The question of the meaning of existence, of being, was formulated by Plato. His student, Aristotle, discussed this question in his Metaphysics, in an attempt to define being itself separate from any specific ways of being as in humans, animals or inanimate things. He analysed being into the binary concepts of matter and form, choosing the latter as the basis for being. This formed the philosophical study of being called ontology.
Christianity shaped the discussion of ontology until the Middle Ages. Scholastic philosophy viewed God as the highest form of being and Descartes argued that God possessed such a special quality of being compared with his creation that they were not comparable. On the other hand, Spinoza contended that an impersonal God was equivalent to the physical world. He affirmed that being consisted of a single substance which was the same in people, animals, and objects.
Heidegger rejected the thinking which centred ontology on God and proposed starting from human 'being' (Dasein) and thinking from there. All types of being would be centred on human existence.
Kant rejected as absurd the traditional ontological thinking which argued for the existence of God. This was a core tenet of Christian thinking advocated from the Scholatics to Descartes. Heidegger accepts neither philosophy. He does not share cartesian naivety and he rejects Kant's sceptical pessimism concerning the relevance of ontology.
Heidegger was an assistant to Husserl in Marburg. This philosopher studied the subjectivity of experience asking questions such as 'how much do our experiences inform us about the world and how much about our own minds?' However, unlike Husserl, for Heidegger phenomenology is a means to studying aspects of ontology and he saw it as a method rather than a philosophy.
Heidegger influenced the 20th. century existentialist movement which concentrated on individual self-awareness, focusing on the angst provoked by the unknown and death. Kafka had already evoked a similar everyday experience of the anguished self caught in a trap. Camus's Myth of Sisyphus also portrays humanity's futile and absurd search for meaning in a world devoid of meaning. Both authors agree on embracing freedom and authenticity.
Martin Heidegger published Being and Time in 1927. His interest is in evaluating the question of 'Being', the basic structure of existence through the normal experiences of readers: work, moods, and social life. His aim is to revolutionise understanding of philosophy and the world. His goal is also to demonstrate to readers how they can reclaim their real selves and achieve 'authenticity'.
Being and Time is compiled as a two chapter introduction and two sections of 6 chapters each containing numbered divisions, to a total of 83. The content is an analysis of being in humans and their possibilities for 'authentic' existence.
The Introduction presents the problem of being and a justification of the methodology used.
Chapters 1 and 2 offer more detail on Dasein and how this study differs from other analyses of humans.
Chapter 3 focuses on the everyday world he calls 'equipment', making distinctions between the 'ready-to-hand' perceptions and the 'present-at-hand' objects in the world.
Chapter 4 deals with the normal world and human relationships, suggesting that there is a basic connection with others' individual Dasein, named 'Mitsein' and ignored by usual comprehension. He warns of the possibility of being lost in the social world.
Chapter 5&6 analyse 'moods' as constituting our being-in-the-world. He considers the nature of language, then links others' moods and language to explain the nature of individual Dasein's meaninglessness in the public world. The language and moods of others is their idle talk which alienates the individual from a personal relationship with the world. This implies that human understanding is deformed by lack of authenticity.
Chapter 1 asks how inauthenticity can be avoided in order to find the true self. His solution is through a correct relationship with death which is an individualising event specific to each person.
Chapter 2 inquires as to how we can achieve authenticity in practice. His answer is by "call of conscience", something different from normal conscience which returns us to our particular possibilities of being.
Chapters 3&4 are concerned with temporality. He argues that Dasein is an escape from the past and a relationship with the upcoming future.
Chapters 5&6 discusses temporality and history in Dasein. He explains what an authentic relationship with history might look like and the origins of our normal relationship with time.
Dasein is the specific existence of humans, including their self-consciousness and mortality. Unlike Heidegger's concept, in the philosophical tradition being in humans is treated as atypical. Platonic thought argued that created life reflected transcendent Forms. According to Heidegger Western metaphysics, established by Socrates and Plato, obscures the meaning of the truth: Plato's myth of the Cave split being and appearance into two different parts. Scholaticism taught that divine existence was of a higher and different kind of that of humans. Other opinions argued that humans have free will and self-awareness and so are are not a suitable ontological focus. Heidegger prefers a phenomenological approach to ontology. For this author Dasein is a new conception of death. He sees humans as rooted in existence. He replaces Descartes' I think therefore I am with: I die therefore I exist.
With Dasein as the only suitable basis for ontological analysis Heidegger puts forward the idea that human beings usually interpret reality in terms of its usefulness or uselessness for the preservation of human existence. This is an interpretative flaw that needs to be taken into account when understanding being.
For the author Dasein is not definable, but he describes its major qualities. One is being-in-the-world, the concept that consciousness is embedded in reality. Dasein is also not neutral but forms part of the subject. It is a 'my' being. Another trait is the care with which being attends to its temporality, Dasein often has an unconscious relationship with time and the world of objects and activities.
This concept is analysed by Heidegger in three parts:
Dasein is the existence of humans who are 'thrown' into the world and this determines their responses to experiences. All Dasein's knowledge and basic traits, such as emotions, are influenced by its state of being-in-the-world. Since Dasein is influenceable by others it tends towards averageness and only achieves authenticity on occasions.
Being-in-the-world includes subjective and objective interaction and is an irreducible self loosed in the world. Heidegger rejects the traditional philosophical dualism of self/world and mind/body. Dasein is not separate from the world but immersed in it. There is no distinction between body and mind because mind comes from corporal experiences.
The world is independent of and prexistent to the individual being. It is not a physical space but a context where Dasein can find meaning. It includes culture, country, environment, family, education, friends, career, tradition and so on, all the individual's possibilities and impossibilities.
Being and Time examines existence and its end, death. One of the characteristics of Dasein is to be aware of mortality, described by Heidegger as "the possibility of the impossibility".
The author uses the phrase Being-towards-death to describe human existence which includes the awareness of death. It means living life looking forward and not refusing to see the end of your existence. Heidegger advocates being-a-whole, that is, coming to terms with mortality, which is the way to live an authentic existence. Living life ignoring mortality is inauthentic since it is a denial of something fundamental to existence. Authenticity (Eigentlichkeit) also has the connotation of self-ownership, taking charge of your life, including its final limitation.
Heidegger suggests looking on existence with dread or angst at the meaninglessness of life. This allows us to see life as as a whole in its finality at death and to avoid dispersion in transitory phenomena. This is authenticity.
Inauthenticity means losing sight of the unity of existence by focusing on practical interests and daily life. This leads to experiencing existence as a series of random phenomena.
We achieve authenticity through 'conscience' which obliges us to accept our existence in the world and the necessity of actively adapting to our situation.
Time, according to Heidegger, is integral to the self. Like Bergson's concept of internal time, as opposed to mechanical, clock time, the author views time as the deepest layer of human existence. For Heidegger existential time is unique to an individual's consciousness. Life is constituted by time, from birth to death. Existential responsibility, then, is a notion of time and depends on the ability to view existence from beginning to projected end. He describes as destiny the capability of placing the now within the context of past and future. This is the affirmation of freedom within the determination of temporality.