Being and Time by Martin Heidegger. The most important book never finished.

Being and timeBeing and Time by Martin Heidegger is a pillar of post-modernist thought, an essential reference for understanding the philosophy of mind and technology. Reading it is no small undertaking. Ontology is an abstract subject, requiring prior reading in the philosophy of mind, and familiarization with the new language introduced by Heidegger. On the first day of my existentialism class in 1990, the prof wagged her wise old head over the reading list, intoning, “it’s a tough slog”, debating whether or not to inflict the book on us. She did. Reading Being and Time was my real initiation into the art of slow reading. I pored over the book page by page, making careful notes as I read. I made good progress but I confess I stopped after two hundred pages, less than halfway through the book. I did not finish the book, but neither did Heidegger. A third part and a second book were supposed to follow but instead Heidegger retired to the Black Woods. Ontology does that to people.

Understanding Heidegger is essential as technology plays an increasing role in our lives. I rounded out my understanding of Heidegger in later years. Some excellent essays may be found in The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger, edited by Charles Guignon. If you want to read a small introduction, I recommend Heidegger, an excellent 56-page summary by Jonathan Rée. What follows is my own summary of the main concepts.

Ready-to-hand. Before we can inquire about the being of things, we must take a look at the inquirer — people, you and me, who ask about these things. Prior to any kind of inquiry about anything, people are just going about doing what they are doing, busy using the things of the world, carrying on their business, like reading this article. You are immersed in a stream of experience. Heidegger calls this state, “ready-to-hand.”

Presence-at-hand. It is only when something is askew that we reflectively notice a thing, and begin the activity of inquiry. You’re reading this article, and you notice a word misspelled or a concept you disagree with. Your focus then moves in on the thing, and you begin to analyze it. You regard the object of your attention as a “thing” that can be objectified and theorized about. Heidegger calls this state, “presence-at-hand.”

Inauthenticity. There is a natural tendency to apply this same kind of theoretical approach to ourselves and others. Descartes took this tendency to the extreme, depicting people as entities isolated from the world, looking out upon it. By extension, others are entities, distinctly separated from our viewpoint. Heidegger calls this perspective the “they-self”, a distortion of ourselves and our relations with others and the world, leading to a preoccupation with gossip, entertainment, and other triviality that reinforces or advances our status relative to others, trying to secure the substantiveness of fragile selves. Heidegger calls this state, “inauthenticity”.

Dasein. Heidegger argues that we are not isolated entities, distinct from others and the world. He introduces the concept of “Dasein”. We are first existences in the world, doing our business, involved in activities. We have being in the world before we do any kind of theoretical inquiry. In contrast to Cartesian solipsism, he coins the word, “Dasein”. We are openings to the world, having access to phenomena. We are fundamentally linked to the stream of experience. We must have this link, or it makes no sense to inquire into the nature of phenomena. It would be impossible to say anything sensible at all about phenomena without first having some kind of qualitative relationship. We are Dasein, windows to others and the world. Dasein is always “thown” into some circumstance. Where it is thrown, it cares about what is going on, and it projects into the future its plans for dealing with its circumstances. Dasein is first a window to its experience, and then a theorizer, planning a way to handle its experience.

Time. The main cause of inauthenticity is our tendency to regard time as a series of “now-points”. We tend to regard birth and death as distant facts. We consider out lives a finite resource of discrete units of time which we must fill. Hence, we fashion an “I-point” (the Cartesian self) which is a certain quantity of “now-points”. We intend to fill our life with a certain quantity of experiences that will define who we are. In fact, death is an ever present reality. This fact causes us anxiety, but authentically, we cannot pretend that our self is defined apart from birth and death. Our being is not measured by the now-points we fill. Our authentic being is a constant incompleteness, at any time to be ended by death. (Heidegger sounds like a Buddhist.)

What does all this have to do with modern technology? Heidegger introduced the famous example of the broken hammer that stops a worker and causes reflection. It applies to all tools and technologies. What is to be done when the hammer or information technology breaks? We become unnerved as our 24/7 electric blanket of technology cools off. Without vigilance, our analyses become inauthentic, self-serving spirals of falsity, having nothing to do with the original need to hammer. We invent mighty technologies that seem pretty cool but belie our original purpose. Reflection must be grounded in Dasein’s open view on the stream of experience.