Andy Blunden April 2010

Heidegger and the Philosophy of Property

Review of The Basic Problems of Phenomenology, by Martin Heidegger, translation, introduction and lexicon by Albert Hofstadter, Indiana University Press 1982

After having several friends try to explain Heidegger to me, after reading the Identity and Difference Lectures and four or five introductory essays and the translator’s introduction to this book, I was still none the wiser as to what Heidegger wrote about, what he said about it and why people were interested in it. But once I made a start on chapter one, this book proved to be comprehensible and allowed me to see what Heidegger’s topic was, decode his neologs and understand, at least in broad outline, what he was saying. At the end of it I see no reason to devote the many months probably necessary to master his works, but it was worth the read, and perhaps it is worthwhile sharing what I have learnt. I will not adopt Heidegger’s terminology, but endeavour to make it clear which concepts are mine and which are Heidegger’s. Some prefatory remarks will be necessary first.

Ontology in the history of philosophy

Like all organisms, we humans are born realists. That is, we respond to all objects as if they existed outside of and independently of our consciousness, just as we perceive them; even cultural products whose significance we may know to be socially constructed, and we respond to something even before we reflect on what it is. Heidegger calls this our “apriori comportmental character,” and sets out to build a philosophical ontology reflective of this basic fact. He presents his ontology, not as a branch or subcategory of philosophy, but as just what a scientific philosophy must be. So this has to be our starting point in understanding Heidegger: what does it mean to exclude all reference to or interest in epistemology, ethics, logic, aesthetics, religion, psychology or social philosophy, and to rip ontology from the fabric of philosophical discourse and attempt to construct a consistent and comprehensive philosophy solely on the basis of ontology, the science of being?

Historically, the focus on ontology has not been very fruitful. It was RenÚ Descartes who first drew attention to the ontological difference between consciousness and matter. Consciousness is what we are given immediately and is our only ‘window’ into the universe outside of our consciousness, into material reality. But as Descartes saw, our consciousness, though derived from the world outside, is not a faithful replica of the material world. Matter and thought were for Descartes therefore two distinct ‘substances’, that is, two irreducibly fundamental and distinct entities, and philosophical reflection had to begin from this distinction, between consciousness and matter.

‘Matter’ is the philosophical category which indicates without distinction all that exists outside of consciousness – time and space, particles and waves – all is matter, philosophically speaking. But Descartes made this ontological distinction the starting point for what was essentially an epistemological problem, that is, the problem of getting beyond the appearance of things as given in our consciousness, to understand the material world in itself. But it transpired that the ontological distinction between consciousness and matter was not the proper starting point for the solution of the problem of epistemology. If we include under ‘consciousness’ even another person’s consciousness, then we make the mind/matter distinction ontological, between two kinds of being in the world; on the other hand, from an epistemological point of view, another person’s consciousness is matter, being outside of my own consciousness just like everything else we observe.

The problem of knowledge poses the distinction between subject and object, the relational problem, of how one system can reproduce the properties of another. Descartes had in effect posed the problem of the limits and validity of human knowledge as a problem of natural science, of the connection between two categorically different substances, mind and matter. This led to a dead end: the problem of knowledge cannot be resolved within the parameters of ontology.

Kant made some progress with this problem by posing the problem of knowledge in terms of the subject-object relation. Subject and object are not ontological concepts, and Heidegger understandably treats them with suspicion:

“The concepts of ‘subject’ and ‘object’ as they are nowadays employed are ontologically indefinite and hence are inadequate, especially for defining the being that we now are ... both these concepts ‘object’ and ‘subject’ are questionable.” p. 255-6

Kant had some success in making sense of the natural scientific approach to objects of knowledge, but he still left us with unsatisfactory dichotomies between unknowable things-in-themselves and appearance, and between reason and sensation and was not able to give a satisfactory account of the human condition.

