Understanding of being precedes perception: hermeneutica a priori

Phenomenology is not realism, in that the real is dependent on Dasein‘s understanding of being (Seinsverständnis) without which sense data make no sense to it. Sense is not borne out by perception per se; it is existentially mediated qua Dasein. Phenomenology is not idealism either, because it accepts the reality of the external world; Dasein is being-in-the-world (In-der-Welt-sein). It is just that for a phenomenologist, it does not make sense to talk about the real world without understanding what being is first. It is the task of philosophical phenomenology to elevate Dasein‘s understanding of being above and beyond the pre-ontological level of understanding that characterises the naïveté of common sense.

Vorhandenheit and Zuhandenheit: hermeneutic signposts

In essence, the distinction between Vorhandenheit and Zuhandenheit in Dasein‘s comportment to beings (Seiende) in its being-in-the-world allows the inscription of meaning onto what is pre-phenomenologically speaking an “absurd” array of things positioned spatio-temporally in the constant “worlding” (Welten) or environing that happens as Dasein goes about the business of its existence in the projection enabled by its potentiality-of-being (Seinkönnen). There is no stopping to all this until Dasein expires through death as the finality of its finitude on earth. The metabolism of the body in life is no match for the incessant demand on the inscription of meaning on to beings that Dasein‘s wakeful moments bring to itself. Consciousness in being-in-the-world involves the metaphysics of meaning. It is therefore the dynamic interplay of Vorhandenheit and Zuhandenheit that makes possible the social being of Dasein – to which, work, among many things such as play, feasting, gardening, etc. belongs. Zuhandenheit – as that fundamental mode of being of a non-Dasein which allows Dasein‘s access to it, primarily as a tool (Werkzeug) (although in an unideal Mitdasein, Dasein can indeed use one another as tools through manipulation and exploitation), opens up and structures the societal interrelations of multiple existents of Dasein (through Mitdasein), making possible our freedom from solipsism in a bewildered, depressive encounter with undefined Vorhandenheit, or brute existence. Zuhandenheit is the primordial “clearing of being” (Lichtung des Seins) in terms of Dasein‘s relational existence with one another and with the world as a whole, making hermeneutically possible the understanding of the whole überhaupt. Significantly, by way of Zuhandenheit Dasein is enabled to understand that beings (Seiende) are not mere occurrences in space. Instead the orientation of “zu” opens up the ever present possibilities of beings being interpreted as to their relevance and meaningfulness in Dasein‘s dwelling in the world. In this sense beings qua Zuhandenheit are not to be understood solely in terms of equipmentality or tool-being, but as a clearing of being where Dasein‘s comportment towards being qua beings comes to be. It is not that Dasein is the measure of all things; Zuhandenheit is. Zuhandenheit enables the world to be a Lebenswelt for Dasein, and not a mere sum total of occurrences. Because of this, Zuhandenheit introduces time into the world, whereby Dasein exists temporalised (gezeitigt) in temporality (Zeitlichkeit). Temporality, as the horizon of finitude of being, enables Dasein not only to be, but also to die – instead of merely ceasing to exist upon the exhaustion of its time on earth. Death is the measure of meaningfulness in existence in Lebenswelt. Thanks to death, Dasein cannot exist as mere occurrence in the spatiality of the world.

Zuhandenheit emancipates Dasein from a reductive misunderstanding of beings as mere objective presence. On the metaphysical level, Zuhandenheit does away with the vexing dualism between subject and object: Dasein‘s primordial comportment to being in its nearness to and association with beings (Seiende) is established upon the hermeneutics of ontological difference that allows for authenticity in its existential orientation to beings both Dasein and non-Dasein. Beings in the world do not take up a stance against Dasein, as in the traditional interpretation of an “object” as Gegenstand. Instead, Dasein and beings are existentially and inextricably bound up together in the totalising wholeness of the primordial phenomenon of understanding of being (Seinsverständnis). The irreducible Mitsein of beings in the world, therefore, is the fundamental way to describe the world, hence reality; to be is to be with (mit). Solipsism is an existential impossibility and an idle mental game. The metaphysical struggle between realism and idealism that has troubled Western thought for centuries now ceases at once in the coalescence of the understanding of being. It is by virtue of Zuhandenheit that we can understand that tool-being belongs with Mitsein, yet Mitsein is itself not tool-being. The phenomenology of acquisition of skills, participation in learning and working in cooperation highlights the fact that for tool-being to make sense and to be useful at all, the bringing together of this and that Dasein in the Mitdasein of learning and teaching is an essential first step. When this social process in Mitdasein is problematic, the relation of Dasein and the tool-being of a tool comes up against an obstacle, with the relation becoming unproductive – at least temporarily, or perhaps much longer. Zuhandenheit is disrupted.

