It would seem that in order do philosophy at all, one must first know what philosophy is. Like many other philosophers, Martin Heidegger has a unique answer to the question “What is philosophy?” This paper will examine comments Heidegger has made on the nature and use of philosophy. I will draw these comments mainly from three of Heidegger’s works, What is Philosophy?1, Basic Questions of Philosophy2, and Being & Time3. In these works, Heidegger explains the correct way to reach a definition of philosophy, and the methods and attitudes with which philosophy should proceed given that definition. I will argue that in each of these three works, Heidegger teaches that philosophy is concerned with making explicit our pre-theoretical understanding of being. I will then discuss the importance of the philosophical mood, astonishment, (which he also describes as anxiety, perplexity, and awe) in helping us make this understanding explicit. I will also look at what value he thinks philosophy has (if any) for a society.
Heidegger deals with the question “What is Philosophy?” in a lecture of the same name. His treatment of the question is something like the following. Naturally, we must answer this question before we can engage with philosophy. But, in order to ask “What is X?” we must already know X, at least enough to differentiate it from other things. Thus, we should rephrase our question to “What is that which is called ‘Philosophy’?” Obviously, all past philosophers have known, at least in part, that with which they have engaged. If this is so, we can come to an understanding of philosophy simply by taking the common denominator abstracted from the projects of each of these philosophers. The result would then apply to every philosopher with equal validity. And this is precisely why it is the worst thing we can do to try to answer the question. We would need to know what philosophy is even to decide who qualifies as a philosopher. And even if this strategy worked, it would merely give us a historical answer. We need a philosophical answer to this question if ever a philosophical answer is appropriate. In that case, we need to be able to engage in philosophy before we can decide what philosophy is; just the opposite of what is natural. This seems like a circle. “Philosophy itself seems to be this circle” (WP, 43).
This treatment of the definition of philosophy is characteristic of Heidegger’s method of definition in general. In Basic Questions of Philosophy, he writes “Philosophy is knowledge of the essence of things” (BQ, 29). He tells of a similar mistaken way to grasp an essence. From Aristotle to Descartes and beyond, the essence of a thing has been sought through an accumulation of facts about that thing. “For in order to discover the facts pertaining to the essence and to select them and exhibit them as justifications for the legitimacy of this positing of the essence, the positing of the essence must already be presupposed” (BQ, 83). Aristotle’s method would be to round up all the Xs and see what they all have. But in order to round them all up, one would have to be able to distinguish them from non-Xs. And to distinguish them requires knowing what X is, and what it isn’t. If we must presuppose the essence before we know anything about it and yet we are able to ask about the essence, we must not know the essence in the normal way. We cannot know any fact about something without already grasping its essence in some way. This means the essence of something will not be established by more information about the thing. Our grasp of essence must somehow come from what we already know since we have to know this before we can even ask the question.
Heidegger goes on to talk about how we do grasp the essence. “The essence of something is not at all to be discovered simply like a fact; on the contrary, it must be brought forth, since it is not directly present in the sphere of immediate representing and intending” (BQ, 83). We have to grasp the essence already and we don’t know it explicitly, so we must bring it forth. Heidegger calls this act of bringing forth, “productive seeing” (84). Thus, the essence of that which we encounter depends on us in some way. However, we obviously don’t decide what the essence is since we have to ask what it is. Somehow we have implicitly brought forth the essence of the thing in order to interact with it at all.
Philosophical knowledge based on fact is similarly repudiated and replaced with a more primordial form of knowledge in Being & Time. Heidegger writes that Descartes envisioned the world being made up of extended substances with properties. The essence of a thing is given by those properties that are always present in the given substance. Properties are established the same way as facts. A property of a thing is just another way of saying fact about a thing. Instead, Heidegger thinks that we grasp the being of a thing by looking at the other things with which it is used in our everyday practices. Using things is a closer relationship in which things are revealed in their specific being. This is a closer relationship because the usefulness of things is what makes them meaningful to us. For example, a hammer refers to nails and wood, and these are involved in the practice of carpentry which is practiced to make shelter for ourselves or others. The network of all the references and involvements makes up what Heidegger calls the “world.” By only looking at the facts of individual things, Descartes passed over the phenomenon of world.
That wherein Dasein already understands itself in this way is always something with which it is primordially familiar. This familiarity with the world does not necessarily require that the relations which are constitutive for the world as world should be theoretically transparent. However, the possibility of giving these relations an explicit ontologico-existential Interpretation, is grounded in this familiarity with the world; and this familiarity, in turn, is constitutive for Dasein, and goes up to make up Dasein’s understanding of Being. (B&T 119 )
Just like our knowledge of essence or of philosophy, our understanding of the world is implicit and must be presupposed before inquiry can begin and, more importantly, before facts can show up to us. We already know what the being of things are, even though it is not transparent or explicitly known. If we were to make this understanding explicit though, we would find out our understanding of being.