Hegel overcame the problems in the Kantian solution by taking subject and object together as aspects of a single formation of consciousness, which includes the artefacts which make up the objects of knowledge, the practices within which these objects are used and the consciousness entailed in such practices. Thus Hegel began not with mind and matter, not with subject and object, but with an integral form of life. Hegel develops the concepts of each form of life by means of a logical critique. This critique began with a critique of ontology because pure being is the Absolute when a formation of conscious first emerges, as evidenced by the example of Descartes. That is, Hegel did not adopt for himself any system of ontology; instead he presented a critique of ontology, demonstrating the inherent limitations in any system of ontology. For example, his critique of the concept of being demonstrates that being is an empty concept, and therefore amounts to nothing. No sooner is it cognised than it begins to fill with content and is no longer pure being. For Hegel, truth is in the whole movement, not in any of its particular stages, so his ontology is a demonstration that ontology must give way to reflection on determinate beings, and a proof that if philosophy remains within ontology, it falls into irreparable contradictions. Heidegger wrongly recruits Hegel to his side by misunderstanding him, believing that because the Logic begins with a consideration of the concept of Being, everything is somehow ‘founded on’ being, or for example, saying:

“Hegel is on the track of a fundamental truth when he says that being and nothing are identical, that is, belong together.” p. 312.

Moses Hess picked up a thread from J G Herder, Wm. v. Humboldt and J G Fichte, and wrote in his Philosophy of the Act:

“It is the very quest for being, that is, the quest to endure as determined individuality, as a delimited “I,” as unending essence, that leads to greed. It is, once again, the negation of all determination, the abstract “I” ... This is how auxiliary verbs became transformed into substantives. This is how all verbs become substantives, and how everything that belongs to the changing periphery is made into the permanent core; yes, this is how the world was stood upon its head!” (Hess, 1843)

and these lines are alluded to approvingly by Marx in his “1844 Manuscripts”:

“Therefore all the physical and intellectual senses have been replaced by the simple estrangement of all these senses – the sense of having.”

It is remarkable that not only does Heidegger make ontology his exclusive subject matter, but so far as is grammatically possible, he eliminates verbs from his language; he writes in nouns, often neologs made up of gerunds hyphenated together with prepositions, auxiliary verbs and adjectives, connected up with the copula or auxiliary verbs. And Heidegger is quite aware of the implications of this nominalisation of language:

“Disposable possessions and goods, property, are beings; they are quite simply that which is, the Greek ousia. ... in Aristotle’s time, still synonymous with property ... The pre-philosophical property meaning of ousia carried through to the end. Accordingly a being is synonymous with an at hand [extant] disposable.” p. 108.

That is, a philosophy which focuses exclusively on ontology to the extent of the replacement, so far as possible, of verbs by nouns, is a philosophy of property. Contrariwise, the philosophy of activity, the philosophy which uses verbs and process words in lieu of nouns, the philosophy which approaches the world as activity, are those of Herder, Fichte and Hegel, Hess and Marx: – the world as activity, as labour process, a process of the production of things.

And one of the difficulties one repeatedly comes across in Heidegger’s ideas is that he is interested only in the product and not the process of its production. One example, his insistence that the understanding of being is prior to the understanding of beings. From a psychological point of view this is sheer nonsense: how can one understand any generalisation prior to familiarity with individual instances? But this is just not the point for Heidegger. Ontology is about what is, not about becoming.


Heidegger does not have a lot to say about matter, but his definition of matter in terms of the labour process (i.e., activity) is interesting:

“... so far as this production is always the producing of something from something. What is in need of being produced can really be understood only within the understanding of being that goes with production. In other words, it is first of all in the understanding of what does not need to be produced that there can grow the understanding of a being which is extant in itself before all production and for all further production. It is this understanding of what does not need to be produced, possible only in production, which understands the being of what already lies at the ground of and precedes everything to be produced and thus is all the more already extant in itself. ... In production we come up against just what does not need to be produced. In the course of producing and using beings we come up against the actuality of what is already there before all producing, products and producibles, or of what offers resistance to the formative process that produces beings. The concepts of matter and material have their origins in an understanding of being that is oriented to production. Otherwise, the idea of material as that from which something is produced would remain hidden. ... whether it is produced or is not in need of being produced – is interpreted in the horizon of the understanding of being which lies as such in productive comportment.” p. 116

