Heidegger’s ‘call of conscience’

by thrownintotheworld


Martin Heidegger was one of the most radical thinkers of the 20th century regarding phenomenological and existential philosophy. His writings influenced the philosophical world and continental Europe in particular, whilst gaining many German and French followers. His university professor, Edmund Husserl, who was arguably the pioneer for phenomenology, greatly influenced Heidegger. This is because it was Heidegger who, so to speak “carried the torch” for phenomenology and expanded the field into new grounds.

However, Heidegger changed the direction and motive for his phenomenological method in comparison to Husserl. Because Husserl had a scientific background to his studies, his method for phenomenology leaned more so towards scientific understanding rather than a philosophical one. Heidegger however did not look to revert his findings back to the scientific field of knowledge but rather philosophy, and specifically philosophy of fundamental questions, which in the book we will examine today. The Book is Being and Time, Heidegger’s most well known publication, a ground breaking philosophical text that deals with the fundamental philosophy of man, authenticity, Dasein and most importantly, asking the question ‘what is the meaning of Being?’. Such a radicalisation occurred in Being and Time specifically regarding how one views the situated-ness of being in regards to Being-in-the-world. And yet all of this accomplished whilst Being and Time was deemed an unfinished project.

This essay will focus on a particular section of Being and Time[1] in which Heidegger made an account for conscience and perhaps most importantly, creates the notion for ‘the call of conscience’. Whilst explaining and analysing Heidegger’s notion of the ‘conscience’, I will investigate the philosophy of responsiveness and examine to what extent it is compatible with Heidegger’s conscience and in particular the ‘call of conscience’. The essay will further look into how exactly Heideggerian ‘conscience’ cannot be explained through responsiveness and why it is the case.

Before the comparative analysis begins, the particular section in which Heidegger covers conscience needs to be explored in order to understand why it could potentially be compatible with responsiveness. Although this summary will bypass details of the process of Dasein becoming authentic, I intend for it to demonstrate enough to make an understanding. The chapter begins with Heidegger describing the environment and process in which authenticity can occur.    Because inauthenticity is our common, socially normative state, according to Heidegger “Authentic Being-one’s-Self takes the definite form of an existentiell modification of the “they””, meaning that in becoming authentic beings, an existentiell modification needs to occur.

However it is not that simple, because, “The “they” has always kept Dasein from taking hold of these possibilities of Being.” And the “they” keep the individual within social norms, making this a vicious cycle. However, “This process can be reversed only if Dasein specifically brings itself back to itself from its lostness in the “they””, when this happens, an existentiell modification occurs. Heidegger goes on to explain how exactly this ‘authentifi-cation’ occurs, “This must be accomplished by making up for not choosing [Nachholen einer Wahl]. But “making up” for not choosing signifies choosing to make this choice– deciding for a potentiality-for-Being, and making this decision from one’s own Self.” This potentiality, according to Heidegger, is synonymous to the “voice of conscience”.

This is in a sense a ‘meeting point’ for Heidegger in regards to Dasein’s conscience and authentic Being. Because for Heidegger, authenticity is where we find singularity in ourselves, a paramount ambition for Heidegger in Being and Time. So if we see that it is conscience that calls its own Being into potentiality for authenticity, which becomes manifested as its most fundamental characteristic, care. As Heidegger reiterates, “The call of conscience-that is, conscience itself-has its ontological possibility in the fact that Dasein, in the very basis of its Being, is care.” This is because care is the manifestation of Dasein’s “that-it-is”, making care the mode-of-authentic-being for Dasein. From representing Heidegger’s arguments as they were, we can see that conscience itself is a caller, or rather, the caller which calls itself (conscience) to itself (Dasein) in order to find authenticity within him or herself.

This leads us to ask, what exactly is the ‘call’ in the ‘call of conscience’? In a sense, it is the revealing of Dasein’s authentic Being by an event of myself making a call to myself. But it is noteworthy that the call itself “is a silent call that silences the chatter of the world and brings me back to myself”.[2] The call silences the “they” and although the call itself has no real substance it calls us to authenticity, which in essence, is taking responsibility for the project that is Dasein.

