Heidegger’s Map

Daniel Bonevac

Richard Rorty lists Martin Heidegger among the three greatest philosophers of the twentieth century, along with Ludwig Wittgenstein and John Dewey.1 Even those who would propose a very different list would agree that Heidegger has been among the most influential philosophers of the past century. His thought underlies later developments in Continental philosophy, from existentialism to postmodernism, and has influenced analytic philosophers such as Wilfrid Sellars, Rorty, and Robert Brandom. It has had an even more sweeping impact on developments in other parts of the humanities, which have abandoned traditional humanistic pursuits in favor of “theory” and embraced a kind of anti-intellectualism dressed in a garb of elaborate verbiage ultimately inspired by and derived from Heidegger. Finally, it has shaped our political discourse and culture, altering our conceptions of ideologies throughout the political spectrum.

I will focus here on some concepts central to Being and Time (1927), Heidegger’s greatest and most influential work.2 They constitute important and original contributions to philosophy. They can lead to a more profound understanding of humanity and the world. They can also lead to intellectual and political disaster, as Heidegger’s own involvement with National Socialism illustrates. But it would be too quick to dismiss Heidegger as a result of this, not least because it would make so much contemporary thought unintelligible. As Heidegger scholar Charles Guignon writes, “[W]hile there is no way to play down the moral worries raised by Heidegger’s thought, there is also no way to deny that this at times mystifying man from the backwoods of Germany more than once redrew the philosophical map of the twentieth century, laying out lines of questioning for generations to come.”3 I will argue that Heidegger’s map is revealing, but that some follow it to unfortunate destinations.


Heidegger begins Being and Time by raising the question of being—specifically, of the meaning of being. He sees Plato and the pre-Socratic philosophers as having raised a fundamental question that the entire Western philosophical tradition from Aristotle through Hegel proceeded to misconstrue or, more precisely, ignore. What is there? That is the most fundamental ontological question, according to that Aristotelian tradition. Aristotle’s answer, substance, or really, substances, turns metaphysics into a discipline dedicated to outlining the categories of things that are, or, in Russell’s famous phrase, cataloguing the furniture of the universe.5 That answer suggests that we look to the sciences and their assertions about existence. From Heidegger’s perspective, however, this project, which he terms ontic, or a matter of vulgar ontology, neglects the question of what “being” means, of what it is to be, of what it is to deserve designation as being among the furniture of the universe. He realizes that many are bound to think his project hopeless, on the ground that the meaning of “being” is self-evident, primitive, obvious, or impossible to articulate. After all, everything’s doing it, all the time! But being is not a genus under which everything falls, Heidegger insists. The question of being is transcendental; it “aims at the condition of the possibility of the ontologies which precede the ontic sciences and found them” (11).6

Heidegger calls his project fundamental ontology, and turns his attention to Dasein, “being there,” the peculiarly human way of being. “Dasein is a being that does not simply occur among other beings. Rather it is ontically distinguished by the fact that in its being this being is concerned about its very being” (12). Heidegger puts the point in a classically Hegelian formulation: “Thus it is constitutive of the being of Dasein to have, in its very being, a relation of being to this being” (12).7

Dasein “always understands itself in terms of its existence, in terms of its possibility to be itself or not to be itself” (12). “To be or not to be”—that is the central question for Dasein. It is what Heidegger calls the existential question, and Dasein’s understanding of itself in these terms is existential understanding, to be achieved by limning the structure of existence and its constituents.8 The issue is not only Hamlet’s question of life or death, but a broader question of what to be, or whether to be this or not to be this. It is, in short, the question of freedom.

The opening pages of Being and Time thus give birth to existentialism. As Jean-Paul Sartre defines it, existentialism is the thesis that existence precedes essence—that human beings have no predetermined essence, that their lives have no predetermined goal or purpose, and that they are thus radically free to define themselves and their existence.9 It would be too quick, however, to say that Heidegger himself counts as an existentialist. Indeed, he rejects the label. For Dasein does have an essence: “being in a world belongs essentially to Dasein” (13). Dasein does not exist in isolation; it is essentially in a world. As we shall see, many other things are essential to Dasein as a result. Dasein’s freedom, moreover, is not as radical as Sartre seems to think.


