Heidegger and the Problem of World

William J. Richardson

Marilyn Monroe died naked and alone under a rumpled bedsheet with the telephone in her hand. Whom had she been talking to, or trying to reach? We do not know. We do know that earlier in the day she had talked with her analyst, Ralph Greenson. We are told that she tried without success to reach Robert Kennedy, her man of the moment, who, father of a family and attorney general of the United States though he was, had promised, she claimed, to marry her and now was apparently trying to put a distance between them. She had talked with some intimate friends and others like Marlon Brando and Peter Lawford and the son of Joe DiMaggio. They noticed the increasing slur in her speech (but it was nothing new for Marilyn)-the autopsy would show blood levels of ten times the normal dose of phenobarbital and twenty times the normal dose of chlorohydrate. Clearly she was groping for whatever support her circle of people and things could give, but they were not enough. They all belonged to the "world" she knew, and it was this that had collapsed. And so, fired from her last film job as unemployable, with her career on the rocks, repudiated apparently by her last lover, Bobby Kennedy, frustrated forever (it seemed) in her desire to become a mother, addicted to alcohol and drugs, this 36-year-old sex symbol, verging on middle age, survivor of thirteen abortions and six previous suicide attempts, looked upon her "world" in shambles and, intentionally or not, died by an overdose of barbiturates-naked and alone.

Why do I write of her? Because she is still very much alive. Gloria Steinem (1986) added one more biography to the forty or so other books that deal with Monroe's life and death. Her image can be found in any poster shop; an exhibition on the history of portraiture in the Sackler Museum at Harvard begins with the earliest recorded death masks of 5,000 years ago but ends with Andy Warhol's tricolor silkscreen of ... Marilyn Monroe. Thus alive, though dead, she offers us a convenient heuristic opportunity to reflect together for a few moments on what the "world," as we put it, meant to Marilyn Monroe and how it got its meaning, in order to raise the question as to whether another way of experiencing the "world" might have made a difference in the outcome of her life (see Steinem 1986, pp. 132-33).

The nature of the world precisely as world took on a new importance for philosophers in the twentieth century largely because of the influence of Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). His thought overflowed into psychiatry through the work of the Swiss psychiatrist and friend of Sigmund Freud, Ludwig Binswanger, who found some of Heidegger's early conceptualizations clinically helpful, and, more recently, through the work of another Swiss psychiatrist, Medard Boss, who elaborated an entire theory of psychotherapy based on Heidegger's terminology. If we are to get some appreciation of how Heidegger, or a Heideggerian, would look upon Marilyn Monroe's experience of the "world," we must begin by asking how the notion of world became problematic for Heidegger in the first place.

He was eighteen years old and at the educational level of a college sophomore (final year at the Gymnasium in Constance) when a priest friend gave Heidegger a copy of the doctoral dissertation of Franz Brentano, the well-known nineteenth-century scholastic whose lectures Freud had followed in Vienna. Its title was "The Manifold Sense of 'Being' in Aristotle," where being was the Greek ον (the German Seiendes) and meant anything that "is." Now is can mean a great many things: if I say that it "is" now ——— P.M. while someone "is" here writing to you with the help of a word processor that "is" in operation while the city of Boston "is" all around him and God "is" (or "is" not) in heaven, is means something different each time. Yet there is some kind of common denominator. What is that common thing that supplies every specific being with its is? That is Heidegger's question. He calls it the "to be" (Sein) of whatever "is" (Seiendes)-the Being of beings, or the Is of what-is, as if it imparted to everything that is its power to manifest itself as being what it is.

This is how Heidegger describes, over fifty years later, the experience of reading Brentano's book:

On the title page of his work, Brentano quotes Aristotle's phrase: τὸ ὄν λεγέται πολλαχῶς. I translate: "A being becomes manifest (Le., with regard to its Being) in many ways." Latent in this phrase is the question that determined the way of my thought: what is the pervasive, simple, unified determination of Being that permeates all of its multiple meanings? ... How can they be brought into comprehensible accord? This accord cannot be grasped without first raising and settling the question: Whence does Being as such (not merely beings as beings) receive its determination? [cited by Richardson 1976, p. xl