Zuhandenheit throws into question the traditional metaphysical separation of theoria from praxis. As a philosophical alternative Zuhandenheit offers the new insight that theoria and praxis are interwoven through the metra (measure) of the understanding of being: distinction and difference are but the cleavage (Zerklüftung) in the sameness in being. Through Zuhandenheit we can get an appreciation of how ontology operates in the everyday world of doing and making by bringing thought and action together in the unity of being that the ontic-ontological distinction always refers back to under the aegis of ontological difference in fundamental ontology (Fundamentalontologie). While distinction withstands erasure, at the same time it affirms the primordial onefold (Einfalt) of being – the horizon against which all interpretations qua understanding of being take place in time. Zuhandenheit is the humanisation of Dasein in this universal interpretation.

Heidegger defines the being of Dasein as the potentiality-of-being (Seinkönnen) (Heidegger, 1996, p. 283) – that Dasein is a being which, for it to be, has its own being as its concern, which in turn is fundamentally determined by the existential structure of care (Sorge). As Heidegger explains in Being and time, care has the four structural moments of understanding, attunement, entanglement (falling prey) and discourse, with each having its own temporality (Heidegger, 1996, p. 309). In its projection upon the world, Dasein is always and already oriented towards Zuhandenheit as the primary access to the being of beings (Sein der Seienden) other than itself. This orientation also takes up a great part of Dasein‘s care for itself and others in its being-in-the-world. Interpreted on the everyday level, Dasein cares that “things” are working: literally and metaphorically. Things refer not only to tools, but also to relationships that shape Dasein.

Ontological difference, presence-at-hand and ready-to-hand

Heidegger’s rejection of the presence-at-hand (Vorhandenheit) as the predominant mode of being that Dasein encounters in its being-in-the-world (In-der-Welt-sein) – its spatiality of being-in (In-sein) – has a deep implication for the integration of hermeneutics into philosophy. This is because Dasein is, by its very definition, a being that has comportment towards being (Seinsverhältnis). Dasein simply cannot exist in isolation and in indifference. Unlike Husserl before him, Heidegger reinterprets “intentionality” in terms of the spatio-temporality of Dasein‘s being-in, namely in its fundamental relatedness to the “worlding” (Welten) of the world. Worlding is what makes the world being, and not nothing. It is a fundamental-ontological form of clearing (Lichtung) of being in that it discloses in an irreducibly primordial way how and what being is: being-in.

It is in this light that Heidegger’s contrasting of presence-at-hand with ready-to-hand (Zuhandenheit) is to be understood. Instead of advocating an instrumentalist theory of existence, what Heidegger wants to achieve is to demonstrate that Dasein fundamentally relates to beings in ways that it can relate to them. In other words, to be confounded by a being is a sign that Dasein cannot relate to that being. Dasein relates through understanding, which is enabled by interpretation, i.e., making sense of something or making something intelligible, in an unceasing movement between the part and the whole that constitutes the hermeneutic circle of the fundamental phenomenon of understanding (Verstehen). In essence, ready-to-hand makes possible what Gadamer describes as prejudice (Vorurteil) in understanding and as something not to be methodologically rejected. Coincidentally, or perhaps synchronistically, this is also the position of quantum physics, which holds that time makes any methodological ignoring of the input of the observer as nonsensical. That Heidegger was in fact drawn to the contemporary advances in quantum physics only serves to illustrate the fundamental affinity between the hermeneutic thinking of phenomenological philosophers and the quantum insights of the new generation of scientists. Indeed the phenomenological turn in philosophy during the early 20th century heralded a holism of human thought never before seen in the long Western tradition of metaphysics: the being-in of the possibility of thinking as such.

Queer space in light of Lefebvre

Between the late 1990s and the early 2000s queer theorists in the West increasingly turned towards Lefebvre in order to understand the social production of queer space in Western society. Queer bodies do not exist in neutral space, but in a space that they produce through the performativity of their queerness in the temporality of their being-in-the-world. This is a fundamental theory that takes queerness as a human phenomenon in its own right, independent of any value judgement concerning “normality” or “perversity”. Through assimilating Lefebvre’s insights on the multiplicity of human orientations and performances in the primordial stratum of everyday life, queer theorists are able to demonstrate that queerness is part and parcel of society in its totality, regardless of what beliefs and opinions that the majority or the mainstream in any society may have about sexual identity and practice outside the heterosexual norm. Where ther is oppression against the queer minority, Lefebvre’s emancipatory notion of spatial justice becomes immediately relevant.

