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Heidegger’s Ways of Being

Andrew Royle introduces Heidegger’s key ideas from his classic Being and Time, showing how they lead towards his concept of Being-towards-death.

“If I take death into my life, acknowledge it, and face it squarely, I will free myself from the anxiety of death and the pettiness of life – and only then will I be free to become myself.”
Martin Heidegger

This article considers aspects of the philosophy of the German phenomenologist/existentialist Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), finally applying them in the context of bereavement. As Heidegger’s writings are filled with many highly technical terms, I’ll provide some background to his thinking, drawing from two rather technical texts: Heidegger’s 1927 magnum opus Being and Time [Sein und Zeit ] (Joan Stambaugh’s 1996 translation), and The Zollikon Seminars: Protocols, Conversations, Letters, edited by Medard Boss (1987).

The formidable task that Heidegger sets himself in Being and Time is to respond to the question ‘What is Being’? This ‘Question of Being’ has a long heritage in the Western philosophical tradition, but for Heidegger, to merely ask what is Being? is problematic, as that emphasis tends to objectify Being as a ‘thing’ – that is to say, it separates off ‘Being’ (whatever it is) from the questioner of Being. This for Heidegger is making unhelpful assumptions of the nature of Being even before interrogating what Being actually is. Therefore, rather than asking ‘What is Being?’, Heidegger begins with the question ‘ Whom is asking the question of Being?’ This question – the whom of Being – includes the possibility that the questioners themselves may actually contribute in some way to the Being under question. Heidegger’s starting point thus asks whom is this Being “that in its Being is concerned about its very Being.” (Being and Time, p.11)

To mark this starting point, and perhaps recognizing that referring to a ‘Being that in its Being is concerned about its very Being’ is a bit of a mouthful, to refer to this Being Heidegger coins the first of many neologisms: Dasein. This German word translates into English in many ways, including ‘there-being’, or my preferred used, ‘there is’: there is… a question, there is… a questioner, there is… in the question, a concern about Being. There is, it seems, something – but what is ‘there is’? He reserves judgement for now, but nevertheless gives the Being-questioning Being the name Dasein. Heidegger’s creative approach towards language use here is intended to avoid the unhelpful psychological and philosophical associations had by using such terms as ‘subject’ or ‘ego’ – especially as these will become the very concepts that Heidegger will later subvert. English-speaking Heideggerians tend to use the term ‘Dasein’ untranslated.

Heidegger portrait © Woodrow Cowher 2018 woodrawspictures.com

Being There

Heidegger gives two core characteristics of Dasein:

(i) Dasein exists : “the essence of Dasein lies in its existence” (p.42).

(ii) Dasein is mine : “the Being, whose analysis our task is, is always mine” (p.42).

The first, seemingly obvious point, is that Dasein, the Being that is concerned about its Being, can only be first of all if it exists: it is essential that it is.

By referring to ‘essence’, Heidegger begins to articulate what he means by is-ness or Being. For example, take a table: the essence of a table is the very thing that makes a table a table and not something else, whatever this is. We may for instance say that a table is a table if something can be placed upon it, and if it doesn’t fulfill this criteria then it is not a table. In the same way, the essence of Dasein – what Dasein is – is that it exists. If it doesn’t exist, then it is not Dasein. Without existence, Dasein wouldn’t have any ground (or Being) to ask the question of Being at all. Later Existential philosophers, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, have referred to this primacy of existence as the ‘first principle of Existentialism’: as Sartre put it, ‘existence precedes essence’. For Heidegger, the essential quality of Being is found in its very existence.

The second characteristic of Dasein, its ‘mineness’, refers to the ‘whom’ of existence. Things do not simply float around in the world in detached ways. Rather, it is me that is writing this paper; I am thinking about Heidegger; it is my fingers that type at the keyboard. (In the German, ‘mine-ness’ is Jemeinigkeit, which can translate as “always my own or in each case mine” (p.450).) If the is of ‘there is’, of Dasein, concerns the general ground of existence that all things must have in order to be, then the there of Dasein’s ‘there is’ concerns a particular perspective of Being – my view, his thoughts, their Being… Moreover, I do not hear questions in a ‘universal’ or abstract way, but rather I hear questions in a particular language: I also hear them at a particular place and time, which gives contextual meaning to what is heard. For example, I hear somebody speak ‘on a train’, or ‘in a tepee’, or ‘in a lecture hall’ – each carries contextual associations that informs the meaning of what I hear and how it’s heard. I may also hear something ‘in the middle of the night’ differently to how I hear it ‘in the middle of the day’, for example.