This is really an excellent definition of “matter” – remarkably Heidegger has to define matter in terms of production, or activity! But in a work on ontology that took 116 pages to get to a definition of matter, it would be more accurate to say that his claim is the priority of being over activity, of property over labour.

The other important move that Hegel made to overcome the legacy of Kantian philosophy was the shift from concern with the human/nature relation to concern with the person/culture relation, shifting the focus from cognition of natural objects to the use of artefacts, which he referred to as ‘thought-objects’. This was appropriated by Marx and his followers in terms of material objects having both ideal properties (i.e., social significance) and material properties. Heidegger is not consistent in how he makes the distinction at issue here, but generally, in line with the above definition of matter, he follows the line of culture versus nature.

But what marks Heidegger’s ontology above all is his concern with things, whether they be natural objects or products of human labour. It is here that one can see a place for Heidegger’s approach in the recent history of philosophy and social theory. Postmodern approaches overwhelmingly emphasise the intersubjective (pragmatic), while material conditions and material culture lie out of sight in the background. The omission of things from social theory misses the fact that all intersubjective interactions are played out by the use of material things with ideal properties, namely, artefacts, be this in the form of words and symbols, means of production, healthy bodies, uniforms or guns, material things, however, which acquire social significance thanks only to human activity. Almost the entire range of social philosophers of the present day leave out of sight the material products which mediate social interaction. This results in the obscuring of the continuity of culture and class, the reduction of the human condition to momentary voluntaristic interactions between individuals. Marx remarked: “The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist,” and this idea has become anathema; social theorists of recent decades want to pretend that people interact with one another in a void. Heidegger on the other hand manages to leave out other human beings! Heidegger’s world is full of things, among which some are people. True, these things have been produced by people, but from the standpoint of ontology, that is irrelevant, they exist. But coming from the standpoint of intersubjective social philosophers, this may provide a welcome complement, the two one-sided positions may perhaps make a good marriage.

That philosophical nobility who were previously unacquainted with the role of either material conditions or human activity in thought, but moved in a world of Platonic forms or patterns of neuronal activity, may want to borrow from Heidegger, but they risk their heads in the embrace.

The World

How Heidegger describes the world of things is this: many of these things, those that are ‘near to us’, we know how to deal with because we know what they are for. ‘In order to’ gives to the world its structure, or contexture. Here ‘world’ has a specific meaning; it is the world of things which have significance for the person, structured according to the relation of ‘in order to’. (Kant also held that perception of form arose from ‘in order to’ relations.) This world is not restricted to products, but also natural objects, such as heavenly bodies, which nonetheless have significance for the person. I question whether the relation of ‘in order to’ is really sufficient to account for the structure of this ‘ideal world’ (the culture). (Like Bridgman’s operational definition or Marx’s concept of production, it gets the main point, but may not be sufficiently general.) So when Heidegger talks about ‘being-in-the-world’, he is referring to the person in their own ideal world of meaningful artefacts, their cultural world.

It is appropriate here to step back to outline how Heidegger describes the scope and aims of his investigation of ‘being’ and the modes of being that he identifies.