It is not until after the first decade of the 2000s that queer theory of space directs its attention to non-Western homosexual communities living in non-Western countries. This is markedly different from analysis of non-Western queer communities in Western society. Here the theoretical point of departure draws its strength from case studies of queer minorities living in their native society where it is not their non-Western ethnicities that place them in the position of a minority, but their queerness.

Unlike America (Rushbrook 2002), for example, queerness in China is striking in its relative invisibility. For mainstream society anywhere, to be not seen means not to exist – being out-of-sight is tantamount to relegation to nothingness.

The reorganisation of sexuality purely along the lines of what Kristeva calls jouissance – the full spectrum of bliss, joy and pleasure only possible for a sexual being – is predicted by scientists to be possible by the year 2050, when human reproduction can be achieved on a societal scale simply through IVF. The stigma of the “sinfulness” of queerness in the eyes of religion because of its non-reproductive nature will become totally irrelevant. What matters is not whether babies can be produced through sex, but whether the pleasure of the human erogenous zones can be enjoyed at its optimum level. Sex, once it stops being socially conceived as being necessary to the reproduction or perpetuation of the human species, becomes pure intimacy and pleasure. Through science, nature as the distribution and mapping of erogeneity on the human body can be harnessed in the social production of jouissance.

Space, meaning, identity, Dasein: spatiality as hermeneutic circle

Without hermeneutic awareness, social theories tend to understand the meaning of space as something that humans “subjectively” ascribe to; in the case of minority identities such as the LGBT community, this meaning is thus understood as an act of social defiance, firming up a “subversive” subjectivity which otherwise will be covered over by mainstream prejudices and pressures that threaten the freedom of aletheia in “coming out”. However, given that Dasein is constitutively projected as being-in-the-world, the spatiality of being is what Dasein is. Temporalised as being-towards-death, Dasein is its own space within its being-in-the-world: the two are hermeneutically inseparable. The understanding of space is bound up with Dasein, yet not by virtue of any “subjective” willing on its part. Space is Dasein; the spatiality of space, Dasein‘s being-in-the-world in its essential mode of dwelling on earth as “being-in”.

Zuhandenheit (ready-to-hand) and the hermeneutics of tool-being or of handiness of object-being

In Being and time Heidegger provides a phenomenology through which fundamental ontology, as the primordial theory of existence that grasps being as it is without the metaphysical distortions of traditional philosophy, approaches the ecstatico-temporal existence of Dasein with an emphasis more on homo faber rather than homo sapiens. Phenomenology, by its hermeneutic turn in Heidegger, places being-in-the-world (In-der-Welt-sein) before epistemology – or praxis before theoria. This is because Dasein, as existent (existierend), exists through being “thrown” (geworfen) in the world while projecting itself through the three ecstases (Ekstasen) of time (past, present, future).

By its very definition, the “hermeneutic” assumes a horizon of finitude in the phenomenon of understanding, against which interpretation takes place as being (Sein) appropriates the being of Dasein. Dasein is never equal to the full plenitude of being, nor its abyssal nothingness – in fact it exists through a fundamental ontological differentiation between being (Sein) and beings (Seiende). The finite horizon of Dasein in its understanding of being (Seinsverständnis) means that it is oriented towards the world in which it exists, not alone but in the “thrown” phenomenon of Mitdasein – being-with-one-another as the sociality of the human being – in one way or the other, so that it is sensible for us to talk about Dasein‘s existential pathway. Being both hermeneutic and phenomenological, Dasein does not walk its path in the abstract, nor in the abstraction of knowledge, but in a fundamental attunement to the presence (Vorhandenheit) of other beings. Presence as the foremost mode of being (Seinsmodus) in the world, which makes possible the manifold of phenomena – both visible and invisible, tangible and intangible, sustainable and threatening – enables and in fact empowers Dasein to exist among beings in its being-in-the-world and not be shocked into a permanent state of bewilderment. A child grows up and learns precisely because this mode of being is integral to Dasein from birth to death.

Homo faber perceives what is all around in the form of beings and based on learning and experience, understands immediately which are the ones that he or she can get hold of and make use of in a useful way. Sticks are useful in good quantities to start a fire which provides light and warmth and enables homo faber to cook and to gather and build bonds with other human beings. The way of homo faber ensures survival, upon which existence is dependent in a most fundamental way. Existence is continued existence – what in German is aptly called Fortbestand. Given Dasein‘s finitude, its continued existence, hence survival, can never be taken for granted, for the simple reason that it is not a metaphysical necessity. A species that cannot feed itself becomes extinct. Existence, and hence Dasein, is contingent upon what Heidegger describes in section ? in Being and time as the Zuhandenheit of beings in the world, the fundamental condition where being appropriates Dasein by granting access to the .

