Heidegger begins his classic work with a quote from Plato’s Sophist 244a:
For manifestly you have long been aware of what you mean when you use the expression “being.” We, however, who used to think we understood it, have now become perplexed.
Not since the days of Plato and Aristotle had there been such an intense scrutinizing of the meaning of Being. With this quote from Plato, Heidegger announces his intention to revive the importance of the investigation into the meaning of Being. Socrates said, The unexamined life is not worth living; Heidegger does not believe a philosopher is worthy of the title without examining this most basic of all life’s questions, What is the meaning of Being?
Heidegger claims that the question of the meaning of Being has been forgotten. He also claims that a dogma has arisen among philosophers sanctioning the neglect and superfluous nature of questioning the meaning of Being.
The meaning of being must…already be available to us in a certain way. We intimated that we are always already involved in an understanding of being. From this grows the explicit question of the meaning of being and the tendency toward its concept. We do not know what “being” means. But already when we ask, “What is being?” we stand in an understanding of the “is” without being able to determine conceptually what the “is” means. We do not even know the horizon upon which we are supposed to grasp and pin down the meaning. This average and vague understanding of being is a fact (Heidegger, Being And Time).
Being And Time is a hard nut to crack. I’ve learned from reading Kant and other philosophers that one must read the introductions in order to start out on the right foot. This is especially true with Heidegger. There are two chapters to this introduction. It is mandatory reading.
We set out, with Heidegger, to uncover the meaning of the question of being. According to the above passage, we already have an inkling of what that meaning might be. Some meaning is always already available to us. We are already “involved” in the grasping of the meaning, albeit in a very vague way, We see through a glass, darkly.
I am aware of my own existence. That is a fact. I know of a certainty I exist, but I know only in a very obscure way. Nevertheless, this dim bit of knowledge has meaning. What is obscure to me, and what will be the end result of my inquiry, is the explicit meaning of the being of beings, of which I am one. This being will be interrogated as to its meaning.
The being of beings “is” itself not a being (ibid.).
Being is not an object. It is not an entity. When my inquiry asks, “What does it mean to be?” I am not asking about a thing.
The question of Being is the most basic question of all philosophical inquiry. It is what Heidegger calls, “philosophically primary” (ibid. p. 10). All investigations by all sciences have their foundation in the question of the meaning of Being. Before a scientist can study something, there are certain a priori assumptions that must be made. Now, scientists need not concern themselves with these questions prior to their studies, but a philosopher must.
For a philosopher, the underlying question, “How is knowledge even possible?” must be answered. Immanuel Kant, for instance, showed that an inquiring mind can discover certain categories and principles that underlie all human questioning (Critique Of Pure Reason). The manner in which the human mind organizes our experience through these categories (e.g. space, time) have to do with how a human “is.” In other words, “to be” human means to posses these innate mental structures, such as space and time. These a priori conditions make science possible.
To further elucidate, in front of me is a computer monitor. I am experiencing it. Space and time are like lenses through which I experience the monitor. They are innate and prior to my experience. I perceive the monitor in space and time. I am able to think of space and time devoid of the monitor, but I cannot think of the monitor devoid of space and time. This example demonstrates a manner in which I exist, a mode of existence, if you will. The question of the manner in which I exist is prior to all my experiences and inquiries, therefore the question of Being is the primary question of all inquiry.
Through this analysis, I have discovered that “being me” entails the possession of these innate conditions through which I experience the world. This brings me closer to understanding Being.
Most of the time, philosophical assertions, especially regarding metaphysics, possess the air of certainty. We think we have it all figured out. This is also a problem with religious zealots. If any of us think we have arrived at absolute truth, we are severely deluding ourselves. Dogma does not equate truth.
Heidegger announces early on what has transpired throughout the history of philosophy, since Plato, regarding the question of the meaning of being. A dogmatic attitude had developed that, basically, emptied being of all meaning.
On the foundation of the Greek point of departure for the interpretation of being a dogma has taken shape which not only declares that the question of the meaning of being is superfluous, but sanctions its neglect. It is said that “being” is the most universal and the emptiest concept (ibid.).
Anyone who questioned the meaning of being was said to be in error, supposedly because being resisted every attempt at explication and elucidation.
Dogma can stifle intellectual investigation and critical thinking. A dogmatic mindset has its root in narrow-minded worldviews that are closed to imagination and creativity. The word, dogma, originates with the Greek word dogmatos. Literally, it means, “that which one thinks is true.” Dogma is an opinion. Dogma declares something is truth, but does it arrive at this declaration via critical thinking?
For two thousand years, the question of the meaning of being went unasked. Only with Hegel did philosophers, once again, begin to ask the question concerning the meaning of being.
Heidegger takes Being not to be about particular things but about the general characterization of a particular view of the world. For Heidegger, Plato and Aristotle understood the Greek concept of Being as what has come to be called “substance/attribute” metaphysics. Along with what can be called “subject/object” metaphysics, these metaphysical theories dominated Western philosophy from Aristotle to Kant. Hegel was the first major philosopher to think of Being in developmental, organic imagery that undermined both types of metaphysics (John Tietz, Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time).
Today, these dogmas persist. The subject/object and substance/attribute theories may have served some usefulness for science, but they are perplexing when applied to metaphysical thought. Perhaps the natural unfolding of things deemed it necessary that the West develop alongside these concepts, but how useful are they at the nadir of our civilization?
In Dasein itself and therewith in its own understanding of being, as we shall show, the way the world is understood, is ontologically reflected back upon the interpretation of Dasein (ibid. p. 16).
This phrase, “the way the world is understood,” is quite important, I think. The world can be understood in many different ways by Dasein. The world is understood in a specific way by each Dasein. The world is not understood the same way by Daseins, but in many different ways.
The word, “way,” literally means “road, path, or course of travel.” Life is a road, a path, a course of travel. From the cradle to the grave, we are on a path, partly set in motion by the environment we are born into, partly by our personal choices, characteristics, and talents. Our uniqueness causes us to interpret differently the world in which we are traveling. Understanding the world changes as we travel this road, experiencing life as we go.
We come into this life, devoid of any understanding as to why we’re here. We are on a path through a dark forest. Every now and then, the path passes through a clearing, where beams of sunlight shine through and fall at our feet.
Experience. Understanding. Abiding. Being-Here. World.
If we are to gain an understanding of the meaning of being, we must come to grips with the manner in which we are intertwined with the world. Forget the subject/object separation; it is a mistake. I hate to quote pop songs, but We are the world.
None of us are better or worse off than each other when it comes to our potential to understand the meaning of being. We’re all in the same boat. We each interpret being differently because we each have a different interpretation of the world. Being requires a world in which to be.