The World as a Meaningful Totality Drucken E-Mail
Dienstag, 11. Mai 2010 um 20:43
This paper shows how Martin Heidegger revolutionized epistemology
by reflecting on the meaning of objects, coming to the conclusion
that persons are not objects and objects do not have an existence
independent from thinking. His critique of Western epistemology is
analyzed, and a draft proposal is presented reconciling the classical
subject-object distinction and Heidegger’s hermeneutics.
1 Introduction
What is the meaning of existence? This is a very old philosophical
question, although not the foundational one. Starting with Thales,
Ancient Greek philosophers asked the question of the origin of all
things: Where does everything come from? When Aristotle established
his theory of causality, he distinguished four different causes,
one of them being the final cause (telos): the purpose of something
for someone. But how does this cause fit in a world view dominated
by material and efficient causes? Edmund Husserl established the
method of eidetic reduction, trying to reveal the structure of pure consciousness.
Martin Heidegger objects that this project is untenable,
because pure consciousness does not exist. Whereas Husserl argued
that intentionality is essentially related to consciousness, Heidegger
said that there is no intentionality without meaning, and since meaning
is created by consciousness, there can be no consciousness without
any pre-understanding.
2 Meaning in Being and Time
2.1 The structure of Dasein
Because Heidegger does not want to be connected to the dualistic
tradition of subject-object distinction, he introduces the term Dasein
which he used instead of the term ‘subject’. A Dasein is basically an
entity that is conscious of its own existence. (BT 32) “Dasein always
understands itself in terms of its existence - in terms of a possibility of
itself: to be itself or not itself.” (BT 33) It is quite different to analyze
the ontological structure of things and Dasein itself. When analyzing
things we differentiate according to certain categories, as we do in an
Aristotelian or Kantian tradition. (BT 70) According to Heidegger,
analyzing Dasein is different: Since understanding takes place within
Dasein, understanding Dasein is formal (without content). The structure
of Dasein must be defined in “terms of existentiality” (BT 70),
meaning the states of Being that are necessary for the Dasein to exist.
Understanding takes place within our consciousness. At the same
time understanding constitutes consciousness, because consciousness
without understanding is “empty”: Heidegger’s teacher Edmund Husserl
thought that consciousness is always intentional, it needs to create
‘objects of thinking’ which are put into a meaningful relation, finally
constituting an act of thinking. In Chapter 31 of Being and Time
Martin Heidegger writes: “If we interpret understanding as a fundamental
existentiale, this indicates that this phenomenon is conceived
as a basic mode of Dasein’s being.” (BT 182 / OS 115). Existentialia
(pl. of existentiale) are certain characteristics of the structure
of Dasein, which are necessary to constitute Dasein.
Heidegger introduces the concept of “ontological difference” by
equating Sein (which is described as the horizon of understanding)
and understanding: Only what is understandable can actually exist.
Sein is the precondition to Seiend, because things can only be perceived
as beings (recognized that they are) by understanding them
(recognized how they are). Sein and Seiendes are identical in difference.
This difference is also reflected in the distinction of the understanding
(Dasein) and the thing(s) to be understood. Trying to
understand oneself, a person usually projects the comprehension of
the world’s Sein to himself, which makes him belief that he is himself
a thing, which Heidegger rejects: Humans only exist in performing
their life (Lebensvollzug).
Now Heidegger’s definition of the Sein of the Dasein (“the totality
of Dasein’s structural whole.”, BT 317) shall be analyzed: “Ahead-ofoneself-
being-already-in as being-alongside.”1 This rather incomprehensible
summary covers very important points:
1) “Sich vorweg sein” (being ahead of oneself) displays Heidegger’s
concept of existentiality: One has a pre-understanding of the world;
the Dasein has a pre-understanding of Sein in order to be able to ask
the question of Sein.
2) “Schon sein in” (being already in) displays Heidegger’s concept
of facticity or thrownness. The Dasein is thrown into Dasein and does
not find any reason for this having happened or for anything to exist.
3) “Sein bei” (being with) displays Heidegger’s concept of Verfallenheit.
Because of its thrownness into the world, the Dasein is
mainly determined by the Man, which is the cultural, historical and
social background of Dasein.
2.2 Meaning and Understanding
Essential characteristics of the structure of Dasein are defined as existentialia.
