Heidegger’s Concept of the Ontological Difference
What follows is a short introduction to the Heideggerian concept of the ontological difference, which is absolutely essential to all of Heidegger’s philosophizing. In fact, I’d argue that one cannot begin to make sense of Heidegger’s lifelong questioning of Being without grasping this fundamental distinction. Understanding the ontological difference presupposes knowing what Heidegger meant by “Being”, “Dasein” and “Truth”. Now, what I say here is really just a collection of notes I put together, but I do plan on writing a much more detailed account, and one much clearer and accessible, of this key concept at some point. Some friends of mine are currently reading through Being and Time and requested that I share these fragmentary notes.
Let us begin with Being. This is precisely the Being in the title Being and Time. What is meant by “Being”? How are beings given to us? How do we stand open to beings as a whole and as such? If beings are given to Dasein, then what are we to make of the giving of what is given? The early Heidegger thought of the giving of what is given, the Being of beings, in terms of familiarity (Hubert Dreyfus famously refers to this as “the background” and as “background practices”). Normally and usually, we are simply concerned with beings, e.g., chairs, dogs, shoes, computers, etc. For the most part, we are absorbed with the beings we use to fulfill our goals. This type of existential cruise-control or “skillful coping” is conditioned by being familiar with the world (Being-at-home-in-the-world). A particular being, say a cup, is given to us on the basis of our background familiarity with beings as such. We are usually too busy interacting with beings to question our very accessibility to the whole of them. This pre-philosophical, pre-theoretical, pre-reflective familiarity with the world as a whole is Being — it is that on the basis of which beings as such are given to us. It is on the basis of our primordial trust of things that they can show themselves to Dasein in a meaningful way. Now, while the whole of beings is always already given to Dasein, a specific being can be non-given. In other words, Dasein doesn’t have access to every single being in having access to beings as such. Life generally becomes the pursuit of beings we do not yet have access to, e.g., money. It is our “need” for beings we do not possess that leads to us forgetting our access to beings as a whole. Our ontic concerns give us ontological amnesia. We forget that we can only chase down particular beings on the basis of Being itself.
We dwell in our familiarity like a fish dwells in water. It is the invisible home that makes our lives possible. This familiarity, this background, this pre-conceptual intelligibility, insulates us from the terrifying indifference of what Deleuze and Guattari called “Chaos” and what Levinas called “il y a” (the ‘there is’). But insofar as we inconspicuously inhabit it, we never come to encounter it as such, we never notice it (science itself forgets Being in the same way). But if familiarity is our home or the inside, our most fundamental interior space (though not a private, subjective one), then we can only come to properly encounter it from a distance, that is, from the outside. But in what way do we get “outside” of Being-as-familiarity or Being-as-home? This can occur in a number of different ways. Inside the functionality of our everydayness, we cannot encounter beings as a whole, but on rare occasions there will be a rupture in this order, a tear in this homogeneous fabric. These ruptures necessitate what Deleuze called the Encounter in Difference and Repetition, that is, an experience so intense that it disrupts our mode of access to the world. This is similar to the Lacanian notion of the Real bursting through and shattering the Symbolic. However, the larval form of these concepts of disruption can be located in Heidegger’s description of unreadiness-to-hand in Being and Time. But it must be stressed that not all encounters with beings as such are necessarily traumatic — in fact, it can be downright joyful.
For example, the experience of beings as such can assail us in when we are overtaken by the beauty of a sunset; it can hit us at the moment that we have a serious illness that serves as a twist of fate; we can come face-to-face with it when pondering how the world will treat our children; in other words, moments of great awe, joy, terror, anxiety, hope, ennui, grace, irony, thankfulness, boredom, despair, perplexity, etc. These experiences are momentary lines of flight or vectors of escape out of Being-as-familarity, i.e., breakdowns in our familiarity with the world. In a broad sense of the term, things themselves become strange, alien and unfamiliar in these types of moments. Why? Because our understanding of Being cannot immediately process and assimilate them — Being with an “i” is itself always finite (a Lacanian would say something like every Symbolic order has its blind spots). Now, these moments are only opportunities to start thinking about Being and not guarantees that we will do so. In stepping outside of our everyday familiarity we are in a position to recognize the difference between beings as such and nothing. This is an opportunity to ask the question: “Why are there beings at all instead of nothing?” And this question can, then, give way to the question concerning Being itself (Sein selbst). What’s important to know is that this experience of Being itself, even if not followed up with a proper thinking through of itself, can inspire a person to think along new and revolutionary paths. How so? Because it reveals to a person that there is a vast outside that always escapes the parameters of familiarity and all of its derivatives (doxa, knowledge, philosophy, the big Other, myth, objective spirit, worldhood, science, religion, politics, tradition, Wissenschaft, common sense).
