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.


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