Saying the Unsayable:
Heidegger on the Being-in-Itself of Beings

William McNeill


This essay examines the way in which the being-in-itself of beings is articulated as an open-ended problem in Heidegger’s remarks in “The Argument against Need.” It then considers how this problem is addressed in Heidegger’s early phenomenological accounts of the being-in-itself of beings from 1927 to 1929, followed by some brief remarks on Introduction to Metaphysics (1935) and “The Origin of the Work of Art” (1936). The essay argues that Heidegger provides a positive interpretation of the being-in-itself of beings that remains fundamentally consistent across his corpus, while undergoing certain shifts of emphasis and articulation. As Heidegger’s phenomenological account develops, the being-in-itself of beings is increasingly thought as the letting be (Seinlassen) of beings, in which beings are released to themselves in the event of unconcealment.


In “The Argument against Need” Heidegger grants the independence of beings-in-themselves (das Ansichseiende) from the human being.1 Thinking in no way seeks to deny beings-in-themselves.2 The independence of beings-in-themselves, such as that of nature, means causal independence, and this no one disputes: “That which is in itself, nature, the earth, is not causally conditioned by whether beings such as the human exist or not. The independence of nature in the sense of causal dependence on the human, no one disputes” (AGB: vii/AAN: 526 tm). The argument of the human not being needed is correct: correct within scientific representation that equates being-in-itself (Ansichsein) with objectivity, although this is a reductive understanding of being-in-itself that science presupposes and leaves unquestioned. In being turned toward beings-in-themselves in their objectivity, science does not think being as being.

Heidegger’s approach in “The Argument against Need” is thus not to deny or dispute the scientific claim that beings exist in themselves, independently of humans, a claim seemingly corroborated by everyday experience (he gives the example of our taking in the vista of the Alps) (AGB: xiii, iv-v, vii/AAN: 531, 522–23, 525). To the contrary, he grants this claim its legitimacy within the parameters of scientific and everyday experience. Heidegger’s effort, rather, is to direct our attention away from beings-in-themselves and toward the question of being, in response to the oblivion or forgottenness of being (Seinsvergessenheit) that otherwise reigns (AGB: xiii/AAN: 531). He invites us to make a “leap” from “ontic argumentation” to the thinking of being (AGB: ii/AAN: 520), to ask what understanding of being is presupposed or pregiven in the ontic argument and how such “giving” occurs (AGB: iii-iv/AAN: 521–22). If we say that things are in themselves, if we appeal to beings-in-themselves (das Ansichseiende), must we not, before this, already have an understanding – however implicit – of what it means for something to be in itself, that is, of what being-in-itself (das Ansichsein) means? Being as being-in-itself is thus given earlier – earlier than beings, earlier than the chronologically earliest or most ancient, most ancestral entities – and this “earlier” is the concealed essence of time as the emergence into unconcealment, the arrival into presencing, of beings (AGB: vi, vii–viii/AAN: 524, 525–26).3

The essence of the human being is “needed” for the event (Ereignis) of such emergence into unconcealment, into presencing (Anwesen). Being-in-itself, the presencing of beings-in-themselves, is thus dependent on the human essence (AGB: vii/AAN: 525).4 Yet this dependence, Heidegger immediately clarifies, although it is the “presupposition and condition” for the claimed causal independence of beings-in-themselves, is not at all to be conceived as a causal dependence. Need (Brauch), as the dependence of being-in-itself on the human essence, does not anthropomorphize or relativize being. The human essence does not bring about or effect (bewirken) such need or dependency. It belongs, rather, to “the essencing of being as event [Ereignis] itself” (AGB: viii/AAN: 526). While presencing is not caused or effected by the human, the human is needed for the clearing of presencing to occur. The human, we may say, is decentered in relation to the event of being as presencing. Although it is not further developed here, need is thought as this decentering of “the human as ekstatic Dasein” (AGB: vii/AAN: 525).5

Heidegger’s move here – in a leap of thinking – from the appeal to beings-in-themselves to the implicit understanding of being-in-itself as an understanding of being and of presence in effect follows his suggestion that in the very appeal to something’s “being in itself” (an sich seiend), being left to itself (sich selber überlassen), devoid of any dependency on the human, there perhaps lies “a hidden relation to the human” (AGB: v/AAN: 523 tm). That hidden relation shows itself to be the understanding of being that is implicitly presupposed, a givenness of being that is indeed dependent upon the human essence, though neither caused by, nor relative to, the latter. When science appeals to beings-in-themselves, yet without clarifying or even reflecting upon what it means for something to be in itself, i.e., without clarifying the meaning of being-in-itself, then science must concede that the beings-in-themselves to which it appeals are “beingless” (seinlos), bereft of being (AGB: x–xi/AAN: 529). It should fall to science to explain what this means. Yet science remains silent in regard to this. It has thus far failed to respond to this provocation (Zumutung), this challenge and invitation from the side of thinking. Science’s discourse remains fundamentally incoherent.

The essay “The Argument against Need” is notable for its effort to open the possibility of a dialogue with science (AGB: xiii, iii–iv/AAN: 531, 521–22). The question of being-in-itself as intended in science and supposedly attested by geological and ancestral facts is thus its particular focus. Yet it is important to underline, as we already mentioned, that the essay also claims that we understand nature to exist in itself without any scientific activity whatsoever: An understanding of beings-in-themselves as independent of humans is equally a feature of everyday, prescientific experience, of our “natural” understanding of the world and of nature. Heidegger gives the example of our taking in the view of the Alps, which tower into the sky and “in no way require the human and his machinations to do that” (AGB: iv–v/AAN: 522–23).6 The appeal to the independence of beings-in-themselves is a feature not only of science, but of “our habitual prescientific representation” (AGB: vii/AAN, 525 tm). Why, and in what way, is this the case? Moreover, it is significant that no answer is given in the essay as to what the being-in-itself of beings consists in, beyond the broad claim that it is understood in relation to presence, to the event of presencing. Yet this is essentially a claim about being in general. How, more precisely, do we experience beings as being-in-themselves in our most everyday experience? How is the being-in-itself of such beings to be understood in relation to presence and presencing? And what can be said of it?

