Heidegger’s Search for the Meaning of Being

Posted: March 9, 2014 in Psychology
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Heidegger's Search for the Meaning of Being

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This is a paper I wrote for myself at the end of university. It gives an overview of Martin Heidegger’s positive existential philosophy. This version has been very lightly edited. No attempt has been made to add to the explanations of the concepts. If you find yourself lost on a point, feel free to ask in the comments.

Heidegger’s Search for the Meaning of Being

Heidegger says the central question for the human being is the question of Being. Our inquiry into Being has been absent for such a long time that we now suffer from a loss of meaning, as evidenced by the growth of nihilism. All meaning derives from the Meaning of Being and it is a return to the question of Being that is the only way to get this back.

If we don’t understand even what beings are, it is hopeless to ask about Being. Beings are often divided up into their oppositions. This is simply a symptom of our failure to understand.

As Calvin says in “The Cerebral Symphony”, some thinkers break things down into their parts and others get things organized. The breakdown of beings into their subject and object senses and other dualisms is part of the breaking down. Beings are objects (nouns) as far as they are separate beings and occupy their own particular space, yet they are also subjects (verbs) in that they relate to other beings. Interestingly, Calvin also notes how our motor cortex (action center, verbs indicate action) is next to our sensory cortex (presencing of self within world, nouns indicate presence).

Beings are always beings-in-a-world. Subject and object are inextricably tied together. Where did this split come from? In “An Introduction to Metaphysics”, Heidegger says that the question of Being was lost with Plato. When he substituted Idea for Being, self-grounding was lost. Idea must be based on thought and thought requires a subject who contemplates objects (or the reverse if you would like to think of it that way). This deviation away from Being, and so also from the Meaning of Being, persisted until after Hegel’s Idealism. The futility of constructing systems to try to understand meaning has been well expressed by the existential philosophers, some of whom have retreated into nihilism.

All beings are present within a world. The world changes and with it the way that beings relate to the world must also change. All objects (beings as nouns) have relatedness to their worlds (beings as verbs). Chairs, cigarettes, stereos, dogs, people all are and are within a world. The human being, however, has developed a unique ability to change its relations with its world. Humanity can choose.

How does this choosing lead us to a greater understanding of Being? Where is Being in all of this talk about beings? Even Being is both noun and verb (object and subject). Being is all other beings and yet none of these beings. To see Being as object, we need to rip a page from theoretical physics.

Theoretical Physics

In Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time”, we are given an explanation of the Big Bang theory of cosmogenesis. There was nothing until the Big Bang. Immediately after, there were protons and anti-protons, electrons and anti-electrons, luminars and anti-luminars, etc (note: these may not be the correct terms but you get the idea). If any of these particles had rejoined a like anti-particle, they would have annihilated and returned to nothing. Instead they were propelled outward and mixed with things which were not their opposites. Once a proton mixed with an anti-electron it was no longer in danger of annihilation from an anti-proton. It became a new thing. As things were propelled away from the center of the explosion, they cooled and formed increasingly higher levels of organization; gases, fluids, and solids. Not only has everything come from nothing, but to nothing it will return.

Black holes are collapsed stars which have become very dense as they have sucked more and more particles into their gravity wells. At the center, the density is so great that complex particles are squeezed together into their smallest parts. Despite their higher level of organization, proton and anti-proton (and all of the other particles and anti-particles) come into contact with one another and are annihilated. At the center of black holes, beings return to nothing. It is hypothesized that the universe will contract back to its origin. Some scientists believe the process has already begun. With “the Big Crunch” everything will once again be nothing.

Being

The above illustration tries to show how Being is and is not Nothing. If all beings were brought together in the same place they would be nothing. The essence of everything is Nothing. The essence of everything is Being. They are the same but different, like +0.00 and -0.00.

Being is also subject(ive). It is the essence of the being (in a verbal sense) of beings. In our particular being we relate to the world in certain ways. As children, we are taught how to relate to the world within which we are raised. We become particularly aware that these are not the only ways to be when our higher cognitive abilities come on line between the ages of 8-26.

It is as we change our way of being that we are projected into Being. Heidegger called this projection Dasein. Dasein is what makes humans different from all other beings. Only we can see the possibility that life can be different than it already is. There are two concepts which may help to clear up this point: time and authenticity.