These do not only include the possibility of intentionality,
as Husserl pointed out, but meanings as defined relations of intentional
objects. Not all relations can be created by the Dasein. Its
“thrownness” into reality implies that it has a pre-understanding of
some meanings, at least those which are sufficient to be self-aware:
“Understanding is the existential Being of Dasein’s own potentialityfor-
Being; and it is so in such a way that this Being discloses in itself
1“Sich-vorweg-schon-sein-in (einer Welt) als Sein-bei (innerweltlich begegenenden
what its Being is capable of.” (BT 184 / OS 117)
When we ‘create’ an object in our consciousness, we establish the
idea of this object as being part of a ‘web of involvements’. We project
possible uses and origins into this idea, making the object related
to previous objects we know. This is also true for our own Dasein,
when we try to understand it: we try too see it in the totality of its
involvements: “As long as it is, Dasein always has understood itself
and always will understand itself in terms of possibilities.” (BT 185 /
OS 118)
We see here that Heidegger’s method is similar to the one of
Descartes and Kant. Descartes tried to establish criteria for absolute
knowledge, starting from ‘I think’, coming to the conclusion that
the only thing I can know for sure - when I doubt everything that is
doubtable - I cannot deny that I as a thinking entity (res cogitans) exist.
Kant builds his theory on this undoubtable knowledge, extending
it by the structures of intuition which transform sensual into conceptual
perception (categories). Heidegger basically denies that this ‘a
priori’ knowledge is enough to establish self-awareness. The Cartesian
idea, that the ‘I’ is conscious of its own process of doubting, is very
similar to Heidegger’s definition of Dasein: an entity that is aware of
its own existence. But this awareness is not - as Descartes claims -
without any presupposition. Making the statement ‘I think therefore
I am’, one already has concepts of ‘I’, ‘thinking’, ‘existence’ and a
concept of logical implication. And this makes Heidegger’s concept
of Dasein even more primordial, yet at the same time not foundational:
His philosophy accepts that any form of knowledge needs some
pre-understanding, and we cannot go back to one basic concept upon
which everything is based. According to Heidegger, even the phenomenological
“intuition of essences” - as developed by Husserl - are
grounded on existential understanding (C.f. OS 119).
2.3 Fore-structures
Because of the interpreter’s fore-structures (Vorhabe, Vorsicht and
Vorgriff ), meaning cannot exist outside of Dasein. (OS 122) Hence
hermeneutics (understanding something in the world) always requires
investigating the ontological structure of Dasein. This structure “emerges
as Dasein comes to articulate the as-structure of its Being as understanding.”
(OS 17) Including the structure of Dasein, ontological
hermeneutics points out that an entity must be seen “as something in
its totality of involvements”. (OS 18)
When we try to understand a new concept or object, we summarize
all possible interactions it can have with us or with things we have
already understood (our fore-having). For example, when we see a
key without ever having seen either a door or metal, nor ever having
experienced the need for privacy, we would not understand this new
object. We might admire the fine structure of the key and see it as an
object of art. But in the web of involvements of a person in our current
society, the concept of a key is understood quickly. The concept of key
is connected with doors, the feeling of security and privacy, and with
the locksmith that formed metal into this particular form. Having an
origin and a purpose, the concept key extends our web of interrelated
meanings and fits nicely within in.
The question of purpose is much more important than origin. We
can have a proper concept of ‘key’ even if we don’t know how it is
made; the material out of which it is made is as well irrelevant. What
is important is to assume that an item is made for a certain purpose.
When understanding an object we project our own Dasein into
possible worlds, where the Dasein interacts with this object: “As understanding,
Dasein projects its Being upon possibilities.” (BT 188 /
OS 120) We have a fore-sight of all possible involvements.
Interpretation [Auslegung] is the development of understanding
(OS 120). “In interpretation, understanding (...) becomes itself.”
(BT 188 / OS 121) It is the “working-out of possibilities projected in
understanding” (Ibid.) It is not the case that we simply project all
possible purposes into an object giving it an unambigious meaning,
but the meaning of a concept is always open for change and extension.
The possible involvements do not even have to be coherent: For
example an abstract term (like ‘justice’) can be applied and rejected
at the same time for a certain situation, depending on the concept of
justice (for example a utilitiarian and deontological conception). It
is not an exeptional case but quite normal that a concept comprises
contradictory involvements.
In order to understand concepts we have to fit them in into our
previous web of meanings. When interpreting a text that makes references
to these meanings and puts them in certain relations, we can only
understand these relations by using and reflecting on our fore-having.
