The Metaphysics of Da-sein

A Guide to the Philosophy of Martin Heidegger

Heidegger deliberately eschewed the term ‘consciousness’ (a strategy for which I have developed the utmost sympathy of late), and even coined his own word to describe human beings; Da-sein, literally: there-being. In Being and Time, ‘Da-sein’ didn’t really go beyond a synonym for human being, although the idea was to emphasise human being; specifically denoting the way our mode of being is considerably different from that of other objects, and even other living beings. In Heidegger’s post-B&T work, however, Da-sein gets a fuller treatment, where it is revealed as the ground, or site, for the opening up of Being.

Now, it had been fairly clear to me for a while what Heidegger was getting at with this description of Da-sein, but the deeper significance behind it only became apparent recently while I was working through a response to a comment on one of my YouTube videos. I was exploring how consciousness should be understood from a metaphysical point of view, when I wrote: ““I” am the event that reveals the cup, nothing more, nothing less.” As soon as I’d finished the sentence, the two words ‘event’ and ‘reveals,’ by now inextricably linked with Heidegger for me, caused me to realise that I had just described Da-sein, but a Da-sein without the ontological emphasis Heidegger had placed on it, a Da-sein that had therefore taken on a whole new hue for me. In this article, I will try to flesh out the significance of this realisation.

Metaphysics

Heidegger, the philosopher of being, was adamant throughout his whole career that his interest in Being went beyond the metaphysical. As always in philosophy though, we have to look at exactly how the words are being defined if we are to understand what is being said. For Heidegger, metaphysics asks the question, “What are beings?” For sure, this goes beyond a physical, natural description of beings, hence the ‘meta-,’ but it does this by first starting with the physical description of beings and then stepping over to the topic of its inquiry. What metaphysics looks to uncover, then, in the ontological language of Heidegger, is what he calls beingness, or the being of beings; i.e. what is universal, or common, among all beings. Heidegger devotes a good portion of B&T to precisely this task, identifying the (metaphysical) being of beings unlike Da-sein as ready-to-hand. The characteristic of being ready-to-hand essentially locates a thing within a wider referential context in which it is related to other things through practical functionality. The important thing here is that this characteristic of being ready-to-hand arises from our primary mode of engagement with the world; in other words, what beings are for us must be understood through a practical context prior to being grasped the way science looks at the world; i.e. as collections of matter. Thus, we have gone beyond physics, and uncovered something more fundamental, more originary. However, in reaching past the physical, we had to start with the beings themselves; in short, we presupposed the existence of beings. But it is precisely this that Heidegger is really interested in; i.e. how is it that beings come to be the beings they are in the first place? This is ontology proper, Being itself, and where Heidegger staked his claim.

Heidegger’s definition of metaphysics is certainly defensible, and very much in line with the literal meaning of the word, however, I don’t think it’s really what most of us have in mind when we think about metaphysics. Metaphysics, as we use the word these days, is something more like the study of the fundamental structure of reality. If there were an associated question with metaphysics, then, it would be, “What is the universe like, such that matter and mind can arise within it?” Now, the first thing we should note is that this doesn’t fall victim to Heidegger’s criticism that metaphysics begins with individual beings. Instead of starting from objects and moving outwards, we are starting with the whole and trying to work inwards. In fact, if we compare my metaphysical question to Heidegger’s metaphysical and ontological ones, we see that mine shares much more in common with the latter, rather than the former. We do need to be wary of carrying this similarity too far – Heidegger’s ontology requires Da-sein in a way that our metaphysics never will (this is simply because beings (not clumps of matter) can only exist for a conscious being, whereas the universe as a whole is still the universe as a whole with or without conscious beings to see it as a universe) – nevertheless, both questions share a common denominator in Da-sein. In Heidegger, Da-sein is the site for the opening up of Being, and, as a part of the universe, Da-sein must also ‘fit’ into a metaphysical (as I’ve defined it here) picture of that universe. It is here that we will see ontology and metaphysics come together.

