“What is happening to us, in the grounds of our existence, when science becomes our passion?”
(Heidegger 1993, 94)
The possible meeting points between science and the thought of German phenomenologist Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) have often been tackled through the thinker’s later works on technology. While Heidegger truly brought crucial insights on the question of the 20th century human and her use of technology, reducing to this sole question the possible intersections between science and Heidegger would be forgetting that the very foundation of Heidegger phenomenological approach to ontology is in itself a response to science. By science, one can understand here the fundamental principles of ‘hard’ science as such, in physics, biology, chemistry, etc. but also and especially, what Heidegger arguably saw as a philosophical tradition imbued with veiled scientific assumptions, from the Greeks to Descartes and Kant in the Enlightenment century, up to Hegel and even Husserl, his own teacher. By redefining the new angle of approach that philosophy should adopt, Heidegger suggested an alternative to the ‘scientific turn’ that philosophy slowly took from the days of its inception. This dialogue is more than a coincidence: Heidegger designed his philosophical project precisely as a reaction to the slow merging of science and philosophy, and his insights are more than personal viewpoints: after Heidegger, science, and philosophy at large, could not anymore be undertaken in the same manner. The present essay is meant as an introduction to the main tenets of Heidegger’s fundamental ontology, understood as a breakthrough on earlier approaches to philosophy and science.
Heidegger asked fundamentally one question: what is the meaning of Being? A large portion of Heidegger’s discussion of the question of Being consists, first, in legitimatizing it as a proper, respectable question. It is a valid question, Heidegger initially explains, because the common access to the question of Being is neither an impossible gap, nor a direct evidence. Indeed, Heidegger replied to fundamental scientific and philosophical positions according to which, respectively, formulating Being as such would be impossible, since we only have access to particular forms of beings, or, inversely, that the question is an evidence and a tautology, since all things around us are things that are, and because, fundamentally, asking ‘What is Being’ is already presuming within the question (‘is’) that which defines Being as such. For Heidegger, the situation was subtler: the meaning of Being, he argues, is somehow already known to us. This is so because “inquiry, as a kind of seeking, must be guided beforehand by what is sought. So the meaning of Being must already be available to us in some way” (Heidegger 1962, 25). If I inquire about ducks, even without knowing anything of ducks as such, the only way I can start inquiring about a particular type of thing called ducks is that I already have some vague idea of what a duck might be. Similarly, Heidegger argued, if we can ask ‘what is Being,’ it is that we have some idea of the kind of thing – here, Being – about which we seek more information. We humans have, in other words, not a knowledge but a “pre-reflective familiarity” (Glendinning 2007, 65) with the question of Being.
But how is this a response to science? Heidegger explained that his work was an attempt to counter the ‘coming to an end’ of philosophy. This ‘end’ is not to be understood as the disappearance of all the questions asked by philosophers for the previous two millennia, but rather the risk of philosophy’s “dissolution into positive empirical science” (ibid, 66), the slow migration of philosophy’s questions into fields of inquiry systematically missing the real question: the question of Being. Heidegger had realized that science and philosophy, which started broadly at the same time and with the same fundational works in Classical Greece, aimed at understanding the world, that is, at suggesting possible answers as to the nature and meanings of objects that are in the world. In other words, philosophy and science had attempted an exhaustive inquiry on all the things that are, that is, in Heidegger’s language, beings, while missing the larger commonality that these beings shared: Being. Heidegger criticized philosophy from its Greek roots, which he referred to as ‘metaphysics.’ By metaphysics, Heidegger meant
“philosophy as an inquiry into the foundations of science, or into ‘the essence of everything empirical’; an inquiry into everything insofar as it is; an inquiry which aims finally to understand the whole universe of beings; an inquiry aiming to grasp the essence (as ground or foundation) of everything empirical; an inquiry into the Being (as ground or foundation) of all beings; an inquiry which concerns itself with beings as beings or beings-as-a-whole, and thus is an inquiry ‘over beings’ – that is ‘meta-physics’”(ibid, 68).
In Heidegger’s own words, “metaphysics is inquiry beyond or over beings, which aims to recover them as such and as a whole for our grasp” (Heidegger 1993, 106). Indeed, Heidegger saw the movement of inquiry behind science and philosophy as an ambitious exploration and conquest of all the possible objects of knowledge. And this inquiry was done in a relatively naïve manner: describing, and trying to understand those things, those beings present around the subject of inquiry. We find, thus, in the scientific and philosophical inquiry, the aforementioned ‘pre-reflective familiarity,’ the basic assumption that we somehow know what all these beings have in common, and that this does not require further questioning. For this very reason, Heidegger renamed the approach of positive sciences as ‘ontical inquiry’ [from the Greek, ‘on being’]: each science, each field of philosophy is working on the basis of a fundamental intuitive understanding of its particular object of inquiry, that is, what constitutes the Being-ness of its particular beings of interest, whether these are plants, atoms, trees, phenomena, emotions, thoughts, etc. Heidegger also named this realm of inquiry, ‘regional ontology:’ an “inquiry into the Being of beings of such and such a type” (Glendinning 2007, 71). Science as ontical inquiry is “the inquiry into beings of all types” (ibid, 72), the obsessive quest of beings to be enquired upon. Heidegger aimed at more: inquiring into Being as such. Heidegger would rename his own version of phenomenology as fundamental ontology.