Understanding Dasein requires understanding what it is to be in a world, and that requires some understanding of what a world is, as well as an understanding of the beings that might populate such a world. It appears to follow that worlds and the objects we might find in them are prior to Dasein, at least in the order of understanding. Aristotle, for example, would think they are prior in the order of being as well; consciousness must be consciousness of something—a sensation, for instance, is always a sensation of something, and that something must be prior to and independent of the sensation.10 But Heidegger sees it differently. He asks about the worldliness of a world—what a world is, or what it is to be a world—and concludes that a world is the kind of thing that Dasein can be in. The essence of a world, in other words, is its ability to relate to Dasein. This turns Aristotle’s picture on its head; what consciousness is consciousness of depends on consciousness, not the other way around.

So far, we seem to have a Hegelian idealism, in which the world itself emerges as dependent on the mind—in this case, on Dasein. A world is a characteristic of Dasein (64). But Heidegger changes the usual philosophical understanding of the relationship between us and the world. He thinks of it not primarily as a relation of perceiving or knowing but instead as a relation of caring. Dasein’s relation to the world is essentially one of taking care of things (57, 67). Things thus present themselves to us not primarily as objects of perception or knowledge but as useful or valuable, as things we can use. Our basic relation to the world is not epistemic, but pragmatic (68). Things—his favorite example is a hammer—are handy, and their handiness is not something revealed to us theoretically through reflection but pre-theoretically by action. This means that our chief relation to things is teleological. The hammer is for driving nails. The shoes are for wearing on the feet. The clock is for telling time. Their being consists in their handiness, their Zuhandenheit (71), “being ready-to-hand.” This departs from the traditional understanding, according to which things are what they are, and their usability is an extrinsic property of them, a matter of their relation to us and our various purposes. For Heidegger, handiness defines things in the world as they are in themselves (72). Objects come already related to us. And we are essentially absorbed in the world (113).11

One might object to this, even given Heidegger’s idealistic starting point. We have to figure out what things are for. The baby in the nursery does not immediately recognize the shoes as for wearing and the hammer as for hammering; their handiness has to be learned. The same is true collectively: people had to learn what things could be used as tools or eaten. Things did not immediately present themselves as useful. To some degree, they had to be classified and understood before being perceived as useful. But that would give reflection priority over action, and being present priority over being ready-to-hand.

There is another important difference between Heidegger’s idealism and idealism as it is often understood. His method is phenomenology, which he summarizes in the Husserlian slogan, “To the things themselves!” Things in the world make themselves manifest; they present themselves. They are not “appearances,” to use Kant’s favored term, for that suggests that they are appearances of something else—things-in-themselves, in Kant, or collections of entities of the scientific image, in Sellars.12 Heidegger rejects the terminology because he rejects the underlying implication. Things in the world—objects of the manifest image, as Sellars, following Heidegger, calls them—are not appearances of something else, but are what they are. They are the primary constituents of the world. Things that do not present themselves to us as usable, or at all, are secondary, defined in terms of the manifest, ready-to-hand objects. The world of our experience is the world, in the primary sense, and its objects are the fundamental objects, irreducible to anything else. (Whether we can make sense of the scientific image on this ground remains an open question. Heidegger has little to say about science or the objects it postulates in Being and Time.)

That doesn’t mean we cannot be wrong, suffer illusions, and so on. The navy blue pants can look black in poor lighting. But that is because the true character of objects can be obscured; we can seek to uncover, or discover, their true nature. That is how Heidegger understands truth: the uncovering or disclosure of what had been concealed. As we shall see, this leads him to a distinctive method, interpretation or hermeneutics, dedicated to such uncovering.

The Social Character of Being-in-the-World

We are not, of course, alone in the world. We encounter other people, other selves, other Daseins. Our being-in-the-world is a Mitdasein, being-with-others-in-the-world. We use things to produce objects for others as well as for ourselves. We encounter objects as usable, most often, because someone else has made them for us. The shoes, the hammer, the clock, the tended field—all point to the existence of other people who stand in some relation to the things at hand. “The world of Dasein is a with-world. Being-in is being-with others” (118). If our basic relation to the things of the world is taking care of, our basic relation to others is concern, a kind of caring, to be sure, but a kind different from that directed at objects. Concern is part of our very being. Ethics doesn’t just follow from what we are; it’s an intrinsic part of what we are.

