In “Six Characters in Search for an Author” Luigi Pirandello writes a play within play. It opens on a frustrated manager who is attempting explain a script by “Pirandello.” Each of the actors complains about the esoteric nature of the script. While the play is strange it is also exceedingly humorous because Pirandello creates awkward moments where he writes critical things about himself. The awkwardness is felt by the reader or hearer due to the meshing of two worlds, the world of the play and the world of the author himself. Though there is no rule about the bifurcation of these two worlds it has become an assumption that they should not interact. This is the project of Martin Heidegger in “Being and Time;” making visible an assumption, which in the apex of modernity has been made invisible, namely that Da-sein exists within the world and is thus is not radically separated from it ontologically. Just as Pirandello through his play highlights the author- character distinction, Heidegger deconstructs the subject object distinction inherent within modern thought.
“Being and Time” seeks to recover the essence of Being, a quest to venture backward through time in order to recover a question asked by Plato and then forgotten. Not unlike a Platonic dialogue Heidegger uses words to grapple and play with the reader so that he or she loses the veneer of confidence in their objectivity.
In this essay I will hone in on a section where Heidegger deals with the father of modernity (Descartes). In this section Heidegger addresses the fundamental separation Descartes establishes between the subject and the object. Heidegger then relocates the vantage point from which Da-sein encounters the phenomenological.
Heidegger asserts that “One look at traditional ontology show us that one skips over the phenomenon of worldliness when one fails to see the constitution of Da-sein of being-in-the-world.” It is important to highlight the being of the world.
Descartes sees the world by extensio, and by this extension fundamentally spatial. The nature of the world is thus based upon the description of the multiplicity of things variant extensions. These things are objectively present, they have depth and length and “corporal substance we call the “world.” Thus Descartes view of the world predicates an assumed notion about it’s being, namely that it is inaccessible. To say that the world is round, or blue or any other adjective is to presuppose its existence. Thus being is attributed to the world and the description becomes that thing which is sought after. Kant who parrots Descartes says, “‘Being’ itself does not ‘affect’ us, therefore it cannot be perceived. Being is not a real predicate.” Thus Descartes completely avoids the problem of being, sidestepping it and attempting to express being in terms of “definite qualities of the beings in question.”
By establishing the search for being as impossible Descartes cements the distinction between the subjective being and the object it encounters. Because the void is mammoth we cannot do anything but look across this canyon and categorize those attributes, which are the expressions of being. The being who looks across this infinite distinction is thus not in the world at all, not a part of it but is objectively present and at the same time objectively distant from its existence.
To Descartes the world is like a play that the audience looks upon in total discontinuity. The actors play out the scene upon the stage, mere feet away, and yet those attending are not at all participants merely onlookers. They experience the play by their observations of its movements from this fixed vantage point. The audience member thus stretches out with their senses and mind in order to take the attributes and motions and sounds and order them cohesively. The narrative must be assembled from what is observed.
Descartes assumes this about the world’s being. It is this separation that is intrinsic within modernity. The concept of objectivity, mental displacement in order to more accurately measure variants, is most poignantly present within “Meditations.” Here Descartes supposes that to be most “objective” is to leave the trappings of ones body and operate by the purely logical, accepting only that which is indubitable. Here Descartes finds what is real by creating space between him and those things that he measures and observes. The underlying presupposition is identical to that which Heidegger destructures by recovering the inner-worldliness of Da-sein.
This assumption made by Descartes has been engrained within the fabric of modernity, and as this fabric unrolls the threads of this subject-object distinction become nothing but the way the world is by nature. Heidegger asserts “the problem [is that]…traditional ontology is at a dead end, if it sees it as a problem at all.” Descartes has been so persuasive and pragmatically significant that his ideas that were once revolutionary are merely societal assumptions. Those who attend a play do not wonder why they are not allowed on stage, it is simply a convention that seems normal and pragmatic.
Heidegger thus makes the assumption, that being is inaccessible, apparent and asks the question of being anew. He is concerned with the being of Da-sein as not merely an objective presence within the world, but rather as having existence in the world. It is not that Da-sein has a place statically appointed within the theater, but that it exists in the theater, as do the actors on stage.
Heidegger is that audience member who realizes that the discontinuity between the actors and the audience is artificially imposed. There is no physical wall between the stage and the seating only that wall which is presumed by a notion of proactive mental engagement. The play is not mere sense datum that is collected, ordered and categorized by the active working of the autonomous mind. Rather the actors and the audience are both within the theater; they are not radically distant but radically contingent.
Da-sein is that being which finds itself existent within the world and thus is able to passively receive the phenomenological. “The being that Descartes is trying to grasp…with the extensio, is rather of such a nature that can be initially discovered only through an inner-worldly being initially at hand.” While Descartes finds himself unable to access the being of the world, which is phenomenological, it is due to the fact that one only finds existence when one exists within the world initially. The question of being then can, and must be asked, and approached, not as chaos to be made sense of but rather as a story that one is taken up into.
Heidegger is able then to ask the question of things essential “thingliness.” It is not a question of its outward appearance, these are pre-phenomenological questions, but rather by the contingency of Da-sein to the things being Da-sein witnesses that which the thing reveals. It is a passive act of receiving revelation.
“In its familiarity with significance Da-sein is the ontic condition of the possibility of the disclosure of beings encountered in the mode of being of relevance (handiness) in a world that can thus make themselves known in their in-itself.”
Heidegger is thus saying that ones proximity to those things which one is inquiring is not a strike against objectivity, but is rather the very thing which enables Da-sein to encounter what Descartes deems impossible; being.
Descartes view of accuracy and precision is derived from the notion of space, of distance. In order to see objectively we must separate out mind from our bodies, and our being from the world, which is infinitely distant. In affirming the inner-worldliness of Da-sein being, Heidegger is critiquing the most fundamental assumption of modernity.
To Heidegger the audience, which thinks that they are fundamentally separated from the play as neutral onlookers, is deceived. Those watching are not safe, not actually distant from the narrative playing itself out but are rather a part of the act. They are able to reach out and participate in the play and in doing so the narrative is revealed to them, not as fragments of a puzzle to put together but as a whole.
Pirandello does not pretend that the play he writes is in some way different and distant from himself, but rather acknowledges that the lines of distinction are arbitrarily imposed. In like manner Heidegger affirms the inner-worldliness of Da-sein and rejects the Cartesian myth of subject-object distinction.