Traditional philosophy gave Heidegger no help, but Husserl's newly proposed method of phenomenology, he tells us, suggested a way to proceed. For Husserl, originally a mathematician, had sought to develop a method for philosophy that would be analogous to the rigor espoused by the natural sciences and could guarantee comparable success in the modern world-that is, through a close analysis of the phenomena of consciousness itself. Heidegger adapted the method to his own purposes, taking it to mean essentially "letting be seen/appear" (λέγειν) those things "whose nature it is to appear" (τὰ φαινόμενα). But what phenomenon in particular would he examine in this way? Precisely the very being that raises the question, for such a being must have some sense of what to be (Sein) means if he uses the word is all the time. Heidegger calls that being Dasein because of its peculiar relationship to being (Sein). This is an old German word to which he has given a new meaning that restricts it to designate a human being. He captures the same meaning in the word existence that he sometimes writes "ek-sistence" to suggest the notion of the human being as standing (-sistere) outside of (ek-) itself and toward the to-be/Being of whatever is. Eventually he uses the word transcendence to suggest the same thing: the passage beyond beings to Being. Whatever the terminology, this is what he means by the human self.

Dasein Itself, then, would be the phenomenon that Heidegger must let-be-seen (let-be!) in terms of its awareness of what Being (Sein) means. But if we take Dasein as it appears to us in the coming and going of everyday life, the most that can be said about it to start with is Dasein is a being whose nature is "to-be-in-the-world." And so Heidegger begins to work out his approach to the Being-question in his major work, Being and Time (1962; first published in 1927), by letting Dasein be seen precisely as "Being-in-the-world," first by analyzing world, then the "to-be-in," subsequently the unity of the two in a single experience, and finally the source of this unity that he finds to be in the unity of time itself. And so the great work (Being and Time) proceeds.

The nub of Heidegger's analysis of the world that Dasein finds itself "in" lies in a distinction between (1) the network of people and things that surround us and make up the various intertwining segments of our daily lives (professional, personal, social, etc.) and (2) the larger context, the broader horizon of pervasive meaningfulness within which everything that is is encountered and takes its meaning. The former we can refer to as "my" "world" or "your" "world," or as one's" own" "world," or the" ontic" "world" (from Greek ὄντα meaning the plurality of what is)—in short, a "world" made up of beings, even if taken in their totality. The latter is for Heidegger the world as such. Marilyn Monroe's "own" world on that last desperate day, for example, included the bed, the telephone, the four walls of her messy room, the pills, the swimming pool outside, the people she spoke with (e.g., Greenson) or did not speak with (e.g., Bobby Kennedy), the millions of fans who knew her only on the screen. All these beings had a meaning for her in one way or another, but a larger pattern was always already functioning to make that meaning possible. We become aware of that larger pattern, Heidegger argues, when something goes wrong in our own familiar world of every day. Suppose, for example, you were having a crucial telephone conversation with someone like Marilyn and for whatever crazy reason you were cut off. It would be easy to realize how complex was the skein of people this involved in that moment. Obviously the patient herself with all her tangled relationships would be implicated, but consider the phone itself and all that it involves. First there is the human world that invented it, then produced it. Then there is the physical world out of which it is fashioned, contributing resources that gestated for thousands of years, then the laws of the electromagnetic world reaching out beyond the stars to permit it to function. Yet all these numberless factors do not suffice to make the telephone work, for they presuppose something furthersome all-pervasive pattern of meaningfulness that permits them to interrelate in some meaningful way. It is this web of beings plus the matrix that lets them be meaningful that is disclosed in the moment of breakdown. It is the matrix itself that Heidegger understands by the world, and since the analysis is made by Dasein and for Dasein, Dasein is its ultimate point of reference.

The tragedy of the Saturday afternoon in August 1962 was that there was no one who could help Marilyn Monroe discern a matrix of meaning beyond the pain of her disappointments, the world as such beyond the sum total of people and things that surrounded her and constituted her own particular "world." In a sense, this was the tragedy of her life. For the crumbling of the "world" about her on the day she took her life seems little more than the final consummation of an experience that took place when she was eight years old. She had already been in several foster homes, for her mother, abandoned by the lover and father of the child the very night that he learned of the pregnancy (Christmas Eve, 1926), had been unable to care for the baby and had paid other families to care for her. By the age of eight she was living with a friend of the mother referred to as "Aunt Grace." But this day Aunt Grace had plans of her own. Marilyn tells the story:

My mother's best girlfriend at this time, Aunt Grace, was my legal guardian, and I was living in her home. But when she remarried all of a sudden, the house became too small, and someone had to go .... One day she packed my clothes and took me with her in her car. We drove and drove without her ever saying a word. When we came to a three-story brick building, she stopped the car and we walked up the stairs to the entrance. I saw this sign, and the emptiness that came over me I'll never forget. The sign read: Los Angeles Children's Home. I began to cry. "Please don't make me go inside. I'm not an orphan, my mother's not dead. I'm not an orphan-it's just that she's sick in the hospital and can't take care of me. Please don't make me live in an orphan's home!" I was crying and protesting-I still remember they had to use force to drag me inside that place. I may have been only eight years old, but something like this you never forget. The whole world around me crumbled. [Cited in Steinem, p. 28]

The world that crumbled was the world she was used to--that is, the world of people and things she knew and could presumably count on. The shock of abandonment shattered this world but by that very fact lit up the broader horizon of meaning that made it possible even to say that the ontic world had lost its meaning, had "crumbled."

