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Being and Phenomenology

Posted on August 7, 2023 — 7 Minutes Read

Every inquiry is a seeking [Suchen]. Every seeking gets guided before­hand by what is sought. Inquiry is a cognizant seeking for an entity both with regard to the fact that it is and with regard to its Being as it is. This cognizant seeking can take the form of ‘investigating’ [“Untersuchen”], in which one lays bare that which the question is about and ascertains its character. Any inquiry, as an inquiry about something, has that which is asked about [sein Gefragtes]. But all inquiry about something is somehow a questioning of something [Anfragen bei…]. So in addition to what is asked about, an inquiry has that which is interrogated [ein Befragtes]. In investigative questions—that is, in questions which are specifically theo­retical—what is asked about is determined and conceptualized. Further­more, in what is asked about there lies also that which is to be found out by the asking [das Erjragte]; this is what is really intended: with this the inquiry reaches its goal. Inquiry itself is the behaviour of a questioner, and therefore of an entity, and as such has its own character of Being. When one makes an inquiry one may do so ‘just casually’ or one may formulate the question explicitly. The latter case is peculiar in that the inquiry does not become transparent to itself until all these constitutive factors of the question have themselves become transparent.

— Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, page 24-25

Early in the pages of Being and Time, an intriguing passage appears, in which Martin Heidegger, one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century, laid bare the structure of a phenomenological inquiry, in order to formulate the question about the meaning of Being, for the hermeneutic enterprise that follows. In the structure proposed, das Erjragte (that which is to be found out) is distinguished from ein Befragtes (that which is interrogated) and sein Gefragtes (that which is asked about), and the inquiry itself as a seeking is to be guided by what is sought. For the question about the meaning of Being, that which is asked about is Being, and in order to unveil its meaning, beings are to be interrogated. All of which are guided by Seinsverständnis (understanding of Being), that is available to the inquirer, denoted as Dasein, with inquiring as one of the possibilities of its Being. Upon this structure and formulation, the subsequent inquiry, by ways of phenomenological interpretation and hermeneutical circulation, interrogates various beings, which Heidegger named vorhanden, zuhanden, and particularly Dasein, to conceive anew a notion of selfhood as a way of Being among others, and clear the world as a referential and meaningful totality, unveiled by Dasein in a non-reflective and non-contemplative engagement of discoveredness, for its essence or essential constitution is In-der-Welt-sein (Being-in-the-world).

Notwithstanding the ingenuity and originality of Heidegger’s fundamental ontology, one well read in the history of Western philosophy will know that it was built upon the groundwork of his predecessors, that disclosed the various ways to comprehend an object, and the various modes of reasoning corresponding and exclusive to the different classes of objects. Identified as early as by Aristotle, one of the most influential ancient Greek philosophers, in Book Two of the Physics, that in the quest for knowledge a comprehensive understanding of an object comes only with a proper grasp of its primary aitia (explanation or cause) (194b16-19). Four types of aitia were subsequently propounded in Book Three and Seven that follow, and each of which was derived in response to a different kind of question. The first identified aitia came to be known as the formal aitia which addresses the form of an object, that was in Aristotle’s conception the arrangement of the matter and was its nature or essence, in opposition to the Pre-socratic philosophers who believed that the nature lied in the matter instead. The second of the aitia identified was the material aitia which is in reference to the matter of an object, that Aristotle believed together with the form are the components of every empirical entity. The third aitia explicated was the efficient aitia which attests to the source of the primary principle of change or stability of an object (194b29-30). The last of the four aitia expounded was the final aitia which indicates the telos (end or goal) of an object.

Together the four aitia provide a framework for explaining and understanding an object. While for empirical object this framework presented by Aristotle might be sufficient, for abstract, non-empirical concepts such as God, mathematical and geometrical constructs such as numbers, and the notion of will such as that which drives human action, these four aitia seem to raise more questions than answers however. The identification of the proper modes of reasoning for these immaterial objects did not come until the 19th century, in the doctoral dissertation of the German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer. In his paper titled On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, four types of reasoning corresponding to four classes of objects were proposed. For material objects, the associated mode of reasoning is in terms of cause and effect; for abstract non-empirical concepts, the respective type of reasoning is in terms of logic; for mathematical and geometrical constructs, the corresponding way of reasoning is in terms of numbers and spaces; and for the notion of will, the related class of reasoning is in terms of intentions. Schopenhauer further proposed that these modes of reasoning are exclusive to the types of object to which they correspond, and as such if logic which is associated with abstract, non-empirical concepts such as God, is imported to postulate for its existence such as that of a material object, that may nonetheless only be reasoned in terms of cause and effect, it constitutes a misuse of reasoning, and such misuse renders the inquiry an invalid deduction. Dispute notwithstanding, for most if not all of the ontological arguments for the existence of God following the lines of St. Anselm of Canterbury rests on reasoning in terms of logic in attempt to prove the existence of God, they are in Schopenhauer’s conception misuse of reason, and their deductions, invalid.

On the foundation laid bare by Aristotle and Schopenhauer, which revealed that the object of inquiry commands its mode of inquiry, when faced with the task of interrogating various beings, which are named vorhanden, zuhanden, and particularly Dasein, to ask about Being in order to unveil its meaning, Heidegger, in full recognition of the characters unique of that which he inquires, conceived anew a mode of inquiry by ways of phenomenological interpretation and hermeneutical circulation, that aims to clear and disclose the meaning of Being, by first interpreting Dasein for it has inquiring as one of its possibilities, and is in possession of Seinsverständnis, that despite its vagueness and indefiniteness, guides the inquiry onwards to unveil the essence or essential constitution of Dasein as In-der-Welt-sein. One who appreciates Heidegger’s phenomenology will note that also excavated in Being and Time is the concealed and unexamined presupposition of a subject-object dichotomy, that had held captive of the philosophers past and resulted in two irreconcilable and irreducible problems, that Edmund Husserl, a principle founder of phenomenology and one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century, named the abyss of transcendence in immanence, and a paradox of human subjectivity. For the details of which are beyond the scope of the present discussion, they will be reserved for a dedicated investigation.