Volume I

All By My Self: Understanding the Implications of the Heideggerian Conception of Self and the Necessity of an Inherent Will to Make Meaning Meaningful

by Amie Zimmer


German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) rallied his efforts toward his project to overcome nihilism: a project that necessitated going through nihilism itself rather than attempting merely to overcome it, and so misunderstand it by and through failing to comprehend the entirety of its component parts.  Crucial to the project of overcoming meaninglessness was cultivating meaning-ful-ness.  For Heidegger, true meaning must necessarily come from that which is independent of our own will, if we are to avoid the problem of it being arbitrary and thus only meaningful because it has been decided by us to be so.  His penultimate project, then, begs the question of where, exactly, are the responsibilities of the innate human will, apart from independent meanings.


What Heidegger calls Dasein is the German word that literally translates to being there, signifying man as that being for which things can and do show up as meaningful.  In other words, Dasein is the metaphysically-structured comportment out and beyond ourselves.  This transcendence is here defined by our phenomenological intentionality to direct ourselves in a certain direction and thus comport ourselves outward, away from entities and toward being, and is our inherent nature.  But the grounding, or direction toward which Dasein executes itself, is for Dasein itself, and can thus be said to exist for itself.  To argue counter (that Dasein exists for that which is not itself), would be to subject Heidegger to the very thing he warns us against: becoming a mere means to an end, and thus failing in overcoming nihilism.  Particularly within the paradigmatic case of love, I argue that while it is significant to allow things to matter to you because they have so been rendered as having inherent qualities of significance that exist outside of and independent of a human will, it is not only of equal importance, but of the utmost necessity to recognize the existence and inertia of an inherent will radically free from the publicness or exteriority that Heidegger so duly holds claim on as that which allows meaning to be meaningful.  Heidegger’s position holds that because things show up for us as meaningful on their own accord, the phenomenological project, we are not merely subjectively projecting our own wishes and desires and arbitrarily deciding them to be meaningful.  This inherent will, which I will show as having an innate ‘erotic’ disposition (that of desire), must necessarily overcome the infiltration of the public mood to show itself primordially: in and for itself as pure desire, in order to make matter the things that matter ‘independently’ by showing that they matter as originally starting with the will and not primordially through the other.


John Caputo advocates the view that Heidegger aligns himself more with the mystic than the philosopher when calling for a non-representational experience of being. [1]  This call for non-representation, however, is not a cry for the theological, but rather a plea for the experience of being to stand up on its own.  Caputo addresses the claim in dialogue with the poet Silesius and his infamous rose: “[Silesius] speaks of the rose not as it stands before the representing subject, but as it stands in itself.” [2]  For a thing to stand up ‘on its own’ as it were, I take it, is a word of caution and advice to us, to Dasein: to allow reality to show up for us on its own, rather than so quickly imposing our own conditions upon it.  As Caputo puts it: “The poet lets the rose be the thing that it is, without reducing it to the status of an object.” [3]  As Heidegger tells us in the Der Spiegel interview:


The experience that humans are structured [gestellt] by some-thing that they are not themselves and that they cannot control themselves is precisely the experience that may show them the possibility of the insight that humans are needed by Being.  The possibility of experience, of being needed, and of being prepared for those new possibilities is concealed in what makes up what is most modern technology’s own. [4]


Not having a choice otherwise (letting public mood or independent meanings outside of our own selves influence us so as to allow things to show up for us as being meaningful) seems to lead to deeper problems than that of being able to re-assign value, or the problem of arbitrariness we briefly acquainted ourselves with in the introduction.  If our subjectivity is actually our inability to escape from public moods, then it does not actually seem to fall under the problem of value re-assignment.  It would seem that it would be, actually, more difficult to consciously choose to love someone else.  But in love, what is significant is that one actively chooses to respond to those inherent qualities in another by dedicating one’s life to their uncovering.  The ineffableness of love comes from, in part, the notion that explaining why we freely choose to do something is more difficult to understand than doing something (loving someone) who we can’t not love.  Pure selfness must necessary have a world underneath that of Dasein.  It has a will, where true subjectivity lies, outside the trapped world of the phenomenological project.


