Heidegger - Thinking of Being

A review of Heidegger - Thinking of Being by Rob Mason

Philosophy was born in ancient Greece when someone looked up from plowing the field or tying their sandals to ask not what is this particular thing or that, but what is 'being' in general?  What does it mean to 'be?' In terms of the ontological difference, these early philosophers move from dealing with beings to inquiring into the being of these beings, that is their mode of being or the way they are.  We find the answers to these questions in the great works of metaphysics; these works are for Heidegger attempts to define 'beingness' that is, the qualities whose possession makes something count as existing. Metaphysicians describe their understanding of being by caturing "the totality of being as such with an eye to their most universal traits; they attempt to find words for what being is in the world for there is no understanding humans without simultaneosly understanding the world in which they dwell.  The existence of the 'subject' and that of the world are inextricably interlinked.


For instance in the following paragraph Heidegger explains how moods affect the way we see things. We are told that moods are not so much internal feelings but more about how we see the world. Things show up differently depending on our mood, for instance the same note of music can sound different depending on how the instrument is tuned.

We find ourselves in a mood not of our own making or choice, and we can't change our mood simply by deciding to do so.  Although we can sometimes figure out the cause of our moods, they often just happen to us for no discernible reason and can persist despite countervailing events.  We cannot explain our mood entirely in terms of what happens to us because the mood we are in plays a large role in determining how we react to these things.  If I'm feeling good, I can take pretty serious problems in my stride, whereas when I'm down even a minor setback can plummet me into depression and make me abandon what I was trying to do.

Heidegger thinks this reveals significant limits to our autonomy: to our ability to control the kind of person we are, despite philosophy's great confidence in our ability to control ourselves and our actions.


We saw how moods often come on independently or even in spite of external events.  Anxiety extends this idea to the point that part of what makes it anxiety is that nothing specific triggers it.  If someone asks me what was bothering me once the mood has passed I might very well say, "Oh it was nothing," which contains more truth than we realise.  If nothing specific has set it off, then neither is there anything for me to do to neutralize it.  Anxiety gives me nothing to do: it closes off activities rather than disclosing them. Like the similar states of mind of extreme depression and boredom, when I'm struck by anxiety I find myself repelled from the equipment I normally use for entertainment and enjoyment. I can't lose myself in a movie, I find web-surfing dull, I toss away a book because the words just sit there on the page instead of drawing me into the story.  In the sense that Heidegger gives it, I'm not in my world any more since I'm not concerned with any of its goals or activities, leaving me unable to press forward into its possibilities. The world's chains of significance collapse in anxiety, when I can no longer thoughtlessly press forward and absorb myself into my activities.  And if significance collapses then the world as a whole does so, since that is what worldhood is made of. And now Heidegger brings back his analysis of equipment breakdown but at a deeper level.  Recall that it is only when a tool breaks down that it gets lit up instead of remaining inconspicuous, as it does while functioning properly.  But the world as a whole and my being in the world also remain inconspicuous while I'm absorbed in my daily concerns.  The world as world is disclosed first and foremost by anxiety. The wholesale collapse of significance marks a breakdown of worldhood itself by preventing me from unthinkingly sinking into the business I usually busy myself with.

Heidegger says that this experience "individualizes" being because it separates us from our world which is what normally defines us.  For the most part, one is what one does, but in full blown anxiety you cant really do anything. - you just wander around trying to find some activity to occupy yourself with. This shows us that we can't be exclusively defined by worldly things and activities since we're still ourselves even while all of that is on hold. This marks an important difference from the inauthentic self-understanding we normally operate on. Anxiety thus takes away from being the possibility of understanding itself, as it falls, in terms of the 'world' and the way things have been publicly interpreted.  Anxiety removes us from our daily routine and prevents our simply defining ourselves in terms of our daily occupations and preoccupations.

What we learn about anxiety is that there is no such thing.  Anxiety renders all worldly significance, the substance of the roles for the sake of which I live and act, insignificant.  I see its nullity in that in the end it just doesn't matter whether or not I lead a happy or sad life .  Nothing that I can concern myself with is of ultimate metaphysical significance.  The deep acknowledgement of mortality indicates the same thing since, no matter how successful or benevolent I am, everyone I've ever known or cared about and everything I do upon this earth eventually crumble into the dust and are forgotten as time creaks on towards forever. Life as such - not just specific kinds of lives - is null, in the end. This is what anxiety and boredom and the anticipation of death tell me; this is what conscience eloquently tells me in remaining silent.  Heidegger has already established that silence can be a profound form of communication. My conscience tells me that there is nothing to be done precisely by not saying anything; it says nothing, literally, conveying this message of nullity. This is another facet of the fact that my being is unsettled, that I can never settle it in a way that would make my life meaningful.  I'm thrown here not of my own volition, I have to exist whether I like it or not, and I can do nothing to escape this.  The riddle of life is impossible to stop or prevent: I can never know why I was born, why I will die, and what I should do in between.

The irony is that is that living in the realisation that there is no right way to live, is the right way to live.  Being is authentically itself in the primordial individualization of the resoluteness which exacts anxiety of itself.  We must keep ourselves if not quite in a perpetual state of anxiety then at least open for it, waiting and wanting to have a conscience by acknowledging the deep contingency of what we live for and even that we live at all. 

