Sheehan – Making Sense of Heidegger

Thomas Sheehan, Making Sense of Heidegger: A Paradigm Shift. 2014.




From Existential Comics, link here. (Please contact me if you are the author and want it gone.) Double points for irony if you know the actual source of that quotation…



I typically deal with primary texts in this site – but this book, with its textbook-like title, has done a better job than anything else I’ve seen to make Heidegger sensible. Those who read philosophical works are no stranger to opaque writing, and I subscribe to Michael Warner’s point (Publics and Counterpublics, 2002): that the quality of a work has nothing necessarily to do with how difficult it is to read, one way or another. But I have long been frustrated with what seemed a needless and spectacular kind of opacity that one finds at times Heidegger, and especially those who invoke him. Thomas Sheehan, a veteran Heideggerian, offers an excellent way to grasp the key anchors of Heidegger’s writing, not by chopping away at the complexities but drawing upon them. (While all the rage today is the ‘Heidegger affair’, as the world combs his finally unsealed ‘Black Notebooks’ for anti-Semitic material, I won’t go into that here.)


In short:

Sheehan begins from the basic conceit that Heidegger himself contributed to a 50-year misunderstanding of his own project.

  1. Heidegger’s question, Sheehan says, was not the nature of being (Sein) but the essential basis of sense/meaning, or the source of meaningful presence (Anwesen), which had a provisionary label of Being (xii) and eventually is described as appropriation (Ereignis), thrownness (Geworfenheit), the clearing (die Lichtung), the open (das Offene) the essence of human being (Da-sein / Existenz, as distinct from Dasein as the specific being of an individual, which Heidegger conflated – Sheehan prefers to fold them into ex-sistence, to stress the latin root sistere, “to make someone or something stand out and beyond” (xvi)). (xv)
  1. Sheehan characterises Heidegger as thoroughly and consistently a phenomenologist seeking the basis of intelligibility, rather than a metaphysician, because all sense/meaning is for-us, and every sense/meaning is rooted in a phenomenological a priori basis of intelligibility (thrownness), and he specified his task as undercutting the long Aristotelian tradition of metaphysics (“What is the being of a thing? What is a thing in its being?” (15)) to ask: what is this essential beingness that allows things to have being? How is ‘being’ in general possible? (16) See below: ‘Phenomenology’

This sets the trend. In short, he seems almost to imply, we’d be a lot better off if we realised the ‘Being’ of Being and Time is quite distinct from being in the metaphysical sense – and the ‘Time’ has little to do with what we typically mean, as well, and ‘Event’ [Ereignis] definitely isn’t ‘event’ as in everyday English, and, and…



ουσια, Heidegger says, is not metaphysical being but steadfast presence, by which the Greeks, Sheehan says, were ‘fascinated’; the ever-present-on-hand-to-us nature of objects, a presence that is ‘proper’ to us, involved with us. (35) φυσις in this sense denotes two things for Heidegger: one, the name for all things; two, “that which allows all those things to emerge as what and how they are”, the self-revealing of things as well as the revealed things. (37)

Being, in Heidegger’s reading of Aristotle, is thus both standing-forth, φυσις, and the constant enduring of that standing, ουσια. (39) Plato’s emphasis on intelligible appearance for-us leads to a demarcation of mere appearance (which is rather unreal) and an eternally immutable ειδος – or rather, ειδος as a general quality, the individual things partly sharing in that realness. (44) This focus on an immutable and withdrawn quality is anti-phenomenological, and Heidegger rejects it.

In contrast, Aristotle allows for partial degrees of the real, where each individual instance can be a ‘not-yet’ perfect thing striving towards its being (45) This pushes forth the crucial question: “How does the realness of what is not fully real become present and evident?” (49) How do we identify any perfect realness when we always begin by perceiving the im-perfect? We surely work backwards, attributing the perfect being of this thing in excess of the imperfections it displays, and then returning to the object in order to bestow meaning anew (50). (This, as we will see below, mirrors Heidegger’s description of thrownness as a recursive process (and, indeed, Husserl’s phenomenology).)

Heidegger locates Aristotle’s Metaphysics IX 10 as a crucial text for this question of ‘how being’. Having said earlier that each thing ‘has as much intelligibility [αληθεια] as truth [ειναι]’ (54), Aristotle (according to Heidegger) shows that being is intelligibility, that the unified quality of being is its disclosedness, its availability to intelligibility. (55) This occurs differentially across both συνθετα and ασυνθετα, composites and non-composites. Composites with accidental predicates (like ‘chalk’ and ‘white’) do not disclose the being of the thing. Those with essential predicates (like ‘chalk’ and ‘materiality’) still retain the possibility of  misapprehension, because now we have a difference/gap between a thing and its quality, where the quality is essential to but not reducible to the thing. Only with asynthetic non-composites do we have the perception of disclosedness itself – and that means reaching some ‘atomic’ nondivisible level of a thing (which, we’d note, is what phenomenological reduction attempts). (56-9) So we see here a phenomenological reading of Aristotle. Now, even at that level, our perception of being can be ‘wrong’. The point is not to reach sure knowledge, only to be able to grapple with the disclosedness as an essential quality. Heidegger also develops this in terms of Husserl’s categorial intuition, where there is hyle, the sensorial, but being exceeds it, and it is this ‘surplus’ beyond that which is present that reveals itself to be the quality of being that categorial intuition perceives. (63)

