Martin Heidegger on the Problem of Knowledge and Being

i) Introduction: The Problem of Knowledge and the Problem of Being ii) The Hammer and the Intellectual iii) On Thought and Action

Martin Heidegger made a distinction between “the problem of knowledge” and the “problem of Being”. In a sense his (or these) distinctions are precisely the distinctions which distinguished Anglo-American analytic philosophy from many of its Continental counterparts. Of course to say that is also to generalise; though it does contain a lot of truth.

One other distinction is the supposed separation of fact from value; which is characterised by strands in the tradition of analytic philosophy. Such a distinction is rarely made on the Continent. This partly explains why even ontology (as well as metaphysics generally) has had an ethical dimension on the Continent.

For example, to Emmanuel Levinas, ethics was First Philosophy. And in Heidegger’s ontology and Jacques Derrida’s philosophy generally, ethics — and by derivation politics — play an important part (despite the obfuscations and animadversions to the contrary which deny this). Heidegger or Derrida might have said that every part of philosophy (even logic) is interspersed with some politico-ethical element. For both Derrida and Heidegger ethics was also First Philosophy. (Of course, neither philosopher ever used the term First Philosophy.)

It is strange, prima facie, that Heidegger should claim that traditional empiricism also claimed to be “ontology-free”. It’s hard to make sense of this claim at first. However, the claims that Heidegger makes about empiricism are substantiated by the view that empiricism supposedly made a firm and distinct separation between objects and subjects. Though since Kant (if not before), many have accepted that subjects themselves partly determine the nature of all known or perceived objects. That’s why empiricism could never be genuinely “ontology-free”. Both minds and our epistemological tools determine objects (one of the prime subjects of ontology).

It’s a rather general statement to assert that empiricists believed that the world is divided into subjects (whose prime task is to “perceive objects”) and that objects exist (as it were) “simply to be perceived”. Of course that Heideggerian way of putting things is very colourful. However, the truth contained in his view is very powerful; despite the “rhetorical flourishes”.

Heidegger gets to work on the main problems that the various ontological dualisms threw up.

For a start, the world must be divided into two “substances” — mind and matter. Of course if these two substances are truly distinguishable, then how is there any interaction between the two dissimilar worlds? This is the Cartesian problem written on a larger scale.

Cartesian dualism failed to convincingly explain the relation between mind and body.

According to Heidegger, the problem which faced empiricist epistemologists is the relation between subjects and objects generally. How do subjects (qua substances) interact with objects (qua substances)? In terms of epistemology (or the Theory of Knowledge), how can subjects know anything at all about the world of objects and events? How do these two seemingly incompatible domains interact? How can one substance know a different kind of substance?

According to Kant, it was “the scandal of philosophy” that the external world hadn’t be truly proved to exist. One can see that this seemingly epistemological task was one of Kant’s prime motivations (after proving the objectivity and rationality of his own system of ethics). But if these two substances are truly unlike, then a proof of the external world, according to Heidegger, will never be forthcoming if one embraces such an empiricist view of the matter. That separation of mind and world made such a proof impossible — almost logically impossible. Heidegger’s response was to get rid of all such dualisms — mind/body, internal/external, subject/object, knower/known and so on. In a sense, Heidegger was therefore a monist in that he didn’t accept (or recognise) mind and objects as two distinct substances. More specifically, it’s because empiricism — and, indeed, Cartesianism — stressed these dualisms that such ontologies would by their very nature create “the problem of the external world”. If there aren’t two fundamental substances, then this problem simply evaporates because all these dualisms effectively become monisms in his philosophical system.

Heidegger needed to formulate his ontology in order to solve the so-called problem of the external world or to make it effectively a non-problem. However, he also reacted to ontology simpliciter.

Heidegger relied on his notion of human beings as “being-in-the-world”. In terms of the problem of the external world, if subjects (or beings) are already beings-in-the-world, then there can be no true distinction between the external and the internal (or between subjects and objects). The argument seems to be that if minds and world are one, then the question of knowledge of the world won’t (or shouldn’t) even arise. In a sense, Heidegger provided us with the most thoroughgoing naturalisation of the mind and subject imaginable. It’s no wonder that this aspect of his work even filtered through to a few analytic philosophers (e.g., Gilbert Ryle, Robert Brandom, Tyler Burge, etc.).

It’s not just the case that beings are beings-in-the-world; but also that beings are never truly separated from other beings or subjects. And what is true of the everyday world is also true of the world of the epistemologist and ontologist. This point also has a very Wittgensteinian tinge to it.

