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In Being and Time, Heidegger attempts to answer the question "What is being?" He tries to do this through studying the concept of dasein, a German word that roughly translates to “being there.” He uses it primarily to refer to the human being, the being who is most self consciously aware of its own existence. He then interrogates what "being there," in other words, being self-aware, means.

While Heidegger never comes to a satisfactory conclusion—he never finished the book—he makes discoveries along the way that have had a profound impact on philosophy. Therefore, going with him on his journey becomes the reader's reward.

In Being and Time, Heidegger reexamines, as mentioned above, the human being's sense of its own consciousness. Much of modern Western philosophy has been based on Descartes's idea of duality: that we as humans have a disembodied consciousness that is separate from the material world. This is called mind/body duality. Heidegger, however, rejected the Cartesian idea that selfhood (the self-aware mind) is separated from the material world. For Heidegger, the human consciousness is deeply enmeshed in and formed by the world. In other words, you really can’t think of the self-aware being outside of his or her place in time, history, and geographical location—outside of the material and embodied.

In making this move of contextualizing dasein within the material world, Heidegger famously critiques the Enlightenment idea of how beings and objects interact each other. In Enlightenment thought, Heidegger says, when we see a chair, for example, we are understood to be engaging in a complex metaphysical process to comprehend what the chair is and analyze its use value. We then use the object, which we see as utterly separate from us. Heidegger, however, thinks that that is only one mode of approaching an object, and that, in reality, we usually don’t think about things in this way. We don't constantly think at all about how we interact with the world. Famously, Heidegger notes that when a carpenter is hammering a nail, he isn’t thinking about what he is doing, for the motion is ingrained. The carpenter doesn't necessarily feel separate from the hammer and nail, and he isn't constantly contemplating them as separate objects from him.

The important point is that the only time the carpenter thinks about the hammer in a theoretical way as a separate object is when the hammer is broken and can’t do its job. We only think deeply when we have a problem with being, Heidegger argues.

Heidegger's book also explores ontotheology—arguing that the entire history of Western metaphysics is characterized by forgetting about the question of being. Each metaphysical system, he argues, has an unspoken notion of being that is accepted unquestioningly. This unquestioned, although historical and cultural, notion of being is taken for granted as transcendent (unshakable, ultimate) truth and is then used in a circular way to justify the metaphysics in question. Getting back to Descartes and his body/mind dichotomy, Heidegger in Being and Time shows that what Descartes accepts as a pure, inviolate, and transcendent truth about being is merely part of a historical Christian (time and culture bound) way of thinking about the mind and body.

Heidegger's Being and Time was greatly influenced by Nietzsche's historicizing of abstract categories. In turn, Being and Time has immensely influenced post-structuralist philosophy, making his work important not only for philosophy but for literary studies. Derrida, for example, famously said that his entire work was an interpretation of Heidegger.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1463

Martin Heidegger exerted a strong influence on philosophy, theology, and politics. His most important works include Was ist Metaphysik? (1929; What Is Metaphysics?, 1949), a political treatise Vom Wesen der Wahrheit (1943; The Truth from One Being), and his collected essays, entitled Wegmarken (1967; Pathmarks, 1968). A complete edition of his works, published in 1975, consists of seventy volumes.

Heidegger’s Being and Time is a conception of philosophy based on Franz Brentano’s Von der mannigfachen Bedeutung des Seienden nach Aristoteles (1862; On the Manifold Meaning of Being According to Aristotle). The premise from which Heidegger analyzes the world around him, metaphysics, is a philosophy concerned with the study of the ultimate causes and the underlying nature of things. Being and Time is based on Aristotle’s study of philosophy, which he wrote after his studies related to physics. The entire text provides a linguistic study of language meaning and usage, in the course of which Heidegger creates new words and assigns new meaning to existing words. His goal is to interpret the meaning of existence concretely in accordance with the way people live and with what influences them.

Being and Time is divided into two major parts. In the first part, Heidegger seeks to define the temporality of existence. In the second, he explores the idea of time as the transcendental limit for questioning the meaning of being.

Heidegger sees words as a metaphorical pathway that proceeds without people knowing where it came from or where it is going. In his view, the manner of questioning is an integral part of seeking answers. Depending on how questions are asked about a tree—for example, What is that over there in the distance? and What is that which we call a tree?—each question evokes different answers even though both concern the same object. The essence of existence focuses on asking the correct questions. It is not enough merely to ask What?; one must also ask How?

Since no two human beings are totally alike and all humans question their existence individually, people learn to function in the world by communicating. Communication involves formulating meaningful questions and listening in order to formulate more questions. Heidegger labels thoughts that are “self-evident” (selbstaugenscheinlich) as false-consciousness because those who stop asking questions acquire false notions.

Heidegger believes that language gives meaning to life. Humans are created by language, since humans are defined by consciousness. The bond between human beings and nature is broken by consciousness. Since animals and plants are part of each other in nature, consciousness and language are the alienation of nature. Speech and language produce dance, poetry, painting, and music, which are the foundation for culture within human society. Culture distances people from nature.

