What does Heidegger mean by ‘Dasein’?

Sam asked:

Hi, I’m struggling to understand what Heidegger means by ‘Dasein’ and it’s (our) relationship to nothing. What does Heidegger mean by ‘nothing’ in this context?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

I can understand your confusion, because there is no exact English equivalent to ‘Dasein’ and therefore it has to be reconstructed. Nevertheless there is a relatively straightforward way of grasping it.

‘Dasein’ is a conscious (i.e. intentional) form of existence, therefore it pertains in the main to living creatures such as humans. But humans exploit, use, change and consume non-living materials; thereby they bring the latter into the orbit of their own Dasein and confer a dependent Dasein on them. Our consciousness becomes affixed to these appurtenances and compels us to consider them as integral to the concept of Dasein.

For example, a hammer does not have Dasein; it merely exists. But hammers don’t occur naturally, they are made with intention, and so the concept of Dasein must embrace them, not for their sake, but for the sake of conscious creatures. Accordingly Man + Hammer have a common Dasein. Dasein thus identifies the living and the non-living insofar as they form a purposeful and meaningful symbiosis.

Dasein is in that sense a special instance of existence. Beyond this symbiosis, we acknowledge the existence of things that have no intentional being and play no role in Dasein (e.g. stars, galaxies, gravity, electromagnetic radiation, quantum mechanical wavefronts, but also the unworked ore and wood of the hammer, etc.). They are ‘foreign’ to us, not in any way entangled in our actual Dasein.

Nevertheless, being aware of these things can create a sense that in their alienness they still ‘are’, even though they might ‘not be’. They represent a form of existence that is the opposite of meaningful and purposive Dasein, and in their mere existence provoke or evoke a feeling of ‘worried emptiness’ which we can scarcely articulate, because it is indefinite. Heidegger calls such worried states ‘Angst’ and ‘Moodiness’, which is not the fear of some particular thing, but just a fear without a specific object — in short a ‘Nothing’. Such a state can result in torpor, when everything seems to be equally void, vapid and meaningless. For example, you may look at the sky at night and be overcome by the senselessness of such huge, empty, useless Nothingness. Here it is the absence of a connection to your Dasein that brings forth the worry and may induce you to question whether your Dasein is perhaps merely an illusion, in a word, Nothing.

Heidegger is quite specific that we must not understand this in the scientific (empirical) sense. Science can interpret ‘Nothing’ only as a negation. But it is a psychological (or, in his terminology, ‘phenomenological’) state, because this feeling of Nothingness rests on precisely the absence of interpretable (meaningful) phenomena for a sensible creature.

From here we go on to the question of Being, which is the real mystery. But this is a problem for another day. Meanwhile stick to Dasein as ‘conscious existence’ and keep in mind that this consciousness is in the world of facts and things which belong to our collective experiences. Then the word should not hold any terrors for you. And then you can see that the ‘Nichts’ of Heidegger is everything in which consciousness is not directly entangled.


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