Demystifying Heidegger’s Beyng

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German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) spent his entire philosophical career circling one idea: Beyng. (Since Heidegger used the word ‘being’ in a number of different contexts with different meanings, I have decided to follow him in using the archaic form of the word, which he temporarily adopted in the 30s, to clearly indicate the difference). Despite having written a daunting number of books and articles, and delivered countless speeches and lectures about beyng, exactly what he meant by the word is still shrouded in mystery, and often considered to be something absolutely mysterious. Rather than actually explaining beyng, although I will give a crude, partial outline of it, this article will argue that while beyng is mysterious in the sense that it cannot be articulated, summed up, or concluded like a theory or research project in any other discipline, it is not mysterious in any absolute sense, such that we can only vaguely gesture towards something that captured the reflection of beyng for just a moment.

I should note that although I have read a lot of Heidegger, I haven’t read (even close to) his entire oeuvre, which is called the Gesamtausgabe, and includes over one hundred works. It’s also been a while since I dipped my toes in the cool waters of beyng, during which time I have studied other (albeit similar) philosophies, so the thoughts I’m going to espouse on beyng here have been influenced by other thinkers, and therefore may (possibly) not perfectly align with everything Heidegger propounded on the topic (although, that said, I don’t think I’ve claimed anything here Heidegger would particularly disagree with). At any rate, this article is not explicitly arguing that Heidegger thought beyng wasn’t (or was) mysterious; simply that I do.

Being, Beingness and Beyng

There are three main ways Heidegger uses the word ‘being,’ or variations thereof. The first is to indicate specific, particular entities. In this sense, a being is just anything we can objectify; that is, turn into an object we can posit for ourselves. This is the ‘level’ of being that Heidegger called ontic. It is important to note that this definition doesn’t restrict us to physical beings. Concepts, thoughts, emotions, even processes can be objectified; that is to say, related to as beings. The second is the ‘being of beings,’ or what he also called ‘beingness.’ This is a general term which captures the essential, existential attributes that all beings share in common. One of the central themes of Being and Time was that beings can be either present-at-hand (alternatively translated as ‘objective presence’), or ready-to-hand (alternatively translated as ‘handiness’). The former refers to the mode in which a being is apprehended as a physical object, the way science might study it, for example. The latter is the mode in which a being is apprehended as something ‘significant’ and meaningful. So, a hammer present-at-hand is a wooden handle attached to a shaped block of metal. It has a weight, a physical composition, certain dimensions of shape and size, and so on. That same hammer ready-to-hand is a tool for hammering, is understandable only in relation to other equipment, like nails and wood, is ultimately for the sake of building a dwelling for a human being, and so on. Heidegger considers this metaphysics; that is, going ‘beyond’ beings considered as specific things in themselves, but still ultimately concerned with them. Finally, we have ‘beyng,’ which underwent a number of different linguistic mutations over Heidegger’s life, and which could perhaps be most simply thought of as ‘Being itself.’ It is only questioning at this level that Heidegger considered ontology, as opposed to ontic and metaphysical inquiry. The definition of beyng I will use in this article is ‘that by which beings become the beings they are,’ but there are other ways to formulate this, such as ‘that which reveals beings as the beings they are,’ or even ‘that which grounds the being of beings.’ As far as definitions go, these are all pretty vague and obscure, but precisely what I am hoping to demonstrate is that none of them relegate beyng to an absolute mystery.

Beyng isn’t a Being

The very first thing to say about beyng is that it isn’t a being. This is something Heidegger repeatedly stressed. But why would he have felt the need to stress something so obviously true? After all, one is hardly likely to mistake this book or that chair for beyng. First, remember that a being is not just a physical thing. It is anything we posit as an object for ourselves; that is, a precisely articulated thing with clearly defined boundaries which appears in a wider context in relation to other things that it isn’t. Second, and more importantly, Heidegger emphasised that beyng isn’t a being because we have an almost irresistible tendency to think in terms of beings. We like our thoughts to reference beings that have clean boundaries clearly demarcating where they end and others begin. We demand that events have proper start and finish times. We insist on attributes that plainly and accurately describe their objects. We require that knowledge, to be properly called so, entail that the pieces of the system in question fit together in a logical, ordered, precise fashion. This tendency is carried to its natural extreme in the so-called STEM subjects. However, beyng, as that by which beings become the beings they are, clearly can’t itself be a being, or we are merely making for ourselves another being which we will then also have to explain. Taking these two things together, the problem then is that even when we understand this (the fact that beyng can’t itself be a being), when we think of anything (including beyng), our thinking automatically, and often without us realising it, slips into the well-trodden path in our minds that leads to being. This is something to bear in mind as you read through this article.

