Substance, Utility, Existence: Heidegger’s Modes of Being

Jeff CarreiraBlog Posts, Philosophical Inquiry7 Comments

Martin Heidegger, the 20th century German philosopher, believed that for thousands of years human beings had misidentified the nature of what it means ‘to be.” From the time of the great Greek thinkers the fundamental nature of ‘being’ was thought to be substance. All of reality was made up of substances. In other words, we live in a universe made of ‘stuff’ of one kind or another.

This doesn’t make you necessarily a materialist. A materialist believes that the stuff that the entire universe is made of is physical in nature. An idealist believes that the stuff that the universe is made up of is mind. In either case mind or matter are both thought of in terms of being a substance – a kind of stuff. Martin Heidegger believed that there were actually three modes of being. Substance was one of them and the other two could be thought of as utility and existence.

The first mode of being is substance. A substance is a kind of stuff and that stuff has certain properties and characteristics. Wood is a substance. It has certain properties and characteristics. It has hardness, it burns, etc. The properties of a substance are intrinsic to that substance.

The second mode of being is utility and this has to do with “being for something.” It is the mode of being a tool or equipment. Heidegger’s famous example is a hammer. As a substance, a hammer is a piece of wood with another piece of shaped metal on one end. The ‘substance’ of the hammer has intrinsic properties. It has heaviness, it has smoothness on its surfaces, etc. But those intrinsic characteristics do not make it a hammer. This object only becomes a hammer when it is recognized to be a hammer by someone who knows what it is used for and lives in a world which would allow it to be used. The characteristics of the mode of being of the hammer’s utility are not intrinsic to the hammer – they are contextual to the entity that would use it and the world in which it would be used. A hammer is just a piece of wood and metal until it appears in a world with people who know how to use it and are capable of using it. Then it becomes a hammer.

Imagine a computer that somehow was left in the jungle among a primitive tribe that had no idea about what a computer is and lacks the electricity to run it. It isn’t a computer in that world, it is just a thing. Maybe someone will use it as a table. Then it will become a table and not be a computer at all. If someone from a developed countery came to that village they would recognize the object for what it could be, but in order to turn it back into a computer that person would have to bring it back into the world that had the electricity to run it so that it could become a computer once again.

The third mode of being Heidegger talks about as ‘existence’ and he reserves this mode of being only for self-reflective beings that are able to “take a stand on their being.” Human beings for instance can take a stand – can choose – to be a particular kind of human being. We can be doctors, mothers, carpenters, teachers, friends, enemies – and all of these are modes of being. We act differently depending on which one of these we take a stand on – or identify ourselves with. So the mode of being of ‘existence’ is the mode of being of ‘being able to identity with a mode of being.’ The characteristics of the mode of being of existence are not merely intrinsic to the person or contextual to the circumstances – they are at least in part chosen – consciously or unconsciously – as a stand, an identity that is being adopted. Perhaps we could say that the mode of being of existence is the ability to take on different modes of being.

Heidegger believed that understanding that there were actually three modes of being and not merely one was the solution to many of humanities philosophical problems. In his masterwork, Being & Time, he tries to work out at least some of these solutions.

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Liesbeth
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Liesbeth

It is great you bring Heidegger up. I am looking at Foucault and Sartre at the moment, and they both are influenced by him –even though they took a different path. It is the first time that I look at philosopher that directly influenced my own thinking structures and the funny thing is that every time I read some characteristic, parts of my past come up where a particular ‘grove’ of thought was created. Foucault calls it, the depth-structure of knowing of a specific period, and according to him in those periods it is not possible to step outside it.… Read more »

Anonymous
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Anonymous

I appreciate all attempts to digest Heidegger and put him in everyday language. The context of modes of being does that. However, I miss the citations to the quoted material, insofar as this is the first time I have encountered the idea of three modes of being, apart from his own insistence on language, mood, and understanding.

Jeff Carreira
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Jeff Carreira

I am far from an expert on Heidegger, but I am enthrawled by his thinking and attempting to attempt what I learn. In Being and Time Heidegger talks about the ontology of substance and he also talks about the way of being of equipment which is where he uses the hammer as an example. Of course he also discusses Dasein as the way of being of being human. It is Dasein that must take a stand on its being. Most of my understanding does not come directly from heidegger, but from the American Scholar Hubert Dreyfus who wrote a comentary… Read more »

Liesbeth
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Liesbeth

I just found such a beautiful piece in Ken Wilber’s work (a brief history of everything) about the line Kierkegaard, Heidegger, existentialism, that I really would like to copy it here. First there is a bit more about Foucault which I think clarifies two roots of the longing for freedom in Green (and for example interest in De Sade): one study he did was about insanity: he said that because science did so very well define all insanities, our view of ‘what it means to be a human being’ was restricted. Certain behavior could not be includes because it was… Read more »

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Anonymous

Existentialism is, in part, a reaction to Romanticism with its guarantee of happy Hollywood endings. But recall that Camus’ Sisyphus has a smile on his lips as he descends the mountain to pursue his boulder. He knows his condition and that knowledge can become a point of pride. Or as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in the mid-19th Century, in the essay titled, “Fate,” “In the history of the individual is always an account of his condition, and he knows himself to be party to his present estate.”

Liesbeth
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Liesbeth

What I was so surprised about, was the influence philosophers have on us without we being aware of it. Years ago I read in Boomeritis of Wilber that Foucault had been of great influence on Green and only now, seeing the connection I thought of the fact that the teacher I followed for three years studied in France, either with him or in that tradition, but somehow it connected to my line of thought, which was influenced by Sartre and De Beauvoir. Only now I see the precise connection, even though I already saw it when reading Boomeritis. I was… Read more »

Anonymous
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Anonymous

A long time ago, when I worked with Werner Erhard – he became quite obsessed with Heidegger’s work. At the time – I was working 18+ hours a day, so wasn’t reading and studying at the time. The work we were doing at est – (later Landmark) I can see now – had strong roots in the 3rd mode of being. At the core – we were creating who we were as a stand – as a context that would generate a transformation in the content of what we were dealing with. Thank you so much for writing this –… Read more »