H begins the short prefatory remark to the book (which is known as an ‘exergue’) with a quote from one of Plato’s dialogues, the Sophist (specifically, from 244a). In this passage one of the characters of the dialogue – the Visitor – expresses perplexity about being. H begins in this way because the driving question of Being and Time is, as H puts it here: what is the meaning of being? It’s common, in H scholarship, to refer to this question using H’s own term in German: the Seinsfrage – the ‘being question’ (Sein means ‘being’, and Frage means ‘question’). Attempting to answer the Seinsfrage is the domain of ontology – the philosophical inquiry into being.
Here in the Exergue, H puts forward three central tasks of the book, all of which have to do with the Seinsfrage:
- (a) To ‘awaken’ our understanding of the question.
- (b) Through doing so, to get us to feel the force of the question—e.g. to realize that it’s a real question, one of fundamental importance, as well as a highly perplexing one.
- (c) To answer the question: that is, to achieve the aims of ontology—and more specifically, to propose that time is “the possible horizon for any understanding whatsoever of being.”
Until H completes task (a), he will not have clarified the Seinsfrage. However, a first introduction of the question (which we will later see needs revision) would be this: what concept exactly is it that’s expressed by the verb “to be”? This might sound at first as if it’s primarily a linguistic question (a question about a piece of language), and specifically a semantic one (about the meaning of that piece of language). This isn’t quite right: H wants to inquire, not so much into the verb “to be” as into being itself. However, as I’ll attempt to make clear later, there are certain complications for understanding what’s at stake in the Seinsfrage that, at least initially, require us to attend to our use of this verb.
Note: All page numbers refer to the translation of Being and Time by John McQuarrie & Edward Robinson (New York: Harper & Row, 1962).