Stimmung and wholeness

The main principle of the hermeneutic circle is that the sum is more than its parts. From a nursing researcher’s perspective, this principle also serves as the fundamental distinction between qualitative and quantitative research.

Unlike Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger did not use the scientific findings on human psychology and physiology to illustrate even the ontic aspects of being-in-the-world; instead he relied on insights from everyday experience as well as from unsettling experiences such as Angst and, via Hölderlin, the problematic of madness (which is not discussed in Being and time). One example from psychology, which is used in an article called On the madness and charm of crushes from the website of The philosopher’s mail (founded and possibly also co-written by Alain de Botton, a popular Swiss-British “philosopher of everyday life”), talks about the ability of our brain to fill out the missing details when looking at, say, the sketch of a face instead of a true-to-life portrait. The main point of the article is to discuss the everyday phenomenon of crush: just perceiving a few attractive details of a stranger in public or in a fleeting encounter is enough for us to project our idealisation of that man or woman on to that other whom we actually know nothing about.

In phenomenological terms, crush – Schwärmerei in German – is an example of what Heidegger calls Stimmung in Being and time; and like falling in love, it is not a topic discussed in his magnum opus. Yet crush as Stimmung can throw light on the workings of the hermeneutic circle, which supposedly comes naturally to Dasein: the wholeness of another, desirable person is projected based on perception of a few physical details. Yet once we get to know this person, perhaps even after the success of starting a love affair, he or she may turn out to be someone completely different from the one that we initially imagined and fantasised about.

And yet, given that the traditional theory of truth is replaced by the phenomenology of aletheia in the hermeneutic circle, is not Stimmung the only guideline that Dasein has in order to experience “truth”, even if turns out to be something quite other than truth as we normally understand it? Aletheia is phenomenological precisely because it stops us from thinking about truth as an object that can be attained with certitude: religious or ideological dogma can never be aletheia. Coming back to crush, its imaginative or illusory quality has nothing deficient about it – as cynics and Buddhists would put it – but entails the wholeness of the truth experience. Resonating with Nietzsche, we can say that in hermeneutics, truth is appearance; for aletheia is what is shown, i.e., the essential meaning of phenomenon itself. It naturally leaves us very vulnerable, perhaps even frightened, because of this complete absence of guarantee for our needs, dreams and desires in aletheia. The projecting open of Dasein is precisely that, and the temporality of futurity (Zukünftigkeit) can only come to us under the guise of the unknown.


Heideggerian critique of van Manen

Given the widespread adoption of van Manen’s “hermeneutic phenomenology” in doctoral theses in nursing theory, from a Heideggerian perspective it is imperative to point out the actual paucity of hermeneutic method in this Canadian theorist’s popular writings. For example, when it is stated in a recent PhD thesis from the University of Adelaide by Nooredin Mohammadi, A hermeneutic phenomenological inquiry into the lived experience of Muslim patients in Australian hospitals, that a nursing scholar can skip reading the “difficult” texts of Heidegger and Gadamer by turning to van Manen instead, implying therefore that the latter’s work is the culmination of the two German philosophers’ hermeneutic philosophy, nothing is further from the truth. Such methodological naïveté, if not outright error, hampers the growth of authentic hermeneutics in nursing theory and scholarship. In the Australian context, between 1998 and 2012 seven theses, Masters as well as PhD, are listed in the Libraries Australia catalogue (accessed 15 May 2014) as having used van Manen’s “hermeneutic phenomenology”. With one exception, which relates to education theory (van Manen’s own background), all came from the discipline of nursing studies.

The central thesis of van Manen’s “hermeneutic phenomenology” in his famous work Researching lived experience (referred to hereafter as van Manen 1990) is that thematic analysis of a written account of lived experience helps a researcher anchor its meaning. A theme is like a signpost in the narrative landscape of a lived experience that guides the researcher to the oft-hidden region of meaning embedded in the text.

