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Heidegger’s Question Beyond Being  

6,362 words

heidegger (1)Author’s Note:

The following text was written 21 years ago when I was in graduate school. I think it is a useful synthesis of the material available at the time, but I make no claims to originality. I tried to remove the kind of preciousness and pedantry that one finds in graduate student papers, but given the subject matter, what remains is necessarily somewhat densely written. 

Everybody knows that Martin Heidegger was deeply interested in “Being,” indeed obsessed with it. If Spinoza was the “God-intoxicated philosopher,” Heidegger was surely the Being-intoxicated philosopher.

But this is not really true. Heidegger was not the least bit curious about what the word “Being” (the German “Sein”) refers to. His concern, rather, was something “beyond” Being. Heidegger’s concern was the “meaning” (Sinn) of Being. And the meaning of Being is something different from what the word “Being” refers to.

For Heidegger, “Being” is how beings (persons, places, things) disclose themselves, i.e., make themselves present, to a knower. The meaning of Being, by contrast, is how Being discloses itself to a knower. Being is the disclosure of beings. The meaning of Being is the disclosure of Being.

Heidegger claims that there is an “ontological difference” between Being and beings, meaning that there is a difference between beings and their disclosure (Being). The difference between Being and the meaning of Being is a “meta-ontological difference” between Being and its disclosure to us.

Ontology is the study of Being. And if there is a difference between Being and the meaning of Being, then studying the meaning of Being is something different from ontology. Many people mistake Heidegger for an ontologist, because they do not differentiate between Being and the meaning of Being. Indeed, the meta-ontological difference is ignored by most Heidegger scholars, Thomas Sheehan, Graeme Nicholsen, Otto Pöggeler, and Mark Okrent being notable exceptions.[1]

1. The “Question of Being”

On page 1 of Being and Time, one finds the words: “Introduction. Exposition of the Question of the Meaning of Being [Frage nach dem Sinn von Sein].” This is followed by chapter 1, “Necessity, Structure, and Priority of the Question of Being [Seinsfrage].” And section one of that chapter is called “The necessity of an explicit recapitulation of the question of Being [Frage nach dem Sein].” Heidegger is not talking about three different questions here. The question of the meaning of being is the same as the “Seinsfrage”; it is the same as “der Frage nach dem Sein.”

A natural interpretation is that the question of the meaning of Being is the question of what the word “Being” refers to, namely Being. On this reading, then Heidegger is simply an ontologist. The question of the meaning of Being is, then, simply a long-winded way of saying the question of Being (“der Seinsfrage” or “der Frage nach dem Sein”). All three questions are asking about the phenomenon to which the word “Being” refers.

But it is a mistake to interpret the word “meaning” (Sinn) as simply superfluous. Rather, it is essential to the understanding of Heidegger’s project. The full, precise, and technical formulation of Heidegger’s project is the question of the meaning of Being.

Der Seinsfrage” and “der Frage nach dem Sein,” are condensations of this longer, more precise formulation. They are condensations; they are not synonyms. Information is lost, and distortion introduced, when the “question of the meaning of Being” is rendered simply the “question of Being.” The “question of the meaning of Being” is not just a long-winded way of saying the “question of Being.” Rather, the “question of Being” is just a shorthand for the “question of the meaning of Being.”

In a September 1946 text, “The Basic Question of Being Itself,” dictated by Heidegger to Jean Beaufret, Heidegger makes clear the essentially meaning-oriented nature of his quest and how it differs from classical ontology.[2]

On the basis of my own philosophical formation, which began already in the Gymnasium as I worked on Aristotle . . . the question ti to on [What is Being?] has become for me the guiding question of philosophy.[3]

Here is the Heidegger that everyone knows, the Heidegger asking about Being. The next paragraph, however, introduces several distinctions.

I recognized one day that at the beginning of Western philosophy, and consequently in the entirety of subsequent philosophy, the question “What are beings as such?” [Was ist das Seiende als solches?] is the guiding question.[4]

Here Heidegger sets out the question of traditional ontology: “What are beings—beings (Seiende), not Being (Sein)—as such?” The answer to the question “What are beings as such?” is, of course, Being. Traditional ontological inquiry is, then, directed at Being. Traditional ontological inquiry is trying to give an account of Being—Being as the Being of beings. Traditional ontological inquiry is after what the word “Being” refers to.

“But,” Heidegger continues:

a second question was never raised: “What is Being [Sein] itself, and wherein is the manifestness of Being itself and its relation to man grounded, and in what does the manifestness of Being and its relation to man consist?”[5]

First, Heidegger distinguishes the traditional ontological question of the Being of beings from his question of “Being itself.” Heidegger also calls this latter question the question of “Being as Being.” But what does it mean to think “Being itself”? Does it mean thinking Being alone, without any relation to anything other than itself, without relation to any horizon or context? Of what would such a thinking consist? Would it be some sort of unmediated intuition?