There were other stark moments where her own world might have crumbled: for example, when she was about to be married for the first time she tried to contact her natural father, but when she announced herself as Norma Jeane, Gladys's daughter, he simply hung up on her; she tried a second time as Marilyn Monroe, but this time he directed his wife to give her the name of his lawyer in case she had any complaint. And that was that.

Once Heidegger has discerned the nature of the world to which a human being is exposed, he proceeds to talk about what it means to be "in" such a world. It certainly does not mean to be opposed to the world as a subject is opposed to an object, but rather to be "open" to it, to have access to it in such a way that one passes beyond the people and things that surround us to the world as matrix of meaning by reason of which all these things have relevance. He describes this passage as transcendence and analyzes different components in its movement.

Heidegger speaks first of a component called understanding (Verstehen), not as an intellectual function but as a power to disclose the world, like a searchlight. He speaks, too, of an ontological disposition (Befindlichkeit) as that component by reason of which we are capable of affect. There is, too, a component that makes it possible for us to articulate all this through speech. He calls it Rede, sometimes translated discourse, though I prefer logos. Finally, there is a component in the movement that he calls fallenness by reason of which there is a low center of gravity in humans that makes us tend to lose ourselves among the people and things around us and forget the great privilege of being open to Being itself, experienced at this point as the matrix of meaningfulness that is the world.

But Heidegger insists that transcendence thus understood is a very finite thing, permeated by many kinds of negativity. For example, people are not master of their own origin-they discover themselves as already "thrown" into the world. Moreover, particular individuals are not independent of other beings, these people and things that surround each of them. And not only is a person not independent of other beings but is even drawn toward them and tempted to lose oneself in them, like the victim of a cosmic undertow. Again, the person is not capable of experiencing the world in itself but only as not any being within the world, as no-thing (Nichts). Finally, the most limiting thing of all is that the person is Being-unto-an-end, and that end is death. He or she is Being-unto-death, not in the sense of being destined one day to die—that is no great news—but in the sense that death, the ultimate ending of every human being, has already placed its mark upon him or her. The moment Dasein begins to be, Dasein also begins to be finite. Dasein is Being-unto-limit, unto-end, unto-death. How is all this experienced in its unity? It is at this point that Heidegger makes his famous analysis of anxiety. For anxiety as he understands it is a foreboding in the presence not of a given thing, like a dentist's drill or an instrument of torture, but precisely of no-thing at all—of what remains when the "world" about us crumbles. It is no-thing and no-where, das Nichts.

There are lots of ways to describe the experience of the Nothing. One way is caught by Wallace Stevens in his poem "The Snow Man":

. . . any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

[1982, pp. 9-10]

But in the presence of the No-thing, what is one to do? For Heidegger, it is the moment of opportunity. For it is then that Dasein hears the voice of a logos that wells up from its depths—this is how he understands conscience—a voice calling itself to become truly itself: transcendence trammeled with finitude. To this finitude Heidegger gives the name "guilt"—surely not moral but rather ontological guilt, the sum total of what Dasein lacks. The call to Dasein is to accept itself as what-it-is-and-is-still-coming-to-be. Heidegger's name for that acceptance is resolve. The result is an authoring of oneself both as transcendent and as finite that he calls authenticity.

There is one more major step. Heidegger now asks about the source of this experience of Being-in-the-world in this way and sees that it involves a movement in three directions. Dasein comes to itself through its openness to the world/Being—through this openness Being comes to it. This "coming" of Being to Dasein is what is called future. But it comes to a Dasein that already is—that is, is what it has been up to now—to Dasein as "past." And yet, this "coming" through Dasein as "past" lets the people and things within its "world" become "present" to Dasein and Dasein to them. This "presence" constitutes Dasein's "present." Future, past, and present: these are the dimensions of time. What gives unity to Dasein is the unity of time itself. And for Dasein to be authentic in terms of the temporality that constitutes it, it must say yes to the future as coming through its past, thus rendering possible whatever meaning is to be found in the present. It is at this point only that we can speak of the "truth" and "freedom" of Dasein's "self."

