Friday, September 18, 2009

The Wrong Word?

I ran the idea that "Dasein" should be translated as "presence" in Being and Time past one of the PhD students at our department. He's a very close reader of Heidegger and insisted that "presence" is simply the wrong word for our particularly human way of being (which was the sort of being Heidegger was denoting with the word). I said that a meaningless word (in English) was surely even worse. So we went at it for a while. A very good discussion.

Now, one thing to keep in mind is that, if Heidegger is right, then the word "presence" has become increasingly less apt as the primordial name for (today's) human being. When was the last time you met someone (a "human being") who was, you know, "all there". Someone whose way of "being around" was best described as "present"? But, surely, I think to myself, that's true of "Dasein" as well. Heidegger's whole point is that we're not as authentically "there" as we could be. So it's perfectly fine to use "the wrong word". The idea is to recover the meaning of "presence" for human being.

One suggestion (promoted, I'm told, by Thomas Sheehan) is that Dasein means not so much "being there" as "being open". Well, that's a perfectly good sense of "presence". To be truly present is to be open to what is going on around one. It is to be "in the open", "in the clearing", etc. So I still say "presence" is a great word for Dasein, the subject (to pun a little) of Heidegger's book.

It is important to me to keep reading Being and Time as a book about what it means to be, in that peculiar human way that we are. I like the idea that that makes it a book about presence. I think it is mainly people who read Being and Time as a book about what Heidegger was thinking around 1927 that insist on calling its subject "Dasein". They may as well call it Marty (which would be a fun translation actually).


Gary Williams said...

I think there are a couple reasons why presence would be a bad translation of Dasein. First, there is already a word for presence in German: Anwesenheit. Dasein is Dasein, presence is presence. Secondly, it is the world which presences to Dasein. This is why Heidegger follows the Greeks in saying the totality of entities (the natural world) is in the mode of presence [anwesenheit], which has connotations of being *at* someplace presencing *to* the us as perceivers.

That is, presence can only apply to Dasein in an ontic sense in that the human body presences to other Daseins as a physical phenomenon, but Dasein in an ontological sense cannot presence because it is an opening to possibility, not a static phenomenon.

But really, the most appropriate translation for Dasein is simply as a synonym for humanity with special connotations. Dasein is a being (a human being) that has a special mode of being (human being, or existential existence).

Thomas said...

I agree that "Anwesenheit" is the big hurdle for my proposal. I do want to point out that the existence of that word did not prevent Macquarrie and Robinson from translating "Vorhandenheit" as "presence-at-hand". "Dasein is Dasein, presence is presence" sounds like a nice tautology. Except that, as you just pointed out, presence is Anwesenheit." So the question remains (at least) open. "_______ is Dasein, presence is Anwesenheit."

But I'm with you on the overall project of finding a word, in English, that denotes the particular kind of being that we humans (and perhaps dolphins) have.

pensum said...

here is Sheehan's take on Dasein from his translation of What is Metaphysics? i will include the footnotes which are indicated by square brackets:

I follow Heidegger's insistence that the Da of Dasein does not refer to a “there” (“Da ibi und ubi”: GA 71, forthcoming, ms. 121.18),as well as his suggestions that Dasein not be translated as
“being-here” or “being-there.”[2] Rather, in keeping with Heidegger's frequently repeated indications, I interpret

• Da as “the open” (namely, for all forms of being or

• Da-sein as “openness” (i.e., “being-the-open,”
“being-open,” or “the open-that-we-are”).[4]


2.“‘Dasein’ bedeutet für mich nicht. . . ‘me voilà’":
“Lettre à Monsieur Beaufret (23 novembre 1945)" in Lettre sur
l'humanisme, ed. Roger Munier, new, revised edition, (Paris:
Aubier, Éditions Montaigne, 1964), 182.29-30. Rather, Heidegger indicates that “Dasein" could be translated (“in einem vielleicht unmöglichen Französisch") as “être-le-là" -- but only if the “là" is understood as “Offenheit": ibid.,