Beyng isn’t Metaphysical

Heidegger defined metaphysics as the being of beings; that is, the general, existential features shared by all beings. Another way of saying this is that metaphysics is that branch of philosophy that investigates the fundamental nature of reality beneath or ‘beyond’ the specific beings we perceive. Metaphysics, then, is something like the scaffolding on which individual things in the universe cohere. Beyng, despite the allure of such a definition, should not be considered this type of thing either. Heidegger wasn’t interested in giving a metaphysical account of reality because, despite in some sense being as deep as it’s possible to go, it is more likely to result in a taxonomy of the ‘types’ of beings in the universe, and the relations that inhere between them, thereby missing the fundamental question driving him: How do beings appear as the beings they are?

By way of example, we have already seen two instances of metaphysical categories – present-to-hand and ready-to-hand – that can be employed to structure, and understand, the beings that exist in the universe. But identifying these categories doesn’t get us any closer to understanding how beings appear as present-to-hand or ready-to-hand in the first place. There is still something fundamental missing from this type of analysis; something which cannot be overcome by more metaphysics. Instead, and this is what Heidegger calls for, we need a questioning of a completely different order; that is to say, we need an inquiry into beyng.

Beyng isn’t God (I)

Although Heidegger explicitly said that beyng is not God, he didn’t do himself any favours, particularly in his later works, by talking about ‘gods’ and ‘gifts’ and generally using language more associated with religion than philosophy. Nor does it help that beyng as I defined it above just happens to sound a lot like the way many people would define God these days; a Creator more like a Source than a demiurge tinkering in his workshop, or a transcendent Power from which all beings get their existence rather than just another being to add to the furniture of the universe.

As a friend helpfully pointed out in email correspondence which led to this article, there are a couple of reasons Heidegger might have rejected the identification of beyng with God. First, the term brings with it too much historical baggage, and second, it is just too closely associated with an eternal, timeless entity; i.e. a being. These are both definitely true, and what I would call practical obstacles to equating beyng with God. The strategy won’t work, not necessarily because there is a fundamental difference between the two terms, but because one of them has been so thoroughly permeated by, and associated with, ideas that run completely contrary to the other. But what if we could overcome these practical obstacles? What if we could disregard all the small-minded, parochial theology that has contaminated the word ‘God,’ and redefine it more appropriately, more expansively? If we could do that, what would be wrong with calling beyng God? Two things actually, but before we get to those, we need to get some idea of what beyng is.

Beyng is a Process

One thing absolutely unequivocal in Heidegger is the fact that beyng is a process, or an event; a dynamic unfolding. Now, every process involves the interplay of a number of elements coming together, but the process by which beings appear as beings in the first place is going to be far more complex and originary than other processes we are familiar with. It’s going to have to include: matter, space, time, some being capable of higher cognition (i.e. a being concerned in its being about its being (Da-sein)), historical context, social norms, external goals, a body, sensory faculties, and many other things I probably couldn’t exhaustively list even if I wanted to.

However, those elements are the easy things that go into beyng. There are other much less tractable elements in this process: horizons in which every being appears (one example being the gestalt notion of figure and background in which the background is the horizon) which are therefore essential but that must necessarily remain literally unperceived in order to fulfil their function as backgrounds; elements that are ambiguous and uncertain by their very nature (things like emotions, past experiences of which we aren’t explicitly conscious, beliefs, the mere fact that beyng can never be completed, etc.); elements that we cannot properly account for because they are unknowable or uncontrollable indicating a kind of passivity in beyng, like the way we find ourselves ‘assailed’ by moods which condition how things appear for us, or the unpredictable nature of creativity which cannot be forced, but which can completely change how beings appear; and again, many other things that I’ve failed to include.

