by J.E. Santos
For their final requirement in Introduction to the Philosophy of the Human Person, I asked my students to make a video essay discussing a morsel of Martin Heidegger’s Dasein. I provided guide questions and further instructions with regards to format and duration, but I won’t go into details sharing that here. This essay—my first one this year (I know, I haven’t made much progress in writing essays for the past three months)—provides a light discussion on Heidegger’s Dasein for the purpose of accessibility. Although Heidegger supported the Nazism (which is awful and criminal; at some point Emil Cioran did, too), his existential philosophy ironically is surprisingly humane and useful even at this day and age. And this short essay aims to explain his Dasein in a simple way, but not to the point of oversimplification. I dusted my old notes on Heidegger’s bit which I wrote five years ago if I am not mistaken. Anyway, we shall begin by first defining and describing what existentialism is—that which is associated to Heidegger’s philosophy.
Existentialism takes several steps forward—away from nihilism. Although they both hold the contention that life is devoid of objective meaning—that there is neither any preordained purpose nor predestination—existentialists believe that we humans can, through our actions, create meaning ourselves. This is because we have the awareness and freedom to do so. And it is this awareness that transcends our being even without the aid of a transcendental reality found in religion. Existentialists begin with the recognition that there is neither any supernatural agent nor any reality beyond the here and now that will provide a model of clarity for an objective purpose. For Friedrich Nietzsche, the death of god (a metaphor that edgy kids take for granted) means that we find ourselves abandoned or, in Heidegger’s term, thrown into the world without any direction. To be ‘thrown’ into the world means to be born in a time and place without your consent. We cannot choose when and where to be born and from this, our condition is seemingly random or, if not, governed by mere probabilities. A nihilist may devaluate any action or event in this world given that everything is fleeting. That which is impermanent cannot hold meaning. That being said, nihilism fundamentally gives an impression of a philosophy which states the obvious. On the other hand, existentialism discusses ways to go beyond what or who you are even though life is inherently meaningless.
Our sentience has granted us the means to identify our condition. And of course, we are bound to struggle given that we are the only creatures that we know for certain that are especially self-aware. This awareness transcends us from mere beings that occupy space to beings that are a way to illustrate and dramatize the essence of lived experiences. Fundamentally, we may be not that different from other life forms, but unlike other creatures, we are highly conscious of our own predicament; our own struggle; our own action. In a way, we have a working understanding of our place—drawn from what is given in the here and now—in the universe. Nietzsche argued that we are both “creatures and creators”. A mere creature bears the essence of ‘givenness’. But what sets us apart from other creatures is that we have the ability to surpass our ‘givenness’ through our understanding of ourselves, the world, and other interpretations of the world drawn from our experiences. This leads us to Heidegger’s Dasein which means “the ability to be” (Kenny, 2007). It is the sense of our own existence which is both a universal and personal phenomenon. Tonner (2010) describes Dasein as “meaningful presence” which emerges as an opposition to nihilism. To put it simply, however fleeting, our existence in this world leads to the recognition that we are free to think and act for ourselves. We emerge with an empty canvas having several coloring materials given to us by our circumstances and it is up to us to choose which coloring materials to use and what to paint. Our ‘throwness’ can be surpassed by our understanding of our condition and the realization that we can think and act. Dasein is our sense of awareness that we exist like other individuals and we can define this existence adequately through our own actions.
There are three fundamental aspects of Dasein: attunement, discourse, and understanding in a special sense according to culture and language. Attunement pertains to how we get a better understanding of what we need and want. And we can get a better understanding of ourselves and people through discourse—the meaningful exchange of thoughts and ideas through our language. And these two concepts lead us to the third one: understanding in a special sense. Although Dasein addresses that it “operates within biological, social and cultural context” (Kenny, 2007), it is still us who will govern such activities. Humans should understand that they are not just mere members of society but rather individuals free to shape who they are and their future within their context. This is to say that Dasein teaches you to listen to yourself and not from the chatter of other people. To have an understanding in a special sense means to understand what sets you apart from other people and that in the end, it is that difference that you should accept, nurture, and care about. In contrast, the betrayal to this realization is to live inauthentically. Heidegger called this the ‘uneigentlichkeit’. This is formed when our actions and thoughts lie, when we listen to unevaluated opinions, or when our own perspectives are unevaluated themselves. Consider the statements below:
Life is precious; it is a gift.
Everything happens for a reason.
We are put in this world for a reason.
These are examples of statements which could sway the unquestioning mind or the mind that denies itself the freedom to question. And while they may relatively be the case for some people, they merely disguise themselves as truisms. But they could simply be deemed as inadequate or narrow analyses of what life actually is. Moreover, these statements set to provide a sense of false comfort to people who do not (or will not) evaluate different views. Heidegger’s Dasein provides a useful corrective to values which are seemingly fixed, but unchecked. It is a way to remind ourselves that we are free to think and act for ourselves even if the mere idea of attaining ‘authenticity’ itself—for at this day and age, it is hard to determine if we are living according to what we aspire and desire with certainty—may be far from our grasp.
In sum, Heidegger’s Dasein could provide us an understanding that although our existence may be a product of probabilities in an indifferent universe and that this existence is impermanent, we are free to think and act. This recognition grants us the ability to surpass our ‘givenness’. Our consciousness makes us more than who or what we are.