What is Dasein?
A hasty reading would see Heidegger’s “Dasein” as referring to a person, or consciousness, or self-consciousness (as Scruton, 2010, does, for example). This is financed by certain points of Being & Time: “We are ourselves the entities to be analysed” (Heidegger, 2008, p.67) and “we are it (Dasein), each of us, we ourselves” (ibid, p.36). However, not only does this characterization overlook sections of Being & Time where Heidegger specifically militates against this view, but it also forecloses all of the theoretical gains of Heidegger’s project, which largely rest in his discovery of the pre-personal, ontological “layer” preceding the ego, namely: Dasein.
So what does Heidegger mean when he says we “we are ourselves the entities to be analysed” (ibid, p.67)? Well, the being that lies ontologically prior to individual persons, or theoretical objects, or even the Cartesian ego. In fact, it even lies syntactically prior in existential statements: There is an ego, there is a person, there are lumps of granite. In short, “There-is”, literally Da-Sein.
Heidegger criticises Descartes for not thinking the sum of the Cogito ergo sum (Heidegger, 2008, p.46). We can think of the concept of Dasein as aiming at this Sum that creates the context such that there can be “I”s and “thinking” in the first place. Taking the thinking ego as the seat or exemplar of existence (being) makes a methodological mistake.
“According to Heidegger, Descartes’ point of departure is not derived from the human mode of being in the world but rather from a metaphysical worldview which partakes in the way he — as a human being — is relating to the world” (Pearl, 2013, p.20).
This is to say that Descartes begins from an already established metaphysical position in order to study the beings that we are, but he doesn’t question that this metaphysical position is a product of the beings that we are (taking it instead as some prior or fundamental feature), and, what’s more, only a narrow mode of this being.
Thinking is not the only way of being of Dasein. Even if every instance of thinking carries with it an “I”, the being that we each ourselves are is not exhausted in the kinds of self-conscious reflection whereby the Cartesian ego is discovered. Most of the time we’re just busy getting “stuff” done. It’s this feature of us, these beings that we are, that Heidegger pays special attention to: Dasein in its “everydayness”. That is, Cartesian skepticism or intense philosophical reflection or scientific inquiry are obviously two ways of being that the beings that we are are capable of; as is scaling the north face of Mt Everest and being launched to the moon. But these impressive and rare capabilities of this entity that we are need to be understood as special cases of a more general, less exciting but no less mysterious, context. The general context of this being that we are “is to be shown as it is proximally and for the most part — in its average everydayness.” (Heidegger, 2008, p.37). The name for this is Dasein.
This is to say that prior to being this or that thing (a rational animal, a res cogitans, a brain, etc) we are firstly just being. Heidegger hopes to capture this being in its effervescent verb form prior to its reification into “I” and “thinking”.
Regarding what finances the need for this project, Esfield (2001) reads Heidegger’s dissatisfaction with the Cartesian and other previous inquiries as stemming from how they invariably result in false dilemmas as to what we are:
“Heidegger’s diagnosis of traditional philosophy is that it fails to develop an adequate theory of ourselves, because it reifies ourselves qua minded beings: we are considered either as some sort of an entity over and above the physical (dualism, in particular Descartes), or as being nothing but some physical stuff among other physical stuff (reductive physicalism)” (p.48).
Neither of these choices seems satisfactory because as Moran notes “they both treat human beings as present-at-hand entities.” (2014, p.493).2placeholder That is to say, the person becomes a thing, like any other thing, whether that be a physical, mental or spiritual thing. Accordingly, Heidegger wants to go beneath these dichotomies to capture the peculiarity of human existence that precedes and encompasses both and all, not fitting easily into the category of thinghood.3placeholder Dasein is his road to this.
1. The Features of Dasein
Two features immediately inhere to Dasein: that its being is an issue for it, and that its being is in each and every case “mine” (its). (Heidegger, 2008, p.67)
1.1a Being as an issue for it
What does it mean to say that Dasein’s being is an issue for it? It is easiest to compare this stance to its opposite: indifference. The being of a lump of granite is a matter of indifference for the lump of granite. We can launch it into the center of the Sun to be vaporized into hydrogen, and this would be just one more thing that has happened to it. Not so with us.