Heidegger’s concept of concern is extremely broad. Opposing, fighting, not mattering are all forms of concern (121). If so, one might object, the concept is vacuous. But Heidegger puts it as he does because he wants to stress that the primary issue confronting us when dealing with others is the issue of concern: What concern should I have for this person, and what form should it take? Other people do not present themselves to me in terms of their mere existence, as a rock might, or in terms of usability, as a hammer might—indeed, as Kant observed, treating people as mere objects to be used is the paradigm of immorality—but instead as other Daseins, others who are with me in the world and who merit concern in roughly the way I merit concern from myself. This concern may take negative forms, such as hostility or indifference, but it may also take positive forms.

Heidegger distinguishes two positive forms of concern for others. First, my concern for someone might take the form of taking care of the things they would otherwise take care of, doing things for them, as a nurse might care for a sick patient or a parent might care for a child. Second, my concern might take the form of giving care-taking back to someone, enabling that person to take care of things rather than taking care of them myself. That, Heidegger says, is authentic care (122). It restores the other person’s essential role in relation to things in the world. The parent and the nurse ideally do this as well, taking care of things for someone and substituting their care-taking for that person’s care-taking as a temporary measure designed to produce or restore an ability to take care of things. Even the hospice nurse and the parent of a severely disabled child may exhibit authentic care in the sense that they try to enable their charge to take care of things within his capacities, and to expand those capacities whenever possible. The simple test is this. Inauthentic care encourages and produces dependence; authentic care encourages and produces, to the extent that it can, independence. The former dominates; the latter liberates.

Heidegger has sometimes been called a conservative, and, indeed, he here sounds an important conservative theme. Caring for someone, directly or through the medium of government, can produce dependence or independence, and it is vital to be able to distinguish those forms of caring from one another. Caring should aim at expanding capacities and enabling others to take care of things on their own.

Freedom and Thrownness

Dasein does not relate to itself as it relates to other Daseins. Dasein is disclosed to itself in moods. I experience my being in various ways, but always within the framework of a mood. I may be bored, depressed, elevated, excited, etc., but I am always something.

The underlying circumstance that makes this so is that I am, essentially, in the world, but not in a way of my own making. I experience myself as having been thrown into the world. My thrownness (Geworfenheit) gives me the sense that I have been delivered over, that the most basic aspect of my life, my being, is not under my control (135). That I was born at a given time and in a given place, indeed, that I was born at all, was not under my control. The past in its entirety is not under my control. The past is facticity, unchangeable fact, a given. As Dasein, I am in the world at a certain place—there (Da)—but my control over that place is limited. I have no control over time. And my life is finite, headed toward my own death. From this point of view, Dasein experiences its own being as a burden.

Though my thrownness and my existence is not under my control, I can react to it in different ways, expressed in different moods. Mostly, I experience thrownness as a burden and turn away from it. That turning away, that evasion, is essential to Dasein in the sense that I can face my thrownness only briefly and occasionally. But I may try to master my own moods. I cannot experience the world mood-free, but I can perhaps replace one mood with another.

Does the inevitability of mood preclude the possibility of objective knowledge? Does my mood always shape my thinking, making its results subjective? Heidegger thinks that the answer is no, though he rejects the view of most of the philosophical tradition that we have a special, theoretical way of approaching the world that escapes the problem of mood and allows us to interact with the world in a purely objective fashion. His model is Aristotle’s Rhetoric rather than the De Anima. The objective is what emerges from a process of interested inquiry in which every participant has moods, desires, and emotions shaping his contribution to the inquiry. Our being with one another can produce objectivity through a structured process even though no one of us approaches the task in a completely objective way.

My thrownness does not contradict my freedom, though it does, of course, limit it. As Dasein I face a field of possibilities. I am located within such a field, and my location determines the possibilities that are alive for me. Because of the circumstances of my birth, I cannot choose to become a Roman Senator or a starship captain. Because of my previous choices, I cannot choose to be a lifelong bachelor or a child movie star. Indeed, I cannot even try to attain these goals. There are no paths connecting my current place in the field of possibilities with those goals. Every choice I make further limits my possibilities, leading me further on one set of paths but excluding others.

My freedom and my thrownness shape my understanding of myself as a being who chooses, who selects from among a given field of possibilities. I feel myself tossed into a world not of my own making, but I project myself into the future by choosing and, in that way, shaping to a greater and greater extent the nature of the possibilities I face. I structure my choices in terms of projects—some consciously conceived, thought out, and planned, and others unconscious—and thus come to structure my existence and develop an understanding of myself and my life.

