luke de smet
David Foster Wallace, and some quotes

David Foster Wallace

Hanging out at the bookstore yesterday, my wife quite serendipitously handed me a commencement speech written by David Foster Wallace, in which he talks primarily of the “possibilities and choices of thinking” each person has, which sounds like something straight out of Heidegger (if stated far more eloquently than the B&T translation). 

He starts off with a story about two young fish swimming along and passing by an old, wise fish, who asks them, “how’s the water?” After swimming a bit more, one of the young fish stops and asks, “wait, what’s water?”

DFW, of course, takes this to much more thoughtful places, but the general idea is that the places of thought most given and obvious to us are the very places where we most limit our possibilities for thought. And by ‘possibilities,’ we’re not talking about the quantity or even the quality of our thought, but rather the very kind of thinking we do. DFW wants us to unlock the choices we have of what to think about.

Essentially, Heidegger is doing the same thing. He wants to inquire into the meaning of Being, and his only point of access is Dasein. Which, in less high-German-speak, basically just means this is an exercise of introspection. Our access to Being is ourselves, and our first move of investigation is to study how we think, and how we formulate the problem to begin with.

In the second part of the introduction, Heidegger states that Dasein is ontically closest to us, but ontologically furthest. Dasein is the fish, and the Being of Dasein is the water: it’s closest in actuality, but furthest in thought. It’s as if Heidegger is saying that, of all things in this world, we understand ourselves least of all.

Of course, this isn’t a statement about empirical evidence. Obviously we understand quite a lot about ourselves: our society, our biology, even our psychology. But, as we’ve already laid out, those are ontical issues and this is an ontological study. For everything we know about human beings, the very fact that our own Being— or own thinking— is so obvious and given to us, turns it into that which we question the least.

Now, in this introduction, Heidegger comes right out and states the answer to his question: B&T will explicate Dasein as temporality, standing upon the horizon of time, interpreting Being as (big T) Temporality. But who knows what that means? And given that it’s what the rest of the book is going to spend its time getting to, I’m not going to get into it right now.

What’s more important is that Heidegger stresses that the answer to the question he’s asking can’t be handed down as a free-floating proposition or communicated as a bit of positivist knowledge. After all, the problem with DFW’s fish isn’t that they lacked some positive scientific understanding of what water is, their problem is that they hadn’t yet discovered their own possibilities for thinking about the water.

Heidegger’s mission is to discover the possibilities of thought. Perhaps this is what keeps him at odds with contemporary analytic philosophers— he is not interested in didactically attacking weak points in logic and replacing bad arguments with good ones. Rather, he wants to return to that which is most solid and obvious to us, to the foundation that is both foundation and sediment, to Kant and Aristotle or, more personally, to whoever else we deem most seminal to ourselves.  Not because the conclusions they came to were stupid, but rather because, to us, their conclusions represent points of determination, points where our thought was regulated. More generally, the world regulates our thought. Dasein is what is closest to us, because we are it, but we only understand it in terms of the world, because what the world gives us is always reflected back upon us, Dasein. The fish fail to question water, because water is simply the very most obvious, general thing given to them by their world. It is their Being.

On an ontical level the conclusions given to us by the ancients, by seminal thinkers, by science, by the history of our own generation, may absolutely be logically sound and empirically supported and peer reviewed and all that jazz. But ontologically it’s all still dogma. We accept it as given and obvious, and empirically speaking we’re not more wrong in doing so than the fish are in assuming water as some given default state. But we’ve lost the soil from which the conclusions grew, and with it all the other possibilities contained within. All that have been preserved are the answers; we have not preserved the thought. As I’ve suggested, and as Heidegger basically says himself, Heidegger’s great contribution is not to provide a conclusion but to reawaken the question. And this is why it makes no sense to present Heidegger’s conclusions: to do so would defeat his very purpose. Passing on points of conclusions without the “soil from which they grew” simply limits the possibilities of thought, and obscures the primordial place of thinking that Heidegger spent his life trying to discover. It would also be antithetical to Heidegger’s phenomenology, but that’s something we’ll get to within the next couple posts.

