Universitas, Number 9, September 2001

Being and One Philosopher

dgboland 2001

Martin Heidegger began his academic career as a phenomenologist under the direct guidance of Edmund Husserl, being first his student, then his assistant and finally succeeding him as professor of philosophy at Freiburg. (For Husserl see article in this issue entitled Phenomenonology and Philosophy). Heidegger's most famous book Being and Time was published in 1927. In the same year he produced a course on The Basic Problems of Phenomenology. The introduction to this lecture series is a convenient resource for studying his basic philosophy. For here one can clearly see the shift of focus that distinguishes his thought from that of Husserl. Quotations below from Heidegger are from this lecture course.*

He takes over from Husserl the phenomenological method. Thus he says: "We shall maintain that phenomenology is not just one philosophical science among others, nor is it the science preparatory to the rest of them; rather, the expression "phenomenology" is the name for the method of scientific philosophy in general." Husserl saw this method as a means of illuminating our understanding of the essences of "the things themselves". Heidegger, however, straightaway shifts the focus from things or beings, as particular objects of consciousness, to Being itself. For he says: "We assert now that being is the proper and sole theme of philosophy. This is not our own invention; it is a way of putting the theme which comes to life at the beginning of philosophy in antiquity, and it assumes its most grandiose form in Hegel's logic. At present we are merely asserting that being is the proper and sole theme of philosophy. Negatively, this means that philosophy is not a science of beings but of being or, as the Greek expression goes, ontology".

The shift of focus is significant. It means a limitation of the phenomenological method and the subject matter of philosophy to something like what Aristotle called Metaphysics, and makes it the only philosophical science. In a way, wisdom is made not just the highest science, but the only philosophical one. "Philosophy", he says, "is the science of being. For the future we shall mean by "philosophy" scientific philosophy and nothing else. In conformity with this usage, all non-philosophical sciences have as their theme some being or beings, and indeed in such a way that they are in every case antecedently given as beings to those sciences". This link between the method and the object is confirmed: "Phenomenology is the name for the method of ontology, that is, of scientific philosophy."

The basic problems of Phenomenology, then, are those of Ontology. " If philosophy is the science of being, then the first and last and basic problem of philosophy must be, What does being signify? Whence can something like being in general be understood? How is understanding of being at all possible?"

So far; so good: A follower of Aristotle and St. Thomas, gratified that Husserl has resurrected the formal cause as a principle to be reckoned with in philosophy and science, might be disposed to welcome the further step up to the metaphysical realm of being. For therein resides that which is most formal (analogously) in things, the act of esse (unsatisfactorily rendered in English as "existence"). Unfortunately, Heidegger was not equal to the task of restoring first philosophy to its rightful place in the scheme of things intellectual. The discussion of the notion of Being, as the history of philosophy shows, is one that lends itself to sophistry. Many there are who talk on it, interminably, giving the appearance of wisdom. But few, such as Aristotle and St. Thomas, are equal to the task of clarifying its meaning, or rather its meanings.

There are two things characteristic of Heidegger's philosophy. The first, already noted, is its focus on the fundamental question of being, or on what he calls the "ontological", to the exclusion of all other questions that others may see to be of philosophical import (relegated to the "ontic"). It is as if the only work of philosophy of Aristotle were his Metaphysics. But, more significantly for the way Heidegger's thought developed, even within the realm of the metaphysical he concentrates solely on "the question of being". This, for Aristotle, though central to his Metaphysics, was not the whole of it. It concerns only the investigation of the fundamental intrinsic principles of beings, in the line of formal causes. Of more importance still, for Aristotle and St. Thomas, was the way opened up by this investigation of the being of material substances to their first and last extrinsic causes (or cause as it turns out), in the lines of efficient and final causality. This is the Prime Mover, for Aristotle, Creator God, for Aquinas, and Ultimate Good). Metaphysics may begin for us as the investigation of the purely intelligible. But its home, as it were, is with the pure intelligences.

Heidegger, unable to gain such a clear grasp of the full scope of being, puts the whole weight of explanation of the mystery of being upon the notion of being in common itself. He thus manages to endow on this notion a semi-mystical status, fortified by an erudite exegesis of obscure pre-Socratic texts. The phenomenological method as used by him seems to me to be the reason for his failure to make the necessary distinctions. For it lends itself to a consideration of essences or objects in an absolute fashion. This detaches them from existence and, if regarded as the sole consideration to be employed, creates an aura of unreality that can be given all sorts of esoteric interpretations in relation to the mundane world of "things".

This is especially so when this consideration is applied to the concept of being or existence itself. What a queer result, an essence of being that abstracts from existence! This is hardly more than the general notion of essence itself. This is not to say that we do not use such a consideration of being. But it is not the only, nor the principal, consideration of being so far as the metaphysican is concerned. For Metaphysics, as a real science or true wisdom, is very much concerned with actual existence or the esse of things. Thus St. Thomas, commenting on the beginning of Book Z (7) of Aristotle's Metaphysics, says: "Having removed being per accidens, and being that signifies the truth [of the proposition], from the principal consideration of this science, the Philosopher begins to determine here concerning being per se. Being in this sense, which is outside the soul, is the principal consideration of this science." (translation and underlining mine).

