By Danielle,

How Does a Study of Dasein Help in Answering the Question of Being?

9/18/2012 DK 0 Comments

He seems like a terribly grumpy man.
As I so rudely showed my dislike for existentialism and Heidegger in my previous post, this essay was a complete failure. But I decided to post it anyway because I didn't want my effort to go to waste. :)

How Does a Study of Dasein Help in Answering the Question of Being?

In his book, Being and Time (1962), Martin Heidegger addresses the central question of human existence by examining experiences and characteristics which are, according to Heidegger, particular to human beings. He believed that philosophy should be able to tell us the meaning of Being (Haugeland, 2005) and what it means to ask the question of 'being'. He held the view that one can exist only by asking what it is to be and thereby being alone with oneself from the distractions (Stepanich, 1991). The purpose of this paper is to offer my interpretations of Heidegger's accounts of the question of Being and Dasein, and the contribution of the study of Dasein to answering the question of Being.

Heidegger put great emphasis on the correct starting point of studying the question of 'being', asserting that it is important to start the inquiry 'in the right way '(Heidegger, 1962, p.195). This concern was due to Heidegger's view that existing words such as 'being', 'existence' and 'subject' have presupposed and prevalent meanings which may interfere with our new understanding (that is, Heidegger's proposed method of understanding) of the study of Being. Hence, he introduced new terms as to separate their meanings from the meanings of commonly used words and to explicitly express his own conception of 'being'.
In his attempt to correctly start the inquiry of the question of Being, Heidegger used, among other terms, the term, Dasein, which literally translates to 'being-there' (German: da-there; sein-being) and which refers to a specific type of Being, the human being. This is because he gave ultimate importance to the question of Being of humans, as he believed humans to be the only entities with the capacity to ask and express the question of Being through the use of language. It was his belief that the entity which needs to be examined is 'that which is interrogated', that which asks the question (Heidegger, 1962, §2).
In this regard, Heidegger has seemingly made a correct starting point as it should be surely obvious that there is no need to study and attempt to make sense of entities which do not question its Being, and of which we cannot take direct and subjective perspectives. However, despite its seemingly obviousness and despite Heidegger's effort to correctly start the point of inquiry into the question of Being, I propose here that he has failed to do so.
I argue that although Heidegger may seem modest in that he refuses to claim to know the qualitative feel of consciousness of entities other than that of humans (that is, of entities whose experiences he cannot experience), his rejection of other entities (for example, animals) as having the ability to ask the question of Being eliminates a significant part of answering the question of 'being' as a whole. That is to say, in trying to understand the meaning of 'being' itself, it is not plausible for humans (or those who are asking the question) to determine to whom the term 'being' shall belong; that our inability to experience the consciousness of other entities does not necessarily mean that we ought to, or can, claim to know that the question of Being is unique to humans. Although Heidegger seems right in that the entity to examine is the entity which asks the question, it is necessary to consider the possibility of other entities as having the capacity to 'make implicit inferences without making them explicit' through the method with which we are familiar, such as language (Musser, 2009). Failing to do so is failing to grasp the whole picture of the question of Being of all entities.
In this regard, Heidegger has failed to follow his own advice to start the inquiry in the right way. Following his logic that the question cannot be adequately answered if the inquiry itself does not start 'in the circle' of understanding (Heidegger, 1962, p.195), then, a study of Dasein cannot answer the question of Being as it dismisses the other possibilities of the notion of Being.

In saying this, however, I must take into account that Heidegger's method of answering the question of Being through a study of Dasein offers a refreshing way of thinking about the human existence. Heidegger explores the ways in which Dasein engages with and within the world with other entities, while ultimately Being alone with itself. He acknowledges that humans' and other entities' existence in the world are to be seen as a unitary whole of 'being-in-the-world' rather than as a distinguishable subject-and-object relationship (Stepanich, 1991). This is expressed by Heidegger by asserting that a human being is a being that is existent in the world amongst other things (Haugeland, 2005).
In explaining this (the relationship between Dasein and other entities as being-in-the-world), Heidegger analyses the concept of knowledge. To Heidegger, 'understanding' is to vaguely yet intuitively grasp the world and its purposes. Other entities are understood by Dasein through context-specific understanding; that is, Dasein understands 'the structure of something as something' (Heidegger, 1962, p.188), meaning it automatically interprets the entities in the world in terms of their purpose and context, whether it is aware of that understanding or not. This notion of vaguely understanding the world and other entities in the world, according to Heidegger, is linked to the idea of Dasein's concern for itself, which ultimately is a unique characteristic Dasein holds. The vague knowledge of the world is a fundamental part of Being, as it provides the knowledge for Dasein with which it avoids life-threatening or fearful situations. For example, a human being knows not to jump into a pool of something with a boiling temperature as to avoid being severely burnt, due to his context-dependent understanding of that entity - that is, the knowledge that the hot liquid will burn him. This is achieved even if he may not understand the mysterious liquid as a context-independent property, such as the practical and objective purpose which the entity serves.