The translation of B&T is endlessly awkward, and I doubt that, even in German, Heidegger was as eloquent as David Foster Wallace. But, all the same, I like these quotes on the topic:

Whatever the way of being it may have at the time, and thus with whatever understanding of Being it may possess, Dasein has grown up both into and in a traditional way of interpreting itself: in terms of this it understands itself proximally and, within a certain range, constantly. By this understanding, the possibilities of its Being are disclosed and regulated. Its own past— and this always means the past of its ‘generation’— is not something which follows along after Dasein, but something which already goes ahead of it

-Heidegger, B&T, H20

Our preparatory Interpretation of the fundamental structures of Dasein with regard to the average kind of Being which is closest to it (a kind of Being in which it is therefore proximally historical as well), will make manifest, however, not only that Dasein is inclined to fall back upon its world (the world in which it is) and to interpret itself in terms of the world by its reflected light, but also that Dasein simultaneously falls prey to the tradition of which it has more or less explicitly taken hold. This tradition keeps it from providing its own guidance, whether inquiring or in choosing. This holds true— and by no means least— for that understanding which is rooted in Dasein’s ownmost Being, and for the possibility of developing it— namely, for ontological understanding.

When tradition thus becomes master, it does so in such a way that what it ‘transmits’ is made so inaccessible, proximally and for the most part, that it rather becomes concealed. Tradition takes what has come down to us and delivers it over to self-evidence; it blocks our access to those primordial ‘sources’ from which the categories and concepts handed down to us have been in part quite genuinely drawn. Indeed it makes us forget that they have had such an origin, and makes us suppose that the necessity of going back to these sources is something which we need not even understand.

-Heidegger, B&T, H21 (emphasis mine)

I’m interested by the “genuinely drawn” part. It supports my idea that Heidegger’s not trying to expose weak logic or “debunk” anyone. He’s rather trying to recover the possibilities that lay dormant in that which we take as self-evident.

Tags: David Foster Wallace Heidegger Thinking Dasein Tradition
In the spirit of unfinished projects…

It occurs to me, after that last post, that I must either extend my deadline on this thing, or lower my standards of explication.

And already I left off a full third of the section I covered!

Know your song well before you start singing


Introduction I, H1-15 cont’d

Making your way through Being and Time's relatively brief introduction can feel like reading the entire text of most other books (I'd say it might as well be written in Greek, but some of it literally is).

Luckily, it is just an introduction, setting the stage for the major arguments that will be clarified later. A lot of probably won’t make much sense for the time being, either in my write-up here or in the actual book.

It begins, though, with a point that is essential to Heidegger: properly formulating the question of Being is every bit as important as discovering the answer to the question. Centuries of ontological dogma (whatever that is), according to Heidegger, have obscured the question so much that we no longer recognize it as an issue. Being is taken either as the most universal of concepts (an accumulation of everything that exists), an indefinable concept, or as a purely self-evident concept— that it is instantly clear to basic human intuition what we mean when we say that something is.

But Heidegger claims that none of these conceptions of Being capture what is truly being asked about, because the universality and self-evidence that are applied to Being apply only to an ontical conception of Being— that is, a concept that treats Being as an entity/thing among other entities/things or as a genus of entities/things. Simply put, Being is not an object that can be found in the universe, or even a class of objects that can be found in the universe.

What B&T is asking about is something ontological, not ontical. Entities (the things which exist in our natural— or ontical— world, including us) are beings, and they compose all that is ontical, and are the objects of scientific study and all basic human inquiry. Being (capital ‘B’) is the horizon which makes possible the existence of entities as entities, and as such it wouldn’t make sense to explain it in terms of the ontical universe, and wind up falling into an infinite regress about causation and the beginning of all things. The object of inquiry, here, is something more primordial and nebulous, and can be understood only on a level deeper than the ontical: it is the ontological.

