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The Centrality of Dasein: From Ontology to Existentialism

The early twentieth century can be viewed as a troubling time in philosophy. With the World Wars and global economic depression, it is not surprising that existentialism became a prominent school of philosophy: its interest in death, anxiety, and human authenticity certainly resonated with individuals who experienced all of these things regularly. Many popular existentialists—e.g., Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Simone de Beauvoir, &c.—were prompted in part by the work of Martin Heidegger. This presents a necessary question: what is it about Heidegger’s work that made such an impact on the Western world? In particular, what was it about Heidegger’s work that created fertile soil for existentialism to grow? Themes of death, anxiety, and authenticity are present in Heidegger, but the appropriation of these themes by other existentialists do not usually cohere with Heidegger’s original meaning. This is because Heidegger’s project was ontological and phenomenological, not existential. However, there is something present in Heidegger’s work that lays the foundation for existential and postmodern thinkers: the centrality of Dasein’s experience.[1] When Heidegger uses Dasein to interpret the world, he creates a deeply anthropocentric philosophy. This kind of focus inevitably leads to questions regarding Dasein itself, like its fear, anxiety, and death. Fear, anxiety, and death have great significance because Dasein is the entity to be studied in existential ontology. Because Heidegger believes Dasein is the key to understanding worldly spatiality, he inevitably highlights the themes that are developed by later existentialism and treated as a point of departure for new philosophical formulations.

To begin, we must examine the preliminary steps in formulating the question of Being. Heidegger believes the question of Being has been mostly lost or misunderstood. Although Being is self-evident, it always escapes our understanding.[2] For example, to ask “what is Being” already presupposes existence because of the “is.” To actually explore the meaning of Being, Heidegger believes the question must be formulated properly.[3] This preliminary formulation of the question is complex and nuanced, but it is important to understand for the sake of his overall project.

Heidegger perceptively notes that to even ask the question of Being means that Being is already known in some way.[4] He notes, “what we seek when we inquire into Being is not something entirely unfamiliar, even if at first we cannot grasp it at all.”[5] This is an important presupposition, as it shows that this inquiry into Being is rather paradoxical since it forms a hermeneutical circle. Because of the primordial experience of Being, simply asking the question of Being is a mode of Being, which creates a circular relationship.[6]  To accurately investigate Being, Heidegger believes proper formulation of the question gives an entry point into this hermeneutical circle.[7] A proper formulation means that even without an “explicit concept of the meaning of Being,” you can still investigate the nature of entities.[8]

Now that the nature and complexity of Heidegger’s investigation has been stated, let us consider some preliminary definitions. When Heidegger speaks of Being, he is not talking about things in the material world; he is also not talking about a supreme Being who is the origin of other beings.[9] Rather, Being simply means “that something is.”[10] Therefore, there are different modes of Being. To ask the question of Being must itself be a mode of Being, since no other being asks this question.[11] This makes a simple classification of two kinds of Being: entities and Dasein (“being-there”).[12] Hence, everything that is, has Being, including Dasein. However, unlike other beings or entities, Dasein—as noted above—asks the question of Being. Because of this, Heidegger believes the unique Being of Dasein gives it a certain primacy over other modes of Being, making Dasein the key focus of investigation into the question of fundamental ontology.[13] Since Dasein is the only entity which “exists” (i.e., comports itself in the world), it is also the only entity that asks the question of Being. This gives Dasein an ontological quality that other entities do not have, and consequently, becomes the primary focus in exploring ontology.

When Heidegger talks about “Being-in-the-world,” he is talking about a state that is essential to Dasein.[14] Being-in-the-world is an a priori structure of Dasein and simply denotes that Dasein is always concerned with other entities in the world. Through encountering entities in-the-world, Dasein experiences entities as either “ready-to-hand” or “present-at-hand.”[15] When an entity is “ready-to-hand,” it is used by Dasein to serve a specific end. Dasein, in a sense, bestows a telos onto the entity when it is “ready-to-hand.” This makes the entity intelligible to Dasein and without Dasein, entities have no intelligibility or meaning. Entities need Dasein to be in the world so that they are not merely present-at-hand, but ready-to-hand. However, once an entity ceases to serve the end that Dasein designated for it, it becomes “present-at-hand.” A good example of this is when Dasein loses a tool. Dasein has no regard for the tool qua tool, but rather as its own thing independent of how Dasein uses it. In this case, the object is “thus discovered” and “becomes conspicuous.”[16] It ceases to be a useful, ready-to-hand entity. Instead, it becomes an obtrusive thing—it becomes that thing that breaks what would otherwise be a harmonious interaction in-the-world.

