Imagine the following situation. A foreigner from a non-western country walks out of a store holding a frisbee. However, he tells you, it's a dinner plate. Later, at his house, as he is actually eating food from the frisbee, perhaps the object could genuinely be considered a plate. This sort of dilemma - how one and the same material object could be conceived of differently by different people - is the perfect case study for Heidegger's philosophical approach. Heidegger shifts away from the traditional Aristotelian philosophical project of explaining the various types of objects in the world and their qualities and classifications to focus on frameworks of meaning that subordinate objects to human concerns.

Objects Defined by Presence and Concern

Appropriately enough, when Heidegger discusses what we come across in our day to day encounters with the real world, is it not objects but meaningfulness or significance. Heidegger's concept of presence (parousia in Greek, das Anwesende in German) refers to what is near to our hearts and minds, what we really care about as we come across it. Indeed this is a powerful insight that accommodates the psychological aspects of human life. For example, classical object-oriented philosophy would discuss your encounter with the table in narrow terms. It might ask the question about how your mind has come to acquire the general concept/idea of a table and was able to combine the various mostly visual sensual impressions with the mental powers to identify the table. However, Heidegger's approach would ask completely different questions about the table. He would ask what the table means to your life and what are your usage patterns of it. That is because how a table "appears" to you is what it "is" to you. If it is a part of your routine of reading, then the table serves for you as a prop to a ritual of gathering information or imagining invented stories. Or perhaps for a child jumping up and down the table, it's all about his exploration of physical feats and a higher awareness of his body's potential.

Thus, a central concept for Heidegger's philosophy is the world, a context of human interests and purposes that gives meaning to objects. Heidegger associates being with parousia, the study of the presence of objects as sources of meaning as opposed to Aristotle's ousia, the study of the realness of whatever is real. Aristotle's project was understanding the material and non-material aspects of both living and non-living beings, but Heidegger thought that Aristotle only managed to explore the properties of existent things (to on in Greek, meaning whatever is) without defining what being itself is. For Heidegger, to understand being was not to understand the properties of objects (an ontic investigation of to on) but to understand how these objects could become intelligible and meaningful to a human being (i..e an ontological investigation.)

Possibilities and Meaning Arise Out of Context

Despite adopting a set of aims that contrast with Aristotle's own, Heidegger does appropriate Aristotelian teleology to show how purpose in human behavior endows objects with meaning. Imagine, for whatever reason, a man decides to pretend to be a woman's new husband for the benefit of her circle of friends. This does sound like some plot out of a zany comedy, perhaps one that will eventually lead the two to fall in love and actually get married at the end. However, as they play husband and wife for the benefit of onlookers, they might just end up sharing a lot of hugs, kisses, and all kinds of caresses, affectionate gestures, and loving words. This is the perfect example of how the social context - in this case, the expectations of what a married couple should act like - shapes the behavior of two individuals who are confronted with the institution of marriage.

Thus, a context of a life, a world, places things in meaning and associates these things with possible uses. Hence, for a woman, the body of her new husband becomes a field of potential affections, a lot of them drawn from those typical things married people are supposed to. The fakely married couple draws their potential of affectionate actions not from their innate feelings towards each other - which they do not have - but rather from a body of knowledge of married people behavior they have come to absorb from other people and media sources such film and television. This is why a dance style frequently featured on television can spread quickly beyond the social milieu where it originated to faraway lands. But it's not just the moves themselves that will be spreading. Even the "typical" behavior patterns around the dance styles will be adopted. A song danced to by a couple during a sentimental romantic moment in a film may come to be used for that exact purpose in the society at large. Thus, a world or a life context is not merely a passive reflection on the meaningful "presence" of objects already embedded into our purposes and intentions but also an active force that "presences" and establishes links of meaningfulness to objects.

Disclosure of Meaning Depends on the State of Mind

To describe the process of presencing, Heidegger here uses the metaphor of the Greek word "aletheia" - disclosure that allows to merge things out of hiding so that they become clear and visible. Then, once we have a specific intention/purpose in mind, a light shines on these objects taking them out of the darkness of indetermination and endowing them with clarity and intelligibility. As a group is walking through a park, the objects of nature fade into the background and don't mean much of anything at all. (The objects in their occurrent state without meaning are vorhanden - merely occurrent. Only once woven into a web of meaning are they zuhanden - ready at hand/for use) However, once the group decides to play a series of competitive games, they see that little pebbles can be flung into the water as part of a throwing contest, uphill paths are racing tracks to test their running endurance. If you enter the territory of a tribe, by communicating with the locals you will come to learn that the local places and things are settings and props for activities and rituals that you would not have conceived of on your own based on the traditions of your culture.

Achieving the Goal of Binding Objects into a Web of Meaning is an Act that is Recurrent but Never Final

However, it must be emphasized that immersing objects in the water of meaning is not a final act as they never transcend their status as entities malleable to a diverse set of contexts and purposes. The open field of things never exhausts its potential by becoming closed and conclusively transformed into a world of significance. A notebook sold at a supplies store is supposed to be written upon and likely will once bought. But its pages could also be shredded and turned into confetti for a party or be used as a sort of a paper towel to wipe off water or liquid. Now in Aristotle's approach to objects and purpose, there is a sort of finality in play. He conceives of telos as an an underlying idea that guides objects to their final destination, their fully-developed state. A baby achieves its final point of development and embodies its predestined idea/form (hence reaches en-erg-ia) once it becomes an adult. So does the wood achieve the predetermined form of its architect once it fully becomes a table. For Heidegger, being as an open space of objects that are interpreted as resources for human purposes is always imperfect. Even though we may have achieved a synthesis of objects + meanings, the synthesis could be dissembled and assembled anew.

If Heidegger's teleology is always about pursuing and never fully arriving, unlike Aristotle's where the goals of development reach their final fulfillment, this point of divergence is explicable by the vast difference in their projects. In Aristotle's exploration of beings, a predetermined goal-oriented development of living creatures and material objects does indeed succeed in reaching its final goal. (Both plants and cats grow to take their expected adult form.) But in Heidegger's quest of understanding the "being" of things in a human world, their being being none other than how they become intelligible and take on meaning, how they "appear" and "shine forth" to humans, the meaning/significance of things can never achieve a final form/state and become frozen. Dasein, "being there" as translated from German, is the human process of taking the world as a canvas that you paint meaning upon. For Heidegger, a person is naturally driven to link objects to his sense of purpose. Once he mediates objects via a context of meaning and creates a meaningful space, eventually he comes to see his role in aligning things to a particular purpose, to see it as the reason that there is any meaning at all as opposed to none. If there's any impact Heidegger may have wanted to have upon the history of the philosophy, it was perhaps to replace the question "what exists in the world" with the questions of "What do I take these things to be and why do I conceive of them as such and others yet differently?” and “Why do they appear to me in a certain way at a certain moment and in a different way at another?"


Works Cited:

Sheehan, Thomas. "Dasein." A Companion to Heidegger. Ed. Dreyfus, Hubert L and Wrathall, Mark A. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2005. 193-213. Print.

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