A consideration of language will help us to grasp a little about what Heidegger means when he talks about the being (Sein) of beings (Seindes) which is not itself a being (the difference between the two he calls "the ontological difference"). With language there are terms which meaning is determined by the context in which they are uttered. To take an example, the word “root” has many different senses and referents. When we talk of the roots of rock music and the roots of the Cold War we are using the term in the same sense (used to refer to the anterior conditions leading up to the occurrence of some-thing) but the referents are different. When we use the term root to refer to the roots of a plant, we utter the word in a different sense altogether.
It’s easy to imagine how the contexts in which those words are uttered determine their meaning. If you’re reading an old Hendrix interview in which they’re discussing rock music, and “the roots” are referred to, the context in which the word is uttered will make its meaning obvious. And if you’re out chopping down trees for fire wood somewhere, the context in which the same word is uttered will render its meaning. So both the sense and the referent of the word can be determined by its context.
What words like “root” and “can” and “model” have in common is that they are “filled up” by beings. They have a meaning insofar as they have beings to refer to explicitly, and at any given point in history those meanings are taken to refer to a determined selection of beings. This isn’t to say that the meanings of those words are frozen and can never change, though! Rather it simply means that at any given point in history the meanings of those words must be tethered to some being (Seindes) or beings as without some familiar order language could not function at all.
But terms such as “am”, “are”, “is”, “was”, “will be”, “were”, and so on, are not tethered to beings in this way at all. These are terms which refer to the being (Sein) of beings, and not to beings themselves. Magda King writes that the “is” and the “am” cannot be derived from beings themselves, but must already exist in the understanding in order for us to catch sight of the “is” which is within beings. This is a little tricky to see at first, so a few examples will help illustrate King’s point.
The first thing to keep in mind is Heidegger’s insistence that being (Sein) is not a being (Seindes). If being is not itself a being, but rather that against which beings are revealed in their being, then being cannot be a being as there would be no possibility of encountering beings in the first place. Heidegger holds that in order for things to be intelligible they must be encountered against a horizon (or background) through which their qualities may be discovered as meaningful properties. Magda King’s own example is of Aristotle’s understanding of being as substantiality. When the being of beings is understand as substantiality, beings themselves may demonstrate their being (and therefore be understood) in terms of what is “brought forwards” by our a priori* understanding of substantiality. Which means that the being (Seindes) encountered will be in a position to display its being as substance, where its properties of extension, mass, solidity, etc, can make sense (i.e. have meaning).
To give a demonstration by analogy, we cannot build up categories such as mass, extension, solidity, and so on without first determining beings as substance. We cannot “leap ahead” into beings and discover these categories without first understanding their being (Sein) as substance. The categories through which we understand beings in the substantiality are dependent upon a prior grasping of being (Sein) as substance. We must first lay the grounds for enquiry bare before we can engage in any further discovery in the area. The natural sciences, after all, require foundational principles in order for them to conduct their a posteriori investigations on that basis.
To return to the point at hand, terms like those mentioned above cannot be understood by reference to specific beings, but must rather be taken to indicate being (Sein) itself. While the “is-ness” inheres in all beings we can encounter, without first having an understanding of the “is” we cannot hope to discover it in beings just as we cannot hope to derive categories of matter without a previous understanding the first-principles of matter. As the word “is” refers not to any particular being, but rather the being of beings it follows that we must have an understanding of being before we can understand beings at all. As King points out, without terms in the region of “is” and “am” our language would not be able to refer to anything and therefore could not function.
A Possible Objection from E-Prime
There is, however, a version of English which does away with any form of the indicative “to be”, which thereby includes in its dismissal terms of the kind mentioned above. Instead of saying “this burger is delicious”, a version of the same utterance in E-Prime could be expressed as “I really like this burger”. In this second part I’ll be discussing whether or not E-Prime provides a concrete counter-example to the ontological significance of the term “is”, as it is supposed by King and by proxy Heidegger himself.
What would perhaps initially stir Heidegger most about the use of E-Prime is the representationalism which is built into it. Without being able to say “is”, we are in a variety of contexts led to say “appears like”. So for example, instead of saying “the rose is red” we would say “the rose appears red”. In “Heidegger’s Realism in Being and Time” Gary Williams unpacks an argument against Kantian representationalism directly from Heidegger which will shed some light on the objection from E-Prime.
To summarise William’s discussion, he notes that Heidegger defines a phenomenon as “that which shows itself to us”. In Heidegger’s words:
“Phenomena are the totality of what lies in the light of day or can be brought to light – what the Greeks sometimes identified simply with [entities]”.
What is also noted is that a being may show itself as something which it is not. Hearing the tap dripping heavily on the stainless steel sink downstairs may resemble someone tapping on the window, or a cluster of stick insects may resemble a collection of snapped twigs. So there is a difference between a phenomenon and a semblance. However, as Williams spells out for us, only on the basis of showing itself as a phenomenon can something resemble anything else. Semblance, therefore, is ontologically dependent on the original showing of the phenomenon.
According to Williams, “there must already be a way for the representation to show itself as a representation of something else. This “something else” is nothing other than the original showing of the phenomenon”. He moves on to point out that the representationalist holds that we can know beings only through our grasping representations of them, that the phenomenon is “appearance” and not the thing in-itself (noumenon). But Heidegger believes he has found a problem with Kant’s formulation, and Williams draws our attention to the clue as to what this is:
“The Kantian must also say that within the phenomenal world of representation, there is another kind of representational activity, wherein something can show itself as something it is not.”
This is to say that the representationalist has to account for semblances of the kind named above, where the thing which is being shown as something else can be - by admission of both parties - accessed, unlike noumenal reality. Williams states that if the representationalist wants to be taken seriously they must thereby provide an account of semblances, and of the phenomenal-noumenal relationship. Towards this notion, Williams quotes directly from Heidegger again:
“Kant uses the term “appearance” in this twofold way. According to him “appearances” are, in the first place, the “objects of empirical intuition”: they are what shows itself in such intuition. But what thus shows itself (the “phenomenon” in the genuine primordial sense) is at the same time an “appearance” as an emanation of something which hides itself in that appearance – an emanation which announces.”
The idea is that behind the phenomenon (that which is presented) there is something which never presents itself, i.e. the noumenon. Yet the presence of the noumenon is nonetheless announced by the appearance of the (Kantian) phenomenon. To build into the phenomenon the notion of appearance begs the question. It assumes representationalism, rather than proving it. Williams this time quotes from William Blattner:
“The worry that phenomena are appearances and hence unsuited for use in ontology rests on the covert assumption of Indirect Representationalism, because only if we are thinking of phenomena as a surrogate for a transcendent reality will we be inclined to exclude phenomenology as a method for ontology. To charge phenomenology with studying appearances, rather than reality, is to load the concept of a phenomenon with representationalist baggage that neither Husserl nor Heidegger accepts.”
It won’t be necessary for our present purposes to tread any further in this direction, as we simply need to note that it is only by first catching sight of the “is” that anything can appear like anything else, and that this is so even if we are in fact representationalists (the purpose of this essay is not to give a verdict either way). The rose must be in order for it to “appear” red - the noumenon must always stand behind the phenomenon if we follow Kant and not Heidegger. E-Prime, therefore, tacitly makes use of the “is” of being and thus cannot stand as a counter-example against the fundamental disclosure of the “is” brought forward into language.
* A priori in this context does not refer to something which is understood analytically, or something which is understood before any experience at all. Heidegger uses the term to mean the grounds for understanding something.