Finitude, Existence, and Community: Letting the Individual Die

By Nicole Billitz
2012, Vol. 4 No. 07 | pg. 3/3 |

Heidegger is rejecting the significance of the Other and asserting the dominance of a single Dasein, an individual in so far as it remains a subject in its own project, othering “the they.” It is easily deduced that if the call to conscience is not to others, but to oneself, genocide is not so difficult to imagine. Heidegger’s call to conscience has no relation to anyone but itself, and so there is no ethical dilemma in genocide.

Further, “in conscience Dasein calls itself. The call undoubtedly does not come from someone else who is with me in the world” (Heidegger, 1962, p. 320). This call summons its ownmost possibilities. “Conscience, in its basis and its essence, is in each case mine – not only in the sense that in each case the appeal is to one’s ownmost potentiality-for-Being, but because the call comes from that entity which in each case I myself am” insofar as I stand out into the light of Being (Heidegger, 1962, p. 323). By appealing only to one’s ownmost potentiality is almost simultaneously ignoring others potentiality-for-Being. Where for Nancy, we gain existence and finitude – the ultimate possibility, through others. Moreover, it is through others potentiality-for-Being that we gain our own. Being-towards others is a shared potentiality. Without this sharing, we have the potential to ostracize and alienate. Every binary structure simultaneously imposes a power structure, so that for every binary created, one is greater than the other. The origin of the binary/power structure is with Subject and object, whereby the Subject represents man, and object the thing upon which man acts. In acting upon objects, subjects make objects conform to their will and domination. From this, subject becomes Self, and object can become another being as Other, insofar as the Self concerns itself with the domination of the Other. In this totalizing structure, identity ideology can become constructed. Immanent, subjective identity renders an Other immanent, subjective identity and can seek to dominant it and it’s potentiality. Despite the identity’s fictitious nature, it problematizes and creates power structures.

The call of conscience

“relentlessly individualizes Dasein down to its potentiality-for-Being-guilty, and exacts of it that it should be this potentiality authentically. The unwavering precision with which Dasein is thus essentially individualized down to its ownmost potentiality-for-Being, discloses the anticipation of death as the possibility which is non-relational. Anticipatory resoluteness lets the potentiality- for-Being-guilty, as one’s ownmost non-relational possibility, be struck wholly into the conscience. When one has an understanding of Being-towards-death – towards death as one’s ownmost possibility – one’s potentiality-for-Being becomes authentic and wholly transparent” (Heidegger, 1962, p. 354).

As Heidegger understands death to be non-relational, that is, that death is only ever my own insofar as I can only die for myself, Others can experience it only secondhand. With this structural definition of experience and death, it is easy to draw on historical facts, such as Nazi Germany. However, we always carry the death of others with us in some way. Although only one experiences the physical, radical fragmentation of Being (and even then, does so unknowingly), all others recognize their own mortality in it and are exposed to finitude by it, and carry the deceased’s death in their own way.

With the idea of duty, Heidegger states that “coming to owe something to Others does not happen merely through law-breaking as such, but rather through my having the responsibility for the Other’s becoming endangered in his existence, led astray, or even ruined. Being-the-basis for a lack of something in the Dasein of an Other, and in such a manner that this very Being-the-basis determines itself as ‘lacking in some way’ in terms of that for which it is the basis. This kind of lacking is a failure to satisfy some requirement which applies to one’s existent Being with Others” (Heidegger, 1962, p. 328). It is interesting the way in which he conveys this. Firstly, the use of the word “owe” is largely problematic because of what James calls the “homo ecomomicus,” the essentialized understanding of the human. Even the word “owe” posits to a larger understanding of an economy between humans, and an economy between human lives, at that. It is through this positing that again refers to this larger ideology of individualism, which yields to this grotesque social Darwinism, which could theoretically lead to violence and genocide against the other. He is stating that a Dasein has responsibility when another is at risk. It is a selfish responsibility. Secondly, Heidegger asserts a responsibility toward the Other only when the Other is at risk. This is problematic because he both asserts responsibility, and pulls away from it. By contending that it is possible for one Dasein to be the basis of a lack (or a risk) in another Dasein is to necessarily acknowledge a Being-for-others and a Being-of-others, or in fact, “the basis of” others. This would then clearly reflect Nancian ideology, a responsibility, or an always already ethical imperative to others at all the times, rather than in times of risk alone. Yet Heidegger asserts that this responsibility is only in times of risk, which seems counterintuitive to the idea of accountability. By our existence, “we must” go beyond duty to prevent the death of others. “We must” is outside the realm of teleology. Why go only so far as responsible when at risk? Why not be responsible for and to the other while meeting the other face on?

