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Section 2: The Formal Structure of the Question of Being (pp.24-28)

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As I’ve already noted, H has yet to formulate the Seinsfrage. He will not be in a position to do so for quite some time. In this section, though, he helps us understand why that’s such a difficult task—one that will require us to investigate the most fundamental features of ourselves.

He begins by identifying some general features of inquiry. Any inquiry—any attempt to answer a particular question—has certain elements. Namely, it has its:

(1) Gefragtes: that which is asked about

(2) Befragtes: that which is interrogated

(3) Erfragte: that which is to be found out by the asking—in other words, the answer to the question, which is, H tells us, ‘that which is really intended’ by the inquiry: its goal.

(3) seems fairly straightforward—an inquiry seeks the answer to its question. What, though, is the difference between (1) and (2)?

Well, suppose we are field zoologists who undertake an inquiry into the following question:

(Q) What foods made up the diet of species X?

The Erfragte of our inquiry, then, is the answer to (Q). And, the Gefragtes of our inquiry is species X: they’re the things we’re asking about in posing (Q). However, suppose further that Xs went extinct in the distant past. Because of this, we can’t directly examine them to answer (Q). However, we’ve discovered fossilized X droppings. So, in order to answer (Q), we can examine—in H’s terminology, ‘interrogate’—such droppings to determine something about their diet. In other words, they’re the Befragtes of our inquiry.

We can see from this example what H has in mind in drawing a distinction between (1) and (2). There are certainly cases in which what we’re asking about is the very same as what we need to interrogate to answer our question. For example, if I want to know the color of a certain ball inside a certain box, the question on my mind asks about that ball. And, it would also be very natural to find out the answer to my question by opening the box and simply looking directly at the ball. In such cases, the distinction between (1) and (2) is, as it were, merely formal.

However, in other cases the distinction is more substantial: viz, cases in which we must examine something other than what we’re asking about. This could be for various reasons. It could be that—as in the case of our inquiry into Xs’ diets—what we’re asking about is unavailable for direct examination. Or, it could be that the question we’re asking has essentially to do with its relations to other things (e.g. the causal consequences of something it does, or the things that have had certain impacts on it), so that we must examine those other things in addition to it.

Why, though, does H bother to draw the distinction between (1) and (2) in the present context?  Because he thinks that a substantial distinction of this sort must be made in ontology. What ontology is asking about—being—is distinct from what ontology interrogates—the specific sort of thing we must examine to answer the Seinsfrage. This is the main conclusion of section 2. H argues for it in three stages.

Stage one:

First, H notes some more important features of inquiry. As he puts it, an inquiry is ‘guided by’ its Erfragte—by the answer it seeks.  But how could that be? How could we be guided by the answer to the question we’re asking, when we don’t know the answer—when our ignorance of that answer is precisely what motivates our inquiry to begin with?

First of all, let’s reflect on some basic features of goal-directed activity. To be pursuing a goal, we must be guiding our activity on the basis of some grasp of it—that is, of what achieving it would consist in—and in a certain way. That is, we must, for example, act in ways that we understand to further the goal, and correct our activity when we understand ourselves to be failing to make progress on it. When we do so, we draw on our understanding of the means to achieving our goal. However, our understanding of those means is in turn based, at least in part, on our understanding of what achieving the goal would consist in. For example, if our goal is to throw the ball into the hole, we draw on our understanding of what it mean for the ball to end up in the hole to figure out what ways of throwing it would have that effect.

Of course, our understanding can have shortcomings—be incomplete or faulty in some way. Such shortcomings, though, can come in at least two varieties. On the one hand, they might concern the means to achieving our goal. For instance, I might mis-judge the distance of the hole, so that I over-estimate the force required to get the ball into it. On the other hand, though, they might concern the goal itself—again, what achieving that goal would consist in. For example, suppose a small child has the goal of becoming a brain surgeon, and that this helps to motivate the hard work he puts into his studies at school. However, given his youth, he has a quite incomplete understanding of what exactly being a brain surgeon involves: e.g. one made up mostly of vague images of people in scrubs hovering over the heads of unconscious patients. In such a case, his grasp of his goal is incomplete. However, if it is, that will be because it’s an understanding of that particular goal—viz, of being a brain surgeon. In other words, his understanding must be evaluated in terms of whether and to what extent it accurately reflects that goal, because it’s that goal of which he has an understanding.

It’s in this sense that our goal guides our activity of pursuing it. What this means, in other words, is that we guide our activity in a certain way: namely, we hold our own activity to what we understand to be the standard of achieving that goal—an understanding that must be evaluated in terms of it.