The interplay of all these elements (the how I mentioned earlier) results in beings appearing as the beings they are. That’s it. The outline of beyng in two paragraphs; two paragraphs which might seem pretty underwhelming if you’ve read any Heidegger, particularly his later material. Where’s the mystery and magic of the open clearing in which Da-sein, as the appropriated sheltering of the clearing-concealing of truth, ek-statically holds forth into beyng and… well, you get the idea. We’ll look at why Heidegger poeticised his writing so much at the end of this article, but the important thing I want to stress in this section is that the process that is beyng; i.e. the way beings appear as the beings they are, is as everyday and mundane as I have made it sound. The cup on my desk (a being) appears as a thing to-be-drunk-from, not because it has emerged through some mystical process whereby matter, time, and space emanate in a dynamic process from some cosmic well-spring that defies human understanding. The cup appears the way it does because it has a shape I associate with the holding, and the drinking, of liquids; it has been made in a way that conforms to practical, societal, historical conventions; it retains its presence for me because it endures in time and space; it stands out amongst other objects because I have chosen to focus on it, relegating the surrounding objects to an only faintly perceived background; it only appears at all because I am a being to whom things can appear, and so on and so forth. Obviously, there is much, much more behind these outrageously over-simplified propositions, but nothing that requires us to propel ourselves into the unknown.

We have a tendency to grant to the word ‘beings’ a somewhat lofty, mysterious aura, as if we are embarking on a study of the nature of a fundamental reality somehow hidden behind the veil of Maya, but this would be a mistake (it would also be metaphysics, not ontology). The beings that Heidegger (and other existentialists/phenomenologists) concerned themselves with were the ordinary, boring things that make up everyday existence; cups, hammers, colours, sensations. Don’t get me wrong. In the hands of Heidegger and co., these mundane objects and experiences take on a depth and complexity well beyond anything we typically associate them with outside of a physics classroom, but the point is that beyng is nothing if not ultimately grounded in the practical and the everyday.

The Mysterious Transcendence of Beyng

Beyng is transcendent, but not the kind of transcendence of which you are (probably) thinking. The word ‘transcendence’ almost irresistibly evokes images of a metaphysical investigation into the fundamental nature of reality; i.e. beyond (transcending) our normal realm of matter, space, and time. Beyng is absolutely nothing like this. Instead of transcending ‘normal’ reality, beyng, far more modestly, merely transcends the intellect. The first (let’s call this ‘actual’ transcendence) starts you thinking of Gods, or forces, or Sources of beings; in other words, beings; the second (which I’m going to call ‘nominal’ transcendence) clarifies our understanding of beyng.

So, what does it mean to say that beyng ‘nominally’ transcends the intellect? Simply that it isn’t amenable to the rational, analytical mind. Trying to give an unambiguous, complete definition of beyng in words, or attempting to think beyng systematically by way of concepts and ideas won’t work. Concepts, ideas, language; these are devices of the intellect, and they can only be applied to beings. Beyng transcends them, not because it is some ‘actual’ thing generating beings or birthing existence in ways unthinkable by mere human contrivances, but because it isn’t a thing at all. It’s a process involving elements that cannot be measured, quantified, or slotted into a complete system.

Fair enough. So, you’re clear that beyng isn’t an ‘actual’ transcendence, so it isn’t a being, but it still transcends language and thought, albeit ‘nominally.’ Doesn’t that still make it quite literally mysterious? Haven’t I downplayed the significance of this? Enter Wittgenstein: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.” Taoism: “The Tao that can be spoken of is not the ever-constant Tao.” Buddhism: Sorry, I can’t think of a pithy quote here, but I also can’t tell you how many times I’ve read parables in which monks earnestly ask their questions of the master, and get silence in response because silence is the response. Does the mere ‘nominal’ transcendence of beyng, in fact, render it fundamentally, absolutely mysterious, such that we must simply sit in silence whenever asked the question that drove Heidegger’s entire philosophical project? Short answer: No. Long answer: Beyng is mysterious, but not the kind of mystery of which you are (probably) thinking.