αληθεια is a question not of ‘truth’ (though once again, Heidegger regrettably uses Wahrheit, ‘truth’), but intelligibility, for a thing’s “no longer going unnoticed”. (71-2) Sheehan offers a system (73-5):

  • αληθεια-3: epistemic correspondence, e.g. the correctness of a statement
  • αληθεια-2: “prior, pre-propositional” intelligibility in a phenomenological sense
  • αληθεια-1: “the thrown-open/dis-closed “space”” that renders 2 possible.

(We note here that Heidegger’s facticity, pre-given, is the essential availability of αληθεια-1 to all humans – which ‘solves’ or reproduces Husserl’s problem of regression. This is the problem where asking “what makes, say, an act perception possible?” and answering “an a priori being in the world” or “the presence of the world to us prior to perception” actually risks an infinite regress, as if Magritte’s Not to be Reproduced. Heidegger is trying to undercut the metaphysical question of ‘what is being?’, but his answer cannot be final unless we discover some sure answer as to the why and how of this thrown-openness / disclosedness. We will return to this problem below…) Similarly, λογος is not ‘word’ or ‘language’, but, as in its root λεγειν (to collect), it is to join together, bring to light, to bring into intelligible presence. (92)

This finally reveals Heidegger’s time as not at all chronological, but related to the stable presence of ουσια (95): as he says himself, time is “a preliminary name for the openness of the clearing.” (97) Heidegger quotes Meister Eckhart: “Time is what changes and becomes multiple. Eternity remains simple.” (101) Here is where enters Heidegger’s emphasis on human mortality/finitude. Time is not chronology but difference, the essential difference humans will always have insofar as there is a gap between themselves and the world, the thing and its meaning, being and the potentials gathered up unto that specific being. (So we also find here a proto-Deleuzian language: difference and potential, and the relentless movement generated by them, as the engine not only of transformation but being, presence, stability.)



Sheehan’s strategy in this book is to rarely reference work other than Heidegger’s own, but the affinity to Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological a priori is clear in many aspects of this phenomenologically-read-Heidegger: e.g. “we do not merely bump up against things with our bodily senses and then add meaning to them. Rather, we always have an a priori relation not to the specific meaning of the thing but to its general intelligibility, its ability to have a specific meaning within a specific context.” (12) Thus die Lichtung (the ‘clearing’) is described as, I would argue, a kind of phenomenological a priori that we ‘traverse’ in order to make sense of a thing. Elsewhere, Sheehan writes that ‘knowing’ is something that never happens ex nihilo or instantly and directly. (126)

Contrary to some interpretations that Heidegger abandoned his mentor Husserl’s phenomenological project as time went on, Heidegger was thoroughly committed at least to the phenomenological reduction (10). In his hands, it means that being is always already operative in everyday understanding, but the reduction is required to explicitly identify beingness and what enables it, putting ‘the brakes’ on the everyday tendency to skip that and get straight to the existential, the substance. (128-9)

Heidegger laid open a place for the silent, realist existence of objects, but this independent reality never really entered into analysis; the point was that any such existence would make itself known to and through human subjectivity, and any distortion is a natural part of the recursive movement of perception, requiring no delving into the world priori to perception. This is key in Heidegger’s distinction of Plato and Aristotle: where the former had a more absolute realism, Aristotle allows for partial degrees of the real, where each individual instance can be a ‘not-yet’ perfect thing striving towards its being (45), which sounds a lot like Heidegger’s humans at an ethical level.


What is thrownness/clearing?

Heidegger explicitly speaks of “running back and forth” (dis-currere). We know everything only discursively, that is, through thinking, acting, and other human interactions with that world. That process itself ‘traverses’ because we take things to mean something, recursively apply that attribution, and then meet resistance anew from our environment that begins the process again. Hence there is always an open space, clearing, between the thing and its possible meaning(s), and this clearing is always there because it is furnished by none other than the human itself. The human is “always-already” thrown-open because thrownness is an essential aspect of the human that enables being (=sense/meaning, intelligibility) in the first place. (21) Not the ‘subject’ but the ‘e-ject’ that is ‘thrown-open ex-sistence’ .(134)

