Being and Time: Martin Heidegger

Translated by Joan Stambaugh

This is widely regarded as philosophy of the highest rank, but has the reputation of being extremely difficult to understand. In this review I ask: for a non-academic English-speaking person, like me, today, is it worth paying attention to? I specify “today” because a century ago, when the author was in his late teens, evolution figured much less in people’s minds than it does today—there’s no listing in the index to this text for either “Darwin” or “evolution.” If you fail to distinguish between the being of things physical, things alive, and yourself, can you say anything sensible at all about it? From reading chapter 1 I conclude that, for people like me this book is not worth reading, at least in this (widely admired) translation from the original German.

The problem is not the profundity of the concepts. Rather, the writing is riddled with actual nonsense unrelated to philosophy. Coping with this nonsense slows down and weakens comprehension to such a degree that no coherent argument can be discerned.

I will give examples of this nonsense. Final paragraph: “If the interpretation of the meaning of dasein [being] is to become a task…” This is chapter one: the meaning of dasein has not yet been arrived at. What is one to make of such a meaning needing interpretation? Meaning is already an interpretation. “Dasein is…the being that always… is related to what is sought in this question.” That is, the object of a question is related to itself! This is nonsense about how a question works.

Paragraph before: The idea as I understand it “But how we conceived of being in coming up with the question conflicted with how we structured the question” appears in the original as “But the analysis of the structure of the question of being as such (#2) came up against the distinctive function of this being within the formulation of that very question.” In the same sentence we are asked to distinguish between “being as such (#2)” and “a distinctive function of this being.” There is no meaning at issue here, merely complexification added to retard comprehension.

Another sentence: “Fundamental concepts are determinations in which the area of knowledge underlying all the thematic objects of a science attains an understanding that precedes and guides all positive investigation.” Nothing about “being” here, just a run of the mill remark about procedure. How much sense does it make? Concepts are determinations? I thought determinations led to concepts. What kind of determinations--those in which something happens (why “in” rather than “through”?”) What happens is an area of knowledge (not its practitioners?) attains an understanding. And are the investigations just “positive” or “Positive,” as in Positivist, surely a significant difference in a work of philosophy? If not “Positive” why use the word at all? What’s the key idea in this sentence? For me it’s lost in a windy structure that goes like this: something is something else in which something underlying something attains something that precedes and guides something. All I can get from it is “Investigations in a science are guided by fundamental concepts.” Ho hum!

Ah! A mention of biology! “In biology the tendency has awakened to get behind the definitions that mechanism and vitalism have given to organism and life and to define anew the kind of being of living beings as such.” I think this means “Biologists have begun probing for a reality underlying their mechanistic and vitalist definitions of living processes.” “The kind of being of living beings as such” is a clumsy phrase. And does “as such” refer to the kind of being or to the living beings themselves? Surely philosophical writing that pretends to fine distinctions shouldn’t leave such matters vague?

Here’s another general remark about science of the kind I think we laypeople may judge a philosopher's grasp of things by : “Science in general can be defined as the totality of fundamentally coherent true propositions. This definition is not complete, nor does it get at the meaning of science.” I give this an F. First, it gives a definition that it admits isn’t complete and doesn’t get at the meaning of what it is trying to define. And the definition of science must be one of the worst ever. Science can consist of no more than those propositions thought true as of its day. And the past progress of science shows that the propositions of any one period’s science are neither fundamentally coherent nor true. Would you buy a used car from someone given to remarks like this, let alone look to them for philosophy?

The subject of being certainly qualifies for study. But this writing is of such low quality that I judge it unfit for the task.

Below, microdata:

Evolution for the Humanities
Being and Time philosophy