By David Roel

What does it mean to be?

What if you were talking to someone who couldn’t speak English very well and they asked you to explain the terms “be”, “is”, “are”, and “being”. How would you explain those terms? When we say something “is”, what do we mean?

Perhaps you might say “to be” means to exist. That doesn’t help — what does “exist” mean?

It becomes circular — every word you might think of as a definition of the idea is a synonym for the idea; you end up having to use a word that has the same meaning as the word you are trying to define.

Heidegger wants to tell us that “being” and its relationship to time is the foundation to everything we think. Our whole world, all of our institutions, everything we do, everything we think, is wrapped up in these two concepts. This is the first move to everything we are.

Why ask what is the meaning of being? Heidegger tells us that we have to in order to transform our lives. It’s not just one of those intellectual puzzles that philosophers like to spend their time with. Heidegger is interested in transforming and revolutionizing the way we live by trying to outline what it would take for us to transform our lives and our very world. He goes so far as to say that without grappling with the question of being, we will never transform our life; without confronting the nature of being we will simply spin in circles doing the same things over and over endlessly — no history, no transformation, no phenomenon will emerge that isn’t a copy or an iteration of a previous event. If you want transformation, novelty or change of life it can only come through understanding the question of being.

According to Heidegger, how we ask and how we answer the question of what it means for something to “be” determines everything. It determines how we relate to ourselves: what it means for me to be me, what it means for us to be human, what it means for us to be a community. Likewise, it determines how we relate to everything else: What am I in respect to other entities in the world? Who am I in respect to the rest of the natural world or in respect to the cosmos? Who am I and how do I fit inside the world? Heidegger suggests that the question concerning the meaning of being, depending on how you ask it and how you answer it, contains inside it the constraining conditions under which we answer those questions. It’s from that space that I figure out who I am and how I relate to the world. If I want to be different and relate differently, then I have to confront this question concerning the meaning of being. If I don’t, I will be relating to the world in a configuration that was preconfigured and given to me.

In this way, Heidegger wants us to change the way we live and think, to change the way we think of ourselves, and to change the way we interact with other entities. The path to that new configuration, according to Heidegger, must pass through the question of the meaning of being, because it is only through that portal that new conceptualizations become possible. Without that fundamental question settled, we’re not going to be able to answer or even meaningfully ask the questions of who we are and how do we relate to the world. We will inevitably be adopting some model of existence, some notion of who we are, and what the universe is and how we fit into it that’s borrowed from somebody else. And when we borrow our existential concepts, we take them from the only tradition we know, the Euro-Western tradition.

Heidegger and Nietzsche both disdain the modern condition where they see our potentiality as being blocked. We have unwittingly been sent on a track and we are following a program that has already been laid out for us by historical cultures such as, Platonist, Socratic, Christian, etc. We’re constantly repeating pre-fabricated, pre-designed, pre-configured projects that were laid out for us before we were born. This limits our potentiality — we might be something different, says Heidegger and he definitely wants us to be something different from what we as a culture currently are and are conditioned to be.

Likewise, we’re being blocked from the richness of the world. We have rich potentialities as individuals but Heidegger wants to suggest to us that we have been given a very flat, simplistic picture of nature and the cosmos and that if we truly want to recreate how we conceive of ourselves, how we live, how we exist, how we relate to things, we’re going to have to reconsider and revise our models of how we see things the way they have been presented to us.

Heidegger does not believe that being is purely physical. He gives us the suggestion that being seems to be fundamentally a linguistic phenomenon. Being is what we might consider a sense-maker, that which enables us to make sense of the world. For Heidegger, when we talk about being, we’re looking at something at a very basic conceptual-linguistic level.

We have a particular set of assumptions, conceptions, perceptions, perspectives, viewpoints, ideologies, values, etc., through which we see the world. This culturally-acquired set of lenses has been put on us without our conscious awareness. There are many layers of lenses that we have put on us throughout our lives. Heidegger suggests that being is the first set of these sense-making lenses. Once those initial set of lenses have been placed on us, we then have additional sets of lenses added on to make sense of the world around us. Any means we might have of making sense of our world requires that primary set of lenses.

Consider a newborn baby trying to make sense of the world which confronts them yet they can’t yet comprehend. Heidegger suggests that the first set of lenses that baby will acquire is the sense of being, what it means to be. From there, the additional layers of sense-making, categorization, conceptualization, etc., get placed on top of that foundation level of the concept of being.

Heidegger believed that what it means to “be” is built in to the structural foundation of our language, and we pick it up unconsciously. This understanding of what it means for something to be is our foundational sense-making apparatus that operates independently of our conscious awareness and cannot be consciously controlled, stopped or even detected (at least not with conventional conceptual mental processes). This is why we have so much trouble trying to come up with a way to answer the question of what it means to be, and we fall into that endless circle of synonyms. We don’t have to reflect on the meaning of being — it’s tacitly understood, built in to the structure of our language and our basic concepts of reality, and that understanding is at a preter-conscious level; more a feeling than a cognitive determination.

Our culture gives us particular structural logic that enables us to interpret and sort reality. This general logic can be configurable, but maintains its structure and rules, much like the game of checkers which can have a large number of possible games that can be played on the board, while still being checkers. All possible configurations exist inside a set of constraints, given to us by our culture. These constraints operate covertly, pushing our culture in ways outside of our conscious awareness. This unacknowledged, un-thought-about inner logic that drives the entirety of our culture gives us a particular answer to the question of the meaning of being.

One of the answers to the question, “what is it to be” can be seen in the way we consider objects and their functionality towards us in our civilization. Objects are to be used, commodified, or made into a tool. The answer that being is dependent on our ability to utilize objects is to Heidegger a one-dimensional, shallow, reductive, and impoverished way of being in the world. The world is much richer than that and we are much richer than that. There are multiple possibilities for us and multiple ways of living that go beyond mere instrumentalism. Heidegger sees where this banausic mind-set is leading. From that answer of what it means for something to be, we have founded western civilization and under this historical set of constraints, this guiding logic of our metaphysical tradition, we’ve arrived at, according to Heidegger, a pretty dangerous and worrisome place.

In this inevitable construction of being, nothing is seen as having any importance unless it’s utilizable or commodifiable. This mind-set is so all-encompassing, it extends to us ourselves. We have excessively commodified and instrumentalized the world. Anything that falls outside of the parameter of what is considered useful is discounted as worthless. No matter what it is, it is subject to the question, “What’s it good for? How can it be used?”

Heidegger would like to make two suggestions:

1) We can relate to the world in multiple different ways because within our world there is a multiplicity of potentialities just as there is within ourselves. Heidegger suggests that humans have a special nature and ability to perceive the scope, range and richness of existence (as opposed to the limited range of animals), and by reducing that scope to banausic utilitarianism of instrumentation and the commodification of everything, we will reduce ourselves to a banausic, capitalist, modern, tool-using animal, of limited range, reduced scope, and stunted nature. This, Heidegger would like to suggest, is a bad move.

2) Heidegger would like to suggest that this civilizational disposition, developed from the ancient Greeks on, threatens to override and flatten out our relationships to and perceptions of the rich, living, frothy, untameable, ambiguous, morphing nature of existence, the world and ourselves. Heidegger would like to suggest that the world is more than tools and commodities and hopes that we consider doing what we can to not simply recapitulate the project of western civilization as it has been handed to us at birth.