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Ontological inquiry is indeed more primordial, as over against the ontical inquiry of the positive sciences. But it remains itself naïve and opaque if in its researches into the Being of entities it fails to discuss the meaning of Being in general. And the ontological task of a genealogy of the different possible ways of Being (which is not to be constructed deductively) is precisely of such a sort as to require that we first come to an understanding of what we really mean by this expression "Being".
The question of Being aims therefore at ascertaining the a priori conditions not only for the possibility of the sciences which examine beings as beings of such and such a type, and, in doing so, already operate with an understanding of Being, but also for the possibility of those ontologies themselves which are prior to the ontical sciences and which provide their foundations. Basically, all ontology, no matter how rich and firmly compacted a system of categories it has at its disposal, remains blind and perverted from its ownmost aim, if it has not first adequately clarified the meaning of Being, and conceived this clarification as its fundamental task. [From Being and Time]
At a superficial level, most people have no trouble distinguishing between different kinds of being. We recognize that a car is different from a bus, a tool is different from a person, and a mortal is different from a god. We know that sometimes these differences matter. It would be wrong to treat a person like an insect; it would be foolish to ride a hammer like a bicycle; and it would be silly to build a time machine out of a DeLorean.
Very few people, I'm sad to say, think about Being enough. We've become forgetful of Being itself, the meaning of Being that underlies all beings and all ways of being. (Remember, when I say Being, I'm pretty much referring to something like ultimate reality.) How can we know what we mean when we say that this or that is a certain kind of being if we don't yet know what we mean by the very word "being"?
Without delving deeply into this fundamental and foundational terrain, our knowledge of beings, however complex, risks superficiality. What's more, it risks error. Without understanding Being, we're prone to make false assumptions about beings. And that just won't fly.
Dasein is ontically distinguished by the fact that, in its very Being, that Being is an issue for it. [From Being and Time]
All living things respond to being. The cat distinguishes between the being of a mouse and being of a house. It eats one and finds shelter in the other. But no cat, so far as we know (they're a secretive species), cares for Being itself. Only people care to inquire into the meaning of Being. Only people are troubled by it, and only people spend sleepless nights in mental struggle with it.
So if anything distinguishes a human being (Dasein) from other kinds of life, it's that the human alone is troubled by the question of ultimate reality (Being).
If the basic conditions which make interpretation possible are to be fulfilled, this must rather be done by not failing to recognize beforehand the essential conditions under which it can be performed. What is decisive is not to get out of the circle but to come into it the right way. This circle of understanding is not an orbit in which any random kind of knowledge may move; it is the expression of the existential fore-structure of Dasein itself. It is not to be reduced to the level of a vicious circle, or even a circle which is merely tolerated. In the circle is hidden a positive possibility of the most primordial kind of knowing. To be sure, we genuinely take of this possibility only when, in our interpretation, we have understood that our first, last, and constant task is never to allow our fore-having, fore-sight, and fore-conception to be presented to us by fancies and popular conceptions, but rather to make the scientific theme secure by working out these fore-structures in terms of the things themselves. [From Being and Time]
Maybe you've heard of this thing called the hermeneutic circle? I hope so, and not just because I helped develop the idea in relation to human existence. The gist of the hermeneutic circle is that we understand the parts by way of the whole, and the whole by way of the parts. Any time you interpret the meaning of something—whether it's a novel, or an event, or a human action—you do so from within the hermeneutic circle. There's no escaping it.
Why? Because there's no view from everywhere or nowhere. That means that any time you interpret something, you're interpreting it with preconceptions and prejudices. You're not a blank slate—but you're also not omniscient.
Take a poem, for example. As you read each line, you get a sense of the meaning of the poem in its entirety, and when you finish it, you go back and interpret each line in the larger context of the full poem. But you're not done—not by a long shot.
First of all, as each word and each lines makes new sense in light of the whole poem, so does the whole poem make new sense in light of the reinterpretation of each word and each line. Second, the whole of the poem is not the only context in which you read and understand the poem.
You also read it from where you stand, outside the "world" of the poem. You have a history with the language of the poem—you've encountered and used these words before in other contexts—and this history shapes and colors your interpretation of the poem.