However, can the very notion of “theme” be taken for granted in a hermeneutic approach to lived experience? The answer is no, and it is based on the primacy of ontological difference between being (Sein) and beings (Seiende) in the fundamental ontology (Fundamentalontologie) of Dasein analytic in Being and time (referred to hereafter as Heidegger 1996). In explaining the very question of thematisation (Thematisierung) in fundamental ontology, Heidegger looks at the forestructure (Vor-struktur) of Dasein‘s everyday understanding of being.

In the disclosure and explication of being, beings are always our preliminary and accompanying theme. The real theme is being. What shows itself in taking care of things in the surrounding world constitutes the pre-thematic being in the domain of our analysis. This being is not the object of a theoretical “world”-recognition; it is what is used, produced, and so on. As a being thus encountered, it come pre-thematically into view for a “knowing” which, as a phenomenological knowing, primarily looks toward being and on the basis of this thematization of being thematizes actual beings as well. Thus, this phenomenological interpretation is not a cognition of existent qualities of beings; but, rather, a determination of the structure of their being (Heidegger, 1996, p. 67).


Fundamentally speaking, the existential situation of Dasein is such that the everyday proximity of the ontic distracts Dasein from the deeper question of the ontological meaning of beings that are all around it in its being-in-the-world. The readiness-to-hand (Zuhandenheit) of beings disposes Dasein to view being as essentially pragmata: being as things that have the structure of “in order to”, e.g., the clock is used in our everyday life in order to tell time. This apparent obviousness in meaning actually conceals the ontological question of what it is in the first place that makes Dasein has the comportment towards beings as things. By determining the being of beings as pragmata, the thematisation of being itself withdraws from view. Acculturated as such, Dasein is ensnared by the false security of the forgetfulness of being (Seinsvergessenheit). There is no thematisation as such without ontological difference.

And yet, echoing Gadamer’s affirmation of prejudice (Vorurteil) as a necessary part of the hermeneutic circle, Dasein‘s all-too-ready understanding of the meaning of being as pragmata is not to be rejected outright, but is to be taken into view as an essential fore-sight (Vor-sicht) in its pre-philosophical seeing of being as being-in-order-to: prior to ontology is Dasein‘s comportment to being as homo faber, as a being who uses things to make other things that, too, are useful, in order to ensure survival, i.e., to prevent untimely death, in a hostile world. Simply speaking, the anthropology of Dasein cannot be conceived without the environing Zuhandenheit of beings. Hence the mode of being that is Zuhandenheit belongs to Dasein‘s fore-structure (Vor-struktur) in its hermeneutic engagement with the world and its inescapable being in it.

Kant famously declares in Critique of pure reason that being is not a predicate: this means that being does not provide us with any additional information about anything. It simply posits a thing – that a thing is. In other words, while everybody thinks, rightly or wrongly, that he or she understands what being means, there is something curiously empty about being as well. Being is a determination that does not say anything descriptive about a being, such as a tree or a book. Yet being plays a primordial role in the horizon of human understanding, otherwise Dasein will not be able to tell the difference between being and nothing, which means that philosophical thinking would not have been possible in human history at all. Given that this is not the case, there is something that can be called ontological priority in the universal question of being, as posed by none other than Dasein itself. And it is through Dasein that the traditional metaphysics of representational thinking of being as pragmata can be overcome and another way of thinking pointed at by Heidegger in his life work – which retrieves the question of being through a reflective recalling (andenkendes Denken) (Heidegger, 1998, p. ?) – can be invited into the primordial event of the hermeneutic circle. However, at the same time, Dasein must have the awareness not to reduce itself to a mere subjectivity that metaphysically represents the being of beings only through its own idea and image; the “I think” of Cartesian philosophy, which even phenomenology cannot free itself from in its historic beginnings under the guidance of Husserl, is not the essence, projection and unfolding of being (Sein).

Taking the above hermeneutic reflection into account, it is now clear that van Manen’s methodological reliance on the narrative of lived experience is an example of thinking continuously under the shadow of metaphysics; his nomenclature of “hermeneutic phenomenology” is hollow without the primordial way-showing of andenkendes Denken. Without this primordial way of thinking as indicated by Heidegger in the Greek spirit of daimonion – the inspirational, but also uncanny, shining in the showing in the phenomenon of aletheia that has always accompanied humanity -, there can be no Ereignis: the appropriation that is the coming of being to itself in the turning that is the full circle of ontological fulfilment.