As Gordon states in an analysis of Heidegger, “The essence of Dasein lies in its “to-be”…What is more, Dasein’s mode of being lies in its being toward possibilities in such a way that its own being in such a way that its own being and choice of possibilities are an issue for it.”[3] The previous quote demonstrates what exactly the “call of conscience” reveals for us, that Dasein itself is a project as opposed to a concrete unchanging essence and part of this project is, as Heidegger puts it, “[Dasein is] that entity which in its Being has this very Being as an issue”.

Because Being is an issue, we have an existential responsibility to engage in the project that is Dasein. This is the meeting point for the essay in regards to Heidegger’s analysis of the “call of conscience” and responsiveness, because in answering “the call”, an act of response occurs, but to what extent will be further examined later in the essay. In order to compare the two ideas, it is important to introduce the philosophy of responsiveness and its implications.

Responsiveness, in essence, is ‘the’ mode-of-being in regards to our fundamental nature, which is that of being a responsive being. Responsiveness is not a concrete entity but rather a way (perhaps ‘the way’) of being. However it must be noted that it is different to a reaction, because a response is of a reciprocal nature that involves a two-way event and a presupposition as opposed to a reaction. Responsiveness is a vital quality in taking responsibility because responding places us in a position to be responsible. In summary, responsiveness demonstrates the importance and fundamental nature that responding gives to human beings, thus it is labelled as an existential anthropology.

The issue that this essay will attempt to deal with is whether Heidegger’s “call of conscience” is compatible with responsiveness and in particular, whether the “call of conscience” can be explained through responsiveness. If we look back to the call itself and examine the properties and characteristics of it, we should have an understanding. Is the call an act that presupposes before and after the act, that there is something else outside of the response itself? I would suggest that there is a pre-suppositional act in the call itself because the conscience has at the very least a sub-conscious understanding of intending to bring us to authenticity, meaning that there is an awareness of what is outside these things. The use of the word conscience commonly regards intuitive moral thinking, but for Heidegger the moral element is not dealt with and I see his use of conscience as a faculty of intuitive thinking that in a sense awakens us. Although it may appear that way, I do not intend to diverge into Freudian style divisions of the mind but rather keeping our conscience with our inauthentic being unified.

In determining whether Heidegger’s conscience can be explained through responsiveness, it is important to examine if the answering to the call is an act of responsiveness. Because if the answer to the call can be explained through responsiveness, then the “call of conscience” can be explained completely through responsiveness. For clarifications sake, it should be noted that answering the call is taking responsibility for ones existential project, which is Dasein.

In answering the call, an understanding must be involved in regards to the call, because it allows us to go on in our project authentically. As Heidegger puts it, “When the call is understood with an existentiell kind of hearing, such understanding is more authentic the more non-relationally Dasein hears and understands its own Being-appealed-to, and the less the meaning the call gets perverted by what one says or by what is fitting and accepted [was sich gehört und gilt].” This quote reveals that in understanding, there is a reflection before answering the call, deeming answering the “call of conscience” as a responsive act.

In fact, understanding the call is rather a mode-of-being, a mode-of-being that is characterised by responsiveness. The reason why understanding is the equivalent of responding is because of the contemplative nature of understanding something requires us to reflect. As I have already explained, understanding and answering the call leads us to take up our existential project, Dasein and to be responsible for our being. This is a key point for Heidegger and responsiveness, because it is the response, where responsibility is born. Thus forth, responsibility is a result of the response.

In recognising that both the act of the “call of conscience” and the answering to the call are explainable through responsiveness demonstrates that Heidegger was for substantial part, an advocate for responsiveness as a philosophy. However I cannot claim that for the entire Heideggerian outlook is a responsive philosophy. Potentially the most important finding in this essay is in regards to answering the call and taking responsibility for ones existence, because not only is it one of the most overtly obvious results of responding, but it expresses potentially the most significant meaning or outcome for responsiveness, Heidegger and existing itself.

[1] M Heidegger, Being and Time (London, UK: SCM Press, 1962)

[2] Simon Critchley, ‘Being and Time, part 7: Conscience’, by The Guardian, (20 July. 2009)  <http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2009/jul/20/heidegger-being-time-critchley> accessed 14 Dec. 2012.

[3] Haim Gordon, Dictionary of Existentialism (United States of America, Greenwood Publishing Group, 1999), 133.