Heidegger wants to form a unified theory of everything that can be meant by the word ‘being’. Because ‘to be’ functions as the copula joining a subject with any predicate, this can be a very diverse range of meanings, and I question whether there is any inherent reason why there should be a unity in the meaning of being in this broad sense. One and the same relation can be translated with ‘to have’ in one language and ‘to be’ in another. (“j’ai un cafard,” “Я хмур” or “I am gloomy.”) Nonetheless, he does in fact focus on just two ways of being: ‘extantness’ and ‘existence’, which very broadly and in part correspond to the concepts of the material and the ideal as outlined by Marx in his analysis of the commodity in Chapter One of Capital and most famously elaborated by E. V. Ilyenkov. For Heidegger, ‘existence’ is a primarily mental kind of existence, rather than primarily social; it necessarily has a substrate which is material, but it is what it is because of how I ‘comport’ towards it, rather than because of its nature-given chemical and physical properties. Contrariwise, an ‘extant’ thing is just there, irrespective of its significance to us. Heidegger describes the structure, or ‘contexture’ of the ‘world’ in terms of ‘implements’, i.e. things which are what they are because of their ‘functionality’ (use-value) for us, which gives us also their relation to other things.

Thus Heidegger’s focus is on culture not nature, but within culture on things not social practice and individuals not social formations.

The problem is that Heidegger gives no satisfactory answer at all as to how things acquire their functionality and how people come to know what they are for. Granted, Heidegger claims only to give us ontology, not psychology, logic or ethics, so he sees himself as under no obligation to explain how things come to be invested with usefulness (handiness as Heidegger would say) in their social production, nor how individuals come to be acquainted with this ‘contexture’. It exists, so who cares how it is produced, disseminated and reproduced? But in my view, a philosophy which restricts itself to ontology, and which thereby fails to provide a satisfactory foundation for a positive scientific understanding of a field of phenomena, also fails as an ontology.

Being and beings

The “problem” to which Heidegger gives much prominence is what he calls the problem of “ontological difference,” which amounts to why being is not itself a being, or the distinction between being and a being. It turns out that this is essentially the same problem that we referred to above as the ontological problem: the categorical distinction between ideas and things. Remember, Heidegger reifies everything; he is not discussing the concept of being or the concept of a being, but the beings themselves which are reified by our orientation to them as something existing outside of and independently of ourselves. So history, capitalism, government, beauty, policeman, ... these are all beings. But it seems we do not talk about and ‘comport’ ourselves to being as if it were a being, or what amounts to the same, a possible attribute of a thing. Kant said that being is a category. So being exists, like anything we can form a conception of which nonetheless may not be extant. Being is always the being of a being, and is based, so to speak in the person (i.e., ‘Dasein’, but I will come to Dasein presently). So whereas Marx said “History does nothing, ... it is man which does all this,” Heidegger has no problem with an abstract entity like History being taken as a being in the world, though he would not, like Hegel, impute agency to such an abstraction. But for Heidegger, abstract ideas like History or God do not have the same kind of being as a rock or a star, they are not extant, but they exist, and existence does not entail being extant. People are of course concerned with the difference between the idea they have of an extant thing and how a thing really is, outside of them; this is the age-old problem addressed by epistemology, and like Descartes, Heidegger hopes to provide an approach to this problem by beginning from the ontological distinction.

Heidegger explains understanding something in terms of projection, but we are always already familiar with a thing prior to any projection; we already have a pre-intellectual (‘pre-ontological’) or practical understanding; thus understanding as such never begins from nothing. So when a person projects something there is always something there to be projected and something to be projected upon. I can read this in two ways. On the one hand, we can see it in same way that Kant envisaged the projection of rational forms onto appearances or how in pop-psychology we talk of projecting your own problems on to other people. Or it can be visualised conversely like a camera obscura projecting on to a screen. Hegel’s Doctrine of Essence works in a similar way, tracing the process of reflection of an on-going stream of events (being) onto an existing concept. Hegel described this process in immense detail. I wonder if Heidegger anywhere elaborates on this process which he calls projection? Not in this book at any rate.

When a thing grabs our attention, Heidegger says we ‘uncover’ it; we have a pre-conception and we uncover an extant being corresponding to our preconception. I take this to be like the well-known phenomena in which we actively “fill in the blanks” in a perceptual field, reading over typographical errors for example. With further investigation, we may disclose what we did not already know was there and “unveil” the nature of the thing itself. Natural science, he says, is concerned with “unveiledness.”