“[T]he interpretation operates in Being towards a totality of involvements
which is already understood - a Being which understands.” (BT
191 / OS 122). Interpretation extends our fore-having and creates -
based on the fore-having as groundwork - a more-dimensional web of
possible extensions. (I further explain this idea in the next chapter
using “models of reality”.)
Heidegger symbolizes this necessity of a fore-structure in order
to understand and interpret something new with the concept of the
hermeneutic circle, which we cannot avoid (There is no presuppositionless
or foundational knowledge) but only learn to “come into it
in the right way”(BT 195 / OS 125). “An interpretation is never a
presuppositionless apprehending of something presented to us.” (BT
191f / OS 123)
How does something become intelligible as something? Intelligibility
does not mean knowledge. It means that a connection from
the fore-having to the object can be created; that there are consistent
extensions of the fore-having that include the new object or concept.
The process of this fitting-in is the process of interpretation. “In the
[hermeneutic] circle is hidden a positive possibility of the most primordial
kind of knowing.” (BT 195 / OS 126)
3 The Concept of Reality
3.1 Language
Language is quite often ambiguous, and a very important part of Martin
Heidegger’s philosophical journey is examining some of these ambiguities.
The verb ‘to be’ can be used in various ways in the English
and German language. It can be used as an auxiliary or a main verb,
or it can be substantiated, which is the most problematic action. In
German there are two possibilities for substantiation: every verb can
be substantiated without making any changes on the verb itself or one
can create a progressive form similar to the English language. The first
possibility is usually equal to the progressive form in English: If one
literally says “the go” (“Das Gehen”) in German, one means the process
of going - but usually in a very abstract sense, not one particular
act of going. A substantiated verb ‘to be’, in German ‘Sein’, can be
translated ‘being’ or ‘existence’. But what is actually referred to? For
this particular verb, the meaning is usually not equivalent to the progressive
form. ‘Das Sein’ can have two meanings: Either it stands for
the individual existence of a person (my or your being), or it can refer
to the world / universe as a whole.
The second option - referring to the universe as a whole - is shown
by Heidegger to be unsatisfactory. The question is whether mental
entities, such as my individual existence, are a part of the world as
a whole. This is also where Heidegger modifies Husserl’s phenomenological
method: The world does not stand in contrast to the subject,
but the subject is a part of the world. Heidegger’s objective is to
reconcile the ideas that the world is constituted by the experiencing
person AND the experiencing person is a part of the world.
3.2 Properties and Concepts
Reality is considered to be everything there is. The universe is considered
to be equivalent either to reality or to the observable part of
reality.2 Everybody has a concept of ‘existence’ and everyone is able
2Some people say there is a ‘multiverse’ consisting of different universes. Others say
that there is a platonic world or there is a God which/who is existent but outside of the
universe. Let’s assume here that the word reality also includes all possible extensions.
to count. We cannot count everything there is, but we usually think,
if we had enough time, we might be able to do so. That is because
we suppose OBJ: “The universe consists of objects”3 and FIN: “The
amount of objects in the universe is finite.” But actually these premises
are disputable and, moreover, there is not just one universe: Every
universe we think of is a concept in our mind. And we can think
of different kinds of universes: finite or infinite, Euclidean or non-
Euclidean, grainy or continuous. Universes are therefore embedded as
modal objects within our inner intuitive space. We only assume (OR)
that there is one single universe “out there” that matches - completely,
partly, or maybe not at all - one of our models.
Why do we think the universe consists of objects? This might be
because objects are the basic elements of mental perception. Sensory
perception, on the contrary, is a wholeness which out of itself does
not bring about cognition. Cognition starts by making distinctions.
A certain part of the sensory input is “cut out” in order to establish
an object of thinking. This act of identification is the very first step
of rationality. An image of the chosen part of the outer perception
is mirrored into our inner perception and is given the predicate “existent”.
The criteria according to which a certain part is chosen are
usually established by a perceived difference. There are certain sensory
inputs that are not in cognition, but rather irreducible feelings
that call for action: hunger, pain, sexual desire. Most properties are
in relation to these basic concepts. At the same time this foundation
gives a structure to the set of relations; it gives them a “meaning”.
One can also call this the universe, as the etymology unversus=whole implies.
3In the word reality the origin ‘res’ (=thing) suggests OBJ.