Dasein is always, in a sense, more than it is, paradoxical as that sounds, because it consists not only of its actual choices but also of the possibilities it faces. We are, in other words, not only what we have been but what we could be. “‘Become what you are!’ But who are ‘you’? The one who lets go—and becomes” (145). Heidegger here sounds like the first motivational speaker—inspiring, but on reflection vacuous, since this reduces to “Become one who becomes,” and you already are.13

It follows that I can understand myself only by understanding the world around me well enough to understand the possibilities that lie before me. I can understand myself authentically by recognizing my position as a free agent within a realm of possibilities determined partly by my own choices, or I can understand myself inauthentically by refusing to recognize my own degree of responsibility, by seeing myself and my possibilities as given to me solely by something outside myself. We see here the roots of Sartre’s idea of bad faith.

That is not enough. I need to take responsibility for my own choices and understand the range of choices before me. But I also need to accept my thrownness and embrace my being in the world in the ways that are not under my control. I need to appropriate them into my identity, to affirm them as mine. Dasein attunes itself to the world by identifying with the Da as well as the Sein. The sense of thrownness leads to alienation, confusion, and the kind of experience that later existentialist writers call a “confrontation with the absurd.” (Heidegger offers the philosophical basis for absurdism in literature, though Luigi Pirandello got there first; Six Characters in Search of an Author preceded Being and Time by six years.) We must overcome our sense of alienation, Heidegger insists, affirming what we are in all its aspects, including those contingent features that stem from the circumstances of our being born at a particular time and place into a particular kind of world.

Heidegger raises an important issue: To what extent should I affirm the purely contingent features of my existence that are not under my control? When Albert Camus summarizes his existentialist attitude in terms of “my revolt, my freedom, and my passion,” he implies that I am bound to rebel against my thrownness, against those features from which I feel alienation.14 Heidegger’s call to accept them, taken to an extreme, can lead to his own embrace of National Socialism, not because it was a form of socialism, but because it was national.

Somewhere between Camus’s wholesale rejection and Heidegger’s wholesale acceptance lies a more sensible reaction, to embrace those aspects of my thrownness that I do not have good reason to reject. That, of course, requires a higher or at least independent standard for accepting or rejecting contingent features of my existence. In his conceptions of caring and concern, Heidegger might have had the materials from which he might have constructed such a standard. But he frames those ideas so broadly they provide little help.

Heidegger’s framing of this issue has had an enormous impact on political ideologies. Right and Left, as traditionally understood, have something to do with the size and scope of government, but also with advocacy of or resistance to change. As governments have expanded in size and scope throughout the past two centuries, these considerations have come apart. Advocates of limited government are increasingly the ones demanding change, and advocates of expanded government insist on continuation of the status quo, their rhetoric notwithstanding. Heidegger locates a more perspicuous divide, between those who reject their thrownness and those who appropriate it. Roger Scruton has defined conservatism as a philosophy of oikophilia, of love of one’s own, love of home and inheritance, love of the contingent features of one’s existence—an embrace of thrownness, in Heidegger’s terminology—and has characterized the Left in terms of its oikophobia, its repudiation of inheritance and home.15 Conservatives embrace the familiar just because it is familiar, feel patriotic toward their country just because it is their country, and identify with contingent features of their existence just because they are contingent features of their existence. This is not to say that conservatives embrace every contingent feature, every aspect of their country, and everything familiar, no matter how ridiculous or unjust. The moral core of oikophilia is that of friendship. Friends do not have to embrace every feature and action of one another to be friends. But they do have to feel affection for one another and wish one another well. Just so, conservatives feel affection for what is theirs, even by accident, and they wish it well. Leftists see this attitude as irrational, but they reject the familiar just because it is familiar, reject their country just because it is their country, and reject the contingent features of their existence just because they are contingent features of their existence. Again, they need not reject everything about what is theirs. But their basic attitude toward it is dissatisfaction, disaffection, and repudiation. They wish it well only to the extent that they can change it to conform to what they wish it were. There is no difference in rational justification between these attitudes. The oikophile and the oikophobe alike can adopt these attitudes critically or uncritically. The difference is one of defaults. Is the default attitude to be an embrace or a rejection of the familiar?