As Dasein-s, we human beings exist in the world, originally and always, fundamentally in the midst of a world that everywhere and for ever surrounds us: our existence is characterized by the condition of ‘Being-in-the-world.’ We cannot naively address the question of Being through the analogy of other beings we observe, because our position is already extremely specific: we so happen to be in the middle of a world which we cannot escape, and within which all possible instances of beings before our eyes are also co-dwellers.
The reason why, with Heidegger, phenomenology could become fundamental ontology, is because Heidegger realized that we are, in an incredible manner, already implicated in the question of Being. Addressing the question of ontology, of what fundamentally is, could not anymore be undertaken without the humble method of phenomenology. Heidegger would use Husserl’s phenomenological method to investigate one question, that of Being, but through the extremely peculiar vintage point of a being itself, and more than simply any being: a being that already has this intuitive feeling, this ‘pre-ontological understanding’ of Being. This is what Heidegger famously called the Dasein or ‘being-there’: those particular beings who, unlike others, have a pre-ontological understanding of Being. To further clarify and support the distinction, Heidegger explained that Dasein is the only type of being that can be said to ‘exist,’ while other beings are only characterized as being ‘present-at-hand’ (Heidegger 1962, 67). The reason why Dasein is a necessary category for a true discussion of Being is because science and philosophy have, for too long, attempted an understanding of Being via the cases of beings that distinctly lacked our pre-ontological understanding of Being: “we are interpreting ourselves on the basis of an implicit understanding of the kind of Being that belongs to entities which we, precisely, are not” (Glendinning 2007, 77). By this very argument, Heidegger marked a strong resistance to the Greek definition of the human as being the ‘rational animal,’ and to its later Christian definition as ‘the being designed in the image of God.’ For Heidegger, from the Greeks to the post-Enlightenment period, all that philosophy did to define the human was to add an element of consciousness, of soul, mind or anything else, to what was fundamentally just one kind of being, undistinguishable among others. In fact, the intuition of a radical and unbridgeable gap between the human subject and other beings should have been felt by Descrates himself: as Glendinning (ibid) notes, “It should be clear that if your point of departure in philosophy is consciousness and ‘what is going on within an individual consciousness’ you are beginning with something that is being conceived as a subject that is, in itself, worldless and isolated” (78). For Heidegger, this isolation of the human subject, her inclination towards understanding herself as external spectator of the rest of the world, is not a superfluous and random characteristic of Dasein, but one that changes entirely its nature vis-à-vis other beings. As Dasein-s, we human beings exist in the world, originally and always, fundamentally in the midst of a world that everywhere and for ever surrounds us: our existence is characterized by the condition of ‘Being-in-the-world.’ We cannot naively address the question of Being through the analogy of other beings we observe, because our position is already extremely specific: we so happen to be in the middle of a world which we cannot escape, and within which all possible instances of beings before our eyes are also co-dwellers. Understanding Being, then, would necessarily transcend understanding the particular instances of Being of each of these other beings; properly understanding Being would entail understanding the underlying structure, “the very fabric of our lives” (ibid, 81). To get there, we must first recognize that our being-in-the-world-ness is what fundamentally characterizes us as Dasein-s, as the prism through which we necessarily inspect the question of Being: “Dasein itself… gets its understanding of itself in the first instance from those entities which it itself is not but which it encounters ‘within’ its world, and from the Being which they possess” (Heidegger 1962, 58).