“The primary item in care is the ‘ahead-of-itself’, and this means that in every case Dasein exists for the sake of itself” (Heidegger, 1962, p. 279). This is in fact direct dialogue from individualist ideology. The parallels between existing for the sake of oneself and social Darwinism, totalitarianism and genocide are readily ‘identifiable’. The real material implications of such are the historical examples of colonialism and slavery, which are based on the very same selfish dialogue.

Understanding that “by it’s very essence, death is in every case mine, insofar as it ‘is’ at all. In dying, it is shown that mineness and existence are ontologically constitutive for death” (Heidegger, 1962, p. 284). Heidegger’s “death is a possibility-of-Being which Dasein itself has to take over in every case. With death, Dasein stands before itself in its ownmost potentiality-for-Being. When it stands before itself in this way, all its relations to any other Dasein have been undone. This ownmost non-relational possibility is at the same time the uttermost one” (Heidegger, 1962, p. 294). This is the crux of Heidegger’s argument and so where his argument falls apart. Not understanding this to be problematic, Heidegger draws from the strength of individualism throughout Being and Time. It is this individualism that yields to the Nazism that Heidegger is historically a part of. By asserting that towards and in death, the Dasein has undone all relations to any others, it is unsurprising then, that genocide is a possible conclusion. Insofar as that if in my own death I am unrelated, in your death so shall you be too. Genocide, then, gains its definitive systematic quality. Secondly, where this death is un-relatable, so it is work-able. Rather, it is easy to make an economy or teleology out of death, in the ways that Nazism and genocide has done. At its most fundamental level, Heidegger’s understandings of “undone relations” in death perpetuate the ideology behind genocide, colonialism, and slavery. The narration of ownmost death alienates both the dead and the dying. It is a possibility that we are all toward together. When death is separated individually, so that we understand death to be experienced only by one and to one, the indifference toward the other is conceived. The “community of the individual” is in fact only the community of genocide.

Death as secondhand or “the dying of Others is not something which we experience in a genuine sense; at most we are always just ‘there alongside’… We are not asking about the way in which the deceased has Dasein-with or is still-a-Dasein with those who are left behind. If death as experienced in Others is what we are enjoined to take as the theme for our analysis of Dasein’s end and totality, this cannot give us what it presumes to give” (Heidegger, 1962, p. 283). This articulates yet again the idea non-relationality between the death of one and this death for the others. He states that death as experienced in others cannot give meaning to us. Heidegger understands the Dasein to be in the world with Others during our existence. Yet in the death and in the dying, this existential point of departure totalizes the experience of such. Reducing the significance of others in one’s own death has open-ended possibilities for the reduction of the Other’s death. Although that is not to say that one necessitates the other, under this dogma where one reduces one’s own death, it could facilitate the reduction of another to a commodity or exchange in life, such as slavery and colonialism, and to an immanent death.

