Understanding Heidegger’s Notion of Dasein – Part 2

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Platonism represents for Heidegger the essence of the „metaphysics of subjectivity“, an expression created by Heidegger to designate modern metaphysics. Heidegger’s ontological project is also an attack against the doctrine known as metaphysics of presence. Metaphysics of presence, or traditional ontology, is a particular way of understanding the nature of reality that states there is an immutable essence (from the Greek, eidos) or basic nature that makes the entity what it is. It is the idea found in Plato’s Forms, Aristotle’s primary substances, Descartes‘ res extensa and res cogitans, Kant’s noumena, etc. Furthermore, traditional metaphysics places ontology somewhere beyond time, contingence, and change, then uses these supernal entities like „reason“ or „rationality“ to order all existence. In the long run, what happens is that those philosophers seek an extraordinary principle for explaining the world, without reference to the everyday life. In his critique of metaphysics, Heidegger tells us that Nietzsche emerges as the last great philosopher of the age of the subject. Possibly, Nietzsche’s interpretation of Being as will to power is a form of inverse Platonism. But still, it was Nietzsche who opened up the door to postfoundationalist culture. And Heidegger tried to think Nietzsche in all its consequences. It is clear, then, that Heidegger completely rejected the fundamental concept associated with traditional metaphysics, to know, that there is an intrinsic human nature or a universal essence of humanity. So in a Heideggerian view there is no return to this kind of lost „centrality“. In Heidegger’s approach characteristics once considered as „human nature“ are characteristics of one’s particular culture. That is, the social environment one is thrown into, one’s „world“.

What is the problem with positivism? Positivism discredits all rational reflections which are not formulated by logics and mathematics. In the heart of this ninetieth century movement lies the idea that we can use principles of mathematics for deriving the outside world. This is, indeed, not new. Galileo, Descartes and Newton advocated the vision of nature as a mathematical Universum. In the text „The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology“ (1935-1936), Husserl accused positivism for the reduction of science to a mere science of facts. Husserl pointed out that the problem with the modern philosophy of Descartes is its admiration for the mathematical science of nature. According to Husserl, it is because of this that philosophy lost its importance for life. Anyway, Husserl still believed in the necessity of constructing philosophy as a rigorous science. We need to recall that Husserl came to philosophy from the mathematical sciences. There is no doubt that Husserl is one of the most important thinkers in German philosophy since Kant. According to Husserl, scientific positivism, or the positivist limitation of science, has nothing to teach us for it excludes precisely the questions that are primordial for our epoch: the question of the meaning or lack of meaning of human existence. In this light, against the impoverishment of life Husserl suggests to concentrate on the study of life-world (Lebenswelt). Note that the positivist conception of philosophy, which is empiricist in its origin, is nowadays outdated. However, as a methodology empiricism has survived through modern science. Following Husserl, Heidegger also challenges the scientific or empirical thought.

In his attempt to think beyond metaphysics, Heidegger uses the notion of Dasein as a point of departure for the reflection about the human existence as a given condition. Yes, but what exactly is Dasein? The term Dasein comes from two German words: Da (there) and Sein (being). Da-sein means literally „being-there“: human being is the „there“ of the Being. Dasein is the human existence. Dasein is an entity’s mode of Being. It is important to understand that Dasein exists as a possibility of Being. In other words, between Being and Nothing exist beings. Heidegger advocated that „existence“ is the mode of being characteristic of Dasein. Clearly, Dasein has priority over all other entities since it is characteristic of Dasein the understanding of the being who is not Dasein. In short, the essence of Dasein consists in its existence.

Perhaps the best way to assess the significance of Dasein to the Western thought is with reference to the work of Descartes and Husserl, the former the father of modern philosophy, the latter, as noted earlier, a contemporary of Heidegger. Let us recall first that Descartes defends a dualist metaphysics. For Descartes, the world is made up of two entirely different and independent types of substance: mind and matter, or consciousness and world. Accordingly, Descartes‘ philosophy is called metaphysics of substance dualism. This dualism is present on Husserl’s phenomenology. In fact, Descartes is at the center of Husserl’s reflection. Both philosophers were involved by the same question: how can consciousness come to know a world outside consciousness? The new insight of Husserl was to explain consciousness as intentionality, moving his project beyond the limits of an empiricist psychology. For Husserl, all consciousness, by its very nature, is „consciousness of“, that is, is „intentional“. Naturally, the concept of intentionality represents a radical shift from Cartesianism. Husserl believed that phenomenology was the one true path to philosophy. On Heidegger’s view, the problem with their dualism is that Descartes and Husserl take it for granted from the outset. That is, they do not discover it. So, according to Heidegger, Descartes‘ philosophy is not a new start and Husserl’s phenomenology is not „presuppositionless“ as they have claimed.

Now, what is significant here is to stress that Descartes and Husserl privileged the „I“ and its certainty over the world. In essence, the Cartesian „ego cogito“, that is, the rational individuality and the „I“ as the Husserlian transcendental subject do not need the world to exist. Both, in fact, exist „in and for itself“. For Descartes, the world exists as a result of man’s mind. In other words, Descartes‘ res cogitans („thinking thing“) presupposes that the world does not exist. Surely Descartes‘ and Husserl’s idealism follows from this methodological precedence of subjectivity. On the other hand, Heidegger does not speak of man as Consciousness, I, Subject, Self, Agent, etc. but only as Dasein. For Heidegger, the subject is not a „naturally occurring thing“, but, on the contrary, it is a philosophical category of thought that arose at a particular point in history. In reality, the modern idea of subject as a philosophical abstraction was created as a tool for solving philosophical problems. Thus, in place of the transcendental subject, Heidegger proposes the analysis of Dasein. For Heidegger, Dasein is „always already“ in the world, which is to say that Dasein is not separated from the world. In brief, we do not inhabit a world that is fundamentally separated from us.

Now recall that Descartes‘ proposal resembles the Christian idea that we are in the world, but not of it. Yet Dasein is in the world and belongs to the world. So, in place of the being out of the world of the transcendental subject, Heidegger proposes that Dasein’s activity of existence is „in-der-Welt-Sein“ (being-in-the-world). Indeed, Dasein means being-in-the-world. Note that the preposition „in“ indicates involvement and not spatial location. Dasein is one being among all other beings. Thus the human existence is always coexistence with others and with material world. Besides, Heidegger claims Dasein’s ontological primacy over Descartes‘ „thinking thing“. Descartes assumes the „thinking thing“, that is, the subjectivity, as the ultimate reference point for his philosophical system; the „I think“ is the foundation for his certainty in absolute knowledge. On the contrary, for Heidegger without Being there is no Dasein. Finally, because Dasein is described mainly in terms of temporality, Heidegger’s proposal speaks of an existential time in place of a time of inner time consciousness as was proposed by Husserl’s phenomenology. According to Heidegger, time is a dimension where Dasein moves on. In truth, Dasein is constituted by time and language. But both pre-exist to Dasein.

Copyright: Marco Antonio Bomfoco 2009

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