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Heidegger and Arendt on Natality

My paper makes two related arguments. First, I undermine the well-worn criticism, which Ricoeur so elegantly articulates in Memory, History, Forgetting[1], that Heidegger obsesses over death in Being and Time and fails to address the issue of birth. Contrary to this claim, I argue that Heidegger’s account of ‘resoluteness’ is in fact an account of ‘existential birth.’ Secondly, I argue that we should not place Arendt’s account of ‘natality’ in the Human Condition in opposition to but rather in conversation with Heidegger’s position – for such a conversation would give us a fuller understanding of the relevance of ‘birth’ or ‘natality’ to human action.

I open with an argument that we can only understand ‘resoluteness’ as a concept of ‘existential birth’ if Heidegger’s concept of ‘death’ is properly understood. “Dying”, Heidegger tells us, “is a phenomenon to be understood existentially;”[2] and this means that it must be understood in light of his analysis of Dasein asExistenz. For Heidegger, the primary question regarding the being of the self is not what it is but who it is, and who we are is determined by the kind of activities we engage in. The self is not best understood as a special biological organism (rational animal) or a rational observer (egocogito) but rather in terms of what it does – “existing is action.”[3] Heidegger claims that the self is always in a mode of understanding and that it understands who it is in terms of its ‘existence.’ Existence denotes the forms of activity into which we project ourselves,[4] what Heidegger calls the self’s ‘possibilities’ or “possible ways for it to be.”[5] My selfhood, then, is something like my practical identity, a constellation of roles that I take up in a shared social world.[6] Heidegger’s concept of death must complement his conception of the self as a constellation of possibilities – for when we jettison the ordinary conception of the self, the ordinary conception of death goes with it. Death, Heidegger claims, “must be understood as a possibility.[7]

Existential death is an experience in which my everyday self undergoes a total breakdown. Heidegger refers to death as the “possibility of the absolute impossibility of Dasein,”[8] which means that I experience not being able to take up the everyday roles (or possibilities) in terms of which I ordinarily understand myself. This momentary collapse of the everyday self is brought about by an acute anxiety, which, according to Heidegger, nullifies the world’s claims on me.[9] Because no particular aspect of the world stakes a claim on me, I am incapable of action and my existence fails to matter to me. Thus, my everyday self undergoes a kind of death.[10]I am lost to the world and there is momentarily no answer to the question, ‘Who am I?’

If the self appropriates the meaning of existential death authentically, ‘resoluteness,’ as ‘existential birth,’ follows on its heels. The resolute individual acts in light of his finite responsibility and reconstitutes himself anew by disclosing himself in the world through his action.

At this point I open up a critical dialectic between Heidegger’s account of ‘resoluteness’ and Arendt’s concept of ‘natality.’ First, Arendt argues that our rebirth in action must be understood in light of natural birth,[11] but Heidegger shows that the opposite is the case: we can only understand ourselves as newcomers because we are capable of ‘existential birth.’ The significance of the new is best grasped through our actual experience of it in action rather than relying on analogical or symbolic thinking about the meaning of natural birth. Secondly, I argue that Heidegger’s discussion of resoluteness focuses too heavily on the generic structure of the self rather than the uniqueness of the individual who is reborn. His position should be revised in light of Arendt’s claim that in word and deed the individual reveals himself in his “unique distinctness.”[12] Only by recognizing this can we account for that which motivates resoluteness in the face of death: resoluteness is motivated by the individual’s desire to disclose himself in his ‘unique distinctness.’ This desire, according to Arendt, is the fundamental motivation towards the revelation of the new in action.

Thus, this paper corrects a significant misunderstanding of Heidegger’s position and shows that it should be placed in a fruitful dialogue with – rather than in static opposition to – Arendt’s position.

[1]“…the silence of Being and Time regarding the phenomenon of birth…is surprising…I wish to mention the theme of ‘natality’ which, according to Arendt in The Human Condition, underlies the categories of the vita activa: labor, work, action. Should not this jubilation be opposed to what does indeed seem to be an obsession of metaphysics with the problem of death…does not the anguished obsession with death amount to closing off the reserve of openness characterizing the potentiality of being? Must one not then explore the resources of the experience of the potentiality of being?” Ricoeur. Memory, History, Forgetting, p. 357

[2] Heidegger. BT, p. 284.

[3] Heidegger, Martin. “Phenomenology and Theology” in Pathmarks. William McNeill, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp. 48.