In what follows, I shall survey how these questions are addressed elsewhere in Heidegger’s work. I shall focus on his phenomenological accounts from 1927 to 1929, with just a few comments on works from the mid-1930s. I conclude by raising the question of whether these early accounts of the being-in-itself of beings remain tenable in light of the shift that marks Heidegger’s later thinking. Do they offer an adequate response to the questions left unanswered by “The Argument against Need,” namely, in what, precisely, does the being-in-itself of beings consist and how is such being-in-itself experienced even in our most mundane, everyday activities?


Heidegger broaches the question of the being-in-itself of beings in Being and Time.7 Among the questions raised in section 43, titled “Dasein, Worldliness, and Reality,” are: 1) whether the beings that are supposedly “transcendent to consciousness” are at all; 2) to what extent such beings, which are generally understood as “the real,” can be known in their being-in-itself (An-sich-sein); and 3) what the meaning of such beings, reality, signifies in general. A fourth question that arises, the question most readily addressed by the existential analytic of Dasein, is whether the reality of the external world can be adequately proven.8 With regard to this last question, Heidegger famously responds that the true scandal of philosophy consists not in the Kantian concern that such proof is hitherto lacking, but rather in the fact that such proof is even expected at all. If the being of Dasein is phenomenally accessible only as being-in-the-world, and world constitutes the phenomenal horizon within which beings within the world inevitably manifest themselves, then the very question of whether such beings may be proven to “exist,” that is, to be present at hand (vorhanden), is nonsensical. In its being, Dasein “in each case already is what subsequent proofs deem necessary to demonstrate for it” (GA 2: 272/SZ 205). Its very being is intrinsically a being alongside beings within the world, such being-alongside constituting one of the essential moments of its being as care. With this response, the first and third questions are effectively resolved as well: Those beings that are conceived as transcendent to consciousness necessarily are if and when Dasein exists, that is, they are necessarily given in and with the being of Dasein. And “reality,” the being of the real, is implicitly understood as nothing other than “the being of those beings (res) that are present at hand within the world” (das Sein des innerweltlich vorhandenen Seienden [res]) (GA 2: 277/SZ 209). But what of the second question, that is, whether such beings can be known in their being-in-itself? And can such beings be said to “be” independently of Dasein? If so, what would such “being” mean?

“Reality” (so-called) – and indeed all modes of the being of beings within the world (including the being of the ready to hand and the being of nature) – is “ontologically founded in the worldliness of the world, and thus in the phenomenon of being-in-the-world” (GA 2: 280/ SZ 211). However, Heidegger adds, “The fact that reality is ontologically grounded in the being of Dasein cannot mean that something real can only be as what it is in itself when and as long as Dasein exists.” This appears to affirm what Heidegger concedes from the scientific perspective in “The Argument against Need,” namely, that beings at hand within the world can indeed be what they are in themselves irrespective of whether Dasein exists. However, it raises the implicit question of what the being-in-itself of beings at hand within the world could mean. Heidegger thus immediately adds the following caveat:

However, only as long as Dasein is, that is, as long as there is the ontic possibility of an understanding of being, “is there” [“gibt es”] being [Sein]. If Dasein does not exist, then there “is” no “independence” either, nor “is” there an “in itself.” Such matters can then neither be understood, nor not understood. Beings within the world can then neither be uncovered, nor can they lie in concealment. Then it can neither be said that beings are, nor that they are not. Now, so long as there is an understanding of being and thus an understanding of being at hand [Vorhandenheit], it can presumably be said that beings will then continue to be. (GA 2: 281/SZ 212)

Yet Dasein’s being is “in each case mine” (GA 2: 56/SZ 42). More precisely, therefore, one should presumably say that if and when my Dasein no longer exists, beings will then continue to be for other instances of factical Dasein. Otherwise, one would have to put being (and thus indeed beings, too) under erasure or in scare-quotes here, just as Heidegger does with the “is” and the “there is” in the first two sentences of this quotation: Now… it can presumably be said that “beings” will then continue to “be.” No Dasein, no being – how can one then speak of other “beings” at all, or of their continuing to “be”? The point is an important one, because what is at stake is also the issue of how to speak of beings-in-themselves, of what we can say with respect to such beings and of what we are saying when we claim that “beings” “are” in themselves even if no human or no Dasein exists. Can it, in fact, properly be said that beings will then continue to be? It can “presumably” (vermutlich) be said, states Heidegger, as though expressing a certain hesitation or doubt here. The issue lies at the core of the entire problematic of the being-in-itself of things. And it is an issue that will not go away. “The Argument against Need” concludes by raising this very issue: “What are we saying when we say being-in-itself, when we say being?” If we forego discussion of this and fail to clarify what we are saying when we say being and presencing, “then we must also renounce [versagen] saying [sagen] and intending such things as being, being-in-itself. If we engage in this renunciation, how do matters then stand regarding the appeal to beings-in-themselves? At a stroke, this term becomes an empty sound. What we would like to invoke, beings-in-themselves, has become unnameable” (AGB: x/AAN: 528–29 tm). Renouncing, versagen, is here a certain failure to say: still a saying (sagen), but a saying that falls short of what it would properly seek to say, as it were, a saying in which language reaches its limit, opening onto the unsayable. We shall come back to this point.