Dasein, essence and freedom

Hermeneutics removes any notion of a fixed, metaphysical essence from Dasein and throws it into the constant flux of temporality. As temporal, Dasein is also a being of history and of destiny, both of which are intimately bound up with Dasein‘s understanding of being which is horizonally determined. The view from the top differs from the view from below; Dasein‘s understanding of being (Seinsverständnis), too, shifts and turns according to its interpretation of where it is at in the historicising temporalisation of its being-in-the-world (In-der-Welt-sein).

Language, truth and universality

That Dasein can make an assertion at all – that the southerly winds are cold or that someone seriously ill is dying – is based on the universal truth of the uncoveredness of being (Sein) qua beings (Seiende) that it has access to thanks to its ontological structure as being-in-the-world (In-der-Welt-sein) (Heidegger, 1988, p. 208). Without language, Dasein becomes ontologically impossible. Indeed Heidegger, in his postwar career, famously stated that “language is the house of being” (Heidegger, 1982 , p. 5). Were being to become homeless, Dasein cannot be in the world.

As being-in-the-world, Dasein is not only Mitdasein but also exists alongside other beings. Language, while at Dasein‘s disposal, is at the same time through which Dasein can express its being alongside other beings. Hence, as a whole, language is not the sum total of words but the existential expressivity of Dasein and carries its temporality, and hence its historicity, in the history of being (Heidegger, 1988, p. 208). The concept of historicity is significant in respect of language. Instead of transparency in meaning, Heidegger understands language as problematised by the advent of technology and of das Man, the average, anonymous person in mass society that impoverishes Dasein‘s potentiality-of-being. Viewing this problematic in the context of hermeneutics, it becomes clear that in order to understand what Dasein expresses in language, interpretation qua Mitdasein is required. In Truth and method, Gadamer sees this as an opportunity for “fusion of horizons” (Horizontverschmelzung) in Mitdasein and not a cause for pessimism. Its challenge, however, is taken up by an American philosopher from a non-phenomenological tradition such as Davidson, in what he calls “radical interpretation”, which in fact implies the existence of the hermeneutic Vor-Struktur in communication. This points to the universality of the hermeneutic circle, given that it is not confined to phenomenology and its practitioners’ insights.

In Being and time, the universal question of the meaning of being is asked, with no one final metaphysical answer (i.e., without any dogma), by way of fundamental ontology (Fundamentalontologie) in which Dasein, the being-in-the-world that we ourselves are when we live in ecstatic-temporal ek-sistence and do not degrade ourselves as mere objective presence among other beings, is the central character in the polemos of the question of being. Given that the structure of Dasein‘s understanding follows the movement of the hermeneutic circle, it can be said that fundamental ontology is the appropriate ontology for hermeneutics. Given that hermeneutics qua Dasein cannot do without language, Dasein uses language in a hermeneutic way, and this means in the form of the hermeneutic circle. Because of this, words do not actually refer to objects, but primordially express Dasein‘s comportment to being (Seinsverhältnis). Language and Dasein‘s mode of being are intimately bound up and cannot be understood separately from each other. Primordially speaking, language is translated into Dasein. This is the basic Ereignis of fundamental ontology, where being comes into the realm of the question of being and takes up residence in language as Dasein‘s expressivity.



Heidegger, Martin. (1982) On the way to language. Trans. by Peter D. Hertz. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Heidegger, Martin. (1988) The basic problems of phenomenology. Trans. by Alfred Hofstadter. (Revised edition) Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Heidegger and phenomenology

Is Heidegger’s philosophy “phenomenology”? Or was what he was doing in effect Ab-bildung (Heidegger, 1988) and Destruktion (Heidegger, 1996) from within the contemporary movement of phenomenology? To answer this question, it is useful to turn to The basic problems of phenomenology, which is based on Heidegger’s lecture course given in 1927 (Heidegger, 1988).