However, we should not anthropomorphize Dasein any more than the lump of granite. That Dasein’s being is an issue for it, not a matter of indifference, is evinced by its (our) protestations immediately before being fired into the Sun, but it is not fully exhausted by them. Dasein’s being being an issue for it is not merely a survival instinct, or an affective preference for life over death. What makes it an issue is the peculiar way in which Dasein is vis-à-vis its “whatness”, that is, its essence.
1.1b On Essence and Existence
If I were to ask you “what is a house?” we could talk about the necessary and sufficient conditions and properties that form the essence of “houseness”, the “whatness” of a house, and eventually finish. It’s not even necessary that the thing we discuss in this way exist currently. For example, I could ask you “what is a perfect house?” and the subsequent properties and conditions we settle upon and write upon a napkin may not be instantiated anywhere in the world currently. This introduces an order of rank: the “whatness” of things, their essence, can be seen to exist happily prior to the thing’s existence, such that if we were to stumble across a really existing “perfect house” we can then say “That’s it!”
However, if I were to ask you “What are you?” there is a sense in which any answer you give will be unsatisfactory. Answering “I am a person” points us to the question of what you mean by that, and from there a myriad of possible answers come up: a featherless biped, a political animal, a rational animal, a Homo sapiens, so on and so forth. However, each of these definitional characterizations need to be actively taken up by you, receiving your blessing in a choice that precedes them all.
This perhaps becomes clearer if you were to answer “I am a massive Katie Perry fan”. No matter how much you believe that the fullness of your being is captured in this denomination, you can’t escape the feeling, nor the fact, that this is an action you have taken on, or have undergone, such that you now feel your entire being is captured under this denomination. Nobody is born into Katie Perry fandom.
The “person” example works in the same way, as does any response you could give, any simple ascription of a “whatness” onto your being. This is why Descartes misses Dasein when he thinks himself as “a thinking substance”. Dasein’s being is not answerable to a whatness, to an essence, that precedes it, but, rather, its essence lies in its existence, through which it makes various choices about what its whatness is and will be, not by contemplating, but by realizing them through living: “The question of existence never gets straightened out except through existing itself.” (Heidegger, 2008, p.33) In other words, Dasein chooses what it will be, and this is its essence. Or, more accurately, it is its possibilities, which open it up onto the future, and its activity of choosing, and doing, one or the other as ways of being.
“The essence of Dasein lies in its existence. Accordingly those characteristics which can be exhibited in this entity are not ‘properties’ present-at-hand of some entity which ‘looks’ so and so and is itself present-at-hand; they are in each case possible ways for it to be, and no more than that” (Heidegger, 2008, p.67).
Thus, its being is always an issue for it, because it is always confronted with the question “what shall I be today, tomorrow, next year?”
Furthermore, its being is always an issue for it in the survival-instinct “don’t launch me into the sun!” kind of way as well, because it is also confronted with the question “Will I be tomorrow, next year, etc?”
Finally, its being is an issue for it precisely because it can think “what is Being?” and be troubled by such a question. This is a capability of Dasein, along with buying cabbage, calculating Pi, and saying “It’s raining cats and dogs out there”. Neither houses nor lumps of granite can boast that their being is an issue for them in any of these three ways.
The second feature that inheres immediately to Dasein is that its being is always and in every case “mine”. This has two senses. Firstly, carrying on from its being being an issue for it, its being is an issue for only it. The question of “what shall I be next year” is my, and only my, issue, and I will only work it out through my own existing onto next year. Because I’m always working out my whatness through the business of existing, of doing and choosing and speaking and thinking and interpreting and making, and this issue always comes back to me, regardless of whether I let the world or others reveal certain facts to me, there is a sense that I am accountable all the way down.4placeholder In fact, Haugeland argues that this fundamental accountability for each of us being what we are, in the way we are, affords us a definition of ‘people’ vis-à-vis Dasein as mere “primitive loci of accountability” within Dasein (Haugeland, 2013, p.15).