The very idea of a Cartesian (or Husserlian!) subject completely alone in his own private philosophical world — untouched by the presuppositions and biases of the everyday man — is either simply nonsensical or at least untrue. Every single thought the epistemologist or ontologist has is in some way filtered through intersubjective conventions and ways of speaking (therefore of thinking). Thus, as C.S. Peirce said, the Cartesian reduction, for example, is basically an elaborate con-trick. Neither Descartes nor Husserl could have truly “bracketed” the entire world or brought about “pure consciousness”. If they had done so, then they wouldn’t have even been able to think, let alone speak.

It’s because of this Cartesian or empiricist isolationism that we have the problem of the external world in the first place. Naturalise the mind (as others have also attempted to do) and the problem will simply disappear. If we’re part of nature (or part of the world), then nature (or the world) will cease to be so ontologically and epistemically problematic.

The Hammer and the Intellectual

Prima facie, Heidegger’s highly-intellectual anti-intellectualism seems very strange, if not bizarre. It’s perhaps not surprising that this anti-intellectual intellectual (like that of Joseph Goebbels) had strong sympathies with German National Socialist forms of anti-intellectualism. In a sense, because Heidegger attempted to dismantle the empiricist version of epistemology and ontology (as he saw it), he went out of his way to emphasise the very non-intellectual relations we have with the many and varied parts of the world.

Take Heidegger’s well-known hammer example.

His point was that generally (in everyday life) we don’t have intellectual knowledge of the hammer we use to bang in nails. Instead, we have some kind of intuitive (for want of a better word) relation to it. That is, we don’t really know that the hammer is too heavy: it “reveals itself as being too heavy”. That must mean that we only have a physical reaction and relation to the hammer, not a knowledge-based one. In fact when we use the hammer (Heidegger seems to claim) we don’t think at all. We simply feel that it’s too heavy. We don’t know or even think that it’s too heavy.

This resembles Donald Davidson when he stressed the pointlessness of the “tertiary intermediaries” (Davidson, 1989) between the external world and ourselves. The “third entity” in Heidegger’s case is the linguistic entity “too-heaviness” to which the hammer somehow corresponds. Heidegger thinks that we simply needn’t postulate an extra entity to account for a relation to a hammer. There is a hammer. And that hammer is heavy. There’s no entity expressed by the linguistic, “This hammer is too heavy.” There isn’t even a non-linguistic entity somewhere in the mind that somehow relates to the hammer. Instead we simply feel, intuitively, that the hammer is too heavy.

It’s strange, therefore, that a philosopher who could be classed as “the ontologist of the social” (see Robert Brandom) seems to de-stress the importance language has on our experiences. Heidegger seems to claim that our relation to a hammer (at least in certain cases) is entirely non-linguistic. Indeed it’s also non-mental. It’s entirely physical. This effectively means that we “know” that the hammer is too heavy, without ever having formulated any such sentence about that “fact”. Not only does language (in any form) play no part in this relation with a hammer: perhaps no thoughts (or any form of mentality — even non-cognitive mentality) enter the picture. What we have, instead, is some kind of primitive or intuitive relation to a hammer.

All this goes squarely against, for example, Hans-Georg Gadamer’s assertion that “all adult human experience is linguistic in nature”. According to Heidegger, on the other hand, we can simply hammer away with the hammer without indulging in language (or even anything mental) at all.

It seems to me that Heidegger’s antipathy towards empiricist ontology and epistemology coloured his philosophical position on things which don’t at first seem remotely philosophical. His ontology even tried to make sense of something as basic as using a hammer. Heidegger believed that empiricist epistemologists made the mistake of viewing philosophers as some kind of passive “spectators” (or “lookers-on”) of the external world. They simply sat back (as it were) and let the external world make its impact on their minds. Indeed, on the Cartesian model, the mind shouldn’t only sit back and take it all in: it must also evacuate itself of all biases and presuppositions before it does so.

However, according to Heidegger’s ontological monism (if that’s what it is), we’re at one with the so-called “external world”. It must therefore follow that we can’t (or shouldn’t) see ourselves as mere spectators (or lookers-on). We can’t spectate on something we ourselves are part of.

This ontological monism isn’t just applied to empiricist and Cartesian philosophy: it’s also applied to our everyday non-philosophical relations with the world around us. In terms of a hammer again: we aren’t spectators (or looker-ons) of hammers either. We are at one with hammers (at least when we are actually using them).