Think about time. When we try to understand time, we make a timeline, or imagine a series of events in the order in which they took place, or (if you happen to be a physicist) write down a set of equations. But what is essential in time (the temporal movement) is present in none of these. As soon as we start to think about time, in a very real sense, we’ve already missed it. It quite literally cannot be re-presented in any of the forms with which our intellect is comfortable. Let me be clear here, it isn’t that we can’t say anything about time, or that it is ‘actually’ transcendent in some way (this wouldn’t even make sense), it’s simply that the words and concepts our intellects are bound by fail to capture the temporal essence of time. It’s not that those words are wrong or meaningless, it’s just that they tend to lead us astray unless we are careful.

As I said, when we try to think about time we imagine a series of events with a timeline underneath. Matching events to the ‘times’ they coincide with on the diagram shows us the temporal order in which things happened. Fine. But if we forget that this is just a simplified model of time (in which we have actually spatialised time, by the way), we run the risk of falling into the error of believing that, just as it appears in our diagram, time; that is, past, present, and future, is all there ‘at once’ (like space). ‘Now’ is simply a movement through this ‘block’ of time, in which each present moment is simply another ‘place’ in the block. All of a sudden you have the beginnings of a physical-mathematical model of time called the block universe in which time is just a fourth dimension exactly like the other three dimensions of space; i.e. in which every temporal location (the instant) co-exists with every other temporal location, just as every spatial location co-exists with every other spatial location. The problem is less to do with the way we originally represented time to ourselves (events ordered on a timeline), and more to do with the fact that we forgot that the representation was a re-presentation, and not the original phenomenon we were trying to explain.

Exactly the same thing happens with the concepts through which we try to understand time, which can only see the world through the categories of the intellect; an intellect that has been conditioned by, and has evolved to cope with, actual beings in space. Time, as something ‘nominally’ transcendent, becomes intractable, and can even appear fundamentally mysterious, when we try to conceptualise it, or answer specific questions about it as if it were an object (where does it come from? what was before the first moment? will time end? etc.). The secret to getting a firmer grip on time is to realise, and accept, that it is always going to spill over the sides of the containers we build with our concepts and words to hold it… but, and this is the but that drives the whole article, far from making time some inscrutable paradox shrouded in mystery we can only wordlessly gesture towards, there are few things we know more intimately, thoroughly, and directly than time. Indeed, time makes up the very fabric of our lives. Who hasn’t cursed it when it slows to a crawl during that painfully boring seminar you had to attend for work, or felt it implacably drag you along in its wake just when you wish you could have a little more of it? We talk about finding time, making time, stealing time, saving time, running out of time. None of these ways of understanding or talking about time are wrong or meaningless, despite the fact that they all rely on words and concepts, nor do they simply point to something absolutely mysterious hiding in the metaphysical shadows, signposts to a destination forever beyond our ken. Far from it. Those thoughts about time are only possible precisely because we know time so well. The thing is that we don’t know it when we think it; i.e. through the intellect; we know it when we live it; i.e. through an actual life. Cue St. Augustine: “I know well enough what it [time] is, provided that nobody asks me; but if I am asked what it is and try to explain, I am baffled.”

To suggest that time is some kind of absolute mystery because it transcends the intellect is like maintaining that sound is an absolute mystery because we can’t articulate it through the specific sensory modality of sight. We may not be able to ‘see’ sound but we still know it perfectly well through our sense of hearing. In the same way, it is a mistake to think we can’t know time simply because it can’t be articulated through the specific mode of knowledge acquisition that is the intellect. We still know it through another modality; i.e. the experience that comes from a lived life. Then, words and concepts, if we use them carefully; i.e. remember that they are re-presentations which have to be understood in the ‘right’ way, can open this experience up to the light of the understanding, even though we might have to put up with a little (intellectual) discomfort when the results don’t quite conform to the categories the intellect operates through.

But perhaps time is a little abstruse. After all, I’m arguing that nominal transcendence is ‘merely’ nominal, nothing for us to make a metaphysical meal out of. Let’s take something as mundane as sensations. Isn’t it true that our sensation of colour also transcends the intellect? We might not think so at first, but this is only because we are so familiar with it, it’s such a basic element of our everyday experience, that we don’t even realise it is, in fact, transcendent in my ‘nominal’ sense. Think about redness. How could we define it? As electromagnetic radiation of a certain wavelength? But there’s no redness in that. How could we possibly describe it without, at the same time, simply pointing to something red? Words fail us. Concepts fail us. When we treat it as a thing (a so-called quale), and wonder how it ‘arises,’ we find ourselves stumped, prompting half of our philosophers to throw their hands up and pronounce it a ‘hard problem,’ and the other half to deny it even exists. And yet few would claim that colour is such an absolutely mysterious feature of reality that it might be appropriate to simply call it God and be done with it. On the contrary, as I have already noted, nothing is more familiar to us than colour.