Hermeneutic understanding is made possible by death – the horizon of mortality as opposed to eternity. Yet death is not the now but is Dasein‘s potentiality-of-being (Seinkönnen) in the futural (zukünftige) thrownness (Geworfenheit) of its being-in-the-world.

To think philosophically

The main question is: Wie soll man philosophisch fragen? To ask a question philosophically is an attenuated reflective moment when the act of questioning itself is placed within the hermeneutic circle of the question of being.

Being is eminently “questionable” because each of us, in our Dasein as being-in-the-world, can ask, “Why is there being rather than nothing?”

Worlding (Welten) and un-worlding (Unwelten)

Dasein, in being applied to the phenomenon of human existence, describes a world that is a world of thrownness and engagement, and temporalised in both its transience and its endurance. As factical, Dasein is being-in-the-world (In-der-Welt-sein); through Dasein, the world is what Heidegger calls “worlding” (das Welten), a phenomenon which happens in and through time. As the world “worlds”, it brings Dasein into this happening, an Ereignis that opens up Dasein‘s own possibilities in its ecstatic-horizonal projection upon the horizon of the question of being (Seinsfrage), which Dasein itself always is. For Dasein itself is a question, never a final answer – that is the meaning of the temporalisation of being.

But death – it “un-worlds”, and Dasein is no longer there (da). And yet, as Heidegger shows in Being and Time, death is Dasein‘s ownmost possibility of being. Hence being and nothingness, life and death, are intertwined – in the throes of ecstatic-horizonal temporalisation which is the lifelong phenomenon of being-toward-death (Sein zum Tode). To be in the world and to be no longer in the world – both are faces of the same head of being as such. This “monstrosity” (“Ungeheuerheit“) in the phenomenality of being is what makes Dasein tremble (zittern) in face of the abyss (Abgrund) of its own inherent nothingness that “un-worlds” at the same time as Dasein itself ceaselessly “worlds” itself in its everyday relationality with the living that forms its own world, and which we call “one’s life”. This is precisely where we can phenomenologically point at the popular obsession with Erlebnis (lived experience) as the closing off of the possibilities of being that death bestows upon us. Death is much more than the ontic being of coldness and rotting; it is the ultimate paradox, in that it is life itself.



Plenitue of being (Sein)

The factical plenitude of being (Sein), which is readily observable in nature as well as in society – though often less aesthetic in the latter -, tempts us to think that being is an abstraction and a metaphysical superfluity that is best done away with. Not this or that being, but the plenitude of beings in this or that totality as the phenomenally observable and the phenomenologically thinkable, is enough to carry us through the temporal projection of Dasein that we ourselves are. Why keep being (Sein) in order to maintain the hermeneutic circle in understanding?

Our thought is now brought back to the hermeneutic adage: the whole is greater than the sum total of its parts. Being (Sein), therefore, is not merely plenitude, but an excess, an overflow.

Being as question, and its call

Being as question – Sein als Frage – is the main stance, i.e., the principal theoretical orientation, in fundamental ontology as expounded by Heidegger in Being and time. It is the core of hermeneutic circle, which means that as long as one practises hermeneutics, the question of being remains the underlying driving force.

Heidegger, in order to avoid falling back on the great metaphysical tradition of Cartesianism, which reduces the Greek notion of ousia into latinised substantia, thus positing the illusory construct of the ego, and, as ethnography has taught us, ego is not part of the everyday Lebenswelt of some cultures, unlike the West. Hence to remain focused on the question of being while posing questions in hermeneutic circle calls for an ecstatico-temporal discipline in ontology and not for a higher level of metaphysical positing as Husserl, Heidegger’s mentor, did.

The ecstatico-temporal temporalisation of being calls for a high degree of mindfulness (Besinnung) on the continuous projection and constituting of Dasein in the three ecstases (Ekstasen) of time – past, present and future – in the finitude of its being-toward-death. Essentially speaking, the ecstatico-temporal horizon to which Dasein‘s hermeneutic structure of understanding, upon the formation of meaning depends on, refers to constantly is finite. Dasein, as lived, embodied experience, can never be infinite regression or progression. In other words, Dasein‘s interpretation has to come to an end somewhere; in radical terms, it is death, the mode of which, however, is never certain in the Dasein of anybody.

The uncertainty of death means that whatever control Dasein has over being, say, through the multifarious modes of techne regardless of the level of development of technology in any specific historical time, is quite limited. Mindfulness, as mindfulness of being, means submission on the part of Dasein to being (Sein), but not to the metaphysical reduction of being to beings (Seiende) that has ensnared the modern world. It is not a submission to any temporal authority or the dogmas of faith, but to the voice of being and its call which is radically individuated in the phenomenon of Dasein‘s conscience (Gewissen), which is in fact a form of fundamental knowing (Wissen) (cf. Heidegger 1996).