Heidegger’s first attempt to think the meaning of Being, in Being and Time, still treated the meaning of Being in relation to a particular being, Dasein. Heidegger’s turn from exploring the meaning of Being in relation to Dasein to exploring the meaning of Being in relation to “Being itself” or “Being without beings” is usually called the “turn” (Kehre) in Heidegger’s thought.

David Farrell Krell reports being puzzled by the turn and “disturbed by that expression ‘Being without beings.’ If we set off to encounter Being itself without recourse to ta onta [beings], what is to prevent our reenacting the play of metaphysics, but this time as sheer farce?”[6] When he raised this problem with Heidegger, Heidegger’s answer was:

You must remember that the attempt to think Being without reference to beings is always historical; that is to say, Being takes on varied significance in the different epochs of the history or sending of Being. That is what it means to think Being without beings.[7]

The purpose of Heidegger’s turn from Dasein to Being itself was not, then, the attempt to think about the meaning of Being without reference to any context. Rather, Heidegger’s purpose was to change the context from Dasein to the history of ontology.

Heidegger’s second question—namely, “What is the manifestness of Being itself?”—introduces the “meta-ontological” difference between Being and the meaning of Being. Heidegger makes clear the identification of the meaning of Being with the manifestness (Offenbarkeit) of Being in the following passage, which also identifies the meaning and the manifestness of Being with the famous “clearing” (Lichtung) of Being and with the “fundament” in “fundamental ontology,” i.e., the foundation for traditional ontology.

. . . insofar as Being and Time deals with ontology, it is dealing with fundamental ontology, which—to put it in traditional terms—is concerned with founding an ontology as such and thus with founding a general ontology. Strictly speaking, this question is no longer an ontological question at all, if ontology is understood as the general and special enquiry into the Being of beings and their realms—our question is no longer concerned with the Being of a being [that is: with the referent of the term “Being”].[8]

Here Heidegger distinguishes traditional ontology, which deals with the phenomenon of Being, and fundamental ontology. He then goes on to characterize the question of fundamental ontology as the inquiry into the meaning of Being.

To put it more clearly, this question is no longer concerned with a being in respect to its Being, whose “meaning” [Sinn] as such is taken for granted, already established, and never questioned anywhere, from Parmenides up to Nietzsche. Rather the question concerning Being as such—concerning the manifestness and clearing [Offenbarkeit und Lichtung] of Being (not beings)—is the only question.[9]

Heidegger later adds another word for the object of fundamental ontology: unconcealment [Unverborgenheit]:

In Being and Time this question [the question of fundamental ontology] carries the title of the question concerning the Sinn of Being [der Frage nach dem Sinn von Sein]. . . and we can say in short that “Sinn” . . . is the realm of unconcealment or clearing [Unverborgenheit oder Lichtung] (understandability [Verstehbarkeit]), wherein all understanding or projection (as bringing into the open [in Offene bringen]) is possible.[10]

Heidegger then adds yet another word: the truth (Wahrheit) of Being.

In Being and Time the question has to do exclusively with the truth [Wahrheit] of Being and not with the Being of beings—thus it is no longer concerned with ontology, whether general or special.[11]

It is clear that Heidegger distinguishes between Being and the meaning of being, between ontology and fundamental ontology: on the one side, we have traditional ontology, which looks into a phenomenon known as the Being of beings. On the other hand, we have fundamental ontology, which looks into something variously known as the meaning of Being, the manifestness of Being, and the clearing of Being, the truth of Being, and the unconcealment of Being.

2. Husserl and Heidegger on Being and Categorial Intuition

Edmund Husserl helps us make sense of the distinction between the meaning of Being and what the word “Being” refers to in his Sixth Logical Investigation. In “The Basic Question of Being Itself,” Heidegger writes:

Only after encountering Husserl—whose writings I had already studied, of course, but had only read like other philosophical writings—did I develop a lively and fruitful relation to the real carrying out of phenomenological questioning and description.

Only then could I develop philosophically the question that actually got me moving, namely the basic question concerning Being itself.[12]

Husserl, in short, helped Heidegger to formulate the meta-ontological distinction between the meaning of Being and the phenomenon of Being.