At this point, you may want to object that I’ve chosen poor examples because time and redness actually are absolute mysteries. After all, who knows how time came to be, or what was before the first moment? Who can explain how, or why, light of a certain wavelength looks red? But this is exactly my point. These are the types of questions posed by an intellect which can think only in terms of beings. I can’t answer them, but I’m saying we don’t have to, because time and redness aren’t beings. If we limit ourselves to the perspective of the intellect, time and redness do appear as absolute mysteries, but only in the same way that music appears as an absolute mystery if we limit ourselves to the sensory modality of sight. We have another faculty perfectly suited for ‘understanding’ music, just as we have another method perfectly suited for ‘understanding’ time and redness; i.e. lived experience.

No doubt, this will be dissatisfying to you, and might even seem as if I have somehow dodged a legitimate objection, but this is just evidence of the hold the intellect, with its rigorous, logical categories, has over our epistemology. If something cannot be expressed via those categories, we automatically feel something is wrong. Please note that I’m not endorsing any paranormal, mystical, sixth-sense type of ‘awareness,’ or a ‘close your eyes and be time, man’ method here. The ‘method,’ to the extent that it is one, is simply the normal, day-to-day experience everyone has all the time (no pun intended). The genius of Heidegger was that he realised that it was here the secret of beyng was to be found; i.e. in the everyday, not in abstract, metaphysical ponderings.

What about beyng; that is, that by which beings become the beings they are? As with time and colour, beyng is ‘nominally’ transcendent in the sense that words and concepts can never adequately grasp it. The best efforts of the intellect, unfortunately, but inevitably, fix beyng in terms that reduce it to a static thing, an object we posit external to, or different from, us in some way. It crystallises the lived process that allows beings to appear as the beings they are into a thing that will fit within its conceptual and linguistic framework.

And yet, also as we saw with time and colour, this ‘nominal’ transcendence in no way turns beyng into an intractable unknown we can only sit before in silence because words cannot pierce its otherwise pristine, otherworldly mystery. In the first place, beyng is at the very heart of our everyday existence. We revel in it every time we pick up a hammer to hammer a nail into a piece of wood, or look around and see meaningful objects (‘equipment’ or ‘tools’ in Heidegger’s parlance) in a rich referential context, rather than amorphous, threatening, meaningless conglomerations of particles. Nothing is more familiar and comfortable to us than beyng… until, like St. Augustine, someone asks us to explain it to them; i.e. define it, clarify the terms, clearly state the maxims, or even better, reduce it to an equation. In the second place, although the intellect is the wrong tool for the job, it is such a versatile tool that we can still use it, if we’re careful, to get beyond its own limitations. We can talk and think about beyng; indeed, I said a little about it myself a couple of sections ago, and what we say and think at those times aren’t vacuous non sequiturs, or mysterious, linguistic/mental gestures vaguely indicating some insensible, ineffable reality. We just have to be aware that the words and concepts we are using are re-presentations, and cannot be understood literally. In other words, we have to accept ambiguity and open-endedness (not absolute mystery and unknowability) which is dissatisfying and (literally) unintelligible to the intellect, which, by its nature, likes, and demands, clear, tightly-defined, logical thought that conforms to the categories it operates within.

Now we are in a position to see how beyng is mysterious, and how it isn’t. It’s mysterious in the sense that it can never be fixed as a particular thing, or a particular process, or become part of a particular theory, defined, delineated and completed once and for all (any of which would reduce it to a being). Beyng must forever remain open and ‘mysterious’ in this sense (we might call this a ‘relative’ mystery) because the word ‘beyng,’ every time we use it, never refers to the same thing. The way beings appear as beings for me is different from the way beings appear as beings for you (although there will certainly be some fairly large areas of overlap). The way beings appeared as beings for people a hundred years ago is different from the way they appear for us today. Even the way beings appear as beings for me tomorrow will be different from the way they appear to me today. Why? Revisit the section ‘Being is a Process’ above. Go through the list of the elements that comprise the process of beyng: time, space, historical context, current projects, mood, background experience, and so on. Some of these elements are more tangible, some less so, some we even have no control over or ability to predict, but none of them are fundamentally inexplicable, deeply unknowable, or absolutely mysterious.

