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What does it mean that things exist? That they have being? That they exist as beings? These are questions that were forgotten and neglected in my day. In fact, they're still ignored, because too few people have read my investigations into these questions about Being as such.
Thing is, we can't really understand what we mean when we say that such and such is a certain kind of being unless we understand the meaning of Being. Being (with a capital B) is the word I use to describe the state of being—sort of like the ultimate reality, the kind of thing we can only barely understand, if at all.
Being can't be an entity or a substance or a form or anything like that: these are each a kind of being; they're only aspects of Being. The thing is, we can only understand the surface of these individual beings; we can't get at the truth of things unless we really get to the meaning of existence (Being) underlying them all.
Sure, sure, Plato and Aristotle thought long and hard about Being. Sort of. Thomas Aquinas, the ol' Dominican, carried on the task as best he could. Even Hegel, the systematizer-in-chief, wrote about it in his own way. But they didn't do enough: they pretty just ended up systematizing beings. They never got to Being itself, probably because Being is too big—and too beyond our logical comprehension—to be encompassed by a human system.
Etymologically, the word Dasein (Da-sein) means "there-being" or "open-being." When I use the term, I'm referring to the human being, but my meaning is not a stand-in for "human" or "person." It's more of a descriptive word, one that refers to our way of being. We're social, communal, open to the world and to Being. We're bent towards death (it happens to the best of us). We dwell, mortally and poetically (see below for more on that). We're involved.
Dasein is our way of being in the world. It's how we are and what we are. Here's looking at you, Dasein.
This is one of my favorite words, despite its pretentious use by undergrads trying to sound smarter than they are. Ontology is the study of Being, beings as such, modes of being, categories of being, and the conditions of being. Ontology questions what actually exists, and how it exists.
The great Edmund Husserl began the whole phenomenological project, developing a discipline of studying the structures and necessary conditions of experience and consciousness. Is there something about our consciousness, as distinct from the objects of which we're conscious, that affects how objects appear to us? Phenomenology says yes, and it describes what it is about our consciousness that accounts for this.
Think of it this way. Let's say you see an orange lying on a table. Do you think you perceive the orange as it actually is, or do you think there's something about your consciousness that affects how you perceive that orange? Phenomenology goes with the second option.
Now, I think that when Husserl described our lived experience of things, he got a little too brainy and forgot about everything outside the first-person point of view. He was too focused on objects as they appear in our consciousness. He was too unaware of the world about us, situating our perceptions and understandings. It's like he thought that we're all just big brains and that everything just happens in our heads, as if there were no outside world at all.
I say it's not that easy. There's a world out there outside of our heads, and it's something we have to deal with—even if we have to deal with it through our own individual consciousness.
When students first read my works, they're often struck by all the time I spend discussing the hammer. Yes. The hammer. The hammer is the example I use to hammer home my point about the kind of being I call equipment.
I know, I know: you can hardly contain your excitement.
Most philosophers have probably never used a hammer. We're not talking about a practical bunch. This is a pity and a shame, but it totally explains why philosophers get Being so wrong, so much of the time. These people get so hung up on subject-object relations, it's not even funny. (The "subject" is the person perceiving an "object." If you're looking at a dog, you're the subject, and the dog's the object.)
Now, sure, there are subjects and objects, and there are relations between them, but not every encounter—and definitely not the most important ones—falls into this relation.
To use a hammer is to use equipment. How do we encounter equipment? We use it; we complete a task with it. We encounter the Being of equipment ("readiness-to-hand," as I call it; please quote me) in the experience of the task we use it for.
Now, when we use a hammer, we're not thinking about the hammer—unless we smash our thumb with it or something. We're just absorbed in our task. Most of the time, when we're using equipment, we're not subjects directed toward the equipment as an object. You might say that we are one with the object, if you want to get all New-Agey about it.
The point, though, is that the subject-object relation cannot describe the totality of our encounter with Being. It might not even be the initial way we experience the world.
Now, there are some things that we do experience as subjects encountering an object. I call these things "things." Not so original, I know—what, did you think I was Lacan? There's not a lot to say about things, really. They're what we experience as "present-at-hand"—that is, unlike equipment, they're what we experience in the subject-object framework.
Care is the word I use to summarize the being of Dasein. If Dasein involves "being-in-the-world," then care is how Dasein goes about "being-in-the-world."
Care has several dimensions. First, there's "thrownness," which is that feeling we have that by being born, we've been "thrown," unasked, into a world that already exists. Then there's "projection," which is the range of possible actions we may take after we've been thrown into the world. Finally, there's "fallen-ness," which is the state of having one's identity or self be dictated by trends and fads and things like that, rather than being one's own self.
Time—or temporality—is major theme in my work. (Being and Time, anyone?) I dwell so much on the temporal dwelling of Dasein because temporality is the condition that makes care (the being of Dasein) possible. Without a present, past, and future, I could not strive to make myself more authentic, more my own self. I could not take what I know in the present from studying my being in the past and with it project myself into the future. To understand Being, you have to understand time.
As my personal mode of being is understanding Being, you can bet your tickets to X-Men: Days of Future Past that I give due attention to the meaning of temporality in my work. For me, temporality is the unity of the past, present, and future in Dasein. In this unity, Being is disclosed.
In my later work (some people call it my work after "the turn," or auf Deutsch, after the "Kehre"), I reinterpreted Dasein's fundamental mode of being and characterized it as "dwelling" in the world. To dwell is to be at home, to have a place. In order to dwell, one has to build. This building might be a physical home or a poetic creation (I went so far as to follow Hölderlin in saying that "poetically man dwells").
Either way, unless you're building something, you're not really at home, which means that you're not really living to the fullest.