Notably, in Being and Time the issue of the being-in-itself of beings is here brought back, first, to the ontic possibility of an understanding of being, that is, to the factical existence of Dasein. Moreover, it is brought back to the horizon of such understanding of being, namely, to the horizon of Dasein’s being as time, which will subsequently be explicated more originally as ekstatic-horizonal temporality which “clears” the “there” (Da) of Dasein (GA 2: 464/SZ 351). Beyond this, however, the issue is intimated as one that goes beyond that of the being of Dasein and concerns how being in general “is” – how it happens or “is given,” as the German es gibt more literally means. Commensurate with the guiding question of Being and Time which concerns the question of the meaning of being in general (for which the question of Dasein’s being constitutes only the initial, preparatory horizon), section 43 indeed indicates that “Not only the analytic of Dasein, therefore, but the working out of the question of the meaning of being in general must be twisted free of a one-sided orientation toward being in the sense of reality” (GA 2: 267/SZ 201).

Heidegger here addresses the associated question of the independence of the real, of what is at hand. “Insofar as the character of the in-itself and of independence belongs to reality, the question of the possible independence of the real ‘from consciousness,’ and/or of the possible transcendence of consciousness into the ‘sphere’ of the real, is coupled with the question of the meaning of reality” (GA 2: 268/SZ 202). What must be clarified in response to this question is “that from which there is supposed to be independence,” in addition to the being (Sein) of what it is that is supposed to be transcended, i.e., consciousness, according to the traditional problematic. In Being and Time, that from which there is supposed to be independence has been identified phenomenologically and ontologically circumscribed more appropriately as the being of Dasein, being-in-the-world conceived not as consciousness, nor simply as the being of the human being, but as the clearing (Lichtung) and horizon in which being in general is disclosed (GA 2: 177/SZ 133). If all modes of the being of beings within the world (innerworldliness) are ontologically founded in the worldliness of the world, that is, in the ontological constitution of worldhood (the being of world), then the horizon of the being-in-itself of beings is both that of being in general and that of world. This is explicitly confirmed by Heidegger in section 43. The phenomenon of innerworldliness (Innerweltlichkeit) is “grounded in the phenomenon of world,” which for its part is an essential structural component of Dasein’s being-in-the-world as care (and thus ultimately as temporality). “With this,” Heidegger adds, “we have identified the foundations and horizons that must be clarified if the analysis of reality is to be possible. In this connection the character of the in-itself also first becomes ontologically intelligible” (GA 2: 277/SZ 209).

At this point, Heidegger adds a note directing the reader back to remarks made in section 16 with regard to the being-in-itself of beings within the world (GA 2: 277n10/SZ 209n1). The phenomenological analysis had there shown that while we typically ascribe the being-in-itself of beings to their being at hand (vorhanden), the being-in-itself of ready to hand (zuhanden) beings reveals a different phenomenal structure: that of not emerging from inconspicuousness, a self-seclusion that for its part coincides with something like a withdrawal of world, with world’s “not announcing itself.” In this context Heidegger writes:

Privative expressions such as inconspicuousness, unobtrusiveness, and non-obstinacy refer to a positive phenomenal character of the being of what is proximally ready to hand. These negative prefixes express the character of the keeping to itself of the ready to hand, that which we have in view as its being-in-itself, which, however, we typically ascribe “initially” to what is at hand, as that which can be ascertained thematically. The “in-itself” cannot be clarified ontologically at all if we remain oriented primarily or exclusively toward what is at hand. An interpretation must be demanded, however, if talk of the “in-itself” is to have any ontological importance.… The analysis thus far already makes it clear that the being-in-itself of beings within the world can be grasped ontologically only on the basis of the phenomenon of world. (GA 2: 101–02/SZ 75–76)

The phenomenological analysis of readiness to hand has shown that the being of equipment as it is in itself, its being-in-itself, consists not in its being thematically present at hand, but rather in its withholding itself from such thematic presence, in its “keeping to itself” (Ansichhalten), in its being present in the inconspicuousness of a certain absence. Not only does such being-in-itself not mean being present at hand; it also does not imply any kind of independence from Dasein or from world. Quite the contrary: It is ontologically possible only on the basis of the phenomenon of world. In this perspective, positing the being-in-itself of beings as their being present at hand would be ontologically derivative and reductive, the result of the theoretical attitude, of cognitive knowledge as a founded mode of being-in-the-world; and positing such being-in-itself as independent being would still imply independence from Dasein and thus also from world.

It appears, then, that in Being and Time Heidegger is hedging his bets, as it were, with regard to the being-in-itself of beings. When on the one hand he states that it must be possible for the real to “be as what it is in itself” irrespective of whether Dasein exists, this could be seen as appearing to side with the theoretical-scientific perspective that still leaves unquestioned what to be could mean here. It would fail to question being as such, the being of being-in-itself, and thus be complicit with the forgetting or oblivion of being that “The Argument against Need” seeks to counter. On the other hand, the entire project of Being and Time is of course seeking to reawaken the question of the meaning of being as such, and Heidegger immediately qualifies this initial claim by directing us to the question of how being “is there” or is “given.” Heidegger’s seeming ambivalence with regard to this issue is perhaps indicative of the inherent tension within his conception of phenomenology – and indeed of philosophy itself – as a “scientific” and thus theoretical enterprise, a conception that would be increasingly problematized and then abandoned in the years immediately following. One must, however, appreciate the extent to which all the seeds for the subsequent development of the question of the being-in-itself of beings are already sown within Being and Time – right up to the explicit meditation on the es gibt, or givenness, of being in the lecture “On Time and Being” (1962) and on the question of “need” (Brauch) in “The Argument against Need.” The issue is more complex still, moreover, for as we noted above in the context of this later essay, it is not just the theoretical view of science that appeals to beings-in-themselves. Our everyday understanding too insists on the fact of beings-in-themselves and experiences beings as being-in-themselves in and throughout its everyday comportment and dealings with things. Is it simply on account of its complicity with the theoretical attitude (a historically conditioned complicity) that everyday understanding too interprets beings-in-themselves in terms of presence at hand? Or is there perhaps an original experience of beings in their presence at hand that would not first be the result of the historical ascendancy of theoria and of science – a “natural” experience, one might say, a prescientific experience of nature herself, such as our taking in the view of the Alps? If so, how are beings uncovered as being-in-themselves in such experience, if such uncovering or self-manifestation is not simply a consequence of the theoretical attitude of philosophy or of science?