The Mistranslation of Mood To Dasein


Language itself and the words we use serve to further compound the problem of understanding our own will free from the public sphere in which it is usually immersed.  Even in solitude, we are thrust into the center of the crowd: surrounded by the history, stories, and lives of all who came before us and have influenced and affected the meanings of the words that we cannot not use.  In addressing the dangers of mistranslation, Heidegger states:


If we say that the basic signification of λóγος [logos] is “discourse,” then this word-for-word translation will not be validated until we have determined what is meant by “discourse” itself.  The real signification of “discourse,” which is obvious enough, gets constantly covered up by the later history of the word λóγος, and especially by the numerous and arbitrary Interpretations which subsequent philosophy has provided.  λóγος gets “translated” (and this means that it is always getting interpreted) as “reason,” judgment,” “concept,” “definition,” “ground,” or “relationship.”  But how can discourse be so susceptible of modification that λóγος can signify all the things we have listed, and in good scholarly usage? [5]


For Heidegger, even the “seemingly legitimate translation may still miss the fundamental signification.” [6]  We spy the shortcomings of mistranslation on a daily basis, yet we are not as quick to spot the misgivings of the dangerous mistranslation that occurs between the texts of public mood (the public realm of language) and that of our own will (the private world of the language-less.) Language is the means by which we communicate to ourselves, thus creating a contingent and non-direct relationship between our ‘public self’ which ‘speaks words’ and the ‘self’ that we really ‘are’ (the self underneath Dasein.)  Contemporary French philosopher and critic of Heidegger, Jean-Luc Marion (b. 1946) reminds us that “if my certainty depends on me, this very surety, that I must decide about, can in no way reassure me, since, even fully accomplished, it only has me as its origin—this me that it is in turn necessary to secure.” [7]  Though Marion does not utilize this argument to in any way show that we cannot be ‘certain’ of our existence in the Cartesian sense, he does recognize the inescapability of most often relating to ourselves in a non-direct manner (through language), thus leaving us open to the grave dangers of misinterpreting our own moods.


Interpreting Dasein Primordially with a Zero Degree of Interpretation, and Mood as Secondary Interpretation


Upon recognizing the contingencies and dangers of self-interpretation, we must take it upon ourselves to relate to ourselves primordially, with a zero degree of interpretation, in order to understand the inherency of our own will (which itself acts primordially, beyond and underneath the infiltration of publicness).  To encounter something else in the world is to encounter it as “primarily circumspective.” [8]  This circumspective concern for Heidegger is “not just sensing something, or staring at it,” but involves a deeper level of meaningful relating to the subject of concern. [9]  The “Being-in as such” of the “character” of the subject of circumspective concern (or, that which is in that moment ‘ready-to-hand’) necessarily must have been determined existentially beforehand in such a way that “what it encounters within-the-world can ‘matter’ to it.” [10]  However, the means by which the subject of our concern is rendered as ‘mattering’ to us implies a non-primordial relationship with Dasein by virtue of the vessel by which we communicate or come to judge the subject existentially: namely, through mood (which we have deemed as public, as transmissible, and as not belonging to the original self but the ‘second layer’ of ourselves, our public layer.) To encounter something circumspectively is to encounter its circumference, its perimeters which we are unable to penetrate.  A circumference, something’s outermost boundary, allows us to walk around the periphery only in order to unavoidably end up where we began: a helpless existential circularity.  But “phenomenological interpretation must make it possible for Dasein itself to disclose things primordially; it must, as it were, let Dasein interpret itself.” [11]  But how, exactly, is a Dasein that relates to its underlying self as a mediating being able to relate primordially not only to its self, but primordially to others?


To relate to others primordially is not to merely respond to them circumspectively (walking around rather than through, as previously illustrated) but to first relate to one’s self primordially and to then propel (or will) one’s self toward the other.  In other words, primordial relation is achieved not through a passive receptivity of meaning that exists outside of your will, but the equiprimordial positing of one’s own inherent meaning toward another. [12]  Thus, two primordial projections can unify in a pure phenomenological naiveté: an innocent public-free purity, where the public sphere is annihilated not through a denouncing of the public and thereby through a mediated experience of language, but in utilizing what-is (words) to bring to the surface that which cannot be seen (primordial self).


The Problem of Inherent Meaning Independent of Personal Will


While it is the responsibility and duty of the self to both recognize and respond to the existence of meaning independent of personal will, the significance of the role of the individual will to simultaneously, consciously exert desire and/or need for this other individual has long been neglected.  Responding to independent meaning without the conscious, driving force of personal will results in the dangerous subjecting of one’s self to an ‘arranged marriage’ of meaning.  Regardless of the inherent meaning existent in the other human being, by virtue of his/her having a world and being like us and thereby open or free for empathetic connection, we either can or cannot consciously respond to our will to love that person or not.  One ‘falls’ in love and subjects him/herself to forces and meaning outside of one’s control.  But to fall in love is to maintain a state of being in love; a state of willfully permitting Dasein to not only circumspectively encounter another, but to consciously and actively figure out the ways of traveling to its midpoint only to find another door toward an even deeper center.