The experience of living suffices to enable people to understand the complex language of philosophers as well as the simple language of their contemporaries. Heidegger defines dialogue as “co-responding.” According to Heidegger, it is irrelevant to know philosophy as long as people are in a dialogue with their own existence. In order to “co-respond,” people should not answer, for when there are answers people stop listening. Philosophy is tuned co-respondence, in which vibrations from one thinker harmonize with the thinking of others. Heidegger is the first to see that being with others (Mitsein) evokes a question of existence rather than a question of knowing.

In contrast to the existentialist thought prevalent in his time, Heidegger focuses on considering ways in which humanity exists concretely. Existentialism centers on the analysis of existence and stresses freedom, responsibility, and usually the isolation of the individual. In metaphysics, however, in order to find meaning for self, people must look directly at humanity in the world. The only reality is concrete.

Metaphysics theorizes that the individual is the source of all values and responsible for his or her own development. In order to be part of humanity, individuals must be inseparable from the world. Being involves being “with”; however, individuals can learn about themselves even if they are not physically free. Espousing an affirmation of mystical self-liberation, Heidegger defines knowing as the ability to discuss the world.

Humankind has overemphasized knowing and become too technological. Heidegger criticizes science and technology, which he associates with nihilism. Knowing is grounded in existing. Being in the world is a necessary condition for knowing. Heidegger feels that people cannot learn anything they do not care about; without some type of fascination, there can be no knowledge.

Heidegger envisions the entire world as “being” or “existing,” and he defines “existing” as that which is part of humanity’s system of questioning. According to Heidegger, human beings are not physical structures but fluctuating series of possibilities (Seinkönnen) that constitute their existence.

Part of unconscious knowledge relates to an awareness of entities (Zeug). People are not necessarily conscious of their awareness. Heidegger defines “everydayness” (Alltäglichkeit) as the connection of humans with entities. The world is only authentically ready-to-hand as it “comes before us.” People can form questions and listen for responses only as they experience life. It is the experience of individuals that offers development, not the body of historical knowledge that people have relied on before each individual experienced it.

When experiencing the world around the self, the primary concern is not what various things “are” but what they “do.” Equipment is meaningless without knowing what the equipment can do. There are three areas, called deficient modes, that interfere with a person’s ability to understand what things do in the world. The conspicuous mode relates to those situations in which an object cannot be used for its original purpose. In the obtrusive mode, understanding is interrupted when something is missing; when an item is needed and fails to be ready-at-hand, its obtrusiveness interferes with understanding. Last, in the obstinate mode, one item obstructs the ability to use another. If a lock on a box prevents someone from reaching a necessary object such as a hammer, the box is obstinate; a person who is obstinate cannot fully experience the world because the mind refuses to question what things do and dwells instead on what they are.

The concept of Being can be understood more fully when the relationship of Being and Being-there (Dasein) becomes disturbed. In order to see things ontologically, people must experience a disturbance. Heidegger claims that part of people’s daily routine is filled with emptiness, which constitutes part of human suffering. Through experience with the deficient modes of concern, Heidegger circumvents understanding nature. With positive modes, people would never go beyond childhood concepts of concern that are rooted in nature. Existentialism is based on positive modes that, according to Heidegger, will lull people into ontological sleep. Heidegger views nature as a dark covering over the world that traps human beings into accepting answers without having voiced proper questions. Heidegger’s approach to humanity’s attempt to understand itself is through questioning and listening and further questioning. The essence of the world has no meaning apart from humanity; therefore, understanding nature stops the thought process that Heidegger sees as a necessary manifestation of understanding people’s place in the world.

Besides knowing their place in the world, human beings must also be involved with the world. While artists must accept their medium as it is, they are also deeply involved with their medium and must continue to question, observe, and listen to the medium’s properties. Artists deal with the limits of their medium because, in spite of the artist’s involvement, the medium will go its own way. Artists are thus involved in the world by being active and participatory, according to Heidegger. Without such involvement, Being-there, or existence, becomes deficient. Being-there must give itself the task of understanding its Being-there.

The key to Heidegger’s premise is his focus on humanity. Among the major points of Heidegger’s concept of existence is its uniqueness. Existence is noncategorized, unstable, unpredictable, and therefore free. It is centered on the individual and has no specified behavior patterns, since it is in constant change. It is focused on potential. People are equated with their possibilities. Adventure, accomplished through constant questioning and the search for new pathways, is a key point to evolving. People continually challenge, question, and make their own decisions; however, humans can never truly know who they are, only who humanity was. People cannot project into the future, nor can human progress be scientifically measured.

Heidegger describes phenomena as the totality of what lies in the light of day or can be brought to light. The essence of humanity consists of its definition according to each individual and the freedom of mind of each individual. Humanity always precedes itself on the path to understanding. The origin or upheaval, as realized in the position of humanity, is the Heideggerian description of eksistence.