The Being-Question in Systems Thinking:

In today’s post, I am looking at the Being-question from Martin Heidegger. Heidegger is a philosopher I put off studying mainly because he was a Nazi sympathizer. His ideas are said to be of utmost importance for the twentieth century and he influenced many of the post-modern philosophers such as Sartre, Foucault, Derrida, Rorty etc. Heidegger’s main philosophical work is “Being and Time”.

At that time, the prevalent view about how we view the world was based on the distinction between the subject and the object. The subject, let’s say an observer, is able to stand outside and observe the world. The world is independent of the observer. The observer is able to study the world and using their rational mind to come to meaningful conclusions. This view was made famous by the French philosopher, René Descartes. Descartes emphasized the difference between the subject and the object. The observer themselves are not part of the observation. What is observed (the object) is part of an objective reality that is readily accessible to everyone. From this standpoint, we come to see systems as physical entities of the world that is waiting there to be objectively observed and understood by everyone.

Heidegger wanted to turn this view upside down. He viewed the idea of trying to prove an objective reality as a scandalous activity. He did not deny the subject and the object. However, he viewed the subject as being a part of the world; an embedded being in the world. Heidegger thought that the question of “what exists?” is a useless activity. He realized that the question – “what does it mean to be existing?” was more meaningful.

Michael Gelven, who authored one of the most accessible books on Heidegger notes:

Descartes not only asks whether such a thing as material substance exists, he actually tells us what it means for such a thing to exist: if it takes up space it is a material thing that exists. Heidegger, however, argues there is an even more fundamental question that can be asked: What does it mean to exist at all?  The question is not whether something does exist or how to characterize the existence of particular kinds of things, like material things or mental things, but simply to ask about the very meaning of Being.

To ask what it means to exist or simply to be is to engage in the most fundamental kind of questioning possible. Heidegger calls this die Frage nach den Sinn von Sein, “to question what it means to be,” or simply, “the Being-question.”

Here the word “Being” is capitalized to reflect how it was written by Heidegger and it does not stand for a Supreme Being. The Being is basically us in the world interacting with the world.

Gelven gives a great example to further the idea of the “Being-question”:

Suppose I ask “What is a jail? ” You answer, “The jail is that red-brick building down the street with bars on the windows and locks on the cells. ” In this case, the question is about an entity, and the answer provides one with characteristics that describe or identify the entity. Suppose I ask, “What does it mean to be in jail? ” In response, you say, “To be in jail is to be guilty of a crime and to be punished for it by suffering the loss of liberty. To be in jail thus is to be punished, to feel reprimanded, to suffer, possibly to be afraid, to be lonely, to feel outcast, etc. ” The second question is answered by reference to what it means to exist in various ways, such as being guilty or being unfree. The question What is a jail? is answered by the description of other entities, bars in the windows, locks, unsavory patrons; but the question of the meaning of anything is answered by reference to other meanings. In this we simply recognize there must be a parallel between the kind of question asked and the kind of answers given.

But suppose I press this distinction and ask Which question is prior? A moment’s reflection will assure us that what it means to be in jail is the reason or the ground for the jail being built the way it is. In other words, what it means to be in jail is prior to what kind of thing a jail is, for the meaning determines the entity. If I understand what it means to be in jail, I will know what is required to make a jail. So, in the formal sense of what explains what, meaning precedes entity. The inquiry into what it means to be in jail is not only different from the question about what kind of thing is a jail, it is also prior to it, for the meaning ultimately explains the entity.

The problem with believing that there is an objective reality ready for everyone to access is that we take others for granted and also view them as part of the “objective” reality. We don’t realize that most of what we see and believe are contingent on our past experiences, biases, worldviews etc. These are not necessities. It would be a categorical error to assume that the conditions of contingencies are actually conditions of necessities. An easy way to explain the difference between contingency and necessity is to think of a red triangle. The color “red” is contingent on the direction I gave you. I could have said blue instead of red or any other color for that matter. However, it is necessary that you have three sides to the triangle. You cannot have two sides or four sides for the triangle since then it ceases to be a triangle.

When we assume that systems are physical entities of the world, we fall into the categorical error. We bring in our biases and worldviews and impose them on others. Similar to the jail example above, if we simply ask “what is a hospital and how can we improve the hospital?”, we get answers that go nowhere. If instead, we try to ask the question – “what is it like to be a patient in the hospital?”, and try to see this from another person’s viewpoint, we might be able to make some headway. The world as we see it, is our construction of our being in the world. We are in a social realm, and we cope with the world by being part of it, rather than being apart from it.

Gelven also gives another example:

I ask: What is the mind? This question is the traditional metaphysical one; it asks for classification and identification. I also ask: Do I have a mind that is anything more than the physical brain? Here the question is one of whether something exists. Let us now re-ask this all-important question in terms of Heidegger’s revolution. What kind of question could we ask? What does it mean to think? Notice what happens when we rephrase the question in this way. By asking What does it mean to think? I avoid completely the metaphysical questions of whether something exists or what kind of thing it is. Yet, at the same time, the question probes just as deeply into what I want to know.

How we are in the world depends on our affordances to be in this world. As the great Cybernetician/Enactivist Francesco Varela pointed out – Our cognition is directed toward the world in a certain way: it is directed toward the world as we experience it. For example, we perceive the world to be three/ dimensional, macroscopic, colored, etc.: we do not perceive it as composed of subatomic particles. To this, I will also add Cybernetician Bruce Clarke’s quote- We still have a hard time taking for real that all knowledge of the environment depends upon the specific realities of the systems that observe it. The systemic reality of the environment is to be both the precondition and the product of an observing system.

The next time when someone asks you to improve the system, remember to use the Being-question. I will finish with a quote from Heidegger:

In order to be who we are, we human beings remain committed to and within the being of language, and can never step out of it and look at it from somewhere else. Thus, we always see the nature of language only to the extent to which language itself has us in view, has appropriated us to itself. That we cannot know the nature of language—know it according to the traditional concept of knowledge defined in terms of cognition as representation—is not a defect, however, but rather an advantage by which we are favored with a special realm, that realm where we, who are needed and used to speak language, dwell as mortals.

Please maintain social distance and wear masks. Stay safe and Always keep on learning… In case you missed it, my last post was Round and Round We Go:

3 thoughts on “The Being-Question in Systems Thinking:

  1. Dear Harish,
    Associating meaning to being is an interesting (and challenging) philosophical move. But considering that “the meaning precedes the entity” does not fit that well with our everyday world. Meanings are agent dependent. A jail has different meanings for an architect and for an inmate. Both are needed, and these meanings cannot exist if jails do not exist.
    Meaning is most of the time associated to information, and these two notions can be related by the concept of meaning generation. If you are interested there is a system approach that can be used for meaning generation in animals, humans and artificial agents (https://philpapers.org/rec/MENITA-7).
    This brings us far from Heiddeger, but it is too bad that the founding fathers of phenomenology have neglected evolution and have taken human nature as a starting point. This makes difficult any evolutionary approach to human nature.
    Your blog is interesting. Please continue sharing your thoughts
    Christophe

    Like

    • Thank you Christophe for your thoughtful comment. I am in agreement with you regarding meanings being observer (agent) dependent. As I have noted before- the variety of the observed is dependent on the variety of the observer.

      I am not sure if Heidegger is going for the meaning preceding entity. I think he is going after what does it mean to “be” as the first question. The way I understood it is that there is no point in separating the subject from the object. The emphasis is in the Being. The context of us is in how we are in the world just like the context of tools is in how they are used by the user.
      -Harish

      Liked by 1 person

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