Heidegger sees an important distinction between these attitudes, not on the basis of rationality, but on the basis of the progression of Dasein. To reject the familiar is to reject one’s thrownness and remain mired in a swamp of confusion and alienation. (Confusion, because there are many alternatives to the familiar; alienation, because Dasein, in rejecting the familiar, must in a sense reject itself.) It is to prevent Dasein from embracing its own being in the world and attaining maturity. There is also a political danger: rejection of contingent features of existence promotes Utopian, ahistorical thinking, for it pushes aside the limitations imposed by circumstances and even the historical, temporal nature of Dasein itself.

The Fall and the Plunge

The chief enemy of authenticity—and the chief way of being inauthentic—is falling prey to the ordinary patterns of the world, its everydayness. This is not merely a contingent danger, like falling into a manhole; it is an essential part of what Dasein is. It is part of its ontological structure. Dasein is engaged and even entangled with the world. It is absorbed in taking care of the things around it and interacting with other people. Dasein falls easily into the pattern of letting the things and the other people set the agenda, of getting “lost in the publicness of the they” (175), of being “taken in by the world and the Mitdasein of the others” (176). This is what it is to fall prey to the world, being “guided by idle talk, curiosity, and ambiguity” (175). Our engagement with the world readily slides into absorption by the world. Our being in the world is fraught with temptation, the temptation to lose ourselves in the everyday and fall prey to being completely directed by it. That suggests passivity, but people who are inauthentic in this way do not look passive; indeed, they look busy, doing this and doing that, deeply entangled with the world and its affairs. The danger is that they pay no attention to their own goals, their own identities, their own projects, and thus lose sight of their own freedom. Following the world’s lead, Dasein finds itself torn away from itself. Sooner or later, that experience becomes alienating.

Alienation, in turn, can produce a reaction against this kind of entanglement with the world, when Dasein realizes that it is becoming lost in the world, and can turn into self-entanglement, a sort of self-dissection or introspection that also separates Dasein from its true possibilities, which of course pertain to its relation to the world, not merely to itself. Heidegger calls this “taking the plunge,” the plunge into oneself. The plunge “constantly tears understanding away from projecting authentic possibilities, and into the tranquillized supposition of possessing or attaining everything” (178). It leads to the illusion of understanding things completely because Dasein no longer confronts the world as it is, but only as it imagines it to be.

Anyone familiar with Hegel will see in Heidegger’s account of the fall and the plunge an echo of the stages of consciousness in The Phenomenology of Spirit, in particular, those of sense-consciousness and perception. The former treats consciousness in Heraclitean fashion as constantly changing, driven by something outside consciousness itself, while the latter treats it as unified in a nearly Parmenidean fashion. That leads to an expectation that soon to follow must be consciousness’s transformation into self-consciousness by way of the master/slave struggle and the dialectic of unhappy consciousness, ultimately resolving in mutual recognition with another. Anyone approaching Heidegger from a postmodern point of view will try to link his conceptions of inauthenticity to oppression, taking the master/slave conflict literally and assuming that, if we fall or plunge, we must somehow have been pushed.

Heidegger, however, disappoints these expectations. As in Hegel, the dialectic here does not result from social and political forces of oppression, domination, hegemony, marginalization, etc. It is intrinsic to Dasein. In contrast to Hegel, there is no master/slave dichotomy. We do not have to struggle or be struggled against to gain mutual recognition. Our way of being in the world is inherently Mitdasein, being in the world with others, in community. Our relation to others is, intrinsically, one of concern. To be in community with others, to care for others, to be cared for by them, to feel and display concern—these are not achievements, much less Utopian visions. These are natural for us. They are part of Dasein’s ontological structure, part of its essence.

This, perhaps, is why we can embrace home, the familiar, our communal and cultural inheritance, and the other contingent aspects of our existence. At the risk of trivializing the point: at home, we are at home. We naturally form part of a community with which we share not only the essential features of Dasein, but, in large measure, the contingent features of our existences that constitute our thrownness.


How is understanding possible? We perceive things as something: this as a book to be read, that as a hammer to be used, and so on. We do not lay a conceptual structure or a structure of significance on an objective, value-free world; Dasein encounters the world as already structured and already having significance in relation to Dasein itself. Our interpretation of the world rests on these sorts of small fore-interpretations. It does not proceed all at once, but consists in putting them together. And it is therefore not presupposition-free, but rests on interpretations already present. We start with the “undisputed prejudice of the interpreter” (150). Things have meaning from the start. But their meaning is not intrinsic to them; it consists in their relation to Dasein. Only Dasein has meaning in itself.

