Is Being Worth It? Martin Heidegger’s Deeper Ontology

By Ryan Morgan-Kleinman

Throughout Martin Heidegger’s long and tumultuous career, the quest to reveal the true nature of ‘Being’ lay at the heart of much of his academic output. The German philosopher strived to shed light upon that subject which he deemed to have ‘been forgotten’ and, though his approach and optimism toward the question of ‘Being’ gradually changed as he grew older and his work matured, his struggle to lay bare the underlying nature and structure of this elusive concept continued to guide the enigmatic philosopher throughout his lifetime.[1] Perhaps the most famous of Heidegger’s works, 1927’s Being and Time represents his clearest and furthest-realised attempt to establish such a primordial ontology, an ontology that would precede the subjects and objects, which inhered within the dominant Western tradition. This ontology of Being was established in the face of the ‘disintegrated multiplicity of disciplines’, which Heidegger saw as barely scratching the surface of real, ontological existence. And as a cornerstone of this alternative, Heidegger offered a temporal layer to our understanding of the way in which the world appeared to us, a layer which also revealed a deeper explanation for our own ‘Being’ in his concept of Dasein.[2] Despite so decisively setting out to destroy the “ontological ‘tradition’”, both Heidegger and his critics went on to express doubts as to the success of this phenomenological break from Cartesian metaphysics[3].  Considering these criticisms, as well as the fact that some believed Heidegger’s project to be a pointless exercise in the study of that which was impossible to analyse, it is clear that an assessment of such a magnanimous undertaking is important.

In this essay, I will make the claim that Heidegger was correct in his assessment of the need to break from Descartes’ dualism, yet in his establishment of an alternative, could not completely escape the framework of the Cartesian subject. I first show the terms of Heidegger’s break, outlining the meaning of ‘Being’, the concept of ‘Dasein’, and the importance of ‘time’ or temporality for such a theory. I then show how this not only represented a break from Descartes’ established subject/object dualism, but further offered an explanation for the proliferation and consolidation of such a lasting dichotomy. This will be important, as for Heidegger this issue alone justified the challenging of this tradition. In the second half of the essay, the strength of Heidegger’s claim will be evaluated through initially assessing the necessity of his new ontology, and then interrogating the coherence of his explication of Being as ‘ontologically prior’ to any Cartesian understanding of a ‘subject’ or an ‘object’. Though this essay mainly focuses on Heidegger’s work in Being and Time, I also draw from some examples taken from Heidegger’s other, later works, many of which tend to reject the use of the term ‘Dasein’ and approach the question of Being in slightly varying ways.

Being as a concept is clearly indispensable for the following analysis because it is the most important element of Heidegger’s break from the Cartesian tradition and moves away from an understanding of the world as a totality of subjects and objects. From his magnum opus Being and Time to his later works, Heidegger uses Being to express that which lies behind the revealing of entities as our perception of them as entities. For Heidegger, this perception of entities equates to a determination of them as such. In making an entity determinate, it is revealed to us in a certain way; referred to in this particular way; and, in turn, considered ontologically-defined in this specific way. As Being precedes these entities a priori, their appearing as entities can therefore no longer be considered the bedrock of ontological existence. Heidegger posits instead that we consider Being itself to be the most authentic ontology, leaving entities within the domain of ontic categorisation, with ontic in this sense referring to that which is determined and realised as an entity. In Being and Time, Heidegger even goes further with this idea of Being to provide an account of human Being: Dasein. This is the only form of Being which can reflect upon both its own Being and the Being of other entities in the world. Meaning that it not only understands itself in terms of that which is closest, but in this sense reveals entities in relation to their own use and foments an understanding of them.

