In this issue

Philosophical Corner

In this inaugural installation of a column on the philosophical roots of Humanistic Psychology, Scott presents a brief reflection on Heidegger’s conceptualization of Dasein.

By Scott D. Churchill, PhD

 “ Das ‘Wesen' [des Daseins] liegt in seinem Zu-sein
-- Martin Heidegger, Sein und Zeit (1927/1972, p. 42)

This sentence expresses one of two fundamental consequences of Heidegger's understanding of human existence as consisting of a ‘comportment towards one's Being'. To decipher this line, one first needs to simply know that Heidegger chose the term Dasein to refer to the Being of the entity that each of us is: as a human being, we have a “depth dimension” (or ‘ontological' foundation) that consists of the “conditions of possibility” for each of the particular ways in which we might find ourselves revealed or disclosed in any moment of our experience. Heidegger chose the term “ Dasein ” because he wanted to utilize its etymological meaning to express the idea that the human being is the “there”, the “ da ”, where Being [ Sein ] comes into being . We are the ‘lighting place' [ die Lichtung ] where Being shines forth in the world.

Hegel had somewhere made the statement (cited by Sartre in his Being and Nothingness – which represented Sartre's own synthesis of Hegel, Husserl, and Heidegger) that our essence is to be found in what has already transpired: ‘ Wesen ist was gewesen ist ' (Sartre, p. 35) An interesting play on words, indeed! Hegel is here playing off the wisdom of language, which here reveals that the very word for “essence” – Wesen – has its connection to the present perfect of the verb “to be.” And it is this notion that our essence can be interpreted in terms of what we “have been” that Heidegger calls into question in his monumental text Sein und Zeit . Instead of in the “ Ich bin gewesen ,” it is in the “ Ich werde sein ” that we shall find ourselves: Das Wesen ist nicht nur was gewesen ist; mein Wesen liegt doch in meinem Zu-sein !

The deeper truth of Heidegger's radical reorientation of Hegel's statement is that, instead of lying in the past, our essence lies in our Existenz , in our projection of ourselves into our “ to -be”, into our future [ Zu kunft ]. It is in the ‘not yet' -- rather than in what has ‘already been' --that we shall truly find ourselves. Hence Sartre's (1943/1956) famous statement that “man is the being which is not what it is and is what it is not” – we are not [just] what we are [already]; but are [most essentially] what we are not [yet].

I find that this can be applied to our everyday lives in a meaningful way: Just as Sartre, in embracing Heidegger, had rejected Hegel's notion that one's essence is to be found in ‘what has been', so I had to learn, in the aftermath of my recent sabbatical postponement (due to a surgery and lengthy rehab), to reject the idea that my essence could any longer be found in ‘what might have been'. Heidegger has effectively reoriented our understanding of our essence to be something we can only find in our future, in our “to be.” And that ‘ to be' is something that is inextricably bound to our facticity – to where we find ourselves situated. (Heidegger coined a new term to refer to this ontological condition of our factical lives: Befindlichkeit .)

Whether we like it or not, we have to go through – rather than circling back around – the circumstances that befall us. And this going through involves a centering of ourselves in our recoveries, our rehabilitation's, even our relapses–rather than seeing these as obstacles or impediments. Whatever “might have been” my experience, had I begun my sabbatical a year ago instead of this year, I shall never know; I can only project myself forward from where I stand. And each experience – each setback, even – is a new ‘here' ( da ) from which I thrust myself forth in the world.

It is from where I find myself now – and not where I ‘might have been' standing a year ago – that I shall carry on, make my way, find my bearings, and become myself.


Heidegger, M. (1972). Sein und Zeit (12 th ed.). Tuebingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag. (Original edition published 1927)

Sartre, J.-P. (1956). Being and nothingness: An essay in phenomenological ontology (H. Barnes, Trans.). New York: Philosophical Library. (Original work published 1943)

Note: Scott Churchill spent the first part of his fall 2012 sabbatical in a farmhouse in Denmark reading Heidegger's early lecture courses from the 1920s.

The second consequence will be discussed in a subsequent “Philosophical Corner.”