Richard Polt points out that regardless of whether or not we end up doing justice to the experience of Being afterwards, there are four essential aspects unconcealed in this encounter: 1. the whole of beings, 2. the dwelling of Dasein, 3. beings as such, 4. the given. These four structures (for lack of a better word) are the Prior, i.e., the conditions of any particular act, behavior, thought, statement or comportment on the part of Dasein in the world. The experience of Being is the unforgetting of the Prior. It announces to Dasein that the Prior is just that — the basis upon which the given has always been given, the givenness of the given (there is here a hint of Platonic anamnesis, but Being is not to be confused with the Forms, since Being is not a universal). Polt words it like this, “To recollect the givenness of the given is not to relive an old experience of something, but to become aware of a sense of the whole that must be in place before anything can be experienced” (The Emergency of Being, p. 27). To be Dasein is to implicitly or explicitly have a sense of the whole. It means to have a sense of your own there within the whole there.
But if Being with an “i” is our background familiarity with beings as such and as a whole, then what, pray tell, is Beyng with a “y”? Being is the givenness (presencing-to-Dasein) of the given (beings). Beyng is the source of the Being of beings. Beyng is the givenness of the givenness of beings. In Contributions to Philosophy, Seyn (Beyng) is synonymous with Ereignis (the event of appropriation). Heidegger writes, “Beyng essentially occurs as the event” (Contributions to Philosophy, p. 25). He also says, “The It that gives in “It gives being”, “It gives time”, proves to be Appropriation” (On Time and Being, p. 19). This is why es gibt (It gives) becomes synonymous with Beyng itself. Beyng is the presencing of Being. For the Heidegger of Contributions to Philosophy, Beyng or Ereignis is the event of Dasein coming to belong to Being, the event of Dasein being appropriated by Being. Beyng is the event of Dasein’s belonging to Being.
I hold that there are three main meanings of “Being” throughout Heidegger’s work:
1. Being is our background familiarity with beings comprised of our pre-theoretical social practices that make entities intelligibly given to Dasein.
2. Being is the Event (Ereignis) of a giving or sending of givenness (background familiarity), that is, Being-as-Event is the emergence of a new understanding of what it means to be in the clearing, which is why the concept of the Event is essential to understand in relation to the history of Being.
3. Being is the presencing of beings in space and time, that is, Being is physis or nature itself.
For the sake of conceptual clarity, let's discuss Dasein. "Dasein" is a ordinary German word that Heidegger employs in a technical way. First and foremost, it's essential to hear and read this word as a verb and not a noun. "Da" means "there" and "sein" means Being, so the word "Dasein" means "there-Being" or "Being-there". This Being-there does not signify what we think of as existence or actuality in general, rather, Heidegger uses the term Dasein to signify human beings. The fact that he uses this word in the singular can be confusing, but keep in mind that sometimes he writes Daseins. In "Being and Time" Heidegger identified three modes of Being: presence-at-hand (the mode of Being of objects or substances), readiness-to-hand (the mode of Being of equipment) and existence (the mode of Being of Dasein, i.e., human beings). Dasein is its there to be. Dasein is the clearing (Lichtung) in which entities can show themselves from themselves. Dasein is ek-sistent, i.e., it is always already outside of itself in the world, i.e., Dasein transcends itself. These are ways through which Heidegger avoids speaking about "consciousness", and he employs these strategies to avoid the philosophical baggage that comes along when using that word—especially the baggage of representationalism, the problem of other minds and the reduction of all beings to the Being of substances (substantiality). Anyway, "existence" essentially means projecting yourself onto possibilities against the background of your facticity/thrownness while falling into skillful coping. Heidegger says, "In each case Dasein is its possibility, and it 'has' this possibility, but not just as a property, as something present-at-hand would" (Being and Time, Division 1, Chapter 1, Section 9, p. 68).