But all this sounds like so much theory. How would it work for a Marilyn Monroe? Between the time when she first felt the crumbling of the world that surrounded her and her last desperate cry against the disintegrating career in 1962, she was clearly dominated by what Heidegger would call (German) das Man (the French on)—that is, the tyranny of the common mind of what everybody says and does: the "they" of "what they are wearing in Paris this year," or "everybody" as in "everybody's doing it," of "people" as in "people will talk."

What "they" dictated to Marilyn Monroe was the primacy of her physical beauty over all else, which, in effect, left her the "prisoner" of her body (Steinem, pp. 137-56). Say if you will, as her biographer does, that she embodied the "big breasted beauty that symbolized women's return to home, hearth, childbearing, and togetherness after World War II. . . . Marilyn was made into a symbol of what a postwar woman should be" (Steinem, p. 95). But there was more to her appeal than a social phenomenon. There was an entire conception of womanhood: " 'A woman needs to . . . well support a man, emotionally I mean. And a man needs to be strong. This is partly what it means to be masculine or feminine. I think it's terribly important to feel feminine, to act feminine .... Men need women to be feminine'" (p. 92).

And femininity for Marilyn Monroe meant becoming an object of physical beauty. "I daydreamed chiefly about beauty," she wrote in her unfinished autobiography. "I dreamed of myself becoming so beautiful that people would turn to look at me as I passed" (p. 138). Her body was her "magic friend," as she described it (p. 141). It may explain her penchant for, and comfort with, nudity. An object, then, for the vision of others. Her craving to be seen even stretched into one of the self-destructive habits that helped sabotage her career: her pathological lateness. "People are waiting for me," she explained. "People are eager to see me. I'm wanted. And I remember the years I was unwanted. All the hundreds of times nobody wanted to see the little servant girl Norma Jeane-not even her mother" (p. 157).

See her, then, in the first blossoming of her career standing in a strapless evening gown and sandals in the freezing cold before thirteen thousand GI's in Korea screaming for her over and over again. "It was the first time," she said later, "that I ever felt I had an effect on people" (p. 64). She was an object for them and an object for herself.

But femininity meant more than physical beauty, it meant sexual compliance as well. Though she entered her first marriage, arranged with a 21-year-old neighbor, innocent and naive, soon afterward she was discovered by a photographer while working in a wartime airplane factory and moved up from model to starlet to star; she learned that sex was the price of success and she paid it willingly. She bragged once that she was never a "kept woman" and refused at least one offer of marriage from a millionaire because she did not love him, but she did feel that sexual satisfaction was the only thing that she had to offer. Eventually she would use it compulsively simply as a way of achieving in however transient a fashion the childlike warmth and intimacy that she had never known. As Steinem summarizes the problem:

Her sexual value to men was the only value she was sure of. By exciting and arousing, she could turn herself from the invisible, unworthy Norma Jeane into the visible, worthwhile Marilyn. She could have some impact, some power, some proof she was alive. The very compulsion to do that seems to have kept her from accepting her real self enough to find sexual pleasure of her own. Marilyn kept hoping that a relationship with a man would give her the identity she lacked, and that her appearance would give her the man. This impossible search was rewarded and exaggerated by a society that encourages women to get their identity from men-and encourages men to value women for appearance, not mind or heart. [p. 118]

Behind this compulsive need, of course, was that of the neglected child, whose father had rejected her, sight unseen, the very night he heard she was conceived. In any case, the whole masquerade had gone so far that at the end her mannerisms were so extreme that she was almost a female impersonator (p. 119), a parody of herself. As her analyst, Greenson, put it, "The main mechanism she used to bring some feeling of stability and significance to her life was the attractiveness of her body" (p. 154).

Having experienced herself as the female object both in the eyes of others and of herself, her first line of defense was to treat her body as an object and resort to drugs as the preferred instrument with which to deal with it. Some explain her drug dependence as beginning with a resort to drugs to deal with menstrual pain clue to what has since been diagnosed as endometriosis. However that may be, in the later years she depended on drugs for everything: to put her to sleep, to wake her up, to stimulate her, to calm her, to relieve her of depression. Add to this her Bloody Marys for breakfast and champagne throughout the day. You can understand, then, how her famous "Happy Birthday" to Jack Kennedy in 1962, Marilyn standing in a transparent dress she had been sewn into, whispering in a doped slowness with long, sexy pauses, that for all its voluptuous seductiveness indicated a mind that seemed to have receded, as Arthur Schlessinger wrote later, "into her own glittering mist" (p. 128).