If we apply this to inquiry, we can make some sense of what H has in mind. Inquiry is a certain kind of goal-directed activity: its goal (as noted above) is the answer to its question. Thus, inquiry is guided by its answer, not in a sense that requires us to know that answer, but rather in the sense that we guide our inquiry using our understanding of what finding out that answer would consist in.

In the case of the Seinsfrage, this goal is figuring out the meaning of being. Thus, ontology is guided by the meaning of being in the sense that we must, in doing ontology, guide our activity using some grasp of what it would be to achieve our goal. In other words, we must have some sense for what it would be to answer the question of being, and hold ourselves to what we understand to be the standard of finding that answer—our understanding of what it would consist in to do so.

The understanding that would allow this is our our ‘average understanding’ of being—the way in which it’s already ‘averagely intelligible’ to us. Here, H amplifies on the point he made in section 1—the curious fact that there’s a sense in which we already understand the meaning of being. However, this understanding is too vague to afford us an explicit answer to the Seinsfrage. Still, though, our average understanding of being is what we must rely on to recognize that answer when it’s formulated. As H puts the point, ‘the tendency that leads us toward being’s conception’ ‘arises out of’ this understanding.  Because of this, an answer to the Seinsfrage will not so much tell us something new as present us with something we already understand in articulated—and perhaps corrected—form.

As he hints here, part of what H thinks he can clarify over the course of the book is what he called, in section 1, the great enigma about our understanding of being: i.e., why it is that our understanding of being is so hard to articulate. There’s something, he will argue, about this understanding that actively resists such clarification. And, this ‘something’ has, he thinks, manifested itself in many ways in the history of reflection about being.

Stage two:

Next, H puts the considerations of stage one aside for a moment to argue, on the basis of ideas introduced in section 1, that we must interrogate something other than being itself to answer the Seinsfrage. Although H thinks that it’s wrong to try for a definition of beings of the sort GT has in mind to answer the Seinsfrage, he does think, nevertheless, that we should examine beings in order to do so. And this is because, as we already noticed, it’s the fact that the other senses of “to be”, as expressed in claims about what things (there) are, all apply to beings—i.e. entities—that gives us our initial hint that there is some unity among the various senses of “to be”. Thus, it makes sense to interrogate entities—which, H points out, are distinct from being itself—to answer the Seinsfrage. Specifically, it makes sense to interrogate the being of entities (das Sein des Seienden). Here, we’re using “being” as a gerund, to signify that in interrogating entities, we’ll be considering the ways in which the different senses of “to be” apply to them, with a view to discerning why it is these senses have this in common.

Stage three:

But this raises the question: which entities should we interrogate? We’ve already made the case that we employ our understanding of being whenever we consider anything at all in any way—whenever, as H sometimes puts it, we comport ourselves toward any entities in any way. Should we, then, interrogate all entities at once? To answer this question, H bridges the ideas from section 1 with those from stages one and two to argue that the entities we should interrogate are ourselves.

H’s suggestion here draws on features of many philosophical questions. The special difficulty of such questions often requires us to take a reflexive turn. This is because they’re puzzling, not just in being hard to answer, but also in that we’re at a loss to say clearly exactly what answering them would even consist in. And so, one of our problems is to get clear on what question it is we’re really asking—or even whether we’re asking a real question at all. This often serves to distinguish such philosophical questions from, for example, many scientific ones—and to explain the frustration that many experience when faced with the former. In natural science, we often have a clear handle on what question we’re asking—e.g. “What is the chemical composition of water?”—and what methods we’d use to answer it.

However, take a question like: what is justice? First of all, as Aristotle might have put it, ‘justice can be said in many ways’. We might say that a person, a political system, a law, an action, or a situation is just or unjust; and it isn’t clear, at the outset, that we’re applying these terms in the same senses in each kind of case. Further, so many kinds of considerations come up in debates about whether this or that is just that it seems quite unclear how to figure out what, if anything, all these uses of the terms have in common. For example, in such debates, people commonly talk about what promotes general well-being; about what is or is not a violation of someone’s rights; about the proper use of state authority; about the importance of tradition, history, and identity; about who gets to have a say in how policies, institutions, and so on are determined; and so on. There is, in fact, so much controversy about whether and how any of these considerations is relevant for settling a question about justice that it can seem unclear what question we’re asking, or whether we’re asking a single question at all.

When faced with questions like these, we must, it seems, take stock of ourselves—in particular, of our understanding of the very concept into which we’re inquiring. That is, part of what we must do in trying to answer the question is to get clear on what’s at stake for us in asking it, which concerns what’s at stake for us when we use the concept or concepts we’re asking about. If we can get clear on such things, we’ll clarify our own inquiry: what goal or goals it is we’re aiming at—what it is exactly we’re even trying to find out. But what we must rely on in such stock-taking is our own presently vague understanding of the concept we’re asking about. For example, we begin with some understanding of justice. When we ask what justice is, what’s at stake for us are particular issues in human life—those that we attempt use our understanding of justice to resolve. So, we must examine the precise kinds of issues we’re attempting to resolve when questions about justice arise, why certain kinds of considerations seem relevant to these issues, and how these issues and considerations relate to one another. In cases like this, it’s because our present understanding of justice is vague that we’re unclear on what answering our question would even consist in. And so, clarifying the stakes of the question goes hand in hand with answering it.