"Existence" is also the totality of Dasein's existentialia (ontological structures). These existentialia form the care structure of Dasein's Being, i.e., existence. Again, Heidegger says, "The formally existential totality of Dasein's ontological structural whole must therefore be grasped in the following structure: the Being of Dasein means ahead-of-itself-Being-already-in-(the-world) as Being-alongside (entities encountered within-the-world). This Being fills in the signification of the term "care" [Sorge] , which is used in a purely ontologico-existential manner" (Being and Time, Division 1, Chapter 6, Section 41, p. 237). "Ahead-of-itself" signifies Dasein's understanding of and projection onto FUTURE possibilities. "Being-already-in" means the determining and limiting nature of Dasein's thrownness and facticity, i.e., its PAST. Finally, "Being-alongside" refers to Dasein's immersion in the PRESENT through its everyday activities involving the equipment it uses to take a stand on its Being. "As historical, Dasein is possible only by reason of its temporality, and temporality temporalizes itself in the ecstatico-horizonal unity of its raptures" (Being and Time, Division 2, Chapter 5, Section 76, p. 448).
What Heidegger is getting at with the term "ecstatico-horizonal unity is the unity of Dasein's three ecstases (I believe Heidegger is using "raptures" here as a synonym for "ecstases", which basically means standing-outside-of-oneself or transcending-oneself). Dasein is outside of itself in three fundamental ways: 1. outside of itself in the past, i.e., its having-been (facticity, thrownness, etc.); 2. outside of itself in the present while skillfully coping with beings in the world; 3. outside of itself in projecting itself onto the future (possibilities). These three temporal ecstases presuppose and condition each other. "Care" signifies the primordial unity (or totality) of these three temporal structures. However, later on in Being and Time, Heidegger goes on to add that existence doesn't just meaning having possibilities, it also means having authentic possibilities: ""Existence" means a potentiality-for-Being—but also one which is authentic" (Being and Time, Division 2, Chapter 1, Section 45, p. 277).
I believe that some clarification (and even some simplification) is needed. Basically, Heidegger is trying to move beyond the traditional concepts of what it means to be a human being. Philosophers, since the time of Aristotle, have conceived of human beings as substances with properties. It's had a tendency to conceive of the Being of all beings in terms of substantiality (ousia). However, Heidegger's phenomenological ontology established that there are different modes of Being: presence-at-hand, readiness-to-hand, existence, art, etc. In other words, a work of art is in a way that is different from the way that a hammer is. The mode of Being of human beings is existence. This mode of Being has its own ontological structures (existentialia) which don't apply to present-at-hand substances, which have their own ontological categories. Descartes reinforced this view of the nature of the self and even made it more problematic. The substantial self ends up being a mental substance that exists in total isolation from the world and other people, and can only "know" them through the representations of them in the mind. This essentially means that the self is something that can exist without a world. Descartes believe he had proved this to be true through his methodical doubt. He was able to doubt the existence of the world but not his own existence, which meant that he could exist without the world. Descartes' problem is based on two mistakes: 1. he presupposed an ontological inappropriate concept of the self, and, 2. he failed to see the actual phenomenon of the self. Put simply, the self is not a thing, but, rather, a process or a happening. The self is referential—not substantial.
In contrast to the Cartesian (and Kantian, Fichtean, Husserlian, etc.) concept of the self, Heidegger sought to give a phenomenologically accurate description of the self in Being and Time, i.e., he wanted to describe what the self is really like (what it's really like to be a person). Heidegger showed the self to exist as Being-in-the-world. The self actually depends on the world. The world is the condition of selfhood. Descartes simply failed to recognize that human beings don't exist in the way substances do, and in failing to see this he reduced our Being to substantiality. Now, for me to be the "I" ("I" is put in quotation marks here to signify that the "I" isn't a substance) that "I" am, there must also be other human beings, equipment, etc., i.e., a world. The self that I am is ontologically entangled with the relations I have with other people and the equipment I use. To say that the world is an illusion is to say that I am an illusion. If I exist, then the world exists. If the world is an illusion, then I am an illusion. Once a person has seen the worldly character of the "self", then one understands that human beings have their Being-in-the-world.