Comparing The basic problems of phenomenology to a recent translation of his lecture course given during the winter semester of 1919-1920, which is published as Basic problems of phenomenology (Heidegger, 2013), it is quite clear to the reader that in the space of seven years leading up to the publication of Being and time in 1927, Heidegger abandoned his initial hopes for the new movement of phenomenology to be capable of giving access to the essential question of being (Seinsfrage) in philosophical thinking. Through his re-interpretation and his appropriation of Dilthey’s hermeneutic questions during the same period in his early career, Heidegger was finally able to demonstrate in Being and time that the promise of ontological opening in phenomenology can only be carried out by “destroying” or “de-representing” (ab-bilden) the Cartesian transcendetalism of Husserl, the founding father of phenomenology and Heidegger’s original mentor, and uncover an Ereignis or an arche of appropriation where being (Sein) can be truly understood as being (Sein) by way of the hermeneutics of its standing place in the life-world (Lebenswelt), namely Dasein. In other words, Heidegger can only enter into the hermeneutic circle by abandoning Husserl’s vision and project.

Rigour and openness in philosophical hermeneutics

The hermeneutics of Being and time is evidenced by Heidegger’s subjugation of statement or proposition (Aussage or Satz) to interpretation (Auslegung). While the statement is the traditional site of truth in philosophy, the spirit of phenomenology will take us from statement to things themselves. Heidegger reminds us of Aristotle’s insight that for truth to be what it is, it must give us access to know beings as beings: “episteme, he theorei to on he on“, where philosophy is defined as “episteme tis tes aletheias” (Heidegger, 1996, p. 213). Phenomenologically appropriated, Aristotle’s understanding of a philosopher’s activity as “apophainesthia peri tes aletheias” is described by Heidegger as “demonstrating something and letting it be seen with regard to the ‘truth’ and in scope of the ‘truth'” (Heidegger, 1996, p. 213). The significant connections formed by Heidegger among to on he on, apophainesthai and aletheia enable him to bring the traditional problem of truth into the hermeneutic-phenomenological scope of fundamental ontology (Heidegger, 1996, p. 213). Hence Dasein‘s essence as an interpreting and understanding being and its potentiality-of-being as such come into play. The aforementioned triad in the phenomenon of truth has no validity or objectivity outside Dasein. To continue this argument further, it can be said that an ontological investigation into truth cannot be complete without interpreting and understanding Dasein‘s lived experience (Erlebnis) in its “thrownness” (Geworfenheit) as Mitdasein in its universal mode of being-in-the-world.

Apophainesthai, which brings being into light, cannot be conceived without sight. Seeing or sight, on both actual (physical) and metaphorical levels, is intimately bound up with the hermeneutics of Being and time. Sight, according to Heidegger, is an integral part of the fore-structure (Vor-Struktur) that constitutes the hermeneutic circle; in its pre-ontological form, it is called fore-sight (Vor-sicht). Vor-sicht, as the hyphenated form of the ordinary term Vorsicht (cautiousness) in order to emphasise implied circumspection (Umsicht) in the latter (in the sense of taking care), is used by Heidegger as an interpretive tool to demonstrate that in its being-in-the-world, Dasein is first and foremost circumspect about the environing of its being, which is filled with other beings both animate and inanimate. This existential circumspection saves Dasein from the metaphysical problem of either solipsism or scepticism; it can be said that hermeneutics is neither, and this implies the dawning of the third path in Western philosophy through Heidegger’s hermeneutic appropriation (Ereignis) in his contemporaneous overcoming of Husserlian transcendentalism, which isolates “consciousness” from Dasein‘s thrownness in the world, in the phenomenological movement of Germany.

Fore-sight, in hermeneutic terms, means the following: seeing “something as something” before it is thematised in a statement about it (Heidegger, 1996, p. 149). In other words, seeing (the as-structure) comes before asserting or describing via speech or writing. Invoking apophainesthai again, what Heidegger calls Lichtung – the clearing of being in light – is primordial to the hermeneutic circle. To be “cleared” (gelichtet), explains Heidegger, does not refer to the ontic properties of light, but to the opening up of Dasein in the temporal mode of care (Sorge) (Heidegger, 1996, p. 351). Only in care can Dasein be properly understood as a transcendent being, i.e., as a being that is neither merely “objectively” present (Vorhandenheit) nor merely for use (Zuhandenheit), but as being there for its possibilities in the unity of the three temporal ecstases (Ekstasen) that defines the horizonality of its projective understanding. Dasein‘s transcendence is in the da, not beyond it: the essence of Lichtung in apophainesthai.

