Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), A Perspective
by Dr. Parviz Dehghani
Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), A Perspective
Who was he? He was a German philosopher born in Messkirch, Baden. They call him an existentialist, which in fact he rejected it. Having studied theology and then philosophy, he became a student of Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), German philosopher who was born in Austria and is called the father of phenomenology. Heidegger dedicated his best work, ‘Being and Time’, to him at the University of Freiburg. He established existentialist phenomenology under the influence of both Nietzsche’s and Kierkegaard’s philosophy. Unfavorably he went on praising Hitler in a speech in 1930 for which he was highly criticized as a result of it his teaching career and university status were damaged forever. Was it worth it? He never had a chance to write the second volume of ‘Being and Time’. Some scholars say when it came to politics, he couldn’t even boil an egg. This can be an exaggeration, however what he did, like writing a praise for Hitler in the back of one of his books was very surprising, because after all he is regarded as a philosophical monument in the 20th century. It is, nevertheless, thought he was at least a sympathizer with National Socialism, if not utterly supporter.
Once he brought a piece of a bark to his class and told his students there was more to that than the whole of the Western philosophy. This sounds like what Alfred north Whitehead (1861-1947), the British philosopher and mathematician said regarding Plato that the entire Western philosophy is nothing but a footnote to his thoughts.
At one time he gave a talk on ‘Nothingness’. When one of the attendants was asked, whether he said anything, the answer was just nothing.
After the Second World War was over he was asked what he really thought of Hitler’s movement. He responded that it was a large social experiment which ended up in a disaster.
Separating his philosophical achievements from his politics would help us appreciate what he had done, which has been very influential even today. This is like when we distinguish Wagner’s compositions from his anti-Semitic feelings.
Heidegger looked at the history of philosophy as being involved with the wrong kind of questions. Since Plato, Heidegger maintains, thinkers have been inquiring about what there is and what we can know about it. He thought these questions postulate or assume too much. They worry a lot concerning what is rather than what that little copula ‘is’ is all about. They unfavorably presuppose many dualisms, particularly that of Descartes, which deals with subject and external world or mind/body distinction. Heidegger like Nietzsche refutes this division. He didn’t accept the idea of a world as external to some conscious observer. Instead of this partition between subject and object he concentrates on the question ‘What is Being?’ let me remind you that Philip Stokes, the author of this book uses ‘Being’ with a capital letter, as you can see. This, I believe, is a mistake. Prior to asking what kinds of properties objects have, we ought to first look and examine, in ‘a priori’ way, what it means for something ‘be’.
Let us go back to Hegel when he tried to remove the barrier between Kant’s phenomenon and noumenon. Hegel made the transcendence be part of this world and to some turned time or history to become God. After all Christ had entered this world of becoming.
Kierkegaard rebelled against this approach to the world of appearance and beyond. You just cannot bend the rule of logic to fit your procrustean bed, he argued. Aristotle himself warned against this act by saying that we have to start somewhere and accept what logic demands of us. For Kierkegaard we have to go beyond the either/or logic but not by changing the rule. He called this leap of faith. It was also Kierkegaard who talked about ‘being’ to become the father of existentialism. Hegel failed to see that Jesus as Avatar or incarnation who entered our world but not time. For Hindus Krishna as Avatar came to us through a woman where time is an illusion. They didn’t have to go through what Hegel did.
For Kierkegaard our being is what comes first. We ought to have a chance and change ourselves not the rule of logic. To push Christianity through the fixed windows of logical structure is not what Jesus taught us to do. This is where Descartes failed too. Christianity is not a rational system but it is super rational.
Nietzsche, on the other hand, realized what Hegel had been struggling to do. He felt Hegel tried to remove the Berlin wall separating this world of phenomenon from noumenon. He just simply argued that this division doesn’t make any sense.
Heidegger benefited from both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche and discussed what being is all about. What does it mean for something to be? ‘Why is there something, rather than nothing’, which is a fundamental philosophical puzzle. Why being than none-being? Some thinkers in the past dealt with this question but for Heidegger we need to find an answer to this question prior to any other philosophical questions.
According to Heidegger, the question ‘What is Being?’ As we mentioned before, ‘Being’ here should be ‘being’, which demands an answer to what kind of being one is oneself. He gives ‘being’ the intentionally obscure or ambiguous name of ‘Dasein’- ‘being-there’. It sounds like when I say I exist, namely I’m out there standing or to praise myself I would say I’m outstanding. However,’ ‘Being-there’ is to imply what we usually call the human subject. But Heidegger doesn’t welcome the subject-object distinction. This is where we separate him from Sartre. ‘being- there’, for him is a perspective, which, it turns out to be a place of action extended through time. As you can see the element of time shows up here. In other words, ‘Dasein’ is a perspective from which action proceeds or begins. What is ‘perspective’? One of its definitions is ‘view’. My view of Heidegger’s philosophy is what this article is all about. I’m not claiming to be a Heidegger scholar. But I’m trying to understand his thoughts by analyzing what I think he had in mind. I admit that it is only a perspective and nothing else. Is he helping me to understand his philosophy? I wouldn’t go that far. However, this is not what Heidegger means by ‘a perspective’.
