The Field of Being

Georges de La Tour’s Magdelen and the Smoking Flame. 1640

William Barrett, in his Irrational Man, introduces us to Existentialism and summarizes the development of Western Thought in the process. The book came out in 1958, but can be read fruitfully and applied productively to the problems we face today.

In the section on Heidegger, whom I haven’t read in years but should return to, Barrett discusses Heidegger’s Field Theory of Being, and places it in historical context.

The Greeks were the first to remove objects from their surroundings, their background, their context, so they could study them in isolation. In a sense, atomize them. This was necessary for the creation of Science. But the Greeks still lived in Nature, not in opposition to it, so this process wasn’t truly disruptive, much less fatal. Fast forward to Descartes, and we are sundered from Nature and our minds are split from our bodies. Subject and object. Mind and matter. Doubting all things but the source of doubt and working back from there. This made the conquest of Nature the next natural step in our development. We saw things, not Beings in time, so conquest and suppression were easier. Things lack a sense of autonomy, when the subject/object split is in place. I would add that this also made it easier for humans to see each other in that light, or that darkness. Subject and object. Me versus the things around me. Opposition, rather than the recognition of mutual autonomy or subjectivity.

Heidegger counters this with his concept of Being in the world, and our existence in the form of a field. Barrett, through Heidegger, provokes much thought, when he adds that our field is like light, and truth (aletheia) is revelation. Our field is light, our light a field, and as we move forward in the darkness of time and space we experience revelation, because we make what was hidden to us unhidden. We gain truth to the degree that we shine our light field on more of the world.

Humans look forward to the future, which we face in various moods. Not mentioned in the discussion is the obvious fact of our biology. Humans, like most animals, look forward, not backward. We stand facing not only our future, but see in one direction at a time.

Where our field is not, is untruth. We carry untruth within us as well as truth, and time passed can become untruth, as the light leaves one place and moves on to the next. Darkness returns in our absence. It fills in the space we depart from — the boat and its wake. Heidegger, like most of the Existentialists, believes we also carry our deaths within us. Within our Being is non-Being, and it is from the realization of our finiteness in space and time that we become truly whole. Without an authentic encounter with our mortality, we never fully achieve the human and remain mere fragments of Being.

Nietzsche crossed over (from Existentialism) into essentialism when he tried to reduce our fundamental drives to one: The Will to Power. Our most basic drive is to radically expand our field of power and influence, not just survive, according to the author of Thus Spake Zarathustra. Evolutionary biologists have come to similar conclusions, though with more complexities and ambiguities thrown in, but the debate rages on. Our genes don’t just want to continue through time; they want to increase and expand their influence.

Heidegger’s philosophy presents the potential for an end to this will to power for power’s sake. Though he didn’t take heed of the obvious implications of his own views, when it came to his political affiliations, he did present to the world a beautiful, poetic way out of that dead end. There is no need to conquer and subdue our surroundings to extend and expand our fields of light. In fact, the destruction of our surroundings sends things back into darkness and untruth. The implications for this philosophy are clear, at least to me:

Discovery is truth. The embrace of one’s own mortality is truth. The recognition and acknowledgment of the radical subjectivity of all things is truth, and we can’t know anything until we understand this. Understanding is impossible as long as we objectify our surroundings and impose our subjectivity on all things, keeping those things from their (their own) natural autonomy as Beings in the world. If we keep the wall between ourselves and the rest of the world, stay within the mind/matter duality, we can never understand the world, find truth, or become real selves.

Let it be. Or as Wallace Stevens wrote, Let be be the finale of seem.


The Field of Being
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