Being at Issue

Richard Polt

The thought-provoking power of Heidegger’s writings is evident to those who allow themselves to be moved by them. The depth of his thought is also undeniable: can there be deeper questions than the meaning of being and the essence of truth? So I am confident that Heidegger will continue to be appreciated, discussed, and rediscovered as long as his writings exist and there are readers to read them.

But to be thought-provoking and deep is not necessarily to be right. The sheer force and range of Heidegger’s thought, together with his well-honed rhetoric, can persuade us that he must be on the track to answers—despite his repeated insistence that his thought is a series of Holzwege, “woodpaths” that do not issue in any solutions but only get us farther into the woods. At some point, a truly philosophical reader must establish some critical distance and try to decide which of the paths blazed by Heidegger are still promising and which are misguided.

Of course, our responsibility is made more acute by Heidegger’s appalling enthusiasm for Hitler, his indefensible notes on “world Jewry,” and his refusal to see any worth in liberal ethics and politics. This antiliberalism is part of an essential current of his thought: his relentless critique of the Enlightenment’s faith that reason can rise above its circumstances, comprehend them, and improve them. For Heidegger, fact-gathering and logical explanations are ineluctably rooted in nonrational “thrownness”—our belonging to a given order whose givenness is ultimately inexplicable. We depend on our tacit familiarity with the norms and practices of our culture; we depend on unpredictable moments of illumination; we depend on our involuntary exposure to meaning itself. These shadowy preconditions of unconcealment sustain all our rational certainties and plans. When the Enlightenment forgets its roots, it distorts the human condition and destroys the richness and mystery of things. The result, for Heidegger, is a growing wasteland—a world where all beings, including humans, are reduced to mere objects present for measurement and resources present for exploitation. For Heidegger, liberalism is simply the triumph of the calculating and rapacious subject.

It is not accurate to describe Heidegger as a convinced Nazi, since from the start he hoped for a questioning more radical than any party slogan. He comes to view Nazi ideology as an instance of the domineering and reductive metaphysics of modernity—thus, racial theory is nothing but “biological liberalism” (GA 65: 53). However, this metaphysical critique is not accompanied by a moral or political one, and he even explicitly dismisses such points of view (e.g., GA 95: 13). In texts such as the Black Notebooks, he portrays all modern movements and forces, including the phantasmagoric power of global Judaism, as instances of one and the same machinational metaphysics—thus indulging in a reductionism of his own. The Enlightenment’s forgetting of its roots is associated all too easily in his discourse with the traditional prejudice against Jews as supposedly nomadic cosmopolitans. Despite his critique of Nazism on the theoretical level, he does not resist it, but submits to it (GA 95: 408). He seems to view Nazism as the ultimate modern destiny, an extremity of willfulness that must be played out to its catastrophic conclusion before a new inception can become possible (cf. GA 95: 50, 417).

Heidegger’s reflections on modernity remain highly pertinent, even urgent. But again, we must be on our guard against following his critique all too readily, or abandoning the moral, political, and scientific ideals of the Enlightenment without articulating a responsible alternative.

We must be responsible. But what is the source of this responsibility? What makes it possible for us to be held responsible in the first place? Being and Time proposes an answer that, in my view, is one of Heidegger’s most genuine insights. If so, then even the most valid criticisms of his own irresponsibility presuppose some phenomena that Heidegger himself can help us understand.

According to Being and Time, we are responsible—for ourselves, for others, for things, for the very meaning of it all—only because we are at the same time indebted. We are schuldig, “guilty”—that is, thrown into the predicament of having to be ourselves in our world, even though we did not bring ourselves into existence. Responsibility is not a matter of grounding one’s own being; to the contrary, Dasein is responsible because it is beholden. We have been handed a burden that may feel heavy or light, that we may recognize or disregard, but that, as long as we exist, we cannot simply put down—for this burden is our existence itself.

Heidegger’s insight into the burden of our being is genuine and revealing. The fact that our being is at issue is a crucial feature of our existence, a feature that often enough is either ignored or taken for granted in everyday discourse and in scientific and technological practice. Here is one truth, though surely not the only one, that Heidegger can offer us. If we explore a few of its ramifications, we can see not only how it connects to other themes in Heidegger, but also how he failed to reflect on some of its political implications. The insight into the burden of being may also help us see the limitations of the Enlightenment without leaping to the conclusion that it must be completely rejected.


