Being and Time

Dorothy McKaill wondering what it means to exist around 1930. Image available

In this piece of writing I will briefly examine Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927) and the main idea of Being, or as Heidegger names it, Dasein. I will consider the philosophical context of Heidegger’s contribution and glance to historical thinkers who have influenced his examination into Being.

According to Heidegger, the whole of Being and Time is concerned with a single question. This is the question of the meaning of Being (Mulhall, 1996, p1). That is, a critical enquiry into the basic agreed definition of Being, within the school of existential thought.

“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.”

(Heidegger, 1927, P. 31)

When Heidegger set out to address his concerns with the Western shortcomings of an understanding of Being, he was more concerned with the lack of widespread agreement on what Being means rather than basic experiences of Being (Mulhal, 1996, p 7). Heidegger argued that the prior confidence or lack of scrutiny given to definitions of Being before he published Being and Time, was problematic due to the fact that prior philosophers had failed to “reflect properly on a precondition of their ontological conclusions about the articulated unity of Being, and so failed to demonstrate that their basic orientation is above reproach” (Mulhall, 1996, p.7). Historically, the ontological dissection of Being was not neglected due to drudgery. It has been the topic of great debate, and has fascinated many in its difficulty to pin down.


The most important term to introduce when giving a brief overview of Heidegger’s Being and Time is that of Dasein. For Heidegger, Dasein first and foremost was thought of as Da-sein, it is the site, “Da”, for the disclosure of being, “Sein.” Dasein is distinctly different from just being. It is that Being which we ourselves are, and is distinguished from all other beings by the fact that it makes issue of its own Being. Dasein is aware of it’s own Being, and is specific to the human condition of consciousness and self dertermination.

To go into a little more detail, Dasein is a Being who understands that it exists, and what is more the Being of Dasein is, in part, shaped by that understanding. Heidegger refers to this as Being here, of how Being affects our own Being. Dasein and existence are one, they cannot be separated into succinct categories. For example if Dasein is ‘the human Being’ and existence is ‘the world,’ then Dasein and the world are one. The consequence of this is that Dasein and existence cannot be separated — even analytically separated. In other words each one of us (as human Beings) defines existence in terms of our own existence, a concept that Heidegger terms Mineness. Therefore the only way that Being can be understood is as My Being (Munday, 2009).

At this point, it may also be useful to introduce the term entity. For Heidegger, entity was a term he used to avoid talking about “things”. The employment of this term, also reveals the significance of language, as he felt that the use of the word things already presupposed an understanding of their existence, which Heidegger thinks is false and seeks to contest.

Another woman pondering the nature of reality. “Am I alive?”

Reviving a Enquiry into Being

We may ask ourselves, why was Heidegger so concerned with resuscitating thought and debate on the essence of Being. Had this not all been answered in the hundreds of thousands of years spanning philosophical thought? Seems not. Heidegger had big problems with Western metaphysical thought, and felt that there had been a common disregard for the detail and definition of Being, based on embedded presuppositions that had failed to define the specifics of Being.

Throughout his career, he turned to the exegesis of historical texts, especially of the Presocratics, but also of Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche and Hölderlin. He also took inspiration from poetry, architecture, technology, along with a range of other subjects. Instead of looking for a full clarification of the meaning of Being, he tried to pursue a kind of thinking which was no longer metaphysical. For him, Western thinking was synonymous with metaphysical realism, and is problematic because this school of thought has been synonymous with a historical blindness to the study of Being.

Through the heavy criticism of Western philosophy, stating its nihilism and neglect to tend to the state and experience of Being, Heidegger referred heavily to the works of Edmund Hussurl, whom he was a student of, and to whom Being and Time is dedicated. He also referred widely to presocratic thinkers, who he thought were unhindered by classification of thought, being and existence. For Heidegger, the Greeks were focussed on the What-is, what is present, the unconcealed and unchanged. Being for the Greeks were what appears from out of itself, in appearing shows itself , and in this self-showing manifests. It is the emerging arising, the unfolding that lingers (IEP, 2017).

