Perception is also interpretation. To help explain this idea of world-interpretedness, we greet our old friend the hermeneutical “as,” whom Heidegger calls “the primordial ‘as’ of an interpretation which understands circumspectly.” While often characterized by concern, here “circumspectly” (umsichtig) is not to be understood as a synonym for “cautiously,” but designates the manner in which we normally encounter our surroundings:
But if any perception of useful things at hand always understands and interprets them, letting them be circumspectly encountered as something, does this not then mean that initially something merely objectively present is experienced which then is understood as a door, as a house? That would be a misunderstanding of the specific disclosive function of interpretation. Interpretation does not, so to speak, throw a ‘significance’ over what is nakedly objectively present and does not stick a value on it, but what is encountered in the world is always already in a relevance which is disclosed in the understanding of world, a relevance which is made explicit by interpretation (BT, 150).
Perception is at once interpretation, a single conscious act. We perceive the tree as a tree, the mountain as a mountain. That we first have to learn what things are is no objection, not only because learning is itself based on world interpretation, but because we are focusing on acts that do not require learning each time they are performed. Furthermore, even something that we do not recognize is not presented in a meaningless fashion, but as something that we do not recognize, something strange or alien. In this world-interpretedness, constituted by the hermeneutical “as,” our surroundings maintain themselves in a certain intelligibility that results in familiarity. This familiarity implies an a priori conceptuality that can be articulated in three moments. The moments not only overlap, but are aspects of a single phenomenon. (Unless otherwise noted, all other citations are from Heidegger’s Basic Concepts of Aristotelian Philosophy.)
1. Fore-having is described by Heidegger as “concretely giving basic experience” (184). We find ourselves thrown into the world at a given time and place. Definite alternatives are open to us: “I am in certain possibilities: my job, my occupation” (186). These possibilities are not uniform throughout history. Traveling into outer space is a concrete possibility in one age and not in another. Determinate possibilities are technological, socio-economic, political, cultural, artistic. Greeting us at the door of life is a language, with its determinate ways of making sense of the world:
Being-there as being-in-the-world is primarily governed by logos…Coming into the world, one grows into a determinate tradition of speaking, seeing, interpreting. Being-in-the-world is an already-having-the-world-thus-and-so. This peculiar fact, that the world into which I enter, in which I awaken, is there for me in a determinate interpretedness, I designate terminologically as fore-having (74).
But fore-having is never given alone. It works with a fore-sight and fore-grasp to interpretatively disclose the world.
2. Fore-sight is a “guiding claim.” Guiding our fore-having is an implicit determination of what being is, both of the being that I am and the beings that I am not. In general, “beings…are cared for under the guidance of a definite interpretation of being” (187). What is more, we address both ourselves and things in the world — beings generally — in terms of this guiding presupposition. By its light, we view what is given in the fore-having.
A definite sense of being guides every natural interpretation of beings. This sense does not need to be made catergorially explicit, and precisely when it is not, it possesses its genuine being and its authority…Precisely by its being inexplicit, it possesses a peculiar stubbornness in the guidance and leading of the taking-in-some-respect [in which we view the world and living] (185-187).
The fore-sight, then, is a guiding claim that determines one’s sense of being. Throughout history, the claim that has guided man, the interpretation of being that has determined his understanding of existence, has tended to focus on the tangible. People tacitly interpret being in terms of what is most immediately present: everyday belongings and the natural materials from which they are made. For the ancient Greeks, for example, “the primary sense of ousía, being,…is ‘possessions and goods’: that which is produced from wood, stone, and set upon the ground” (144). They assumed that being was produced:
…The prágmata are there insofar as they are produced in téchne. The phúsei onta are that which is there in the producing of itself, what does not require production by others. They are there precisely as the prágmata are. But their génesis has, once again, the character of the there [i.e., there insofar as they were produced]: a plant grows up and brings forth [i.e., produces] another. And, finally, there is that which is there in such a way that it does not need to be produced. It is there in the genuine sense, but is intelligible only from the standpoint of production. [That is, since télos = péras, being finished = having a form.] The ground of beings is producing. What is to be seen is how lógos is the possibility for obtaining access to being in this sense of being-there-completed, having-come-to-an-end [that is, in the sense of being finished, being completed, having a limit and therefore also a form] (ibid.; bracketed interpolations are my own).
