Being There : Heidegger on Why Our Presence Matters

This interpretation of Heidegger by Lawrence Berger* contains a massively important set of ideas for posthumanism. The ideas of being as a process of manifestation; our experience being an event in the world and Rather than being discrete entities, the relation comes first (this is Karen Barad’s idea of relata right there!) and if we are in direct and potentially profound relation with the people and things that we encounter then how important is ethics?

For Heidegger, not only are we in direct contact with the people and things of this world, but also our presence matters for how they are made manifest — how they come into presence — in the full potential that is associated with the sort of beings that they are. This is not our presence in a physical sense, but rather in the sense of how we are engaged as living, experiencing human beings — what Heidegger famously refers to as our “being in the world.” The thought is that our worldly presence matters for how things actually unfold, well beyond any physical or physiological processes that would purport to be the ultimate basis for human activity. So, for example, when we feel that someone is really listening to us, we feel more alive, we feel our true selves coming to the surface — this is one sense in which worldly presence matters.

Heidegger sees attention as the way we gain access to things, but otherwise he sees it quite differently from how it is conceived in cognitive science. For Heidegger attention is how things come into presence for us. (His most sustained meditation on attention can be found in his lectures, “What Is Called Thinking?”) To see this, note that if we stay with the movement of attention from moment to moment, we see that it moves from entity to entity; that is, things come into presence at the foreground and then recede into the background.

Heidegger’s approach is to inquire into the nature of “being,” which is simply understood to be how things in general come into presence and then withdraw. This means that attention is the human side of a universal process of manifestation of entities, with an associated effort that is referred to as vigilance in the cognitive science literature. This effort of staying with the entities that we encounter is crucially important for Heidegger, for if attention is how we gain access to anything at all, then staying with an entity would enable a deeper revelation of its nature. In this regard he emphasizes the fact that entities are made manifest over the course of time (hence his famous 1927 work, “Being and Time”). The idea is that staying with an entity as it unfolds, affects the manner in which it is made manifest.

The manner in which an object is made manifest can be affected by the quality of my presence. To verify the truth of such an assertion, it would be necessary to put it to the test of experience; that is, it would be necessary to see what happens when we deal with an entity such as a stone with an acute and sustained attentiveness, just staying open to what may be made manifest in the encounter. The hypothesis is that acute attentiveness can lead to a sense of an entity that goes beyond the way it is typically experienced. I can feel something more deeply because I come in direct contact with it in my worldly presence. For instance, in one of the lectures mentioned above, Heidegger considers what it is to stand before a tree in bloom in a meadow. He asks how science decides which dimensions of the tree are considered to be real; is it the tree viewed at the cellular level, or as a mechanical system of sustenance, or is it the tree as we experience it? Indeed, how does science derive the authority to opine on such matters?

Heidegger writes: “We are today rather inclined to favor a supposedly superior physical and physiological knowledge, and to drop the blooming tree … The thing that matters first and foremost … is not to drop the tree in bloom, but for once to let it stand where it stands…. To this day thought has never let the tree stand where it stands.”

This means that staying with the experience of the tree enables it to come to full fruition, and that such experience matters in the overall scheme of being itself. For we are more deeply alive and in profound contact with all of the entities that we encounter when such a state is achieved, which means that we participate more fully in this universal process of manifestation.

At this point the objection will undoubtedly be raised, “Surely you don’t mean to say that a tree or a stone can be made manifest in a more profound fashion. How can our presence affect the being of a such an entity?” This brings us to the depth of Heidegger’s thought and his notion of being as a process of manifestation. For it is not unreasonable to ask, given that I experience a stone in a more profound manner, what does that have to do with the being of the stone itself?

We have come up against a deeply ingrained view of what it is to be a human being (which lends credence to views that our experience ultimately does not matter), which is that subjective experience takes place in a private realm that is cut off from the rest of reality. But Heidegger does not even make the distinction between the mental and the physical; for him our experience is an event in the world. The experience of the stone that I come to is part of the process of its manifestation in all of its possibilities. In this manner we are intimately related to the stone in our worldly presence, which is the site of its more profound manifestation. The claim is that the being of the stone itself is not independent of such an event.

For the question is, what is the stone and how are we related to it? The being of the stone and our relation to it cannot be conceived independently of the whole context in which we arise. The prevailing view is that the universe consists of discrete entities that are ultimately related by physical laws. We relate to other entities by way of mental representations of the whole — something like scientific observers who don’t really belong here.

Heidegger, on the other hand, offers a holistic view of all that is. We belong here together with the trees and the stones, for we are made manifest together. Rather than being discrete entities, the relation comes first, and the extent to which we are related matters for what we and the stone ultimately are.

Such an approach is bound to seem strange to modern sensibilities, but we have to look at what is at stake. On one view we are fundamentally cut off from the world, while on the other we are in direct and potentially profound relation with the people and things that we encounter.

*From The New York Times Opinion section by Lawrence Berger (but I hacked his words a bit and cut out some of the stupid bits – sorry Lawrence – but he does have a strange way with words at times.) Lawrence Berger is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York City. He was formerly a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.