I am reading another dissertation on Heidegger–a rather good one, I might add. But I am struck by a disturbing thought about this very influential philosopher.
The first concerns the central importance for his philosophy of the word “being” (“Sein” in German). I wonder whether there is such a thing (quality, action, process, event) as “being” at all. Heidegger may be right that the Greeks after Socrates had a bad habit of reifying bits of language, a habit shared by the German language and its over-easy facility for making abstract nouns. But suppose we take his critique a bit further. What if the words “be”, “is,” “einai,” “esse,” “etre,” etc are just a piece of Indo-European grammar, a copulative or a sort of preposition or article, like “and,” “of,” “with,” or even “the”? What if it got turned into a verb for convenience as a poetic metaphor or trope, then turned into a noun–”being”–and thence into a divine seal of authenticity?–and then became a huge and empty non-issue? Might not “with-ing,” “with-ness,” “of-ing,” “of-ness,” “the-ing,” and “the-ness” easily have turned into similar linguistic junk bonds or credit default swaps?
There is no verb in Chinese for “to be,” “is,” and no noun for “being,” and this great civilization has got on pretty well for the last 4,000 years or so without it. Moreover it is a civilization historically based on poetry–you had to pass a poetry exam to be one of the ruling mandarins–which casts some doubt on Heidegger’s claim that poetry has a special relationship with “being.” Science doesn’t really need the verb “to be”–the equals sign works perfectly well.
So maybe the real value of all this fuss about “being” is as a huge and splendid game, but with darker overtones lent by the European habit of denying authentic “being” to one group of people or another, and then exterminating them.