So? These formulations give Heidegger a manner of talking about things and our conception of them without falling into a hopeless relativism or absolute na´ve realism, but it provides little basis for the construction of a theory of knowledge, mainly because it remains at the level of an individual organism confronting a cultural object. It is probably at its strongest in describing perceptual mistakes and various kinds of illusions which Hegel’s theory tends to miss because its emphasis is on the social, not the individual.


Now we come to the central concept in Heidegger’s system, the Dasein. Dasein is literally “being there.” Before Heidegger, this was usually translated as “determinate being,” which for Heidegger means: “the being that we ourselves are.” He cannot say “self” or “Ego,” because these are concepts belonging to different ontologies. But there are many divergent ways of conceiving of the person, and it would be fair to take “Dasein” as meaning the person or self, and then to see how Heidegger conceives of the self.

We get to know ourselves via things. So by means of familiarity with the things a person finds around themselves, getting to know their usefulness and learning to deal with them appropriately, a person gets to know themself. Dasein belongs to the world, that is, it has the same mode of being – existence – as the world, that is, it is an ideal. But it is the Dasein which invests the world with its structure, even though of course, the Dasein discovers things with functionality already entailed in them, functionality which is disclosed by Dasein. So Dasein is an active agent. For Marx, ‘ideal’ is a mode of existence which is sustained by objective social practice, independently of whether an individual perceives or understands it. It is true that an individual gets to know themself through interaction with other people and cultural products, specifically by participation in labour processes, but my consciousness, which is a subjective appearance, is not the same kind of being as the ideal, which is objective.

Heidegger says that an authentic Dasein is one who is resolute in relation to the beings around it, that is, a person who resolutely defends and shapes their own property, rather than being dominated by the property of others. Even though many people may inhabit the same domain of extant things, each may live in different worlds, according to how they construe the things they find at hand.

But there are a couple of important things about Dasein which need to be taken note of. Firstly, although Dasein appears usually on page one of anything written by or about Heidegger, the plural of the term did not appear until page 270 of this book, but it did appear. The low profile given to the plural form, is a sign of the positive-individualistic character of Heidegger’s approach. It took him 270 pages in which Dasein figured prominently to get around to mentioning that Dasein is not alone in the world, and is not the original author of the world either.

The first consideration of a plurality of the Dasein is the dyad of the intersubjective I-Thou relation, of which he is quite dismissive.

His philosophy gains its social dimension only thanks to the things Dasein finds itself to be among. In fact, these things exist and gain their contexture only thanks to being products of history and culture. But although he allows this, the production and involvement of other people, and more importantly, social and cultural formations, in the production and constitution of these things, artefacts, it is barely visible on the horizon of Heidegger’s concern with the individual Dasein and its construing of the contexture of the things it finds at hand.

But further, Dasein does have a plural. That is, it is also something which exists in itself outside of my consciousness. This means that Dasein is not a relational or epistemological concept, but an ontological conception, just like that first put forward by Descartes. Under these conditions, existence and extantness constitute a Cartesian dichotomy! The dualism of ideal and material properties does not itself constitute a dichotomy because ideal is an objective property of artefacts invested in them by social action not individual consciousness. It is the joining of ideal with subjective consciousness as the relation of the person to their environment, which transforms the distinction into a Cartesian dichotomy.

And this dichotomy presents the same insurmountable problems for science as did Descartes’. Heidegger emulates Hegel’s solution to Kant’s subject-object dichotomy by his claim that Dasein has the same mode of being as the world, namely, existence. But the side-effect is that the possibility of understanding the experience of consciousness; the first-person view of consciousness known to phenomenology has been eliminated by its plurality.