The Metaphysics of Consciousness

Just about every article I write these days involves consciousness in some way, so I’ll try to avoid repeating what I’ve already said, or at the very least, say the same thing in different words. (If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from reading philosophy, it’s that repetition of important ideas (assuming the ideas are good ones, of course) is seldom pointless). So, here goes…

We need to completely throw out everything we think we know about consciousness and start afresh. This new beginning will studiously avoid facile pseudo-explanations like, “consciousness is a function of the brain in which it processes internal and external inputs, generating a model that facilitates…” It will reject the temptation to hide our ignorance in plain sight, as it were, by making everything consciousness, or by putting consciousness into everything. Above all, it will guard against reifying consciousness; that is, turning it into a thing. This last temptation is much harder to avoid than it sounds. I believe almost all of the errors and false starts we see in consciousness studies stem from this. The problem is basically the equivalent of Heidegger’s criticism of metaphysics (which was that it starts from beings themselves, thereby framing the entire inquiry in terms that only apply to those beings, whereas Being, as that which grounds beings, cannot itself be a being), just applied to consciousness, so in starting our enquiry looking inwards (my consciousness, my sense of self, my qualia, the feeling that it is like something to be me, etc.), we unwittingly find ourselves dealing with phenomena and concepts that, while applicable to individual consciousnesses, cannot meaningfully be carried over into an explanation of consciousness itself. Consider water. If you start with high-level properties like fluidity and transparency, you will never realise that water is actually made up of particles that aren’t in themselves fluid or transparent. Why is it that this truth, so obvious in the case of water, is so difficult to see in the case of consciousness? Whatever explains consciousness won’t itself be conscious. It can’t be, or, no matter how ingenious your theory, you’re simply begging the question.

So, what is consciousness? Forget high-level concepts like subjective, phenomenal experience, qualia, etc., the use of any one of which just amounts to playing a shell game with consciousness without getting us any closer to anything even remotely resembling an explanation. In fact, strangely enough for someone with the existential/phenomenological inclinations I have, what I am actually recommending is that we de-personalise consciousness in order to understand it. We’ll start with physics, which tells us that everything ultimately cashes out as vibrations; that is, movement. Whether we represent this movement to ourselves as waves, particles, excitations of quantum fields, or whatever else the kids are calling it these days, is immaterial. All that matters for us is that reality is fundamentally movement. Then, from physics we turn to evolutionary biology, which tells us that physical organisms with sensory organs sensitive, or attuned, to their surroundings emerged as the result of natural forces. The next question is: ‘What does the focal point of the universe that is a living organism do?’ At its simplest, lowest-level description, it does three things; first, it ‘arrests’ these vibrations, second, it ‘gathers’ a number of them together ‘prolonging’ them into each other, and third, it ‘contracts’ them into a single intuition. This is what consciousness is at its most fundamental level; the ‘detection’ or ‘arrest’ of these vibrations, and their ‘preservation’ as they are ‘contracted’ into a single intuition. Now, all of this happens without ‘mind’ doing anything. If we invoke ‘mind’ at this point, we are merely begging the question. How does it happen then? The living body. This is just what a living body is. The organism’s body doesn’t exist first and then attune itself to these vibrations, as if it could exist and not ‘arrest’ and ‘contract’ them. In fact, at the metaphysical level it is wildly misleading to think of the body as an independent entity; rather, the body is the physical mechanism which enables this process of arresting, prolonging, and contracting of the vibrations that make up physical reality.

Now, at this point you might be waiting for some grand denouement in which the lights of consciousness magically ‘come on,’ giving birth to subjectivity with all of the inner, experiential bells and whistles we like to imagine comprise consciousness, perhaps as some critical mass of complexity or information processing is reached. If so, you are in for a disappointment because my claim is simply that the arrest, prolonging, and contraction of these vibrations which we have just described is precisely what consciousness is. Think about this for a moment. Consciousness is the arrest, prolonging, and contraction of the vibrations of the natural world into a single intuition. There is nothing extra going on. There is no subjective ghost in the machine, nor is the machine a subjective ghost. To be totally honest, I can’t think of a better explanation; that is, a low-level description, of what consciousness is. We can forget about appeals to ‘inner this,’ or ‘subjective that,’ or ‘non-extended substance,’ as if these vacuous expressions actually meant something. When nature finds a way to gather these events and contract them into one intuition, you have all you need to explain consciousness. (It won’t have escaped your attention that my definitions of consciousness and the body are extremely similar. There is a deep metaphysical truth here I believe, but one that will have to wait for another article)