Primordial Dasein as Having Inherent Will


For Heidegger, the self underlying Dasein is ultimately rendered dead without the life breathed into it by mood.  For Marion, it is the self without this underlying self that is dead.  “Assurance” of being, for Marion, “is not to be confused with certainty.” [13]  Assurance of being (where assurance might here mean purpose) comes only from what Marion calls the erotic reduction: the necessity of being to have the possibility of being loved by another.  Marion’s erotic reduction presupposes an inherent desire (a will) that is then projected toward others and acts as the enabling force for our responding to their inherent values.  Meaning ceases to be meaningful when it can’t not be meaningful.  In other words, we must ascribe to a radical definition of freedom when evaluating the role of personal will in the case of love.  In fact, it must exist if true meaning is to exist at all.


However, this leaves us with the question of where, exactly, the will comes from.  Though, in no way do I suggest Heidegger to be positing a will-less Dasein, the locality of it remains problematic when trapped within the world of moods: problems we’ve already here outlined.  Marion states that “the lethargy insinuated by the question ‘what does it matter’ is dissipated when the elsewhere matters within me and thus matters to me.” [14]  The radicalness of our freedom to desire and choose meaning, the erotic phenomenon, is what breeds uniqueness to Dasein and unties us, at last frees us, from the false illusion of a barren Dasein made meaningful only by what it garners in life.  To strip away mood is to strip away publicness, but to leave behind a self- less self is not only death in the Heideggerian sense of having no being at all, but death in the sense of stripping away, with certainty, the point of being at all: the maintenance of radical individualism fueled only by our innate will to seek meaning not for its own sake (responding to meaning) but by creating it (‘assuring’ the self of purpose.)


The Life in Heideggerian Death: The Necessity of a Will that Desires to Be


For Heidegger, our confrontation with death “enables us to discover something about ourselves that remains more powerful than death, an aspect of the self (which he calls our ‘ownmost ability-to-be’) that does not go down with the shipwreck of our life-projects, but rather survives for as long as each of us do.” [15]  It is this very confrontation with death that shows the necessary existence of an inherent will—a will to live not just for other people but for its self, for-its-own-sake.  The antibody to the Nietzschian nihilistic age is built into us to thrust outward into our worlds as a counter-force against meaningless optimization and consumption by will-to-power during these ‘death(s)’ which propel us to live for life itself.


In these radical moments of confrontation we choose to choose the projects that define us.  In Heidegger’s two-fold process of the achievement of authenticity, we radically confront a self that must necessarily will to be, and thus inherently desire to be.  Entschlossenheit, resolve, reconnects us to an existentially dead world by illuminating the necessary willpower inherent in the self to actively choose meaningful mattering, opposed to a more passive receptivity.  This moment of resolve, where we are confronted with our self, must mean a radical confrontation with a willing self, a self that wills.  If the self with which we were confronting was not, it would be a ‘dead’ self irreparably beyond salvation from an existential death where it would even have the possibility of resolve to re-comport itself toward a meaningful world and thus thrust itself into meaningful projects.  It is only as a result that this “core volitional self which survives the collapse of its life-projects then finds itself able resolutely to reconnect to the world.” [16]




We must drastically redefine the spiritual union between man and world to mean not an inability to turn away from that which shows up as meaningful to us independent of our will to ascribe value to it, but the ability to disregard its meaning while actively willing not to.  The tangled web of unavoidable subjectivity can be transcended only through this conscious recognition of this two-fold union of independent wills, which must necessarily have desire (an erotic disposition) to want to comport itself into the world and subject itself to the possibility of being loved, and thus of attaining assurance for being, where assurance means both from others and from our own, willing self.



  1. John Caputo, The Mystical Element in Heidegger’s Thought, (New York: Fordham, 1986), 29.

  2. Ibid., 64.

  3. Ibid.

  4. “Nur noch ein Gott kann uns retten,” Spiegel-Gespräch mit Martin Heidegger am 23 September 1966, Der Spiegel, May 31, 1976, 193-219, reprinted in Martin Heidegger and National Socialism, eds. Gunther Neske and Emil Kettering (New York: Paragon House, 1990), 41-66.

  5. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), 55.

  6. Ibid.

  7. Jean-Luc Marion, The Erotic Phenomenon, trans. Stephen E. Lewis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 18.

  8. Heidegger, Being and Time, Op. Cit., 176.  “Circumspection,” Umsicht, can be literally translated as a “looking-about.”.

  9. Ibid.

  10. Ibid.

  11. Ibid., 179, emphasis mine.

  12. The “equiprimordial,” Gleichursprünglich, literally translated as “with equal primordiality.”.

  13. Marion, The Erotic Phenomenon, Op. Cit., 23.

  14. Ibid., 24.

  15. Iain Thomson, “Rethinking Levinas on Heidegger on Death,” The Harvard Review of Philosophy 16, 1 (2009): 29.

  16. Ibid., 31.