Some First Impressions of “Being and Time” and a Few Suggestions for Studying It

I took quite a while in going through Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit (Being and Time).  Part of the reason was to give time to digest it, but another part was that Heidegger’s approach can make the head ache.  In particular, the language, which is often noted for its difficulty, whether one is reading it in English or German, is very cumbersome and makes for slow reading.  I think that a second reading of the text would go much more smoothly than the first, and, more than likely, two readings is necessary for the task of getting a grip of Heidegger’s ideas.  In the second part of this blog, I’ll give some suggestions for how one might make Heidegger more approachable and easier to understand, though it still requires one’s willingness to be highly involved with the text. 

Being and Time is probably one of the few books that have impacted me anywhere near the extent of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason or Einstein’s popular Relativity, which are probably the two books that have had the greatest impact in my intellectual development.  There is something to be said of a text that is capable of being so influential so much later in one’s life, as I have found the books that have most impacted me were read when I was much younger.  Therefore, I recommend everyone slog through Being and Time, and see what you get out of it.  There are some aspects of the text that really struck me.  Heidegger is plainly referred to as a Continental philosopher, but he featured some aspects in his philosophy that I tend to associate with the Analytic tradition.  In all honesty, I am no expert on the nature of this divide, and I am not even sure a “Continental” distinction really even exists: I think there is a clear “Analytic” distinction that comes in degrees, and it seems to me that Continental philosophers are general, not a school, but a collection of philosophers that are simply not Analytic philosophers, or not enough “Analytic” to be considered analytic philosophers.  (There’s a fun blog by “Philosiology” that you can find by clicking on this sentence, which discusses the distinction; and I think the comments on that blog post support my thesis, to some small extent, especially regarding the comment about Husserl.)  Anyway, the attention to language was one of the items that struck me as being somewhat atypical a so-called Continental philosopher.  Heidegger uses numerous Greek and Latin words because he doesn’t want to alienate the meanings via translation, and even his own neologisms are intended to denote subtle differences between what he means and understandings of the words that are decent correlates for those neologisms.  For example, “Dasein” is employed with the intention of avoiding confusion with “person” or “I”.  Heidegger probably could have done his readership a favor and given focused explications of his terms, rather than having to try to gather up the meanings of these terms over many pages, but, hey!, this is philosophy, and accessibility, I suppose, is not so much a virtue.

Again in the vein of the Analytic-Continental divide, I was definitely struck by just how non-systematic Heidegger was in the text.  My honest opinion in the introductions and first chapter or two was that I was reading poetry.  For anyone with a similar background in physics, mathematics, and logic, this is going to be a headache; and I even think that, had I read the text while an undergraduate in physics, I probably would not have made it through, not having yet developed the sufficient appreciation for the objective of poetry.  (Eighteen-year-old me would be greatly disappointed with present-day me, in that I see the objectives of the scientist, philosopher, and poet as being approximately the same.)  However, I have to encourage everyone to hear me out, and try to understand why Heidegger has written so poetically; the poetry has a function.  Language is intended to work on the first-order, dealing with goings on in the world.  Heidegger wants, like Kant in some respects, discuss ontological priority of structures that underlie phenomenal experience; so, not only does Heidegger need all of these neologisms, indicating relations, but he has to structure the grammatical appropriation of terms in such a way that is simply unnatural to natural language.  For instance, trying to talk about an object in my world that is ready-to-hand, and discussing the nature of its “in-order-to” and how present-to-hand-ness (vorhandenheit) arises, is simply a discussion that language in its everydayness, proximally and for the most part, cannot handle.  To encourage you and build up your confidence, that you can successfully read and understand Heidegger, below are my suggestions and what I did to get a pretty decent grasp of Heidegger (terminology, philosophical modus operandi, etc.)

I think Heidegger has a number of latching-on points for the reader, but I think no single point is accessible as Heidegger as existentialist.  I also think that the best way to learn on to swim, as an intellectual metaphor, is to jump into lengthy excerpts before attacking the main text head on.  (Note: I am generally against reading scads of secondary literature about a philosopher and his or her philosophical ideas, because consuming the interpretations of others is kind of like consume someone else’s vomit, replete with their processing of the text and everything they have added to it.)  Therefore, I think Nathan Oaklander’s text, Existentialist Philosophy: An Introduction, is a great way to begin digging into Heidegger through excerpts highlighting existential themes.  If you have time, I’d recommend the entire text, but, if primarily interested in Heidegger, then the modest commentary by Oaklander on Heidegger and the illustrative excerpts are great.  Now, I generally dislike soft secondary literature, when approaching texts and philosophers for the first time, but, with Heidegger, I suggest a minor exception.  The two really soft readings that I recommend, which present Heidegger’s philosophical items as salient features, are Heidegger: A Very Short Introduction, a series which has proven to be good all-around anyways, and How to Read Heidegger.  Between these two works, you’ll have a sense of what Heidegger’s big philosophical positions are, and without much dross (i.e., added interpretive muck).  Oaklander gives a good first overlook at some of the key Heideggerian terminology used, and How to Read Heidegger also employs excerpts toward this end, so, after these have been read, I think anyone will have all the preparation they need to jump into Being and Time.  Also, these three texts hardly amount to a day’s reading, so it’s an efficient way to go.  One more text I recommend is actually an outline by Prof. Tietz, which gives a nice structured, piece-by-piece discussion of the text.  I read this as I went through Being and Time, and found it to be very helpful in pointing things out before I got there.  Especially if you are trying to read Being and Time for a particular reason ( I was reading him for anything he had to say loosely related to science), then this outline will be very valuable.  (Click here for a pdf of Tietz’ text.)

As far as develop a deeper understanding of Heidegger, beyond reading and rereading Being and Time, I can recommend some commentaries, which are particularly valuable in light of Tietz’ outline, as he uses points in them to facilitate discussion.  Numbered among the commentaries I read are those by Gelven, Guignon, Dreyfus, and Schmitt.  I would recommend Stephen Mulhall’s Routledge Companion to Heidegger and “Being and Time,” but I have only gone through some of it —but it looks to be of equally high quality as Sebastian Gardner’s Routledge Companion to Kant and the Critique of Pure Reason, so take a look at it.  Now, while these authors seem to be fairly mainstream Heideggerians, there are some other authors you may want to look at for a very different take on Heidegger, the one that I advocate (just because he is original and very interesting) is Graham Harman, particularly, Heidegger Explained and Tool-Being.

Feel free to share thoughts and experiences, first time or otherwise, in reading Being and Time below.  Also, if you found some resources especially useful, such as texts, lectures, or electronic resources, which I have not listed, share those, too.  Good luck with reading Heidegger’s Being and Time!

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