In ancient and medieval philosophy, “to be” meant to be an enduring presence, the Eternal Being being God. For moderns, “it” (the enduring presence) becomes a being, an object, in time and space or else a self-conscious subject.
Both approaches, Heidegger argues, neglect that human being is neither an enduring presence nor a subject fixed in the present, but une ouverture, an opening, never complete in itself and always in the process of becoming.
That Dasein (the “being for whom Being itself is at issue”) is situated in a polychronous stream of meanings and purposes within which Dasein acts and encounters other beings makes it more a process than a substance–a process conditioned by its “there” (da), the context of meaning opening and situating it in the world into which it has been thrown. Only in this context, he argues, is it possible for conscious being to understand and realize itself for what it is.
How man responds to his world is thus always a question for him.
Two major consequences accompany this condition. The first is a source of anguish, for once human being is divested of foundation and handed over to contingency, “Dasein finds itself face to face with the nothing of the possible impossibility of its own existence.” For the second, the uncertainty at the root of this anxiety is a source of freedom–in that man is always free to choose or will the possibilities inherent in his various openings to Being.
“Who we are,” therefore, is always a question for us: We have no choice but to decide which of the possibilities bequeathed by our destiny we are to pursue and the option to pursue it in ways faithful to “who we are.”
Because Being-in-the-world is a unitary phenomenon (with the world and our Being-in-it making up a constituent whole), its entities are never independent of one another, as Descartes or Kant held. Everything “present-at-hand” (i.e., objects seen as detached substances) belongs actually to a single humanly constructed totality of relations, just as the individual is not the basic unit of society but its offshoot.
Dasein’s ouverture occurs, similarly, only within the existentially constituted nexus of relations formed by the heritage distinct to it, the heritage that lights up the objects of its world and infuses them with their specific meaning.
But however marked by previous practices and meanings, an individual’s world nevertheless remains one of concern, for Dasein is necessarily future-directed and purposive, as it confronts the evolving context situating it.
Existence, Heidegger writes, is “what emerges from itself and in emerging reveals itself.”
Situated and situating, Dasein’s passive aspect constitutes its essence, the active its existence. Here essence implies that we are thrown–that the life we live is predetermined by the world in which we are born. But though our essence is fixed in this general way, we still retain the ability to make choices about the possibilities inherent in every “there” particular to us.
Man’s active aspect, existence, consequently comes from human being always being “ahead-of-itself,” as it projects itself toward a future of its own choosing: Projecting itself beyond itself, as it pursues the possibility of becoming “what it is.” This active side is premised on our freedom to make something of our lives (within the confines of the “factical” situation into we are thrown).
“Projection,” Heidegger writes, “is . . . [an] occurrence that lets the binding character of things spring forth as such, insofar as such an occurrence always presupposes a making-possible.”
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Freedom, it follows, is never a matter of independence–of “freedom from” the binding character of things–but something inherent to the nature of Dasein. It is “the ground of the possibility of man’s existence.” Its essence comes into view, though, only if sought as the ground of the possibility of our Being-in-the-world.
For Heidegger freedom is what breaks through in man and takes him up into himself as the possibility of his existence.
“The contexture and perspective for the problem of freedom,” he writes, “is the question of what beings are.” For man, this is never a question of causality, detachment, or an objective, present-at-hand state.
The essence of freedom has nothing fixed or static about it, but is an occurrence that happens whenever Dasein opens itself to and appropriates its own Being. (What Heidegger calls the “enowning” or Ereignis). It is what allows Dasein’s possibility to be taken up and realized. It is what summons man to his possibilities. In a word, it “lets beings be,” for it is “the groundless grounding of a ground . . . that grants itself the law of its essence.”
Heidegger calls man “freedom’s administrator”: For he only lets be the freedom which is accorded to him. As such, it is not a property of man–but a condition for existence, a condition which makes possible his Being-in-the-world, his Dasein. This distinguishes him from other entities, opens him to the possibilities distinct to his existence, affects all his relations to Being.
Just as truth is not the same thing as an “accurate” representation, but something that appears or becomes manifest in man’s world, freedom is not independence per se, but the condition by which beings are allowed to be.
Because man exists as the being in whom the Being of beings is revealed, knowledge of what man is and what he can become never falls directly into his lap: He must first place himself in question, must comport himself to himself as that being who is asked about, and who, in asking, becomes uneasy and self-questioning.
“Who man is” is knowable, then, only if man endeavors to become who he is.
We thus understand the question “who is man?” as asking: Who are we insofar as we are?
“Human freedom,” for Heidegger, “is the freedom that breaks through in man and takes him up into itself, thus making man possible.”
Given that human freedom opens man to Being’s dominion, Heidegger conceives of it as the condition of the possibility of the manifestness of the Being of beings. To understand the truth of Being in this ontological sense is to project in advance the possibility of one’s being. For liberation is real only when man is free for himself.
There’s nothing egocentric or subjective in this: Man is only the specific, situated manifestation of Being that he is. And there’s no escaping this.
The arbitrary individual freedoms posited by liberalism exist only among the shadows flickering on its cave walls.
Born to a mutilated concept of beings that ignores Being, liberal freedom takes no cognizance of Dasein as a thrown, time-bound, situated entity whose previous choices are inevitably the basis of its future choices, while its future choices affect its understanding of past ones and hence its understanding of who it is.
In a word, liberal “freedom” takes no cognizance of man’s place in the world and attributes no meaning to it.
Heidegger, by contrast, believes liberation “is genuine only when he who is liberated . . . becomes free for himself, i.e., comes to stand in the ground of his essence.”
31. Heidegger, Being and Time, 310.
32. Heidegger, Schelling’s Treatise, 107.
33. Heidegger, Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, 363-64.
34. Heidegger, Essence of Human Freedom, p38
35. Heidegger, Nietzsche: III, 119.
36. Heidegger, Essence of Human Freedom, 94.
37. Martin Heidegger, The Essence of Truth: On Plato’s Cave Allegory and Theaetetus, tran. T. Sadler (London: Continuum, 2002), 28.
38. Heidegger, Essence of Truth, 28.