3. For example: Zollikoner Seminare. Protokolle--Gespräche--Briefe, ed. Medard Boss (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1987), 9.6-9: “Offenheit,” “das Offene, Freie. In diesem Offenen finden wir uns”; 156.35-157.1: “Das
Da meint in ‘Sein und Zeit’...die Offenheit”; 157.30-32: “Weil
aber der Mensch nur Mensch sein kann, . . .indem er in der
Offenheit von Sein steht, ist das Menschsein als solches dadurch ausgezeichnet, auf seine Weise diese Offenheit selbst zu sein”; 188.14-15: “Wie ist das Da dort [in Sein und Zeit] bestimmt als das Offene? Diese Offenheit hat auch den Charakter des Raumes. Räumlichkeit gehört zur Lichtung, gehört zum Offenen, in dem wir uns als Existierende aufhalten....”.
See also GA 5, 40.1: “eine offene Stelle”; GA 9, 184.11: “innerhalb eines Offenen”; 184.25: “steht im Offenen"; 185.29: “in ein Offenes”; 187.32: “das Offenbare eines Offenen”; 188.21-22: “das Offene und dessen Offenheit, in die jegliches Seiende hereinsteht”; 201.30-32: “Die entscheidende Frage...nach der Offenheit. . .des Seins”) etc.; GA 49, 56.20 (“die Offenheit, die Lichtung”); 56.27-28: “in einem in sich schon wesenden Offenen”; 56.31-2: “Die Frage nach . . . dem Offenen, darin einem Verstehen ‘Sein’ überhaupt. . .sich enthüllt”); GA 65, §205, 328.28: “das Offene”; 331.23: “Offenheit”. Also “Lettre à Monsieur Beaufret (23 novembre 1945)” (supra),
184.3: “Offenheit.”

4.GA 9, 325.20-21: “Der Mensch west so, daß er das ‘Da,’ das heißt die Lichtung des Seins, ist.” GA 15, 415.10-13 (= Vier Seminare, 145.10-13): “Es gilt, das Da-sein in dem Sinne zu erfahren, daß der Mensch das ‘Da’, d.h. die Offenheit des Seins für ihn, selbst ist, indem er es übernimmt, sie zu bewahren und bewahrend zu entfalten” (Roughly: “The point is to experience Da-sein, in the sense that I, the human being, am the Da, the openness of being for me, insofar as I undertake to preserve this openness, and in preserving it, to
unfold it.” For a French rendering of this, see Heidegger's letter to Roger Munier, July 31, 1969, in Le nouveau commerce, 14 [1969], 58.8-11.) The translation of Dasein as “openness,” “being-open,” and “the open-that-we-are” is discussed in the essays “A Paradigm Shift in Heidegger Research,” Continental Philosophy Review, 34, 2 (2001), 1-20, and “Kehre and Ereignis,” in A Companion to Heidegger's Introduction to Metaphysics, ed. Richard Polt and Gregory Fried (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001), 3-16 and 263-274

Gary Williams said...

"I do want to point out that the existence of that word did not prevent Macquarrie and Robinson from translating "Vorhandenheit" as "presence-at-hand"."

Yeah, that can be confusing since presence-at-hand is different from being as presence. I like Stambaugh's new translation a lot better; it's less confusing. She renders "Vorhandenheit" as "objective presence". I think this captures the essence of Vorhandenheit fairly well. It can also be translated as "occurentness" or "extantness". The trick however is to come up with a way in which the true objective presence of the world is independent of our interpretation of it *as* objective, which is a derivative phenomenon. So, in a strange way, our interpretation of the world as objective is dependent on our subjective (ready-to-hand) interpretation of the objective world. In my mind then, there is a rough causal sequence between objective presencing of the world --> ready-to-hand interpretation of such presencing --> derivative ontic or Vorhanden interpretation of ready-to-hand phenomena. But ultimately, everything comes back to the natural world, which is independent of our disclosure of it as ontic. Most Heidegger scholars don't talk like this , but its the only way (I can see) to reconcile Heidegger with a scientific understanding of the natural world; something I don't think he himself would deny.

Thomas said...

To my mind, Heidegger's book (Sein und Zeit) does a fine job of interpreting the relevant concepts. So I am less concerned about find exactly the right, i.e., not ontologically misleading, word. All words, "proximally and for the most part", as it were, lead us away from being toward beings. At least in their ordinary usage. Heidegger's contribution (if he has one) is to lead us back to being.

"Occurentness" is too non-idiomatic. Even "extantness" sounds odd. "Extance", while the OED reminds that it is obsolete and rare, and then only in the sense "emergence", seems, at least to me, to do the job we want "Vorhandenheit" to do. That lets us use "extant" for "Vorhanden".

This morning I realized that "presence" for "Anwesen" is not quite right either because "presence" does not actually mean "pre-essence" nor anything like "An-wesen" (where "Wesen" means "essence"). On the contrary, the "esse" of "presence" is actually closer to "being" as in the "sein" of "Da-sein".

So perhaps the challenge is not to find a word for Dasein (we should use "presence") but a new translation of "Anwesen" (not using "presence"). I'll think about this some more.