Unlike metaphysical thought, within presocratic thought, there is no set definition and no absolute parameters with which to describe Being as a consistent and permanent state. He describes this experience with the Greek words phusis (emerging dominance) and alêtheia (unconcealment). Through his work, he attempted to show that the early Greeks did not objectify and classify beings, thus limiting them to reduced and simplified states, but they let them be as they were, as self-showing rising into unconcealment. They experienced the phenomenality of what is present, its radiant self-showing. This interest with the phenomena of the real & actual not only resides in presocratic thought, but in Hussurl’s work on phenomenology.

Edmund Hussurl’s phenomenology, is perhaps the most important back bone that led to Heideggers thought child walking around on its own two feet. For clarities sake, I will summarise Hussurl’s notion of Phenomenology briefly here, and indeed the departure points that Heidegger took from Hussurl’s thinking.

For Hussurl, Phenomenology meant the study of consciousness and its objects. Concurrently, he also developed methodological processes to assist in the phenomenological study. A major part of this was the use of bracketing (IEP, 2017). Bracketing is basically the suspense of common belief, the withholding of our own prejudices, and biases, in the attempt to observe the social or natural world as it is. The aim is a methodological detachment from the subject, which helps the philosopher embrace objectivity and see the world as it really is. Phenomenology is important is it paved the way for the researcher to consider how they themselves shaped the outcomes of the research, and also spelt out a method, based around bracketing whereby the researcher / philosopher could attempt to suspend their own biases while observing the behaviours of others. It is also important as Heidegger both challenged and built on Hussurl’s method in the development of Being and Time. For Hussurl, Phenomenology and its methods are an entire philosophy, for Heidegger it is a method to help develop the philosophy of Dasein, as experienced by the human entity. Phenomenology is a methodological cornerstone to my research and will be discussed further in later writings.

Taking Being for Granted

As mentioned above, Heidegger took issue with the common sense definitions given to Being that had been rooted in Western thought. Heidegger notes that in the Western philosophical tradition it was generally presupposed that Being is at once the most universal concept, the concept indefinable in terms of other concepts, and the self-evident concept. In short, it is a concept that is mostly taken for granted.

Through philosophical history, there has been a limited description of the different modes of Being. Traditional philosophy it is claimed, is set on reducing the details exploring and defining the difference between phenomena (Mulhall, 1996, p6). The effect has been to generate oversimplified categories of Being, such as the Cartesian dichotomy between nature (res extensa) and mind (res cognita). According to Heidegger, this limits the specific nature of the objects that humans encounter and how the perceive them. Without time spent for exploring the nuance, the detail of experience, and the indeed the messiness if such perception, we are limited to overbearing and simplistic walls of reality. By inheriting pre existing taxonomies of terms of Being, of pre thought notions of classification we amplify the historical thought of others, and weave a knotty mass of views, ideas, meanings and language that can lock us into a limited view of the world.

Heidegger notes that in the Western philosophical tradition it was generally presupposed that Being is at once the most universal concept, the concept indefinable in terms of other concepts, and the self-evident concept. In short, problematically, it is a concept that is mostly taken for granted. Heidegger argued that there are three major scholarly prejudices that sustain an ill thought out and overly employed notion of Being (Munday, 2009). In brief summary, these are;

1) Being is not a genus
It has been maintained that Being is the most universal of concepts, thus an understanding of Being is presupposed in our conceiving of anything as an entity. Being transcends any categorical distinction we care to make in our apprehension of the world. It does this by existing above and beyond any notion of a category that we can form in our understanding.

2) Being is indefinable
It has been argued that the term entity cannot be applied to Being because it cannot be defined using traditional logic, (i.e. a technique for understanding which derives its terms either from higher general concepts, or by recourse to ones of lower generality). In other words, because Being is neither a thing nor a genus it follows that it cannot be defined according to logic, whose job is to set out the rules that govern the categorisation of phenomena and concepts.