This exemplifies why Heidegger saw the tradition of Cartesian dualism to be so misplaced. Descartes believed the world to be made up of res cogitans andres extensa: the thinking thing and the extended thing, and substance in this regard simply referred to those things which do not ‘depend on anything for their existence’[4]. As we have seen however, the existence of such entities for Heidegger was highly dependent on Being, and he ultimately argued that the Cartesian understanding betrayed ‘the most extreme tendency towards such an ontology’[5].  Further, this misunderstanding of the fundamental ontology of the world was, in Heidegger’s eyes, wholly symptomatic of the proliferation of the kind of Being which engendered such a view, as our very comportment towards and understanding of other forms of Being through Dasein provided the terms by which such entities were revealed to us. Though Heidegger had by this point dropped the use of Dasein, this can be seen more clearly in Heidegger’s essay The Question Concerning Technology, where Heidegger shows us a modern world of entities as ‘standing reserve’, as lying in wait and ‘on call for duty’, using the example of an airliner sitting on a runway and, in doing so, hiding its objectivity through its unconcealment as that which may be used for our own purposes.[6] This reification of both our understanding of entities and the way in which they revealed themselves to us in their existence was, for Heidegger, enough to necessitate his investigation into Being.

Crucial to this idea of Being though, was time—and the next component in Heidegger’s break from established ontology came in his interpretation of Immanuel Kant. Heidegger was fond of Kant’s ‘Copernican’ turn toward a transcendental understanding of knowledge, yet it was through Kant’s apparent shortcomings that Heidegger located the importance of ‘time’ or ‘temporality’ for a thorough explication of Being.[7] Kant’s ‘Schematism of the Pure Concepts of the Understanding’ offered Heidegger an explanation for how the categories of our own understanding could be ‘applied to appearances’, yet within this theory Heidegger also located a failure to break completely from Cartesian ontology.[8] In Heidegger’s eyes, Kant apparently ‘shrinks back’ from truly explaining how knowledge is gained transcendentally, by neglecting to show the temporal nature of ‘I think’.[9] In other words, by failing to show how our cognition occurs in temporality, Kant missed the ‘subjectivity of the subject’ and therefore missed the true nature of Being, falling instead into the trap of a dogmatic continuation of Descartes’ dualism. Without the idea of temporality, then, Being cannot be properly understood.[10]

The terms of Heidegger’s break from established ontology were, then, centred on both Being and time, through the ‘temporal horizon’ of Being freeing this ontological phenomenon from a kind of ontic stagnation wherein entities found themselves frozen in a specific determination.[11] This ultimately saw Heidegger wanting to not only break from the philosophical tradition of the day, but further to destroy the entire history of ontology up to that point, breaking from the chains of cogito into the as yet uncharted territory of sum. This alternative is a delicate one, however, as not only is Being a concept fraught with the potential for ambiguity, but such an endeavour into its existence needs desperately to distinguish itself from that which has come before it in a convincing manner if such a challenge is ever to be valid.

So the central problem in examining the validity of Heidegger’s challenge lies, quite paradoxically, in the nature of that which is sought. That is to say, the question of Being does not stand itself in stark opposition to a Cartesian dualist understanding of the world, it posits instead the analysis of that which precedes the formation of such an understanding. This means that our analysis will not present us with a zero-sum game whereby agreeing with Heidegger’s assessment invalidates a Cartesian conception of metaphysics. Rather, as Heidegger proposes another level to our understanding of existence in the world, a necessary extra step towards a new and deeper ontological bedrock, we are obligated to decide, first and foremost, whether such an inquiry is required. We can either take that which is encountered, determined, measured, and categorised as this bedrock of ontological existence, or follow such an investigation into Being and grant Heidegger the grounds to conduct his enquiry. The legitimacy of Heidegger’s claim therefore rests upon our judgement of the necessity of the enquiry itself. So when, in the introduction to Being and Time, Heidegger states that the ‘indefinability of being does not eliminate the question of its meaning, it demands that we look that meaning in the face’, we are, in fact, being deliberately presented with the justification upon which such an investigation is contingent.[12] Critiquing Heidegger’s assessment in turn requires firstly examining how effectively he is able to justify this need to look at the meaning of Being and, secondly, analysing just how well he differentiates his conception of Being from the long-established subject/object dualism of the Western tradition.

