This question is answered by the mode of discourse that articulates the intelligibility of breakdown, namely, the call of conscience. What is “given to understand” in the call? Heidegger answers: “Guilty” (schuldig) – but such guilt cannot be explained with reference to any law, whether conventional, rational/moral, or divine. Because conscience articulates a condition in which such laws have ceased to make any claim on me and persist merely as facts, inert items that lack normative force, what I am given to understand about myself in conscience cannot be explained through transgression of them. Heidegger expresses this by saying that the term “guilt ” must be “formalized” so that all reference to social relations “will drop out,” including reference to “any ought [Sollen] or law” (GA 2, p. 376/283/328). But can the notion of guilt make sense without reference to any law or ought? To owe someone something it is not enough merely to possess what he once possessed; rather, a law or norm governing exchanges must be in place. But Heidegger’s formalization is meant to bring out a further ontological point, namely, that my relation to such a law or norm must be of a certain character. If I am incapable of placing myself under the law – as may occur through various mental or physical incapacities – then I cannot be said to owe something, and Angst in Heidegger’s sense reveals something like a global incapacity vis-à-vis the normativity of all laws and oughts: existing norms present themselves as mere facts; they have no more normative force than does the code of Hammurabi. It may be true that a valid law obligates me whether or not I recognize it, but the point of Heidegger’s formalization is to highlight the way law and ought can come to have standing from the first-person point of view .

Thus the role the analysis of guilt is to play is relatively clear. To say that “[t]his ‘Guilty!’ turns up as a predicate for the ‘I am’” (GA 2, p. 373/281/326) means that it belongs to my radically individualized mode of being, independent of any grasp of myself as this or that (including as rational being or as believer). Further, what conscience gives to understand thereby is “the ontological condition for Dasein’s ability to come to owe anything in factically existing” (GA 2, p. 380/286/332). Heidegger thus examines conscience in order to explain how I can come to be obligated. Since there is no question about how one comes to be obligated (the one-self simply conforms to constitutive rules ), Heidegger’s concern here is to show how, given the fact that the one-self can break down, something like a responsiveness to norms as norms is possible. If that is so, we have the context necessary for understanding our initial text passage, since Heidegger offers it to unpack his formalized definition of guilt as “being the ground of a nullity” (GA 2, p. 376/283/329). That context, as John Haugeland