BEING AND TIME, part 7: CONSCIENCE
Written by Simon Critchley
For Heidegger, the call of conscience is one that silences the chatter of the world and brings me back to myself.
After the existential drama of Heidegger's notion of being-towards-death, why do we need a discussion of conscience? As so often in Being and Time, Heidegger insists that although his description of being-towardsdeath is formally or ontologically correct, it needs more compelling content at what Heidegger calls the "ontic" level, that is, at the level of experience. Finitude gets a grip on the self through the experience of conscience. For me, the discussion of conscience contains the most exciting and challenging pages in Being and Time. Let me try and sketch as simply as possible the complex line of Heidegger's argument.
Conscience is a call. It is something that calls one away from one's inauthentic immersion in the homely familiarity of everyday life. It is, Heidegger writes, that uncanny experience of something like an external voice in one's head that pulls one out of the hubbub and chatter of life in the world and arrests our ceaseless busyness.
This sounds very close to the Christian experience of conscience that one finds in Augustine or Luther. In Book 8 of the Confessions, Augustine describes the entire drama of conversion in terms of hearing an external voice, "as of a child", that leads him to take up the Bible and eventually turn away from paganism and towards Christ. Luther describes conscience as the work of God in the mind of man.
For Heidegger, by contrast, conscience is not God talking to me, but me talking to myself. The uncanny call of conscience – the pang and pain of its sudden appearance – feels like an alien voice, but is, Heidegger insists, Dasein calling to itself. I am called back from inauthentic life in the world,
complete with what Sartre would call its "counterfeit immortality", towards myself. Furthermore, that self is, as we saw in part 6, defined in terms of beingtowards- death. So, conscience is the experience of the human being calling itself back to its mortality, a little like Hamlet in the grave with Yorick's skull.
What gets said in the call of conscience? Heidegger is crystal clear: like Cordelia in Shakespear's King Lear, nothing is said. The call of conscience is silent. It contains no instructions or advice. In order to understand this, it is important to grasp that, for Heidegger, inauthentic life is characterised by chatter – for example, the ever-ambiguous hubbub of the blogosphere. Conscience calls Dasein back from this chatter silently. It has the character of what Heidegger calls reticence" (Verschwiegenheit), which is the privileged mode of language in Heidegger. So, the call of conscience is a silent call that silences the chatter of the world and brings me back to myself.
But what does this uncanny call of conscience give one to understand? Conscience's call can be reduced to one word: Guilty! But what does Dasein's guilt really mean? It means that because, as shown in part 4, the human being is defined in terms of thrown projection, it always has its being to be. That is, human existence is a lack, it is something due to Dasein, a debt that it strives to make up or repay. This is the ontological meaning of guilt as Schuld, which can also mean debt. As Heidegger perhaps surprisingly writes, although it should be recalled that he was also writing in troubled economic times, "Life is a business whether or not it covers its costs". Debt is a way of being. I owe therefore I am.
Heidegger goes on to show that this ontological meaning of guilt as indebtedness is the basis for any traditional moral understanding of guilt. Heidegger's phenomenology of guilt, and here he is close to Nietzsche in On the Genealogy of Morals, claims to uncover the deep structure of ethical selfhood which cannot be defined by morality, since morality already presupposes it. Rejecting any Christian notion of evil as the privation of good (privatio boni), Heidegger's claim is that guilt is the premoral source for any morality. As such, it is beyond good or evil. Is guilt bad? No. but neither is it good. It is simply what we are, for Heidegger. We are guilty. Such is Kafka's share of eternal truth.
Heidegger insists that Dasein does not load guilt onto itself. It simply is guilty, always already, as Heidegger liked to say. What changes in being authentic is that the human being understands the call of conscience and takes it into itself. Authentic Dasein comes to understand itself as guilty. In doing this, Dasein has chosen itself, as Heidegger writes. This is very interesting: what is chosen is not having a conscience, which Dasein already has because of its ontological want or indebtedness, but what Heidegger calls, rather awkwardly, "wanting to have a conscience" (Gewissen-haben-wollen). This is, if you like, a second-order wanting: I choose to want the want that I am. Only in this way, Heidegger adds, can the human being be answerable or responsible (verantwortlich). Thus, responsibility – which would be the key to any conception of ethics in relation to Heidegger's work, which is, to say the least, a moot point – consists in understanding the call, in wanting to have a conscience. To make this choice, Heidegger insists, is to become resolute.