Which, again, as good secular positivists, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to us. Trying to understand ‘Being’ outside of our conception of the physical universe sounds downright mystical, if not religious (and Heidegger himself even draws an analogy to Thomas Aquinas’ idea of Anima, or Soul).

But we’ll leave those complaints for Heidegger’s later writings, as for now he has some serious analysis to get to. When Heidegger says we have to return to the very structure of the question, he really means it, as he devotes section two of the chapter to literally breaking down the basic elements of a question. And if we’re to believe him that the question is of primary importance, it behooves us to pay attention during this part, as it’s likely to shed some light on the structure of the entire project itself.

I took a class on B&T during my undergrad, and my professor (the quite brilliant Marie-Eve Morin) beat the idea of a three-part structure into our heads. So many of the concepts Heidegger sets up in B&T he lays out as being structured into three parts. It emerges here in the formal structure of a question: every question has that which is asked about (in this case, Being), that which is to be found out by the asking (the meaning of Being), and that which is to be interrogated (entities). And true to Plato’s Meno paradox, questions have to be guided in advance by that which is asked about, suggesting that in order to even ask a question, we must first have some idea of the answer we are seeking. (In the Meno, it is asked how it possible that we can seek answers that we are ignorant of, if we a truly ignorant of the answers— in other words, how can we know what we don’t know?)

This issue is cleared up when we consider that which is to be interrogated. Essentially, all that is meant by this awkwardly translated turn of phrase is that there must be some object of inquiry that we are to study in order to find our answers, or a medium for our research. If the police wish to discover the truth about a crime, ‘that which isto be interrogated’ might be, for exact, a witness. And as we’re looking into the Being of entities, entities become our object. And more specifically, it is a special king of entity, Dasein, that we must interrogate.

In a book that contains about ten million words that either you’ve never heard of before, that are German, or that are just flat-out made up, Dasein is the most important. If a casual fan of philosophy knows one thing about Heidegger, it’s probably Dasein. 

Dasein is us. People. But not the human race, it is the always-in-the-first-person, that-which-is-always-our-own individual person. It’s close to the idea of the “ego” or the “subject,” but it is important that we understand it in terms of one clear Heidegerrian principle: Dasein is that entity which comports itself toward its own Being, or which takes its own Being as an issue for itself. 

And so we come back, already, to the importance of the “question”. All inquiry must be guided by that which is asked about, like in the Meno paradox, and the question of Being is provided this by Dasein. We interrogate Dasein both because it is entity we have access to (since we ARE Dasein), and the entity that provides access to Being, as simply by being comported toward the question of Being, it demonstrates that it possesses some pre-ontological understanding of Being. This pre-ontological understand (or “every day” understanding) does not provide the answer we are looking for, but it provides the point of access.

So how important is the “question”? By simply asking the question of Being (not by providing the answer), we constitute ourselves as what we are: Dasein. And we make possible the whole of ontological inquiry. It is of such importance that for Heidegger this being-towards-Being, however “every day” and naive it may be (and obscured by centuries of dogma), it is what makes Dasein the one entity that possess existence. Dasein may not yet have a proper ontology, but it is nonetheless ontological, simply because it can ask the question.

And so Dasein becomes our object of study, and to understand the nature of Being we must first understand the Being of Dasein.

It’s worth noting at this point that Being and Time, as epic of a tome as it is, is unfinished. It was intended to be structured into two parts, with each part containing three subdivisions. What we know as Being and Time, one of the most seminal texts of the twentieth century, is merely subdivisions one and two of the first part— one third of the total project. Laying bare the structure of Dasein was to be the first step, from where we were to move toward understanding Being as such, and then, in Part Two, to use that understanding to deconstruct the entire human history of ontological understanding, and thus set all human philosophy, science and inquiry on fresh footing.

But Heidegger never got much beyond Dasein. The lion’s share of B&T is consumed by the existential analytic, or the ontological study of Dasein. But this still isn’t existentialism, of course, however much it inspired J.P. Sartre.

It depends on what your definition of “is” is.