How is beyng a mystery? It’s a ‘relative’ mystery because it is mysterious only for the intellect in the way that it continuously evades and resists the latter’s efforts to pin it down and define it completely, once and for all. How is beyng not a mystery? It isn’t a mystery because, for all of this, there is nothing with which we are more intimately familiar.

Beyng isn’t God (II)

In light of all this, we now need to return to where we left the God question. We encountered a couple of practical objections to equating beyng with God, but the question was: What if we could overcome these practical obstacles? If this were possible, what would be wrong with calling beyng God? I promised you two reasons, and here they are…

First, what would we gain? Remember that now that we have stripped the word ‘God’ of all its supernatural, theological accoutrements, which, for all their faults, at least gave us something tangible and clear to behold, we have been left with a concept of God as a nebulous, mysterious something, which still cannot be a being, but which nevertheless brings forth beings, or grants them existence in some way we cannot fathom; in other words, a God at least as mysterious as the term we were originally trying to clarify (beyng). Would attaching such a mysterious word, ‘God,’ to the process by which beings become the beings they are make this process any clearer? Surely not. How could it? But what it would certainly do is further muddy already unsettled waters. We don’t need more terms for beyng; we just need to think more clearly about the one we have already been given.

Second, for the notion of substituting ‘God’ for ‘beyng’ to seem even remotely plausible suggests to me that, not only have we stretched the former well beyond what it could ever reasonably mean, but we’ve also severely diminished the latter, leaving it similarly unrecognisable. David Bentley Hart does the first in his book The Experience of God (which I have critically reviewed here). God there gets an extreme makeover so that, rather than being just the biggest, baddest being out of all the beings in town, he is that by which other beings get their existence. Sound familiar? This is almost, but not quite, the definition I gave for beyng. It doesn’t take much for us to now, perhaps unintentionally, tweak our understanding of beyng so that it means that by which beings come into existence. And suddenly, beyng starts to sound more and more like it might be a synonym for God.

We’ve kind of talked ourselves into this conclusion, and you might back it up by saying that theologians have been telling us God is the ultimate mystery for centuries, Heidegger has told us beyng is the ultimate mystery; well, there can only be one ultimate mystery, so they must both be pointing to the same thing. Nice, but for two things; one to do with the redefinition of God, one the ‘redefinition’ of beyng. First, the way I have described beyng above (the interplay of all of those elements) is absolutely nothing like what anyone could ever reasonably mean by the word ‘God.’ No matter how generous you are going to be with your definitions, does it make sense to say that God is a historical context, or your past experiences, or sensation? Second, as I’ve argued, beyng is not an ultimate mystery; on the contrary, it’s the most mundane, everyday process you will ever encounter. It takes a bit of unpacking, and it cannot be explained or defined in any comprehensive, complete account, but the reasons for this, far from turning on beyng being an absolute mystery, are also completely ordinary and everyday.

In short, not only can I not see any good reason for mixing philosophy and religion in this way, I can’t see any reasonable overlap between the two terms ‘God’ and ‘beyng’ that would make such a mixing possible.

Speaking of Beyng

Most of the existential philosophers showed some fondness for art and/or artistic expression. For Merleau-Ponty it was painting; Sartre, novels and plays; Camus, novels; Kierkegaard, writing under (and from the perspective of) pseudonymous authors; Nietzsche… well, bombastic, semi-lyrical prose and aphorisms; Heidegger’s preference was poetry. Now that we’ve seen beyng (what all of these thinkers were more or less concerned with) is best understood through actual experience rather than the intellect, it is clear why they all had these artistic leanings, but let me start with why they didn’t have them.

