Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Meaning of "Nothing" in Heidegger

Martin Heidegger
Michael Gelven introduced me to Martin Heidegger's Being and Time when I was an undergraduate at Northern Illinois University. Gelven is one of the best teachers I've ever had. He combined brilliant scholarship with an ability to communicate it to lesser beings like myself. His method of teaching and evaluating become the one I now use in all my teaching.

In my seminary studies I did an independent study with theologian Tom Finger on Being and Time. Thank you, Tom, for taking that time with me. I'm certain I understood very little of what Heidegger was saying and doing. Yet being-taught by Gelven and Finger served and still serves as helpful in now understanding Heidegger, I think, more than I did forty years ago.

Let me try with some "later Heidegger" bullet-points + auto-commentary.

  • Heidegger-studies are usually divided into study of the Heidegger of Being and Time, and the "later Heidegger."
  • I'm looking at Heidegger apart from his involvement in Nazism, an unfortunate development.
  • Theologically, to understand Bultmann and Tillich one must understand Heidegger.
  • If Heidegger is interested in God, his is a non-metaphysical God.
  • Traditional ontology understood persons in terms of their relationship to "things"; in terms of the way things are. In doing this humanity was "led astray" by being.
  • "Being" was the center of Heidegger's thought.
  • Heidegger's term for human being was the German word Dasein. Literally, Dasein simply means "being-there." Heidegger uses this term to indicate that humanity must be studied in terms of its own structure rather than in relation to other "things."
  • Heidegger speaks of Dasein as being "thrown." That does not mean there is a "thrower." Rather, as James Robinson has written, Dasein's "thrown-ness" "relates it to Dasein's own projection of itself. Dasein is grounded in nothing outside itself." ("The German Discussion of the Later Heidegger," by James Robinson; in The Later Heidegger and Theology, eds. James Robinson and John Cobb. I find Robinson's writing on Heidegger clear, and am using his essay for my bullet-points.) With this in mind, consider this quote from Heidegger, who says that the aim is "to let that which shows itself be seen from itself in the very way in which it shows itself from itself." (In Anthony Thiselton, The Two Horizons, 26)
  • This is the meaning, in Heidegger, of "nothing." Dasein is grounded in "nothing" outside itself. For Heidegger there is "nothing" beyond Dasein. Robinson writes: "Dasein, held out into nothing, is beyond all beings, and has in this sense attained ultimate transcendence, the goal of metaphysics." Heidegger explains this in his lecture What Is Metaphysics? (Sartre's "nothingness" in Being and Nothingness is both indebted to Heidegger's phenomenology of being and misunderstands Heidegger and goes in a direction that is non-Heideggarian.)
  • For Heidegger, there is nothing beyond Dasein, not a transcendent God, not to the universe as "the sum total of all beings" (Robinson, 11), and not to some Cartesian subject from which a world of things can be established. Beyond Dasein, nothing lies. The answer to the metaphysical question that haunted philosophers from Plato to the present is: "nothing." As Robinson says, "the answer to the metaphysical question is at the same time the end of metaphysics." (12)
  • Keep all of this in mind in order to understand Tillich's idea of God as the "ground of being."
  • Bultmann is indebted to Heidegger's phenomenology of being in the being of Dasein. The idea of hermeneutics is purely descriptive. Bultmann says, in regard to Heidegger's hermeneutics, "I learned from him not what theology has to say but how to say it." (In Thiselton, 28)
Serious students of Christian theology need to come to grips with the influence of Heidegger's anti-metaphysical phenomenology of Being.

As for "nothing," two interesting (but non-Heideggarian) studies are: Nothing: A Very Short Introduction, by physicist Frank Close; and Jim Holt's excellent Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story