Heidegger reflects on the Socratic puzzle that, to try to understand something, we must already in some sense understand it, for we must know what it is we are trying to understand. If, as in the Meno, we inquire into the nature of virtue, how could we recognize a successful account unless we already know what virtue is? This appears to be a vicious circle, Heidegger says, because we misunderstand understanding. The problem is not getting out of the circle, but getting into it in the right way by realizing that understanding rests on fore-understanding. We already perceive objects as something, and as ready-to-hand, as usable. That does not mean that we can give anything like an account that would please Socrates. But we encounter the world with rough-and-ready meanings already attached.

These are prejudices, true, and later postmodern thinkers have used Heidegger’s analysis to undermine the idea of objectivity altogether. Heidegger himself, however, does not see any of this as precluding scientific understanding. We can start with preconceptions, everyday ideas, what Aristotle would term the opinions of the many, and we often do. But we can also develop interpretations scientifically by looking to the things themselves. We cannot have a presupposition-free science or even a presupposition-free mathematics. They develop historically, starting from meanings and interpretations already there. But we can try to rest them on narrower and narrower foundations, extracting the arbitrary, the variable, and the merely historical or cultural. We can think of the objective as the limit of this process. It can never be achieved fully, but it can be approximated, and objectivity can serve a useful function as a regulative ideal. Heidegger rejects both the Hegelian thought that science proceeds in a fully rational, predictable way and also the Nietzschean thought that science proceeds according to no rational pattern at all. His view is pragmatic, closer to that of C.S. Peirce then to others in the Continental tradition. Science’s rationality stems not from its starting points, but from its self-corrective methods, and its universality and objectivity are not automatic but instead the ideals at which those methods aim.

We express our judgments in language, which, like any form of communication, is essentially social. So, in articulating interpretations, we face another source of prejudice. We rest our articulated interpretations not only on the fore-interpretations of experience, but on the conceptual structure of our language, which embodies a system of interpretation with presuppositions of its own. It is not an accident that Heidegger introduces a new philosophical vocabulary and uses words in so many unusual ways. He worries about the possibility of communicating the interpretation of being in the world that he wants to communicate in terms of a conceptual scheme, already there in the language, which is incompatible with the perspective he wants to convey. It is similarly not an accident that science and mathematics introduce new vocabularies and use familiar terms in new, technical ways. We face a problem analogous to Heidegger’s in constructing any interpretation, inside or outside of science. Language can conceal as well as reveal.

The interpretive method Heidegger recommends for revealing what lies hidden and thus attaining truth is hermeneutics. The metaphors of covering and uncovering, hiding and revealing, suggest a methodology exploited by thinkers from Marx to Freud to the postmodernists, a hermeneutic of suspicion that discounts what people say and alleges other, unconscious meanings and motivations. That has provoked the entirely justified response that the alleged meanings and motivations stem from the theory the interpreter brings to the task and have little or nothing to do with the text being interpreted and everything to do with the interpreter’s agenda or desire to control discourse, etc. But Heidegger means something different. He takes the manifest image for what it is; he does not reduce it to some other level with true causal and explanatory power. So, he has nothing corresponding to Marx’s material level of economic and class struggle, Freud’s subconscious, Levi-Strauss’s or Foucault’s anthropology, Gramsci’s cultural hegemony, and so on.

Heidegger’s own metaphors aside, his conception of hermeneutics is more like putting together a puzzle than pushing aside a curtain. We piece together the fore-interpretations we have into local and then global interpretations that make sense. He sometimes speaks as a holist; we can recognize something as a piece of equipment only by seeing it as part of a system of things taken as equipment. This supports the puzzle analogy: I find it very difficult to put a puzzle together if I don’t know anything about what the overall puzzle looks like. But I don’t have to understand exactly where any particular piece goes. I begin by grouping some pieces together, finding chunks that fit with one another, searching for other pieces that fit, and eventually putting large sections together. Hermeneutics is not a license to interpret anything however one likes. Still less does it involve a commitment to a structure that underlies the world as it is manifest to us, for that would turn it into a mere appearance. Hermeneutics, for Heidegger, is a matter of refining and piecing together our local fore-conceptions and fore-understandings into an overall understanding, one that, ideally, remains stable in the face of further challenges.