In the years immediately following Being and Time – and indeed extending into the mid-1930s and beyond – the issue of the beingin- itself of beings is articulated especially in terms of the question of world. As Being and Time has said, it is the phenomenon of world – not the horizon of presence at hand, nor those beings conceived as independently present at hand within the world, i.e., so-called “reality” – that holds the key to clarifying ontologically the being-initself of beings. The question concerns how world itself happens and is temporalized as a historically determined configuration of being in general. Gaining an appropriate understanding of the phenomenon of world – that “enigma” that “has never yet been recognized” (GA 24: 234–36/165–66), and has been continually “leapt over” in the history of philosophy since Parmenides (GA 2: 88, 134/SZ 65, 100) – is, one might argue, the singular focus (not to say obsession) of Heidegger’s work from 1927 through 1930 and beyond. The understanding of world is then significantly rearticulated in the mid-1930s, especially in “The Origin of the Work of Art” (1935–36), an essay that then sets the stage for the “poetic” articulation of world in terms of the “fourfold” (Geviert) in later essays.

In his lecture course from summer semester 1927, The Basic Problems of Phenomenology, Heidegger appears to appeal to a being-in-itself of beings that would be independent of world. The account appears in section 15 of the course, where Heidegger seeks to clarify the phenomenon of world by distinguishing it from that of beings within the world, i.e., beings to which innerworldliness (Innerweltlichkeit) belongs. World is not the totality of present at hand beings; it is not to be understood as the sum total of beings within the world. World is that which is always already unveiled in advance, prior to our encountering this or that being. It is that which is always “cast ahead” of Dasein, that from out of which Dasein can uncover beings present at hand within the world. Such being within the world that can accrue to beings is to be rigorously distinguished from Dasein’s being-in-the-world: The latter is a necessary and essential determination of Dasein, whereas being within the world, innerworldliness, is only a contingent and occasional determination of their being – at least in the case of some beings, such as nature. Heidegger’s analysis here implicitly posits a being-in-itself of beings that would be independent of world and of Dasein:

An innerworldly being [Seiendes] is, for instance, nature. Here the extent to which nature has been uncovered scientifically or not is irrelevant, it is irrelevant whether we think of this being in a theoretical, physico-chemical way or whether we mean nature in the sense of which we speak of “nature out there,” hill, woods, meadow, brook, the field of wheat and the call of birds. This being [Seiende] is innerworldly. But nevertheless, innerworldliness does not belong to its being [Sein]. Rather, in commerce with this being, nature in the broadest sense, we understand that this being is as present at hand, as a being that we come across, to which we are delivered over, a being that always already is of its own accord. It is, without our uncovering it, i.e., without our encountering it within our world. Innerworldliness accrues to this being, nature, solely when it is uncovered as a being. Innerworldliness does not have to accrue to nature as a determination insofar as no reason can be adduced that makes it evident that a Dasein necessarily exists.… Innerworldliness does not belong to the being of what is present at hand, of nature, as a determination of its being, but as a possible determination, yet a necessary determination for the possibility of the uncoverability of nature. It belongs to nature as uncovered, i.e., to the being insofar as we comport ourselves toward it as unveiled, to already be within a world in each case, but innerworldliness does not belong to the being [Sein] of nature. (GA 24: 240/168–69 tm)

Innerworldliness does not intrinsically belong to the being of nature, but only to the possibility of nature’s being uncovered. Innerworldliness does not belong to, and cannot accrue to, Dasein, or at least not in the same way as to nature (since Dasein, being-in-the-world, is never reducible to a being within the world). There are indeed some beings to whose being innerworldliness does belong “in a certain way,” Heidegger notes, namely, historical beings, culture and works, products of human existence – although once they have come to be as innerworldly, they are able to be such “even if no historical Dasein exists any longer” (GA 24: 241/169 tm). Here too Heidegger implicitly posits a being-in-itself of such beings.

The lecture course of summer semester 1928, Metaphysical Foundations of Logic, essentially maintains the same interpretation of innerworldliness and of the being-in-itself of beings, but articulates it in more explicitly temporal terms while introducing the concept of the “world entry” (Welteingang) of beings. Factically existing Dasein, as being-in-the-world, is nothing other than the existent possibility of the world entry of beings. And: “World entry in turn provides the possibility for beings to be able to be unveiled” (GA 26: 249/193 tm). Beings at hand “could never be encountered if they did not have the occasion to enter into a world” (GA 26: 250/194 tm). Such world entry of beings is “possible and occasional”: it is temporal and historical, occurring as Dasein’s temporal transcendence. “World entry has the character of a happening, of history” (GA 26: 250–51/194 tm). Beings at hand enter into a world and become innerworldly only if and when Dasein exists as historical. It is Dasein as factically existent that thus affords beings the possibility of world entry. At this point in his account Heidegger makes some pertinent remarks about the “in itself” of beings:

Innerworldliness, accordingly, is not an at-hand property of what is at hand in itself. What is at hand [Das Vorhandene] is the being that it is and as it is even if it precisely does not become innerworldly, even if world entry does not happen to it and if there is no opportunity at all for this. Innerworldliness does not belong to the essence of what is at hand as such, but is, in a primordial sense, only the transcendental condition for the possibility of what is at hand being able to make itself known in its in-itself [in seinem Ansich], i.e., the condition for existing Dasein to experience and apprehend it in its in-itself. World entry and its happening is the presupposition, not for what is at hand [das Vorhandene] to first come to be at hand and to enter into what manifests itself to us as its at-handness [Vorhandenheit] and what we understand as such, but rather only for what is at hand to make itself known precisely in its not needing world entry with respect to its own being [bezüglich seines eigenen Seins]. (GA 26: 251/194–95 em tm)

Heidegger here once more appears to affirm a being-in-itself of beings independent of their world-entry, of their becoming innerworldly, and thus independent of Dasein’s existence. Whether Dasein factically exists or not, beings are what and as they are in themselves, and as such are not in need of world entry. Moreover, if and when world entry does occur, nothing happens in the beings at hand: “World entry is not some occurrence in what is at hand in the sense that the latter would be altered in the process….” (GA 26: 250/194 tm). World entry happens in such a way that “in this process fundamentally nothing happens to what is at hand, which precisely enters here” (GA 26: 252/195 tm). This “nothing” is world itself, being [Sein], as the nihil originarium that is temporalized in ekstatic-horizonal temporality (GA 26: 252, 272/195, 210). Whatever is at hand remains “completely untouched” by the event of world entry, which nevertheless first grants it the possibility of unveiling itself as it is in itself and of “affecting, striking, and touching existing Dasein” (GA 26: 252/195 tm.). The world entry of beings happens only in and through the temporalizing of temporality and transpires as the entry of beings into time, their appearing within time. As such, the world entry of beings is an event (Ereignis), indeed the “primal event” (Urereignis) (GA 26: 274/212).

“Not needing” world entry is here Unbedürftigkeit. Yet how does such “not needing” make itself known? In the 1928 course, the being’s not needing world entry for its own being is said to manifest itself through Dasein’s “metaphysical impotence,” an impotence first experienced in the resistance (Widerstand) that beings themselves display. Dasein transcends beings in overstepping them in its ekstatic temporalizing in the direction of world, exceeding them in the direction of the possible that enables its transcendental freedom. Yet such transcending at the same time exposes a metaphysical impotence of Dasein:

Insofar then as freedom (taken transcendentally) constitutes the essence of Dasein, Dasein, as existing, is always in essence necessarily “further” than any given factical being. On the basis of this upswing, Dasein is in each case beyond beings, as we say, yet precisely in such a way that it first of all experiences beings in their resistance, as that against which transcending Dasein is impotent. The impotence is metaphysical, i.e., to be understood as essential: It cannot be refuted by pointing to the conquest of nature, to technicity, which inserts itself into the “world” today with the rage of some unshackled beast; for such domination of nature is the real proof of the metaphysical impotence of Dasein, which wins freedom only in its history. (GA 26: 279/215)

Beings would thus make themselves known in not needing world entry with respect to their own being – to what and how they are in themselves – through their resistance, a metaphysical resistance, one might say, that would also constitute a certain resistance to world, a tension with the very phenomenon of world entry. The account here is consistent with that of Being and Time, which argues that the experience of resistance (identified as the essence of reality by Dilthey, in an account that Heidegger praises, and further developed by Scheler) is ontologically possible only on the basis of the disclosedness of world, itself enabled by Dasein’s being as care (GA 2: 277–80/SZ 209–211).9 Yet in according this greater significance to resistance, not only with respect to its revelation of Dasein’s metaphysical impotence but also with respect to the uncovering of beings within the world in their being-in-itself, there is a subtle shift in the direction of a less transcendental approach to what is entailed in such uncovering, and thus a less transcendental approach to understanding world entry and the phenomenon of world itself. It is significant, moreover, that this metaphysical impotence of Dasein is here also associated with a “letting-be” (Seinlassen) of beings:

Only because, in our factical intentional comportment toward beings of every kind, we, outstripping in advance, return to and arrive at beings from out of possibilities, only for this reason can we let beings themselves be what and how they are [das Seiende selbst das sein lassen, was und wie es ist]. (GA 26: 279/216)

The letting-be in question here is a primordial one that underlies and first enables all of our factical comportment toward beings. As soon as transcendence and world entry occur, Dasein’s metaphysical impotence is “manifest” (offenkundig), and thereby the fact of beings not needing such world entry with respect to their own being, to what and how they are in themselves (GA 26: 279/216).

In his lecture course of the following semester, Introduction to Philosophy from winter semester 1928–29, this letting-be receives much more prominent and extensive analysis. Dasein’s primordial letting-be of things, which occurs prior to any factical engagment with beings, prior to any interestedness or disinterestedness, prior to any attitude of indifference that Dasein might assume in its comportment, and which was previously attributed to a “metaphysical impotence,” is now said to reflect a “metaphysical indifference [Gleichgültigkeit]” toward things (GA 27: 102–03{/73}). Such letting-be of beings is not only their entering into world, but their entering into unconcealment. Heidegger illustrates this first by way of a piece of chalk in the lecture room, which makes itself known in and through its unconcealment: “It is unconcealment (truth) through which, therefore, we precisely let this being be as itself, as what and how it is” (GA 27: 105{/74}).

Heidegger’s analysis of the letting-be of beings as their entering into unconcealment contains a number of important points here, points that enhance and add further precision to the earlier analyses of Dasein‘s transcendence, while also signaling a certain shift in emphasis in the assessment of letting be. Three points merit particular attention.