In Being-towards-death and the Everydayness of Dasein, we understand that death is constantly occurring. “Death is encountered as a well-known event occurring within-the-world. As such it remains in the inconspicuousness characteristic of what is encountered in an everyday fashion” (Heidegger, 1962, p. 297). As such, it easily dismissed as the messianic “to come.” Dasein then approaches death as “one of these days one will die too, in the end; but right now it has nothing to do with us” (Heidegger, 1962, p. 297). Heidegger even presents the binary between “one dying” and “us,” calling upon the differences of identities. Structuring the death of the Other as such is inherently violent. The indifference towards the Other is influenced by the idea of non-relationality which then gives access to such institutions such as Nazism. The idea of individualistic death has such a resounding effect on the influence of others during existence, that it creates a rupture between Dasein and Other during existence, insofar as the Dasein never truly reaches the full capacity of sharing as Being-with because he/she has no compassion for the Other. It has the potential to be destroyed with this indifference.

“Death is understood [to]… above all, must duly arrive from somewhere or other, but which is proximally not yet present-at-hand for oneself, and is therefore no threat” (Heidegger, 1962, p. 297). Perhaps this idea of non-threatening death is what allows the parallel to be drawn to the Other’s death. As death is not seen as an immediate threat to Dasein, the immediate death-threatened Other receives indifference. In this non-relational death, it makes quite literally no difference to Dasein if another is to die. This is where the institutions based off of violence erupt. Slavery, colonialism, genocide are all marked by the same fabric of indifference to those experiencing such deaths.

Even Heidegger notes that “the indifferent tranquility as to the ‘fact’ that one dies… the cultivation of such a ‘superior’ indifference alienates Dasein from its ownmost non-relational potentiality-for-Being” (Heidegger, 1962, p. 298). Although Heidegger asserts this to contend that this tranquility limits the everyday being-towards-death, it does so in a different way than he intended. This indifference alienates Dasein both from his own death (the way in which Heidegger intended) but also from the death of the other. It is easy to make peace with the genocide of the other, when we have a “superior indifference” toward the other.

Therefore, it is Nancy’s community that remains “unworked then insofar as it is a multiplicity of singular existences who are ‘in common’ only on the basis of a shared mortality which cannot be subsumed into any communal project or collective identity. This relation to death is not the communication, communion, or fusion of a subject and object. It is the exposure of each singular existence, its being-outside-of-itself, to a death which is revealed in and though the death of others” (James, 2006, p. 185). Such an ideology of existence renders an ethical imperative to others. The violence perpetuated by immanentism, totalitarianism, and genocide is rendered impossible in this world of sharing.

For Heidegger, ethics is dwelling in closeness to Being. He does not go beyond that – to the dwelling in closeness to other beings. The problem of Dasein’s individual death is that it holds no relation to the collective community. “Dasein’s being-toward-death was never radically implicated in its being-with – in Mitsein – and that it is this implication that remains to be thought” (Nancy, 2000, p. 14). This implication then makes way for the larger ideology of the subjective individual, which can perpetuate the ideas of violence toward others. Heidegger constructs his Dasein as a primary individual in existence towards death, and Mitsein as a secondary point of departure for existence. The understanding that the Other is secondary to Dasein automatically reflects a hegemonic power-related constructed binary. This hegemon, or dominant power is at work to denigrate, sublate and kill the Other. It is by this binary that we become alienated from Others, and genocide becomes possible. The indifference experienced in the face of death, perpetuates this indifference toward the Other. “Dasein has a personalized quality for Heidegger. It is always an individualized or singularized Dasein with its sphere of “ownness” whose “ownmost possibility is death (thus Dasein here is being-towards-death)” (James, 2006, p. 86). It is in death where Heidegger wishes to undo all relations to Others. Yet it is not possible because through the death of others we recognize our own mortality and seize on to anxiety towards death, which refutes the indifference both of our own death and the deaths of others, eliminating any possibility of violence to the other.


James, Ian. (2006). The Fragmentary Demand. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Heidegger, Martin. (1962). Being and Time. New York, New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, Inc.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. (2000). Being Singular Plural. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

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