Heidegger’s Dasein: Alien Life on Earth

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Dasein is a German word that you might not realize you know. It is compounded of the adverb da (“there” or “here”) and the infinitive sein (“to be”). It seems as though it should be a verb, “to be there (dasein),” but it is also a noun, “Being-there (Dasein),” which could also be rendered “ex-sistence.”

In German, all nouns are capitalized. While this Emily Dickinson-like quirk might seem at first superfluous (“I felt a Funeral, in my Brain…”), consider the definition of nouns in English. Nouns are supposedly persons, places or things; although, of course, these are all nouns, of which you might ask, What are They?

Nouns, especially when capitalized, give you the illusion that they could be subjects of verbs. Their station in life is to remain fixed or rooted—to capitalize on agency, and so, to function as unmoved movers. In this way, nouns seem almost divinely unrestrained. Thank god for the adjectives and adverbs that hold them back.

But what of the confusion of verb and noun? In English, the word “being” can be auxiliary (“being there, I took a seat”) or concrete (“as a being there, I took a seat”). For Heidegger, Being-there means something like having a world already unfolded around you.

To be there is to be in a context. The noun-ness of Dasein is inseparable from the world it is in, and so, in a way Dasein is the world it is in. To be and not to be the world requires that Dasein be not just fixed but also in motion. Dasein’s being is located in its being here and there, and so, being alienated from itself.

While Heidegger doesn’t quite admit it, to be there and to be Dasein is peculiar to being human. Dasein is only intelligible to itself because it is “there,” and in being “there” it is “here,” but never fully. “Here” is the alienated sibling of “there.” We can only experience our lives on earth insofar as we experience ourselves as aliens. We are the not-so-distant relatives of ourselves.

Yet again, this experience is more familiar than it might seem, and it is not simply psychological. The word “grotto,” for example, is alienated from the word “crypt,” while “went” is a bygone relative of “wend.” Language creeps along with a foreign trend that becomes gradually domesticated.

It does not take much to uproot it—what word is not in some sense foreign to its author? Only if there were gods, could utterances perfectly hit upon their referents (“Let there be light.”). Otherwise, what’s the point of talking? Definitions can only get you so far as you attempt to bridge the gap from this to that or here to there.

Language is a bridge and—for Heidegger—human beings are on that bridge, a bridge that they also are because they are Dasein. They are on their way from here to there but cannot arrive without destroying their own experience. So, too, the context that elicits the “pure” being of nouns is the very thing that verbally alienates them from being so pure.

We must cross a bridge to understand a bridge, and this results in a certain awareness of our own partiality. We live on borrowed time—the frustratingly comfortable home of Dasein as a noun with a verbal plight. Its life on earth is an alien life that it tends to forget is alien. But alien, too, is a noun that is clarified only by a revelation from the homeless root al, the “beyond.”