Robert Brandom develops an insightful way to grasp Heidegger’s project.16 That project divides things, broadly speaking, into three categories: the ready-to-hand (e.g., the book, the hammer), the present (e.g., the objects of the natural sciences), and the social. We can ask a meta-question: Is that categorization itself ready-to-hand, present, or social? The general form of the question is this. Suppose we use concepts (or institutions, or practices, etc.) to draw distinctions. We can then ask whether any of those concepts is self-adjudicating in the sense that it applies to what distinguishes things falling under it from the rest.

This kind of question is familiar from modal logic, which distinguishes the necessary from the contingent. (Say, for simplicity, that by “contingent” we simply mean “not necessary.”) We can ask whether the judgment that something is necessary is itself necessary. If it is necessary that p, is it necessary that it is necessary that p? If so, the necessary is self-adjudicating.

We can ask this kind of question about all sorts of distinctions and theses. Philosophers, for example, are fond of distinguishing the a priori from the a posteriori—what is independent of experience from what depends on experience. We can then ask, is that distinction itself a priori or a posteriori? More precisely: Is the judgment that a given judgment is a priori itself a priori? If so, the a priori is self-adjudicating. It determines its own boundaries. Judgments about aprioricity are themselves a priori. Similarly, we can ask whether the judgment that a given judgment is analytic or synthetic is itself analytic or synthetic, whether the distinction between the mental and the physical is itself mental or physical, and so on.

Brandom interprets Heidegger as asking this question, first, with respect to the distinction between the ready-to-hand and the present. He argues that the ready-to-hand is self-adjudicating; we judge what is ready-to-hand and what is merely present to Dasein from within the sphere of the ready-to-hand. This, Brandom contends, is what Heidegger means in saying that fundamental ontology is the regional ontology of Dasein.

Brandom takes this one step further. Once we include the social in our categorization, it becomes self-adjudicating, and the ready-to-hand loses its privileged status. Interpretation and understanding are articulated in language, which is essentially social. In submitting myself to communication I submit myself to an authority outside myself, for language’s social character means that the rules of usage depend on something outside me, on us instead of me, on Mitdasein rather than Dasein alone. It follows that, in this three-fold classification, the social is self-adjudicating. Whether something counts as ready-to-hand, present, or social is ultimately a social question to be settled by appeal to social authority and practice.

Brandom cares about what is self-adjudicating because he sees it as determining what is basic for fundamental ontology. If the ready-to-hand is self-adjudicating, it is ontologically basic, relative to the merely present. If the social is self-adjudicating, it is basic relative to both. Dasein ends up yielding its position to Mitdasein, and fundamental ontology becomes the regional ontology of the community. Brandom embraces that conclusion. But, reflecting on Heidegger’s embrace of Nazism, it seems reasonable to worry about both the regional and the communal aspects of this formulation. Friendship toward the familiar must not be allowed to become hostility toward the unfamiliar. And orientation toward the community must not be allowed to become subjugation of the individual.

It seems to many a small step from this position to the idea that all conceptualization, all judgment, all inference, and all “truth” is socially determined, relative to a community of people who recognize one another as members of the community and share the same language. If Brandom is right, then, moving from Heidegger to postmodernism merely elaborates the implications of the self-adjudicating nature of the social, sketching more fully the picture that Heidegger had already drawn.

I have introduced Brandom’s interpretation because the idea that the social is self-adjudicating and therefore fundamental has become pervasive in certain areas of the humanities and social sciences. Whether or not it interprets Heidegger correctly, it interprets him in a powerful and influential way. It leads to a two-step inference:

The social is self-adjudicating.

Therefore, the social is ontologically fundamental.

Therefore, everything is a social construction.

Heidegger’s thought has undoubtedly led others to this inference, whether or not he would have accepted it himself. Once one grants that everything is a social construction, moreover, truth, objectivity, and other kinds of rational constraints appear to go out the window.

I am not at all convinced, however, that Heidegger would have accepted any of these propositions. If he ultimately takes the social as fundamental, why focus Being and Time on Dasein? Why construct a conception of understanding and interpretation on other grounds, and then connect them to language and thus to the social by way of communication, rather than begin by arguing that understanding and interpretation are essentially linguistic? Why take the fundamental relation to others to be concern rather than something more directly connected to authority and social practice?