The tremendous advantage with this account is that it actually qualifies as an explanation. We haven’t simply assumed consciousness, nor have we given it an empty definition involving high-level terms that simply move the mystery around. We don’t need to do these things because we have actually explained consciousness as a part of the natural universe. Consciousness doesn’t emerge into an otherwise objective, extended universe – it is just parts of it, arrested, prolonged, and contracted together. All other theories end up reifying consciousness; that is, they turn it into some thing (even as they deny this is what they are doing). In one group of theories, consciousness is some thing over and above naturally occurring events, as an ‘internal,’ subjective, unextended realm in addition to an ‘external,’ objective, extended one. This immediately and permanently strands you on the hard problem. The other group of theories (like panpsychism and idealism) have grown out of the realisation that the hard problem is actually the impossible problem, but these are more theories of resignation than explanation, because the one thing missing from them is precisely an explanation of consciousness! The only way to explain consciousness is to stop reifying it; that is, let go of our dogmatic insistence that we, as conscious beings, are ‘internal’ centres of subjectivity (whether we understand these centres as being somehow different in kind from the rest of the universe, somehow buried in every part of it, or a vortex that somehow emerges in the midst of an ocean of subjectivity (a phrase that means absolutely nothing as far as I’m concerned)), and reclaim our rightful place as natural events within the universe.

Let me briefly address one possible objection here before we move on. Isn’t it suspicious that my whole explanation of consciousness turns on metaphor (‘arrest,’ ‘prolong,’ and ‘contraction’)? Unless I explain how the universe arrests, prolongs, and contracts these vibrations, how much have I really explained? This is fair, up to a point. There are certainly a lot more details that need explication here. However, these details need fleshing out in the same way that the details of evolution by natural selection; i.e. genetics, needed to be fleshed out after Darwin first proposed it. The genius of natural selection was that it gave us a natural mechanism by which to explain the variety of life on the planet without recourse to a Creator God whose actions were shrouded in Divine mystery. A contemporary critic of Darwin might have made the exact same objection as the one I am responding to here: “With all of your talk about so-called ‘traits’ being supposedly ‘passed on’ to offspring, how much have you really explained Mr. Darwin?” But such an ill-formed objection would have clearly been to miss the point. What was important about natural selection was that it was a different kind of theory from the prevailing religious alternative. How was it different? It provided a natural mechanism that the creationist (whose ‘explanation’ always ends in complete mystery with ‘God did it’) could never match. Darwin could have been wrong, but he gave us the only explanation of life that actually explained anything.

I see the explanation of consciousness I am offering here in the same light. I’m not just making vacuous claims, like: “The universe is consciousness.” Nor am I invoking black-box terms like Being or Spirit or Energy that might somehow act as mysterious Sources of subjectivity. I’m not even suggesting that consciousness emerges or the ‘lights come on’ when certain physical systems reach certain levels of complexity. None of these offer a plausible mechanism that could ever explain consciousness. Even if Integrated Information Theory turned out to be right, and allowed us to predict/measure consciousness with perfect accuracy, it wouldn’t go even a fraction of the way towards explaining consciousness. There’s just no mechanism on offer to explain how you get subjective experience out of objective components. What we’ve been discussing here, however, is qualitatively different; a different kind of theory. I’ve argued that consciousness just is the natural vibrations of reality arrested, prolonged, and contracted into a single intuition. It could be wrong. You could disagree with it. But none of that would change the fact that it suggests a natural mechanism that has the potential to explain consciousness instead of merely hiding it under words and expressions that are essentially fancy ways of saying, “God did it.”   