We have seen the paintings of the last super prior to Renaissance and after. The former have a wall behind Jesus and the latter shows us a garden behind him. ‘Perspective’ in art shows us depth. A circle cannot do that whereas an oval can. When we have a ring in our hands we experience verticality. But when we bend it a bit forward we experience a perspective, because it gives me depth. Historians of Christian arts should realize that before Renaissance the halo around Christ’s head was a circle like a round plate attached to the back of his head and after was an oval, which shows us depth. This is where humanism was entering Christianity. Circle reveals verticality while oval manifests horizontality. In a painting we see a road with trees on both sides; we immediately notice the depth in it. As the trees become smaller, we see the distance. In Latin it means ‘look through’ a distance relative to us. Instead of focusing on Jesus, we look through the painting into the garden. We’re distracted here. But once there’s nothing behind Christ except a wall, we concentrate on him in the painting.
Heidegger talks about ‘being-there’ as being a perspective, which is the focus of action extended through time, therefore, ‘Dasein’ is a perspective from which action emerges. When we say ‘Dasein’ is in the world, we don’t mean the physical world. This world is the world of Dasein. For example, a professor said, when someone’s mother passes away, his whole world collapses on him. This is not the world you and I experience. This is Dasein’s world in which he lives.
Remember, the word ‘Dasein’ means ‘being there’. Heidegger focuses on the question ‘What is being’? But I beg to differ when it comes to the author of the book I’m working with. I personally believe Heidegger didn’t use capital letter like ‘Being’ when he asked the question. ‘Being’ with capital letter belongs to Plato’s realm of perfection just like humanity, beauty. He is trying to find out why be rather than not be. To be or not to be asked by Hamlet is the question here. First of all, there wouldn’t be, if there’s no Being. When Heidegger speaks of non-duality in which there’re no subject and object, we’re reminded of the presence of ‘Atman’ within us in Hinduism. The source of ‘Atman’ is ‘Brahman’, which is the Ultimate Reality. It is beyond all dualities. ‘Atman’ and ‘Brahman’ are connected. In fact they’re one. It seems as if Heidegger is referring to Dasein as ‘Atman’, which is our true Self. If you are being-there, then you’re beyond mind/body dualism of Descartes.
We have been asking the wrong questions, Heidegger for a long time. We have been worried more about a thing rather than its very existence. Remember, things change but not their existence. Objects have become more important to us than their beings. Heidegger wants to know what ‘being’ is. The song says ‘I want to know what love is’. Heidegger wants to bridge the gap between Descartes’ mind/body distinctions. I and thou business has no meaning for him. He is interested in knowing what kind of being we’re. Dasein is what he called it, which means being there. Well, after all we exist and so we’re standing out there. It is a perspective as in a painting in which the trees on both sides get smaller and smaller till both visually meet at some point but not actually. We see depth in a perspective. We observe oval and not circle. The latter symbolizes eternity while the former gives us the world and time.
In the phenomenology of Heidegger Dasein’s initial understanding of objects is not about determined and independent material things to be measured, analyzed and classified. On the contrary, Dasein’s initial understanding of objects is as tools. We look at them and want to know whether they’re useful or we can do anything with them, and if this is the case, what? What about Dasein’s understanding of itself? Being a temporal and self-conscious, Dasein knows its own fate or destiny, namely it is finite and mortal. This creates angst or dread. This fear, anxiety and apprehension are what we ought to deal with. We’re not going to be here forever. Dasein is scared concerning the things changing in his world. Dasein sees people in general and friends and relatives who are aging and leaving this world. Dasein is losing father, mother, brothers and sisters. Feeling of loneliness and the fact that some day or any day will be Dasein’s turn to exit. We’re being on to death. Death is an inevitable reality from which there’s no escape. Life is changing all around us and Dasein being a perspective is in the world. However, it is only in complete and unyielding consciousness of our own mortality that life can adopt any purposive meaning. “ It is only in full… awareness of our own mortality that life can take on any purposive meaning” is what he said. Of seven members of Dasein’s family only two left. Who is going to be next? Brother, we’re all beings on to death. So help me financially now, not later. You didn’t take it so seriously then and ridiculed me in front of my two sisters and showed them my letter when I was 10,000 miles away from them. But now only the younger sister is left behind and whatever you owned is in the hand of a stranger. Death is a present possibility brother. You were buried more than seven months ago and I had no idea when you died. May God bless your soul brother? I have forgiven you not to show I’m better than you. After all I’m not the judge. This was not all about money but to show you how little I had learned from my own Religion and Heidegger’s philosophy in the West. Money is only a tool or instrument. It is not the source of happiness. It only makes this passing life a little more convenient. It is useful and can be either used for either good or bad in our life. When I try to comprehend myself, however, I know my fate. When I reflect up on myself, I’m aware of my being in the world as a perspective but not as Cartesian dualism or mind/body project. I’m being first. I don’t come up with ‘I think, therefore I’m’. Before that I’m and then doubt and then think or vice versa. In this being there’s no duality. St. Paul refers to this fact at one time by saying that ‘For in Him we live, and move, and have our being’. (Acts 17:28) Let us not forget Heidegger was thinking of becoming a Jesuit priest before he chose philosophy. It sounds like Paul is telling us we have our existence in Being in which we move like fishes and have our beings. You see the difference between the two versions of the words ‘Being’ and ‘being’. In the ocean of Being we’re and move as beings. I have a feeling Heidegger must have thought of this verse by Paul. My being is connected to Being though I’m as being in this world of becoming. However, ‘Being’ is in the realm of perfection, according to Plato. We’re beyond any dualism and we’re related to the Ultimate Reality of which Heidegger doesn’t talk about.