In our mind there is an inner perception consisting of possible
models of reality again consisting of objects which are determined
using properties, with the law of non-contradiction as method and
What is not clear thus far is the process that determines a certain
part of the sensory input to be an object of perception. How can a
baby recognize a milk bottle as a milk bottle? Why can’t it recognize
a watch as a watch? The answer is easy: the milk bottle is a
part of the baby’s life-world (Lebenswelt - as introduced by Edmund
Husserl), for thinking always has its roots within life.4 According
to Heidegger, no object can have an independent existence, without
any meaningful relations. Objects of perception are constituted by
establishing or discovering references to one’s own life and to prior
meaningful objects; they are things in space and time, which means
they have an appearance, a history and a future. The history correlates
to the question “where does it come from?” and the future to
“what is its purpose?”, the latter being the more important. A milk
bottle is identified as a milk bottle only after seeing it as “something
that looks like the image of a milk bottle that I have in my head and
something that has the purpose to still my hunger”. Heidegger points
out that not every concept can be established using this method, since
there are always fundamental concepts that cannot be further defined.
In this example, ‘hunger’ is such a concept. Contrary to Kant’s view,
this interpretation horizon (“Verst¨andnishorizont”) is not only for-
4Wilhelm Dilthey actually stated that thinking can never go beyond life. Here I remain
with a weaker version. C.f. Dilthey, GS XIX, S. 346f.
mal5 but already ‘contains’ meaning (c.f. Chapter 2). For Heidegger,
ontological questions begin here, not by splitting the world up into
independent objects as in the Aristotelian approach.
Where does this rather relativistic approach of objects lead us?
We would have to rethink the premise OBJ stating that the world
consists of objects or modify our concepts of world and reality. OBJ
can be maintained by reducing the set of existing objects to possible
fundamental physical particles. This would leave all objects of
perception to be simple agglomerations of particles and would not explain
why certain agglomerations can be given a meaning and others
cannot.6 Rather, the concept world can be comprehended as a meaningful
totality (“sinnhafte Totalit¨at”). The world therefore contains
all possible objects of perception and all possible meaningful relations
between these objects, and hence, can never be perceived completely.
It exists prior to setting up any relations; it is the precondition for the
possibility of experience; it is transcendental.
3.3 The Ontological Dimension of Being
The theses hitherto are somewhat disturbing: Universes are theoretically
in our mind, yet the world and its objects exist prior to human
experience. However, it is important to emphasize that the subject
finds itself to be a part of this meaningful totality; it recognizes that
not all meanings are simply established but some are indeed discov-
5According to Kant, certain categories and the understanding of time and space are a
priori (before experience), all objects of perception are a posteriori.
6For example, the agglomeration “the moon and my shoes” is not considered an object
of perception; not even cohesive agglomerations like “the right half of my body”.
ered. Therefore, the subject assumes that the meaningful totality is
unique as well as consistent. Inconsistencies in our thinking can indeed
only be determined by applying them to an independent and
supposedly consistent reality; several models of reality within our inner
perception are incoherent only if there is just one reality.
Hence the assumption of one consistent objective reality is strongly
connected to the process of thinking. Our actions are usually determined
using one of our models of reality in order to predict and achieve
a certain outcome. In a decision process we may sometimes use more
than one model, for example with the goal of minimizing risks. But we
consistently make the assumtion that some worlds are better models
of reality than others. The idea of reality is ‘constructed’ as a limit
of infinitely improving models. But how would one model be determined
better than a different one? The main criteria are consistency,
coherency and parsimony. Coherency usually means a compliance of
implications of the model and sensory inputs. According to Poppers
falsificationism, a theory is valid as long as it is not disproved by
experiment. The problem with the criterion of coherency is, what
Hilary Putnam and others noted, that any reference to an object is
theory-dependent and, as Quine pointed out, that particular sentences
can never be verified or falsified in isolation, since every theory can
be modified to comply with unpredicted sensory data (Duhem-Quine-
Thesis). The principle of parsimony as a ground rule of rationality
states that - out of two incoherent but consistent theories both having
equal strength of explanation and prediction - it is rational to accept
the one with less ontological assumptions and irrational to accept the
other. Accepting a theory usually means making it the foundation of
every-day decisions.
The claim that there is a objective world independent from our
mind is usually referred to as realism. I tried to explain why realism
needs to be accepted in order to be able to make reasonable decisions.
