Skip to content

Swinging the Hammer on Descartes: A Brief Introduction on Phenomenology and Heidegger’s Being and Time

Surprise! You wake up in the morning and it turns out all of your crazy teenage skeptic fantasies about reality are true: you live in a simulation. But, life must go on in a simulation. In the simulation, fundamental presuppositions of natural sciences fall apart. Objects do not actually exist outside of the subject and there are no eternal physical laws, nor chemical laws underlying them. Your life, as it turns out, is a lie, and you have sacrificed so much time for school that you could have spent on video games. It turns out you wasted this time learning simulated lies instead of actual knowledge? It makes you so sad and hits you with a strong sense of existentialist angst that makes you almost feel like you are back to fourteen again. You start to wonder, in great despair, if you are able to know anything for certain, because it feels absolutely weird that the book or computer that you are reading this article from does not actually exist! What can you do when Descartes’s worst nightmare comes true?

Phenomenology, as German philosopher Edmund Husserl would answer. Phenomenology derives from the English word phenomenon. When Husserl uses the word phenomenon in his speeches, I always have a feeling that he is referring to the word “phenomena” in comparison to “noumena” in a Kantian fashion, and thus is the word “Phenomenology” composed. Phenomena are the appearances, which are the way things are manifested to us, and noumena are the things in themselves, which are the things that constitute the reality. This Cartesian division between human subject and the object has concerned philosophers for over two thousand years. In the simulation, the noumena do not manifest phenomena, but the noumena is simply not presented. All we have are phenomena; therefore, we need to shift our focus from noumena, as a predominant attitude or the “natural attitude of mind” as Husserl distinguished, to phenomena, the “philosophic attitude of mind.” In doing so, we are doing “philosophic science,” Phenomenology, with a “philosophic attitude of mind,” instead of “science of the natural sort,” since noumena do not exist in the simulation. By the way, Husserl is personally totally fine with the natural sciences, but he has a slight problem with them, as shown when he accuses the natural attitude of mind of being “unconcerned with the critique of cognition” in his Lecture 1, the Idea of Phenomenology. In the lecture, Husserl gives a possibility in which we can actually go very wrong with the natural attitude of mind, which is to take the validity of cognition for granted, as he wrote, “Thoughts of a biological order intrude.” We are reminded of the modern theory of evolution, according to which man has evolved in the struggle for existence and by natural selection, and with him his intellect too has evolved naturally and along with his intellect all of its characteristic forms, particularly the logical forms. Accordingly, is it not the case that the logical forms and laws express the accidental peculiarity of the human species, which could have been different and which will be different in the course of future evolution? Cognition is, after all, only human cognition, bound up with human intellectual forms, and unfit to reach the very nature of things, to reach the things in themselves.” Husserl thus takes this chance and proceeds to say that, whether noumena exist or not, and whether we can ever know noumena or not, phenomena are all that we have. In fact, this is not something new, as Kant believes that noumenon itself is unknowable to us. Thus, through a focus on phenomena, phenomenology is born. Descartes almost starts phenomenology after he realizes the Cartesian division, but he rather starts with the famous “cogito, ergo sum,” the “I think, therefore I am,” and misses the chance to start phenomenology. Now, from a philosophic attitude, you, who find yourself in a simulation scared and helpless, can finally start from somewhere true. Yes, the book or computer that you are reading this article from does not actually exist, but the phenomenon that you are reading from the book or computer exists, and the phenomenon that you perceive the book or computer as the book or computer, the objects other than you, exists, as Husserl suggests, “only phenomena are truly given to the cognizing subject, he never does and never can break out of the circle of his own mental processes.” You cognize the book or computer as an object and it is indubitable, as you do not cognize it as yourself, the subject, without concerning whether the book or computer actually exists or not. Now, even if you are still worried and skeptical about whether your life is a lie and you live in a simulation, you know, at least, some indubitable truths to start with, based on the fact that you are experiencing them as objects. This way, your life is not entirely a lie if it turns out that it is a simulation: it is only largely a lie. In fact, if you start from a philosophic attitude, doing phenomenology, instead of fully taking the validity of cognition, since you can never be wrong if you start from phenomena, which are indubitable, and always keep in mind the possibility of cognition and the “science of natural sort” to go wrong, your life would be entirely true and would never be a lie. Congratulations!