Heidegger articulates a fundamental line of thought in §4 of the Introduction to Being and Time: Dasein’s own being is at issue for it; Dasein is being-in-the-world; therefore, the being of all beings in the world is at issue for Dasein. Since our own existence is a problem, what it means for everything to be is also a problem—and we have an intrinsic mission to discover, question, and enrich our own understanding of being.

Let us look more closely at the elements of this idea. First, to say that Dasein’s own being is at issue for it (es geht um seinen Sein) means that each of us is ineluctably concerned with who we are. Of course, most of the time we do not agonize over our identities; we simply accept who we are, and get on with the business at hand. Some of us never experience an existential crisis at all. But this is all consistent with Heidegger’s idea; his view is that this normal way of existing is inauthentic everydayness, a “fallen” condition in which the question of selfhood appears to have been settled once and for all, or does not even appear but remains occluded. From a more insightful and authentic point of view, this fallenness of Dasein testifies to its higher calling. What might seem to be cases of indifference to one’s own being—recklessness, ennui, automatism, the unexamined life in all its variations—really prove the ubiquity of care. Only an entity whose being is at stake for it can fail to take up the challenge, seek to unburden itself from itself, or forget its own responsibility.

In extraordinary moments of lucidity, we wake up to ourselves and realize how far we have fallen. But waking up to oneself does not mean retreating to a disembodied, noncommittal mind, for Dasein is always already being-in-the-world. “In” means engaged in, as when we say that someone is “into” politics or music. “World” means a network of meaningful and purposive relations. Each of us is into the network. I may care about my family, my neighborhood, and my career; I operate in these environments, interpret myself in terms of them, and encounter things and people as relevant because they play a part in these significant webs. Again, even a person who seems alienated or indifferent is being-in-the-world, albeit in a “deficient mode.”

Even the experience of anxiety, where all the nodes of my network seem to recede into insignificance, does not destroy the network or my caring involvement in it. It is like standing atop Mount Everest, with an unparalleled view of the landscape, knowing that you will freeze or asphyxiate unless you descend. Anxiety shows me that my involvements cannot ground an essence that defines me as if I were a present-at-hand thing; my being remains at issue. But any viable response to the question of my being, any answer to the question of “who,” no matter how provisional, must take the form of reengaging with the world.

My world is a shared world: the network constantly implies others, even if they are not currently on the scene. My habits are cultural, my language is dialogical, the traditions to which I am indebted were developed by others. To grapple with my own existence is, at the same time, to address what it means to be a member of my community.

Because I am-in-the-world, then, what is at issue for me is not just my own being in isolation, but the being of all those who matter to me—and in fact, the being of all the entities I can encounter within my significant network. The question of who I am cannot be answered by navel-gazing. For instance, if I am into music, then I am engaged with what it means to be an instrument, to be a musician, and to be a good or bad piece of music or performance. How I interpret music is part of how I interpret myself—how I manage to be somebody. If we extrapolate from this example and include lesser degrees of engagement, we see that every Dasein is necessarily concerned with beings as a whole and as such. No matter how circumscribed one’s world may be, it forms some entirety, a field in which one plays a part and where things have their places. No matter how distant we may be from theoretical questions of ontology, it makes a difference to us that beings are at all, that they are something instead of nothing. And just as one’s own selfhood is never settled, the meaning of all other beings remains in question: our interpretation of every region of entities is susceptible to a paradigm shift, and the meaning of the whole keeps calling for new responses. In this way, the question of being springs from the human condition itself. It is not the invention of philosophers, but is implied in the fact that our own selfhood is in question and that we can be someone only by engaging in a world where we care about all that there is.

Since being is at issue, we are constantly exposed to questions that cannot be definitively answered: What is the meaning of being? Who am I? Who are we? The issue of being cannot be displaced by an identity; any such identity turns its back on the persistent question.

This thought insists on a certain tension and incompleteness within our own being: rather than having a fixed character that we can simply discover, our selves are permanently at stake. Heidegger’s position combats all “subjectivity,” in his sense—that is, every view that takes the human being as a subjectum, an underlying thing that has ascertainable, unambiguous attributes. He thus insists that Dasein is a “who” rather than a “what”; this characteristic plays a part in all of our essential traits.1

If we adopt the fundamental insight that being is at issue for us, we should avoid three false steps that can spoil this insight. First, it does not follow that our being is a sheer abyss, void of meaning—a void that can then be filled by the arbitrary decision to pursue any project whatsoever. We find ourselves indebted to a tradition and community, and thrown into a world that is the only place where we can be anyone. This means that not every answer to the “who” is equally promising, viable, or coherent. If I set out to create a private language and a completely new culture, I will end in madness—or in a dated, clichéd fantasy that I fail to recognize as such.

