Paul Ennis (here), Jon Cogburn (here) and Gary Williams (here), have been having a conversation about whether Heidegger is a realist or not on their respective blogs. Since I’ve been trying to come up with a coherent interpretation of Heidegger for the past 2 years, causing much woe and confusion, I thought I’d chip in. What appears below was meant to be a comment on Jon’s blog, but turned out to be too big (surprise surprise). Some of what I say here might differ from my previous posts on Heidegger, as my interpretation has evolve a bit. Hopefully I’ll post a synthesis of all this stuff at some point which gives an updated version of my position, but for now, you’ll have to make do with this. Anyway, enjoy…
Just in case anyone wants references to some papers on this, there are a bunch of them in the second volume of Dreyfus and Wrathall’s Heidegger Re-examined series (“Truth, Realism, and the History of Being”), including a paper by Blattner on his Kantian interpretation of Heidegger. I haven’t read many of the papers, but some might be of interest to you guys. I have a couple points, but firstly I really have to take issue with Gary’s claim that the inquiry into Being is just an inquiry into existence (i.e., the kind of Being that Dasein has). There are many points at which Heidegger quite explicitly denies this, not least in the letter on humanism. There is also the fact that Division III of Part 1 was explicitly set up as inquiring into the concept of Being in general, beyond that of Dasein. If he were only interested in the Being of Dasein, why bother projecting Division III, indeed, why bother projecting a recapitulation of the analytic of Dasein on the basis of the answer to the question of the meaning of Being in general (the 3rd part of Division III was to be titled ‘Thematic analysis of Dasein, or renewed repetition of the preparatory analysis of Dasein’, and is foreshadowed in the second part of the introduction). In addition, if Heidegger had no interest in general ontology, why would he spend so much of Basic Problems of Phenomenology carefully unpacking many of the problems of classical ontology? True, all of these analyses lead toward a solution which promises to ground them in the structures of Dasein’s temporality, but this doesn’t detract from the fact that they are genuine ontological problems.
As for my own opinion on the realism/idealism/correlationism debate, I think that Heidegger probably can be classified as something like a Kantian with reservations in the early period (and thus pretty much a correlationist of some stripe), but that he becomes something more strange and hard to classify later on (though it probably still falls into correlationism). With regard to the early Heidegger, I think it’s important to reject the Dreyfus/Carman line that the question of the meaning of Being is just about finding conditions for the possibility of intelligibility (or hermeneutic conditions, for Carman). If you take this line then you effectively divorce Heidegger’s problem from its historical roots in Aristotle and the scholastic tradition. Heidegger is trying to talk about Being as it is in itself. The tricky thing is that nonetheless he’s trying to claim that Being as it is in itself is grounded in Dasein’s temporal structure. If you take the Dreyfus/Carman line, then its obvious that he’s a Kantian from the beginning, whereas if we don’t initially take Being to be synonymous with intelligibility, then we can see that Heidegger is arguing towards a Kantianesque solution to a broadly Aristotelian problem.
The problem as it is initially understood is that of what defines beings as beings. This actually has two separate threads in Heidegger’s early work, which a lot of commentators confuse (I’m looking at you, Philipse). On the one hand there is the Aristotelian problem of the unity of the various senses in which ‘Being’ is said (e.g., what-being [essence], that-being [existence], being-so [predication], and being-true), and on the other hand there is the problem of the unity of the various modes of Being (Existenz [Dasein], Occurrence, Availability, Subsistence, Life, etc.). The second problem has a more Husserlian/Neo-Kantian inspiration, but it does have deeper roots in the philosophical tradition, as evidenced in Basic Problems. The important thing here is that this initial understanding of the problem inquires after beings AS SUCH.
Heidegger’s approach to this initial construal of the question is to try and locate both of these unities within the fundamental structure of the opening up of a world, which is to say, the structure of beings AS A WHOLE. This same move is begun in both Basic Problems and in Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, although it is only in the former case that this opening up of a world (as the horizon within which beings can appear) is understood in temporal terms (i.e., in terms of Temporalitat), whereas in Fundamental Concepts he is beginning to construe it in terms of his account of truth as Aletheia. Regardless, neither attempt is fully fleshed out, and all we get are some teasers. This approach should nonetheless be viewed as broadly Kantian, because it does seem to instantiate something like the whole empirical realism/transcendental idealism split that both Carman and Blattner indicate.
On this early view, Being is completely dependent on Dasein, in virtue of the fact that it is effectively identical with the structure of Dasein’s temporalising/world-forming, but beings are nonetheless independent of Dasein. The upshot of this is that roughly beings can be, but they have no essence/accidents/mode-of-being without Dasein’s disclosive opening up of a horizon within which they can appear AS beings, as this horizon is constitutive for these structures. This is where we get the weird comments about the fact that there can be beings if there is no Dasein, but no Being, and the parallel comment that Newton’s laws are neither true nor false without Dasein. Ultimately, I think these claims are fundamentally incoherent, because they depend upon having a sense of ‘being’ which is artificially isolated from the question, namely, that beings can ‘be’ without Being.
