The Vital Idolatry: Understanding, Interpretation and Meaning in ‘Being and Time’ [via ‘Hamlet’]

[Enter Hamlet as Possibility.]

Hamlet, inner-worldly and long in the sun, haunts the tragic kingdom of the free. Now, like so many before us, we might be tempted to read his asides and exchanges as portraits disclosing a soul too reflective, too melancholic, too in need of forgetting—a John-a-Dreams. But, as Nietzsche discerned, such is not the case. Each course of discourse, with himself or others, often reveals possibilities hidden from those less free—possibilities so strongly sensed by the Mourning Prince that they become as actualities: “Seems, madam? Nay, it is. I know not ‘seems.’” Even in soliloquies intended to convey his sorry state, the result, forecast through powerful poetics, reveals his hyperbolically inverted world: “How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable / Seem to me all the uses of this world!” The world seems to lose dimension and possibilities; yet, ironically, it is Hamlet’s factical power to disabuse himself of his factual agency that seemingly flattens his world. His doom, as existential limitation or judgment, presents itself upon every free course—hence his overwhelming free-dom to do nothing. Any de-cision would “strand him in its solution,” so he ever so slowly whiles away his possibilities until his having of them, or their having of him, becomes so complete that their vitality dwindles: no longer, at the end, did his possibilities exist as possibilities—they slipped from his glowing, however seemingly cloudy, primordial potentiality-of-being, into his bloody grasp as plans without further commencement whatever.


Perhaps in turning to the Danish Prince to aid in explication we make overly complex one of Heidegger’s alluvial riddles found in the wake of investigating the meaning of being: understanding as possibility (Möglichkeit). Would clearness or explication more easily be found in recapitulation? This is a hermeneutical question. Let us step back and wonder about how understanding as possibility first arises for us.

Attunement (Befindlichkeit), or how we find ourselves always already in a mood—affected—reveals the world to us through the “here” (Da-) of our “being-here” (Da-sein). Prior to knowing that we are here, we are here, and our moods first reveal this to us—the factical, as opposed to theorectical, subjunctive tense wherein we first and ever find ourselves as selves within a world. This attunement, Heidegger tells us, is equiprimordial with understanding (Verstehen). And when we, at first glance, run across this assertion—understanding is equiprimordial with attunement—it appears harmless: “Of course,” we say, “understanding must be primordial with attunement, for how else would we know we were in a mood if not for some a priori understanding of affection as such?” Then we would smile as we thought of Plato, Descartes, Kant or some other figure that nobly aided the organization of thinking… Then, a short while later, a Heideggerian frown counters our assuring grin, for understanding, as a fundamental existential, and not as the know-ability or grasp-ability of something, projects possibilities. Again, “ah, possibility… of course.” We begin to smile again… but quickly catch ourselves.

“Possibility? An abstract concept denoting the think-ability of something? The lesser cognitive cousin of actuality? The other side of necessity?” No. For Heidegger, possibility need not necessarily become actual and it is never necessary: possibility is higher and more essential. We do not find ourselves existing as a mold wherein we are responsible for pouring essence into ourselves through ascribing meaning and making choices (—no, thank you, existentialism). Rather, we understand ourselves in our own ability-to-be (Seinkönnen) ourselves through our possibilities. A vital circle. (Besides, were we not to have a lacuna of essence we might be akin to a heavy-boned bird or a compacted cactus.) Understanding, in this sense, instead of operating as a faculty that grasps the meaning of things, operates as a phenomenological, or what we might call a “higher,” imagination (Höhervorstellung)—not to be confused with the creative, if wonderfully judgmental, faculty discussed by Kant and others, what we might call a categorical, or “lower,” imagination (Niedrigereinbildung). Heidegger’s understanding, as the projection of possibility—without reverting back to an epistemology that metaphysically places possibility into an abstract space wherein the actual subsumes it—shines light upon the future, making notice-able and consider-able that which is otherwise absent, elsewhere, and necessarily unnecessary: the possible reveals itself as possible and may or may not pass into the actual.