Secondly, authentic existence does not have to avoid all stable personality. It may be quite appropriate to commit oneself to pursuing a single way of being in depth—as long as one remains aware that this pursuit is an ongoing response to a question that continues to be asked. In other words, even though identity cannot displace the issue of being, I can build an open and evolving personality for myself. I might authentically participate in a religious community, for example, as long as this participation is not a matter of dogma and inertia but a constantly renewed commitment, a lifetime of risking responses to ongoing questions. If I avoid all responsibilities or try to reinvent myself ex nihilo every day, I will just develop a shallow character, and my supposed freedom will be nothing but a cul-de-sac.

Finally, against some of Heidegger’s own tendencies, there is no need to insist that only Dasein has the privilege of a problematic relation to its own being. Maybe other animals, or even all living things, are in the process of becoming themselves without ever settling into an essence or “species.” Maybe all matter emerges from fields of potential that assume concrete forms under specific circumstances, but cannot be limited to those forms. Perhaps the ontology of presence at hand, where entities are objects in definite states, was never anything but a construct, not just when it comes to ourselves but as regards everything that is.

Heidegger’s position, then, may exaggerate human uniqueness—but it is a virtue of his approach that it militates against all objectification of humanity. This is still a battle that needs to be fought. The biologism that he denounced in the 1930s has its counterparts in the “neurophilosophy” and evolutionary reductionism of today. Biology legitimately uncovers a wealth of interesting facts, but some interpretations of these facts assume that in order to understand the human condition, we simply have to explain the origin and structure of our bodies. As long as the body (including the brain) is grasped as a present-at-hand entity—an object, no matter how complex, that is not at issue for itself—then the deeper and distinctively human dimensions of our existence remain obscure.

Biological reductionism is often accompanied by an informational reductionism that represents “the mind” as hardware, software, algorithmic operations, or data. Partially valid analogies between humans and computers distract us from our own existence. If a computing machine ever becomes a problem for itself—if it experiences anxiety, has an identity crisis, and cares about being—then it will begin to make sense to speak of artificial intelligence.

As noted earlier, the point is not to insist on a quantum leap between humanity and all other beings; there seems to be an evolutionary continuum, and we cannot know a priori that it is impossible to build a silicon-based Dasein. The point is that our sciences and technologies often assume that all the entities they handle are simply present-at-hand objects, disregarding the possibility that such entities could become an issue for themselves. But this is to exclude Dasein’s way of being in advance. As Heidegger always insists, in ontology we should begin with the richer phenomenon—our own, full-fledged existence—and then understand more restricted ways of being as kindred to it. Instead, we are constantly tempted to use our technoscientific knowledge to try to explain the rich in terms of the poor.


Let us take a few steps now beyond Heidegger’s own paths, extending his insight into the burden of being into areas he barely explored. First, how does the question of “who” lead to a wealth of issues in the political realm?

Against the prevailing ideology of the Nazi period, Heidegger insists that the mission of the people is a question, not an answer, and that the Germans should keep in view something greater than the Volk itself—the problem of being. A community is always becoming itself, without ever completing that journey; its members ought to remain alive to the questionable significance of all things, including themselves. “Who are we?” he constantly asks in the 1930s.2

Heidegger’s best moment during his year of greatest complicity with the Hitler regime comes on January 30, 1934, when he denounces novelist and ideologue Erwin Kolbenheyer, a popular mouthpiece for theories of racial purity, who has just spoken in Freiburg. “Kolbenheyer does not see and cannot see that man as people is a historical entity, that to historical Being there belongs the decision for a particular will to be and fate—engagement of action, responsibility in endurance and persistence, courage, confidence, faith, the strength for sacrifice. All these fundamental modes of conduct of historical man are possible only on the basis of freedom” (GA 36/37: 210/160). Freedom exists because “man is a self, a being that is not indifferent to its own mode and possibility of Being; instead, its Being is that which is an issue for this being in its own Being” (GA 36/37: 214/163).