Moving on to the later Heidegger, I think that a lot of the structure of his position remains the same, but gets rephrased in different terms. The most important aspect of this is the switch from identifying with metaphysics to criticising metaphysics. In both the early and later works (c.f. Fundamental Concepts and ‘The Onto-Theo-Logical Constitution of Metaphysics’ he identifies metaphysics as based around two different questions:-
1. What are beings?
2. Why are there beings rather than nothing?
The first inquires after beings AS SUCH and the second inquires after beings AS A WHOLE. To line up another distinction, the first inquires after the ESSENCE of beings, while the latter inquires after the EXISTENCE of beings. In the early work Heidegger thinks that the former question is okay, but that the traditional approaches to it are flawed. This is because they conceive Being (that which defines beings as beings) as some beingly character that all beings share. This is to think of Being as beingness [Seiendheit]. He also thinks that the former question is problematic, insofar as it tends to seek after some being to function as the ground of beings, but he is nonetheless interested in this question as something which can open up onto the thought of Being (‘What is Metaphysics’, Introduction to Metaphysics). Regardless, the problem with the traditional approaches to metaphysics is that they answer both questions in terms applicable to beings, and in effect violate the ontological difference. The later Heidegger distances himself from these questions entirely, not merely the way they have been traditionally approached.
Nonetheless, Heidegger does retain the split structure, although it can be hard to piece together given the maddening terminological shifts he goes through. As far as I can tell, the split between beings as such and beings as a whole gets replicated in at least 3 different pairings:-
1. The Being of Beings vs. Being as such
2. Being vs. Beyng
3. Being vs. Ereignis
In each case, Heidegger takes the latter to be the givenness, or that which gives, the former. He also identifies the latter with truth as aletheia. Being, as that which defines beings as beings (though not beingness) is something which is granted by Ereignis/Beyng. However, given that Ereignis/Being is none other than truth, which is to say, the opening up of a world, this repeats the central idea of the early work, namely, that one should inquire into beings AS SUCH through inquiring into the structure of beings AS A WHOLE.
What then is the real difference between the early and later work? Well, the substantial shift is present in ‘On the Essence of Truth’ (bits of which are prefigured in Fundamental Concepts). The shift is essentially that truth/disclosedness/the opening up of a world ceases to be identical with Dasein’s temporalising or world-forming. Being is no longer solely grounded in Existenz. This is due to the introduction of a notion of concealing that is independent of Dasein. In Being and Time concealing is something which is something that Dasein itself effects, but in OET and later it becomes something beyond Dasein with which Dasein struggles. I personally prefer the formulation given in ‘On the Origin of the Work of Art’, which talks about the strife between Earth and World. In short, it is the introduction of Earth as part of the very process of the opening up of the world (beings as a whole), which differentiates the late Heidegger from the early Heidegger. In doing this, Heidegger gives Being a certain independence from Dasein which it does not possess in the early works, even if not a complete dependence. Instead of the earlier talk of beings without Being, we now get talk of the appropriation of Being and Man to eachother, or a kind of mutual dependence within the structure of Ereignis/Beyng.
Personally, I think there are two upshots of this move. On the one hand, Ereignis/Beyng has a more cosmological flair to it than the early work. Although it must at all costs not be read as a being (lest we slide back into ontotheology), it strikes me more as an attempt to claim that the fundamental structure of Reality necessarily involves Dasein (not this Dasein or that Dasein, but the very structural possibility of Dasein), whereas the earlier work can’t make any such strong claim. On the other hand, I think that the introduction of Earth is sort of a reintroduction of the Kantian thing-in-itself, although reworked in a more interesting way. It introduces a fundamental excess of Reality over and above our ability to uncover it. Again, this is a much more cosmological claim than was possible in the framework of Being and Time. It is this point which truly separates Heidegger from Hegel, as it prevents Being and Thought from being identical.
Where does this leave us vis a vis the whole empirical realism/transcendental realism split? I’m not entirely sure. I think that you can definitely say that Heidegger is still an empirical realist, but I’m not sure that the whole later set up can be called transcendental in the Kantian sense. Heidegger is no longer making anything resembling claims about the structure of our cognition, but rather claims about how the very structure of Reality necessarily involves something like the possibility of cognition, and what this possibility consists in. It’s a tough one to judge. All of this gets more complicated if one moves further into the later Heidegger and his development of the idea of the History of Being. Here he seems to abandon the idea that there can even be anything like an answer to the question of Being as originally understood (i.e., what defines beings as beings) that is not metaphysical (i.e., an account of beingness), and as such start to think of the very giving of Being as the ‘sending’ of various conceptions of beingness in a succession of historical epochs.
Ultimately, I think his later position is just as wrong as the early position, though, ironically, perhaps not as incoherent, despite its nigh on impenetrability. I think that there is something interesting to the whole duality between beings as such and beings as a whole, and the attempt to locate the structure of the former in the structure of the latter, but my suspicion is that Heidegger’s phenomenological approach to the matter corrupts it from the start, and dooms him to make Being dependent on Dasein, even if he tries to progressively dial this dependence down.