Dasein is self-aware and knows that life is too short. Self-awareness of being on to death ends up in the ‘authenticity’ of a life brought to existence out of nothing, in the encounter with dread, through reference only to our own deliberate purposes.
To Heidegger, when we ask, why there’s something rather than nothing it returns to the choice of ‘being-there’. Dasein makes a choice to create something out of nothing, thus in the absence of Dasein there would be nothing.
According to St. Augustine, God created everything out of nothing, which is logically absurd. Only something comes out of something and nothing comes out of nothing. Therefore, it is not logical to say something comes out of nothing. Then how can Heidegger claim that Dasein makes something out of nothing? Is Dasein imitating God? What if this was only Augustine’s theology and nothing more? It is possible that in the Hebrew Bible there’s no such a thing that God created everything out of nothing. Did Heidegger know about this logical problem?
You see, architects first have an idea of what a bridge would look like. Later on they come up with a design. Therefore, the bridge we drive on was once an idea in the minds of those architects. We can call it an idea materialized. The whole of artificial environment is nothing but ideas in the minds of the architects. These ideas didn’t come from nothing or nowhere. We stand on the shoulders of giants who went before us. So how can I say something came from nothing? There’s nothing new under the sun. Even what we have in genesis doesn’t account for God created everything out of nothing. Apparently there’s no such a thing in the Hebrew Bible any way.
In Being we live, and move and have our beings. Without Being it is impossible to have movement. Paul seems to have some idea about Plato’s philosophy. Christian theologians who are sometimes also philosophers understand this point clearly. Why something than nothing? It is a good question. However, without anything we couldn’t have something logically. Without rest we couldn’t have motion. From the Hindu and Buddhist perspectives the whole of time and change are nothing but illusions. Even this something is nothing. How can Dasein create something out of nothing? To Heidegger without Dasein there would be nothing. This is a different story. Of course, there must be something so we have nothing. One without the other doesn’t exist, like without rest there’s no motion.
Heidegger’s language is so vague and ambiguous. He uses undefined concepts, which don’t help us understand his point of view. For instance, how is it that without self-awareness there would be no-one to be conscious of the existence of anything? This sounds like Bishop Berkeley’s ‘to be is to be conceived’. For example, if we’re not in the forest, we would be ignorant of the fact when a tree falls down. Of course, for Berkeley, in the final analysis, God is there to perceive it. The existence of Being is missing in Heidegger’s philosophy. The element of time still rules the game, which is the legacy of Hegel not Kant. Kant made time as one of his categories. However, Hegel gave so much importance to time that it finally replaced God. Benjamin Franklin once said, this (time) is the stuff life is made of. Time for the Hindus was nothing but an illusion or Maya.
When Heidegger argued that in the absence of Dasein there would be nothing, this was not a position he should have adopted, given the fact that he had rejected the distinction of ‘mind-world’ all along. Nonetheless, it is unclear what we can think of Heidegger’s philosophy. Questions remain, was he able to bridge the gap between Cartesian’s dualism of mind and body? Did he make a difference between Being and being?
When it comes to Christmas, we worry about gifts and presence. But do we think about their existence? In the name of Christ we adore things not their beings. We get our wisdom from fortune cookies not from those gifts in the boxes. Why nothing rather than something? The empty boxes sitting around Christmas trees in front of buildings perhaps are more precious than the ones in our houses, because they contain nothing. What is being any way? When we deeply look at being it is nothing. Why nothing rather than nothing? Now we know why he once gave a lecture on ‘nothingness’.
(Philosophy, 100 essential thinkers, by Philip Stokes, page 150)