First, the entering of beings into unconcealment is a happening, an event, just as with the world entry of beings in the 1928 course: “When the chalk becomes unconcealed, becomes manifest as the being that it is, nothing happens to it, there is not some natural process that takes place within it, and yet something happens with it: It enters into a history” (GA 27: 105{/74}). And yet this entering into unconcealment, as letting beings be – whether items of use such as the chalk or the beings of nature – is not the result of any activity on Dasein’s part. It is still said to happen on the grounds of Dasein’s existence, i.e., its freedom as transcendence, yet it is not something that we do to things: “Letting beings be is not nothing, as it were; certainly, we do not contribute, for instance, to the fact that nature is what and how it is, we cannot do anything about that, and yet this letting-be is a ‘doing’ [‘Tun’] of the highest and original kind, and is possible only on the grounds of the innermost essence of our existence, freedom” (GA 27: 102–03{/73}). Letting beings be does not involve our doing anything to beings. It happens prior to any free action or deed on our part. If it is a kind of “doing” or “action,” it is one that first opens the space of our freedom, a supreme, originary kind of “doing.”

Second, and significantly, the entry of beings into unconcealment is possible only on the grounds of a communal sharing in unconcealment. We share in the unconcealment of things and only thereby are we able to accomplish a “remarkable partaking in beings”: “Only insofar as we share in the unconcealment of beings are we able to let them – beings – be, just as they make themselves known” (GA 27: 105/{75}). Although Heidegger does not make it explicit here, this communal sharing in unconcealment – this community of unconcealment, as we might call it – is implicitly accomplished via language. Language, as “The Origin of the Work of Art” would later articulate it, “is that event [Geschehnis] through which beings first disclose themselves as beings to the human being in each instance” (GA 5: 62/BW 199 tm.).

Third, unconcealment does not, as such, belong to beings themselves. Beings “admit” of unconcealment and of concealment: “Chalk is not necessarily unconcealed; its essence also admits of its being concealed; unconcealment is not an essential determination of chalk as chalk….” (GA 27: 110{/78}). But perhaps, Heidegger asks, unconcealment is an essential determination of what is at hand (vorhanden) insofar as it is at hand? In response to this question, he turns to the instance of a natural phenomenon, a rock lying in a ravine and undiscovered by humans:

However, if we consider a rock somewhere in a ravine that no human has ever set foot in, then surely this being can be present at hand as what and how it is without ever having to be torn from concealment, without ever being unconcealed, indeed while being altogether unaffected by concealment and unconcealment. Perhaps it is necessary within certain limits that what is present at hand be unconcealed in order to apprehend its manner of being; but it surely does not follow from this that what is factically present at hand necessarily be manifest in its what and how. Unconcealment is not an essential determination of what is present at hand. For this reason we are not allowed to say that unconcealment (truth) “belongs” to what is present at hand, but only that unconcealment (truth) accrues to what is present at hand [kommt dem Vorhandenen zu], and/or may accrue to it. What is present at hand does not have it of its own accord qua something present at hand. (GA 27: 111/{78})-79})10

We thus find a remarkable consistency in Heidegger’s accounts of the being-in-itself of beings during the period in question, 1927–1929. The account of unconcealment here in the Introduction to Philosophy is articulated in the same terms as the account of innerworldliness in The Basic Problems of Phenomenology: It does not belong to beings-in-themselves, but accrues to them, or can potentially accrue to them. What we do find, however, is a developing shift away from ascribing the happening of unconcealment or world entry to a transcendental activity on the part of Dasein toward a more middle-voiced “doing” or “activity” (“Tun”): an action, or better, an event, that is not the result of something Dasein does, but is something that instead happens to Dasein, something preceding and exceeding any action by Dasein: an event of being to which Dasein responds and in which it participates. This shift is marked in particular by the increasing prominence of a discourse of “letting,” especially of “letting be” (Seinlassen), which Heidegger, here already in 1928–1929, calls “a peculiar releasement [eine eigentümliche Gelassenheit] in which beings in themselves come to word” (GA 27: 214{/149}).11 Such releasement, as the “coming to word” and thus to language of beings in themselves, occurs independently of and prior to any philosophizing. Nevertheless it is in philosophizing as “explicit transcending,” as the explicit engagement of and “letting happen” (Geschehenlassen) of transcendence that original or primordial releasement is accomplished: “In the letting happen of transcendence as philosophizing there lies the original releasement of Dasein….” (GA 27: 401{/279}).


If we leap to the mid-1930s, we can see the extent to which the event of being, as the letting-be in which beings are released to themselves in the happening of unconcealment, has turned into the matter of thinking, while overcoming the transcendental approach that dominated the work of the 1920s. It is here, in the Introduction to Metaphysics from 1935, that we find what may be the first use of the language of Brauch to articulate the relation of being to the human essence. The account in question, which occurs toward the conclusion of Heidegger’s famous interpretation of the Antigone chorus, clearly aligns Brauch (or more precisely, the verb brauchen, which is even italicized by Heidegger here) with Not (need) and being needed in the sense of necessitated or compelled (genötigt). Being, the happening of unconcealment as “the overwhelming,” as phusis, is here said to need Da-sein as the site of openness in order to appear and hold sway:

The human being, however, is of necessity compelled [genötigt] into such Da-sein, thrown into the need [Not] of such being [
], because the overwhelming as such, in order to hold sway in appearing, needs [braucht] the site of openness for itself. The essence of human being first opens itself to us when understood in terms of this need necessitated by being itself [von dieser durch das Sein selbst ernötigten Not her verstanden]. (GA 40: 171–72/181 tm)

While the interpretation of such need, as the way in which being “sets itself to work,” in terms of the discourse of violence, force, and shattering in Introduction to Metaphysics, may be seen as problematic, another text from the very same period, 1935–1936, is remarkable for the extent to which it eschews such a discourse, focusing instead on the letting-be of beings that is accomplished by the work of art. To the extent that a discourse of violence is present in this contemporaneous essay, such violence is attributed both to traditional philosophical conceptuality and to the scientific-technical effort to master beings.12 Despite appearances, such violence is but a testament to the human being’s ultimate “impotence” with respect to beings themselves:

A stone presses downward and manifests its heaviness. But while this heaviness exerts an opposing pressure upon us it denies us any penetration into it. If we attempt such a penetration by breaking open the rock, it still does not display in its fragments anything inward that has been opened up. The stone has instantly withdrawn again into the same dull pressure and bulk of its fragments. If we try to lay hold of the stone’s heaviness in another way, by placing the stone on a balance, we merely bring the heaviness into the form of a calculated weight. This perhaps very precise determination of the stone remains a number, but the weight’s burden has escaped us. Color shines and wants only to shine. When we analyse it in rational terms by measuring its wavelengths, it is gone. It shows itself only when it remains undisclosed and unexplained. Earth thus shatters every attempt to penetrate it. It causes every merely calculating importunity upon it to turn into a destruction. This destruction may herald itself under the appearance of mastery and of progress in the form of the technical-scientific objectivation of nature, but this mastery nevertheless remains an impotence of will. (GA 5: 33/BW 172)

The “metaphysical impotence” that was earlier said to be experienced through the resistance that beings offered to Dasein and was analyzed in relation to Dasein’s transcendence as the temporal-horizonal opening of world is now rearticulated in terms of the earth in its tension or strife with the setting up of world in the work of art. Beings-in-themselves are now thought in terms of earth as self-secluding and self-concealing, as that which appears openly cleared as itself only when preserved as “essentially undisclosable.” Such appearing is set forth and intensified by the work of art as a happening or event of truth as unconcealment, this as a “letting be” of the earth. “The work lets the earth be an earth” (GA 5: 33/BW 172). The work of art, in its setting up of a world, sets forth the earth as self-secluding (GA 5: 33/BW 173).


In conclusion: Heidegger provides a positive interpretation of the being-in-itself of beings that remains fundamentally consistent across his corpus, even if it undergoes certain shifts of emphasis and articulation. The being-in-itself of beings – whether of the ready to hand, of the present at hand, or of nature – announces itself as the keeping to themselves (Ansichhalten) of beings, as their exceeding and withdrawing from the horizon of world or field of presence. This keeping-to-themselves of things manifests itself as a metaphysical resistance of beings to any dependence upon the human, a resistance that is itself indicative of the fundamental metaphysical impotence of the human being. This account, moreover, appears to be consistent with what Heidegger presents in “The Argument against Need.” The being-in-itself of beings-in-themselves indeed consists in their own intrinsic integrity, their self-seclusion, independent of us. But such self-seclusion and independence appear as such only through the event of being, of what was earlier called the world entry of beings, which lets beings be as what and how they are in themselves, an event in which we humans are, of necessity, called to participate: an event that needs us in order to happen. Yet this event, as an event of unconcealment, does not belong to beings-in-themselves. Beings-in-themselves are, rather, drawn into such an event and only thus come to be, to show themselves as unconcealed in their very self-withdrawal and self-seclusion.

In themselves, therefore, things or entities cannot properly be said to be, to be beings. Being would here have to be placed under erasure, if we are to let entities in themselves retain their own intrinsic integrity.13 Or, it would have to be said poetically, in a transformation of language beyond the conceptual discourse of metaphysics and of science that understands being as presence or as objectivity. Saying here reaches a limit, opening onto the unsayable, yet while letting the unsayable itself be seen, letting it be.14 Human saying is projective, a projection of being in each instance, and projective saying is intrinsically poietic, a bringing and accompanying into being of what is to be said:

Projective saying is poetizing [Dichtung]: the saying of world and earth, the saying of the arena of their strife…. Projective saying is saying which, in preparing the sayable, simultaneously brings the unsayable as such to the world. (GA 5: 61–62/BW 198–99 tm)

What can be said, the sayable, is what is: beings themselves, as beings. The unsayable is being itself, which includes or encloses within it the being-in-itself of beings, and which thus, as unsayable, demands to be said ever anew, but in an appropriately attuned saying.

What are we saying when we invoke or appeal to beings-in-themselves? What are we saying when we implicitly invoke the being-in-itself of beings? And what are the implications for the scientific and technical understanding of beings that Heidegger seeks to address in “The Argument against Need”? In this perspective (though there is certainly much more to be said here), one could say that Heidegger’s entire response to the argument against need amounts to the claim that the discourse of science (but also that of everyday understanding) is internally incoherent. It does not understand its own ground. It does not understand what it is saying when it appeals to beings-in-themselves, while renouncing or refusing to say what being-in-itself means. But this is not merely a question of language or of the coherence of a given discourse. It is equally a question of our understanding of being and consequently a question of being, of our being and of our relation to beings. The scientific appeal to beings-in-themselves as objectively independent of the human is of a piece with the metaphysically determined violence to which science subjects beings in reducing being to objectivity (and more fundamentally, to orderability), i.e., with the failure of science to acknowledge the more primordial letting-be of beings upon which its own activity depends. In the course of its unfolding, Heidegger’s thought comes to retrieve and to articulate this more primordial letting-be, venturing to say and to acknowledge the unsayable – the ultimate mystery at the heart of things. If, by contrast with the earlier phenomenological accounts, “The Argument against Need” does not present any positive account of the being-in-itself of beings, it is not to deny such being-in-itself of beings, but, through the invitation of its saying, to leave it in the unsaid (or to leave it to the poets), to let it be unsaid – perhaps the only responsible gesture of thought. In its appeal to beings-in-themselves, science does not seek to ground its own discourse (to make it transparent to itself) or to acknowledge its ultimate groundlessness – such refusal being the height of existential (ontico-ontological) irresponsibility. This irresponsibility sanctions the exploitation of the earth that culminates in the epoch of technicity.