Thus “human being is structurally επεκεινα, an excessus.” (136) We are fundamentally in excess because to live and to make sense of things is to always reach out beyond into potentiality and bring something back recursively. “Life’s actuality is to be caught up in potentiality.” (139) But we do not reach out to that which is completely alien to us, in an anarchic and wayward line of flight. In stretching towards potentiality, we ‘return’ constantly to what is within our being. (141) Temporality, or ‘ecstatic existence’, is the ‘neutral’ (conflated by Heidegger with, but not same as, authentic) structure of ex-sistence. This basic structure is a recursive movement where becoming tends towards ‘what one already is’ (an ‘already-ahead-ness’), and then returns to render things meaningfully present. (170)

(This, to me, is a crucial aspect for rethinking Heidegger through Sheehan. At the most superficial (but still influential) level, this nuanced focus on difference/gap breaks down a more simplistic imagery invoked by the vocabulary of being, authenticity and even tradition. More substantively, there is an essential tension between difference – the human capacity to reach beyond – and sameness – the human return to what ‘is has been’ already. We might note that this is the same movement when the human subject is trying to get at the essence of another object: the constant resistance and presence of the object as an independent thing means the subject is continuously reminded of that which is already part of the object, and is enjoined to return to it. (You intuit certain material aspects of the chair that immediately avail to your perception, and then ascribe some meaning based on it – but then, say, acting on it by trying to sit on it, the object rebels and forces you to reconsider.) Certainly, we can imagine that human attributions of accidental predicates wash over the ‘essential’ being of an object until, over time, we transform that object in so many ways we might as well ask that question about cars that change all their parts and remain the same. But it is no surprise that Heidegger, with his focus on ‘authentic’ being as the freedom to pursue potentiality in a way that returns one to oneself (that ‘oneself’ being that very pursuit!), declines to focus on the substance of existential and its various transformations, instead emphasising the very pursuit itself as human facticity, the human pre-given, the condition for being.)

Having projected a transcendental approach to this openness in BT, Heidegger of the 1930s comes to reject any idea that potentiality agentically / sovereignly intrudes into being, but that the clearing is “intrinsically hidden” (195) and that is our facticity (228). It is paradoxically not-disclosed while itself allowing other disclosures (224,6,8) – which, we note, finally allows us to say it really does reproduce the Husserlian limitation of an artificial end to infinite regress. He then embarks on a new account of this disclosedness as appropriation (das Ereignis) vis-à-vis ‘the turn’ (die Kehre). Ereignis, despite the typical meaning as ‘event’, relates to etymons ‘to see’ and ‘to own’, becoming that which ‘appears’ and that which we ‘appropriate’ (‘own’), and is equivalent to thrownness. (232-3) Kehr names that which is at work inappropriation, which, Sheehan suggests, might be superseded by the more accurate Gegenschwung, ‘oscillation’, to describe the recursive process. (239)

But what Sheehan shows most clearly is that Heidegger, in all his journeys, never really produced a finished account of what this clearing consists of, how it works, how we might analyse it. Given that Heidegger considered the mere clarification of thrownness as the problem a monumental enough task for Being and Time, and given that he considered the next step a rereading of Western philosophy in this light, we might perhaps sympathise that he never got that far.


Modernity and ethics

Heidegger himself emphasized the ‘protreptic’ and – though the word is not used by him or Sheehan – ethical aspect of meaning-making. The authentic living in Heidegger is to embrace the (very Sartrean) freedom of potentiality/excess in ex-sistence, while it is inauthentic to refuse to become what we already are. (139) In other words, to accept the facticity that we are always already in the middle of thrown-openness. (161)

Drawing more Sartrean connections (though Sheehan acknowledges the many ways in which Heidegger felt Sartre misunderstood him), Heidegger describes ‘dread’ (Angst), and in Sheehan’s own formulation, absurdity, of mortality: death is the ultimate collapse and failure of meaning, and one we cannot escape. Faced with this ‘groundlessness of our selves’, we face a “call to conscience” to become authentic authors of our lives. (157) In other words, to feel dread is that rare experience of our finitude. (162)

The moderns’ belief in the ‘obvious’ facticity of reason was an effort to strip away the Western Christian facticity of the divine, but in doing so, they still – and even more intensely – cover up the problem of ‘being’, that is, the problem of the generic condition of intelligibility. (100)

Yet like Heidegger’s efforts that stop short of clarifying the working of openness, his later ruminations on technology, Sheehan says, displays the limits of Heidegger’s thinking. Now, as we know, primarily from The Question Concerning Technology, Heidegger argues technical rationality deadens (forgets) man as potential – it ossifies. (273) We note an almost Ellul/Mumford-like descriptionin his 50s/60s lectures describing die Technik as both machines and the mindset around them. (276) But there is nothing – “his discourse reaches its limits” – when it comes to how to actually resist, whether it is possible to resist, such deadening, or even whether we can get to the essence of something as complex as technology. (290)