But if Heidegger understood national destiny as an open question, why did he go so wrong in politics? How could he ever have lent his support to a dictatorship that ultimately tried to settle the question of “who” in the worst possible way: by murdering those who “we” are not?

Despite Heidegger’s promising philosophical beginning, he ignored or disdained several questions that are essentially political. Regardless of any ethical judgment we may pass on his behavior, he simply failed to consider these basic theoretical problems, and instead became increasingly bitter and alienated from the entire political realm. The absence of any serious reflection on these problems means that Heidegger does not engage in political philosophy as such.

First, to what communities does an individual belong, and how are they related? How do conflicts among them arise, and how should such conflicts be resolved? For example, a speaker of a certain language may find himself at odds with legislation passed by his state, and may have things in common with citizens of another state because they share his language.

Who gets to count as a member of a community? Can membership be established simply by legal status? Does it require participation in certain practices or allegiance to certain norms? Is it a matter of ancestry? Can individuals voluntarily join or leave the community?

A perfectly homogeneous community is impossible. Every group necessarily has differences and minorities. How far should a community go, then, in accommodating these subgroups—linguistic, racial, ethnic, or political? Should they have specific rights?

Likewise, a perfectly unified community is impossible. As Aristotle observes (Politics 2.5), an excess of unity destroys a polis as such, reducing it to a household or an organism. The question, then, is how much division, diversity, and dissent a community should tolerate, or even encourage.

Heidegger holds that some individuals can articulate a community’s destiny—Hölderlin, for instance, is the preeminent poet of the German mission. But we are always faced with competing articulations of destiny. How can we tell which is preferable? Do we choose arbitrarily? Is it a matter of rhetorical force? Are these questions subject to debate and discussion?

Is there such a thing as the will of the people? Is it to be decided by one or a few prophetic leaders? Or by a majority vote?

Is a certain respect for fellow Dasein crucial to acknowledging them as “whos”? Does that respect entail certain norms and laws? Does it mean that a community should establish individual rights that recognize that each member is an issue for him or herself? (This need not mean subscribing to an unrealistic theory of individual autonomy.)

If there is some gathering into a community, is there always a complementary diaspora, in which members of the community explore other groups, mingle with them, and live abroad as expatriates or exiles?3

Can different communities find their way to mutual understanding? How can members of one group learn from those of another? Heidegger does reflect on such issues as regards the relations between Germany and France (GA 13: 15–21), the Germans and the ancient Greeks, and the East and the West.4 Unfortunately, his thoughts never reach the level of concrete political problems.

All of these issues need to be explored well beyond what Heidegger’s writings can offer us. His insight that Dasein’s own being is at issue for it can provide an ontological starting point for basic questions of political philosophy, but his own political errors are examples of inadequate and unacceptable responses. By encouraging public debate about these questions, we erect the strongest obstacles to an authoritarianism that attempts to settle the questions by establishing a collective identity through force. The questions can never genuinely be settled—they can at most be silenced. Contests over them are a permanent part of authentic political life.


Another problem implied by Heidegger’s basic insight is how our being comes into question. If being is at issue, how does it become an issue? How do we enter selfhood?

It seems that there must be events of disruption, events in which a formerly unproblematic identity erupts into discord and becomes a problem for itself. In such happenings the sense of our own being, and thus of all being, is challenged. We could call these events emergencies—crises in which being emerges as a burden. We might even call them traumas, which wound a smoothly untroubled would-be whole and force it to acknowledge its incompleteness.

In Being and Time, Heidegger describes the experience of anxiety as such an event in which meaning itself is shaken. What was formerly taken for granted as an all-encompassing sphere of significance is revealed as contingent and alterable.

In the Contributions to Philosophy, the appropriating event (Ereignis), with its “expropriation” (Enteignis) and “de-rangement” (Ver-rückung), can also be read as such an emergency—but a more fundamental one, which not only sets the world trembling but establishes a world in the first place. In “the appropriating event of the grounding of the there” (GA 65: 183, 247), a “site of the moment” would be founded—a meaningful spatiotemporal center.5

However, in the Contributions and in all of Heidegger’s later writings, this founding event remains vague and ambiguous. Does the thinker’s thought happen as one with the event, or can we intimate the event only in a mood of longing and desolation? Does the event refuse to take place, remaining a remote possibility that would happen, if at all, only in an apocalyptic “other inception” of history?