In his 1963 recollection “My Way to Phenomenology,” Heidegger makes clear which of Husserl’s works helped him to formulate the question of the meaning of Being: The Sixth Logical Investigation, specifically its discussion of the distinction between sensuous and categorial intuition.[13] Husserl thought that when we verify a proposition like “The paper is white” by looking at an actual piece of paper, we not only have a sensuous intuition of paper and its whiteness but also a categorial intuition of the “is.” That is: The paper “shows up” as being articulated by acts of thinking which divide its whiteness from it, bring it into relief, and join it explicitly to it in the proposition. We move from “paper/white” to “paper taken as white” to “The paper is white,” and with each thoughtful act, the intuitional fulfillment is altered and enriched as well.[14] For Husserl, the world actually looks different when we articulate it in thought.

The development of Heidegger’s question of the meaning of Being through his engagement with Husserl’s Sixth Logical Investigation is well-documented in Heidegger’s 1925 Marburg lecture course, Prolegomena to the History of the Concept of Time.[15] In it, Heidegger offers a lengthy and sympathetic discussion of categorial intuition. In his important 1962 lecture “Time and Being,” Heidegger alludes to the doctrine of categorial intuition in the Sixth Investigation.[16] And in his last seminar at Zähringen in 1973, Heidegger again explicitly named the doctrine of categorial intuition in the Sixth Investigation as crucial to the formulation of the question of the meaning of Being.[17]

Husserl’s claim that the “is” can be categorically intuited in experience was the impetus to Heidegger’s idea that Being can be investigated by phenomenology.[18] Heidegger’s concept of Being is not just categorial intuition. But Heidegger’s understanding of Being began with categorial intuition. Then Heidegger expanded his conception of Being to include all the “phenomena of phenomenology,” i.e., the disclosure of beings to a knower (what Husserl called, in idealist language, “transcendental subjectivity”). This is, moreover, true throughout all of Heidegger’s mature philosophical works, from Being and Time to his last writings. For instance, in the Introduction to Being and Time, Heidegger clearly identifies the Being of beings with the phenomenon studied by phenomenology:

Phenomenology is our way of access to what is to be the theme of ontology, and it is our way of giving it demonstrative precision. Only as phenomenology, is ontology possible. In the phenomenological conception of “phenomenon” what one has in mind as that which shows itself is the Being of beings, its Sinn, its modifications and derivatives.[19]

Or: “. . . phenomena, understood phenomenologically, are always just what constitutes Being . . . .”[20] Or: “. . . phenomenology is the science of the Being of beings—ontology.”[21]

If the Being of beings is identical to the phenomenon studied by phenomenology, the next question is: What is the phenomenon studied by phenomenology? Heidegger offers an answer in Kantian terms:

If we remain within the horizon of the Kantian problematic, we can illustrate what is conceived phenomenologically as phenomenon, disregarding other differences, when we say that what already shows itself, though unthematically, in appearances prior to and always accompanying what we commonly understand as phenomena can be brought thematically to self-showing, and what thus shows itself in itself (“the forms of intuition”) are the phenomena of phenomenology.[22]

In Kantian language, the phenomenon of phenomenology is the “a priori synthetic”: the conditions for the possibility of experience which are always at work in allowing beings to show up to us, but which remain unnoticed because they direct our attention away from themselves and to the beings which they make present, but which can become present when we reflectively disengage ourselves from the objects of first-order, worldy experience, and turn our attention to the subjective and ideal acts and structures which allow beings to show up. Heidegger gives as an example the Kantian “forms of intuition,” but he also could have included the categories and the transcendental unity of apperception.

In Husserlian language, the phenomenon of phenomenology is transcendental subjectivity: the acts and structures of subjectivity which allow beings to become present. Described in more “objective” terms, the phenomenon of phenomenology is the presence (and the absence) of beings, as distinguished from the beings that are present and absent.

Being for Heidegger is, therefore, what Kant called the transcendental conditions for the possibility of knowledge. Being, for Heidegger, is what Husserl called transcendental subjectivity. Or, as Thomas Prufer put it with gnomic precision, for Heidegger Being is “the presence/absence (taken as such) of the present/absent, that is, of that-which-is(-present/absent).”[23]

For Heidegger, Being is the interplay of presence/absence through which beings become present to a knower. Being is the interplay of presence and absence of beings to human beings—or, to be more precise, to Dasein, which Thomas Prufer calls “the dative of manifestation,” the being for whom Being can become a question, i.e., the being which can reflect upon Being.[24] Heidegger’s famed ontological difference between Being and beings is the difference between the presence of a being and the being that is present. It is the difference between the absence of a being and the being that is absent.