In What is Philosophy?, Heidegger finally answers that philosophy “consists in our corresponding to [answering to] that towards which philosophy is on the way. And that is—the Being of being” (71). Philosophy is a dialogue with being. Being depends on us to bring it forth, but it is not all up to us. Being has something to say as well. Bringing forth the essence of a thing, and seeing the referential relationships that make a thing meaningful to us are examples of a correspondence with being. “For, to be sure, although we do remain always and everywhere in correspondence to the Being of being, … only at times does it become an unfolding attitude specifically adopted by us. Only when this happens do we really correspond to that which concerns philosophy” (WP, 75). We always already correspond with Being, just like how we are always already familiar with the world, just like how we already grasp the essence of things. We participate in a dialogue with being without even thinking about it. But to fully correspond with being, to really do philosophy, we must specifically adopt the attitude of corresponding with the unfolding of being. This means that philosophy is making these pre-theoretical understandings explicit.
Making our pre-theoretical understanding explicit is not easy. Heidegger thinks that we need to be in the right mood in order to explicitly see our correspondence with being. In the preface to Being & Time, Heidegger writes that philosophers have become perplexed or embarrassed with the word “being.” They previously thought that being was very simple and easy to understand, but when asked about it, they could not say anything illuminating. Later in that book he writes that we are so preoccupied with and absorbed in our dealings with the world, we generally take for granted (like Descartes) all the references that make up the world. We must become perplexed in order to raise the question, but even then, the answer we seek is so primordial, we can’t simply will ourselves to see it. Anxiety, however comes upon us at times and we are forced to see the world and in particular, that it is groundless. In Basic Questions of Philosophy, Heidegger roughly describes this process as “terror in the face of what is closest and most obtrusive, namely that beings are” followed by “awe in the face of what is remotest, namely that in beings, and before being, Being holds sway” (4). First, we realize that we took being for granted and that it is nothing like what we thought it was. And with this realization, we begin our inquiry. Then, through a similar mood, being is manifest to us and are able to find an answer to our question. What Heidegger writes in What is Philosophy? clarifies that these are two stages of the same mood which he there calls astonishment. “The pathos of astonishment thus does not simply stand at the beginning of philosophy, as, for example, the washing of his hands precedes the surgeon’s operation. Astonishment carries and pervades philosophy” (81). The philosophical mood not only brings up the questions philosophy is to deal with, it also provides the answers. It is both the spark that starts the engine and the fuel that propels it. Heidegger quotes Plato as saying “there is no other determining point of departure for philosophy than this” (WP, 79). We must experience the philosophical mood in order to see our pre-theoretical understanding.
Having laid out the proper subject matter, goals, and methodology of philosophy, one might still wonder “Why?” Why is it important not to pass over the phenomenon of world? Or Why should we adopt the attitude that unfolds being? Heidegger only offers negative answers to these questions. Along with his rejection of truth as correctness, he writes
Philosophy is immediately useless knowledge. Our reflection on correctness and on truth itself can accomplish nothing toward the correct solution of economic difficulties or toward the correct improvement and assurance of the public health, nor can it contribute anything to the correct increase of the speed of airplanes, or to the correct improvement of radio reception, and likewise just as little to the correct design of instructional projects in the schools. With regard to all these urgent matters of daily life, philosophy fails. (BQ, 29)
If philosophy is concerned with the essence of things, rather than the things themselves, it cannot provide any particular truth but only the essence of truth. This is a surprising result because if philosophy has no use, it would seem that we have no reason to read or study it. In the famous Der Spiegel interview, Heidegger repeatedly insisted that philosophy cannot do anything to save us from the crisis of the technological age. By the above described method Heidegger has discerned that the current understanding of being is to see things as resources, only valuable insofar as they may be used for our advantage. As noted earlier, in Being & Time Heidegger taught that a thing is seen in its specific being by looking at the practices it is used in. The practices which provide some benefit for the sake of ourselves or others. To even ask after the utility of philosophy shows the entrenchment of the technological understanding of being. Perhaps Heidegger wanted to shield philosophy from being turned into just another resource since this would only reinforce the problem. If philosophy is seen as useless, it might be spared from being taken over by the current understanding of being. Thus, Heidegger sees philosophy as an illuminating process which cannot solve the very problems it brings forth.
1 Translated by William Kluback and Jean T. Wilde. Twayne Publishers, 1958.