Heidegger sought to peer behind Western metaphysics by engaging in the pre-theoretical conditions necessary for intentionality (representations of things) in human thought. That is, what does “to exist” or “to be” mean with regards to entities (beings); Heidegger refers to what makes beings intelligible (able to be represented) as the meaning of Being (not in the set of being). This ontological difference between being and Being (as not a super-being) is conflated in the story of Western philosophy since the time of Plato which equated the meaning of Being to a series of beings (namely idea, substance, monad, subjectivity, and will-to-power). Such a distinction is relevant as all categories of thought that do not clarify the ontological difference are subject to the limits of their mode of Being. Thus, the investigation of the a priori transcendental conditions for modes of Being is Heidegger’s preoccupation.
Heidegger begins with the the unique mode of Being for humans (Dasein) as “the having-to-be-open” or “Being is an issue for it”. This is to say that Dasein tends towards sense/meaning-making, to make intelligible. The phenomenological method for examining such tendencies is hermeneutic (interpretive) and historically embedded. Dasein begins with ordinary encounters with entities (equipment) through the their skillful use (readiness-to-hand). While engaged in the activity, Dasein lacks a conscious awareness of the equipment as an independent entity in the way that one would if standing back; the person is absorbed in the world with the equipment and so the person has no awareness of himself as a subject separate from a world of objects. This mode of encountering contrasts with scientific and philosophical activity where the senses are means to reflection and contemplation of context-free entities (present-at-hand). The transitory phase between these two modes of being refers to an un-readiness-to-hand where skilled activity is disturbed but remain phenomenologically near in context; a piece of broken equipment may still be adapted for use. Dasein is in (dwells) the world of beings in the ways that equipment are involved; the network of intelligibility or relational ontology is the totality of involvements with teleological “for-the-sake-of-which” ends; involvements are choices towards that end during which entities are made intelligible. Dasein’s place in the world of involvements is thus spatial in the sense of readiness-to-hand; entities are nearby if they are readily available for activity and far away if not irregardless of physical distance. The who of Dasein in this world is to be-with entities that can be encountered by the Other; what Dasein do is determined by “what one does” which is historically and culturally conditioned.
Dasein’s relation with the world can also be interpreted as “care” through the dynamics of “thrownness, projection, and fallen-ness” for unpacking “having-to-be-open” and temporality. Thrownness or having been thrown into the world is Dasein’s confrontation with the set of historically conditioned possibilities for acting (past). Dasein understands each possibility by projecting itself onto each possibility (future) according to its network of totalities. The realization of understanding is through skilled read-to-hand encounters (present). Fallen-ness is the loss of Being its Self (making things intelligible) through everydayness of the they (idle talk, search for novelty, and ambiguity). Thus, the authentic self seeks to find its own relation to other entities rather than be lost to the they. To discover such relations, Daesin can use the possibility of its own death (“possibility of the impossibility of any existence at all”) to disclose the negation of all its relation and so conversely discloses them. The authentic relation to death is one of anticipation rather than expectation where the latter is a fear (passive) that discloses only some beings in the world; the former “owns death” by using its possibility to affirm new relations and modes of Being.
Heidegger’s later works (after the turn) shifts Dasein’s mode of Being from temporality to that of dwelling; the subjectivity of Being from Dasein’s relation is abandoned in favor of the historical account of the unfolding of Being. The history of Being is now represented as transformations that have shaped Dasein’s intelligibility; human beings dwell between the earth and sky (nature) and before mortals and divinities (culture). The relationship with nature is poetic habitation rather than scientific (instrumental), culture requires an openness towards death and the possibility of paradigm shifts in intelligibility (new cultural templates). The latter is most relevant to the modern age of technological thinking where things are intelligible according to being enframed or “challenged” in order to produce something to be held in “standing-reserve” for use. Technology’s clearing (when things are revealed as mattering in some way) turns nature into resources to be extracted, stored, and ultimately exploited as a means to an end. The issue of technological thinking is its domination and the consequent forgetfulness of Being; enframing covers up the fact that technology is only one mode of making things matter, a single clearing rather than one of many possible modes of revealing (poiesis). Ultimately, Heidegger’s solution to realizing poiesis was through artisanship, attentive listening (tuning with rhythms of nature), and adopting a non-evasive attitude towards death.
Sartre, the well known existentialist of the 20th century, radicalizes human freedom by returning to the ontology of “being”. Human existence lies within a condition of nothingness (no-thing-ness) where things are characterized by what they are not or namely their negation or nihilation (e.g. fragile things lack stable unity). Subjectivity or human experience is divided into pre-reflective and reflective consciousnesses of objects. Pre-reflective consciousness is directed towards the transcendent object without configuring a notion of the “I”; such acts are spontaneous, transparent to the self, and engaged with the phenomenon as a starting point (first-order). Reflective consciousness negates pre-reflective consciousness and so the unity of the negation contains a duality between some regular agent “I” from memory, and the object. i.e. Consciousness becomes aware of itself. Thus, ego is borne out of reflective consciousness that is imposed upon pre-reflective consciousness. The Other is borne from ego recognizing that is an object of another being’s gaze.