Throughout his career, Heidegger does not depart from this identification of Being with the presence/absence interplay. For instance, in “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking,” Heidegger claims that Being, which is the matter (Sache) of philosophy is “the presence of that which is present” (der Anwesenheit des Anwesenden).[25] He equates the pair “Being and thinking” (Sein und Denken) with “presence and apprehending” (Anwesenheit und Vernehmen).[26] And he equates the meta-ontological question of “Being as Being” (Sein als Sein) with the question “how can there be presence as such [Anwesenheit als solche].”[27]

In sum: Heidegger’s conception of the phenomenon of Being began with Husserlian categorial intuition and was soon expanded to include all of the phenomena of phenomenology. Heideggerian Being is the interplay of presence/absence. Now, this is true, but it is not the whole truth, and it is not the deepest account. This interpretation coheres well with the conventional understanding of the question of Being: the question “To what does the word ‘Being’ refer?” And the answer is: the interplay of presence/absence.

But this is not complete, because Heidegger’s primary focus is not Being but the meaning of Being, understood as different from Being, just as Being is different from beings.

3. Husserl on Empty and Filled Intentions

Husserl’s Sixth Logical Investigation throws light on Heidegger’s distinction between Being and the meaning of Being. Husserl discusses categorial intuition in the Second Section, “Sense and Understanding.”[28] The First Section, “Objectifying Intentions and their Fulfillments: Knowledge as a Synthesis of Fulfillments and its Gradations” offers an account of knowledge as the synthesis of “empty” and “filled” intentions.[29]

The traditional understanding of intentionality is as a real relationship. On this account, to say that consciousness is always consciousness of something is to say that on the one hand there is a subject, on the other hand there is an object, and between them is an intentional relationship. One implication of this interpretation of intentionality is that, if the object be removed, the intentional relationship lapses. If intentionality is a real relationship, then it cannot survive without both relata. Subtract one or the other, and the intentional relationship vanishes.

This conclusion, however, creates problems. If there are no intentional states without objects, then what are we to make of names like “Xanadu,” concepts like “the unicorn,” phrases such as “the gold mountain,” and propositions like “The present king of France is bald”? The hard-core naïve realist would be tempted simply to deny that they are meaningful. After all: if no referent, then no intentional relationship, then no meaning. But clearly these do have meaning. Any moderately literate native speaker knows what they mean, and it would be folly to deny it.

But how do we account for meaning without a real object? Are we to say that these concepts refer to ideas in our heads? This can’t be so—simply because it isn’t the case that when I talk about Xanadu, I am talking about an idea in my head. Rather, I am using an “idea in my head” to talk about Xanadu. If Xanadu is not, then, a place in the world or an idea in the head—if it is not an existent entity or a psychic entity—is it perhaps a subsistent entity, an ideality existing in some sort of third realm? This multiplication of posited entities has offended aesthetic sensibilities and drawn the wrath of logicians from Russell to Quine.[30]

Husserl’s distinction between empty and filled intentions allows him to neatly sidestep these problems by denying their common premise: that intentionality is a real relationship. For Husserl, an intention is a determinate, object-directed cognitive act, but Husserl does not think that intentionality is a two-term relationship between a subject and an object in the world, a relationship that lapses once the object is removed. Rather, Husserl holds that intentional relationships persist whether an object is present or absent. Whereas the old-fashioned Aristotelian would hold that a given intentional relationship derives its determinacy solely from the determinations of the object apprehended and loses its determinacy when the object is subtracted, Husserl holds that intentional acts have determinate structures built right into them, so that we can have determinate intentional states without any objects.[31]

To intend an object emptily is to intend it in its absence. Consider the Lincoln Memorial. We all probably know what the Lincoln Memorial is, what it looks like, and where it is located. Hundreds of miles from the Memorial, we can recollect a trip to the Memorial, or we can plan to take one. We can talk about its history and meaning. We can ask questions about its construction and design. We can evaluate its aesthetic and architectural merits. We can take up all of these intentional stances toward the Memorial, even though it may be hundreds of miles away, in virtue of the fact that determinate intentional states can exist without the actual physical presence of the object intended. Empty intentions allow us to speak about absent objects.

Now, if we were to go to the Memorial our empty intentional acts would be fulfilled, that is: they would be fulfilled by the actual intuitive presence of the Memorial. Some of our expectations would be fulfilled; others would be disappointed. Some of our claims would be verified; others would be falsified. A filled intention is simply an empty intention that has been fulfilled by the intuitive presence of the object intended—or cancelled by the intuitive presence of an object other than the one intended. Husserl calls the fulfillment of empty intentions “identity synthesis.”

The emptiness and filledness of intentions can vary along a number of axes.[32] What counts as a filled intention in one context can be an empty intention in another. For instance, if I try to think of someone’s name, I am intending the name emptily; when I recall the name, my empty intention is fulfilled; when I use the name to call to mind its bearer, the name is an empty intention; when I see the bearer, the intention is fulfilled.

