Wednesday, July 11, 2007

B&T 2: The Question of Being

Part 1

On roman numeral page 19, the page right before the introduction begins, Heidegger tells you everything that’s in Being and Time. This page is the little chestnut that the whole tree grows from. His quote from Plato. “For manifestly you have been long aware of what you mean when you use the expression ‘being.’ We, however, who used to think we understood it, have now become perplexed.”

Heidegger takes this statement very seriously. Do we have a serious, adequate answer as to what we meaning by being? No. No we don’t. So we need to ask this question again: what is the meaning of being?

But the questioning doesn’t begin there. Heidegger says we don’t even realize the question needs to be asked in the first place. So, we need to reawaken an understanding for the meaning of this question. Two things to say here. First, the word reawaken is pretty loaded. It is not offer an explanation for the understanding of the meaning of this question. It is not developing an argument in the sense of stringing together propositions. There’s a path and process here. Following the spiral is an attempt to have the question reawakened - not necessarily answered.

Secondly, it’s not just high minded intellectual obfuscation to point out we don’t even have an understanding of the question, never mind an answer to the question. For example, consider how often being is written with a capital B. In German, of course, all nouns are capitalized. But when it is translated into English and the capital B remains, all this does is suggest that being is somehow a first principle or a substance, - perhaps a euphemism for God. What lurks behind this is the idea that being is a thing, an entity - finally on the same plane as this table.

Explaining why that’s a bad thing offers an opportunity to give an introduction to the ontological difference. There is a difference between being and beings. Being is always the being of a being and the being of a being is not itself a being. Which is to say, being is always the being of a thing, an entity and the being of an entity is not itself an entity.

Being is that from which something is understandable as the thing that it is. Everything that is has being - this chair, the thoughts in your head, numbers these are things that have being. The ontological difference is between ontic things and their ontological being.

This is the tradition’s blind spot, as Heidegger sees it. Being is always taken as the universal, empty concept; an assumed category that is not thought about further. The tradition consistently takes an ontic entity, capitalizes the first letter, and says “viola, this is the thing that defines all reality!” A common version of this is to say everything relates back to God - hence a snappy name for the tradition is “onto-theological.” No matter how you predicate your ontic thing - no matter how powerful and super your posited God is - it is still a thing, and the matter of being remains unthought.

So the question needs to be reawakened. Like Plato said, we have been long aware of what we mean by “being.” The thing is, this is basically true. We are always already living in an understanding of being - it just happens to be a pre-ontological understanding. We’re all perfectly capable of using the verb “to be”; we just don’t have an ontological grasp on being.

So The aim of this book is to work out the question, to gain an ontological understanding of being; the provisional aim is the interpretation of time as the possible horizon for any understanding whatsoever of being.

Notice the reticent language. It’s working out the question, not the answer. There is a “provisional aim,” not a final one. Time is a “possible horizon.” Heidegger is very much concerned with questioning - the question tends to have priority over the answer. The reticence is also interesting in light of the fact that B&T is an incomplete work. Whether for practical reasons - like the need to publish to get a job - or for philosophical reasons - ie the recognition that B&T is still a transcendental project or an alleged recoiling from the imagination - B&T is only a fraction of what is laid out in the introduction.

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