3) Being is self-evident
Because Being is such a pervasive and obvious state, it has been relegated as understood, when in fact it has not been examined enough. Whenever one thinks about anything, or makes an assertion, or even asks a question; some use is made of Being. But the intelligibility of Being, in this sense, is only an average sort of intelligibility (common sense understanding). This average intelligibility is also indicative of its scholarly unintelligibility, i.e., the way that the question: “what is Being?”, is often ignored in philosophical investigations.

Being not Thinking

When Heidegger conveys what he means by reality, by existence, he turns to the definition Dasein or Being there. We are the entities that inhabit a “there” or even “are there” (Heidegger, 1927,p 133). As Polt summarises, the human being operates in the open space of time, in which our beings can appear. Traditional philosophers prior to Heidegger often defined this state as consciousness. Put simply, the relation between the subjective mind and external objects (Polt, 1997).

Heidegger doesn’t start with the Cartesian I think, but instead one acts. This is tethered to the cornerstone of his idea of “the one” or “the they”. An idea that looks at common ways of being in society, instead of through the lens of individual thought. This position not only challenges Cartesian dualisms, but also Aristotle’s lauding of theoria, which he thought as of the highest form of seeing. For Heidegger, Being is caught up in the process of doing, of practice. Polt suggests that for Heidegger “theoria is subordinate to practice, both techne and phronesis” (Polt, 2005, p.7). Heidegger understands that reality and being are robed in experiences of moods, of skills and aptitude to act. We are not all abstract thinkers, instead as Polt states “we are normally entangled in a web of concerns and commitments.” (Polt, 2005, p.3)

Using the term Dasein, Heidegger refers to an active state of being in the world. An entanglement, a dynamism. Dasein is in the world not simply in the sense that that it occupies a place in the world with other things, but that in the sense that it continually interprets and engages with other entities within the context that they lie. Dasein is within every person, and is Heidegger’s attempt to convey Being as an active state of inter-relation, and as a key contingent of any perception or point of view. The state of Dasein is slippery, fluid, and exceptionally hard to contain, and thus define in set terms.

By signalling to others my interest in contemporary fashion, does this mean I shape others through my very Being? Image available


Heidegger’s Being and Time was concerned with reopening an exploration into the philosophical definitions of Being. He sought to challenge the short-comings of common sense and taken for granted terms of Being, frequently employed by previous philosophical thinkers. His main challenge was to metaphysical thought, which time again sought to classify and categorise Being into a set state, a neat category. Instead he argued, Dasein is manifold, dynamic and relates to time, the individual and is inherently a possibility not an end state of product of thought / consciousness.

He built on the work of presocratic thought, Edmund Hussurl, Kant, Neitzche and many other thinkers. He made methodological contributions to Hussurl’s philosophy of Phenomenology, namely in the sense that he argued for phenomenological reduction as a method by which to understand the nature and description of Being in the world. It is not enough to see things as they are in the world, but to understand the being, one must access an entity to understand its Being, and this is done through the Phenomenological method, which translates to Phenomenological reduction. For Heidegger Phenomenology is not a detached description of consciousness and Being, but instead is a method of accessing Being.

Being and Time and its contents are of relevance to my research Sonorous States, as it carves out space to consider Being, and the fluid and dynamic nature of Being in affecting perception, relationship and action in the world. As I am studying the individuals perception, of themselves and of their surroundings, it is important that I situate my own definitions of Being and reality in a philosophical context. Furthermore, Heidegger remains close to the development of Phenomenological thought, which is the foundation that I place my ethnographic method upon. It is important to incorporate the influence of Heideggers’ concepts on Dasein and Phenomenological enquiry, as it puts a face to a name, and provides existent thought and method to refer to in the development and refinement of my own research method.


Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Martin Heidegger. Available at (Accessed: 25th January 2017)

Mulhall, S. 1996, Routledge philosophy guidebook to Heidegger and being and time, Routledge, London.

Munday, R (2009) Glossary of Terms in Being and Time, Available at (Accessed: 25th January 2017)

Polt, R.F.H. 2005, Heidegger’s Being and time: critical essays, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Oxford;Lanham, Md;.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2011). Martin Heidegger. Available at (Accessed: 25th January 2017)

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