In this case, an entity that moves from being ready-to-hand to present-at-hand is ontologically closer to you than other entities. This, then, has nothing to do with physical locality. For example, consider needing a hammer and a ruler for a job, and both tools are an equal (physical) distance from you. In this sense, they are both ready-to-hand. However, imagine if one tool was broken and could not be used for the job. In this case, that particular tool becomes present-at-hand because it occupies your attention; it becomes ontologically nearer to you than any other object in the workshop. This helps explain the relationship between “ready-to-hand” and “present-at-hand.” With this short sketch of preliminaries (viz., “Being-in-the-world,” “ready-to-hand,” present-at-hand”), we begin to get a sense of how Heidegger thinks about spatiality. When Heidegger talks about spatiality, he rejects the traditionally accepted Cartesian notion of space on the grounds that it overlooks the Being of Dasein. It is important to thoroughly explain Heidegger’s critique of Descartes and formulation of existential spatiality because it shows how the world is first and foremost understood as the world for Dasein.

According to Descartes, ontology is divided up into ego cogito (spirit) and res corporea (Nature). Furthermore, corporeal things have extension like “length, breadth, and thickness” and this is what comprises the world.[17] Heidegger believes these Cartesian formulations are entirely predicated on a faulty understanding of substantia.[18] Since substantia are considered entities that do not need any other entities in order to be, the meaning of their “Being” is unclear and ambiguous because any substance is seen as self-evidently being. The more primordial question of Being is bypassed altogether in this scenario. When all is considered, substantia and extension do not form a robust understanding of Being. To prove this point, Heidegger examines Descartes’ treatment of hardness and resistance.

According to Descartes, “resistance amounts to no more than not yielding place—that is, not undergoing any change of location.”[19] With this definition there is no other way to understand entities than as present-at-hand. Entities, including Dasein, simply are. This limited understanding of spatial relation only considers entities and Dasein to be measurements (extension) on a Cartesian coordinate system. However, describing the hardness and resistance of entities necessitates the phenomenological experience of Dasein encountering entities. To describe something as “hard” or “resistant” is predicated on Dasein’s Being-in-the-world.

To counter this limited view of Being and spatiality, Heidegger proposes his own account of Dasein’s spatiality of Being-in-the-world. First, Heidegger notes that readiness-to-hand has spatiality. To say something is close to Dasein is to say that something is familiar to Dasein.[20] Because Dasein relates to the environment this way, equipment cannot just be present-at-hand (contra. Descartes). Dasein’s interaction with equipment means that things can be ready-to-hand. Consequently, every piece of equipment is interrelated according to Dasein’s involvement in the environment. For example, consider Dasein in a bakery. In the bakery there is a myriad of equipment: dough, roller, a slicer, etc. Because the tools mean something for Dasein—or, because Dasein is involved with the tools— each tool has a proper place and relation to the other tools. This is what constitutes the spatial relation with things that are ready-to-hand.

Next Heidegger explains how spatiality is founded on Being-in-the-world. Rather than a Cartesian concept of spatiality, Heidegger suggests Dasein’s Being-in-the-world is the foundation for any experience of spatiality in the world.[21] When Dasein’s spatiality is observed, we find that it has desevereance.[22] “Desevereance” is a state of being for Dasein and “lets any entity be encountered close by as the entity which it is.”[23] As the German suggests, it is kind of like “unfaring.” Dasein naturally tries to bring things close so they are not far. But this is not like reducing physical distance. Indeed, it is a matter of things being ready-to-hand. In day-to-day experience (“everydayness”), Dasein is not always near things which are physical, spatially close to it. For example, if a friend randomly asked you: “can you drive me somewhere?” your car as an entity is now nearer to you than probably anything else in a physical environment. This is the de-severing mode of Dasein.

Heidegger’s conception of spatiality does not deny a Cartesian understanding of space. Instead, Heidegger believes Cartesian spatiality is only possible because of the existential spatiality of Dasein. Using Descartes’ conception of space as the foundation for understanding Being, as noted above, means all Being is presence-at-hand. Heidegger believes this view overlooks the more primordial and ontological significance of Dasein Being-in-the-world. Once Dasein Being-in-the-world is set as the foundation, Cartesian spatiality can be articulated, and can truly represent spatial relations accurately. However, Dasein’s existential spatiality necessarily precedes the Cartesian formulation. This view of space is one of Heidegger’s greatest contributions to Western thought, since it is a thorough critique of what has traditionally been held as a normative explanation of space. However, Heidegger creates new problems when he makes Dasein’s Being-in-the-world the foundation for spatiality.