How well, then, does Heidegger outline the need for his investigation into Being? It is in the introduction to Being and Time that we can find an initial justification. Here, he begins by showing that the investigation cannot begin without tackling three prescient ‘presuppositions and prejudices’; that of the ubiquity of Being, the indefinability of Being, and the self-evident nature of Being.[13] The indefinability of Being is perhaps the most essential aspect of the need for its analysis. This is due to the fact that an acceptance of Being’s ‘universality’ which, as Heidegger points out, is conceded even by those who would disavow his investigation and cling only to the primacy of ‘ancient ontology’, means that, even as it cannot be conceived as an entity in any traditional sense, it is ever present in our understanding; inescapably acknowledged even when denied.[14] Further, it is also consistent in our language. A thing or person always is. I am a person. Das Fenster ist offen. Most languages exhibit such a phenomenon when involving a subject, object, or both. In much of our metaphysical understanding then, we can see a concession to Being itself, which ultimately sheds light upon an inescapable tension between Being’s omnipresence and its fundamental indefinability. A tension such as this tells us firstly, that there may well exist something worth investigating; and secondly, it tells us that, whatever Being is, it cannot be understood in terms of entities in the Cartesian tradition, otherwise it would have been addressed as such.

In the paradox generated by the clash of Being’s ubiquity with its apparent indefinability there arises both an opportunity and impetus for its analysis, yet objections may still arise regarding the plausibility of such an analysis. Even if Being is universally acknowledged while remaining as yet relatively undefined, what use would an investigation into its nature be if it is indefinable? Some philosophers have argued that Heidegger’s conception of reification of entities is flawed in relying on an a priori category of Being. Georg Lukács, for instance, saw reification as the negation of authenticity; the distortion of the social relationship rooted originally in the material conditions of society.[15] For Lukács, Heidegger’s seeking of Being as that which preceded the reification of entities was a misattribution, an unnecessary detour from the real issue of distorted social relations.Within such a rebuttal lies the crux upon which Heidegger’s foray into Being hinges, however. For Being to become definable, it would become entangled with that which Heidegger claims it precedes: a determination of entities through ontic categorisation. It may be claimed that in offering an initially material basis for the cause of human inauthenticity, Lukács bypasses this need for Being, even in Heidegger’s view. Yet so far-reaching is Heidegger’s claim to the wrongful ontology of Western philosophy, that, for him, even concepts such as spirit and consciousness are ontic categorisations preceded by Being. Any charges of superfluousness from other philosophers are in this sense answered by the phenomenological essence of Heidegger’s undertaking; when understanding that which is determined outside of temporality, each determination is a revealing which conceals both the phenomenological nature of that thing and its existence in the purest sense. Its Being.

Finally, if we are to grant the validity of Heidegger’s analysis of Being, we must assess its success in distinguishing itself as such. That is to say, the a priori, ontological world which Heidegger claims to explicate must be explained in such a way as to be completely distinguished from the history of Cartesian ontology which he aims to dispense with. We have already examined how Heidegger uses temporality to phenomenologically differentiate Being from the ontically defined dualism of the subject/object dichotomy, but some problems still arise when examining his concept of our own form of Being- that of Dasein. In showing us the properties of Dasein, Heidegger makes clear that Dasein is unique in its being the only mode of Being which can not only comprehend other forms of Being, but in doing so, can also inquire into itself. At first glance, this seems concurrent with the claim that Heidegger has successfully broken free from the prevailing ontological establishment. Dasein’s comportment towards entities allows their Being to gain a ‘Thingly’ character, as seen in Heidegger’s now famous example of a hammer hammering. The hammer becomes ‘ready-to-hand’ in its very manipulability, leaving other possibilities for its Being outside of its particular situational revealing.[16] The problem, however, lies in the fact that Dasein is here the existence which is granting such a revealing to the hammer. Though Heidegger is quick to point out that the entity ‘manifests itself in its own right’, the situation given must take into account the referential totality of the world which is, in Heidegger’s view, a category of Dasein itself.[17] This posits a dependence upon our own form of Being which sits uncomfortably close to the dichotomous metaphysics of Cartesian dualism. Heidegger himself professes such a viewpoint in his response to French-existentialists in the Letter on Humanism, where he claims ultimately to have failed in ‘turning away from metaphysics’ and abandoning subjectivity.[18]