Heidegger speaks throughout Being and Time of the ontological structure of Dasein, of things that are essential to Dasein: its being-in-the-world, its thrownness, its grappling with fallenness and even the plunge, its freedom, and its temporality.17 He never relativizes those claims to a set of social practices. They are part of what it is to be in the world, full stop. They are presuppositions of any set of social practices.

Another argument against the social interpretation is that it misses the transcendental character of Heidegger’s project. Kant searched for the ground of the possibility of experience; Heidegger searches for the ground of the possibility of being in the world with others. Consider Heidegger’s proclamation in the final paragraph of Being and Time:

The preliminary disclosure of being, although it is unconceptual, makes it possible for Dasein as existing being-in-the-world to be related to beings, to those it encounters in the world as well as to itself as existing. (p. 437)

The goal is not to show that everything depends on social practices, but to uncover the ground of those practices—to reveal the fundamental nature of being in the world by asking what must be the case if those social practices are to be possible.

Whether or not it is Heidegger’s view, I see an adequate pragmatism as incompatible with all three propositions. The social is not self-adjudicating in the sense of being able to determine its own boundaries. If it were, it could decree itself as having dominion over everything, at every level, and make talk of refinement, adjustment, stability, and the like otiose. But social practices cannot decree that everything is to be settled according to social practices alone. Those social practices cannot survive. King Canute can command the seas to obey him, and social practices can defer to his assertion, but the waves will not submit. Dissenters can of course be sent to concentration camps. But eventually the clash between social practices and reality takes a toll on those social practices.

Social practices, ultimately, have to respond to the Gods of the Copybook Headings. They have to respond to reality. They also have to respond to human nature—in Heidegger’s language, to the underlying structures of Dasein. Sorting things into the ready-to-hand, the present, and the social may itself be a social practice—or not, since who before Heidegger thought of it?—but social practices are not free to eliminate any of the three categories, or, Heidegger thinks, to subordinate the ready-to-hand to the merely present.

Even if the social is self-adjudicating, it is not clear what follows. Suppose that the a priori is self-adjudicating, so that the judgment “‘2+2=4’ is a priori” is itself a priori. It does not follow that everything is a priori. Perhaps it follows that aprioricity is in some sense epistemologically basic. The a posteriori becomes dependent in the sense that the judgment “‘the sky is blue’ is a posteriori” is itself a priori. But that is a very weak sense of dependence; “the sky is blue” is still a posteriori, and the a priori truths, taken together, do not determine its truth. Similarly, suppose that analyticity is self-adjudicating: “‘bachelors are unmarried’ is analytic” is itself analytic. The analytic truths, taken together, do not determine the synthetic truths. Nor does everything end up analytic.

So, even if we grant that the social is self-adjudicating, nothing much follows. It does not follow, in particular, that everything is social. Nor do truths about social practices determine the truths about the ready-to-hand and the present. The ontological status of these categories has nothing to do with self-adjudication.


I have argued that Heidegger develops important insights into the human condition in Being and Time. But his philosophical map also misdescribes certain areas, leading himself and his followers to some unfortunate places. Idealism itself is a dangerous doctrine; by holding that everything is mind-dependent, it risks cutting the mind off from anything that might serve as a check on its fancies. Taking things ready-to-hand as basic seems to get things backwards, treating meanings as given but objects, including the objects of science, as constructed and secondary. It is hard to see, on his account, how science is even possible. Heidegger’s notions of care and concern place normativity at the heart of Dasein’s being-in-the-world, but the concepts remain so attenuated that they generate no substantive ethical constraints. His conceptions of hermeneutics and social practices encourage postmodern practices of interpretation that undermine not only the concepts of truth and of individual rights and liberties, but also the practice of intellectual inquiry itself.

These aspects of his thought made Heidegger’s affinity for Nazism possible, but that affinity itself has its roots, I suspect, in aspects of his thought that I have not discussed. Heidegger puts philosophy first, giving it priority over scientific investigation. Philosophy, he thinks, tells us that our being is finite, temporal, and historical. Heidegger interprets authenticity, ultimately, as being oriented toward our finitude, that is, toward death. Death is our individual destiny, but Dasein also has a collective, regional, historical destiny, he insists, and a true leader identifies that destiny and brings it about. When Adolf Hitler offered just such a vision, and offered himself as the leader to bring it about, Heidegger was all too ready to help.

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