “what is” or “that which is,” but this is understood to refer to beings, the things that are (or that, again, have being). In order to avoid completely confusing ourselves in English, many Heidegger commentators have adopted the convention of referring to Being, capitalizing the initial letter of the word that denotes being-as such, the Being that a being or beings (small b) have.
This is not hair-splitting on Heidegger’s part: it is an absolutely crucial and valid distinction. The keyboard, the lamp next to it, the chair I’m sitting in, and I myself are all beings. We are called that because we are said to have Being. But what is this mysterious Being that we all have? One thing is certain: it cannot be a being. If Being were a being it wouldn’t be Being: it would simply be yet another thing that has being. To draw an analogy, you could say that what I have in common with my neighbor is that we both possess the characteristic of manness. But what is that? I’m not certain, but I do know that manness can’t be a man. If it were, it would be something that has manness, not the quality of manness as such.
This distinction between Being and beings is “the ontological difference.” And it leads to some peculiar consequences. First of all, if we recognize that Being can’t be a being then that means that Being isn’t. A being is something that is; something that has Being. But if Being is not a being then we cannot say that Being is. And so Being is not. This seems exceedingly strange, because if Being is not, then how can Heidegger or anyone else talk about it? But the logic here is airtight: Being-as-such cannot be a being (again, a thing that has Being). As I will discuss in a moment, Heidegger points out that not only do we speak of Being, we deal with it all the time in a whole host of different ways. Therefore, the fact that we cannot treat it as a being does not mean that it cannot be talked about at all. We just have to find a new way to talk about it, which is what Heidegger tries to do (and this is the reason that reading him is so difficult).
All the philosophers prior to Heidegger failed in the task of thinking Being, because in one way or another they sidestepped the question “what is Being?” and talked instead about some being or other – usually a very special or exalted being, but a being (a thing) nonetheless. Whether philosophers have spoken of a primal matter, or eternal numbers, or the Form of the Good, or God, or the One, or mind, or the thing-in-itself, or the Absolute Ego, or the Absolute, or Will, or Will to Power, Western metaphysicians have spoken only of some special, exalted, or supreme thing that has Being. But they have forgotten Being itself, Heidegger says.
3. Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics
These are difficult ideas, and those wishing to tackle them – and to see exactly how Heidegger proposes to speak about Being – can do no better than to read his Introduction to Metaphysics (Einführung in die Metaphysik). And the remainder of this essay will be devoted to an exposition of this important and readable text, which was originally a lecture course given by Heidegger at Freiburg University in the Summer of 1935. It had special significance for him. In the preface to the seventh edition of his magnum opus Being and Time, Heidegger suggested that readers seeking an accessible account of the question of Being should consult Einführung in die Metaphysik. The lecture series was published that same year, 1953. In fact, it was the first of his lecture series that Heidegger chose to publish, clearly indicating that he regarded it as particularly important. It was also the very first book by Heidegger to be translated into English (by Ralph Manheim, in 1959; a more authoritative translation was produced by Gregory Fried and Richard Polt, and published in 2000). Being and Time would not be translated until 1962.
Heidegger’s high estimation of Introduction to Metaphysics no doubt was due not just to the book’s profound elaboration of the question of Being, but also to the fact that it is one of Heidegger’s clearest and most accessible works. But it is also a work fraught with controversy. Heidegger joined the National Socialist German Workers’ Party in May of 1933, less than four months after Hitler came to power. Introduction to Metaphysics is, in fact, the work by Heidegger most closely associated with his Nazism. It was in the pages of this book that, as we shall see, Heidegger referred to National Socialism’s “inner truth and greatness.”
At the beginning of Chapter One of Introduction to Metaphysics Heidegger asks the question “why are there beings at all instead of nothing?” And he tells us that this is the most fundamental metaphysical question that can be asked. It is with this question that we can perhaps find some way to encounter Being.