This conception of knowledge of the human being is different from the traditional skeptic and epistemological ways of understanding the question of Being, as it refrains from the habit of seeing the world and our relationship to it as being completely separate, as well as the opposite habit of understanding the human being as objects when contemplating the human existence. My interpretation of this notion of understanding is that although we think as though all objects are context-independent properties and that the world is like a collection of properties to be used by us, Heidegger acknowledges the fact that the notion of Being involves an innate knowledge of entities around it; and this knowledge is acquired automatically because that is what 'being-in-the-world' means. In this regard, Heidegger provides an adequate way of understanding the question of Being in relation to Dasein, by offering a method of thinking outside the notion of the world as all extended things (objects), and comprehending it in the way that the human being actually engages with the world and the way entities actually appear to the human being.

In accepting this view of knowledge, it seems we are closer to answering the question of being. Dasein, the entity which asks, "what is it to be?", examines its own entity in being with the world and other entities, by observing, as objectively as possible, how it feels about itself, and how it matters to itself. However, whether phenomenologically observing and asking about the Being for whom Being is a question, answers the question of Being is difficult to determine.
Heidegger gives importance to an ontological way of studying the question of Being as opposed to an ontical way. To briefly distinguish the two terms, an ontical inquiry is one which explains an entity in terms of some other entity; for example, explaining that water is made up of hydrogen and oxygen. On the other hand, an ontological inquiry is to explain an entity by addressing the 'Being of entities', 'as to conceptualize it with regard to its structure' (Heidegger, 1962, p.359); that is, to explore the Being of an entity itself rather than to list the entities within that entity.
To determine whether an ontological study of Dasein helps in answering the question of Being, it seems plausible to look at whether the study of Dasein is indeed ontological.
I am of the opinion that an an ontological inquiry as such cannot exist. In interrogating anything, whether philosophical or scientific, it seems impossible not to land on a non-ontical explanation. For example, Heidegger's study of Dasein, although not explicitly, still seems to reduce down to a list of characteristics that belong to Dasein but not to other entities. This list of characteristics, I believe, can be seen as common entities of Dasein: that Dasein matters to itself, and is concerned for itself; Dasein has a vague understanding of the world and context-specific entities; and that Dasein asks the question of Being. Perhaps I simply do not understand the complex and original way of thinking that Heidegger offers, yet it seems implausible from my understanding of Dasein to claim that Heidegger has completely escaped the ontical interpretation of Being.
Additionally, a less seemingly reductionist explanation of Dasein would have been more helpful in understanding the question of Being in Heidegger's sense, in that it would  help explaining individual differences. For example, if one only properly exists when it meets the characteristics of Dasein, does a human being not exist if he lacks one or some of these characteristics? That is, does he who, as a cause of some deep psychological condition, no longer cares for his own life, cease to exist at that very moment he decides he is not concerned for himself (whether he is aware of it or not), as he is no longer being-in-the-world in the sense that Dasein is?
In this aspect of Heidegger's explanations, a study of Dasein seems not only too vague and abstract, but seems to be an ontical and reductionist method of answering the question of Being as opposed to what Heidegger had planned and asserted. However, again, I certainly acknowledge the possibility that I am unable to turn away from an ontical and reductionist way of thinking, and therefore unable to take on an ontological interpretation of Dasein.

In this paper, I attempted to offer an explanation and my own interpretation of Dasein, and how Heidegger explained his conception of Being by examining Dasein's way of Being. In regards to answering the question of Being as a whole, I asserted that Heidegger had failed, in that he dismissed the possibility of other entities such as animals to have the capacity to care for itself and to question its Being. However, I hold the view that, in trying to understand the question of Being with regards to the human being, Heidegger's terminology and explanation of Dasein have provided us with a more adequate understanding towards the question of Being, or at least offered us a new way of thinking about the Being. Heidegger has done so particularly by taking a stance on the concept of knowledge in a way which is distinguished from the traditional epistemology.
He acknowledged the way in which Dasein engages with other entities as involving an automatic and vague background knowledge of the world, rather than reducing the world down to all extended things (objects).
The question which remains for me, is whether Heidegger has indeed ontologically inquired the question of Being, and whether an ontological understanding is possible at all without reducing down to an ontical investigation. It is my belief that once I understand more accurately the meaning of ontology itself, I may be able to become closer to understanding Heidegger's account of the question of Being.


References
Haugeland, J. (2005). Reading Brandom Reading Heidegger. European Journal of Philosophy, 13(3), 422-428. Retrieved from http://philosophy.uchicago.edu/faculty/files/haugeland/Reading+Brandom+Reading+Heidegger.pdf.
Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and Time. Trans. Macquarrie, J. and Robinson, E. Oxford: Blackwell.
Musser, J. D. (2009). The Problem and Possibility of Animal Minds in Brandom's Work: Revisiting Heidegger, Rationality, and Normativity. The Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies. Retrieved from http://etd.lsu.edu/docs/available/etd-04262012-142938/unrestricted/musser_thesis.pdf.
Stepanich, L. V. (1991). Heidegger: Between Idealism and Realism. The Harvard Review of Philosophy. Retrieved from http://www.hcs.harvard.edu/hrp/issues/1991/Stepanich.pdf.

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