Introduction I, H1-15

Note: I’m using the basic hard-cover, black-bound Harper Collins edition of Being and Time, translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. The page numbers I’m using are paginations of the German edition (indicated by H for, well, Heidegger), which are included in the Macquarrie text and should be pretty standard.

It’s difficult to introduce Being and Time without sounding completely ridiculous. What is about? Being! And, well, Time! But not really time, at least not how we normally mean the word. It’s about the fundamental horizon upon which all things that exist do exist, and which gives gives those things their very being as things which exist. Simple, right?

It would probably be easier to say “this is where a lot of existentialism came from,” even though that would be largely misleading, considering it’s not an existentialist text, nor is it written by an existentialist author.

It’s also difficult, for an amateur like me, at least, to say what, exactly, Heidegger believes. This is not a book that will change your political or ethical opinions, or provide you with a bunch of axioms that you can start applying to your life or quoting pretentiously to friends. At least not in my experience (this will only be my second time reading it), and that was fine by me (Heidegger was a Nazi, after all).

But this is a book about the biggest of Big Ideas, and that makes you think about the possibilities of interpreting existence beyond those which we are born into. Heidegger walked a fine line between the out-skits, limits and undiscovered possibilities of rational thought, and obscurantist nonsense. I’m certainly not in this to become part of some (incredibly late) Heideggerian movement. But it’s incredibly fun and interesting to me to explore the edges of how I think about THINGS in the most general sense. Later in his career Heidegger would try to explicitly redefine what it means to “think,” but I think he implicitly takes up that task just fine in Being and Time.

I’m not sure if anyone will actually read a Being and Time Tumblr from an amateur (I’m doing this mostly for my own edification and reference, so that I can look back and better organize my thoughts as I continue to read philosophy), but I’d be more than happy to receive comments or corrections. 

I have enough experience in philosophy that texts such as this don’t immediately lose me with the jargon, but beyond that I can take credit for very little (a BA doesn’t go very far, these days). So if this Tumblr is of any interest at all, it is simply that this is not an academic dissertation, but rather just just a regular reader/writer trying to make his way through incredibly heady material. Other people have blogged the Bible or Ulysses or whatever else, so this is my contribution.

As is the case with most seminal philosophers, Heidegger’s method is often more important than his conclusions. The purpose of Being and Time is to work out the “meaning of Being,” but what Heidegger sets out first is that we’ve lost even the question of the meaning of Being. I imagine this is even true about issues that aren’t grand questions of Being,obscured by centuries of sedimented ontological dogma. We’re all good little positivists running around with our laundry list of conclusions, seeking either more conclusions, or probably more often just to brow-beat others into agreeing with us. In my own life it would certainly do me a lot of good to take some time thinking about the questions I’m asking, before I start complaining about the lack of answers.
Because, as all Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fans know, the answer is 42 (or “Time,” in Heidegger’s case). But who the fuck knows what the question is?

As is the case with most seminal philosophers, Heidegger’s method is often more important than his conclusions. The purpose of Being and Time is to work out the “meaning of Being,” but what Heidegger sets out first is that we’ve lost even the question of the meaning of Being. I imagine this is even true about issues that aren’t grand questions of Being,obscured by centuries of sedimented ontological dogma. We’re all good little positivists running around with our laundry list of conclusions, seeking either more conclusions, or probably more often just to brow-beat others into agreeing with us. In my own life it would certainly do me a lot of good to take some time thinking about the questions I’m asking, before I start complaining about the lack of answers.

Because, as all Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fans know, the answer is 42 (or “Time,” in Heidegger’s case). But who the fuck knows what the question is?

Dasein always understands itself in terms of its existence— in terms of a possibility of itself: to be itself or not itself. Dasein has either chosen these possibilities itself, or got itself into them, or grown up in them already. Only the particular Dasein decides its existence, whether it does so by taking hold or by neglecting. The question of existence never gets straightened out except through existing itself.
Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (H12)


Alright, life goal. It is July 1 (go Canada). By the end of August I will have read Being and Time, and will have posted whatever the hell I have to say about the book on here. No one will read this, of course, but I need a project.

Beer will help.