Thoughts on Heidegger’s "The Fundamental Question of Metaphysics"

In Phenomenology the philosophical question refocused its attention on “being”, all while accepting the basic unquestioned doctrine of modern philosophy, that man does not have direct access to the mind-exterior reality. We find this claim clearly demonstrated in Heidegger, for example, in that, Heidegger’s definition of world is Spirit, and his definition of spirit is a positioning of oneself interrogatively towards being. He claims, in fact, that the animal has no world. In his article, The Fundamental Question of Metaphysics, Heidegger claims that the question “why is there something rather than nothing?” is the most fundamental question that mankind can ask. We will look at why he thinks that this question is so important, what he thinks is the answer to this question, and what it means for mankind. We will finish this analysis of Heidegger’s article with a discussion of the positive and negative aspects of his answer to this question.

      Heidegger thinks that the question mentioned above is the most important question, first in rank, that a person can ask. He gives three, somewhat related, reasons for this claim. It is first because it is the broadest of all questions. We see the broadness of the question in the fact that it covers all things, and interestingly enough, it covers even “nothing”. It is first because it is also the deepest of all questions. It is deepest because it asks about the ground of all things. Finally, it is the most important question because it is the most fundamental of all questions. It is most fundamental because in asking this question we are removing all particulars from the picture, and asking why there is anything at all. Why is there an existent?

      Interestingly enough, even though this is the most fundamental question, Heidegger claims that in asking this question we run into a preliminary question – a question we must ask first. (We won’t worry about whether or not this preliminary question takes primacy on the most fundamental question. However, there does seem to be something inherently contradictory in saying that the primary, most fundamental question causes us to ask a preliminary, prior, question.) The preliminary question is “How is it with being?” The question of being comes before the question of existents (essents for Heidegger). This preliminary question actually holds the key to answering the fundamental question of Metaphysics, even though Heidegger claims that it is impossible to actually know being, as it is an empty concept. That being said, it almost looks as if he is saying that, for the time being we cannot know being due to the disintegration of Spirit through our misunderstanding of spirit (remember that spirit is the definition given for the term world).

      The full import of Heidegger’s Existentialism can now be seen. Being is an existential concept for Heidegger, it is seen to become more and more unknowable as the Spirit of man – the world of man – darkens. Heidegger shows his existential concept of being in asking whether the word “being” is only an empty concept, or whether it holds within it the entire destiny of the west (western civilization).

For almost any classical or medieval philosopher, the question “why there is something rather than nothing?” is asking for the causes of what there is (material, formal, efficient, and final). Heidegger, however, repudiates this idea, and claims that this question is a historical, existential question. By historical he does not mean a question concerned with past history, but a question that is concerned with the present moment as it is constantly in a state of becoming. The fundamental question of Metaphysics is existential because it asks about man’s “being-there”. It is, according to Heidegger, vitally important that man ask this question, as the questioning process will bring man’s world – spirit – back from the darkness into which it has fallen.

Heidegger claims that the world has fallen into darkness. It is because of this that “being” has become an empty concept. It fell into darkness due to a four-step process by which man violated being, his own existence, and prostituted his spirit. This is what Heidegger calls the misinterpretation of Spirit. The first step of the darkening of the world was when man misinterpreted Spirit, and claimed that it was intellectual. Man made spirit into a mere shadow of itself.

Once this step had been taken, the other steps followed easily. Once spirit was portrayed as intelligence, it became a tool; something to be used for another purpose. It is portrayed, wrongly, as a way of attaining certainty, and it is made into a tool rather than the main thing itself.

The next step is the shattering of the unity of spirit, which is now portrayed as intellectual. Once it is only a shadow of its former greatness, it is only a small step from this violation of being itself to a division of its unity. Spirit (falsely portrayed as Intellect) is then divided up into branches of knowledge.

Finally, the corruption of Spirit is complete when it becomes just a part of one’s cultural prestige to be “knowledgeable” in the different branches of knowledge. Intelligence is integrated into culture as something to be cultivated and put on exhibition, much like a Christmas ornament. Heidegger is perhaps speaking of the achievements that a person gets in contemporary education, which can then be used as symbols of prestige (Bachelor, Masters, and Doctoral degrees).

Heidegger paints a gruesome picture of mans desecration of the world – spirit. He then defines spirit as a fundamental, knowing resolve, towards being. In light of this definition his whole argument comes to its achievement. Asking the question, truly, and not as a matter of politesse, or, as repeating an anthem, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is the only way to restore this world to its original glory. It is the only way to “save” ourselves. By turning towards being, and resolving to know it, man turns back to an “enlightening” of the world – spirit.

Heidegger’s article is very interesting, in that he points out some very deep truths about the negative affect that industrialization has on the world, and on man himself. Heidegger points out that in all of his intellectual, and industrial, endeavors, man is losing his own spirit, his own being. In a sense, Heidegger is right. Man is losing his identity in all the advances of technological knowledge. However, it is only by equivocating on the terms “being”, and “spirit”, and the classical view of “metaphysics” that Heidegger can call this a “metaphysical problem”. He is right, in a sense, but as he describes the problem, and in his claim that this question is the solution to the problem, we find that it is not a problem, or even a solution, that can be found in metaphysics properly conceived. It is a problem that would be better solved by moral philosophy, and even more so by “Religion”.

Heidegger also claims that this is a historical question, historical seen as an actual happening, the current becoming of existents. In a sense, defined this way, he is right. However, this is, again, an equivocation. He is equivocating with the terms “history” and “historical”. The question of being and becoming is properly a metaphysical question, though, perhaps, not as he perceives being, and becoming. Heidegger, again, equivocates when he discusses being and becoming. It is not a fact of some mind-exterior reality that he is discussing, but the spirit of man, which is a knowing turning towards being.

      Heidegger brings up some interesting questions about the kind of being that man is, what man was made for, where man is going, and about the way man is currently living. However, it is only by cruel equivocation, or a complete redefining of many well-known terms, that Heidegger is able to claim that these are properly “metaphysical” questions about the “world”. 

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