Heidegger: The Unheimlich


Part 1.2.1

In Being and Time (German edition: 1927), Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) argues that human life is profoundly marked by its existence in time. The human being (Dasein, “being-there”) is “thrown in the world” (Sein-in-der-Welt), a world which is in time. Temporality is a source of angst and worry since it is the plane of realization of the fundamental incompletion of Dasein. Future is worrying as a projection of one’s self, of the potentialities and possibilities it could enact. Greatest fear: the ultimate prospect, death. The authentic life, to Heidegger, is one that does not shy away from the awareness of death.

In Being and Time, Heidegger makes use of a term initially discussed by Freud. In “The Uncanny” (1919), Freud had called unheimlich, the uncanny, a particular kind of fear or threat, regarding the reemergence of things that were once familiar (Madison 2006, 254). Heidegger extends this definition by arguing that familiarity is at the heart of a generalized, existential angst, experienced by all and as a fundamental state of one’s being-in-the-world.

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Unheimlich is the fundamental groundlessness of our existence, this profoundly felt sense of not-being-at-home, wherever one would be.

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Unheimlich is the fundamental groundlessness of our existence, this profoundly felt sense of not-being-at-home, wherever one would be. Just like the fear of death, we cover this fact by involving ourselves in always deeper illusions of familiarity: “while the particular Dasein drifts along towards an ever-increasing groundlessness as it floats, the uncanniness of this floating remains hidden from it under their protecting shelter” (Heidegger 1962, 214). Nonetheless, one may still feel the prevailing lack of true connection to a place. It is the experience of angst that allows us to truly reach the ‘existential’ depth of Dasein’s condition: not-being-at-home. Angst is a form of dread with an indefinite object of focus: it is the profoundly unpleasant and worried feeling about being alive, as such. This “being alive, as such” corresponds to Heidegger’s “Being-in-the-world”: “That which anxiety is anxious about is Being-in­the-world itself” (232). There is one possible way out, however, and this is what this anxiety leads to reveal: “In anxiety one feels ‘uncanny’” and Heidegger adds, “here “uncanniness” also means “not-being-at-home” (das Nichtzuhause-sein) (233). Angst, as threatening as it seems, is the human emotion, the human existential experience, that gives a chance to Dasein, the human being, to step away from its illusions of home and familiarity in order to reach a higher level of existence, of authenticity: “as Dasein falls, anxiety brings it back from its absorption in the ‘world’. Everyday familiarity collapses. Dasein has been individualized, but individualized as Being-in­-the-world. Being-in enters into the existential ‘mode’ of the “not-at-home”” (233). This process of individualization is cardinal: it is through the experience of angst that the human being is reminded, or rather, is confirmed of her individuality, that is, of the fact that it is ultimately a choice, a matter of freedom, to undertake to live the authentic life: “This individualization brings Dasein back from its falling, and makes manifest to it that authenticity and inauthenticity are possibilities of its Being” (235). Heidegger concludes: not-being-at-home is not just a passing feeling or even the impression of a few human beings; it is the fundamental state of all human beings: “From an existential-ontological point of view, the “not-at-home” must be conceived as the more primordial phenomenon” (234, original italics).

If the unheimlich may correspond quite accurately to the situation of the existential migrant, as we will see, another concept developed by Heidegger may further intensify its relevance. This is the concept of curiosity (neugier), which is, incidentally, also particularly evocative as a well-known cornerstone of philosophy as an approach to the world. For Heidegger, curiosity is composed of three elements. First is “not tarrying alongside what is the closest” (216). The curious attitude is one that aims at intentionally uprooting oneself from the familiar, from what is know, “the closest.” Curiosity “does not seek the leisure of tarrying observantly, but rather seeks restlessness and the excitement of continual novelty and changing encounters” (216). The desire to step away from home has a flipside: “the constant possibility of distraction” (216). Distraction is the second characteristic of curiosity. Not only does one intend to step away from the familiar, but she also proactively desires to discover other possibilities. But with only not tarrying and distraction, curiosity would work for only a singular event, for the shift from a familiar to an exotic, an exotic that may ultimately become, in turn, familiar too. Curiosity calls for a perpetual need of novelty: this is the never dwelling anywhere (Aufenthaltslosigkeit), the third aspect of curiosity, according to Heidegger. Curiosity could be seen as the lifestyle of the human being who accepts the unheimlich: it is “a new kind of Being of everyday Dasein – a kind in which Dasein is constantly uprooting itself” (217). This, in itself, is the guarantee of the authentic life, a life “genuinely ‘lively’” (217).


Image courtesy: Prospect Magazine