To recap on Heidegger’s position.

According to the empiricist and Cartesian epistemologist, we must have the sentence or thought “This hammer is too heavy” somewhere in the mind. However, in reality we only feel the hammer’s heaviness. We don’t need a linguistic expression (or even an abstract thought) that somehow corresponds to the hammer’s heaviness. This is a needless intellectualisation of our relations to hammers. On Heidegger’s view, our relation to hammers — and other aspects of the world — is often simply a “practical relation”. The things around us are more like “tools” (even when not actually literal tools), rather than objects of cognition. Heidegger himself calls these “ready-to-hand” things “equipment”. That means that we use the things around us. We don’t exclusively think (or cognise) about the various things around us.

The term “ready-to-hand” is counterpoised with the term “present-at-hand”. It is Heidegger’s view that things that are ready-to-hand are things that we use or actively engage with. The present-at-hand idea suggests to us that such things that belong to that category are primarily objects of thought and cognition. Something can, therefore, be present-at-hand without necessarily be used or engaged with. It is, instead, a pure object of cognition and thought. (It’s being “is to be perceived”, to use Bishop Berkeley’s phrase.) Of course words like ‘tools’ and ‘equipment’ must be taken in their broadest possible senses. Something can be a tool or equipment even if it’s not, strictly speaking, either a tool or a piece of equipment.

On Thought and Action

If there is any direct connection to be found between Heidegger and Nazism, it’s that of anti-intellectualism. Heidegger’s anti-intellectualism is very intellectual and esoteric in form because it seems to have been partly derived from other cultures. More specifically, it took the form of non-dualism — the rejection of categories and the glorification of experience (or action).

Ever since Descartes — and before — the human subject (or philosopher!) has allowed itself the privilege of starting out from outside the world (or outside nature) looking on at its processes as some kind of spectator. But man is part of nature and part of the world. Thus this separation is either an illusion or a product of our arrogance (or both). However, we do have one quality that distinguishes us from nature and the world: self-consciousness. However, how does self-consciousness alone separates us from the world and nature? For one, it allows us to transcend our basic instincts. Indeed it allows us to contemplate our basic instincts and therefore adapt, change or try to get rid of them entirely. Very few, if any, other animals can do this. (Indeed it would probably prove counter-productive for them to do so.)

The philosopher detaches himself from the world. The animal only knows of the present and the near. (This probably even applied to primitive man.) Thinkers, on the other hand, view the past, the future and others as if they were programmes on a TV screen. The thinker is no longer part of the world. Thought takes the place of experience and action. Life is lived within the head — even though the contents one finds within the head are of the world (the world by proxy — of books or “texts”). Words and concepts recreate the world and are mistaken for the world. Word is from then on measured against word and concept against concept. Everything becomes “inter-textual” and inter-conceptual. The flesh and blood world of experience is lost and we live within the illusory world of our words, categories and concepts.

Can there be Heideggerian “involvement” or action without at least some degree of knowledge? Surely involvement or action must be the result of a degree of knowledge. It can’t, one assumes, run free of all knowledge. Action or involvement must be the consequent of at least a modicum of knowledge. How can action run free of knowledge of some kind?

There’s also a sense in which Heidegger’s position is essentially pragmatist in intent. He believed that knowledge must be firmly connected (in some way) to action. Or, in his word, it must be connected with our “concern” for the world in which our knowledge acquisition and knowledge-claims take place. More specifically, Heidegger is surely right to say that knowledge “is secondary to involvement in the world”. We wouldn’t even care about knowledge if it weren’t for the fact that we’re somehow already involved with the world. Without some kind of involvement, the desire for knowledge wouldn’t even arise.

Though if involvement comes first, then we must ask ourselves if this involvement is somehow shaping our pursuit of knowledge; or if it’s determining the subject areas of our knowledge.

Is Heidegger saying that it’s wrong to completely “detach ourselves from the world”. Or is his saying that — in actual fact (contra the Cartesian) — we can’t do so even if we wanted to? In essence, Heidegger seems to argue both these positions.


Burge, T. (1979) ‘Individualism and the Mental’, in Midwest Studies in Philosophy 4. Davidson, D. (1989) ‘A Coherence Theory of Truth and Knowledge’, in Truth and Interpretation. Derrida, J. (1967/1978) Writing and Difference, edited by Alan Bass. Heidegger, M. (1992) Basic Writings, ed. David Krell — Being and Time, translated by John MacQuarrie (1927/1962). Ryle, G. (1949) The Concept of Mind

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