THE ONTOLOGICAL DIFFERENCE
Now, let’s approach the question concerning the ontological difference.
Dasein is ontically ‘closest’ to itself and ontologically farthest; but pre-ontologically it is surely not a stranger.
(Being and Time, Introduction 2, Section 5, p. 37)
Heidegger is saying that we’re most familiar with the human being out of all beings because that’s the being we are. But we’re almost completely unfamiliar with the Being (existence, Dasein) of human beings, since we have a tendency to think of all beings as substances. Most basically Dasein isn’t a substance. Think about how much we understand about human beings in general. We are a being that is artistic, technological, religious and political. We tell stories. We desire happiness, justice, freedom and friendship. We have families. We have the ability to reason and theorize. We have systematic forms of inquiry. We love music. Psychologically speaking, we are healthier when we are shown support and encouragement by those around us. I could keep going but you get the point. We know all of these things about ourselves and we know them not just theoretically (for example, the way we know that the freezing point of water is 0° C or 32° F), but, also personally. However, Heidegger viewed all of this knowledge about human beings as “ontic”. That is to say, about what contingent qualities this being has, as opposed to its Being as such. Heidegger famously made a distinction between Being and beings. This distinction is known as the “ontological difference”. Here are some of Heidegger’s own words on the matter:
The Being of entities ‘is’ not itself an entity.
(Being and Time, Introduction 1, Section 2, p. 26)
This difference has to do with the distinction between beings and being. The ontological difference says: A being is always characterized by a specific constitution of being. Such being is not itself a being.
(The Basic Problems of Phenomenology, Section 10, p. 78)
For Heidegger, to attempt to make sense out of the Being of all beings by appealing to one special being is simply a category mistake he called “ontotheology”. Heidegger held, on phenomenological grounds, that beings exist in different ways. This means that Heidegger was an ontological pluralist. He didn’t believe that all beings are reducible to one special being (ontotheology), nor that all beings can be reduced to one mode of Being (for example, substantiality). As far as human beings (Daseins) go, the philosophical tradition, as noted in the previous comment, has tended throughout history to conceive of us as substances. This started with Aristotle and was inherited by Descartes, who then went on to argue that human beings are mental substances. One of Heidegger’s main goals in Being and Time was to destroy this ontologically inappropriate conception of human beings and replace it with an appropriate one (one based on good phenomenological descriptions of Dasein). Whenever we think of the ontological structures of a substance, we think of independence, solidity, extension, motion, form, matter, number, figure, etc. However, these categories are not the most basic ontological structures (existentialia) of Dasein. Heidegger phenomenologically describes Dasein’s existentialia throughout division one of Being and Time. Here are some of them: understanding, meaning, projection, de-severance, discourse, concern, Befindlichkeit, das Man, Being-with, worldhood. These ontological structures have been always been overlooked by philosophers. So while we transparently understand what human beings as beings are like, when it comes to theorizing and philosophizing about the Being of these beings, we are usually confused, blind and misguided (thanks to the history of metaphysics). Now it should be very clear what the following words mean: “Dasein is ontically ‘closest’ to itself and ontologically farthest.”
“Being is not a being”: This means that there is an ontological difference between what is present (beings, for example, humans, animals, rocks, tools, etc.) and the very presencing (Being) of what is present. The presencing of what is present is not itself something present. In simple terms, Heidegger sought to correct the philosophical tradition’s tendency to reify Being — a tendency he called “ontotheology”. Philosophy has tended to try to explain the presencing of beings in terms of an ultimate or fundamental being. The most famous example of this is God, but there are many other examples like atoms, the soul, will, the will to power, the transcendental ego, etc. Now, let’s be clear. The a difference between what is present (beings) and their presence or presencing as such (Being). For early Heidegger, Being actually depends on Dasein, whereas beings do not.
Entities are, quite independently of the experience by which they are disclosed, the acquaintance in which they are discovered, and the grasping in which their nature is ascertained. Being ‘is’ only in the understanding of those entities to whose Being something like an understanding of Being belongs.