But, although these other Daseins are recognisable as Daseins, the same kind of beings as we ourselves are, being-with (other people) and being-among (other material things) are concepts which arose only on p. 270 of the book under the section on time!! and on an equal footing, side-by-side. So we find ourselves among a mass of things, and some of these things are people. We know that the contexture of these things is only thanks to the productive work of a culture and a history lying somewhere out of sight, but for Heidegger, it is the being that we ourselves are, who invests these beings with functionality (usefulness) and therefore structures this world in our own way.


Finally, any philosopher that can find something useful to say about time deserves to be listened to, and with his first book entitled “Being and Time,” Heidegger makes such a claim. But claiming that no advance on the topic had been made since Aristotle, after 100 pages of turgid and repetitive prose, all Heidegger can say is that time is a succession of nows. The only writer I have come across who has something genuinely useful to say about time actually is Bruno Latour. All Heidegger does is wander aimlessly about in the various attitudes and stances we modern human beings take in relation to time, abstracted from space and matter. I can’t claim to do much better, but we have learnt from the physicists that time has no ultimate existence separately from matter and space, and in a fully reified natural scientific conception of the world, time and space can only figure as derivative from matter. Social practices in relation to time is a different matter, but Heidegger wants to be an ontologist and cannot allow himself to explore this territory – he just wanders aimlessly about in a world of already-reified conceptions of time.

He is equally uninformed about ‘infinity’. He can blithely say that time is infinite, without thinking to explain whether by infinite he means unbounded, uncountable or a continuum, each quite distinct and substantial claims about the nature of time.

And it is in this section on time that we find his most extended (one paragraph) treatment of being with, of culture and society:

“Because being-in-the-world belongs to the basic constitution of the Dasein, the existent Dasein is essentially being-with others as being-among intraworldly beings. As being-in-the world it is never first merely being among things extant within the world, then subsequently to uncover other human beings as also being among them. Instead, as being-in-the-world it is being-with others, apart from whether and how others are factically there with it themselves. On the other hand, however, the Dasein is also not first merely being-with others, only then later to run up against intraworldly things in its being in its being-with others; instead, being-with others means being-with other beings-in-the-world – being-with-in-the-world. It is wrong to oppose to objects an isolated ego-subject, without seeing in the Dasein the basic constitution of being-in-the-world; but it is equally wrong to suppose that the problem is seen in principle and progress made toward answering it if the solipsism of the isolated ego is replaced by a solipsism en deux in the I-thou relationship. As a relationship between Dasein and Dasein this has its possibility only on the basis of being-in-the-world. Put otherwise, being-in-the-world is with equal originality both being-with and being-among.” p. 278

This first consideration of a person’s relations with other people comes 80% of the way into the book, in the section on time. And when we get to it we find that other people are just other beings in our along with the things we are amongst.


People sometimes assume that ontology is a kind of philosophy which is in some way more fundamental or deeper than other branches of philosophy, and Heidegger makes just such a claim himself. On the contrary, ontology is only the most primitive and poorest branch of philosophy. It turns out in fact that durable ontological insights can only be arrived at on reflection, after the development of philosophical ideas which give us a broader insight into the human condition. Sure, epistemology is also obsolete nowadays, after the decline of cognitivism, and logic was already in disrepute in Hegel’s day. In fact, the development of philosophy is not only untenable on the ground of any such specialised concern, but philosophy itself is barely possible as an autonomous branch of enquiry. Human beings are social animals, and solutions to the difficult problems posed by the human condition cannot be found without recourse to social theory, without thoughtful consideration of social practice, including real individuals and the material conditions under which they live including those they create themselves.

Heidegger’s focus, within ontology, on things and in particular products of labour, but products abstracted from the process of their production is a fatal limitation but like all restraints, it also points to certain insights. The standpoint of the property owner as opposed to the producer is a legitimate standpoint. Our life surrounded by commodities, and the oft-bemoaned tendency towards obsessive interest possessing commodities is a legitimate object of study, and Heidegger presents us with an appropriate philosophical expression of commodity fetishism. This is useful.