By thinking about being in terms of production, the Greeks tacitly conceived of it in terms of beings (things). They thereby overlooked being itself, the being of things. What gets presented are, of course, physical entities. Not presented, however, is the presencing that presents what is presented in the present — the presencing of the present. There is only a present when some distinctive being among other beings is capable of anticipating the future while at the same time retaining something of what has just occurred. A being that can both anticipate and retain time in this way has a present. The present is therefore not something that exists independently, but is opened up by the interplay of anticipating and retaining, even if what is anticipated and retained is only the briefest moment. Only thus do things present themselves in time, and moreover only to this very being who anticipates and retains. That is, there is no present, and therefore no presence, without consciousness.
3. Finally, closely aligned to fore-sight is fore-conception (“fore-grasp”), the prevailing intelligibility prevalent at a given time in history that imposes itself through discourse:
The fundamental way of the being-there of the world, namely, having the world there with one another, is speaking…In the manner in which being-there in its world speaks about its way of dealing with its world, a self-interpretation of being-there is also given. It states how being-there specifically understands itself, what it takes itself to be” (The Concept of Time, 8). “Being-there has a definite standard of intelligibility, as in the way it speaks of and about itself (186).
Particularly illustrative with regard to this primacy of speech are, again, the ancient Greeks, a people who, as Heidegger observes, “existed in discourse.” For them, the prevailing intelligibility was sanctioned by doxa: “The orator is the one who has genuine power over being-there” (74). “The aim of lógoi retorikoí… is nothing other than the cultivation of doxa, the right view of a matter” (94). Being-there was interpreted “with regard to the basic possibility of speaking-with-one-another” (95). “All speaking is oriented toward bringing the questionable, the unintelligible, into a definite familiarity” with regard to a “definite idea of evidence” (185). Within this speaking with one another, a standard of intelligibility gets erected.
But the standard can change:
If we recall the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, we know that the mathematical disciplines guided the manner and mode of the conceptual, the claim to scientific rigor. Definite possibilities of conceiving can gain dominance; all others must be assimilated to the dominant one. This was the tendency, as it [also] was in the nineteenth century: since the mathematical sciences are the rigorous sciences, the historical sciences [it was assumed] must proceed in precisely the same way. That was a misunderstanding, as in all such cases. The governing intelligibility, which includes expressing as articulation, I designate as fore-grasp (187; my interpolations).
What is given in the fore-having gets taken up in the fore-grasp. The fore-grasp, meanwhile, is itself being guided by the fore-sight. In other words, the standard of intelligibility of the fore-grasp tacitly assumes an understanding of being that accords with the prevailing wisdom of the fore-sight. As regards being, the fore-sight has traditionally been directed toward quiddity (whatness). But different periods posit quiddity in different ways. Plato conceived of it in terms of the idea. Thanks to Aristotle, the West’s understanding of quiddity changed to energeia. Today the prevailing wisdom is offered by the latest discoveries in physics. As the scientific discoveries change, so does our understanding of whatness. But this standard of evidence never achieves the being of beings. It does not even achieve an adequate understanding of the phenomena as what appears in the clearing of being.
Interpretation, then, is guided by this tripartite (if unitary) fore-structure that, in its totality, Heidegger designates the hermeneutical situation. It is constituted, in large part, by presuppositions that are “already ‘posited’ with interpretation as such, that is, pre-given with fore-having, fore-sight, fore-conception…Interpretation is never a presuppositionless grasping of something previously given” (141). Through the hermeneutical situation and its presuppositions about what being is, what the world is, what consciousness is, what God is, what time is, what phenomena are, etc. etc., we humans interpret being in the world and make it intelligible and familiar for ourselves. Of course, just under the surface of this familiarity lurks the strangeness of being, the possibility that, despite all objective knowledge, we do not know what existence ultimately is or means. Like a beast in the jungle, the uncanniness of existence can pounce on us at any moment. The mystery of being leaps out in sudden awakening. This awakening to the uncanniness of being is a necessary step toward realizing an underlying not-at-home-ness of man in his current situation, particularly given his current understanding of existence. But this realization is, in turn, a necessary detour on the way to a genuine homecoming.
(The pagination used for Being and Time refers to the German edition, to which both English translation make reference in the margins.)