Time as we normally think of it is chronological. Our past cannot be changed and it shapes the future. There are a series of “nows”. This is the time we live in when we do as we “should”, following socio-cultural guidelines for our behaviour. In nearly every social interaction with others there is some hint of the shoulds of the “they”. Sometimes it is obvious, “You shouldn’t eat so much junk”, and other times more subtle, “Gary used to smoke too, until he got lung cancer”.

Kairological differs from chronological time in that the being of the individual is not constrained by the past. If anything, it is shaped by the possibilities for the future. There is only one “now” and it is constantly creating the past. An unhappy past becomes a happy past when the present is happy because the present enters the past as soon as it happens. If the future were determined by the past we would be the same as other beings. We are not the same.

We can see the many possibilities of the future and choose among them. But choosing the future is not deciding what we will do tomorrow. It is choosing what we will do now. Past, present, and future are one. We are not tied to a single way of being. This sounds like it could lead to great instability, uncertainty, and a loss of meaning. We do not become cut off from other people when we choose, though, because we share a similar socio-cultural environment. This should become clearer later.

Authenticity is much like kairological time. They are heavily tied up together. The authentic life is a chosen life (or way of being) while the inauthentic life follows the “shoulds” of the “they”. This is not to say that simply because someone has left the way they were raised and picked another lifestyle that they are now authentic. Obedience to the shoulds of any they is inauthentic living. Careful consideration of our choices leads to our selecting the shoulds of different theys (norms from different socio-cultural groups) and our own personal shoulds. If we make our choices and then stick by them come hell or high water, we once again live inauthentically. The authentic life is constantly thrown into question. You yourself must be part of the question. This is why many great spiritual leaders have told us, “know yourself”. When we live by the guidelines of others, we know other. When we live by our own rules, we come to know ourselves.

Siddhartha

This is all somewhat abstract and I believe a story would help to illustrate things better, especially how it is that we get projected into Being. Hermann Hesse’s story of “Siddhartha” recounts a young man’s search for meaning. He grew up in a Brahmin’s family but was not satisfied. Other religions took his interest for a time but they too were not helping him in his search. These ways of being were much like those he was raised with and did not throw him into question.

After growing dissatisfied with religion in general, since it wasn’t providing him with the meaning he so desperately wanted, he crossed the river to a large city. There he discovered money, drinking, sex, and other worldly pleasures. He also felt that life was now worth living. He clearly was living by the shoulds of his new socio-cultural milieu. Why did he believe he had found meaning when he was living inauthentically? The new world was unfamiliar to Siddhartha. He did not know their rules when he arrived. At first, he was projected into Being through this lack.

Siddhartha and Being

Eventually, Siddhartha became settled in this new environment and was again confronted with meaninglessness. He became so despondent that he went to the river to consider suicide. While sitting there, he remembered his last visit. Then too, he had been unhappy. He had found happiness when he crossed the river to a new way of being. His happiness had come while he was on the way and been lost when he understood it clearly.

Woodpaths

Something about woodpaths should be said here. A woodpath winds through the wood until it arrives at a dead end. It is the same with the pursuit of Being. As long as Being is unclear, we wander here and there in freedom. If we happen to come to an understanding of Being, we have lost it and become busy describing a new way of being. It is as if we have come to the dead-end of the woodpath and there sits the stone idol which our “god” has turned into. We are quite free to walk around it and describe what we see. This is where many great thinkers have sat down to write up their metaphysics. If we come to the end of our woodpath, it is time to seek another path. Nonconformity does not mean that we must become isolated from other people. There are not a bunch of separate groups each believing their own things. People are individuals as much as they are parts of groups. In whatever way we choose to live there will be others who are reasonably similar or who can accept us as we choose to be. Siddhartha eventually became the ferry operator taking people across the river.

If the analogy holds for all of the people in the novel, Siddhartha gets to meet and talk with other people searching for meaning. Their self-questioning helps him to keep himself in question.

Aristotle spoke of the “unity in analogy” of Being. You can see, hopefully, how beings give us an idea of Being. In the same way truths give us an idea of Truth, artworks an idea of Art, languages an idea of Language, and so on. Aspects of beings give us hints at the aspects of Being. Being comes to us as an unconcealed concealing. More specifically, the background (Being) reveals itself to us through foregrounds (beings) but because they are foregrounds they obscure our view of the background.

What about the Meaning of Being? It is through our authentic projection into the clearing of Being that we find Meaning.


Article by Ivan Izo.


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