Against this eschatological speculation, we need to recognize that appropriating events take place at many junctures in each of our lives. As we bring Heidegger’s insights to bear on concrete experience, his sweeping account of the history of being must be replaced with a more modest position similar to the view in Being and Time: we tend to misconstrue and objectify ourselves, to fail to recognize our own, ineluctably problematic being. We fall and forget. This tendency can be exacerbated by certain elements of the philosophical tradition as well as by some tendencies in modern culture. But the response should not be to hope for an apocalypse, but to keep opening our eyes to how we actually exist, how we keep being faced with smaller and larger traumas that found and refound our “theres.”

After Heidegger, then, we need a traumatic ontology that practices a traumatic empiricism. Such an empiricism attends to experience, but without misinterpreting it as the simple givenness of present-at-hand phenomena—be they sense data, objects, or essences. Experience is Erfahrung, a wayfaring in which the traveler is transformed by the passage. The most crucial experiences alter the identities of those who have undergone them, and break through the current bounds of sense.6

We must think not merely about these emergencies, but in them. We ordinarily try to get over emergencies as soon as possible and read them retrospectively, from a position of reestablished identity. To think in emergency would be to dwell in it and dwell on it. It would mean letting the transformation of identity come into language. Under conditions of emergency, concepts liquefy under pressure, as it were; words find their way into new possibilities. This event is poetry.

Another essential form of language, perhaps underestimated by Heidegger, is narrative—which will always appeal to us when it tells of emergencies, whether tragic or trivial, and confronts us with the question of who we are. Literature illuminates the human condition without objectifying experience and reducing it to a case of some universal law.

Traumatic ontology, then, goes hand in hand with narrative and poetic explorations of the experience of existing as a “who.” It will push the edges of phenomenology, dwelling in the becoming of the sphere in which phenomena can be accessed and interpreted at all. It will explore questions in political philosophy by attending to the origin of communal configurations and the problem of the collective “who.” It will promote individual self-knowledge by staying with the emergency of the self.

Finally, traumatic ontology must address the question of the limits of reason and the destiny of the Enlightenment. Can we preserve an awareness of the preconditions of rational thought while continuing to analyze and explain the beings around us? Can we keep in view the preconditions for rational action while continuing to try to act in ways that are rationally justifiable, and to show respect for other rational actors? Does reason have to shrink back from the turmoil of an emergency, or is there a traumatic logic—a logic of coming to be an issue for oneself? Can reason be flexible enough to build bridges of discourse across paradigms, to understand transitions, to avoid speaking only from within a constituted identity?

Those of us who are unwilling to discard the Enlightenment must articulate its most promising insights while considering Heidegger’s incisive critique of the principles and concepts in terms of which those insights have often been articulated in the past. If we are to develop a more thoughtful Enlightenment, if we are to cultivate reason without rigid rationalism, we should take to heart Heidegger’s insight that only entities whose being is at issue are able to engage in reasoning, and we will focus on events of becoming-an-issue as we pursue ethical and political reflections that steer clear of Heidegger’s failures of responsibility.

There is no part of Heidegger’s thinking that remains, and no part that does not endure. None of it remains as a settled, proven body of assertions. It all endures as a provocation that can inspire individuals to think more attentively—to deepen unconcealment—to become more enlightened.


1. For more on this “existential” element in Heidegger’s thought, see the contributions to this volume by Theodore Kisiel and by Charles Guignon and Kevin Aho.

2. See Julia A. Ireland’s contribution to this volume for a reflection on the relationship between Heidegger’s efforts to explore the problem of being German and cruder Nazi assertions of German identity.

3. Heidegger’s 1933–1934 seminar briefly asserts a fruitful tension between rootedness in the homeland and interaction with the exterior: Nature, History, State, tr. and ed. Gregory Fried and Richard Polt (London: Bloomsbury, 2015), 5556.

4. On the question of East–West dialogue, see Bret W. Davis’s contribution to this volume.

5. For a detailed interpretation in these terms, see Richard Polt, The Emergency of Being: On Heidegger’s “Contributions to Philosophy” (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006). William McNeill also elucidates Ereignis as event in his contribution to this volume, and David Kleinberg-Levin’s contribution explores what it means to say that we are “appropriated” in Ereignis.

6. See Richard Polt, “Traumatic Ontology,” in Being Shaken: Ontology and the Event, ed. Michael Marder and Santiago Zabala (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

Richard Polt - Being at Issue
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