The categorial forms and complexity of empty intentions also vary. They can be proper names, like Xanadu. They can be universals, like “unicorn.” They can be phrases, like “the gold mountain.” They can be propositions like “The present king of France is bald.” Or they can be scientific theories, paradigms, “background knowledge,” interpretive frameworks, traditions, life-forms, cultures, or world-views.

Husserl holds that there is an ontological priority of empty intentions over filled intentions, though there need not always be a chronological priority. By an “ontological” priority, I mean that empty intentions do not need intuitive fulfillments to exist and to be what they are. A determinate empty intention can exist as an empty intention, without any need for intuitive fulfillment whatsoever. Words can mean things, even though they do not refer to anything real, psychic, or subsistent. Husserl, in short, liberates semantics from the need to account for meaning in terms of reference.

Whereas empty intentions do not need intuitive fulfillments, intuitions can exist and be what they are only as the fulfillments or cancellations of empty intentions. For example, we can take a dog as a dog only in virtue of the prior possession of the concept of dog, which is a universal empty intention. Even when we encounter unfamiliar phenomena, we encounter them precisely as unfamiliar—i.e., as the cancellations of settled, habituated empty intentions.

While Husserl would agree with Kant that intuitions without concepts are blind, he would not fully agree with Kant’s claim that concepts without intuitions are empty, for Kant thinks that this emptiness is a problem, but Husserl does not. “Yes,” Husserl, would say, “Concepts without intuitions are empty; they are empty intentions. But this is not a problem, for an intention can be empty and still exist determinately.” This means that Xanadu, the unicorn, the Gold Mountain, and “The present King of France is bald” can exist as meaningful intentional states, yet not refer to anything at all.

The distinction between empty and filled intentions corresponds exactly to the distinction between Being and the meaning of Being. The phenomenon of Being is a filled intention. The meaning of Being is an empty intention. Heidegger, significantly, devotes a good deal of attention to the distinction between empty and filled intentions in the History of the Concept of Time. As in the Logical Investigations, Heidegger’s account of the synthesis of empty and filled intentions immediately precedes his discussion of categorial intuition.

Husserl’s categorial intuition is what Heidegger understands to be the phenomenon of Being. Thus to say that Heidegger’s concern is not the phenomenon of Being is to say that his concern is not with categorial intuition as such. If Heidegger’s concern were solely with categorial intuition, then his treatment of Being would not be an advance on Husserl’s. Heidegger’s concern lies elsewhere. Husserl teaches that every intuition—categorial or otherwise—is the fulfillment of an empty intention. Again: the determinate empty intention is ontologically, if not temporally prior, to all intuitive fulfillments. Heidegger’s question of the meaning of Being is, therefore: what is the empty intention that is fulfilled in categorial intuition? Thomas Sheehan, in what must be one of the most important lines in the Heidegger literature, phrases the question of the meaning of being as follows:

What is the nature of the empty intention that can be ‘filled in’ by Being? Or: What is the relative absence from out of which Being is disclosed as presence?[33]

Husserl’s categorial intuition is the referent of the word “Being.” Heidegger’s account of the empty intention fulfilled by categorial intuition is the meaning of Being.

The answers that Heidegger gives to the question of the meaning of Being changed throughout his career.

In the writings of the 1920s, particularly Being and Time, the meaning of Being is the temporal nature of Dasein. Time is the horizon in which Being becomes present.

In the 1929 text “What is Metaphysics?” Being is equated with the nothing, das Nichts, which is given through Angst. Thus Angst is the meaning of Being.[34]

In “On the Essence of Truth” the meaning of Being is renamed the truth (Wahrheit) of Being.[35]

As we have seen in “The Basic Question of Being Itself,” in the late writings, the meaning of Being is also called the manifestness (Offenbarkeit) and unconcealment (Unverborgenheit) of Being.

In “Time and Being,” the meaning of Being is identified with the “it” in “it gives being” (Es gibt Sein) which Heidegger hears not as “There is Being” but rather as “It gives Being” or “It evidences Being.”[36] Heidegger hears the verb “geben” phenomenologically, as “to make evident.” And the “it” that gives Being is its meaning.

The “it” which makes Being evident is named “Ereignis,” the contingent and unpredictable “event” by which one dominant meaning or interpretation of Being is replaced with another.