Human Beings

To be a human being means to pursue projects by taking up tasks and taking care of them in the world.  We live in the world by maintaining a certain identity that tries to settle the issue of our being, and these roles are woven out of the tasks to be done.  The point at which there is nothing left to be done is the point at which one is no longer being that role. Not doing those kinds of things means not being that kind of person.  When I run out of tasks to do, I am done: my job has been completed.  However we live our present in the light of the not-yet finished goals we pursue.  The end of all activities is present in their begining, because we start to act in order to reach the goal.


Authenticity involves taking up roles and making choices because you have decided to rather than because they are just what one does. Being is authentically itself only to the extent that as concernful being amid, and solicitous being-with, it projects upon its ownmost potentiality for-being rather than the possibility of the they-self.  The entity which anticipates its non-relational possibility, is thus forced by that very anticipation into the possibility of taking over from itself its ownmost being.  Numberless decisions made in particular situations have gradually accreted around and behind us to form a person that we are and a life that we lead.  Normally the demands of the tasks we're absorbed in keep us from looking at this life as a whole but the realization of mortality interupts this ongoing process, forcing us into a new perspective.  When by anticipation one become free from one's own death, one is liberated from one's own lostness in those possibilities which may accidently thrust themselves upon one; and one is liberated in such a way that for the first time one can authentically understand and choose amoung factical possibilities.. It shatters all one's tenacious-ness to whatever existence one has reached.  


Think of someone in a stale marriage.  It may have started well but, over the years, minor insults and omissions have taken their toll and their is little love left.  She continues more out of inertia than actual decision.  She has become habituated to this life and it leads her on through the activities one does, the routine she is used to.  At some point, however, something shakes her out of her complacency - as Heidegger has shown us about moods, it can be something very minor - and suddenly she sees her life explicitly, almost for the first time, and now she can actively decide whether she wants to remain in the marriage, perhaps to re-engage in it with new energy, or leave it. This represents an active taking up of one's life, awakening from the passive inertia of every-day-ness.  

Temporality (bounded by time)

Authentic temporality involves the anticipation of death: I have to realise deep in my bones that I will die. This marks the breakdown of not a particular or environment but of my being-in-the-world as a whole, thereby lighting up my existence.  It throws me back into the situation in a moment of vision where I see my possibilities anew in the light of their eventual impossibility.  Death helps me stop chasing after pipe dreams and realistically assess what options are actually open to me, given the stage in life I find myself in and the abilities and limitations I find in myself. It brushes aside the particular roles and projects I happen to find myself in or that I maintain simply through the inertia or conformity to doing what "one" does, so that I can explicitly choose what I genuinely want to do and the kind of person I really want to be.  However this realisation is a formal one: I realise that I have a limited time on this earth and that I need to stop coasting through life letting the 'they' live for me.  I need to take the reins and actively live my life, choosing to choose.  But what can I choose? I must be resolute, but where do I get the options I can resolve upon? Unlike some philosophers, Heidegger argues a number of times that there is no special task written into our souls or the universe. Philosophers have traditionally sought some external transcending perspective from which to judge imperfect temporal society, adopting what Hilary Putnam calls a "Gods Eye point of view" on the universe through philosophy, religion or science. Heidegger does not think that such a perspective is available to us. We are already immersed in the ideas taken for granted in our society so we cannot achieve an innocent eye that could look upon the world free of all prejudice.

Amor fati (love your fate)

Anticipating death allows you to enter the situation in a moment of vision, the authentic version of the present.  This means that you see what possibilities are truly open to you and what pursuing them will require.  The possibilities that we find in the situation are those we are thrown into, and resolutely accepting our guilt means accepting that we did not create and do not control what is open to us.  Heidegger is now adding that the possibilities in our particular situation represent our "heritage."  Whereas his earlier discussion of guilt presented this in largely negative terms - we have to accept guilt and nullity by reconciling ourselves to the limitations of what we find - he now presents the idea with a positive spin.  These roles and projects we find open to us are our inheritance.  We need to have some possibilities to be able to be-in-the-world at all, just to be a 'being,' so we should celebrate our finding ourselves so generously endowed. Thus while our desire for autonomy and control may chafe at the givenness of our world, we should also be profoundly grateful for being thrown into one.  The givenness of the world represents a gift.  We cannot step outside of our particular world to find some kind of metaphysically special role or task; our possibilities are essentially worldly since they are for-the-sake-of-which, which are themselves made up of instrumental chains of tasks, equipment and contexts.  We find these for-the-sake-of-which handed down to us by our society.  Negatively we did not create them, which fundamentally compromises our autonomy.  Positively, these pools of possibilities have been given to us enabling us to project some of them and thus open up a world we can live a life in. Without this gift we could not be ourselves; in an important sense, it is this inheritance that gives birth to us as a being. While this giveness prevents absolute autonomy, it is what enables choice and action to take place at all.  I can only become something that my society allows for.  The range of possibiliteis is made for me, while the specific choice among them is made by me.  This inheritance only limits, it cannot eliminate free choice.  Indeed, it is the necessary condition for decisions since we must have something to decide upon. Thus one does not merely passively receive this heritage: "there is hidden a handing down to oneself of the possibilities that have come down to me." We are given these roles and projects but, while we often try to avoid it, the decision still comes down to us which we will take up and how we will do so. Heidegger calls the authentic resoluteness towards one's heritage "fate." On the one hand, all possibilities are inherited: even changes one makes to them depend on them. On the other hand, choosing from among them does make them one's own and one makes one's self out of them. This solution resembles Nietzsche's amor fati or 'love of fate' where one looks back at one's life and "wills" it in the sense of accepting and approving one's past since it led up to the present and made one, what one is.