Why We Must Re-ask What it Means to Be

What does it mean to be? We use this phrase all the time. We understand statements such as “The coffee is hot,” “I am angry,” and “He was happy.” Within our understanding of statements like these lies a mystery.

Martin Heidegger wrote Being and Time in 1927 as an exploration of what it means to be. The question of the meaning of being practically ceased to be asked over two thousand years ago with Aristotle. Plato and Aristotle understood the strange nature of being. “An understanding of being is always already contained in everything we apprehend in beings,” wrote Aristotle in The Metaphysics. In other words, everything we know implies the understanding of being.

An interesting paradox lies within our implicit understanding of being. To be turns out to be undefinable. I can ask “What is being?,” but this is asking “What is is?” The concept attempting to be defined is already in the question being asked.

Blaise Pascal elegantly brings to our attention the absurdity of attempting to define to be in Pensées et Opuscules.

One cannot undertake to define being without falling into this absurdity. For one cannot define a word without beginning in this way: ‘It is…’ This beginning may be expressed or implied. Thus, in order to define being one must say ‘It is…’ and hence employ the word to be defined in its definition.

These are the ideas that motivated Heidegger to resurrect the question of the meaning of being, and Being in Time is his magnum opus that attempts to bring clarity to being. Now that we know the impetus behind asking the question of the meaning of being, we will examine what the actual structure of the question should be.