Finally, “In the End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking,” the meaning of Being receives the loftiest of all names: Lichtung, clearing. A Lichtung is a clearing in the woods which allows the sun to illuminate the forest floor. The Lichtung of Being is the clearing where Being comes to light. As Heidegger puts it: “In that [Lichtung] rests possible radiance, that is, the possible presencing of presence itself [Anwesen der Anwesenheit].”[37] And: “The Lichtung grants . . . the possibility of the path to presence [Anwesenheit] and grants the possible presencing of presence itself [Anwesen dieser selbst].”[38] And, because Being (presence/absence) is always the presence/absence of beings, the Lichtung is also, mediately, the place in which all present and absent beings come to presence. In Heidegger’s words, “The Lichtung is the open for all things present and absent.”[39] The Lichtung is “that within which alone pure space and ecstatic time and everything present and absent in them have the place which gathers and protects everything.”[40]

Heidegger, in short, gave many different answers to the question of the meaning of Being, but the question always remained one of meaning, a question beyond Being to that which makes Being present.

4. Heidegger the Phenomenologist

In “The Basic Question of Being Itself,” Heidegger claims that “With that question [the question of the meaning of Being] I have always—and from the very beginning—remained outside the philosophical position of Husserl, in the sense of a transcendental philosophy of consciousness”[41] In “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking,” Heidegger claims that “Hegel also, as little as Husserl, as little as all metaphysics, does not ask about Being as Being, that is, does not raise the question of how there can be presence as such”[42] Heidegger claims to go beyond Husserl by raising a question that Husserl never raised: the question of the meaning of Being.

But Heidegger does not truly go beyond Husserl, for two reasons, one methodological, the other substantive.

First, the meaning of Being is that which makes Being present. Present to whom? Meaningful to whom? Presence and meaning require a “to whom,” a dative, a receiver of presence. In Husserl’s terms, the dative is transcendental subjectivity. In the early Heidegger’s terms, the dative is Dasein. Heidegger, then, is doing transcendental phenomenology from the beginning of his career to the end—although in his later writings he systematically obscures the “to whom” of manifestation.

Second, Heidegger is simply wrong to say that Husserl does not raise the question of the meaning of Being, for in his writings on internal time-consciousness, Husserl speaks of something called the “absolute time-constituting flow” of consciousness. The absolute flow is a level of consciousness more primordial than the transcendental ego and its bundle of intentional acts. It provides the “clearing” in which both transcendental subjectivity and the objects made present through transcendental subjectivity come to presence. Finally, the absolute flow accounts for the conditions for the possibility of transcendental reflection itself.[43]

Heidegger remained a phenomenologist to the end. Where Heidegger writes “Being” substitute “meaning.” The “Being of beings” means the “meaning of beings to a knower.” The “meaning of Being” means the “meaning of meaning to a knower.” For Heidegger, ontology is really what is usually called epistemology, i.e., the theory of knowledge. And Heidegger’s fundamental ontology is reflection on the history of knowledge. And Heidegger’s final word on the transformations of meaning, and of the meaning of meaning, over the history of Western philosophy is that it is ruled by inscrutable contingency.

If the trajectory of traditional metaphysics—e.g., Platonism and Aristotelianism—is toward intelligible, necessary being that exists independent of human consciousness, Heidegger’s trajectory is in the exact opposite direction: toward mind-dependent meanings ruled by inscrutable contingency. Heidegger’s insistence on cloaking what is essentially a kind of epistemological anarchism in the language of ontology strikes me as perverse at best, fraudulent at worst. Of course it does not alter the substance of his achievements as a phenomenologist. But those achievements will be better understood and appreciated once Heidegger the ontologist is unmasked.


[1] For examples of literature that explicitly discusses the meta-ontological difference, see Thomas Sheehan, “On Movement and the Destruction of Ontology,” The Monist 64 (1981): 534–42; Graeme Nicholsen, Illustrations of Being: Drawing Upon Heidegger and Upon Metaphysics (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1992), pp. 98–106; Otto Pöggeler, “Heidegger’s Topology of Being,” in Joseph J. Kockelmans, ed., On Heidegger and Language (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1972); and Mark B. Okrent, “The Truth of Being and the History of Philosophy,” in Hubert L. Dreyfus and Harrison Hall, eds., Heidegger: A Critical Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992).

[2] Martin Heidegger, “Die Grundfrage nach dem Sein selbst” (henceforth cited as GF), Heidegger Studies 2 (1986): 1–3. In English: “The Basic Question of Being as Such” (henceforth cited as BQ), trans. Parvis Emad and Kenneth Maly, Heidegger Studies 2 (1986): 4–6. This text not only displays the meta-ontological difference between Being and the meaning of Being, it also admirably displays the unity of Heidegger’s philosophical career—as opposed to the overly neat “Heidegger I” and “Heidegger II” division. David Krell reports that Heidegger thought that it would take “about 100 years” for scholars to get beyond this interpretation. We could try harder. See David Farrell Krell, “Work Sessions with Martin Heidegger,” Philosophy Today 26 (1982): 126–38, p. 134.