Da-sein as the Ground for the Opening up of Being

As we saw in the first section, the Da-sein of Being and Time featured mainly as a reminder that we were interested in the ontological character of human beings; the mode of being, if you will, that is uniquely human. There, Heidegger uncovered many interesting and insightful ‘existentials’ (features that characterise our mode of existence), like projection, understanding, attunement, fallenness, and so on. But after B&T, we see Heidegger shift gears a little, and turn to focus more on Being itself, rather than the being of Da-sein. In this expansion of Heidegger’s focus, Da-sein necessarily comes in for a re-working; a re-working that we see clearly playing out over three important works in the 1930s; On the Essence of Truth (1930), Introduction to Metaphysics (1935), and Contributions to Philosophy (1938). (The page numbers for the quotes from On the Essence of Truth refer to the Routledge book, Heidegger: Basic Writings)

In On the Essence of Truth (OET), Heidegger asks how statements can accord with things. The two are, after all, completely different. He begins by giving this correspondence a name; comportment. We can think of comportment as an “open region” which the thing is able to traverse without losing its essence as a thing. Now, how does the thing, raw and unformed, as it were, come to be the well-defined, meaningful thing we refer to with the statement? Through an interested engagement with beings that, at the same time, discloses them as beings, or lets them be what they are, in that open region of comportment. This open region is a ground that Heidegger says is “preserved” by Da-sein.

In Da-sein the essential ground, long ungrounded, on the basis of which man is able to ek-sist, is preserved for him.

Heidegger: Basic Writings, p.73

What is striking about this passage is that the words ‘man’ and ‘Da-sein’ are not used synonymously. Da-sein, somehow ‘preserves’ the essential ground on which human beings exist (why Heidegger uses ‘ek-sist’ here, we can safely pass by for now), and which discloses beings as beings. In addition, Heidegger goes on to say:

…ek-sistent, disclosive Da-sein, possesses man…

Heidegger: Basic Writings, p.74

This further reinforces the disconnect between ‘human being,’ as we typically understand the term, and ‘Da-sein.’ So, by the end of OET, we see hints that Da-sein is growing into something quite different from where B&T had left it. Not only does Da-sein have some, as yet inchoate, connection to the open region in which beings are first disclosed as beings, and in which human beings live their lives, but it even “possesses” human beings, somehow taking precedence, or rendering us passive as it preserves that open region.

Picking up the thread in Introduction to Metaphysics, Heidegger extends his metaphorical description of Da-sein making it the site for the appearing of Being. The sense of passivity also deepens as Heidegger describes Da-sein as passive in relation to Being:

…the almighty sway of Being violates Dasein (in the literal sense), makes Dasein into the site of its appearing, envelops and pervades Dasein in its sway, and thereby holds it within Being.

Introduction to Metaphysics, p.198

In B&T Heidegger talked about Da-sein as “there-being,” referring, not to a location in space, but to the way that Da-sein allows beings to appear anywhere at all. In fact, the word “Da” (there) in Da-sein means this essential disclosedness; i.e. the disclosedness that discloses beings. “Sein,” then, seems to refer to the way that Da-sein is this disclosedness: “Dasein brings its there along with it… Dasein is its disclosedness.” (B&T, p.129). In other words, the focus here is on Da-sein itself. In IM this formulation gets a significant update, with the focus shifting to Being itself.

Within the question of Being, the human essence is to be grasped and grounded… as the site that Being necessitates for its opening up. Humanity is the Here that is open in itself. Beings stand within this Here and are put to work in it. We therefore say: the Being of humanity is, in the strict sense of the word, “Being-here” <”Da-sein”>. The perspective for the opening up of Being must be grounded originally in the essence of Being-here as such a site for the opening up of Being.

Introduction to Metaphysics, p.228

Here, we see Da-sein described as the “human essence,” and, instead of being the site which discloses beings, it is the site in which Being itself appears, or opens up. “Da” more or less retains the meaning it had in B&T, but “sein” it seems must now be understood as referring to Being itself. Thus, Da-sein now means, not the site which discloses beings, but the site for the opening up of Being. Of course, beings are still disclosed in Da-sein, but the emphasis has shifted from the human being as the active agent, to Being acting through Da-sein.

