Heidegger’s Critique of Descartes


Heidegger was a student of Husserl, founder of phenomenology. Husserl was a ‘transcendental phenomenologist’ who thought that there was a direct correlation between our experiences and the world around us. As such, conscious experiences (phenomena) could provide a reliable basis for scientific knowledge. Unlike Heidegger, he retained the subject/object distinction and the transcendental ego.In his attempt to reconsider the history of philosophy and emphasize the importance of the question of Being, Heidegger concentrates on how to we can properly understand our own Being existentially through an analysis of what he terms Dasein.

Dasein = ‘there-being’

As part of his ontological project, Heidegger undertakes a reinterpretation of previous Western philosophy. He wants to explain why and how theoretical knowledge came to seem like the most fundamental relation to being. This explanation takes the form of a destructuring (Destruktion) of the philosophical tradition, an interpretive strategy that reveals the fundamental experience of being at the base of previous philosophies, including that of Descartes.For Descartes, the subject is the seat of experience and is ontologically prior to the world around it . Contrary to this, Heidegger’s goal is to show that there is no subject distinct from the external world of things. Heidegger puts together the separation of the subject and the object by the concept of “Dasein” which is essentially a Being-in-the-world. Being-in, as the most essential and existential characteristics of Dasein, signifies the expression of such terms as “dwelling”, “being familiar with” and “being present to”.

Vorhandenheit [present-at-hand, there]
Zuhandenheit [ready-to-hand, instrumentally available]

For Heidegger, the world is not presented to us as a as a collection of objects that we look upon from a detached perspective, but as a holistic web of interconnected equipment with which we are inextricably entangled. Objects only show up in the context of a background of purposes, concerns, practices and equipmental dealings that is constitutive of our Being-in-the-world. The subject-object perspective is thus a derivative, incomplete understanding, which is blinded by its failure to recognise the primacy of ‘concernful engagement’ with things above traditionally-minded epistemological scrutiny.Theoretical knowledge represents only one kind of intentional behavior, and Heidegger asserts that it is founded on more fundamental modes of behavior, modes of practical engagement with the surrounding world, rather than being their ultimate foundation.Heidegger attempted to unify the duality of modern philosophy by reuniting subject and object (world) together in the single entity Dasein. Subject and object are not two beings, because they are the basic determination of Dasein in the unity of the characteristic of Being-in-the-world. Dasein is not a cogito. Dasein and its world can never be separated. Dasein is the Being-in-the-world. Therefore, “Being-in-the-world” precedes the Cogito. The truth of Cogito is replaced in the disclosedness of Being which is basically primordial truth. Unlike Descartes and others, he breaks the chain of the tradition in terms of an understanding of world. His understanding of Being is Being-in-the-world, but the world of the Being of Dasein is not the physical world. It is the world of Dasein.If we follow Heidegger’s train of thought, we cannot indulge in the kind of skepticism that Descartes presents, since it is predicated on a false distinction between us and the world.


3 Responses to “Heidegger’s Critique of Descartes”

  1. 1 Nick Joll

    Hi Rob

    One of my students referred to this post in his essay, so I came to check it out. I had forgotten about all the work you do for the course!

    Here’s a two-pence worth. Strictly, unless you speak of preseNCE-at-hand, readiNESS to hand, you should write ‘vorhanden’ (rather than ‘Vorhandenheit’) and ‘zuhanden’ (rather than ‘Zuhandenheit’). Slightly more significantly: it might be good to indicate that by ‘intentional behaviour’ you do not mean behaviour one intends – wishes – to do. Rather, ‘intentional’ here has the sense that phenomenologists give the term. That is, it means ‘apprehensive’ behaviour or (since that term to is open to misunderstanding) grasping or relating behaviour. One has a (phenomenological) intention when one relates to something or grasps of apprehends it (in any way whatsoever).


    Dr Nicholas Joll
    Junior Research Fellow, University of Essex
    Visiting Lecturer, University of Hertfordshire

  2. 2 Matthew

    What is the context of the ‘web’?

  3. 3 Matthew

    Nick, my use of language is terrible but vorhanden is the verb and vorhandenheit is the noun so you could just go for, ‘the present-at-hand’ and ‘the ‘ready-to-hand’ could you not.

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