[3] GF, p. 1; BQ, p. 4.

[4] GF, p. 1; BQ, p. 4.

[5] GF, p. 1; BQ, p. 4.

[6] Krell, “Work Sessions with Martin Heidegger,” p. 135.

[7] Quoted in Krell, “Work Sessions with Martin Heidegger,” p. 135.

[8] GF, pp. 1–2; BQ, pp. 4–5, emphasis added.

[9] GF, p. 2; BQ, p. 5.

[10] GF, p. 2; BQ, p. 5.

[11] GF, p. 2; BQ, p. 5.

[12] GF, p. 1; BQ, p. 4.

[13] Martin Heidegger, “Mein Weg in die Phänomenologie,” Zur Sache Des Denkens (henceforth cited as ZD) (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1969), p. 86. In English: “My Way to Phenomenology,” in On Time and Being (henceforth cited as TB), trans. Joan Stambaugh (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), p. 78.

[14] On categorial intuition, see Edmund Husserl, Logical Investigations (henceforth cited as LU), 2 vols., trans. J. N. Findlay (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1970), vol. 2, Investigation VI, esp. ch. 1, “Sensuous and Categorial Intuitions.”

[15] Martin Heidegger, History of the Concept of Time: Prolegomena, trans. Theodore Kisiel (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985).

[16] Martin Heidegger, “Zeit und Sein,” in ZD, p. 3. In English: “Time and Being,” in TB, p. 3.

[17] In Martin Heidegger, Vier Seminare, ed. Curd Ochwaldt (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1977).

[18] See, for instance, the following articles: Robert Sokolowski, “Husserl’s Concept of Categorial Intuition,” in J. N. Mohanty, ed., Phenomenology and the Human Sciences, Supplement to Philosophical Topics 12 (1981): 127–41; Richard Cobb-Stevens, “Being and Categorial Intuition,” The Review of Metaphysics 44 (1990): 43–66; Theodore Kisiel, “Heidegger (1907–1927): The Transformation of the Categorial,” in Hugh J. Silverman, John Sallis, and Thomas M. Seebohm, eds., Continental Philosophy in America (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1983); Rudolf Bernet, “Husserl and Heidegger on Intentionality and Being,” Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology 21 (1990): 136–52; Jacques Taminiaux, “Heidegger and Husserl’s Logical Investigations: In Remembrance of Heidegger’s Last Seminar (Zähringen, 1973),” in, inter alia, John Sallis, ed., Radical Phenomenology: Essays in Honor of Martin Heidegger (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1978); and Jiro Watanabe, “Categorial Intuition and the Understanding of Being in Husserl and Heidegger,” in John Sallis, ed., Reading Heidegger: Commemorations (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993).

[19] Heidegger, Sein und Zeit (henceforth cited as SZ) (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1927), p. 35; in English: Being and Time (henceforth cited as BT), trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (San Francisco: Harper, 1962), p. 60 and Introduction to Being and Time, trans. Joan Stambaugh, in Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings (henceforth cited as BW), ed. David Farrell Krell (San Francisco: Harper, 1977), p. 84.

[20] SZ, p. 37; BT, p. 61; BW, p. 85.

[21] SZ, p. 37; BT, p. 61; BW, p. 86.

[22] SZ, p. 31; BT, pp. 54–55; BW, p. 78.

[23] Thomas Prufer, “Husserl, Heidegger, Early and Late, and Aquinas,” in Recapitulations: Essays in Philosophy (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1993), p. 83. Cf. the earlier version of this essay, “Heidegger, Early and Late, and Aquinas,” in Robert Sokolowski, ed., Edmund Husserl and the Phenomenological Tradition: Essays in Phenomenology (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1989). On Being as presence/absence, see also Thomas Prufer, “Heidegger’s Dasein and the Ontological Status of the Speaker of Philosophical Discourse,” in John K. Ryan, ed., Twentieth-Century Thinkers (New York: Alba House, 1965). See also Thomas J. Sheehan, “On Movement and the Destruction of Ontology”; “On the Way to Ereignis: Heidegger’s Interpretation of Physis,” in Hugh J. Silverman, John Sallis, and Thomas M. Seebohm, eds., Continental Philosophy in America (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1983); and “Nihilism, Facticity and Economized Lethe: A Reflection of Heidegger’s Zur Seinsfrage,” in Heidegger: A Centennial Appraisal (Pittsburgh: The Simon Silverman Phenomenology Center, 1990).