Contributions to Philosophy, in one sense, one of the more rambling, unfocused of Heidegger’s works, also paradoxically manages to give one of the clearest accounts of his overall, post-B&T philosophical project (if you’re prepared to put in a bit of leg-work). I propose to briefly analyse Da-sein through the following two quotes which seem to me to capture the fundamental points, and reinforce the picture we drew above from IM:

Da-sein is:

the one who grounds and preserves the truth of beyng… the “there” as the ground required by the very essence of beyng… care

Contributions to Philosophy, p.15

The “there” is ap-propriated by beyng itself. The human being, as steward of the truth of beyng, is subsequently ap-propriated and, as belonging to Dasein, is ap-propriated in a preeminent and unique way.

Contributions to Philosophy, p.236

First, we see the continuation of the theme of Da-sein as the site for the opening up of Being (Note: in CP, Heidegger uses the word ‘beyng’ to describe what I have been calling ‘Being’; that is, being itself, or that by which beings become beings). The operative word in the first quote above is ‘grounds,’ but Heidegger also uses the word ‘sheltering.’

Second, Da-sein preserves the truth of beyng as care. ‘Care’ was understood in a very practical sense in B&T concerned more with the being of beings (beingness). In CP, we continue the turn to Being, so that ‘to care’ means to be a preserver or steward of Being; i.e. as in ‘care-taking.’ In caring for Being in this way, Da-sein isn’t using or handling any individual being; rather, it is holding open the space for Being which, in turn, discloses beings as beings.

Third, there is the word ‘Da-sein’ itself, which doesn’t really undergo any great changes from what we saw in IM. The “there” refers to “the openness of beings as such and as a whole, the ground of the more originally conceived αλήθεια [aletheia = unconcealedness]… “to be” [sein] does not simply mean “to turn up”; rather, it signifies steadfast enduring as grounding the “there” [Da].” (CP, pp.234-5)

Fourth, Da-sein is a passive mode of being for humans, meaning that beings don’t become beings through some deliberate action on my part. Rather, we are always already thrown into a world in which Being, through our Da-sein nature (the way that humans are able to ground and preserve the truth of beyng), has disclosed beings as beings.

Now, all of this is quite poetical and metaphorical, but we ought to resist the twin urges to either write this off as telling us nothing about reality itself (in the same way that describing the sun as a golden chariot may inspire us and reveal something important about how the sun appears to us but tell us nothing about the actual ball of fire in the sky), or descend into religious/mystical pseudo-interpretations which end up treating Being as a force, or power, manifesting beings in some mysterious fashion (an option which, you will note, makes the mistake of reifying Being). Being is a process which works through human beings, in their capacity as Da-sein. Take the example of space. Before a being can be any kind of being, it must appear somewhere. Now, this doesn’t mean that a force (Being/God) somehow ‘creates’ space through us. All it means is that, in accordance with the perfectly natural processes that hold sway in the universe (physical forces, chemistry, evolution, etc.), beings have emerged with the requisite limbs, sense organs, intellectual capacities, etc. that allow for space; i.e. ‘here’ and ‘there,’ to have meaning. These “beings” are, of course, human beings, and the “natural processes” I referred to are, in essence, Being. It is in this sense, then, that Da-sein is the site for, and care-taker of, Being, ‘holding’ Being open so that it can disclose beings through the clearing it is, all while actively, or intentionally, doing nothing itself.

The Metaphysics of Da-sein

Recall what I said about consciousness being the arrest, prolonging, and contraction of the vibrations of the natural world into a single intuition. Let’s look at how this works in practice. What is happening, from a metaphysical perspective, when I look at a cup? The usual method of attack is to posit a perceiving subject (me), a thing perceived (the cup), and attempt an account of the relation that holds between the two. I have argued that this is arriving at the party way too late to have even a chance of explaining the perception of the cup. It’s broken the original process up into so many discrete entities (more reifying!) that it is now impossible to put them back together in such a way as to apprehend what is really going on. Instead of going down this path, I would like to suggest that when I look at the cup, all that is happening is the cup is appearing in the universe from a certain, unique perspective. I am (or, ‘my consciousness is’) this perspective.