4. Being and Human Beings
Heidegger tells us that the question “why are there beings at all instead of nothing?” is not one raised exclusively in philosophy seminars. It actually occurs to us in states of despair and depression, or boredom. In these states, we are being moved by an original, philosophical impulse. The question becomes something real and vital to us — it is not an “abstract” philosophical concern. But what exactly does Heidegger mean?
Consider depression. This is a psychological state in which we often feel a profound sense of meaninglessness. Things which normally seem significant to us or which give us pleasure suddenly seem pointless and empty. But it is not as if other, different things suddenly seem more meaningful. No, depression is a condition in which existence as such loses its meaning. The smallest, most innocuous object or event may fill us with a gnawing sense of dread (this is the state that Sartre – whose thought was heavily derivative of Heidegger’s – called “nausea”). And we may feel the sense that existence as a whole is absurd. It may occur to us to wonder why any of this should exist at all. In other words, in such a state we are asking “why are there beings at all instead of nothing?” Those exact words may never go through our minds – but we feel this question none the less. Even simple boredom can occasion this feeling.
Now, what is really going on in these states is that we are preoccupied with Being. We are preoccupied with the Being that all of this around us has, and we are asking “Why?” And so we realize, Heidegger says, that there is a deeper question underlying “why are there beings at all instead of nothing?” and that is: “How does it stand with Being?” In German, wie steht es um das Sein? – which might be translated more simply as “What about Being?”
Our ability to confront Being in states like depression and boredom gives us an answer to any who might think at this point in our discussion that the “Being” that Heidegger is preoccupied with is merely an empty word. As human beings, we find ourselves from time to time preoccupied with Being – and we find it disturbing and uncanny. Oddly, however, Heidegger never refers to us as “human beings.” Instead he calls us Dasein, and this word is normally left untranslated in English editions of Heidegger’s work. Da means “there” and sein, as we already know, means “to be.” This term is found in ordinary German, where it can be a separable verb (e.g. ist jemand da? Is anybody there?), or a noun meaning “existence” (e.g., ein angenehmes Dasein, a pleasant existence). (Existenz is the term more often used, however.) One finds this term used by earlier philosophers; it’s a category in Hegel’s Logic, for instance.
Dasein has a special, technical meaning in Heidegger’s philosophy. We are the only creatures who are not absorbed by the moment, and by preoccupation with particular things. We also have the ability to stand outside the moment and, as described earlier, register Being. In short, we ex-ist, where “ex” means outside and “ist” means to stand or abide. We are Da-sein because we are the only creatures who have an experience of being there, and registering Being. For Heidegger, what chiefly characterizes us and distinguishes us from all other living things is our preoccupation with Being.
5. The Fall of Dasein
But how Dasein has oriented itself toward Being – in philosophical reflection and in daily life – has changed over the course of time. Heidegger’s position, in fact, is that Dasein has fallen away from a primal openness to Being enjoyed by the ancient Greeks. He views modern Dasein as thoroughly degenerate, though he never announces this in such strong terms. At all times, Heidegger maintains a position of objectivity, seldom seeming to pass judgment on the times. He positions himself as a kind of detached “historian of Being.” It is clear, however, that Heidegger regards modern Dasein as defective, and that he seeks some way to bring about an orientation toward Being that would approximate that of our ancient ancestors. Introduction to Metaphysics is a particularly valuable text, among other reasons, because it is here that Heidegger makes some of his strongest and most explicit anti-modern statements.
As a model for a healthy, pre-modern Dasein Heidegger looks continually – and exclusively — to the Greeks (a problematic move, as I will discuss later). He tells us that for the Greeks Being was essentially phusis (sometimes also transliterated physis; we get “physics” from this). This word is normally translated “nature” but Heidegger takes the position that our cultural falling away from the “originary” Greek confrontation with Being has been facilitated by the translation of Greek words into Latin ones. And “nature” comes from the Latin natura – so we must be cautious in understanding phusis as “nature” and leaving the matter at that.
