Introducing Heidegger's "Fundamental Question of Metaphysics"

...I was not convinced in the least that "Why is there anything at all?" was a good question.

Introducing Heidegger's "Fundamental Question of Metaphysics"

Last time, I spoke of how Heidegger's Prefatory Note from 1953 brings into play the question of spirit and history. In that note, Heidegger says "What was spoken no longer speaks in what is printed." That is not only a statement about how things have changed (the original lectures are from 1935), but it implicitly asks whether philosophical thought can be achieved through reading and writing. These issues form a complicated knot. If we wonder how it is we learn from history, it seems our spirit, our ambition, works with a story which is less than the exact truth and more a tale of ours in some way. There are so many questions the Prefatory Note and the title Introduction to Metaphysics raise, but two seem particularly apt: 1) Can we become profound thinkers from the written lectures, themselves a historical artifact? 2) Since the lectures themselves contain a history of metaphysics, what exactly do they contain?

I hope you can see at this juncture a provisional answer to the question "Why even talk about metaphysics?" If we love knowing more about history, we are typically attracted to some notion of what humanity has failed at or achieved. What does that even mean? Milton's famous "They also serve who only stand and wait," you might say, opens a way of understanding that claims about Being and Nature are operative here. In a way, it asks if a human being is meant to be successful and others should emulate that success. How does one assess that type of concern? What is natural to being human, if anything?

I believe these are questions that serve as background to Heidegger's "Fundamental Question of Metaphysics," which is "Why are there beings at all instead of nothing?" When I was 23 and taking a class on Existentialism, I was not convinced in the least that "Why is there anything at all?" was a good question. Granted, I was a terrible philosophy student. I didn't understand how to frame someone else's concern seriously; I didn't understand how to approach and develop a given question. I was more interested in sounding smart and getting respect (you can see how well those endeavors worked).

Heidegger does this amazing thing. I am so jealous of it. He does his homework. He takes the time to explain how this question works:

"...we are each touched once, maybe even now and then, by the concealed power of this question, without properly grasping what is happening to us. In great despair, for example, when all weight tends to dwindle away from things and the sense of things grows dark, the question looms." (IM 1)

At 23, I probably told myself something like this: "Why is there anything at all? works for some people, but not me. That's just something you ask on drugs. It isn't really philosophy." Heidegger, though, is showing how this question actually works. The question is articulated as "Why are there beings at all instead of nothing?" But the question itself dictates our emotional states. In fact, it is not just that he posits emotions as having a philosophical cause (a radical move in itself). It is that something which seems prior to language, something constituting our being, sits in "Why are there beings at all instead of nothing?"

I did not appreciate what I appreciate now. His description of despair works: "when all weight tends to dwindle away from things and the sense of things grows dark." I'm not saying it has been exactly that way for me. However, in my life, there has been a lot of frustration, anger, and confusion. I'd say the confusion most of all is where weight has felt like it drifted away from things. I'll start thinking that the most trivial event is actually symbolic of the worst happening. Everything costs too much, everything is dangerous, everything is a sick joke. Nothing matters to anyone else, the whole world is corrupt, and that's why I'm scared and furious and pushing people away.

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Heidegger describes two more emotional states as emanating from the fundamental question:

"The question is there in heartfelt joy, for then all things are transformed and surround us as if for the first time, as if it were easier to grasp that they were not, rather than that they are, and are as they are. The question is there in a spell of boredom, when we are equally distant from despair and joy, but when the stubborn ordinariness of beings lays open a wasteland in which it makes no difference to us whether beings are or not—and then, in a distinctive form, the question resonates once again: Why are there beings at all instead of nothing?" (IM, 2)

This too is convincing. "Surprised by joy" does feel like how joy works. Heidegger's formulation: "it were easier to grasp that they [things in joy] were not, rather than that they are, and are as they are." Heidegger's comment about how boredom reveals the fundamental question seems more of a joke. He contends we could be so indifferent that we would earnestly ask why anything exists. This doesn't feel intuitive to me. If I'm really bored, I won't ask why anything exists with any seriousness. Then again, one might say I never have been as bored as some others.

I mentioned before that asserting a philosophical cause for emotions is a radical move. It can be argued that this is a more or less typical move, especially for Existentialist thought. But I'd say that what is typical can still have significant weight. There are at least two approaches to morality and meaning in philosophy with which Heidegger's assertion of the fundamental question seems to contrast. First, consider Kant's categorical imperative, especially in light of it receiving strength from the idea that our true moral duties are anything but comfortable. The categorical imperative—if you're going to do something, think about what happens if everyone else does it, then decide if it is good—is meant to be purely rational, framing human and moral experience, and grounded in knowledge of human autonomy. It is meant to prescribe duties and find rights. It assumes autonomy and dignity reinforce each other. Heidegger's fundamental question seems absurd in the face of Kantian ethics. Granted, Heidegger has not provided us an ethics yet (and never will), but we can see the power of what he calls the originary question to overthrow other philosophical schools.

Second, there's Heidegger versus Plato and Aristotle. Plato and Aristotle aim for moderation. This gets tricky on their own terms, as they have to assert the philosopher and his unlimited eros for knowledge are somehow moderate. But moderation is the heart of virtue and being human. What is being human, after all, if not being between beast and God? Saying the fundamental question is felt in our bones would not help Socrates with the ambitious young men he continually finds himself arguing with. Tell someone like Meno that a great question lies within him and there's even less hope of stopping him from conflating virtue with greed.

So I do believe it is important to contrast what Heidegger is doing here with other approaches to philosophy. To circle back to the beginning of these remarks, we're wondering now how "Why are there beings at all instead of nothing?" can illuminate what it means to be human. Heidegger is telling us that the question calls us to it. In these opening remarks of his, it sounds like a challenge.


Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics. Translated by Gregory Fried and Richard Polt. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.