[24] In Prufer’s language, Dasein is materially identical with human beings but not formally so; other beings that can question Being are at least conceivable. It is significant that Heidegger defines Dasein not as the being that “has” Being (i.e., that has beings present to it). This is true of all conscious beings—cats, dogs, mice, bugs, etc. What makes Dasein different from bugs is that Dasein not only has beings present to it, but also can reflect upon their presence. Dasein puts Being in question. Dasein can, furthermore, question the presence of presence itself, the meaning of Being. Were Heidegger’s topic the referent of Being (namely, the presence of beings) rather than its meaning, he need not have interrogated Dasein. He could just as well have begun his investigation of Being with a preparatory fundamental analytic of “bug-sein.”

[25] ZD, p. 73. In English: “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking,” trans. Joan Stambaugh, in BW, p. 386. Also in TB, p. 66.

[26] ZD, p. 75; TB, p. 69; BW, p. 387.

[27] ZD, p. 77; TB, p. 70; BW, p. 389.

[28] LU, vol. 2, pp. 771–834, esp. ch. 1, “Sensuous and Categorial Intuitions.”

[29] LU, vol. 2, pp. 673–770, esp. ch. 1, “Meaning-Intention and Meaning-Fulfillment.”

[30] See, for example, Bertrand Russell, “Descriptions,” in, inter alia, Meaning and Reference, ed. A. W. Moore (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), and W. V. O. Quine, “On What there Is,” Review of Metaphysics 2 (1948): 21–32.

[31] Husserl’s critique of the idea of intentionality as a real relationship may be found in ch. 2 of Logical Investigations V, “Consciousness as Intentional Experience.” See LU, vol. II, pp. 552–63. An excellent discussion of this point may be found in Heidegger’s History of the Concept of Time, pp. 29–32.

[32] See Logical Investigations VI, chs. 3–5. For a number of examples of different kinds of empty and filled intentions, see Robert Sokolowski, Husserlian Meditations: How Words Present Things (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1974), pp. 18–19. According to Husserlian Meditations, p. 19, n1, Sokolowski’s account draws primarily on Husserl’s mature formulation of the relationship between empty and filled intentions in ch. 1 of his Formal and Transcendental Logic, trans. Dorion Cairns (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1969).

[33] Thomas J. Sheehan, “Heidegger’s Philosophy of Mind,” in Guttorm Fløistad, ed., Contemporary Philosophy: A New Survey, vol. 4, Philosophy of Mind (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1983), p. 292.

[34] Martin Heidegger, “Was ist Metaphysik?” in Wegmarken (Frankfurt, a.M.: Klostermann, 1967). In English: “What is Metaphysics?” trans. David Farrell Krell, in BW.

[35] Martin Heidegger, “Vom Wesen der Wahrheit,” in Wegmarken. In English: “On the Essence of Truth,” trans. John Sallis, in BW.

[36] Martin Heidegger, “Zeit und Sein,” in ZD. In English, “Time and Being,” trans. Joan Stambaugh, in TB.

[37] ZD, p. 75; TB, p. 68; BW, p. 387.

[38] ZD, p. 75; TB, p. 68; BW, p. 387.

[39] ZD, p. 72; TB, p. 65; BW, p. 384.

[40] ZD, p. 73; TB, p. 66; BW, p. 385.

[41] GF, p. 1; BQ, p. 4.

[42] ZD, p. 77; TB, p. 70; BW, p. 389.

[43] See Edmund Husserl, Zur Phänomenologie des inneren Zeitbewußtseins (1893–1917), ed. Rudolf Boehm (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1966); in English: On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time (1893–1917), trans. John Barnett Brough (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1991). On absolute consciousness in relation to Heidegger’s project, see Prufer’s “Husserl, Heidegger, Early and Late, and Aquinas.”


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  1. Posted October 29, 2014 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    I like your grad school thinking on Heidegger. With that kind of clearness it would have been helpful if you had stayed in philosophy—philosophy has become a mess of definitions unrelated to real objects or real life.

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted October 29, 2014 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

      I can’t imagine a sillier waste of my life than being a philosophy professor while my race is being consumed by vermin.

      • Morgan
        Posted October 30, 2014 at 12:47 am | Permalink

        If NANR had a ‘like’ button, I’d ‘like’ this comment.

        Contemporary Anglo-American academic philosophy is the new scholasticism. Anything they can think up that isn’t related to the world, the only world, we inhabit, they will.

      • Posted January 18, 2016 at 11:45 am | Permalink

        “I can’t imagine a sillier waste of my life than being a philosophy professor while my race is being consumed by vermin.”

        This is a golden quote, succinct and meaningful, that should be included in any epitaphs in your honour.

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