That I have an existence that is ‘mine’ is Heidegger’s hallmark of Dasein: it is what he calls our Being-in-the-world. But let me be clear about this: Heidegger’s Being-in-the-world does not mean that Dasein is in the world in the same way that water is in a glass or a dress is in a closet: he is not arguing that ‘Dasein’ exists in one place and ‘the world’ in another place next to it. On the contrary, Heidegger says that this erroneous ‘relationship of location’ is the big mistake of Western Philosophy, and one which he is seeking to put right. Such an error has meant that we tend to think of people as inner ‘subjects’ separated from outer ‘objects’, and philosophy has tended to focus on the discrepancy between these inner and outer worlds. Heidegger’s radical philosophy argues against this separation of Dasein and the world, and instead argues for an ‘entangled’ [verfallen] Being. We might say that Dasein is entangled in the world it is with.

Hammering Heidegger Home

To explain our entanglement further, Heidegger uses the example of a workman using a hammer. A workman reaches out for a hammer, instinctively weighs it in his hand, and begins to work. Each blow is hammered out with tiny, imperceptible adjustments of velocity and trajectory – adjustments that the workman does automatically and is barely aware of making. In fact, the more competent the workman, the less aware he is of the hammer at all: he simply hammers away. The movements in his hand are realized in movements of the hammer in such a way that the hammer serves as an extension of the workman’s hand. In this way the hammer and the workman are together, entangled. The moment the workman begins to contemplate the hammer as a separate object or ‘thing’, something gets in the way: something doesn’t work properly, and the very Being of the hammer itself gets lost. To simply stare at the hammer, to think about it as a separate ‘thing’, does not reveal anything of the Being of the hammer. In this way, the Being of the hammer is disclosed in its utility, its use: it is with the workman, in hammering, that the Being of the hammer is revealed.

By extension, Heidegger argues that it is through what Dasein does that Dasein comes to understand itself and its Being: our Being comes to us in what we do. I understand myself as a ‘workman’ through my actions as a workman – through actions such as hammering. In this way, there is no escape, we cannot think our way out of our Being-in-the-world – we are committed to it as our precise way of Being.

Heidegger further explains that Dasein’s has ‘relevance’ (Verweisung) by virtue of its Being-in-the-world. ‘Relevance’ here means “to let something be together with something else” (p.82). The workman is a workman not only due to his hammering, but also due to everything work-related that he is together with, that is, everything is relevant to him as a workman. This includes such things as wood, saws, nails, chisels, carpentry, artistry, commerce, craftsmanship, and so on. The Being of the workman is entangled with such objects, states, and entities, even though he may be some distance from them, and even if they don’t have material existence (NB Heidegger’s phenomenological philosophy is contrary to a materialist paradigm). A specific act of hammering discloses Dasein’s Being-with (Mitsein) status: it discloses not only that ‘there is’ workmanship, aesthetics, trade, and so on, but also that Dasein has relevance to such aspects, that is, is with such aspects in its Being-in-the-world. Such wider aspects of the world as craft, skill, trade associations and commerce are there, in what Heidegger calls ‘circumspection’, meaning that they are there in the surrounding world relationally. Just as the workshop is there surrounding the workman, so in a similar way is the world there and with Dasein. In Heidegger, the part not only relates to the whole, but works to disclose the whole, just as the whole relates to and discloses the part.

Switching The Light On

Let us remain with our workman in his workshop, and now imagine that the workman reaches out for a hammer and finds instead an empty space. In now looking for his hammer, the workman starts to notice his workshop, which has been there, surrounding him, all the time. He casts an eye over the shelves, seeing dust; he spies a cracked window; becomes aware of a spider moving across the ceiling; he notices the detritus of uncompleted tasks and worries about deadlines. Heidegger says, in this ‘looking around’, the referential context of Being is ‘lit up’ (p.74). By virtue of the space of the missing hammer it’s as if a light switches on and Dasein sees the world that has been there all along.

The important point is that this light is not switched on ‘out there’ in the world; rather, Dasein switches on a light for him/herself, in the doing, in his/her interaction with the world. Generally, the world is categorized and created for the workman in the context of his particular concerns: he ‘sees’ a missed deadline in a half-finished barrel, or he ‘hears’ his boss’s rebuke through the space of the missing hammer. The empty space becomes a disclosing ground for Dasein to conjure and create the world. In doing this, Heidegger describes Dasein as a ‘ Lumen Naturale’ (a natural light), which lights up its Being-in-the-world “in such a way as to be its [own] there” (p.129).


In a similar way to Dasein’s entangled relationship with world, so too is Dasein entangled with other people. For Heidegger, we do not exist as isolated individuals; just as we are committed to Being-in-the-world, so too are we committed to Being-with-others. For Heidegger, it is impossible for an “isolated I without other to be given” (p.115). This is because, whatever I am – a son, father, husband, or bereaved, etc – necessarily refers to and infers the existence of others – a parent, child, wife, or a deceased loved one. So at the same time that I claim my existence, my ‘mineness’, I also necessarily declare the incontrovertible existence of others.