The notion of essence derives its intelligibility from the act of existence. "But the same thing is called essence because the being has existence through it and in it." (De Ente et Essentia"). Nonetheless it can be considered "absolutely" without direct reference to particular existence whether in the real (extra anima) or in the mind (in anima). To limit oneself to this absolute consideration creates all sorts of problems, not just for distinguishing the two kinds of existences but also for dealing with existence as such. Some have resorted to positing a third or intermediate sort of "objective" or "possible" existence of the pure object or phenomenon.

Heidegger is unequipped, because of his method, to deal with the problem of existence. Nevertheless he tries to do so in an original way, but his attempt unfortunately distorts the senses of being and existence. Not taking sufficient note of the distinction that Aristotle had made between being per se and being as the truth of the proposition, that is in the mind only, he attempts to give human existence a privileged relationship to truth and being.

This it has relative to things below us (in terms of being), and relative to what we do and make (in terms of truth), but not relative to those higher in the scale of being, nor absolutely. Such a move risks putting human being on the supreme level of being and making human knowledge the measure of truth.

An index of this is the way Heidegger ties human understanding of being to temporality. In his ontological analytic of Dasein, which is presupposed to the analysis of the understanding of being, temporality, or time understood "ontologically", is made "the original constitution of the Dasein's being". He develops this to the point of making temporality the very basis of the understanding of being. "If temporality constitutes the meaning of the being of the human Dasein and if understanding of being belongs to the constitution of the Dasein's being, then this understanding of being, too, must be possible only on the basis of temporality. Hence there arises the prospect of a possible confirmation of the thesis that time is the horizon from which something like being becomes at all intelligible. We interpret being by way of time (tempus). The interpretation is a Temporal one. The fundamental subject of research in ontology, as determination of the meaning of being by way of time, is Temporality."

In Aristotelian terms, he has somehow, by a process of reasoning that Gorgias would have been proud of, made what is undoubtedly an important subject of research, but in Physics, the science of physical nature, the fundamental subject of research in Metaphysics, or Ontology.

In the result, however, we have human reality confined to the human mode of existence in this world. The world of the spiritual fades further into the background. The concerns of human existence in this world become all consuming.

Enfolded in his treatment of the human being as existence or Dasein, "being there", is the basic practical, and even political, orientation of his thought. As with many thinkers, the key to his ideas is not so much his Metaphysics as his social ethics. Like Marx, he is more focused on the condition of man than on the meaning of being. A radical kind of humanism is the direction that his thought took in the most celebrated of those who came after him. Despite his protestations that this was an illegitimate use of his ideas, one can readily see how his fundamental ontology (the science of Sein) turns into Existentialism (the science of Dasein). In Being and Time, the theoretical categories, or modes of being, of Aristotle are supplanted by his practical "existential" categories, as some sort of moods of Dasein. The fundamental attitude of man to being, Sorge, translated as "Care", is suspiciously like the Aristotelian virtue of (political) prudence, affected as it necessarily has been in western society by the Christian virtue of charity.

His analysis is then used to diagnose the malaise that has come over western technological civilisation. There is no denying that there is "something rotten" in the state of the world, and the industrial revolution has exacerbated that rottenness in many respects. But part of the problem is that we tend to look for the answer in the wrong place, in our own man-made philosophy. Like Marx, and Sartre, Heidegger's observations and criticism often hit home. But, like all revolutionary thinkers, he is better at "de-construction" than at construction.

His reference to the need for a destructive process in the very "interpretation of being and its structures" is interesting in the light of how philosophic thought has developed in recent times. "It is for this reason that there necessarily belongs to the conceptual interpretation of being and its structures, that is, to the reductive construction of being, a destruction - a critical process in which the traditional concepts, which at first must necessarily be employed, are de-constructed down to the sources from which they were drawn. Only by means of this destruction can ontology fully assure itself in a phenomenological way of the genuine character of its concepts".

This, for him, belongs to the very phenomenological method itself. "These three basic components of phenomenological method - reduction, construction, destruction - belong together in their content and must receive grounding in their mutual pertinence. Construction in philosophy is necessarily destruction, that is to say, a de-constructing of traditional concepts carried out in a historical recursion to the tradition. And this is not a negation of the tradition or a condemnation of it as worthless; quite the reverse, it signifies precisely a positive appropriation of tradition."

But I'm afraid the positive "spin" that he puts on this notion of de-construction is rather wishful thinking than anything else. Destructive criticism is much easier than constructive. To be constructive one must also know what is to be constructed.

To end up, then, though the phenomenological method itself provides some valuable help towards the restoration of genuine philosophy, Heidegger's use of it, like that of many others, has proved to be, in my view, counter-productive.

*Quotations are from the Introduction in "The Basic Problems of Phenomenology", published by Indiana University Press, 1954, as reproduced on the Internet at website www.marxists.org.

dbgoland 2001

Don Boland is a lecturer at the Centre for Thomistic Studies, in Sydney, Australia.

This article posted September 2001. It was published in Universitas, No. 9 (2001).
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