Note that I didn’t say the cup appears to someone. This was not an oversight. But surely, ‘to appear’ means ‘to appear for someone’! This is precisely the error of reification I keep ranting about. As soon as you posit a metaphysical “someone” to see the cup, you are in Cartesian territory, no matter how assiduously you try to avoid it afterwards. Instead, the right way to think about my perceiving the cup, is to realise that I am the cup, not in some hokey, mystical or spiritual fashion (which would, again, be reifying consciousness, just a consciousness that can ‘become’ other things); rather, I am the cup in the sense that there is literally nothing else going on. All that exists metaphysically is the cup. “I” am the event that reveals the cup; nothing more, nothing less.

And that is about as good a description of Da-sein as I think I could ever give. All of those elements into which we analysed Da-sein in the previous section come together, only instead of speaking the language of Being, we are talking metaphysics. This ‘locus’ where the elements of the natural world (those ‘vibrations’ we spoke of earlier) converge is precisely Heidegger’s Da-sein, the ‘site’ for the opening up of Being. The way it arrests, prolongs, and contracts them is what Heidegger spoke of metaphorically as ‘preserving’ or ‘care-taking.’ The result (the cup), for us a metaphysical entity, for Heidegger a being, is the ‘disclosedness’ of the ‘sein’ in Da-sein; and finally, the whole thing is passive in the sense that “I,” as a consciousness, or conscious subject, didn’t do anything. In fact, the whole process of arresting, prolonging, and contracting (or what Heidegger calls ‘Being’) is what enabled the “I” in the first place.

There are two additional benefits to this metaphysical approach to Da-sein. First, it brings some clarity to the notion that Being (working through Da-sein) is a process, not a being. In other words, it makes it harder to reify Being. This is because we described the perception of the cup (the opening of Being) in terms of naturally occurring processes (arresting, prolonging, and contracting) that no more need an agent to ‘do’ something than the rays of the sun need an agent to propel them through space. Secondly, it sheds light on why Heidegger didn’t use the word ‘consciousness.’ Not only has the word been so misused that it is now almost meaningless, but it immediately starts us thinking in terms of subjects, objects, mental representations, qualia, and a whole host of other things that I have argued are impediments to a proper understanding of human existence, and the way beings become the beings they are.

Conclusion

Da-sein is a product of ontology; the human being as the site or clearing which preserves and holds open Being, even as it is appropriated by Being, in order that beings can come to be the beings they are. Consciousness, subjectivity, inwardness, mind; all of these words, as they are typically used, describe human existence post-Da-sein. In this, Heidegger was right to avoid them like the plague. But if we go beyond the superficial treatment usually given to them; that is, if we seek their metaphysical grounding, we find that consciousness, properly thought, is actually a locus where a succession of physical events (that are simply what the natural world is) are gathered and contracted into a single intuition. Da-sein, then, appears as the ontological aspect of consciousness, and consciousness the metaphysical aspect of Da-sein. In other words, we have discovered, in the human being, a point of intersection between these two, largely unrelated disciplines. For sure, our human being is not the one science studies from its third-person perspective, nor is it the one philosophers tend to view as a first-person experiencer, qualitatively different from the world it inhabits. Neither are incorrect, of course, they are just incomplete. They are abstractions. The human being we have explored here is not some monstrous hybrid, an ungainly synthesis, of the two; rather, it is what preceded them, an originary entity which finds expression in both ontology and metaphysics.

One thought on “The Metaphysics of Da-sein

  1. It’s interesting, I have studied Heidegger for years, but now when you read it, it recalls a new theory I’m working on about sound waves, music, radios, and signals in general.

    Liked by 1 person

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