Now, while we might be tempted to think of this as a willed act of imposing images and plans upon our future, a future wherein the world becomes our “project” to be engineered and worked so as to conform to our image of it—be it fearfully symmetric or no—such an understanding of understanding reduces the phenomenological understanding (or higher imagination) to a categorical understanding (or lower imagination): our facticity, while more meaningful and less limiting than factuality, still retains our doom. Understanding implies “seeing” what we can do, who we can be—not what we must do, ought to do, must be, ought to be. Of course, such imperatives could be imposed by a lesser faculty, but any conviction would be easily overturned by a mood’s effusion. But, this projection of possibility indicates no imposed fancy or will (the categorical understanding, the lower imagination), rather a disclosure of our own thrown or “projected” possibilities as possibilities—not as fateful necessities or fanciful impossibilities. Can we become anyone we desire? No—our own facticity and gifts, we might hear Heidegger reminding us, always bind us, already horizon us.

But how do we “know” our horizon? If our possibilities were to so easily slip into necessity then our free doom to become who we are transmogrifies into what we always already were—a different last judgment altogether. As long as our higher imagination continues to reveal our possibilities to us, we, like the dawning sun, meet the majestic and mysterious illumination of our projected future anew each morning (—”Today may be the day that I… And even if it is not, there is always a chance that…”). When this waking dream twilights, all possibilities move into the actual, and an obfuscating and ever chilling night steals away with the last of our hopes and novelties, leaving only the final and full manifestation of our necessary mortality… and the curtain falls on our time.

[Enter Horatio as Interpretation.]

The levelheaded and true friend of our projected potentiality-to-be—understanding—could be no other than long suffering interpretation (Auslegung): “These are but wild and whirling words, my lord.” As Hamlet needed Horatio, understanding needs interpretation; otherwise only vagary and uselessness follow in the train of possibilities as possibilities.

Interpretation is making clear what we understand. This explication occurs through the as-structure (Als-Struktur), the fore-structure (Vor-Stuktur), and meaning (Sinn). These should not be grasped as overly cognitive, rather practical and workable (phronesis). Interpretation begins when we make a claim regarding something we understand as something with purpose, usability. The “as,” Heidegger asserts, does not appear “in” the claim, “in” the spontaneous statement, rather it already resides “there” awaiting claim. Moreover, the “as” does not cover over the whatever, it steps towards it for a “closer look.”

The closer look is a “step” into a clearing. While this “step,” to be sure, is no epoche as such, and it is also as much a “bringing into” as it is an “advance,” it is a “making clearer”—an explicating—which is grounded upon fore-structures: fore-having (Vorhabe), foresight (Vorsicht), and fore-conception (Vorgriff). Fore-having being the totality of a world in which we are usually subsumed by our utter and everyday involvement—although particularities await our attention when we are jolted or slipped from this leveling totality. And such disjointing initiates a foresight—an unreflective point of view—by which we begin the moment of interpretation, of making clearer through our fore-conception—a “conception” possessed by, or due to, our involvement in the world.

[Enter Fortinbras as Meaning.]

“Where is this sight?” The event, the act, the thing—whatever—is already disclosed in its as-structure: it always already signifies something, means something. Meaning, as it were, is, for Heidegger, the playing out and projecting of possibility through the as-structure. Everything, in this way, sings its own meaning for us, and only awaits notice by us. Interpretation of our vital idolatry—our projection of possibility (Verstehen) as possibility (Höhervorstellung)—reveals, as Horatio to Fortinbras regarding fallen Hamlet, its obligation: without a bringing into the clearing, such a projection loses its vitality. Our understanding’s friend—interpretation—thus steps forward to answer his oath [Interpretation to Meaning]: “All this I can truly deliver.” But his promise lies in the contingent running about of meaningful dis-course (Rede).

[Exeunt all.]

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