Being can be posited in two way: Things may be in-itself or existing without justification in relation to other things (it is fully determinate). Examples include inert things such as rocks, air, and bottle. This differs from human beings whose identity is not in relation to things within but always to something else; being for-itself negates being in-itself and can be imagined as a lack of a being. For-itself, through nothingness, is thus able to form attitudes to other beings by seeing what it is not. This desire or project for being gives for-itself a radical freedom to make itself from nothingness. However, the tendency of for-itself to run away from its freedom, to become an in-itself or an absolute (God) is a common way people fall into “bad faith”. This can be applied to the many social roles (waiter, father, lover) that people adopt in their every-day lives; when such roles are no longer functional personas but have been adopted as essences of being (using such roles as excuses for example), than the person is rejecting the task of determining what these roles are not.
The rejection of human nature (existence precedes essence, no essences and priors w.r.t. existence) places agency/freedom is a difficult claim to follow. In Sartre’s day, he rejected the Freudian notions of the unconscious and psychological repression as having an influence on behavior. A priori models such as Jungian archetypes were obviously ignored. Modern advances in genetics and evolutionary biology (our behavior similarities with primates and other hierarchy building animals) would have supplied evidence in the other direction. Here, Sartre’s hedges a bit with his concepts of facticity and transcendence. Facticity is a set of facts viewed from a third person or objectifying stance (e.g. my skin color). Being can be aware of its own facticity but to adopt these facts as determining what I am would once again be in bad faith. The solution is to transcend these facts into what the space of possibilities conditioning upon these facts (e.g. the fact that one is short can be transcended by the behaviors and attitudes on has in light of being short such as humor).
Kierkegaard, the father of existentialism, equates the human responsibility of achieving self-hood (subjectivity) with truth. Kierkegaard’s notion of self is the union of acts that relate between dualities such as finite/infinite, necessity/possibility, and temporal/timeless. This is a negative space of the Hegelian synthesis of duals that moves from descriptive to prescriptive ethics. Truth or the realization of the self is known through the active choice of relating between duals without identifying too closely with either poles (failure results in forms of despair). An important case concerns the religious duality between sin/faith which is powered by the tension between Christianity’s paradox to reason and the necessity of a leap to faith. Although Kierkegaard’s process of individuation (achieving selfhood) occurred predominantly along religious lines, he introduced a number of general concepts that speaks to the human condition.
The responsibility of achieving selfhood compels one to make conscious choices at every moment. Each moment entails a great number of choices, and their multiplicity of consequences to consider lead the subject to experience a “dizziness of freedom” or angst/dread. This paralysis by analysis, or the anticipation of consequences render one immobile and unable to make a choice for fear of sin. Conversely, it is the experience of anxiety that allows one to move away from unconscious ignorance and into one’s potential for action, self-recognition, and identity.
Kierkegaard posits three existential stages of life along the way of becoming a true self:
- The aesthetic (the hedonist) lives for sensory experience and pleasure as a way to combat boredom; Boredom is characterized as “the root of all evil-the despairing refusal to be oneself” as it is an undifferentiated or an undirected state of consciousness. The aesthetes who avoid boredom through the pursuit of novelty also avoids commitments as it requires repetition. Common techniques to suspend boredom is through anticipation which delays gratification, and the so-called “rotation method” where one cycles between activities so that no one activity’s novelty is exhausted. However, the mode of living is self-serving and ultimately meaningless as it ignores the dimension of other individuals or society.
- The ethical is the antithesis of the aesthetic where one lives a life according to well-defined rules for the good of society rather than for the self. In the process acting according to higher principles, new pleasures may be realized that could not by the aesthetic. For example, while the novelty of marriage wears off, the act of giving to your spouse and children is rewarding.
- The religious is the final stage of the true self which requires a commitment to the moral absolutes of God. Such absolutes are communicated not through social institutions such as the church, but through a personal relation or revelation of God. Such absolutes require a “teleological suspension of the ethical” as they may contradict that of social norms; one may have to sacrifice pleasures of both the aesthetic and the ethical to reach this. Thus, one can consider revelation (disclosure of divine moral absolutes) as the synthesis of the pursuit of novelty (now the spiritual sphere) and the repetition of commitment (now in the subjective sphere).
Kierkegaard describes the experience along these stages of life in terms of despair that arise from an unbalanced identification with poles of duals (lack of finitude/infinitude, necessity/possibility). Three levels are given:
- The lowest level is the ignorance of one being in despair or of having a self (unconscious of self). One may be unable to realize one’s potential in life as he/she is fully in pursuit of novelty or of sensuous dichotomies of agreeable/disagreeable. He/she imagines himself happy but is actually dependent on the various objects of pleasure (materialist). Conversely, the system-builder who lives inside abstractions is divorced from experience. The system is merely a scaffold over an abyss from which the self’s relation to the concrete is hidden.
- The next level is conscious despair where one understands the condition of having to relate to duals but not the specific causes. One may despair against becoming oneself and run away by becoming someone else; he/she may refuse to become a self through feelings of unworthiness. The person may even be able to identify his weaknesses but become identified with the weaknesses themselves and refuse help by God.
- The final level is demonic despair against the eternal itself where one is hardened by suffering and so defies any help; the person identifies with despair itself as suffering lifts him/her in uniqueness above everyone else.