It is the da in care that makes Dasein‘s seeing possible, and that includes its pre-ontological fore-sight in the fore-structure of its understanding of being; and not the ontic brightness of light. This is why the blind can “see” through the other senses and interpret their being-in-the-world. It can therefore be said that the ontological difference in fundamental ontology forms the basis of the hermeneutic circle. Without this awareness of primordial differentiation, interpretation cannot arise from understanding: it degenerates into “idle talk” (Gerede), which basically cannot find a home in temporal ecstasis and gets blown about like dust in the wind. Conversation is hermeneutic if and only if hermeneutics is authentically and resolutely understood and carried out as interpretive fundamental ontology.

Dasein is hermeneutical: fundamental ontology as methodology of hermeneutics

When identifying a philosophical method in Being and time§63, which is positioned quite late in the book on page 311, sums up the promising hermeneutics of the Dasein analytic pursued by way of fundamental ontology in the sections before it. Called The hermeneutical situation at which we have arrived for interpreting the meaning of being of care, and the methodical character of the existential analytic in general, Heidegger reminds his readers that Dasein, as a being who has the meaning of being as its issue, is first and foremost a hermeneutic being, in that self-interpretation belongs to its being (Heidegger, 1996, p. 312). Given that, on the practical level, understanding of being can be situated anywhere along the spectrum of ontic-ontological differentiation, hermeneutics teaches us that even on the most basic ontic level, Dasein already has a pre-ontological understanding of what existence is. In other words, that something is, Dasein already has some notion of what it means. It is for this reason that extinction and nothingness can be explained even to the Dasein of a child. Understanding of being indeed belongs to the existential wholeness of our being as Dasein

The ontic-ontological differentiation, or the ontological difference that holds up the project of fundamental ontology (Dasein analytic) in Being and time, determines the struggle for Dasein in its tendency, by virtue of the everydayness of its being-in-the-world, to become lost in worldly cares and concerns, both of which can be subsumed under the primordial phenomenon of care (Sorge) in Dasein. Heidegger’s primary existential insight in Being and time is that Dasein “falls prey” to the ontic obfuscations of the everyday and of “the they” (das Man). For most of its wakeful hours, Dasein tarries in a state of “fallenness”, where the lack of ontological disclosure (aletheia) holds sway. Hermeneutics, then, has almost the spiritual task of pulling Dasein up from its lostness in inauthentic temporality: it is ontological redemption. Hermeneutics, as a project of authenticity, may come as a shock to the ontologically slumbering Dasein. Heidegger asks, in §63, “Does not then the violence of this project amount to freeing the undisguised phenomenal content of Dasein?” He then goes on to ask whether this “violence” is arbitrary or belongs to hermeneutics itself (Heidegger, 1996, p. 313). 

It is upon Dasein‘s presupposed notion, or pre-philosophical understanding, of being (Sein) and existence (Existenz) in general that Heidegger founds his hermeneutic circle. In other words, the Vor-Struktur of understanding is what enables Heidegger to proceed with hermeneutics in a philosophical manner, freed from any general metaphysics of Western philosophers before him that he accuses of the guilt of the “forgetfulness of being” (Seinsvergessenheit). The arising of Vor-Struktur is unique in that it is not based in theory and metaphysics, but in the lived experience (Erlebnis) of existence – the existence of the self-interpreting and self-understanding Dasein. Herein lies the most important insight of Being and time that, like an uncanny lightning that suddenly appears from nowhere, illuminates the landscape of philosophy in a totally unfamiliar manner. The conscience (Gewissen) of Dasein becomes not the place of confusion, nihilism and false hope, but where being calls to Dasein in its fundamental atttunement (Stimmung) to being in its myriad ways comportment (Verhältnis) towards it. For it to be philosophical at all, hermeneutic circle has fundamental ontology (Fundamentalontologie) as its methodology. As fundamental, and hence primordial, Heidegger’s ontology is not an ontic science, but hermeneutics of ontological difference, which grants access to understanding of being as being (Sein), and not just one among beings (Seiende). In so far as transcendence (Transcendenz) can be spoken at all, it is in Dasein‘s understanding of being as being. Given that Dasein is a being which, in its being, is a being-towards-death (Sein zum Tode) in its anticipatory futurity (Zukünftigkeit), Heidegger can describe the ecstatic-temporal character of the existence of Dasein as its transcendent disclosure.