The basic difference between phusis and natura is that the latter basically connotes a kind of static collection of entities that surround humanity – the non-human world of animals, plants, minerals, elements, etc. The concept of phusis, on the other hand, suggests something dynamic and moving. Heidegger points out that the noun phusis is derived from the verb phuein, which means “to generate or grow.” Thus, “nature” for the Greeks was not simply the set of non-human-built things around us; rather it was a dynamic process. Heidegger writes:
Now what does the word phusis say? It says what emerges from itself (for example, the emergence, the blossoming, of a rose), the unfolding that opens itself up, the coming-into-appearance in such unfolding, and holding itself and persisting in appearance – in short, the emerging-abiding sway. . . . Phusis is the event of standing forth. Arising from the concealed and thus enabling the concealed to take its stand for the first time.
Phusis is what emerges out of potentiality or out of absence (the rose blossoming, the caterpillar becoming a butterfly, the storm emerging from the heavens) and becomes present and actualized – then disappears back into wherever it is such things emerge from. Phusis is this continual unfolding, emergence, and return. And Heidegger tells us that “Phusis is Being itself, by virtue of which beings first become and remain observable.”
Contrary to popular belief, Heidegger’s main objective is not to “define Being.” In these passages of Introduction to Metaphysics and elsewhere, Heidegger sets out very clearly what he thinks “Being” means, and makes it clear that he believes the standpoint of the Greeks (who equated Being with phusis) is basically correct. Heidegger’s main interest is actually in Dasein: in the being for whom Being is an issue; in how Being becomes an issue for us, how we have responded to Being, and the history of how our orientation toward Being has changed over time.
Now, Heidegger’s identification of Being with phusis allows him to make some interesting observations about physics and metaphysics. Physics deals with beings: with the things that have emerged from the abiding sway of phusis/Being (including not just “things,” but forces), and with the laws governing their interactions. Metaphysics points us beyond beings to Being itself (and indeed “metaphysics” literally means “beyond physics”). However, the entire history of Western metaphysics – really, from the Pre-Socratics on – has confused metaphysics with physics and treated Being as if it were some special kind of being (as I discussed earlier). This means that when Heidegger refers to “the Greeks” as having the proper conception of Being as phusis, he is really not thinking of the Greek philosophers. In fact, he is drawing his account of the Greek understanding of Being primarily from their poetry and drama. But that is a story too complicated to tell here.
Heidegger speaks of the “oblivion of Being,” that begins with the Greek philosophical treatment of Being as another kind of being, and has as its final consequence modern decadence. We have lost the original Greek wonder in the face of Being. Even the medieval period, soaked in religious piety, was disconnected from Being. The Judeo-Christian tradition treats God as an exalted being and the world as an artifact constructed by him. And, as the Good Book says, God has given to man dominion over all the beings of this artificial world. Judeo-Christian religiosity is preoccupied with transcending this world, so as to be reunited with God – not with wonder in the face of the “emerging-abiding sway.” The formula for creating modernity out of medievalism is simple: retain the idea of our having dominion over all the earth (i.e., all this as raw material for human use) and simply remove God from the picture. The result is a life without wonder, in which we are preoccupied exclusively with this thing or that, focused on the manipulation, quantification, and acquisition of things.
1. Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. Gregory Fried and Richard Polt (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 35. The translators here use “How does it stand with Being?” (Heidegger translations tend to be highly stilted and literal, as Heidegger chooses his words very carefully and the sense of what he is trying to say can easily be lost in translation). However, in a footnote they suggest the more natural “What about Being?”
2. Introduction to Metaphysics, 15–16.
3. Introduction to Metaphysics, 15.
4. Michael Zimmerman writes, “Faced with overpowering Being, the ancient Greek mood was astonishment. Faced with the utter meaninglessness of the modern industrial wasteland, the modern German moods are horror and boredom.” Michael E. Zimmerman, “The Ontological Decline of the West,” in A Companion to Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics, ed. Richard Polt and Gregory Fried (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 189.