As I said, you can't escape this history, but you can do your utmost to understand the being of the poem itself, through this history. Your preconceptions and prejudgments are not necessarily hindrances to Being; rather, they give you access to Being. So don't look so down.
[P]oetic images are imaginings in a distinctive sense: not mere fancies and illusions but imaginings that are visible inclusions of the alien in the sight of the familiar. The poetic saying of images gathers the brightness and sound of the heavenly appearances into one with the darkness and silence of what is alien. By such sights the god surprises us. In this strangeness he proclaims his unfaltering nearness. [From Poetry, Language, Thought]
Packed a lot into those few sentences, didn't I? Schadenfreude on my part, you might say... or perhaps I'm just a brilliantly and profoundly concise guy. The heavens say the latter. So do the poets—and what the poets say is all that is important here.
As I say, poets take the measure of man's dwelling. Got you with that one, didn't I? Okay, what I mean is that poets pay attention to what it means for humans to dwell—i.e., to live or have a place in what I call the fourfold: on the earth and under stars, with other people and before divinities on the earth. That pretty much means living on this everyday earth before our eyes, but also with the knowledge that ultimate reality is way bigger than what we can see or comprehend.
Poets don't copy dwelling; they don't just hold up a mirror. They show the rest of us what it means to dwell poetically. They don't simply represent Being; they write or speak in such a way that they are in the presence of Being as they create. In a poem, the whole world is spoken and brought together—and that includes everything, near and far, open and deeply hidden.
I'm not making this up. I think art is a seriously powerful thing. It's one of the main things that can give us access to Being.
Think of it this way. A poet might present us with a simple image of a flower, but this flower has a place, even if that place is unspoken. It grew in soils, and perhaps it's still growing there. It has followed the sun and drunk up the rain. It grew in a world where men, women, and children walked and played, worshipped and died.
That's a lot of stuff packed into the image of one little flower, which means that this poetic image of a flower is really an image of the world. It's an image that brings together the whole, which also makes it an image of Being.
Language is the precinct, that is, the house of Being. The nature of language does not exhaust itself in signifying, nor is it merely something that has the character of sign or cipher. It is because language is the house of Being, that we reach what is by constantly going through this house. When we go to the well, when we go through the woods, we are always already going through the word 'well,' through the word 'woods,' even if we do not speak the words and do not think of anything related to language. [From Poetry, Language, Thought]
Most people think that we have experiences of the world and then put those experiences into words and sentences. For infants learning to speak, this may be true, but once you have language, language has a say in all of your experiences. You might even say that you experience things in language before you experience these things "for real."
Let's consider the experience of discovering ancient writing deep within a cave. Without language, this experience isn't possible. Suppose you're walking in the cave, you pass a stalagmite or two, round a bend, and come to wall with patterned markings painted on it. You don't know what they mean, but, since you're familiar with the signs and symbols of language, you figure out that what you see is some kind of writing.
Now suppose you come upon the markings, but you have no notion of what writing is. You might see the markings, but you won't see them as a possible instance of writing. You won't perceive the writing at all, so you won't encounter it or have an experience of it. The being of the writing will remain hidden to you.
So, obviously, by being in the house of Being called language, however, you are able to be present to beings. What, not so obvious? Okay, fine; I'll translate. The house of Being is language. If you have language, this means that you have a basis for communication with and understanding of beings. Language both comes before and after your perception, interpretation, and encounter with the world.
Language may or may not help you understand Being (ultimate reality), but it can help you understand beings (other people, objects, art, the world around you).
What seems natural to us is probably just something familiar in a long tradition that has forgotten the unfamiliar source from which it arose. And yet this unfamiliar source once struck man as strange and caused him to think and to wonder. [From Poetry, Language, Thought]
I admit it: I'm interested in origins. I like to get to the roots of being, to stand under these roots and get a good look at their foundations. When I ask, for example, what the origin of the work of art is, what I'm really asking is: from what and by what is art what it is?
Don't tell me: "It is what it is." That's not good enough for me. Why is it what it is? I want to know things like this; I want to get at Being. I don't want to be satisfied with the familiar, or with what everyone assumes to be self-evident. Traditions aren't always true; they can conceal more than they reveal.
This makes me weird, I know. You probably don't care to dwell in the presence of Being. You don't hear angelic choirs singing the unfolding of Being. You take things as what they are, with no questions asked. A pity.