Despite this and much of Heidegger’s later work betraying a disillusion with his initial project, the use of Dasein is clearly an unavoidable part of defining Being. Spring boarding off the revolutionary break of Kant from the established metaphysics of enlightenment philosophy, Heidegger infuses a temporal subjectivity into transcendental idealism which unshackles it from its dualist chains and opens up an entirely new world. With this philosophical journey in mind though, the focus on Being clearly owes a debt to the Kantian turn towards the experience of the subject, so cannot be expected to entirely break from the subject itself. Moreover, the very investigation that is being undertaken comes from us: the subject.[19] Any fatigue seen in Heidegger’s later work ultimately shows this realisation, especially when, in his aim to break from subjectivity, Heidegger begins to fall into a despondent cynicism towards human-agency.[20] Overall, I believe Heidegger initially achieves his task of breaking free from Cartesian dualism, yet his inability to break entirely from the primacy of the subject should not be considered proof of his failure, but rather symptomatic of the limits of the project itself. Twentieth-century philosophy alone is testament to Heidegger’s achievement. From Michel Foucault’s ubiquitous ‘power’ to Judith Butler’s temporal demarcation of the limits of sex, the invisible, a priori category of Being has found a place in the DNA of philosophy.[21]

Ryan is a dual Philosophy and Politics major with a particular interest in phenomenology, social and political philosophy, and the philosophy of history.


[1] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, (New York, Harper Perennial Modern Thought: 2008), 21.

[2] Martin Heidegger, “Nur Noch Ein Gott Kann Uns Retten” Der Spiegel 30, translated by W. Richardson as “Only a God Can Save Us” (1976): 193-219, in Heidegger: The Man and the Thinker, edited by T. Sheehan, 45-67. London: Transaction Publishers, 1981.

[3] Heidegger, Being and Time, 41.

[4] Rene Descartes. Principles of Philosophy. Springer Science and Business Media [1644] 1984: 20-35.

[5] Heidegger, Being and Time, 95.

[6] Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings (David Krell Ed.), (Harper Perennial Modern Thought, 2008), 333-40.

[7] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (Penguin Classics [1781]: 2007), 262.

[8] Ibid., 176.

[9] Heidegger, Being and Time, 45.

[10] Ibid., 45.

[11] Ibid., 39.

[12] Ibid., 23.

[13] Ibid., 22.

[14] Ibid., 22.

[15] Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics (MIT Press, 1972), 136.

[16] Heidegger,  Being and Time, 98-99.

[17] Ibid., 98-99.

[18] Heidegger, Basic Writings, 231.

[19] Matthew Shockey, “Heidegger’s Descartes and Heidegger’s Cartesianism.” European Journal of Philosophy 20, no. 2 (2012), 285-90.

[20] Heidegger, “Only a God Can Save Us,”  45-67.

[21] Hubert L. Dreyfus, “Being and Power.” International Journal of Philosophical Studies 4, no. 1 (1996), 1-10.

Works Cited

Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: on the Discursive Limits of “Sex”. London: Routledge, 2014.

Cassirer, Ernst. Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics: Remarks on Martin Heidegger’s Interpretation of Kant, Kant: Disputed Questions. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1967.

Descartes, René. Principles of Philosophy. London: Springer Science and Business Media, 1984.

Dreyfus, Hubert L. “Being and Power.” International Journal of Philosophical Studies 4, no. 1 (1996): 1-16.

Foucault, Michel. “The Subject and Power.” Critical Enquiry 8, no. 4 (1982): 777-795.

Guyer, Paul. Kant and the Claims of Knowledge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Hegel, Georg W. F. Phenomenology of Spirit. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Heidegger, Martin. “Nur Noch Ein Gott Kann Uns Retten” Der Spiegel 30, translated by W. Richardson as “Only a God Can Save Us” (1976): 193-219. In Heidegger: The Man and the Thinker, edited by T. Sheehan, 45-67. London: Transaction Publishers, 1981.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Thought, 2008.

———. Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics. Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1962.

———. On Time and Being. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Online: V.M. eBooks, 2016.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Suffolk: Penguin Classics, 2007.

Krell, David Farrell (Ed.) Basic Writings (Martin Heidegger). New York: Harper Collins, 2008.

Lukács, Georg. History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics. Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1972.

Shockey, Matthew. “Heidegger’s Descartes and Heidegger’s Cartesianism.” European Journal of Philosophy 20, no. 2 (2012): 285-331.

Featured image by Internet Archive Book Images via flickr


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