(Being and Time, Division 1, Chapter 6, Section 39, p. 228)
Being (not entities) is dependent on the understanding of Being; that is to say, Reality (not the Real) is dependent upon care.
(Being and Time, Division 1, Chapter 6, Section 43, p. 255)
Early Heidegger is arguing that Being depends on Dasein (the being that has an understanding of Being), since the presenting of what is present necessitates someone to be present to. This ontological difference was supposed to act as a remedy for the mistakes made by the philosophical tradition. It was precisely this difference that it failed to understand, and, which led to so much philosophical confusion. It should be noted that the later Heidegger moved away from this transcendental approach to Being.
Later Heidegger was a thinker of immanence. Heidegger came to see that even his account of the relation between Being and Dasein in Being and Time was far too transcendent. In emphasizing Dasein’s transcendence, i.e., going passed beings toward Sein, Heidegger remained metaphysical in his approach to Seyn. Why? Because to set up this “toward” is to remain within the subject-object schema (albeit in a very unique way). It basically holds that Dasein is here and Being is over there, thus, since Being is at a distance, we must represent it to ourselves. Even if early Heidegger viewed Being as a temporal event, it still gets interpreted analogously to the ontic, thus we conceive of Being as “beingness”. In doing so, we fail to interpret Being in light of the ontological difference even if we recognize this difference theoretically. But the ontological difference itself must collapse at a certain point in order for us to think Being in non-representational ways. The ontological difference is a key that becomes a lock (a passageway that transforms into a blockade). It’s first a key since it points out the problem and mistake of ontotheology, but it becomes a lock insofar as it keeps us asking about Being from the site of beings. Later Heidegger understood that what we need is a more originary approach to Seyn. Maxim: Not toward Sein but from Seyn!
What’s interesting to me about the relation between early and later Heidegger on the concept of transcendence is that the early Heidegger presented arguably the greatest attack on representationalism in the history of philosophy. Early Heidegger established that being a self presupposes a world (the referential totality of the assignments of beings). This undermined the isolated, substantial, atomistic, self-identical self posited by Descartes, Locke, Kant, etc. — the concept of the self which found its most solipsistic conceptualization in Fichte’s thinking. But later Heidegger insists that his early thinking remained metaphysical since it still contains a trace of the subject-object schema. I think that it’s appropriate to put it like this: early Heidegger collapsed the wall of representations (the representational barrier between human beings and beings), but, in Dasein’s relation to Being he still presupposed a type of barrier, which was beings themselves. In its everydayness, Dasein is fallen, i.e., immersed and lost in beings, thus, to reach or tap into Being as such, Dasein must transcend beings through its authentic ecstatic temporality. Later Heidegger wants to undermined the “barrier” between Da-sein and Beyng as such by attempting to think Ereignis/Beyng on its on terms, or, at least, to put the emphasis on Beyng instead of Da-sein.
Some people are simply more interested in facts than in theories or in ideas. But in approaching Heidegger’s work, it is important to know that he is pretty much unconcerned with what we think of as facts, and is rather concerned with what makes facts possible. Truth-as-unconcealment (Aletheia) is what makes facts in the ordinary sense possible. If there was no unconcealment or disclosure of Being, then there would be no unconcealment of beings, and, thus, no way in which there could be knowledge of them, i.e., facts. It’s a fact that there is a copy of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations sitting on my kitchen table at the moment, but this fact is so trivial that it’s not worth mentioning except as an example of the triviality of most facts. However, if we take a step back and thinking the fact that the book is there at all, i.e., that it is, then things suddenly become very interesting. For Heidegger, there’s a distinction between Being and beings, which, in turn, means that there’s a distinction between ontic truths (what we call “facts”) and ontological truth (what Heidegger called unconcealment). Now, insofar as Being is epochal, that is, historical, truth is also historical. This is captured nicely in one of Gadamer’s statements: “Understanding is, essentially, a historically effected event” (Truth and Method, p. 299). Facts are only uncovered against a historical background. This background or horizon is Dasein’s epochal understanding of Being. What has just been said really needs to be fleshed out. Let’s get a better understanding of what Heidegger meant by “truth”.