All of this adds up to the vision of a tortured woman, empty of self-worth, failing in her career, frustrated by her failure to have a child, dependent on drugs and alcohol to relieve her pain: a woman whose own world of people and things had fallen apart.

But in all this "glittering mist" there were signs of transcendence, too. I take this to mean that there was a sense of self that was not exploited by the glamor or the pain of her career as a sex symbol. I find this in that furtive claim on human dignity that could affirm that she was never a "kept" woman, that refused to marry for money when she could not marry for love, that appealed to her last photographer and would-be biographer: "Please don't make me a joke." I find index to this, too, in her well-known aspiration to develop in her a culture that she knew she lacked. She would study Renaissance books on anatomy and hang up studies of Titian and his school in her dressing room. Once an astrologer asked her if she knew that she, as a Gemini, was born under the same sign as Rosalind Russell, Rosemary Clooney, and Judy Garland. Her reply: "1 know nothing of these people. I was born under the same sign as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Queen Victoria, and Walt Whitman" (p. 174). Her heroes were Albert Schweitzer, Albert Einstein, and especially Abraham Lincoln (p. 169). On the lot she would carry volumes of Shelley, or Keats, or Thomas Wolfe, or James Joyce, and once between rehearsals for her "dumb blonde" role in All About Eve she was found reading Rainer Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet (p. 169).

In all this, I take it that there was a yearning for something beyond the "world" of people and things she found about her toward something unknown and undefinable, something to which literary and artistic culture might give her access. Steinem puts it well, I think, when she describes these efforts as using a searchlight to explore the darkened World, the No-thing.

And there was a temporal dimension to this search, perhaps slightly frenetic, but nonetheless suggesting that time itself was beneficent. In one of her final interviews she interrupted the conversation to say "Let us drink a toast to the future and what it holds in store" (p. 37), and at another moment: "There is a future and I can't wait to get to it." Her wedding picture with Arthur Miller is inscribed on the back "Hope, Hope, Hope" (p. 115).

But the hope she proclaimed and the future she aspired to are not to be found in the ontic world of the everyday. What hope there is in Heideggerian terms is grounded in a future that is still in advent. And the future that is still coming, for which she "waits" or "can't wait," is not just some golden tomorrow that lies over the rainbow "only a day away," but, in Heidegger's terms, the ad-vent of Being and meaning that can come to us only as already what we have been—that is, a future that comes through the past.

This means that treatment of Marilyn Monroe in terms of philosophy of "existence" would involve the achieving of authenticity, hence of making her own, of authenticating the past through which the future comes. In her case it would have meant making her own, of "owning," the tendency toward depression that hospitalized both her mother and grandmother before her; of "owning" the abandonment by a mother who could not take care of her, by a father who would not even acknowledge her; of "owning," therefore, the deprivation of the neglected child. This would have meant not only acknowledging the need in her for the parenting she never received and therefore sought in the sexual contacts that never satisfied her, but also the ephemeral transiency of the people and things in which she had placed her trust: her beauty, her youth, her career, her potential motherhood. All these were defined by possibilities that had been exploited and limited by choices that were already foreclosed.

If all had gone well, then, the result would have been the capacity to recognize the sign of death on everything she said or did. This would not have meant the desire to hasten the moment of ontic death, if that is really what happened on August 6, 1962. It would simply have meant that this is the tragic sign of the human condition itself and in her it simply went by her proper name.


Boss, M. (1979). Existential foundations of medicine and psychology (5. Conway and A. Cleaves, trans.). New York: Jacob Aranson.

Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and time 0. Macquarrie and E. Robinson, trans.). New York: Harper and Row.

Richardson, W. J. (1976). Heidegger through phenomenology to thought, 3rd ed. Preface by M. Heidegger. The Hague: Nijhoff.

Steinem, G. (1986). Marilyn. Text by G. Steinem, photographs by G. Barris. New York: Henry Holt.

Stevens, W. (1982). Collected Poems. New York: Vintage (Random House), 9-10.


Presentation prepared for Symposium on Psychiatry and Continental Philosophy at the 140th annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, 12 May 1987, Chicago.

James E. Faulconer & R. Williams (eds.), Reconsidering Psychology. Duquesne University Press. pp. 198-209 (1990)