1 Throughout this article I shall translate das Ansichseiende as “beings-in-themselves” rather than as “entities-in-themselves.” I do so because the German noun das Seiende is formed from the present participle (seiend) of the verb to be: sein, and das Sein (as in das Ansichsein) is the nominalized form of that verb. In German, the term das Seiende thus contains an obvious and direct reference to sein/Sein, whereas the Latinate “entities” does not carry such an obvious or direct reference to being. (Even though we of course implicitly understand entities as being entities, and the term entity is formed from the Latin ens, derived from esse, “to be,” the connection is not so obvious or direct.) This point is important because Heidegger in “The Argument against Need” is making an argument about the coherence of the discourse of das Seiende: What sense does it make to speak of das Ansichseiende without an understanding of the meaning of the “being” in question, i.e., of das Ansichsein? (Compare the discussion of the quotation from Plato’s Sophist with which Heidegger introduces the question of Being and Time: Translating the Greek present participle ὄν as seiend, Heidegger asks: “Do we today have an answer to the question of what we really mean by the word ‘seiend’? By no means. And so the task is to pose anew the question of the meaning of Sein” (GA 2: 1/SZ unpaginated). See below for further discussion of this issue.

2Das Argument gegen den Brauch (Für das Ansichsein des Seienden),” ed. Dietmar Koch and Michael Ruppert with emendations and notes by Tobias Keiling and Ian Alexander Moore, Journal for the History of Philosophy 30, no. 3, online appendix (2022): i–xvi (vii). (henceforth “AGB”). First published as Martin Heidegger, “Das Argument gegen den Brauch (für das Ansichsein des Seienden),” Jahresgabe der Heidegger Gesellschaft (2013/2014). Martin Heidegger, “The Argument against Need (for the Being-in-Itself of Entities),” trans. Tobias Keiling and Ian Alexander Moore, British Journal for the History of Philosophy 30, no. 3 (2022): 519–34 (526) (henceforth “AAN”).

3 There appears to be a mistranscription in both German editions at AGB: viii/“Das Argument gegen den Brauch (für das Ansichsein des Seienden),” Jahresgabe der Heidegger Gesellschaft, 68. The existing transcription reads: “An-wesen ist An-kommen in der Unverborgenheit, darum Wesen vermutlich das Selbe ist wie die jetzt gemeinte Zeit.” This makes little sense. Both an examination of the manuscript and consideration (both linguistic and philosophical) of the context strongly suggest that what is transcribed as darum here should be deren. The meaning would then be something like: “Coming to presence is arrival in unconcealment, whose essence is presumably the Same as the time now referred to.”

4 I translate Anwesen as “presencing,” rather than “essencing” or “essencing forth,” to preserve the clearly temporal sense in which Heidegger is using this term.

5 Need, Brauch, is thus marked twice in the notes: 1) as the belonging of the human essence to being as event; 2) before this (vordem), as belonging to being itself qua event (AGB: xii/AAN: 530). When Heidegger in this context writes of the “independence” of Ereignis as delivered over to the human essence, I read this as meaning causal independence, along the lines subsequently clarified in the essay.

6 Cf. AGB: xiii/AAN: 531: “To what extent everyday experience everywhere intends beings-in-themselves [ein An-sich-Seiendes], without being able to provide any precise information about being-in-itself [das Ansichsein] or even finding such information to be necessary” (tm).

7 The question is certainly broached before Being and Time, though in much less developed form. See especially the course of summer semester 1925, History of the Concept of Time (GA 25: §24). Here I restrict my comments to the more developed accounts from 1927 onward. I also do not address here Heidegger’s critiques of realism, idealism, and correlationism, nor how his accounts stand in relation to contemporary discussions of so-called “speculative realism.” These topics would require a separate inquiry. For an excellent introduction to the terrain see Peter Gratton, Speculative Realism: Problems and Prospects (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014).

8 The questions are listed on GA 2: 267/SZ 201.

9 See §43b.

10 There remains the problem of how to speak or write of what is vorhanden “in itself,” as it “is” of its own accord. The issue is not simply one of translation. If, as here, we translate vorhanden as “present at hand,” the reference to presence (not explicitly contained in the German term) implies presence to Dasein, to us, and thus unconcealment. Yet even if we render vorhanden more strictly and more literally as simply “at hand,” this includes a reference to the hand and thus still to Dasein, a reference that is explicit and obvious in the German, too. The problem persists also if we hear the vor- in vorhanden in the sense of temporal precedence, of being earlier than the hand and the human, as Heidegger notes in AAN. See AGB: v/AAN: 523.

11 Admittedly, there is still a certain hesitation or tension in Heidegger’s account of this letting be or releasement, for he goes on to state that it must spring from “an original action” (einem ursprünglichen Handeln), a “primordial action [Urhandlung] of Dasein’s freedom,” though, again, this primordial action is then immediately said to be “the happening of the space of freedom of Dasein itself,” a happening that would therefore precede any free action on the part of Dasein.

12 On the violence that philosophical conceptuality has done to things, see GA 5: 9–10, 16–17/BW 150–51, 156–57.

13 Note that Heidegger deploys such erasure at a number of points in “The Argument against Need,” either by placing “being” in scare-quotes or by crossing it out. The erasure or crossing out of being marks the thinking of “being” as event (Ereignis).

14 This saying of the unsayable is discussed in another text from the “Legacy” manuscripts, dealing with the transformation of phenomenology. I offer a brief commentary in The Fate of Phenomenology: Heidegger’s Legacy (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2020), Chapter 7. To GA 27 citations above I added the corresponding page number in the English translation in {curly braces}.

William McNeill - On Need: Mortality and Heidegger’s “Argument” with Science
Original version in Gatherings 13 (2023).