Crowell (2001) also reads “Mineness” in a similar way, as Dasein being its possibilities, insofar as, lacking a prior essence, it has nothing else to be, so “(Dasein’s Jemeinigkeit [“mineness”]) must be understood as involving modalized possibilities for being itself.” (p.442)
The second sense in which the kind of being that Dasein has is always “mine” is just that we have no other way of experiencing ourselves or the world as being in any other mode than “happening here, by me”. Zuckerman writes that our access to being, because of this feature of mineness, is always “necessarily first-personal” (Zuckerman, 2015, p.509).5placeholder
These are the two features that inhere directly to the concept of Dasein. I’ll now look at the necessary structures of Dasein in its everydayness. Heidegger says of this distinction (between features and structures) that it does not mean that these structures are “just any accidental structures, but essential ones which, in every kind of being that factical Dasein may possess, persist as determinative for the character of its Being” (Heidegger, 2008, p.38).6placeholder
2. Everydayness (structures of)
Because Dasein’s essence is its existence, and is only worked out through its business of existing, we are instantly turned to the world in which Dasein dwells, where this business is carried out. If Dasein had no world, and was a disembodied, transcendent being, then its essence couldn’t be worked out, and there would be no being to be (mine). This doesn’t only mean that Dasein needs a world like the world we happen to have — Dasein could exist in the ways we have discussed above if its world was composed wholly of mathematical ideas, or sounds.7placeholder What is important is that Dasein is its possibilities, and is in its working through these — accordingly, it needs some context within which to work these out. In our case, as the beings that are being analysed, that context is the kind of world we find ourselves in now.
However, it’s not just the case that we happen to be in a world, regarding it, under the auspices of some necessary subject-object relation. We care about this world that we find ourselves in. Again, this is easier to grasp in terms of its opposite: indifference. Because I am always in a world that represents to me different opportunities and possibilities for my being, and my being consists in working out and through these possibilities through the business of existing, and this being is always mine, and this world I am in is always “happening here, by me”, the world is saturated in the absolute opposite of indifference: care, concern, interest (Sorge).
“Heidegger’s great achievement in Being and Time is to have demonstrated that care is prior to reason — that homo cura is more fundamental than the animale rationale” (Crowell, 2001, p.444).
Descartes’ Cogito can be seen as the ultimate subject of the subject-object relation. An indivisibly thin subject that makes an object of intellectual regarding of every being it’s presented with. This emphasis on the intellectual regarding of the object, or the speculative interest, has been one of the most long standing inheritances of metaphysics, going back to Plato and the Socratic dialogues where objects were dispassionately interrogated as to their necessary and sufficient conditions and properties. Heidegger reverses this picture. It is not the case that first there is a neutral and ambivalent relating of subject and object that needs to be rediscovered in order to know the object, and that on top of this then comes a host of phantasmic, “merely” subjective, pathological colourings and meanings and distortions, but rather, the precise opposite.
For Heidegger, that we can regard an object in isolation, stare at it carefully, investigate it for itself, refers us back to a more primordial connection with the object where this singularity and distinctness sinks into something more holistic and fundamental. Heidegger calls the being of an object regarded distinctly as “Present-at-hand”. Present-at-hand Being has been the sole focus of metaphysics and science up to that point, as when we regard the ego as distinct from its representations, or take apart an engine and lay each piece on the ground and investigate their functions one by one, or map a string of DNA.8placeholder
So, what is prior to present-at-hand? Heidegger’s answer: “readiness-to-hand”. That is, before we intuit a thing in the way it is, all alone, present at hand, we first come across it as something ready to be used, in line with our care/concerns. How is this different from the present-to-hand? The being of the ready-to-hand announces itself as a field of equipment to be put to use. Why a field? Because no piece of equipment can be divorced from a general context that would make it useful in the first place (hands and tables and factory production lines and delivery trucks and pieces of paper and sawmills, and so on):
“there ‘is’ no such thing as an equipment. To the Being of any equipment there always belongs a totality of equipment, in which it can be this equipment that it is” (Heidegger, 2008, p.97).