Since the advent of the phenomenological movement in the 1920s, realism, given its naïve standpoint on the definition of being as objective presence, has its once dominant position continuously challenged. Under Heidegger, phenomenology found its correct path in the veritable tradition of hermeneutics. And through working further on the unfinished problematic of lived experience in Dilthey’s attempt to revive hermeneutics as a historical science, Heidegger brings interpretation and understanding into the central concerns of fundamental ontology, i.e., an ontology that sets about its task by differentiating the ontic and the ontological, such that hermeneutic circle can never descend into the vicious circle of limiting being (Sein) to beings (Seiende). In lived experience, Dasein is not merely a thing, or only a presence among many in the world, but in its potentiality-of-being (Seinkönnen), is capable of telling, and sometimes even foretelling, how an experience is lived in reference to the entire horizon of its care (Sorge). And as an individuated being, a being that is capable of calling something “mine”, lived experience, qua Dasein, is never one and the same in the universal phenomenon of being-in-the-world. In hermeneutics, universality is never uniformity; yet the universality of being-in-the-world is greater than the sum of all individual lived experiences of Dasein, which allows Dasein to have understanding of being as a whole.

Hermeneutics thrives on a reading of indicators (Anzeigen). It is a form of reading that requires experience in interpreting and understanding lived experiences, those that belong to oneself as well as others in the horizon of Mitdasein, hence in the structure of care in “being-with”, both of which are primordial to our understanding of being. Lived experience is interpreted and understood in the horizon of the temporality (Zeitlichkeit) of the being of Dasein. As Heidegger writes in §63,

Primordially constituted by care, Dasein is always ahead of itself. Existing, it has always already projected itself upon definite possibilities of its existence; and in these existentiell projects it has also projected pre-ontologically something like existence and being (Heidegger, 1996, p. 315).

In being ahead of itself, Dasein, in its temporal projection of being, leaves behind the past and orients itself towards the future, such that the present is never the same: the existence of Dasein, hence its lived experience, is subject to the Heraclitean law of constant flux. In individual existence, death is the final horizon beyond which lived experience cannot pass. In order to go beyond the ontic, a nurse researcher doing qualitative research must not settle only on the details of a patient’s lived experience, but strive to aim for an understanding of the wholeness of its hermeneutic circularity. Dasein, in the horizonal unity of the three ecstases of past, present and future, is not a being to which time “does” something, but is actively ecstatic-temporal in the existential projection enabled by its potentiality-of-being. While there is never any delusion that Dasein can one day become the whole of being itself, such as the Christian notion of God as summum ens, Dasein is nevertheless in its incompleteness at any point in time, has its own structural whole in the fore-sight (Vor-sicht) of its care about the meaning of being. Because of the ever-present possibility of deadliness of the disease itself, a cancer patient still in her youth and a cancer patient receiving end-of-life care can both pose the existential question, “What does it all mean?” It is to this “all” that the nurse researcher doing qualitative research must direct her attention primarily and resolutely. The value of a research into lived experience is determined by whether Dasein, e.g., the Dasein of a young adult patient struggling with the narrowing of the horizon of her existential possibilities through cancer, is understood in its wholeness, i.e., on the ontological level. A mere chronicle of narration by the patient captures only the ontic details of her Dasein and awaits a thorough hermeneutic appropriation. Referring back to the methodological question posed by Heidegger that is quote above, what he means by “violence” is precisely the philosophical liberation of Dasein from pre-ontological naïveté. Dasein‘s projection upon the possibilities of its being is not a mere falling, but a full leap of hermeneutic awareness.