Dasein’s Being-in-the-world constitutes the core of Heidegger’s ontology. What makes this so interesting, and also problematic in many ways, is that if Dasein’s relation to the world is the ontological foundation of the world, there is a deep interest in Dasein’s everydayness: its experience, moods, fears, and death. Of course, Heidegger is not the first to place great emphasis on man in-the-world: classical humanism did this as well. However, a humanist’s conception of the world is far different from Heidegger’s. A humanist would probably think of the world as established by the Logos or the Being of God. If this is the case, then conducting ontology is predicated on God’s existence—not the existence of Dasein. If God is not considered (which He is not for Heidegger), then perhaps Heidegger is justified in his ontological inquiry centering on Dasein. As this paper will proceed to argue, the centrality of Dasein highlights themes that later inspire existentialists.

Heidegger exhaustively examines the experiences of Dasein since Dasein is his primary interest in ontology. While Heidegger spends much time exploring different modes of Dasein’s Being, such as anxiety, I will explore the principle concept that informs these modes: Dasein’s “thrownness.” Since Dasein exists “factically” in-the-world, it has the quality of “thrownness” which reveals its facticity (i.e., a definite way of Being-in-the-world).[24] Because Dasein is “thrown into existence,” and “It exists as an entity which has to be as it is and as it can be.”[25] That is to say, since Dasein exists, it must always comport itself in-the-world; this is how it has “potentiality-for-Being” as an entity.[26] However, Dasein usually avoids the state-of-mind that will reveal its thrownness. “For the most part,” Heidegger notes, Dasein’s “mood is such that its thrownness gets closed off. In the face of its thrownness Dasein flees to the relief which comes from the supposed freedom of the they-self.”[27] This tendency of Dasein makes sense, as the experience of thrownness is uncanny, and such uncanniness is caused by Dasein’s being “face to face with the ‘nothing’ of the world.”[28] In this moment of uncanniness, Dasein is stricken with “anxiety about its ownmost potentiality-for-Being.”[29] This is a common experience that most people have at various points in life. There is often a deep anxiety over the thought of future possibilities—e.g., choosing a spouse or career. It is easy to distract yourself (through the “they-self”) from matters of ultimate concern, but as later existentialists will clearly note, this is an inauthentic disposition towards existence.

Dasein’s thrownness is most clearly expressed in its Being-towards-death. As mentioned above, realization of Dasein’s thrownness causes Dasein to be confronted with the potentiality-for-being and become anxious. This anxiety over potentiality is what Heidegger calls care.[30] This care is important, and not a bad thing, as it “forms the totality of Dasein’s structural whole.”[31] For Heidegger, “the primary item in care is the ‘ahead-of-itself’.”[32] This care is Dasein’s continual potentiality toward what is ‘ahead-of-itself.’ So, Dasein always lacks wholeness because it always has potential. And “as long as Dasein is as an entity, it has never reached its wholeness.”[33] Once there is no potential for Dasein, Dasein ceases to be.[34]

Thus, Dasein approaches death in two ways: either Dasein hides in the they-self and avoids death or Dasein exists with “freedom towards death—a freedom which has been released from Illusions of the ‘they’, and which is factical, certain of itself, and anxious.”[35] Being-towards-death is a part of Dasein’s thrownness. Just as in thrownness, Dasein either confronts its potentiality with anxiety or it retreats into the “they.” This articulation would resonate with any existentially-minded person.

Heidegger’s treatment of Dasein’s anxiety and death is built on his foundation for ontological inquiry: the centrality of Dasein. This seems obvious, but it elucidates how Heidegger is genuinely doing something quite different from existentialism, while simultaneously setting the stage for later existentialist thinkers. Whereas existentialists tend to start with the concepts of death, anxiety, and human subjectivity, Heidegger concludes with these ideas (and expresses them in a way that is different from most existentialism). While Heidegger is not the first philosopher to place philosophical primacy on man, his nuance of phenomenology and temporal existence provided fodder for existentialism to take root and grow in the early twentieth century.



[1] I.e., “human experience.”
[2] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (New York: Harper and Row, 2008), 23.
[3] Ibid., 24.
[4] Cf., Plato, Meno.
[5] Heidegger, Being and Time, 25.
[6] Ibid., “This entity which each of us is himself and which includes inquiring as one of the possibilities of its Being, we shall denote by the term Dasein” (27).
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid., 26.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid., 27.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid., 34.
[14] Ibid., 78.
[15] Ibid., 102.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ibid., 123.
[18] Ibid., 127.
[19] Ibid., 130.
[20] Ibid., 135.
[21] Ibid., 138.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Ibid., 139.
[24] Ibid., 223.
[25] Ibid., 321.
[26] Ibid.
[27] Ibid.
[28] Ibid.
[29] Ibid.
[30] Ibid., 279.
[31] Ibid.
[32] Ibid.
[33] Ibid., 280.
[34] Ibid.
[35] Ibid., 311.
Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York: Harper and Row Publishers, Inc., 1962.