Anti-realism on the other hand does not necessarily reject that there is
an objective reality but rather implies that the set of possible models
cannot be ordered according to the quality of compliance to the real
3.4 Knowledge
Realism and Conceptual Constructivism seem to be mutually exclusive.
Heidegger tells us that concepts can only be understood if they
fit into a totality of previously known meanings. Most of the concepts
are related to purposes and based on their indirect relation to fundamental
existential experiences. Is the fact that these fundamental
experiences are the same for all of humanity the main reason that
we can understand one another? Is knowledge just that submodel of
reality on which there are no disagreements because of the common
existential structure of all Dasein?
I would like to propose a thought experiment. Assuming there is
a Dasein that is not only aware of its own existence but also has a
fore-having that includes the maximality of possible extensions of the
basic human fore-having; the world would be held in this absolute Dasein,
similar to the metaphysical concept of Objective Idealism, as for
instance opined by George Berkeley or Georg W.F. Hegel. The difference
from classical definitions of ‘world’ to this thought experiment is
that here ‘world’ is not a consistent concept. It includes all possible
consistent models of the world, but these models can be contradictory
towards one another.
It is quite interesting to compare this idea to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s
definition of ‘world’. In his Tractatus Logico-philosophicus he
wrote that the world is the “totality of facts, not of things” (TLP
1.1); a fact is the existence of states of affairs; a logical picture of facts
is a thought, and a thought is a proposition with a sense (meaning)
(TLP 2-4). Especially Wittgenstein’s claim that “the facts in logical
space are the world” (TLP 1.13) can be interpretated as the world
being the universe of all possible facts. Since facts are thoughts and
thoughts are meaningful propositions, the world then is the universe
of all possible consistent systems of interrelated propositions.
Here the limits of a relativism (pluralism) of meanings are clearly
demonstrated. The debate on the question of philosophical relativism
of meanings (which is a view many people like to conclude from
hermeneutics) is very much related to the debate on relativism in
the philosophy of mathematics. There, pluralism is mostly rejected,
because even if one can formulate logically contradictory axiomatic
systems (like, for example, Zermelo-Fraenckel set theory with and
without the Continuum Hypothesis), one can establish a system that
contains all logically formulatable axiomatic systems: the universe of
all possible sets.
4 Conclusion
Heidegger condemns traditional Western epistemology because it usually
leads to a reductionistic ontology: “Only as phenomonelogy, is ontology
possible” (BT 60). Knowledge is therefore not achieved through
deduction from general and formal laws (as it is in natural sciences),
but is grounded in the understanding of Being.
The problem this method faces is that it shifts knowledge away
from objectivity. Martin Heidegger makes the destinction between
objective existence (‘Vorhandenheit’) and subjective present-at-hand
existence (‘Zuhandenheit’). It is hard to reconcile Heidegger’s epistemology
which is based on Dasein with non-idealist claims, namely
that there are certain facts (like the energetic state of a molecule) even
without any person seeing or knowing it. Some empirical facts have
a truth value even if it is logically impossible to determine this truth
value, as in the statement “The number of galaxies in the universe is
even.” Also mathematical knowledge seems to be independent from
human thinking: G¨odel’s Incompleteness Theorems imply a form of
mathematical platonism.7
As I already postulated in my thought experiment, I think the
only way to reconcile Heidegger’s epistemology with realism is exactly
the way George Berkeley reconciled his subjective idealism with the
idea of a material world that is independent from the human mind.
Berkeley’s objective-subjective idealsm was nicely summarized in a
limerick by Ronald Know and an anonymous reply:8
7C.f. G¨odel 1995, 147.
8Knowles 1999, 442.
There once was a man who said “God
Must think it exceedingly odd
If he finds that this tree
Continues to be
When there’s no one about in the quad.”
Dear Sir, Your astonishment’s odd
I am always about in the quad
And that’s why the tree
Will continue to be
Since observed by
Yours faithfully,
Bernstein, Richard: Beyond Objectivism and Relativism. Science,
Hermeneutics, and Praxis, Philadelphia 1983.
Gayle, Ormiston / Schrift, Alan (Ed.): The Hermeneutic Tradition.
From Ast to Ricoear, Albany 1990. [GS]
G¨odel, Kurt: Unpublished Philosophical Essays, Basel - Boston - Berlin
Knowles, Elizabeth: The Oxford Dictionary of quotations, Oxford
Heidegger, Martin: Being and Time, Malden - Oxford - Victoria 1962.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig: Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Frankfurt 1963.