In his renowned inaugural lecture at Freiburg University in 1929, entitled “What is Metaphysics ?” the nature of Heidegger’s reflection as a response to science is even more visible. In fact, the very audience to which the lecture was presented was a scientific one, if not, the major actors of the scientific community of his time. Thus, when Heidegger addressed his initial question, he was now convinced that it had indeed become a legitimate one: “What is happening to us, in the grounds of our existence, when science becomes our passion?” (Heidegger 1993, 94). The lecture marks Heidegger’s philosophical move as a possibility to transcend science and scientific methods: there is more in man than what science understands of it. Glendinning (ibid) explains, “Man as the knower, man as the animal that pursues science, is not, Heidegger will argue, the highest or most fundamental understanding of the ‘who’ that we are” (83). Heidegger would attempt to demonstrate the radical incapacity of science to grasp the specificity of the human, its ignorance of the very basis that makes its practice possible, “to show that science itself depends on the prior disclosure to ‘man’ of a matter for thinking which simply cannot be an issue for scientific inquiry” (83). Heidegger enters into the demonstration by trying to further describe this very limitation of science. If science, as a progressive and specialized transformation of the initial inquiries of philosophy, is that which gathers all the inquiries about all the beings of the world, then, inversely, that which science does not deal with is, precisely, ‘nothing’. This ‘nothing’ will be the nodal point of Heidegger’s argument against science and metaphysics, and his weapon to show how the specificity of Dasein cannot be understood by science.
“Heidegger … introduces the idea … that the ‘intellect’ and its logic (what Kant would call the faculty of understanding through concepts) is not the only form of discursive receptivity – or understanding in general – that belongs to the entity that we are” (Glendinning). We have, Heidegger explains, other forms of ‘discursive receptivity’ that may serve as source of understanding for the world. In particular, he mentions the ‘Befindlichkeit’ or “modes of receptive attunement, instantiated by moods” (Glendinning)
If Heidegger’s question on Being turns into the question on nothing or nothingness, an easy rebuttal seems available: describing, or explaining, or defining ‘nothing,’ it is transforming it into a thing, into something that is, into a being, and therefore, losing by the same its very nature as nothing. Therefore, can we think of nothing? Here, Heidegger returns to Brentano and Husserl to follow a fundamental argument of phenomenology: thinking is intentional, that is, any instance of thinking is oriented towards an object. Can nothing become an object of thinking? While rationality and even grammar (transforming ‘nothing’ from a quantifier into a noun) refuse this possibility, Heidegger suggests that it is experiential knowledge that permits this combination. This is a fundamental point of departure: “Heidegger … introduces the idea … that the ‘intellect’ and its logic (what Kant would call the faculty of understanding through concepts) is not the only form of discursive receptivity – or understanding in general – that belongs to the entity that we are” (ibid, 87). We have, Heidegger explains, other forms of ‘discursive receptivity’ that may serve as source of understanding for the world. In particular, he mentions the ‘Befindlichkeit’ or “modes of receptive attunement, instantiated by moods” (ibid, 87). Of such modes of attunement, Heidegger mentions a few examples, such as ‘profound boredom’ and the joy of being with a loved one, which both disclose something of our being in its entirety, prior to – and in a manner which is inexplicable in the language of – the intellect and its logic (Heidegger 1993, 99). Heidegger, now able to rely also on these attunements, manages to find one way in which we are in contact with the nothing. Indeed, there is one very special type of experience, for which an a posteriori thinking would have precisely nothing as its object: angst. Angst is not anxiety; it is a feeling of unease and dread that does not have any object as its horizon, that is, which has precisely nothing as its horizon. But nonetheless, the nothing that is object of angst is “grounded in the most primordial ‘something’ – in the world.” Heidegger can thus conclude: “Being-in-the-world itself is that in the face of which anxiety is anxious” (Heidegger 1962, 231-232).
It is through this progressive exploration of the possibility of a question, of an understanding of Being, and then of the conditions and characteristics that determine Dasein’s understanding of Being, that Heidegger reaches angst. Angst is thus the permanent and shadowy familiarity that Dasein entertains with Being, and which, in turn, specifies the way Dasein-s – that is, us humans – understand Being. Glendinning summarizes the shift operated by Heidegger through this discussion: “what he is doing here is … attempting to enact a transition in philosophy from representational and intentional ‘thinking of beings’ to another kind of thinking, what he calls a thinking of ‘the truth of Being’” (ibid, 90). In other words, Heidegger suggests that philosophy should stop just inquiring into the Being of other beings (which constitute ‘representations’ of these beings, undertaken in an ‘intentional’ manner inasmuch these objects are the unquestioned targets of inquiry) and instead reorient the inquiry towards Dasein’s very experiential account of his Being-ness.
Heidegger’s call for a new philosophy would provoke conflicted reactions: Sartre, Levinas or Derrida, at the heart of continental philosophy, would be entirely affected by Heidegger’s new understanding of Being, while the scientific community and the analytic tradition, from Carnap onwards, would describe Heidegger as the peak of continental philosophy’s futile use of a meaningless language. Nonetheless, a number of properly innovative arguments – be they the pre-ontological understanding of Being, the alternative modes of discursive receptivity, or the implications of angst – are developed in Heidegger’s works, as clear and powerful arguments, and these are the points where further exploration, or possible criticisms, must be developed.
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