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.