Based on what we’ve said about the Seinsfrage, it should be clear that it has the same features as the question about justice. We use the verb “to be” in many senses, so that it’s unclear whether the Seinsfrage is really a single question at all. Further, so many kinds of considerations come up when trying to answer the kinds of questions about being we’ve considered so far—questions about what things (there) are—that it’s unclear how to even begin figuring out what unity, if any, there is among these different senses. In fact, the situation with being is even more complex than it is with justice. That is, as we already noted, whenever we consider anything in any way—including when we ask any question whatsoever about it—we’re concerned with what its properties are (sense (i) of “to be”), which thing it is (sense (ii)), and/or whether it exists (sense (iii)). Thus, the range of considerations that come up when trying to answer questions about being seems to includes all considerations pertaining to all questions.

As with justice, then, we must take stock of ourselves: i.e., get clear on what’s at stake for us in asking the Seinsfrage. However, what we’ve said so far indicates that the endeavor of doing so cuts quite deep. That is, it would seem that to answer the Seinsfrage, we need to get clear on what’s at stake for us whenever we consider anything in any way—or, to put the point another way, whenever we make sense of anything in any way. But then, making sense of things seems so fundamental to us that it seems this stock-taking will require us to understand quite fundamental features of ourselves—as H puts it, to “make an entity—the inquirer—transparent in his own being” (p. 27).Specifically, he wants to make transparent a certain aspect (what he calls a certain mode) of our being: the fact that we make sense of things.

Here, H extends his use of the gerund form of “being” in a certain way. As I noted above, H talks about the being of entities to signify the ways in which the different sense of “to be” apply to entities. In talking about the being of entities, it seems, then, as if he’s concerned with matters having to do with entities as such. Here, though, H talks about the being of a particular entity—the one, as he puts it, “which each of us is himself” (p.27). What does it mean to talk about the being of some particular entity? What H has in mind that corresponds roughly to the traditional philosophical notion of something’s essence—of what it is truly fundamental about it. However, as traditionally conceived, something’s essence determines what properties it does or could have, its identity, and what is required for it to exist: i.e. what claims about what things (there) are that can be made about it. And so, H will instead talk instead about that thing’s being, which is, in his framework, what ties together the ways in which the various senses of “to be” are applicable to it.

At this point, H then introduces one of his central terms of art: Dasein (German: ‘being there’), which is his term for the kind of being we are. He will thus describe himself as undertaking an investigation into (or an ‘analytic of’) the being of Dasein. H uses this term in ways that make other traditional ones inappropriate. On the one hand, “human” is in one respect too narrow: there’s nothing in his account that will preclude beings that aren’t members of the biological species homo sapiens from being Dasein. However, “person” is in another respect too broad: as the term has developed, it implies a being to whom we have moral obligations; and H’s account suggests that he thinks there are beings that are persons in this sense (e.g. babies), but that aren’t Dasein.


After his three-stage argument, H addresses the worry that his proposed approach to formulating the Seinsfrage—investigating the being of Dasein—involves some alarming circularity. That is, given what the being of Dasein is, we must use our average understanding of being to determine it. But then, the purpose of investigating the being of Dasein is to figure out the meaning of being. However, H doesn’t think this poses any problem. Instead, it helps to bring in focus the way in which the inquiry into the Seinsfrage manifests a curious quality that many philosophical inquiries have, as we’ve already noticed. Namely, they often require us to take stock of our own understanding of some concept—of what’s at stake for us when we apply it—in order to clarify that understanding. But in such stock-taking, we’re using our understanding of the concept. So, we end up using our understanding of the concept in order precisely to clarify that understanding. In the case of the Seinsfrage, the kind of understanding at stake is our understanding of being. Thus, our inquiry into this question manifests  “a remarkable ‘relatedness backward or forward’ which what we are asking about (being) bears to the inquiry itself as a mode of being of an entity.” We will, in other words, use our understanding of being to clarify that understanding: specifically, by using that understanding to interrogate the being of Dasein.


1. All page numbers refer to the translation of Being and Time by John McQuarrie & Edward Robinson (New York: Harper & Row, 1962). I have altered their translations in only one respect: where McQuarrie and Robinson routinely capitalize “being”, I have left it uncapitalized.