So, for example, there are 15 things on the table in front of me. Counting them required a small amount of effort not just in the manipulation of numbers and memory, but in grappling with the arbitrariness of, when we slip over to the present-at-hand taking of discrete individual beings, that it is non-trivial what counts as an object. Does the chain on the end of the USB stick count as its own object? And what of the pendant on the end of that chain? These questions barely make an entrance in our everyday being: I just grasp it all and plug it in.9placeholder
Ordinarily, I sit here at this desk at my computer, coffee mug by my right hand, USB stick by the left, headphones in my ears, so on and so forth. This collection of equipment I can refer to collectively as my “work environment”, and in fact, that’s how it presents itself to me. Those small arrangements one makes when one sits down to work, making sure everything is in its right place, need to be taken not as a series of delineated engagements with a score of individual objects, but as the manipulation of a single field in line with a single concern/care. In front of me is a world that I have arranged and prepared in line with a care of something I want to do, a possibility I have chosen, and am realizing by working through it, shuffling around the useful matter of the Earth accordingly.
These focal shifts between the ready-to-hand and present-to-hand levels represent the fundamental structure of Dasein’s being-in-the-world, with the more fundamental of the two, readiness-to-hand, being organized and arranged through Dasein’s care.10placeholder
2.3 The They
The present-to-hand turned us to the readiness-to-hand, which turned us to fields of equipment. However, this equipment, these things and ways of using them, makes us aware that there are others. In the example above I demarcated my working environment as being this table in front of me and its attendant objects, but just now I got up and walked into the kitchen to get a glass of juice. This walk, kitchen, refrigerator, and so on, also incorporate themselves into this working environment, this network of equipment, insofar as they are used together regularly throughout my concern of writing this article. However, at the refrigerator I realize there is no juice. I need to go downstairs to the store and buy more. What was previously a seemingly quite contained “work environment” formed by Dasein’s working through, has suddenly expanded to involve elevators, shops, cash registers, cashiers, change, fruit growers, distribution centres, and delivery trucks. None of all this complexity is given present-to-hand, it just exists dimly, waiting for it to be of consequence or not. My activity, in this ballooning work environment, is entangled with cashiers and drivers and farmers and elevator engineers and construction workers. I am aware of these others, but not as individuals with names and their own concerns and so on, but as a monolithic, faceless They, or The Anyone.11placeholder
It is important to make the distinction that these others are not other Daseins, in the plural, because Dasein is the way of being that each of us, as people, consciousnesses, egos and so on, have. We each take part in this way of being, and so each and all are Dasein.
Not only this, but these environments in which we live, and the equipment they contain, in being given as all having been shaped and created by beings like us, take part in the being of Dasein as well. Haugeland offers the interpretation that:
“the anyone, the (everyday) world, and language are different coherent “subpatterns” within the grand pattern that is Dasein; they have Dasein’s kind of being because each of them is Dasein (though none of them is all of Dasein). Within the anyone and all it institutes, the science of chemistry is a coherent subpattern; chemistry is Dasein — and so are philately, Christmas, and Cincinnati” (Haugeland, 2013, p.9).
Why are we pushed into this almost “hive mind” view (Haugeland even goes on to use a beehive analogy)? Because thinking of multiple differentiated, distinct “Daseins” is to make Dasein a present-at-hand being that can be thought in its “whatness”, and thus counted. Once we have done this we have fallen back into the logic of the ego, or the subject that verbs an object, and the inquiry has been for nought. As it is, without importing these notions, we have managed to grasp a number of fundamental ontological features and structures of the kind of being of which we take part: Mineness, Being as an Issue, Care, Readiness-to-Hand, and The They.
I’ve only scratched the surface. Heidegger, in taking Dasein as the entity to be analysed in Being and Time, has made the analysis of Dasein the sole subject of the text. I could not hope to cover everything. However, my aim was to show that Dasein is not in any way equivalent to the Cartesian self-reflecting ego, and in the brief outline of Heidegger’s concept enough dissimilarity has been introduced such that the identification is no longer tenable.
Crowell, S. (2001). Subjectivity: Locating the First-Person in Being and Time. Inquiry, 44(4), 433–454.
Esfeld, M. (2001). What can Heidegger’s being and time tell today’s analytic philosophy?. Philosophical Explorations, 4(1), 46–62.
Haugeland, J., & Rouse, J. (2013). Dasein disclosed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Heidegger, M., Macquarrie, J., & Robinson, E. (2008). Being and time. New York: HarperPerennial/Modern Thought.