Heidegger was always concerned with truth throughout the course of his whole career. In Being and Time, he argued that truth is best understood as an uncovering or a discovering, instead of as adaequatio, i.e. “adequacy”, or what philosophers nowadays refer to as “correspondence.” In fact, according to Heidegger, truth-as-correspondence is based on truth-as-uncovering. The correspondence theory of truth holds that truth is the correspondence or agreement of a state of affairs with either an idea or a proposition. As far as truth-as-uncovering goes, Heidegger developed this concept of truth in one of his later essays entitled ‘On the Essence of Truth’. Heidegger argues in this later essay that truth is unconcealment. Truth (unconcealment) and untruth (concealment) are two sides of the same coin — in this case, the coin being Dasein’s openness to beings. The strife between unconcealment and concealment is like the struggle between light and darkness. The clearing is always a clearing that conceals while unconcealing. Heidegger is basically describing what Edmund Husserl called “adumbrations”, meaning all of the possible aspects of a phenomenon — Heidegger called these hidden aspects “shadows.” This is also what Jean-Paul Sartre meant by the word “transphenomenality.” Take, for example, the simple perception of a lamp: we always and only perceive one side of the lamp at a time, we never experience/perceive the totality of the lamp’s “shadows”, i.e., possible appearances. In unconcealing an entity, we are always already concealing it, too. And, on top of that, the fact that we conceal in this manner gets concealed as well (this second concealment is what Heidegger calls “the mystery”). Unconcealment, therefore, proximally and for the most part, involves a concealing concealment (a double concealment). It is the job of philosophy (and art can do this as well) to awaken us to this double concealment.
Common sense would have us believe that there’s no need to ask philosophical questions about entities because we have such a stable and exhaustive understanding of them already, however, this is really not the case. Due to the fact that in every unconcealment there’s a host of concealments, we can never say that we’ve arrived at a final knowledge of that which is unconcealed; there are always more of its “shadows” to unconceal. This also means that there’s no privileged mode of unconcealing entities — this includes science (obviously, this essay had a lot of influence on postmodern thought). In this essay Heidegger says , “The essence of truth is freedom” (‘On the Essence of Truth’, Basic Writings, p. 123). I’ll try my best to help clarify this statement, but it’ll take some work to unpack it. Heidegger also says later on that “the essence of truth reveals itself as freedom” (‘On the Essence of Truth’, Basic Writings, p. 128). It’s important to know up front that Heidegger uses the words “essence”, “truth” and “freedom” in very unconventional ways here; simply put, he gives all three of these signifiers new meanings. Let’s start by getting familiar with Heidegger’s usage of these three terms.
Essence: “Essence” doesn’t signify the defining qualities that a particular set of entities (cats, trees, cars, chairs, etc.) have in common; Heidegger defines the word like this: ““Essence” is understood as the ground of the inner possibility of what is initially and generally admitted as known” (‘On the Essence of Truth’, Basic Writings, p. 123). Heidegger’s inquiries into certain essences are similar to Immanuel Kant’s transcendental analyses in Critique of Pure Reason. Heidegger basically conceives of an essence as the condition or ground that makes an entity or process possible in the first place. So in ‘On the Essence of Truth’, Heidegger is seeking the condition, that on the basis of which, truth-as-correspondence (in this case, this is “what is initially and generally admitted as known”) is possible. Lee Braver says, “Here it is the traditional conception of truth as correspondence between statement and world that Heidegger accepts as given, but asks how it is possible. The essence of truth he is seeking is the enabling condition or ground for making assertions about beings and checking their accuracy” (Heidegger’s Later Writings, p. 27). Heidegger goes on to argue that this condition is Dasein’s (humankind’s) openness to beings.