Let us not underestimate the profound significance of Heidegger’s move here, which is a direct refutation of René Descartes’ solitary introspection some three hundred years earlier, reversing Descartes’ sceptical starting point for philosophy. Descartes asks, How can I be sure that the world and other people actually exist? He replies to himself that whilst I may doubt the world and others, whilst doubting, I am at least thinking – I cannot doubt that. “I think therefore I am” writes Descartes famously. Yet from a Heideggerian perspective, it is a contradiction-in-terms to say “I doubt the existence of others”, since the very positing of ‘I’ necessarily refers to (in Heideggerian terms, has relevance to) a ‘you’ or an ‘other’. Just as Heidegger’s workman claims his existence as a workman in relevance with the world of his workshop, so too does each Dasein claim its I-hood from the world of others that it is necessarily with and which is relevant to it: the I necessarily posits the not-I, because Dasein comes to understand itself from the world of things and of other people. In this way, ‘other’ is intimately predicated by and entangled with Dasein. Heidegger therefore states that “Dasein is essentially a Being-with” (p.170).

Although Heidegger’s argument works to abate Descartes’ solipsism, at the same time it opens up a new problem. Whilst the ‘I’ (or ‘ego’) was indubitably alone for Descartes, it was also secure, untouched by others, whereas in Heidegger’s philosophy, the with-ness of others becomes a problem to be negotiated. What is the sphere of influence of the ‘other’?: could the other undermine my own agency, or even my ‘mine-ness’ per se ? So for Heidegger there is a danger to Dasein of the power of the ubiquitous ‘they’. In Heidegger’s terminology, ‘the-they’ (Das Man) “articulates the referential context of significance” (p.125). This means that the-they are there in the background of thought, just like the unseen background to the workman’s hammering. It is the-they which informs us, implicitly or explicitly, what is to be done and how it is to be done. The influence of the-they comes through (or is disclosed) when Dasein does what one does, such as when a workman hammers the way one hammers; or when a person drinks tea the way one drinks tea; or when somebody is shocked, delighted or appalled by what one is shocked, delighted, appalled by. Yet to act merely by virtue of the perceived injunctions of the-they runs the risk of what Heidegger calls ‘inauthenticity’ (Uneigentlich). Dasein becomes ‘inauthentic’ in its denial of its mine-ness. In inauthenticity, Dasein stands at the risk of being levelled down, psychologically neutered, and appropriated by the ‘they-self’, so that ‘”everyone is other and no one himself” (p.124).

This is not to say that Heidegger regards inauthenticity as a ‘lesser’ state of Being to authenticity (p.42). The workman may hammer the way one hammers for expediency, to get the job done; it may be prudent and civil to go along with social customs – the way one does things – say in a job interview or meeting prospective in-laws for the first time. Authenticity is not an imperative. Rather, authenticity and inauthenticity denote two modes of Being with differing emphasis on ‘mine-ness’. Heidegger describes these two modes of Being in terms of seeing and light. Authenticity relates to the Lumen Naturale – the lighting-up of Being – whereas inauthenticity conceals or covers the light of Being in its acquiescence to the ‘foresight’ of the-they.


However, there is an aspect of Dasein’s Being that remains definitely mine, that refuses to acquiesce to the-they: Dasein’s own death. Death provides a cornerstone to mine-ness, as it is a non-relational aspect of Dasein that remains out of reach of the-they. Death is what Heidegger calls one’s “ownmost, nonrelational possibility” (p.241).

Death for Heidegger is not merely an event that occurs at the end of Dasein’s life. Death is not to Dasein like a distant railway station is to a train; not merely a future point or place that becomes arrived at. Rather, Heidegger describes death as ripeness is to a fruit: the fruit ripens as it exists – ripening is what the fruit is ‘doing’ in its very being. Just so, death is the ‘ripening’ of Dasein. In this way, death is liberated from being seen as an end-point or final event. Rather, death is always there for Dasein. Heidegger describes death as an ‘eminent imminence’ (p.240) – as soon as we are born, we are old enough to die. Or Dasein “always already is its end” (p.236). Heidegger calls this state of Being in which Dasein exists, a Being-towards-death. Being authentic, for Heidegger, is to resolutely anticipate death – to claim it and use it as a resource against the crushing influence of the-they. Accordingly, Being-towards-death constantly provides the possibility for Dasein to authentically claim mine-ness.