[4] “The term ‘existence’ formally indicates that Dasein is an understanding potentiality-for-being, which, in its being, makes an issue of that Being itself.” Heidegger, Martin.Being and Time.John Macquarrie & Edward Robinson, trans.San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1962, p. 275. The self’s characteristics are not its physical properties; rather, the “‘essence’ [‘Wesen’] of this entity lies in its ‘to be’ [Zu-sein].” Heidegger, Martin.Being and Time.John Macquarrie & Edward Robinson, trans.Harper & Row: San Francisco, 1962, p. 67.

[5] According to Heidegger, a possibility for a human is something he ‘understands’ in the sense of “‘being able to manage something’, ‘being a match for it’, ‘being competent to do something’.” A possibility is an ability to carry out activities associated with a social role in terms of which he understands himself. Heidegger, Martin.Being and Time.John Macquarrie & Edward Robinson, trans.Harper & Row: San Francisco, 1962, p. 183.

[6] I experience who I am in a communal world “in a very specific, factical characterization: as a student, a lecturer, as a relative, superior, etc., and not as specimen of the natural-scientific species homo sapiens, and the like.” Heidegger, Martin. The Phenomenology of Religious Life; trans. Matthias Fritsch and Jennifer Anna Gosetti-Ferencei. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004, p. 8.

[7] Heidegger, Martin.Being and Time.John Macquarrie & Edward Robinson, trans.Harper & Row: San Francisco, 1962, p. 306. Heidegger rejects a number of conceptions of the self that he finds phenomenologically deficient, e.g. the human being as a biological organism, the ens creatum, the Cartesian subject, etc. Each conception of human life that he rejects has a corresponding conception death, viz., the systematic cessation of organ function, the departure of the immortal soul from the body, the subject becomes a mere object, and so on. In rejecting each conception of human life he also rejects the corresponding conception of death. He thus needs a concept of death that complements the concept of the self as a constellation of possible ways to be. To accomplish this death must be understood as a possible way for the self to be. Here are a some of the other key passages in which Heidegger refers to death as a possibility: “…death signifies a peculiar possibility-of-Being in which the very Being of one’s own Dasein is an issue. In dying, it is shown that mineness and existence are ontologically constitutive for death” (Ibid. p. 284); “Death is a possibility-of-Being…This is a possibility in which the issue is nothing less than Dasein’s Being-in-the-world” (Ibid.); “we must characterize Being-toward-death as a Being towards a possibility – indeed, towards a distinctive possibility of Dasein itself” (Ibid. p. 305); “Death, as possibility, gives Dasein nothing to be ‘actualized’, nothing which Dasein, as actual, could itself be. It is the possibility of the impossibility of every way of comporting oneself towards anything, of every way of existing” (Ibid. p. 307).

[8] Ibid.

[9]Unlike most of my moods, which draw me towards and repel me from certain features of the world, anxiety completely nullifies these claims. The elements of the world that ordinarily stake a claim on me simply fail to matter: “But the state-of-mind which can hold open the utter and constant threat to itself arising from Dasein’s ownmost individualized Being, is anxiety. In this state-of-mind, Dasein finds itself face to face with the ‘nothing’ of the possible impossibility of its existence. Anxiety is about the potentiality-for-Being of the entity so destined…” Heidegger, Martin.Being and Time.John Macquarrie & Edward Robinson, trans.Harper & Row: San Francisco, 1962, p. 309; “innerworldly beings in themselves are…completely unimportant” (Ibid. p. 175).

[10] “death is the possibility of no-longer-being-able-to-be-there.” Heidegger. Heidegger, Martin.Being and Time.John Macquarrie & Edward Robinson, trans.Harper & Row: San Francisco, 1962, p. 294. Note 2 at bottom of same page: “‘Nicht-mehr-dasein-könnens.’ Notice that the expressions ‘Seinkönnen’(our potentiality-for-Being) and ‘Nichtmehrdasein’ (our ‘no-longer-Dasein’) are here fused.” Cf. H. 237-242)

[11] “With word and deed we insert ourselves into the human world, and this insertion is like a second birth, in which we confirm and take upon ourselves the naked fact of our original physical appearance…its impulse springs from the beginning which came into the world when we were born and to which we respond by beginning something new on our own initiative. To act, in its most general sense, means to take an initiative, to begin…,to set something into motion…Because they are initium, newcomers and beginners by virtue of birth, men take initiative, are prompted into action…” Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition; second edition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998, p. 177.

[12] Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition; second edition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998, p. 176.