Heidegger's abyssal ground of ethics: A fourfold approach

PhD Thesis

Obi, Augustine Ifeanyi. (2019). Heidegger's abyssal ground of ethics: A fourfold approach [PhD Thesis]. https://doi.org/10.26199/5de047f9b8d73
AuthorsObi, Augustine Ifeanyi
TypePhD Thesis
Qualification nameDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)

This thesis examines the question of ethics in the thought of Martin Heidegger, focusing especially on his earlier works. While set against the backdrop of the ongoing controversy over Heidegger’s associations with National Socialism and the idiosyncratic anti-Semitism of passages in the recently published Schwarze Hefte, the thesis is not offered as a contribution to that debate, especially as it relates to its biographical content. Rather, the focus is on the extent to which the “fundamental ontology” Heidegger develops in the 1920s makes a serious contribution towards what I have referred to (with a nod to Frederick Olafson), as Heidegger’s ‘ontological ground of ethics’. In doing so, I explicitly take up Heidegger’s later claim (in his famous Brief über den 'Humanismus) that “If the name ‘ethics,’ in keeping with the basic meaning of the word ἦθος, should now say that ethics ponders the abode of the human being, then that thinking which thinks the truth of being as the primordial element of the human being … is in itself originary ethics [ursprüngliche Ethik].” (GA9: 356). As such, the thesis looks to examine a web of ideas in early Heideggerian texts of the 1920s that provide a compelling case for such an originary ground of ethics, in the sense of a condition of possibility for moral normativity. Of course, such a ground cannot be understood as a traditional metaphysical foundation, for like Dasein itself, it is an Ab-grund, a groundless ground, a factical ground. For this ethical ground is eventually nothing other than Dasein itself, a being that, as thrown, “never [has] … power over [its] ownmost Being from the ground up,” but must rather take on the ground of its dwelling (ἦθος) in the world. The thesis proceeds by examining four inter-related themes in the early Heidegger that I suggest interweave in providing what Heidegger refers to in Sein und Zeit (in terms of one of these themes), as “the existential conditions for the possibility of … morality in general, and for the possible forms which this may take factically.” (SZ: 286). The first chapter explores Heidegger’s reading of Aristotle’s notion of φρόνησις, as a lens through which the other three themes – Gewissen (chapter two), Eigentlichkeit (chapter three) and Mitsein (chapter four) – might be read most effectively for this purpose. In the light of Heidegger’s reading of φρόνησις as a practical skill for discerning the best way of acting in relation to factically available possibilities, Dasein can be understood as an ontologised ix version of Aristotle’s φρόνιμος. This phronetic Dasein’s deliberative action is tailored to a desired end (τέλος); that for the sake of which (οὗ ἕνεκα) it acts. In this way, ethics is grounded not as a ‘science’ of definite knowing (επιστήμη, or as a τέχνη), but as phronetic skill and understanding. In this light, Heidegger’s analyses of Gewissen, Eigentlichkeit, and Mitsein are inherently phronetic, and the abyssal ground of ethics that emerges is thoroughly hermeneutical. In his presentation of the authentic “call” of conscience, Heidegger provides an account of “the ontological foundations of … the ordinary way of interpreting conscience” (SZ: 314,) thereby distinguishing the ontological condition of possibility of conscience from its existentiell actualisation in the experience of moral normativity. His account of Eigentlichkeit, far from providing an egoistic (indeed Cartesian) understanding of Dasein’s ‘authentic’ self, can then be read as an analysis of emancipatory resoluteness. Dasein as φρόνιμος, in taking on its destiny and fate (that are not of its own making), emerges as an engaged Being-in-the-world-with- others, “free[ed] for its world.” (SZ: 344). This then leads into an analysis of Heidegger’s account of Mitsein: of Dasein as Being-in-the-world-with-others. Here I build on Jean-Luc Nancy’s interpretation of Dasein as irreducibly (if paradoxically) “singular plural,” in which the I of Dasein is absolutely equiprimordial (or “co-originary”) with the ‘we.’ I show how this assessment is consistent with the text of Sein und Zeit, and how this branches into Heidegger’s account of Rede and especially Fürsorge in terms of Dasein’s authentic “leaping ahead,” as this is attested in freedom and responsibility as well as the ethically profound opening that Heidegger allows to a certain sense of empathy. The thesis conclusion includes a few comments about the significance of the thesis’ findings for contemporary ethics after Heidegger.

PublisherAustralian Catholic University
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)https://doi.org/10.26199/5de047f9b8d73
Research GroupSchool of Philosophy
Final version
Publication dates
Online01 Jan 2019
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