They didn’t favour art because art gestures towards something, a truth, a reality, a universal mystery that somehow brings forth beings, or generates existence. This turns beyng into a being; a being separate from us to which we can relate as a subject relates to an object, and imagines using art as a signpost pointing us towards this mysterious thing. They did often turn to art for expressing their ideas because art gives us an experience, not a datum of information or a theory, and beyng is best known, or better, immediately apprehended, in the experiencing. When we read a poem, we aren’t being referred to something outside us, just out of sight; rather, we let the words wash over us, and viscerally carry us into the situation the poet creates. The characters and plotlines in a novel don’t hint at an ineffable source from which beings emanate; rather, they thrust us emotionally into the middle of a life. A painting doesn’t refer us to some mysterious force beyond our knowing; it opens a world into which we step for a moment; a world which, precisely because, and to the extent that, we step into, we know infinitely more thoroughly than words and concepts could ever hope to articulate on its behalf.


In this article, I have argued that beyng is both transcendent and mysterious, but not in such a way that makes it fundamentally beyond our ken, a metaphysical something that somehow allows there to be beings in the world. It is the nature of beyng, as a ‘nominal’ transcendence, to be a ‘relative’ mystery; that is to say, to be mysterious when viewed from the perspective of the intellect. It is not, for all of this, a mystery about which we can say nothing, an ‘actually’ transcendent something we can only gesture towards with enigmatic euphemisms that merely preserve and deepen the mystery. The reason it is important to make this distinction is that the latter moves us away from beyng into the arms of being. It makes it appropriate to think of beyng as God, an unnameable Source of beings, he whose name cannot be uttered. This is precisely what Heidegger did not want; i.e. to turn beyng into another being, just the One from which all others emanate or emerge.

I briefly outlined some of the elements that go into beyng to show that beyng, far from being an ineffable mystery, is actually comprised of, in some respects, the most mundane of things. A particular historical era, your goals, past experience, a sensory background, and so on. These aren’t deep, abiding mysteries of the universe which must remain forever sealed away. Of course, they aren’t the discrete, clearly definable objects the human understanding can analyse with its categories, and present in the form of a complete, articulated system, and this is precisely what accounts for the ‘nominal’ transcendence and ‘relative’ mystery of beyng, even as it remains at the heart of… no, even as it is experience, and as such, is that with which we are most familiar and know most intimately.

Does this mean we are wrong to think of beyng as sacred, or a gift? Definitely not, and Heidegger would have balked at the notion that there isn’t anything awesome (in the proper sense of that word as inspiring awe) or sublime about beyng. Beyng is both sacred and a gift, and many more poetic metaphors besides. But while it is sacred, it is not sanctified. While it is a gift, it is one without a giver. And most importantly for me in this article, while beyng is mysterious, it is not that kind of mystery.

4 thoughts on “Demystifying Heidegger’s Beyng

  1. That was a wild ride. I almost came away with thinking that this Beyng might borrow a description from someone you mention, our good friend Jean-Paul: “It is what it’s not, and not what it is.” I know you know this description of the For-itself very well, and it seems to work a little here due to your excellent labors of describing the nominal transcendent: as soon as I name it, it escapes (it *is* [that] which it is not) beyond naming? I have a feeling this won’t work for you’d have mentioned it.

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    • A wild ride. I like that. It was a wild ride writing it, that’s for sure!
      That’s an interesting comparison. I probably wouldn’t want to put too much on the overlap between the two, but the basic idea is the same, isn’t it. Naming or crystallising beyng inevitably turns it into a being (what it is not).
      Forgetting this runs the risk of imagining beyng as God (a ‘being’ no matter how artfully you try to (re)define it, I think). Overplaying it turns beyng into an absolute mystery (which again runs the God risk, and still, I believe, turns beyng into a being, just a mysterious one).

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  2. Very interesting, definitely Heidegger at his most enigmatic. It seems like Beyng is a mystery not in that it is ineffable as you point out but, rather, because humans are mortal dwellers in a finite, temporal world who can never fully exhaust the meaning of Beyng. Alethia is like that right? Every entity revealed in the clearing simultaneously conceals aspects of the entity in question. I think that’s Iain Thomson’s perspective. I reckon this is how Heidegger escapes metaphysical dualisms like mind/world, noumena/phenomena, essence/existence etc.

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    • I am totally down with that concealment you suggest lies behind every entity. Indeed, I would go one step further and say: no concealment, no entity. Objects can only appear as objects (definition of beyng) if they turn one aspect of themselves towards us, concealing others at the same time. This is also where I see the concept of nothingness proving useful, rather than in the more mystical Buddhist notions of the word.


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