Fortunately, we have not gone that far yet. It has not revealed to us that we do live in a simulation even if we do. But the philosophic attitude still works, in case one finds out that they live in a simulation or for the sake of indubitable knowledge that one is able to know. Martin Heidegger, the best and the worst student of Edmund Husserl, deploys the philosophic attitude in his magnum opus Being and Time: as written on the first page, Being and Time is “dedicated to Edmund Husserl, in friendship and admiration.” It was a good time before Heidegger joined the Nazi Party and claimed the chair of philosophy upon Husserl’s retirement. The book not only is dedicated to Husserl, but also is affected extensively by Husserlian ideas of phenomenology, as Heidegger uses phenomenology as a theoretical tool in order to achieve his goal which is to “work out concretely the question concerning the sense of ‘being’ ”in Being and Time. (The following brief introduction of Being and Time is inspired by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the commentaries on Being and Time by Hubert Dreyfus, notes from lectures of Dr. Michele Averchi, and the original work of Heidegger.) In Heidegger’s Being and Time, Heidegger introduces a set of new terminologies for his unique and novel philosophical system and structure aiming to solve the problem of being. Dasein (a German word for “being-there”) is a “determinate entity” in each case that human beings are, which, in Heidegger’s terms, “mineness” belongs to any existent Dasein. Its character needs to be understood primarily as grounded upon the state of Being which is called “Being-in-the-world,” which stands for a unitary phenomenon that must be seen as a whole, as Heidegger says himself in the beginning of chapter two of Division I in his book. While “Being-in-the-world” must be seen as a whole, Heidegger does think it has several constitutive items in its structure in which he heavily explains and elaborates later in the book. The state of Dasein’s Being, “Being-in”, is an existentiale that is not to be confused or thought as the Being-present-at-hand of “res corporea (corporal things)” in an entity which is present-at-hand. That is to say, the state of Dasein’s Being can not be thought of as something like the human body, which is an example of being-present-at-hand. To quote from Heidegger, “‘Being-in’ is thus the formal existential expression for the Being of Dasein, which has Being-in-the-world as its essential state.” To Husserl, in a Cartesian fashion, we must go to the things in themselves and let them manifest themselves as they are in themselves. Heidegger disagrees with this idea that human beings are related to the world as subjects relating to objects and tries to “illuminate Dasein as it appears in our pre-reflective understanding, Dasein in its everydayness (An Overview of Being and Time, Mark A. Wrathall and Max Murphey).” Heidegger, therefore, later determines who is in the mode of Dasein’s average everydayness through a phenomenological demonstration in which the essential structures will be exhibited. It turns out, to Heidegger, that awareness or consciousness do not play any significant role in the way that human beings relate to the world. In Dasein’s everydayness, it ordinarily encounters entities as “equipment.” Take Heidegger’s favorite object for example, the hammer, in which I always suspect a reference to Nietzsche’s “How to Philosophize with a Hammer,” as Heidegger is a big Nietzsche fanboy. For a skillful carpenter, when he or she is hammering a nail in a piece of wood or something, the hammer tends to become transparent, while perhaps thinking of what to eat for lunch or why is the job so boring. It is the same way that we do not usually notice our hands or legs when we ordinarily use, or “manipulate,” them. As Heidegger writes “the less we just stare at the hammer-thing, and the more we seize hold of it and use it, the more primordial does our relationship to it become, and the more unveiled is it encountered as that which it is—as equipment.” In the activity of hammering, the specific “manipulability” of the hammer is uncovered. And the kind of Being which equipment possesses is called “readiness-to-hand.” Dasein has no consciousness of nor is aware of the equipment in use as independent objects in everydayness, just as when we walk in the classroom, we are unaware of the doorknob as an independent object while opening the door. This is the most phenomenologically primordial relationship with equipment, instead of sitting down and philosophizing on the hammer or anything else. When Dasein enters a mode of studying, (e.g. when we sit down and do physics pondering about things) the entities under study are phenomenologically removed from the equipmental use of everydayness and are thus revealed fully as independent objects. This mode of Being is called “present-at-hand” by Heidegger. When Dasein encounters entities as “present-at-hand,” Dasein calls them “Things.” This mode of Being, “present-at-hand,” comes with a transformation in the mode of Being of Dasein into a subject as a consequence, as the relationship between Dasein and non-Dasein-entities becomes a subject-object relationship. Dasein thus gains “knowledge” from “Things” as “present-at-hand.” The final mode of Being, “un-readiness-to-hand,” emerges when the mode of “readiness-to-hand” as an equipment is disturbed by some reasons like if the hammer is broken or the piece of metal at the top of the hammer flies away during hammering. Phenomenological transparency of “readiness-to-hand” is no longer present since the carpenter in this case would therefore notice the hammer, while it is not “present-at-hand” either as it is broken or missing which is no longer available in an equipmental sense-in order words, “Things” are no longer fully fledged “Things.” In this mode of Being, Dasein encounters a problem solver who is directed to restore the object to be able to function normally. The carpenter in this case is neither unaware of the “equipment” as “readiness-to-hand” nor aware of the thing to gain knowledge like properties of “things” as “present-at-hand.” The carpenter encounters the broken hammer as “un-readiness-to-hand” in a sense to merely fix it for normal use. Some might argue that "un-readiness-to-hand" is a subset of "readiness-to-hand," an abnormal state of "readiness-to-hand" that seeks to return back to "readiness-to-hand." This makes good sense of what is going on here, and might be understood as such if one finds it better for oneself to understand as such. All of these ontological conclusions and structures are drawn from Heidegger’s phenomenological analysis of Being.

There are much more things to elaborate, which is also what Heidegger does in the second half of the book. Especially the significance that makes up the structure of “the world” is the ontic condition for the possibility that a totality of involvements can be discovered and so on. Heidegger’s existentialism and his discussion of big questions like the meaning of Being are closely related to these but that will be the future content. To this point, the Cartesian tradition and his division are both “hammered” down by Husserl and Heidegger, while some Cartesian inheritances are also seen in both of them. In any case, phenomenology and its subsequent philosophical movements thus started, and since then have been changing the understanding of the nature of human beings, or Dasein, if you prefer.

Martin Heidegger
Martin Heidegger