Moran, D. (2014). What Does Heidegger Mean by the Transcendence of Dasein?. International Journal Of Philosophical Studies, 22(4), 491–514.
Pearl, J. (2013). The Subject and Time from Cogito to Dasein. Contemporary Psychoanalytic Studies, 19(1).
Scruton, R. (2010). A short history of modern philosophy. London: Routledge.
Zuckerman, N. (2015). Heidegger and the Essence of Dasein. The Southern Journal Of Philosophy, 53(4), 493–516.
Dasein does literally mean “there is”, however, it is one of many German compound words that is immediately grasped in an original sense beyond the parts, in this case: “presence”. Heidegger plays with all of these senses, and it was prudent of his original translators into English to leave it untranslated. Though a certain colour is lost (as is unavoidable in any translation) the resultant textual clarity (of having a specific technical term to hold on to) more than makes up for it.
Moran here is referring to the Aristotlean notion of humans as the “rational animal” and the biblical (and also Cartesian) idea of man as spiritual/physical dual substance, rather than the reductive physicalism mentioned by Esfield. However, Heidegger’s criticisms stand equally before any definition of human nature that attempts to fix the human in place by way of essential properties.
This “going beneath” is also motivated by the simple fact that questioning the Sum, the being that exists prior to the Cartesian Ego that it takes part in has not even been attempted before.
This is where Heidegger introduces the normative category of “Authenticity”. Dasein is always its choices and possibilities, but doesn’t often realize this. Often it just carries out actions because “that’s what one does”, thus disavowing its responsibility in its choosing to choose a course of action. This is Dasein in an inauthentic mode. However, inauthentic Dasein is not for that reason lacking in any of the being that Dasein is. The difference is one of comportment towards oneself and one’s being. Accordingly, we will not spend time exploring this distinction in this analysis of basic features.
However, doesn’t “first-personal” imply a person or consciousness already given? It needn’t. We merely need to indicate that within the entire field of Being, from spatial-temporal entities, to faculties, to concepts and theories and people and consciousnesses and so on, there is not one part that is untouched by a fundamental directionality all converging on a point. This “directionality” shouldn’t be taken in the pure geometrical sense, but rather in the sense of “happening here->”
That is to say it is merely a matter of order: first Dasein just is in the two ways we have mentioned, and then, because of this, it is immediately turned over to its everyday structures.
Given, of course, that these abstract worlds permitted a “working-out” or “working-through”, that is, they are temporal. In an absolutely simultaneous world, there would be no possibilities to “work out” or “through”, thus we couldn’t have Dasein, or, conversely, Dasein would introduce temporality into simultaneity.
Heidegger’s argument seems to work like this:
P1: Only things that share some context can be related together.
P2: Regarding two things as distinct is to relate them together, in the relation of the one being distinct from the other.
C: So, if things can be regarded as distinct, then they must first share some context.
An analogy would be the way in which opposites require much more fraternity than enmity. The more they have in common, the more opposite they can be seen to be.
Unless, of course, one invariably places the USB in upside down. Then the features and composition of object come to the fore. The kind of “obtrusiveness” of this experience, whereby we then closely examine and are made aware of the USB as an object, present-at-hand, is precisely how Heidegger believes the present-at-hand arises in the first place. That is, when an element within the field of equipment breaks, becomes obtrusive, or is missing. (Heidegger, 2008, p.107).
Heidegger goes on to argue that the Cartesian notion of space as infinitely divisible and quantizable plane is the present-at-hand derivation of a more fundamental organization of space by differential distributions of care and the motions of various activities (Heidegger, 2008, pp.122–134).
“Paley’s Watch” demonstrates this precisely: there is no other way to take a watch found in the woods than as having been designed, bought, carried and lost by others, in line with Dasein’s concerns/care. In fact it is not a matter of “taking” it one way or another; the watch presents itself already with this understanding. Our world we find ourselves in, as it is, is composed almost entirely of such objects (even the neat lines of trees along the street and the geometrically allocated patches of grass), always referring us, Dasein, beyond ourselves and onto a mass of unknown others, who we also take to be like us, more Dasein.