Claiming one’s Being-towards-death – which is no easy task, says Heidegger: “Being-towards-death is essentially anxiety” (p.255) – involves ‘taking care’ (Besorgen). ‘Taking care’ implies “carrying something out, settling something… and getting it for oneself” (p.57). Yet taking care is not about willful, dogged determination. On the contrary, Heidegger exhorts Dasein to listen to the ‘call’ to take care, much like the poet Seamus Heaney’s invocation to our listening in Clearances:

The sound of that relaxed alluring blow,
Its co-opted and obliterated echo,
Taught me to hit, taught me to loosen,

Taught me between the hammer and the block
To face the music. Teach me now to listen,
To strike it rich behind the linear black.

Heidegger describes the call of care as like nothing else in the world: there is silence and stillness in care’s call. Care (Sorge) does not stimulate enquiry, but arrives, says Heidegger, with no ‘relevance’ to the world. In this way, care creates space apart from the networks of connections to other things and other people in the world. Consequently, Heidegger describes care in the negative: “nothing is called to the self which is summoned” (p.263). However, in its nothingness, care affords space for Dasein from the ‘clammer and chatter’ of the-they, enabling Dasein to gain a freedom from habits and practices. It is akin to the workman losing his hammer and not looking for it. This lack of ‘relevance’ is not to say that the call of care is alien or even spiritual: Heidegger is not arguing for a transcendent or divine awakening in the call of care. Rather, says Heidegger, the call comes “from me and yet over me” (p.265). In doing so, the call of care reaches or discloses previously untapped areas or resources of Dasein’s Being: it is ‘mine’, in a way that has not been mine before. It is also formative of ‘mine-ness’ itself.

Heidegger uses the term ‘clearing’ (Lichtung) to describe the space that is disclosed in the nothingness of the call of care. Like a clearing in the forest, space is rendered possible, as Dasein’s own authentic Being is thrown into relief against the inauthentic Being of the-they. In this way, Dasein is disclosed in (its own) light of the clearing. The clearing is authentic since the possibility for it was there all along. In a letter to Swiss psychiatrist Medard Boss, Heidegger writes:

“A clearing in the forest is still there, even when it’s dark. Light presupposes clearing. There can only be brightness where something has been cleared or where something is free for the light” (Zollikon, p.12).

In the marginalia of later editions of Being and Time, Heidegger refers to being ‘cleared’ by the Greek Άλήθεια (alethea – truth), and adds the further qualifiers of ‘openness’: ‘clearing, light, shining’ (p.129). Similar to the lit-up space of the workshop, in the clearing, Dasein has the space to light up its own Being and is therefore disclosed with the world. Being duly ‘cleared’, for Heidegger, is a freeing process, in which Dasein becomes ‘unlocked’ (p.74), able to claim its Being-in-the-world-with-others.

Being Bereaved

The Heideggerian invocation to ‘take care’ concerning the Being-towards-death that is ‘mine’ becomes vividly prescient within the context of bereavement. Our own death itself is never something we shall actually experience – there is simply no more ‘mine’ at the point of death in order to experience it. Therefore, it is only with the death of others that we come close to experiencing death. It is because of this, says Heidegger, that the death of others is all the more ‘penetrating’.

Let us take a moment to consider this use of the word ‘penetrating’. (Heaney also uses the word in Clearances, Chapter 1.) The English word ‘penetrating’ derives from the Latin penetrare: to go into, which suggests that something enters into the bereaved. The problem is that this begins to take the form of the subject/object split which Heidegger has strongly argued against, with the bereaved as occupying a subjective state that is penetrated into. However, let’s look at Heidegger’s original German. Heidegger uses eindringlicher, which is translated as ‘penetrating’ by Stambaugh. Yet, the German verb eindringlich is more often translated as ‘urgent, powerful, forceful or forcible’ (thanks to Prof M. Jefferies of Manchester University for that). From a Heideggerian perspective then, we can say that bereavement reaches us with an urgent force – a force not only of the death of a loved one, but of our own Being-towards-death too. And in bereavement, death that was felt to be merely ‘future’ comes crashing into the present. In doing so, the bereaved is catapulted out of what Heidegger calls inauthentic ‘vulgar time’ – time as a series of discrete and separated ‘nows’, which we might conceive of as clock time. Instead, the future, past, and present, are all rendered there, disclosed through the ecstatic moment of temporal unity that unites and discloses time as an entangled past, present, and future. In these ways, bereavement initiates us into authenticity, we are forced into ‘taking care’, and we are cleared by it. Bereavement clears the ground for a radical shift in Being.This is the strange inheritance of the bereaved – an altered yet authentic liberty, in which the bereaved are duly cleared. So in Heidegger’s philosophy, bereavement comes with the consolation of the possibility for Dasein of authentic self-disclosure – the possibility to hand “itself down to itself” (p.366). It’s an unenviable but deeply liberating task which knocks at the door of the bereaved.

© Andrew Royle 2018

Andrew Royle is a dramatherapist, working with the bereaved, in private practice in London. aroyle@thedramatherapyspace.co.uk

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