Martin Heidegger’s Unanswered Question About Being and Time

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The House where Heidegger was Raised. Author: Zollernalb, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Shown here is the house where Heidegger was raised. Image by Zollernalb.

Martin Heidegger’s controversial ideas influenced the development of Continental thought, notably the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre and the deconstructionism of  Jacques Derrida.

Heidegger (1889-1976) was born in Messkirch. He became interested in the priesthood and studied theology and philosophy at the University of Freiburg in 1909. He began teaching at the University of Marburg in 1922 and published his first important work, Being and Time, in 1927.

Heidegger’s “Thrownness into Being”

Heidegger describes human existence as a “thrownness into being” which translates as “Geworfenheit ins Dasein.” This thrownness into being indicates that Dasein is already there in the world. “This implies, not merely that man is constitutionally unable to establish relationships with things or persons outside himself; but also that it is impossible to determine theoretically the origin and goal of human existence,” says George Lukacs in his essay, “The Ideology of Modernism.”

Therefore, man remains isolated within his own experience; he has no history, and no reality beyond self.

Dasein’s Temporal Determinateness

The term “Dasein” means difference, as explained by Peter Sedgwick in “Two Ontologies.”

Sedgewick says: “It recognizes the fact that its own Being can be an issue for it. Dasein has an existence to which it relates and this existence is its Being. Therefore, man is distinct from other entities such as dogs or stones, which are not conscious of themselves.”

Dasein understands entities other than itself, for example, the above dogs and stones. This provides a basis for understanding the ways in which Dasein relates to temporality. We understand ourselves through our reflections upon the world in which we live. You cannot see what allows you to engage in seeing in the first place, according to Sedgewick.

The difficulty is that there is no way of separating Dasein from the concept of Being in time. This, Heidegger calls “Dasein’s temporal determinateness.”  It is impossible for us to understand ourselves as anything but historical beings; we simply have to accept that we exist in time and must consider ourselves as what we were as well as what we are.

Heidegger, in his own words: (English Subtitles)

We Can Only Understand Ourselves in Time

The negative side of this is that we are aware we shall eventually die and we perform our actions only to distract ourselves from this inevitability. That it is necessary for us to interpret ourselves on the basis of our understanding of our past imposes a tradition upon us. We are in time, and, therefore, we can only understand ourselves in time, for our past precedes us. “Therefore, Being and Time are conjoined,” says Sedgewick.

This argument leads to the question of whether time manifests itself as the horizon of Being, which, in turn, suggests that the argument can have no beginning and no end. Interpretation is essentially horizontal and so incapable of attaining absolute completion.

Stephen Mulhall, in his book Heidegger and Being and Time, points out that, although it might be true that interpretation might never be absolutely completed: “The fact that a text ends by posing further questions does not entail that it is essentially incomplete.” (Heidegger’s use of the adjective “absolutely” is superfluous since if something is complete it does not need a qualifying adjective.)

A Question with No Answer

Richard Rorty, in his essay, “Heidegger, Contingency and Pragmatism,” says: I think that Heidegger goes on and on about the question of Being without ever answering it, because Being is a good example of something we have no criteria for answering questions about.”

In her book, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, Iris Murdoch says that Heidegger, like Arthur Schoepenhauer and Derrida, regards speculating on what actually exists as merely a game. In the end, Murdoch says, Heidegger’s philosophy is profoundly pessimistic. He comments on Friedrich Nietzsche’s pronouncement, “God is dead.”  It means, “The supra-sensory world is without effective power. It bestows no life. Metaphysics… understood as Platonism, is at an end.”  (Quoted by Iris Murdoch from an essay, “The Word of Nietzsche,” based on Heidegger’s Nietzsche lectures given between 1936 and 1940.)

Briefly a Nazi Sympathizer, Eternally an Intellectual

After being implicated as a Nazi sympathiser during World War II, the Allies prohibited Heidegger from teaching. Although this affected his career, his one-time association with the Nazi party did not taint Heidegger’s philosophy.

One-time tutor of the Jewish political theorist, Hannah Arendt, Heidegger died in May 1976 with a stain on his character, yet the legacy of his influential and distinguished intellectual career remains with us today.


Lukacs, George. The Ideology of Modernism Literature in the Modern World. (1990). Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Sedgewick, Peter. Descartes to Derrida. (2001). Blackwell Publishers Ltd., Oxford.

Mulhall, Stephen. Heidegger and Being and Time. (1996). Routledge Philosophy Guidebook. London and New York

Rorty, Richard. Heidegger, Contingency and Pragmatism: Essays on Heidegger and Others. (1991). Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Murdoch, Iris. Martin Buber and God: Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals. (1992). Penguin Books.

Murdoch, Iris. Schopenhauer: Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals. (1992). Penguin Books.

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© Copyright 2013 Janet Cameron, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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