Truth: Heidegger’s concept of truth (alētheia — this is the Greek word for truth that Heidegger translated as “unconcealment”) is very original. Some commentators have interpreted Heidegger as rejecting the concept of truth-as-correspondence, but I believe this is a mistake. Mark Wrathall argues very convincingly that Heidegger did not reject truth-as-correspondence in his essay entitled ‘Heidegger and Truth as Correspondence’. However, what Heidegger was primarily concerned with was primordial truth (a truth more basic than the truth of correspondence — the former being the condition of the latter). For most of his career, Heidegger continually made a mistake that he came to realize in 1964 in his essay ‘The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking’, namely, that he had used the word “truth” ambiguously. Sometimes he used it to refer to truth-as-correspondence (correspondence, correctness, agreement or accordance between propositions and entities, i.e., propositional truth) and other times he used it to refer to his concept of unconcealment (primordial truth). In his 1966 seminar on Heraclitus, Heidegger said, “alētheia thought as alētheia has nothing to do with “truth”; rather, it means unconcealment.” Nevertheless, this distinction between truth-as-correspondence and truth-as-unconcealment is present throughout Heidegger’s career. With this in mind, we must remind ourselves to watch for his equivocations on the word “truth” — for the most part, context takes care of this problem. Heidegger does equivocate on the word “truth” in ‘On the Essence of Truth’, but a lot of the time he refers to truth-as-correspondence as “correctness”, which makes interpreting the essay much easier.
Now that we’ve disambiguated the word “truth”, we must understand what Heidegger means by “unconcealment.” “Unconcealment” means the bringing-out-of-hiddenness (concealment) of Being and beings, the making manifest or disclosure of Being and beings. Here we have another distinction; the making manifest of Being is referred to by Heidegger as “ontological truth” or “primordial truth”, whereas the making manifest of beings (entities) is referred to as “ontic truth” — this is simply the ontological difference applied to truth. Of course, the terms of the distinction should really be “ontological unconcealment” and “ontic unconcealment.” Dasein (humankind) is that which brings Being and beings out of concealment by way of its open comportments, i.e., behaviors that concernfully “take notice” of beings, for example, using a vacuum cleaner, buying a gift or lighting a cigarette. Here’s the sticking point: making assertions is just another open comportment to beings, and this comportment, like all other comportments, presupposes the unconcealment of entities. Heidegger says, “The traditional assignment of truth exclusively to statements as the sole essential locus of truth falls away. Truth does not originally reside in the proposition” (‘On the Essence of Truth’, Basic Writings, p. 122). Thus, unconcealment (ontological/ontic truth) is the essence (condition or ground) of truth-as-correspondence (propositional truth). But what then is the essence of unconcealment?
Freedom: Out of the three key words in the statement under discussion, “freedom” is definitely used in the strangest way. Heidegger doesn’t mean by it free will in the normal sense. If he did then the statement “the essence of truth is freedom” would obviously be absurd — in that, truth would be simply what we will it or choose it to be. He says, “Freedom for what is opened up in an open region lets beings be the beings they are. Freedom now reveals itself as letting beings be.” He goes on to say, “Freedom, understood as letting beings be, is the fulfillment and consummation of the essence of truth in the sense of the disclosure of beings.” He also says “Freedom is engagement in the disclosure of beings as such.” What Heidegger means by “freedom” is “letting beings be.” Also, what is meant by “open region” is what is referred to as “the clearing” in Being and Time. But what does Heidegger mean by “letting beings be”? Heidegger explains it like this: “The phrase required now — to let beings be — does not refer to neglect and indifference but rather the opposite. To let be is to engage oneself with beings. On the other hand, to be sure, this is not to be understood only as the mere management, preservation, tending, and planning of the beings in each case encountered or sought out. To let be — that is, to let beings be as the beings which they are — means to engage oneself with the open region and its openness into which every being comes to stand, bringing that openness, as it were, along with itself” (‘On the Essence of Truth’, Basic Writings, p. 125).
What Heidegger has in mind here is the manifestation of a being in Dasein’s open comportment (concernful involvement/everyday awareness); of course, this open comportment is conditioned by Dasein’s pre-theoretical understanding of Being. In letting beings be the beings they are, Dasein brings beings into “contact” with Being — thus, letting them be what they are. In the case of a broom, “freedom” is what happens to it when it’s “lit up” in the clearing of Dasein through an open comportment. In picking up a broom and sweeping the floor, Dasein frees the broom to be what it really is, namely, that which one uses in order to sweep the floor; Dasein “actualizes” the broom. Dasein ontologically liberates the broom. To truly understand this line of thinking, one must first be familiar with the phenomenological descriptions of equipment presented in Being and Time.
To perceive the crack between the truth-ing (presencing, unconcealing) of what is true (what corresponds) is to catch a glimpse of the ontological difference. Beings are true but Being is Truth. Truthing truths.